Archive for December, 2007

Darning my father’s diabetes socks

family  My parents are something out of another century.

A gracias a IBM and the Gregorian calendar, I was able to take a four-day vacation this week. I used those days to spend time with my parents and finish a first draft of a short story I am calling “Up Again, Old Heart!”

I planned on staying with my parents from Friday evening until Sunday morning, but as I was getting ready to take off, my father asked me why I had to rush home to an empty apartment. I felt bad. On the one hand, my parents are elderly. My father is 83 and weakened by diabetes. My mother is 79-going-on-30 and is, for all intents and purposes, my father’s savior. In so many ways, the three of us don’t fully know each other. For sure my parents, Polish-born and Holocaust survivors, couldn’t possibly understand me and why I’ve made certain choices in my life. Yet when we are together, I think of us as old friends. I wanted to stay.

On the other hand, working at IBM doesn’t leave me any time other than early mornings and late evenings to write. If my parents weren’t old, I would have taken those four days to be alone and write. Only ten years ago, I squirreled all my free time away to get a Master’s Degree in literature (nobody but my professors understood why I would do something as un-commercial as this), and I used to spend most of Thanksgiving and Passover holed up in my bedroom reading. These days I feel I have to jealously guard my time with my parents. When the day comes, the awful day I can’t bear to think about, I do not want to wish that I had spent just one more hour with either one of them.

My parents made ardent promises that I could sit at the dining room table and work undisturbed.

“You’re going to want to watch TV,” I said.

They said, “No TV.”

“This is your home. You should be able to make as much noise as you like.”

In the old days, my father would have made some whooping-it-up sounds, but joking around the way he used to takes energy. He said, “What’s so bad here? Mama will cook for you all day.”

The only bad thing was the smell of the cherrywood my father uses to feed the wood-burning stove downstairs. It emanates a mossy manure-ish odor. I could take it though.

So, on December 24, I set my ThinkPad up on the dining room table and proceeded to have one of the most productive writing days I’ve had in 25 years. In six hours, I pounded out five pages of first-draft prose.

Where did such inspired productivity come from? Overhead was the hanging light fixture my parents bought from a lighting store in Atco, the little south Jersey town where my parents operated a chicken farm, and where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. On the wood-panelled walls were framed photographs of the six grandchildren, including my son, and a framed piece of shiny gift-wrap, an artless homage to kitschy beauty that touches and embarrasses me at the same time. On a breakfront my parents bought 27 years ago from a Jewish Freemason furniture store owner, my parents also display copies of three old family pictures: My father’s mother, father and sister. While he was in hiding during the War, my father secreted the originals inside his clothing. The pictures survived his internment in a slave labor camp and years of hiding in forests and barns. The Nazis had forced his family to have those pictures taken on Shabbos. The heads of my grandparents and aunt are uncovered — something observant Jews would never consent to do freely. My father is grateful to have the pictures. He understands irony.

While I wrote, my father read The Wall Street Journal, his newspaper-of-choice since the late 1950s. Over the years he also has been a steady reader of Barron’s, The Forward and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and despite his struggling to stay awake for more than twenty minutes at a time, he manages to get through all of these papers too. Ask my father what’s going on anywhere in the world. He can tell you.

My mother spent the entire day on Sunday sitting on the faux-velvet sofa darning my father’s socks. These are special socks for diabetics. They are made out of dyed black cotton instead of nylon so that they don’t cut off the flow of blood. These days it’s all my father can do to walk from the house to the synagogue catercorner across the street, yet his tread is still strong enough to have worn out the heels. Rather than throw the socks away, which is what I would have done, my mother got out her darning needle, some polyester wool and a mayonnaise lid and set about reinforcing the heels.

My mother feels good sitting. She used to go for thirty-minute walks every morning around six, but then she got hit with some kind of restless leg syndrome. She takes a drug called Lyrica to numb the feeling of ants, millions of them, crawling up and down her legs.

Halfway through my work day, my mother fed me baked chicken, pearly rice with bits of meatballs cut into it, sauteed mushrooms and string beans and cranberry sauce. For breakfast she made me a fried egg, coffee and toast. In the evening I had one of her homemade “bilkelakh” — a challah roll — with nova and cream cheese. Every week my mother makes an apple-prune pastry called gebeks. I had that and bergamot tea, which she keeps on hand because she knows I like it.

I always tell my parents that they do not have my permission to go on to the next world.

“What makes you think I want to go?” my father asks me. “I have nice children, nice grandchildren and a roof over my head. I want to stay here as long as I can.”

My father goes downstairs and my mother follows close behind him to make sure he doesn’t trip over his own feet. He hates when she does that. He adds another cherrywood log into the wood-burning stove.  He is wearing the diabetes socks.


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Godly lucubrations

midnight Sleepless in the Bronx

The feminist writer Katha Pollitt once wrote that the religious hymns she learned in private school had no lasting impact on her. In recent years she sang them only as mocking accompaniment to her housecleaning chores. A fellow I once knew from my left-wing days at Liberation News Service chimed in with pretty much the same sentiment when he said that intelligent people dispense with God and Santa Claus by the age of twelve.

Every so often, especially during a sleepless night, I retrieve these comments from my store of thirty-year-old memories and set them down alongside my present-day thoughts about life, space and time, and inevitably I end up thinking about God. I always wonder if I am simply the chump who took her early religious training too seriously or the dupe who is still stuck in intellectual puberty. No amount of severe rational rebuke, though — from myself or others — ever really succeeds in making me kick the idea of God to the curb where every other ideological notion I’ve ever entertained has ended up.

If only I could settle this inner controversy I have about God, I think I would be all right with the world. I would no longer have to torment myself with thoughts about the Holocaust, or about the civilized Europeans who elevated murder to a kind of holy secular principle. I would accept that God had a plan for us that is beyond my comprehension but somehow within the scope of objectively sane discourse. I could assimilate the scores of other mass national murders too that burst through ordinary life with extraordinary regularity in just about every corner of the world except in the one where I have the good fortune to have lived my life. I would believe that each one of us has a reason for being on earth for a certain period of time, and that living for five minutes before being thrown alive into a pit is every bit as meaningful as making it to the age of ninety-eight in the loving bosom of your family.

On the surface of things, I’ve put my doubts about God to rest by living a Modern Orthodox Jewish life. I abstain from eating food that the Torah says is forbidden to us. I light Shabbat candles every Friday evening. I honor the Sabbath by not shopping, working, writing or using electricity. I brought up my son to behave in the same way. But I never accept with complete faith that the decision I made to act like a believing Jew is anything more than an act. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I would be lying if I held up my faith to others as a fortress against the doubts and rational thinking that never cease to plague me.

If I am honest with myself, I think I am what some seventeenth-century English theologians called a latitudinarian. In effect, I conform to the normative behavior of my religious group without truly believing in all of its doctrinal underpinnings. I do so because conforming gives me a community to belong to and a middle-class way of thinking that gets me up and out to a job every day.

I remember what my life was before I took on this religious observance. In my “godless” twenties, I put very few controls on my behavior. My actions, however, did not lead to the adult life I sought, a life with a companion, children and social commitments.

So, by my early thirties, I wandered back to the religious observance I learned from my parents. The resumption of my old habits came a little too late to offset the years I’d wasted, but I was lucky enough to create some facsimile of a life I desired. If I hadn’t gone back to being observant, I really think I would be living my bohemian life to this day: Working at some underachieving, low-wage job so that I would have time to do my real work as a writer; living in a studio apartment in a marginal neighborhood; indulging my childless life by going to the movies and the theater every night, and feeling alienated from my God-fearing parents.

When I look at people from my generation who chose to remain “true” to their youthful ideals, I don’t envy them. I pity them. They are like perpetual children too stubborn to have evaluated the ideas they formulated about the world when they were seventeen.

Religion — the institution that the secular world maligns as the purveyor of narrow-minded thinking — is the very force that rescued me from a life of childlessness, low-level work and a shallow relationship with two people I love more than anyone else but my son.

Yet my actions, so many of them derived from the decision I made to be “godly,” do not in any way vanquish my confusion about God. Maybe all we are is a freak of evolution, and we simply have evolved into creatures who need to believe in God. Maybe human nature has certain laws that reward moderation and punish excess, the same way that our physical reality is constrained by gravity and the law of thermodynamics.

All I can say is that the most severe or flippant attack on the idea of God does not budge Him out of my mind one jot and a tittle. He is there for me to harass until the day I go on to, well, God only knows where!

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Containing George W. Bush

bell_jarWill containment isolate Iran or give it some breathing space?

President Bush is right to suspect that Iran is still enriching uranium, and right to ask the world to be vigilant alongside the U.S. But after the faked intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, who believes anything he says?

Tom Friedman makes this point in his NYT column of December 12, 2007 where he discusses the value of containing Iran: “… I’d rather see Iran go nuclear, and contain it, than have the Bush team start another Middle East war over this issue.”

God, I hope Friedman’s analysis is right. But what if it’s not? How does containment work when you are dealing with loosely defined transnational groupings that sympathize with Iran’s anti-America and anti-Israel rhetoric?

I think Israel basically has used containment to secure its Green-Line borders, as well as the disputed West Bank territory of Yehuda and Shomron. To some degree, the strategy works. The security fence has kept all but the most determined terrorists at bay.

Containment, however, has created “bulges” on the country’s northern and western periphery where Hamas and Hezbollah plan and execute their incursions into Israel. The policy works if you are willing to live in an environment that is basically war-time at low boil all the time. Inevitably, Hamas and Hezbollah will want to burst through their respective bulges. What happens to the policy of containment then?

Maybe living at this chronic low-boil is the only solution for Israel — and maybe it’s the only solution for a world that is trying to figure out how to deal with a nuclear Iran. But what happens when Iran is ready to push past the “bulge,” i.e., its own territorial borders, inside which it is now contained?

An Israeli friend of mine suggested that the recent Annapolis Conference, in which Iran of course did not participate, was more an urgent discussion among the Arab countries, the Gulf States and Israel over what to do about Iran, and less about reconciling Israel and the Palestinians to each other. My friend is just an ordinary citizen with no special insight into Israeli or U.S. intelligence, but I am going to guess that nobody in the region wants to see Iran extend its nuclear weapons program. I think they worry that containment, Mr. Friedman’s recommendation, will be too little too late. Post-Iraq Debacle, I no longer know what to think about preemptive action. But I also fear that containment — whatever that actually means — only will give Iran more time to bolster its nuclear weapons program. Isn’t containment ultimately just a cease fire? During a cessation of hostilities, both sides in this new cold war will acquire more weapons and rethink military strategy. The crisis is deferred, but is war inevitable?

Some additional “fallout,” if I can use that word, from the Iraq War:

What kind of president do we want to elect in the U.S.? A Hillary Clinton who trusted CIA intelligence and supported the war for three years or a Barack Obama who doubted the CIA’s intelligence and never supported the war at all? Do we want a leader that trusts our intelligence institutions or one who doesn’t? The current intelligence crisis makes Watergate look like a high school warm-up exercise before the big game.

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What’s a girl to think in a polarized world?

 the end is near

The End is Near, and That’s a Good Thing?

After two terms of the George W. Bush administration, just about everybody, Republicans and Democrats alike, has an arsenal of skanky words they can use to tar and feather the president. He’s a sabre-rattler, a moron, a nitwit, a fiscal disappointment, an intellectual lightweight, a dunce who says nookular. Now that Bush’s term is coming to an end, I feel compelled to confess some kind of fellow feeling for this man — not because I sympathize with his tactics, but because in a storm, you can’t always see what’s right in front of you, and you’re bound to make some bad decisions.

By virtually all accounts, Bush has gotten it wrong on every foreign policy issue. Iraq is the biggest blunder, of course. We all agree that it was unconscionable to have invaded a country and executed its Tito-type leader based on the cooked-up intelligence that Dick Cheney and his cabal presented to the world as gospel.

But here’s what confuses me. In the couple of years before the war, that is, before 9/11, I was reading about Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks on the Iraqi Kurds. Where did I get that information? Not from The National Review, not from Right Wing News. I read an article about the “genocide” of the Kurds in The New Yorker, a magazine famous for its fact-checking, and for its implicit belief that the goals of literature and humanistic sentiment tend to coincide. I can still remember a description of a woman whose cognitive abilities were severely compromised as a result of a gas attack on her town. That’s horrible, I thought. But what can anybody do?

At about the same time, I began receiving e-mail forwards from a left-wing family member warning about the misogynistic program of the Taliban. The e-mail referred to the unchecked spread of the Taliban’s power and its growing influence over the Arab world. Something had to be done. That something, it seems, was no more than signing an e-mail petition decrying the Taliban and then forwarding it to five of your closest friends. I don’t do forwards, but I did this one because it seemed, well, serious. Urgent.

In short, the journalism on the left in those days right before 9/11 reflected the panic that “progressive” people felt about the growth of these represssive — and exclusively — mass Islamic movements. What if some crazed Islamic fundamentalist got hold of enriched uranium in some unmonitored storage bin in the former Soviet Union? What if a state full of gat-chewing seventeen-year-olds — we’re talking about Moslem-dominated Somalia here — got hold of submachine guns and went on a national shooting spree? What if Taliban-style politics resulted in women being prevented from leaving their homes, ever, even with a male escort, even to go to school or the shuk? What if Saddam kept paying Palestinian families, what, $25K, if they volunteered up their children to be suicide bombers? The world was looking pretty weirded out even before Susan Sontag all but praised the 9/11 hijackers for taking on an arrogant superpower, i.e., the U.S.

So, in this post-9/11 world, Bush starts talking all crazy about evildoers, and making them pay for what they did to the World Trade Center and the “multicultural” population that worked there. And he goes on and on about an Axis of Evil. And then he starts a rant about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction and somebody has to stop him. In my mind, I’m already worrying about the Taliban, and I’m freaked out that a bunch of fairly well-educated guys can hijack airplanes and fly them into seemingly indestructable tall buildings. And suddenly the scary scenarios that Bush paints do not seem implausible to me anymore.

And now we “learn” — who knows if we can “learn” anything when no piece of intelligence will ever be truly credible again — that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Plenty of people in the media, and plenty of them running for U.S. president, are gloating. See, they seem to be saying. We told you Bush is an idiot who’s fast on the trigger. We begged him not to engage in that Bible-thumping talk about evildoers. Evildoers! There is no such thing as evil. There’s only humane policy and Bush policy. Throw da bum and his Republican claque out ASAP. And while we’re at it, stomp on any Democrat who once looked upon the gassing of the Kurds and the Buddha-hating Taliban as manifestations of a world gone whackadoodle.

Hey, weren’t those progressive voices calling for military intervention in Bosnia during the Clinton administration? What about Rwanda? Wouldn’t it have been better to have flouted that country’s national sovereignty than to ignore the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis? Why did intervention make sense back then, but today it’s only a sign of Bush’s dementia?

Here’s the saddest conclusion of all. You cannot take any preemptive action to protect yourself. You have to wait until, say, a Hitler annexes countries. No, you have to wait until he rounds up civilians and puts them in death camps. Then, if diplomacy fails, maybe you can take some kind of action. Probably sanctions. Certainly, you can’t be too aggressive these days with the Islamic world because, well, it’s not nice to assume that Islamic radicals will do what their heroes already have done, i.e., attack U.S. Navy ships, U.S. foreign embassies and a U.S. financial district.

We’ve learned not to make an omelet because to do so means you have to crack some eggs. Better to go hungry.

Bush is on his way out. We’ll all have something to celebrate in November 2008. But I can’t help but wonder how a President Hillary Clinton or Obama or Giuliani or Romney or any of the candidates will act in the face of individuals and movements that despise us — all of us, whether we’re on the left, right or middle. Will we hate the next president and vice president too, or do they get a pass simply because they’re not George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

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Rutgers Book Club gets a seat at the Algonquin round table

stack of booksSeven members of the Rutgers Book Club of NYC got together on December 4, 2007 for a holiday party at the Algonquin Hotel.

Men in livery held open doors. A team of maitre d’s hurried to oblige us in a search for a table — even though we had no seat reservations. The plush red decor summoned up an elegant ambiance from the days when Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley — two Algonquin Roundtable wits — used to hang out here and talk about books.

Toward the end of the evening, we exchanged the books we’d brought along as gifts. Here’s a list of the night’s winnings:

Point of No Return by John Marquand

Naked by David Sedaris

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketa Mehta

Writing New York: A Literary Anthology by Phillip Lopate

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

Several people also made book recommendations:

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger.

Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History by Helene Stapinski

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Before setting off for our separate destinations, we settled on a reading theme for 2008: The classics; that is, books we want to reread or wish we had read in the first place.  As usual, our theme is loosely defined and open to capricious forays into whatever happens to suit us.

To be read for our January 16, 2008 meeting: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Thank you to these book club members for creating a lovely night out in Manhattan:

Donald Cassidy, Hugh Evans, Jennifer Cashman, Linda Sayre, Sharon Eliran, Stefanie Rudnicki and Barbara Finkelstein.

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