The Great Escape is almost half over! We have made it through Lithuania and the Cotswolds in rural England; still ahead, a week in London, to which we’ve just arrived, and then the coast of Spain. Hopefully there at last we’ll get more than 24 hours between rainstorms.
After a drive that took us through Oxford, at which I panted out the window of the car like a forlorn hound, we’ve made it to our AirBnB rental in town. It turns out to be a boarding house we’re sharing with our host, her daughter, a fellow from Barcelona, a couple from Italy, a black-and-white cat, and possibly David Copperfield. Not 100% what we expected but no matter.
Quite close is a neighborhood called Shepherd’s Bush, and I will try manfully not to snigger every time I walk by. Considering we passed Maidenhead on the way in, I’m assuming the British have excellent restraint, or perhaps are merely used to giggle-inducing names. Can you imagine a suburb of DC called Virginity? I mean, really.
Although of course there is “Virginia” …
Anyway. London! At last! England is my Oz, which makes London my Emerald City. I almost cannot contain my excitement at finally getting to explore this place I’ve read so much about, except that I must, because I’ll be on baby duty all week and will only be able to accomplish so much. Life is long and will bring me back to London, right? There’s no need to maximize.
The “Great Escape” Mr. Ben and I originally considered involved going away for six months or a year. We figured that while babygirl was between nine months and two years old, she would be portable — or, at least, as portable as she would ever be outside the womb. (Taking her anywhere, even as a small ten-month-old with few material possessions, is still reminiscent of the scene in the desert in Spaceballs, when the crew has to shlep all of the Princess’s matched luggage. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for the relative ease of pregnancy.)
Well, we had to scale back the dream a bit, for various very sensible reasons. But the dream lives. For an entire year, I will focus on writing: the manuscript of the novel I’m currently working on, a revision of the novel I wrote when I first came to New York, perhaps more short pieces for the Internet, since the thrill of contributing to Slate and the Hairpin and those kinds of places has yet to wear off. To start the year off with a bang, I signed up for the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, Lithuania, to study fiction with Jami Attenberg in the mornings and non-fiction with Alex Halberstadt in the afternoons. Since both of these writers are Jews living in Brooklyn, it feels appropriately inefficient and complex — you know, Soviet! — to come halfway around the globe to an Eastern European capital from which my ancestors fled in droves to take workshops with them.
Best of all, Mr. Ben knit together seven weeks of leave from his job of vacation time and FMLA leave so that he could come too and bring babygirl. (By contrast, I parted ways with my job, where I spent four interesting and meaningful years and still have coworkers I care about.) After my two weeks at SLS, we go to Britain in order to fulfill a dream of Mr. Ben’s (about which more later), and then the coast of Spain, where family friends have an empty house that they have offered up. Old-world capital, English countryside, Mediterranean coast: this is “Eat, Pray, Love” done the Balynker-Gloom way. As my Aunt Marjy put it, Lara’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay is going to be the best ever!
Our passports got stamped in Copenhagen, where we spent an endless layover thinking wistfully about the sophisticated Scandinavians — so clean and organized, and yet so child-friendly! — and whether we were crazy to take an infant to the Baltic. Then a plane as long as two minivans lashed together whisked us away from Danish paradise and dropped us off on a rainy Lithuanian tarmac. The weather only got soggier as we made our way to the apartment we secured on AirBnB, and babygirl only got more upset as we set up her travel crib and put her in it for the first time. (Eighteen hours on the road and all I get is this big mesh box?) There were bright spots even then, though, specifically the apartment, which reflects the taste of its owner, a talented graphic designer. It’s hard to be unhappy in a place with a bright yellow vintage fridge.
The next day the sun came out, as cheerful as a bright yellow vintage fridge, and we ventured forth into a walkable and surprisingly lovely, low-key city that didn’t feel too different, after all, from Copenhagen. We’ve met a couple of motorcycle-riding Lithuanians who have a daughter Lara’s age, and a plethora of poets (“Which MFA program are you in?”) with inner-arm tattoos, which seems to be the thing these days, like side shaves. We’ve overheard some live foreign-language Christian rock (“Yesu, Yesu …”) and lots of recorded hip hop, which is a bit jarring in a country full of pale blond people, and eaten lots of dill and some ham already by mistake and really good Latvian yogurt.
Even my ancestors would, I think, appreciate this town. I can hear them crowded around me as Lara plays in the sandbox at the heart of what was once the sprawling Jewish ghetto: “Hmph. Not too bad, when the clouds disperse. It has potential.” And then, inevitably, “Her hat! Make sure she keeps her hat on!”
Many of the points raised in both forums were interesting (avatars vs. our real life selves), timely (Watson vs. Ken Jennings), and significant (the people of the Middle East vs. their dictators). But to me, it was all so much background noise, because my decision was made a long time ago. The Internet delivered me — absolutely, over and over again, beyond question.
The Internet gave me Mr. Ben.
We did not meet over the Internet, not per se. The first time I remember seeing him, my freshman year of college, was on a Septa train platform. His dark hair stood out against colorful clothes and he had a camera slung around his neck. We were both going to Philly, so we chatted for a bit, though as he was going to see about a girl there, it was not romantic. Still, since I always got a bit swoony over the idea of meeting some dashing stranger on public transportation, my heart beat a little faster.
(Why public transportation? I can only assume that because my adolescence was so proscribed — for 13 years at the same school, I saw the same Jewish faces get a little bonier, a little hairier, a bit more pimply, but never change in fundamentals — the Metro was basically the only time I was guaranteed a glimpse of something new.)
Mr. Ben does not remember meeting me on that train. He does remember the next two times we ran into each other, casually, on campus; neither encounter amounted to anything. Then a friend told me that Mr. Ben kept a blog.
Naturally, at the time, it wasn’t called a “blog” really so much as a “web journal,” and it was a pretty rare thing to have. I was impressed. When I started reading, I was more impressed, because the boy could not only take pictures and wear vivid colors, he could express himself in words, and words are the Most Important Thing to me.
On Valentines Day, he wrote that he offered a girl a rose, and she declined. He was very straightforward about it, not at all maudlin or self-pitying, but, for all that, sad. He used the phrase, “a requited love interest.” I knew exactly what he meant.
How awful! I thought. Who turns down a rose? My friend K. Ross was in my dorm room with me when I read the entry, and ranting to him only made me more incensed. Before I knew what I had done, I had posted in his guestbook expressing my sympathy & outrage, and saying, “Don’t worry — I’ll be your requited love interest.”
Dear reader, this was BC — Before Comments. There were no comments, there was only a guestbook, and I opened myself in it for the world to see. Once I had done so, there was no turning back. K. Ross gave me an uncertain look, because I am not usually so bold, but it was too late.
Mr. Ben replied by email, and we corresponded — commiserated — for a couple of days. Then, that Saturday evening, he invited me over. No fool, I. Several unfortunate encounters with boys over the course of that year had taught me to be wary of such invitations. Yet something about this particular boy compelled me to go.
That was exactly ten years ago, today.
When I say the Internet delivered me, I don’t mean I have succeeded in the game of Life because now I have the blue peg beside me in the car and I’m all set to stock up the back seat with little pegs. Fuck the blug peg, and fuck the little pegs in the backseat too, for that matter. That, to me, is not success.
The Internet delivered me because, in helping me not meet but really connect with Mr. Ben, it gave me someone who would watch my back, lift my spirits, make me laugh, be there for me when my dog died followed by all the men in my family, one by one, and just generally make me a better person, a cleaner, saner, happier, honest, less sarcastic and more vulnerable person.
He also brought me to New York, where I wouldn’t have had the courage to come on my own, and I am as enamored of this city as I could have ever hoped to be.
Happy anniversary, baby. I thank the Internet for you.
My uncle, who has made the same Thanksgiving dinner since 1987, died last year, suddenly. The word “suddenly” doesn’t even do justice to the speed with which he was there and then wasn’t. No one has planned the menu for the holiday this year. It’s like how if you call my grandmother, my uncle’s voice still greets you from the answering machine—he recorded over my grandfather’s voice when my grandfather died. No one has had the guts to go next.
My grandmother is still in shock. She is almost 98 years old and she never expected to outlive her husband, her son-in-law, and her son. Will she be able to churn out her annual tart apple pie? My father would kill for that pie. He used to elbow me after tasting it and say, “When are you going to ask your grandma to teach you to bake that pie?” I’d retort, “You want pie, ask her to teach you to bake.” Then we’d both settle down comfortably on the couch and read something.
The men in my family were taken down one by one and now, as the smoke clears, I wonder who is going to carve the turkey. My older brother Adam and I led the seder last year for Passover, but we did it from the kids’ table. Will Adam be able to take a stab at the bird? A thirty year old without a wife or children makes a pretty half-assed patriarch. I would be worse: I’m female, and a vegetarian. The turkey would laugh at me. I don’t even like pie.
To make matters worse, the day after Thanksgiving we’ll gather at the cemetery for my father’s unveiling. Gives a new meaning to “Black Friday,” doesn’t it?
What is the point of Thanksgiving? Is it a stuck-in-there holiday to make November more bearable and give us all a long weekend? Is it to juice the travel industry? To remind us all to feel vaguely guilty about Native Americans (although not so much that it puts us off our food)?
Was it an early attempt by enviro-conscious, earnest, lefty, do-gooding, Farmer’s Market types to get us all to eat seasonally and — perhaps — locally?
Is it a family dysfunction dress rehearsal, the main event of which is Christmas?
Is it about eating, or cooking AND eating, or cooking AND eating AND being with family?
I ask because the question arose at lunch today: Is it cheating to have Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant?
My instinct is that it is. The point of the holiday isn’t to partake of cranberry sauce, which is possibly the best straight-out-of-the-can food there is, but to partake of cranberry sauce across the table from someone you might not ordinarily see or (heaven forbid) even like all that much. And somebody you know and possibly love — not some line cook paid $5.50 an hour — has to scrape that cranberry sauce out of the can and into a bowl. Otherwise, so help me, it just doesn’t count.
My Thanksgivings, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, have met these rabbinic requirements. There is traveling involved; there is stress; there is extended family for extended periods of time. Yes, there is turkey, though I haven’t eaten it since I was 18, and seasonally-appropriate vegetables, and apple and pumpkin pies, but the point isn’t the turkey. The point is the entire celebration, sun-up to sun-down, of America’s favorite secular holiday, one for which, yes, we all have to sacrifice a little bit.
Am I wrong? Am I *wrong*? Or, like Walter, am I not wrong, but just an asshole?
THANKSGIVING IN RESTAURANTS: CHEATING OR NOT CHEATING? Make your voice heard.
Baby’s First Business Trip (TM) took me across the country to sunny LA. Jewy academics from all over had braved East Coast storms and hauled babies to make it, and some — including one of my bosses — were thwarted over and over. I had to walk a couple of fierce, snowy blocks in Brooklyn to the A train to get to the airport; that was the worst of my trouble.
The first morning of the conference, I went to a panel where a fellow argued for the rehabilitation of an author who is minor, unlikeable, and dead. Academia in a nutshell, and it was not a nutshell I wanted to be in. It was over 70 degrees outside among the swaying palm trees, and if anything boring was happening out there I could always walk away from it.
The second speaker was more engaging, but still, I listened to my gut and spent the next several hours either by the pool or on the hotel patio. And I was productive! I had an energetic poolside conversation with the second speaker, whose book-in-progress about irony and the Holocaust could, I felt, benefit from a final chapter about film.
I also ran into and caught up with an old friend from summer camp, now a PhD candidate and an impressive scholar in her own right. She was the first of my run-ins with the past, the roster of which included an old professor from Swarthmore and an old neighbor from Brooklyn.
Everyone seemed familiar, even the folks I didn’t know directly. When I was introduced to a young woman named Miriam, it took us only five minutes to determine that we have a good friend in common: her brother’s housemate. The world is even smaller when you travel within the confines of a six-pointed star.
I saw my little brother, my cousin, and my May-As-Well-Be Sister-in-Law, a CA native who whisked me away in her silver BMW for an al fresco lunch in Santa Monica. At night, I slept in a pristine king-sized bed big enough to fit me and the population of Trinidad, with room for the seven dwarfs. Though I contemplated finding an actor or two to fill the emptiness, I refrained, because I am a modest East Coast girl at heart.
The flight back was easy but what followed was not. My uncle, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer just after my father died, has been moved to a hospice. He’s declining rapidly. So, after what will be a rushed Russian Christmas tomorrow morning in Westchester, I’m getting on another plane, this time with Mr. Ben, and going down to North Carolina for the weekend. My family will circle another deathbed. Then we will greet 2010, for which I am scared to have any hopes, except that enough will finally be enough.
As a hostess, my mother is conscientious, even, you might say, fastidious. Mr. Ben learned this his very first Passover with us back in 2001, an experience so scarring it is no surprise it took him six years to propose. His reaction could probably be summed up by a friend at this Passover who leaned over to me and remarked, “There are so many rules!” Uh, yeah. But what would Judaism be without rules?*
I don’t mind rules. I’m used to them. Don’t stack the china. Don’t mix patterns. Don’t fetch something out of the kitchen yourself. Don’t eat dairy with the meat meal (even if you’re a vegetarian). Don’t break anything. My mother has her own version of Leviticus and even though it isn’t written down, she thinks the rules are self-evident and she doesn’t quite understand why some people don’t immediately get it.
Green beans fall under a category of food called “kitniyot,” which are permitted for Sephardic Jews, i.e., those from Spain and the Arab world, and not for Ashenazic Jews, i.e., most of us. This is because Jews in Spain & the Arab world had more freedom under Islam than Jews in Europe did under various tight-ass Popes and Czars. So while Sephardic Jews got to throw parties, write poetry, and generally have a good time in good weather, Ashkenazic Jews were stuck in dour shtetls, looking over their shoulders for Cossacks, and inventing new laws to make life even more difficult for themselves.
Well, I reject this tradition of suffering for the sake of suffering. Sure, much of my lineage is based in Lithuania and the Pale of Settlement (Russia/Poland, depending on the year). But my father’s family originally hailed from Turkey. The fun-loving Jews! Those are my real spiritual ancestors, and they eat rice on Passover; rice, yes, and green beans too, and soybeans, and corn. There is no end to their wild ways.
My 96-year-old maternal grandmother seems to have absorbed some of this hedonism, even though she is descended from those drab, staid Eastern Europeans. When my brother and I were arguing back and forth about whether soybeans were permissible to eat, my grandmother interrupted us. “Do you know what I ate today?” she said. “A piece of bread.”
Now that left us speechless in awe.
Happy Passover everyone! Happier still: only a few days left.
Q1: Say the Joker abducted Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and suspended one above a shark tank using dental floss while, in a different warehouse, a slow-motion laser seemed poise to cut the other in half. Which of his professed heroes would John McCain save?
A1: “I think he would save Ronald Regan because Teddy can take care of himself and Regan would spend the entire time trying to remember the name of that diner where he had the really good chocolate chip banana pancakes” — my brother
Q2: If John McCain and Barack Obama shared a passionate, intimate moment, what would it look like?
A2: Dear lord help us:
Q3: If one candidate leaves a town hall stage after a somnolent debate, is the debate over? What if the other candidate hangs around for the encore? What if every participant suddenly wakes up, smiles, snaps pictures, gets a handshake, chats with the fellow who’s still hanging around?
McCain repeats himself way worse than Obama — “my friends,” “earmarks,” etc. — but both of them are guys we’ve been married to for a long time, and we know their stories. It’s true I had no idea that McCain learned everything he knew from a chief petty officer, but that was about the extent of the surprises he had in store for me after all these years together, and in any case, it was clearly bullshit. … If I were married to him, an unlikely scenario, we would probably have fought in the car on the way home tonight, because I told him a million times not to try to be funny, but he never listens to me.
And if I were married to Obama, another unlikely scenario but a far more attractive one, I would be driving home having a hard time not thinking about the curtains.
Q5: How would we know if ester were getting too emotionally involved in this election? If she teared up on the subway reading New Yorker endorsements and in the park seeing homeless men which brought to mind the Bradley effect? If she were about to head off to Yom Kippur services and all she could think to pray for is a satisfactory resolution on November 4?
A5: Yes, yes, and yes. G’mar hatimah tovah, everyone. Non-Hebrew speakers: that means, GObama!
Whee! Enchanted, that girliest of girl movies starring Amy Adams, won the box office match-up this past weekend, beating, by a long shot, Natalie Portman’s trippy-sounding entry, Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium. Not that I contributed to Enchanted’s success; I was too busy watching boy movies 1. I’m Not There and 2. No Country for Old Men, both of which I enjoyed and admired, although neither knocked my head off my shoulders.
I’m Not There at least breaks free of the tedious biopic formula in which the director attempts to psychoanalyze the subject based on a five minute snippet of his childhood, tracing all of his problems with women, for example, back to that time his mother put him in a closet. Todd Haynes doesn’t try to understand Dylan at all; six actors portray different facets of the rocker, and the composite both serves as a good overall sense of the people Dylan has maybe been at different points AND a good example of the Being John Malkovich/Walt Whitman theory of identity. You know, that we contain multitudes.
The two standout Dylans are a little black boy who rides freight trains with his guitar, dressed like a Depression-era mini hobo, Sir-ing and Ma’am-ing and performing for the bemused 1959 adults he meets along the way as Grassroots Bob, and a b&w Cate Blanchett in fantastic drag who captures everything itchy, rangy, brilliant, and savage about Famous Bob.
As for No Country, aka this year’s Departed, I liked it better than Nora Ephron did. (Caution: her piece contains spoilers, in case you care, when going to watch a bloodbath, exactly who dies.)
Mr. Ben and I went to his dad’s house in Westchester for Thanksgiving with a swarm of Russians, which meant a feast lengthened by frequent cigarette breaks and toasts that made Ben’s dad weep with laughter. He and/or Mr. Ben tried valiantly to translate but I only found the jokes perplexing, which made everyone else laugh harder. One gag began, “So, you remember Stalin” and went on to be about a man who had fathered three kids by three different women. “Get it?” said Ben’s dad at last having painstakingly explained. “Yes,” I said. “But what does that have to do with Stalin?” The table roared.
Foodwise, everything that didn’t have meat had mayonnaise. I ate a lot of bread and, at the debut of the fruit bowl come dessert-time, I fell on those melon cubes like they were my personal lord and savior. But the evening was definitely an experience.