Tuesday, December 16, 2008

letter to my 13-year-old self

Oh, Danielle...

What an awkward gosling you are. Those braces will come off soon, and you’re going to grow up alright, but you’re in for some bumps. Let me tell you a few things that might help you through the next 20 years.

Number one: Go out and make some small mistakes. Right now, before you have a chance to make big ones. Mom is not doing you any favors keeping your strings attached, my little puppet. If you don’t seize control of your own decisions and take a few risks you will enter the real world deaf to your intuition. Trust in your own judgment will be hard-won and easily broken. Save yourself a lot of grief and start your training now.

Number two: Crazy is contagious. If someone is making you feel like you’ve lost your mind, or if a challenge causes you to doubt your competence, stop, step back, and look at things from a distance. I guarantee you’ll see that the crazy-maker was the one who’d gone off the reservation, and the task that stumped you was itself fundamentally flawed. Learn to spot this early and you won’t exhaust yourself trying to please the unpleasable, reason with the unreasonable, and achieve the impossible.

Number three: There will always be mean girls – at 13, 33, 53 and 83. Watch out for Christina, the charming Bolivian transfer student who will take you under her manicured, designer-clad wing in high school. She will ditch you on grounds that you’ve “let yourself go” when you gain five pounds freshman year. (If it’s any consolation, she’ll graduate friendless. Actually, there’s no consolation there; schadenfreude is not your style. Go look that up – it’s a great word.)

You should keep your guard up around Grandma. I know, that’s a weird one. She and your mother are going to say (and occasionally shout) some very hurtful things to you in the future, mostly to do with your weight, and those wounds are going to stick with you for a long time. Understand that (a) they really believe they’re helping you, which is why (b) you will never hear an apology on this matter, and yet (c) you will choose not to return the favor when the opportunity presents itself years later. So feel good about being the bigger person. Figuratively speaking. For what it’s worth, they’ll be equally tactless when you become too thin for their liking. My point is, you have a tendency to hold on to pain, so now’s a good time to start learning how to let things go. Which brings me to…

Number four: Behold, one of your favorite nuggets of wisdom: “You are what you can’t let go of.” Since you won't crack that fortune cookie ‘til you’re 31, I'll give you a head start: If someone bullies, belittles, manipulates or alienates you, and you cannot get past it even after he or she is gone from your life, you will – I swear – find yourself doing unto others (and sometimes to yourself) as that abusive nutjob has done unto you. Erasing those people from your mind may seem like the best way to heal, but you have to be brave: Face your experiences, examine your wounds, and take care not to punish the innocent around you. Most of them won’t understand where you’re coming from, they’ll just think you’re a jerk.

Number five: Don’t be afraid to walk away from a relationship. You’re still too young to distinguish between a strong want and a justifiable need, so I understand why you're quick to bend over backward for the acceptance of boys and friends. Of course you deserve their attention, but you should never have to work for it – especially not at the expense of your self-worth.

Remember this; write it down: The ONLY acceptable requirement for the affection of another human being is that you BE YOURSELF.

Friends and boyfriends who build up your self-esteem with one hand and tear it down with the other are feeding their egos with your adoration. You’ll work hard to please them, because you’ve been conditioned that way, but those relationships – like the Silver Diner chili cheese fries of which you are so fond – invariably leave you sick to your stomach and hating yourself. You will have true friends. (Be on the lookout for Leslie, Lior, and your little sister, who hasn’t been born yet.) Note the differences between these fine people and the bullies in friends’ clothing, and therein you will find the meaning of a healthy relationship.

One more thing: Your Dad really gets you. It’ll be a long time before you figure this out, but here will be your first grown-up clue: When you’re 19 and about to board the plane for your junior year abroad, and you’re feeling terrified and shy, and your mother is badgering you to “put on a little lipstick” (sorry, she’ll still be harping on that in 20 years)… Your father will look you in the eye and quietly say, “Don’t worry. You can make it on your merits alone.”

And he will be right.

Friday, March 14, 2008

(written but never posted in 2005)

I'm not fond of this saying but I'm going to use it anyway: These are the people who give Jews a bad name.

There, I said it. I said it and I meant it. And here's why: Unless JaRule was your kid's babysitter once upon a time, he has no business performing at her birthday party. JaRule's business is the six-figure kind. This is a party for a child. Dress it up any way you like; a $500,000 bat mitzvah is in very poor taste.

I'm not unfamiliar with the concept of an overdressed event. I did, after all, grow up in Potomac, Maryland - which boasts more sweet-16 sportscars per capita than any U.S. suburb (next to Bevery Hills). But when it came to my own bat mitzvah my parents declined to jump on the bandwagon, and I've always respected them for it. While they planned a lovely lunchtime party for Labor Day 1988, 600 miles away my best friend was planning her own celebration in a tony Chicago suburb. She remembers her mother's reply when she asked what the theme of the party would be:

"The theme is that you're 13 and we let you live this long." Right on.

Anyway, back to the article. I love this part:

As they performed, Amber stood onstage with them, in a $27,000 Dolce & Gabbana dress, waving to the crowd...

So some 13-year-old pisher in Miami is now the proud owner of a schmatte that could pay down 20% of my mortgage, or better yet put a poor kid through college. Maybe when she outgrows it in six months she can ship it to me; I've been looking for a nice tablecloth. (For the record, my bat mitzvah dress cost $130 and was designed by the powerhouse team of yours truly and the owner of O'Hara's Costume Shop on Rockville Pike.)

Even rock stars who are concerned that they will appear venal or trivial if word gets out can be seduced by pay that can exceed $100,000 an hour. All they have to do is run through a series of familiar songs in front of a small crowd that feels honored just to stand in the same room with them.

Hey - tell you what; I do a jazzy rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" that's a real showstopper. I'll give you the whole Jerome Kern songbook for 500 clams. Even throw in a few Gershwin numbers, no charge. A bargain, no?

If people can afford to do it, it certainly does make a party special," Mr. Ridinger said. "It brings an electricity to it you otherwise couldn't create.
That last part really says it all, doesn't it? "An electricity you otherwise couldn't create." Here's the thing, Mr. Ridinger: You absolutely could create it. In fact, it's your responsibility as the parent of the bat mitzvah girl. This electricity for which you paid so handsomely is supposed to be the by-product of your love for your kid; your pride at her graceful passage through a time-honored coming-of-age tradition. Joy is supposed to be immeasurable on this day. There should be no price tag. But I guess, if pressed, most proud parents would agree that half a million bucks should cover it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I didn't recognize you without your sheitel

Northern Virginia, 1988. My mother is in a furniture store, my eight-month-old brother strapped to her torso in a Snugli or similar such papoose. An older lady - rail-thin and elegantly dressed, not a sterling silver hair out of place - approaches to admire the baby.

"What a beautiful boy," she says, and coos at him until he smiles.

My mother never forgets a face, nor can she pass up an opportunity to play The Jewish Coincidence Name Game.

"You look awfully familiar," Mom says to the woman, "but I can't remember where we've met... Oh - I know! Don't you belong to my synagogue?"

"Well, no, I don't believe so," says the woman, and then warmly extends her hand.

"My name is Ethel Kennedy."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thursday morning my father was getting ready for work when he received a call from a sweet young woman asking for him by first name. The caller ID said "JBL Management" with a 410 area code -- Maryland, the parts away from the city.

"I was hoping," the young lady said with a gentle country lilt, "that you'd be able to perform a Jewish wedding ceremony in October."

My father paused. "Um, I think maybe you've dialed the wrong number, Miss. I'm not a rabbi."

"Oh, I know," she said, "I was looking for a rabbi or a cantor."

"And how exactly did you find me?" my father asked. I wasn't there but I imagine the brusque tone he effects for telemarketers softened then, as he recognized the woman's mistake miles before she'd see the sign. The man has the patience of a saint. Or a father of four.

"Well my boss told me to secure an officiant for our client's wedding -- a rabbi or a cantor, since they're a Jewish couple -- so I did a Google search and found your name."

"I see," my father said. "Well, I am a Cantor, Miss, but unfortunately in name only."

"Oh."

A few seconds into the uncomfortable silence that followed Dad realized the message wasn't getting through.

"What I mean is, 'cantor' and 'rabbi' are job titles, but they can also be names. For example..." I can just imagine my father leaning on his arm against the kitchen counter at this point, settling into the lesson he was about to impart; he does love to teach. He explained that a goldsmith named, say, Joe Rabbi might be the go-to guy to craft her clients' wedding bands, but he would not be qualified to declare them man and wife. Rabbi Joe Goldsmith, however, would be of more use on their wedding day.

The woman thanked my father, hung up the phone and probably scratched a few more names off her list.

I just hope the little bumpkin figures things out before the clients ask her to plan a bris.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Today I celebrated the birth of spring with my first riverside run of the season.

There's something about the late-afternoon sunlight sparkling on the Potomac -- it's like a long, sequined train on an old-Hollywood Bob Mackie gown -- that makes me so aware of my lungs and my heart and my skin and the incredible mechanics of being alive.

Last fall I brought along my camera and strung together a few shots along the way -- Watergate, Kennedy Center, memorials, Corcoran... D.C. really is such a cool city.

click me!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Not one hour after I'd dropped my parents and my grandmother at the airport to catch their flight to Tel Aviv, my mother called me from her cellphone. Before I answered I made a silent bet with myself -- either she was bored, or someone's passport had been left in the kitchen drawer.

Turns out it was neither: Once the reluctant subject (perpetrator) of so many you-just-can't-make-this-stuff-up tales, my mother has evolved into a devoted field reporter, phoning me without delay to describe every blogworthy run-in with store clerks, family members and low-ranking security officials.

"You're gonna love this one," she chuckled. "Take notes."

Apparently, as my family were inching through the airport security check, the inspectors repeated their mantra - "no liquids, no gels, no aerosols" - in the vain hope that some amongst the herd would take initiative and spare them a bit of work and time.

"We were getting closer and closer to the front of the line, and as we were taking off our shoes Grandma started looking a little panicky," Mom said. "Daddy noticed too. So we asked her what in the world was wrong."

"Dey said no aerosols," said Grandma in a worried tone. "I don't know vhat to do. I hev a few in my bag."

"A few? We're only going for a week. It's not even the humid season yet! Just how much hairspray did you think you would need?"

She spat back, "I'm vorried about how I'm goink to valk around all day; who gives a crep about my hair?"

And for a moment the three of them stood there staring at each other, until the light bulb flashed above my mother's head.

"Oh, Ma..." she said through a relieved sigh, "It's fine. You're allowed to bring your Aerosoles on the plane."