• The Berkeley Wave / Miami is Not Sorry

berkeleywaveThis morning, driving down Milvia Street near Berkeley Way, where palm trees and vine-slung trellises give way to glass and steel and stucco, Raymond (aka Hubby) and I fielded a sterling example of the phenomenon we call “the Berkeley wave.” That’s the wag of the hand that people give you when they’re turning left in front of you or pulling out at a stop sign even though you were there first — a pretend thank you, as if you had chosen to forego your right of way and let the other person in. It acknowledges, on a theoretical level, that the person waving did something wrong. Nothing says “I’m sorry, but not really” like the Berkeley wave.

Like any community, Berkeley has its own mix of traffic laws, written and unwritten, based on what people are used to and on what police will or won’t enforce. I became aware of such local idiosyncrasies when I lived in Miami, Florida, where a green light did not mean go. It meant wait. Wait for three more cars to run their red light; wait for cars in the intersections to finish their left turns. Then proceed with caution.

One thing I like about Berkeley’s brand of vehicular etiquette is that cars stop for pedestrians, at stoplights, crosswalks, or anything resembling a street corner. That interaction can be an elegant, even balletic, ritual of urban concord. As the motorist, you start decelerating far back from the crosswalk, and the ped strolls forward, giving you a truly friendly wave and a smile of genuine warmth. If you plan it right, controlling your speed, you won’t even have to stop.

In downtown traffic, however, things get trickier. If you’re turning right in Berkeley, a green light again means wait. Wait for a dozen yoga-mat-toting smart-phone readers to take advantage of the walk sign. Once the Don’t Walk starts flashing, though, amblers beware. Unrewarded patience transitions into rage. Drivers take self-righteous pleasure in drifting up to menace the stragglers.

Drivers, in turn, test the pedestrians’ patience on leafy residential streets, where mottled light makes the human figure hard to see. Stuck in traffic, you sometimes get so focused on the erratic Volvo in front of you that the sidewalks fade, slipping into your cognitive blind spot, and you blow right past a hand-holding couple or a dad/jogger pushing a stroller.

Especially in the morning, when children are walking to school, Raymond and I work together to spot the walkers, describing each intersection aloud. Today he was at the wheel as we crept up on Milvia and Berkeley Way, looking for potential street crossers.

To our left, a young woman neared the intersection, walking fast, her hands in her pockets and her sandy-blond braid tucked into the collar of her jacket. She seemed like she might step out into the street, but no, she veered left, staying on the sidewalk. We slowed down long enough to clock a lanky man in an orange shirt — “Hmm, that guy’s not crossing either” — so we pulled through the intersection, only to confront the sandy-haired woman dead in front of us, forging a diagonal path in the middle of the block. As we braked, she flicked her hand at us, then turned her head away.

“There it was!” I sang out to Raymond, “a real Berkeley wave.”


“I’m sorry, but not really,” is not something you would have heard in Miami in the 1990s. In fact, you could go a long time in South Florida without hearing any apologies at all. (This may still be the case, in fact, but I’m in no longer in a position to know.) One of the oddly enjoyable things about living in Miami was that, in utter opposition to Berkeley, nobody there was trying to be good. Or anyway, the bar was low. Just by virtue of the fact that they had never done dirty work for Latin American dictators, that they were more upright than the elected officials running Ponzi schemes or leaving threatening messages on the answering machine at the Miami Herald, ordinary people could count themselves as moral paragons.

The reason that this was enjoyable was that the genuinely good people — and I met plenty — never looked for admiration. They belonged to the Yoda school of social action: There is no try, only do. In Berkeley as well as Miami, mentoring and advocacy often spring from deeply held convictions. In Miami, where progressive activism did little to contribute to a person’s social status, where political correctness consisted of denouncing Fidel Castro, it was easier to witness the ways in which altruism arose from personal integrity.

I volunteered, for instance, for a small nonprofit dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness in the Haitian-American community. The founder, twenty-six-year old Jacques, had lost his mother to the disease, in a death that could have been prevented but for social taboos and for shame. Having found a lump, his mother hid her condition and refused Western medicine once she became ill. Ultimately, she changed her mind about anti-cancer treatments, but it was too late. So Jacques and his friends traveled to street fairs and other neighborhood festivities, handing out pamphlets and starting conversations in the hopes of saving someone’s life.

Truth is, I didn’t exactly volunteer voluntarily. I met Rose, Jacques’s associate, during a job I had helping to organize an outdoor even designed to rally the public toward public service and help nonprofits to attract volunteers. I’m not sure how Rose got it in mind that I, a Volunteer ’97 staff member, would personally volunteer with her organization, but she approached me with so much confidence and anticipatory gratitude that I simply went along. Furthermore, I can’t say I contributed all that much. Rose told me they were having an inauguration party and needed food and drink donations. I asked when. She said, “In two weeks.” Not enough time for the method I knew for begging such donations: writing letters to restaurants and then following up with phone calls.

Instead, Jacques hit the pavement a few days before the event, asking door-to-door, and to my astonishment he mustered copious quantities of rice, beans, chicken, salad, hors d’oeuvres, and fruit, as well as scores of boxes of wine coolers, donated by the distributor. The inauguration took place in a gorgeous but decrepit building with marble inlay floors and dusty Venetian blinds with broken slats. My self-appointed function was to improve the facility, straightening and dusting the blinds. I chased bugs out of the restrooms, provided hand soap, and cleaned a dead lizard off of a windowsill (not as uncommon a chore, in South Florida, as you might think).

My greatest contribution, though, was bringing my friend Joel and my friend Wendy, both of them seasoned volunteers, as I was soon to learn. Though they had never met before, they put their heads together and quickly sussed out the problems that could emerge when hundreds of guests sought access to warm bottles of “cooler.” Wendy (or was it Joel?) went out and bought ice and garbage bags, and then we scoured the building for trash bins to convert into ice buckets. Using the wine cooler boxes like concrete blocks, the two of them built a bar and spent the evening serving up cold drinks to a festive crowd.

It’s hardly fair of me, I realize, to juxtapose one of the best days of my Miami years with Berkeley’s everyday shuffle, but I’m compensating for the fact that Berkeley’s flower-child reputation obscure its underlying current of aggressivity. In fact, I marvel at both places and the deep contradictions in each city’s ethos, the jostling of shopping carts amidst aisles of organic produce, the early morning beach clean-up that follows on the late-night mambo. How pushed and pulled we are, at any moment between forces of selfishness — or is it just self-protection? — and unpredictable waves of generosity.

• Writing While in No Mood to Write

The following two pieces are intended as companions to my guest blog post at Chris Brecheen’s Writing about Writing.

Thermonuclear Writing

blogcatI set out today to write a humorous blog about the phrase “a real writer” and how much it makes me itch, how counterproductive the concept is, how humans are born to be writers, or storytellers, at least. Then I decided that I was in too much of a troubled mood to write.

I was going to write that my family–my “thermonuclear” family of half brothers and stepsisters and second-cousins-in-law–is full of writers: corporate writers, songwriters, poets, technical writers, independent school magazine writers, newspaper men and women, book authors, cartoonists, and asskicking bloggers (my cousin Elizabeth, for instance).

Even my stepsister’s cat blogs on Daily Kos. In my family, being a writer is an opt-out proposition.

When my husband, a software engineer, decided take on a bookwriting project, I thought he had caught the family disease. Then I realized that, after all, I had done as my mother did (twice) and married someone who was a writer in the first place.

And even some of those who are not officially writers still wind up writing, and beautifully. Almost every day on the facebooks, my sister-in-law, a reading teacher, posts some gem about my beautiful, witty, resilient niece (who has autism) and my 8-year-old nephew, an old soul, who is as fun-loving as he is kind.

Then there’s my sister-in-law’s husband, my dirty rotten younger brother. The tortoise to my hare, he spent his teen years recreationally underachieving and in the middle of college suddenly decided to step on the gas.

He took all the writing courses that I had taken and then some, got better grades than I did, composed (among other things) a heartbreakingly beautiful sestina, and then threw it all over for math. His other character flaws include 20-20 vision, at least until recently, as well as perfect pitch.

OK, there, now, I’ve done it. I’ve tricked myself into typing out almost everything I wanted to say. Except for screw it about who is and isn’t a real writer. It’s not like you get a t-shirt with a big W on it to wear in heaven (although someone did once print up Writer t-shirts in my family).

qwerty If you have the least inclination to do so, call yourself a writer. It’s good for you to think that way. And don’t you dare try to yank that title from anyone else. It’s not nice, and more importantly it won’t help you with the main thing.

The main thing, of course, is getting the words on the paper in such a way that someone might want to read them. I’m not the first to say so, but the point of wanting to be a Writer is that it motivates you to figure out how to write.


On Resisting the Lists that Matter

1. Two hills that circle like hips around a valley lush with trees.

2. Two little girls in lavender terry cloth dresses. One is drinking a slushy or smoothy of some sort that is the exact same color as the dresses. The other one has a fluorescent green beverage, which matches the color of her socks.

While I was mulling over the rash that I get from the phrase “a real writer,” I was searching the web for examples of other expressions that irritate me. And I found one. It was a department headline on a regional blog aggregator: “Lists that Matter”! Like the “real writer” moniker, this heading strikes me as unnecessarily self-inflating. We have all noticed that lists on the internet are more common than ants at a picnic. Like ants, internet lists are a force of nature. Twenty Celebrities Who Peed their Pants in Kindergarten. For reasons unknown, people click on that sort of thing. Like those hardworking little insects, lists are useful. They organize bits of stuff; they get things done. When there are too many of them, it gets annoying. But nobody at the picnic says, “What we need here are some More Important Ants.”

I have to admit, though, that if I break out in hives over other writers’ promotional strategies, it’s because of my own insecurities, my desire to gain attention and recognition through my writing without having to strike a market-oriented, go-getting stance. Thus, in a snit of literary pretension, I wrote the tiny list above, whose appeal is purely sensual. Is it a List that Matters? You be the judge.

• Are You Jewish?

Are you Jewish? It’s such a difficult question for me.

questionmarkThe easy answer is no.

And for many purposes the answer is correct. Most people who ask are Jewish themselves, and what they really want to know is, Will you celebrate the High Holidays? Do you live the way we do? Or, perhaps, Are your choices helping to preserve a Jewish legacy?

In these cases, I must assess whether any part of my Jewish heritage would be meaningful to the people questioning me. I usually decide that my having grown up with a nonobservant Jewish father in Squirrel Hill, a supremely Jewish neighborhood–where many non-Jews have greater knowledge of Judaism than I do–is not worth mentioning in these cases. In fact, I even blank out on some aspects of Jewish traditions, and have made at least one inappropriate phone call on Yom Kippur because I didn’t put it on my calendar and couldn’t hold the date in my head.

When someone expresses antisemitism, however, I’m down with the Tribe. One surreal evening, on a low-budget trip where I was staying in a noisy hostel, a jam-packed crash pad for club hoppers in Miami Beach, I met Victor, a young man from Mexico, friendly enough and mostly harmless. He gave me a piece of cross-cultural information I truly needed later when I moved to South Florida: down here, you aren’t really dancing unless you move your hips.

Just for company, I went on a bus ride with him down to Bayfront Park. We went for a short stroll, then came back to the bus stop. On the bench there, a young woman dressed in spandex, so heavily made up with dark lipstick and bright eye shadow that she could have been the personification of the city of Miami, was admiring her own long pink nails. “People say they aren’t mine,” she told us. “Of course they’re mine. I bought them.”

On the bus ride back, Victor started in telling me–entirely casually, as part of a description of his life in Mexico–that he didn’t like Jews, as though disliking Jewish people was a hobby or popular pastime. So of course I said, “I’m Jewish.” He responded with protestations of disbelief, which weren’t nearly as charming as he thought. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if I didn’t fit his idea of a Jew, he might want to question his own views.

sedereggAre you Jewish? In less extreme cases, where people are merely curious about my background or beliefs, I respond with humor and deflection. Sometimes I say “That’s a good question,” and leave it at that. If pressed, I tell my mother’s story (previously alluded to in this weblog) of my four-year-old self getting a magic marker and drawing a line down my middle, then asking “Hey, Mom, which halfa me is Jewish?”

In truth, my fragmentary Jewish heritage has always been a tender subject over which I am prone to shock and turmoil. My first Passover seder, for instance, around age 7, was one at a friend’s house, and for reasons I’ll never know, my father and I arrived after the start. Despite the awkwardness of this, our hosts were kind, seating me at the children’s table and doing their best to catch me up, briefly, with what was going on. I grasped, at least, that this was a special meal and that this was why we were eating servings bits of food, an egg, some parsley, crackers called matzah, instead of filling our plates.

I was hungry and knew only one or two of the kids at the table but did my best to stick with the program. The next thing I remember was biting into a solid chunk of horseradish, the “bitter herb” that recalls bitterness of slavery. Even if “bitter” had been part of my vocabulary, the word would not have prepared me for what I experienced. My eyes started watering before I knew what had happened. It felt like someone had jammed a sharpened stick into my tongue and kicked me in the head to boot. It hurt as much as anything I had experienced up to that point.

In retrospect, I tell myself that I got the full effect: a moment of uncomprehending pain offered a minuscule taste of unfathomable misery. Worse than the pain was the feeling of isolation. I didn’t understand the occasion well enough to communicate with anyone about what was happening with me. I have never overcome my childhood confusions over religions, not just the baffling expectations of Judaism but also the reasons that some of my Christian classmate gave me about why I was going to go to hell. I give you my word as a lapsed Unitarian that you will not find me cleaving to organized faiths of any kind. Yet I must acknowledge how deeply the Western religions have influenced me.

Absolutely, I believe in God, with no apologies for the dubious roots of my beliefs–a children’s Bible, an intently Catholic babysitter, a smattering of televangelist broadcasts that used to come on before morning cartoons. I had an LP of adapted Old Testament stories that I played over and over, alternately with the soundtrack from The Aristocats.

I identified with Noah for his headstrong nonconformity. Once, during a battle with neighborhood kids, I imagined I was Sampson, jumping up on a bench wielding, ironically, a dried-up pork chop as if it were the jawbone of an ass. In my fantasy life, I was also young Jesus discoursing with the old men in the temple. In my head I debated theological points with the Reverend Rex Humbard, who led broadcasts from the Cathedral of Tomorrow (and later officiated at Elvis’s funeral).

Some of my friends have attested that an emphasis on belief strikes them as culturally Christian, whereas Judaism centers on acts of worship. I am told that that many congregations would recognize me as Jewish if I simply embraced the identity. This makes sense: with all the trials that Jewish people have suffered, and with the world population of Jews on the decline, there is a need for an affirming and active approach.

On the other hand, another friend once told me that even converts or children whose mothers are converts do not count as “real” Jews, and that intermarriage was not just a threat but an affront to the Jewish people. Still, he was mystified and hurt when I quietly desisted from the friendship. I couldn’t verbalize my impressions that (a) his racialist views might actually be destructive toward Judaism and (b) he had objected to very my existence.

On the third hand, my second seder, at the home of my long-time friend Daniel, was a healing and clarifying experience. Partly, that was because I was much older, with duller taste buds and stronger powers of inference. Mostly it was because of actions of Dan and his family, especially his parents, Roz and Al.

Some people of some religions have a habit of explaining things to you in sentences so formal that you know you’re an outsider. You also know that the difference matters to the explainer. I suppose that this is often a form of self-protection, guarding against an outsider’s possible lack of respect. In any case, it is a way of being that Roz and Al abjured.

Additionally, on two occasions, they invited both me and my dad for Thanksgiving, seating us at the end their large dining room table, across from a print (of a painting by Tully Filmus) that they have of a scholar in a prayer shawl. I’ve always liked that painting, filled in lightly with vigorous strokes of blue and black, and the way the scholar leans over his text, patient and tranquil.

While writing this article, I had to check in with Dan, because I had the vague impression that my dad was there for one of their seders. (It seems not.) If I conflated the two occasions, it was not because the holidays are in any way interchangeable, but because the quality of hospitality at their home was always the same.

Dan’s family chatted us up in a way that affirmed the intimate relationship that all of us shared with Squirrel Hill and its history. They joked with each other and even bickered a bit about whose job it was to get the nice china out on the table. In no way did they inquire into who or what we were or were not. We were guests in their home and that was sufficient answer for everything.

In truth, though, my Jewish identity does not hinge on whether or not Jewish groups or settings are welcoming to me, swayed as I am by other elements in my background. I have a family heritage of agnosticism, or at least of religious non-affiliation, that matters to me as much as any affiliation could. In an expansive mood like the one I’m in now, I’ll tell you I’m on a mission from God to refuse labels and to withhold straight answers.

And still, though I know I am in profound contradiction with the central Jewish traditions of shared observance, I still feel like a Jew–albeit a bad Jew, and arguably a useless one, recalcitrantly wayward and willfully. Even Jesus had a beef with the lukewarm adherent, and yet the question “Are you a Jew?” is different from the one I ask myself.

When I ask, “Am I a Jew?” the answer is yes, waveringly, defiantly, guiltily, and eternally yes.

• Flashback

IMG_0587Every time a teenage student asks me whether I’ve seen “classic” films such as Scarface (1983) or Do the Right Thing (1989) I feel the flutter of an eye twitch like the one that afflicts the debonair Chief Inspector Dreyfus over the course of three genuinely classic Pink Panther movies–A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Dreyfus goes from mad to barking mad to full-on world-destroying bonkers, driven by the grandiose incompetence of his subordinate and nemesis, Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau’s pratfalls and misdirected karate lunges, his proclivity for smashing antique pianos and setting his own trench coat on fire, all vex Dreyfus, but what kills him is the way Clouseau always comes out unscathed–and even builds, upon his dubious talents, a reputation as a brilliant detective.

Thus, the lesson I take from Dreyfus is to give up futile efforts to set the record straight.

That’s why I don’t try share my hidebound views with the youngsters: a movie is not really a classic unless it’s in black and white, or in sticky, over-saturated color. It’s not a classic if it’s recorded, like Do the Right Thing, in Dolby sound. It’s not a classic if its actors are still starring in feature films.

In fact, let’s throw off labels like “classic” altogether. Instead of sorting movies into ever-narrower categories, we should experience cinema as a rich, swirling, chunky cultural soup. That’s what got served up to me during my own formative years. Like many sons and daughters of Western Pennsylvania, I used to frequent the Pittsburgh Playhouse repertory series (which showed movies in a building where a drama school also staged plays). Trips to the Playhouse gave me and my age-mates a little taste of everything — Fassbinder and Fellini, Groucho and Harpo, Harold and Maude, Lancelot and Guinevere. Just recently, several of us on Facebook have been celebrating a nostalgia-fest on this very topic.

The Playhouse film calendar came in the mail every month, printed in a single color: orange for October, for example, or brown for November. We would grab it as soon as we got it and circle all the movies that we wanted to see. The epitome of teen disappointment was to circle something and then realize you were looking at last month’s schedule. I was never sure whether the color was coordinated to the season or not.

Treading the lobby’s well-worn carpets, we piled into the movie line in packs, wearing army jackets, torn jeans, and hippie skirts — this was in the ’80s, but a lot of us had a ’60s thing going, partly fueled by Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Hair (1979). Whenever possible, we filed into the short rows in the balcony, where we could sit in the hard wooden seats and sway, singing along to the musicals and group-cry at the sad parts.

To our credit, we did all right during the comedies, resisting the adolescent urge to dissolve into giggle fits. If I remember right, we saved that for afternoon cereal snacks the next day, re-enacting scenes from Young Frankenstein (1974) or bits from Monty Python, trying to get one another to “snarf” milk through the nose.

On weekends the place was often crowded, and in those laxer, less liability-conscious, days we sat in the aisles or leaned against the wall at the back. For a showing of Camelot (1967), four or five of us, ninth-grade girls, managed to squeeze into the front row, which had less than six inches of leg room. We just hoisted our legs up onto the stage. I recall a zig-zag pattern of legs, sneaker to hip, hip to sneaker, under the benevolent gaze of Richard Harris’s giant face. Like Harris’s King Arthur, we little suspected that our own round table — more accurately, our rectangular breakfast nook — was about to be busted up by romantic rivalries. Only some of the wounds, after 30 years, have fully healed.

After Camelot fell, we went to the Playhouse on dates, or double or quadruple dates, or in pairs where same-sex friendships had survived the upheaval. It was perfectly cool, as well, to go with a parent. My dad took me to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), in a double-feature with Modern Times (1936). Later, a friend’s mom introduced us to Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman series (1987-1988). Even cooler was going with an older sibling. I’m pretty sure it was my stepbrother who took me to see Dr. Strangelove (1964).

At $2.50 or maybe a little more, admission cost about half the price of commercial cinemas, low enough to pay for with an allowance or the proceeds from an after-school minimum-wage job, low enough to bring your kids’ friends or your friends’ kids, or whatever. You could go see a movie just because you were curious, or there was nothing else to do that night, or someone else thought it was a good idea. Bergman’s version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1975), the film adaptation of Günther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum (1979), and the tragic artist biopic Camille Claudel (1988) all came into my life that way.

In fact, we could rent any of these films today, but that means nothing. What we lost, when the Playhouse series finally ended in the 1990s, was the opportunity for shared adventure. Some of the young people I meet these days, especially in California, can talk more fluidly than I ever could about film genres, jump shots, montages, and camera angles, but we were in the movies, dancing with the hippies in Central Park, burlesquing the Nazis and outwitting the Yakuza, sculpting in marble, negotiating the perilous street life of post-World War II Germany, lassoing and riding a doomsday nuke toward the soon-to-be epicenter of World War III. Together, we were absorbing flashes from myriad facets of our culture, synthesizing what we learned, constructing images not just of one but of many possible worlds.