Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Air Sandwich

The Renaissance Woman's mom gave her a copy of The Jane Austen Book Club, and when she got home RW gave it to me, and I promptly devoured it. Yum. "If I could eat this novel, I would," says Alice Sebold on the cover, and I can't think of anything better to say than that. I'd heard of the book here and there but I guess I was waiting for it to fall into my lap, and now it has.

I kept finding quotable bits and doing small mental jigs at the deadpan loveliness of them. Here's one early one:

"Sylvia opened her lunch bag to find that her mother had packed two pieces of bread with nothing between them. It was hard to think of new things to pack in a lunch day after day after day. Her mother had cracked under the pressure."

For the whole past year I've been wanting to write a post about the Promethian effort involved in concocting lunch every day, now that Mermaid Girl is no longer at her vegetarian-lunch-included preschool. About how I stay up late night after night, putting off the inevitable moment when I will have to drag out the loaf of bread and make one more fireplacing peanut-butter sandwich. About the boringness, the thanklessness, the hopelessness of coming up with anything new or original or even the least bit interesting to toss into the everpresent Hello Kitty lunchbox.

And Karen Joy Fowler has summed up the whole tragedy in three neat sentences.

I don't know whether to read the book again for sheer delight or whap myself over the head with it until I fall unconscious.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who Shall Live

The Groovy Synagogue I go to now has a tradition of inviting lay congregants to give the sermon on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time last year a woman gave a speech that has stayed with me ever since.

She spoke about a prayer called the Unetanneh Tokef, that's a central part of the liturgy during these Days of Awe. It starts "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water; who by hunger and who by wild beasts..." and on and on like that. It concludes: "But tshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) will avert the stern decree." (For one English translation of the whole prayer, click here.)

Our own rabbi, who is not the most doctrinaire Jew in the world, had actually declined to say this prayer at Rosh Hashanah services last year, saying he had thought and prayed about it and just found the sentiment too cruel, too mean-spirited. Unlike Phantom (who has excellent reasons) I have no personal beef with self-flagellation holidays, and I missed it. The prayer ends with a beautiful, yearning, haunting melody, and I get something out of singing it. (I mean, I don't usually pay too much attention to the literal meaning of the Hebrew prayers anyway; I just say them along with an inner simultaneous translation/interpretation that goes something like: "These are the prayers of my ancestors, which they've said for hundreds of years. They're a thread connecting me to my whole life and the lives of my parents' parents' parents and to Jews all over the world who are saying them right now. And here comes that pretty musical part again...mumble mumble part I don't understand and never caught onto how to say, I really should learn how to truly read the Hebrew sometime and not just stumble along with the transliteration...now sing out! Sounds good! Yep! All of us together!")

The woman who gave the sermon last year started by acknowledging the depth of the Rabbi's feelings about the Unetanneh Tokef, about "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die." Then she spoke about how she'd been watching and reading the then-recent coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and she'd come to a different interpretation of the prayer.

What if, she said, this prayer wasn't threatening punishment from above, but merely speaking of life as it's lived on Earth? What if the prayer is reminding us of this: that our actions, our choices, reverberate into the world, deciding our fates and the fates of others, even unto life or death, by flood or by fire, by hunger or by thirst. That we are all accountable.

She spoke about the political ramifications, about what our leaders and we as a country can do-- and didn't do. She also spoke of courage and compassion as skills that can be practiced, prepared; how our actions prepare us for further action, and for heroism when and if it's needed. (the full text of her sermon is here.)

I listened with my whole mind and heart. I wouldn't have been surprised if my mouth had been hanging open. In the course of ten minutes or so, my understanding of that prayer, and of what traditional prayer and even religion can mean, was turned inside out. This was far, far beyond my own dissociative grooving on the sound alone, and from the soothing, earthy-crunchy, softened "translations" I've seen in progressive prayerbooks. This was taking that prayer, so old-world and cruel and arbitrary on its surface, and grabbing it by the throat and shaking out the radical meaning at the core of it. I was stunned, at what she was saying and that such a thing was possible. It's not too much to say that I was transformed.


Two months ago a man with a gun attacked a Jewish organization in Seattle. He forced his way in past the buzzers and security and shot several people before he gave himself up. (This article covers the events pretty well.)

Nothing like this had ever happened in Seattle before, not on this scale against a Jewish target. It made front-page news all over the region, and in Jewish communities all over the world. I won't say everyone around here was shaken, because I don't know everyone, but...people were shaken. I've lived in this city for sixteen years, and I've belonged to a few synagogues, and, well, I was shaken. I'd been in that organization's offices, a few years ago , to plan a book-related event. I could picture it, and I knew or knew of more than one of the victims. The idea of security guards outside synagogues and JCCs didn't seem so paranoid, all of a sudden.

Our shul doesn't usually go in for heavy security, but we had guards at Rosh Hashanah services this weekend. The shooting was mentioned more than once in the course of the morning service yesterday. Then, near the end of the service, the rabbi called one congregant up for the honor of blessing the Torah. Almost everyone there, I think, recognized her name. She was the woman at the office who, five months pregnant, had shielded her abdomen with her arm when the gunman shot at her, and had then crawled to her desk, called 911 (despite the attacker's warning that he'd kill anyone who phoned the police), and persuaded him to talk to the operator, after which he stopped shooting and surrendered himself. One of the shooting victims died; the others lived.

I'd seen her earlier, a woman with a brace on her wrist, but hadn't recognized her, even though I knew the story and knew she was a member of this synagogue. She's been called a hero and been on TV and given interviews, but right then she just looked tired, a tired pregnant woman with an injured hand. Her friend and co-worker was killed this summer; her other co-workers were injured. She has a baby coming in a couple of months. She said the blessing, then turned to walk back to her seat.

It wasn't random, that she'd had the presence of mind to call 911, to convince the shooter to come to the phone. She has a master's degree in crisis intervention. She'd worked for an aid organization before this job. She'd prepared, without knowing it. And she was able to act.

I wanted to stand for her, as she passed in front of our row of pews. I didn't quite have the nerve to start it, wasn't sure if she'd really want even more attention. But it was a quiet, awkward moment, just sitting and watching; I wished afterwards that we'd done something, made some kind of communal gesture.

But now that I think of it, maybe we did.

This Rosh Hashanah, our Rabbi led the Unetanneh Tokef.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Quote your sources!

At my college, "Quote your sources" was a veritable mantra. As a school librarian, I'm constantly nagging people to cite their sources.

So I am both personally and professionally obligated to note that when I reread the post I just wrote this morning, I realized that not only was it influenced by the discussion of schools and class going on at Phantom's and elsewhere (even though the story of A. and me doesn't explicitly focus on class), but that the structure and rhythm of the last paragraph were basically lifted whole from a short story I read in the New Yorker and then later heard on "This American Life."

I want to provide a link here, but the New Yorker doesn't provide complete online archives and the TAL site seems to be down, so I'll do it as soon as that's possible.

The story is called "Bullet in the Brain," by Tobias Wolff, from his short-story collection The Night in Question. It can be heard on "This American Life" as part of the episode "Last Words" (Use the Archives sidebar to find it: originally broadcast 10/23/98, Episode #114, Act 6, 13 minutes long)

The story is about the last moments of a writer and critic, and what he does and doesn't remember as he's dying. It's a haunting piece, and beautiful, and it obviously got under my skin even though I wasn't consciously thinking about it as I wrote the post.

Do you ever realize you've unconsciously plagiarized or "borrowed" in a blog post? What do you do when that happens? And where *does* influence shade into swiping?

Three Dollars

When I was five years old, we moved from the city to the suburbs. A few days after we unpacked, my mom dragged me down to the corner where the school bus would pick me up for kindergarten at the central K-1 school. It was the middle of the year already, and I hadn't wanted to move in the first place, and this whole waiting-for-the- bus-with-a-passel- of-other-kids thing was an entirely unknown quantity and not one I was thrilled about. But there on the corner was another 5-year-old girl who lived on the next block. Our parents introduced each other and us, we smiled shyly at each other, and that was it: A. and I were Best Friends, by virtue of our age, sex, and geographic location. It was sort of like being betrothed at birth, only by real-estate agents.

It turned out that we had a lot in common. We were both crazy about dolls and imaginative play, and could get completely caught up in games. Once I was at A's house playing doll hospital, and got so involved that I completely forgot I was supposed to go home to get ready for an important extended family gathering. Finally, my family drove over to A's house to pick me up and scold me. "But the dolls were hurt," I kept insisting. "It was an emergency."

The street between our blocks was a quiet one, and by the time we were six or seven we were allowed to walk to each other's houses on our own. At least once, and maybe regularly, the going-home part would happen like this: I'd be at A.'s house and would remember that I had to get home for supper. She'd volunteer to walk me as far as the corner, and we'd stand there under the street light, talking and talking, until she said, "Well, I'll just walk you to your house." Then we'd stand in front of my house until she said she had to go, at which point I'd walk her to the corner, and then maybe to her house. Talking, talking, talking. I have absolutely no memory of what we talked about.

I also have no memory of what we fought about, though we fought regularly. We both had tempers, and went in for screaming, yelling fights. Once A. told me to shut my cotton pickin' mouth, which was not something people said much in our part of the world, or something I ever heard her say again. We hardly ever formally made up or apologized; usually, we just avoided each other for a few days, ostentatiously walking to school separately, and then started back up as if nothing had happened.

We--and our families--were different in some ways. I had a little brother; she had a sister in the same grade as my brother. I was a bookworm; she had trouble reading (later diagnosed as dyslexia). My parents split up when I was 7; hers stayed together, though not without fights. Her family had what seemed to me a bizarre proclivity for outdoor activity; they owned kayaks and all went kayaking, regularly, as a family, in the local polluted rivers.

We had different religions, too, and often got to be part of each other's traditions. I went Christmas-tree shopping with her family (and irritated her by spotting the most likely tree), and she came to at least one of our seders. We both went through an intensely spiritual/religious stage at the same time, and for a while would get up early and meet before school in my back yard, where we had built a stone "tabernacle" (I think both the word and the idea for that one came from me, garnered from The Long Secret). We'd recite the Shema and the Lord's Prayer, read a psalm, and then walk to school. I think we tried to keep these meetings a holy secret, though in retrospect my mom must have noticed the stone cairn in the yard.

We were accepted and expected "extras" in each other's families. At least once, A. came with me on visits to my dad's place in the city. When her parents went to Yugoslavia, they brought me back a present along with the presents for their own daughters. Once, I got to go with A. on an overnight visit to her cousins' in Pennsylvania. I drove with her family in the green van (the one they took kyaking) and saw my first Amish horse-and-buggy setups. Of the trip I don't remember much, except the fall of light and shadow on the room where I slept, and whispers about her cousin Baby B sleeping in the room next door.

A few weeks or months later, I was over at A's house, playing, her mom talking on the phone, sounding serious. When her mom got off the phone she must've gone into another room, because all I remember is A. coming over to me and saying, "That was my aunt. Baby B. died." I didn't know what to do, or what to say, so I said goodbye--I hope I said I was sorry, too, but I don't remember--and went home. It didn't seem like it could be real, but it was.

In high school I hung out with nerds; A. did sports. But we were always friendly, right up until college. In our mid-twenties we got back in touch for a while; she was pregnant, marrying her boyfriend, and converting to Judaism. (He was Jewish, but she was also genuinely interested, and we had some fond conversations of our prayer sessions at the tabernacle.)

By the time I saw her again, I was visiting from Seattle, staying with my dad for a week, and A. was living way out in New Jersey, pregnant with her second baby. I followed the detailed directions she'd given to her house, only to get there just as she was going into labor. She apologized for missing the visit as her husband came home to drive her to the hospital. Her mom was there already, brisk and dry as I remembered her, getting ready to take A's older daughter over to Grandma's house. She gave me a ride there too, while she was at it. The house looked just the same, green and white, with maybe a new coat of paint. It was the strangest thing in the world, and also the most ordinary, to see it there in the middle of the block where it had always been, all those years I was gone.

The last time I saw her must have been about ten years ago. She and her family had had some hard times and had been living with her parents. They were just moving to an apartment on the other side of our childhood town. Their oldest daughter, who was five by then, was about to start kindergarten in the school system where A. and I had gone. I took her out to play in the courtyard to help keep her out of the way while A. and her husband unpacked. I kept blinking, blinking, looking at her as we hopped and jumped and went across the street to buy Slushies at the 7-11 where my friends and I had played Pac-Man in junior high: it was eerily like seeing A. again, the first time I'd met her, on the bus-stop corner.

They moved to a mountain state a little after that, and we lost touch again. I've been wondering about her again lately, for some reason. A few weeks ago I Googled her and there wasn't much, but enough for me to get the sense that she and her kids, at least, are still in the same mountain state, basically okay, still outdoorsy. Her sister M., I heard, is a lesbian and became a minister. In my mind, though, M is still the pretty, wispy little girl who played Carrie to my Laura and A.'s Mary in games of Little House on the Prairie.


This morning, Mermaid Girl and Renaissance Woman left for a week-long visit to RW's mom and grandma. Last night MG couldn't sleep because, she said, she was afraid of going on the plane. It emerged that she was also worried that about me being alone (partly because of an ill-advised mock-guilt-tripping comment I made a few days ago, about wandering around the house all by myself, no one to get dinner for...) and also that she would miss me.

After proferring the hugs and kisses and reassurances you'd expect after such an admission, I offered to let her take something special of mine with her, and she brightened right up. After a short rummage through my boxes of Special Things, we agreed that a small wooden owl pin with red plastic jewel eyes would be just the ticket.

"My friend A. gave me this owl, when I was a little older than you," I said.

"Tell me the story!" she demanded, so I did.

We must have been about seven or eight, maybe nine at the oldest. It might have been a belated birthday or Christmas/Chanukah present, or it might have been just a random present. I think A. had been on a trip and just come back. She came to my door and gave me the owl--I don't even remember if it was wrapped or not. I loved the smallness and woodenness of it right away. "I bought it myself," she said.

"Wow!" I said. "Thank you!" And then, because I was interested and because we were friends and told each other everything, I asked, "How much did it cost?"

A. looked abashed, and said, "Three dollars."

"Wow! Mom!" I called. "Look at this pin A. just gave me. And it cost three dollars!"

My mom looked pained and explained that it wasn't polite to ask someone how much a present cost. And I never have, since then.

I've also never forgotten that the owl pin cost three dollars. Not that it seemed, or seems, like a lot, or a little. It's just part of the owl, like its plastic-ruby eyes and the little wooden tufts it has for ears. When I look at it, I see A. standing in the open doorway, the sunny day outside, her smile half-proud, half-anxious; and I hear an echo, like a backbeat: Three dollars, three dollars, three dollars.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


In honor of Wednesday Whining, and of mine only child, herewith this anti-whine.

Oh, sure, there are many things I could be whining about (as you might have surmised from my absence here in the 'sphere); for example, it is 7:47 PM right now, and I am AT WORK. And even at that, I'm not nearly caught up.

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about my kid.

Now she is six. Did I mention that? Six!

And, as finslippy's readers seem to agree, Six beats the pants off Five so far.

Six brushes its own teeth. Six puts on its own pajamas. Six turns off the TV and comes to dinner without a fuss. Six can occasionally be seen cleaning its room with apparent goodwill, in a notable reversal of Five's tendency to slump on the floor while moaning that "this will take forever! Years!"

Six is patient and kind to toddler friends, neighbors, and relatives, and (for the most part) to grown-up friends, neighbors, and relatives too. When Six had to spend last weekend in a vacation house in the company of a rampaging toddler, Six hung around the living room for a while, took in the situation, and then retired to the bedroom to draw in peace and privacy.

Six has overcome its princess fixation far enough to opine with wide-eyed sincerity that "what you are like inside counts more than being beautiful."

Six is a thrifty shopper who, while looking through this month's Scholastic Book Order catalog, pointed at a My Little Pony book and said, "Mommy, for a book that costs this much, there should be a toy that comes with it. Personally? I think this book is overpriced."

Yesterday I steeled myself as I pulled up at Six's after-school care, on guard for a repeat of last year's routine of stalling, whining, and begging to play on the playground before we got in the car. But Six floored me by immediately starting to clean up the dollhouse she'd been playing with and cheerfully calling, "I'm so ready to go home! Let's go!"

I'm grateful that Six is still a big fan of teh hugs and florid protestations of love for her parents. Also, that she informs me she does not have a boyfriend. Also, that despite many flourishes of vocabulary, Six does not yet talk exactly like a grownup. The day that Six starts saying "I'm not" instead of "I amn't" will be a sad one for the adults in our house.

So, those of you in the throes of Five (or Four, or Three), take heart: many of the behaviors we worried were essential character flaws that would doom our child to a life of crime and/or iniquity seem to have been washed away by the benificent tide of Six. May it be so for you.

Me, I'm doing my best to save up all the affection I have for Six. Because I think I'll need it when Thirteen rolls around.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Random bullets of stream of consciousness

...with occasional whines, and a bonus dream interpretation:
  • I am soooo busy. And tired. And stressed. And....is anyone still out there? Or did you click away when you read the irksome word "stressed"? (That's my second-least-favorite word that I use anyway. My least favorite is "playdate," and I only use it because the alternative is "invite x over to play" which has a gazillion more syllables even if it does seem more civilized to me. The sacrifices I make for efficiency!) I have been this way for weeks. I have also been offline almost entirely for weeks. I have barely had time to check my email, and all those pleasant hours I used to spend reading up on the lives and doings of you, my beloved invisible friends? Just a hazy dream of the past. Read on for details of why.
  • Remember how I was weeding all those books, so I could get ready to pack up my library? (Too stressed to link. It was back in June if you want to look it up. Might even still be on my Recent Posts list over to the right, there, since I have been a sucky negligent blogger all summer and the suckiness it doth just continue!) Right. Well, now I have to unpack all the books I packed! And also somehow nag the Powers That Be into giving me a working computer. Oh, and a phone.
  • My dad and stepmom came to visit! While they were here we all went to a real live county fair. With 4H kids and horse trials and racing pigs (at which my stepmother won a T-shirt that said "MY PIG WON!") and a RODEO, honest to God. "It's just like 'Brokeback Mountain,' we all murmured to each other, as the real live rodeo clown cracked real live unironic homophobic jokes. I kept forgetting we were only a ferry ride away from Seattle and thinking we were still on the Twinkie trip and were somewhere in eastern Oregon. I was gonna write a whole post about it but by the time we got home all I wanted to do was sleep.
  • My glamorous cousin-and-partner duo came to visit! And they wrote a couple of books! Well, not while they were here, while they were here they mainly went gallivanting about, and also sat around our house entertaining us. But what I meant was, they have each had a new book published lately, and the books are quite good, and you should read them. And buy them. And tell all your friends to do the same. Especially if you like dashing swaggering wickedness and girl swordfighters (that would be my cousin's book) and hip edgy 21st-century fairies in New York City (my cousin-in-law's). For them, I will link.
  • Mermaid Girl turned six last Monday! She had a family party on the day itself with the aforementioned cousins and the aforementioned grandparents and a truly stunning pink ice cream cake. Then she had a fairy party with friends this weekend. Then we all collapsed from sugar-and-present overload and rolled ourselves under the porch to sleep it off.
  • Also, MG can now really and truly swim with her head underwater. Considering that she spent four years in Group A of her swim lessons because she refused to even bob under water, it's hard to overstate the magnitude of this development. A few days after the breakthrough, she woke up and said, "Let's go to the outdoor pool today. I've decided that I'm going to go down the [big] green slide." And she did. First with us, then by herself with us catching her at the bottom, then entirely by herself. Afterwards we sang her a shehecheyanu (prayer for new & exciting things) over by the pool ladder.
  • First grade starts tomorrow. New teacher: not just to MG, but new to the whole school. She sent us a letter introducing herself and listing the many required school supplies that students should bring on the first day, which include not only the expected pencils and folders and glue sticks but a plain white oversized T-shirt which should be WASHED before sending it in. I repeat: letter came today. School starts tomorrow. RW just got back from Office Max and reports that it was kind of a party over there. "Like the post office on April 15," I think she said.
  • We will not be washing the required T-shirt.
  • But we did break down and buy her a pair of Crocs. Finally. She is a fashionable girl, you know.
  • Last night I dreamed that one of my favorite bloggers (not telling who cause I don't want to spook her) had died in some unspecified way, and that I went to the post office and there were a whole pile of packages for her, which had been mailed to all different addresses but somehow all ended up at my local P.O. (which btw is not her local PO in either the dream or real life.) And I told the post office where they should really send them, but then later thought that maybe I should've just signed for them and then mailed them to her family myself, so they can see how many people cared for her.
  • I interpreted this dream to mean that I should start blogging again, orientation week or no orientation week.
  • So here I am.