Friday, December 30, 2005

After a Christmas Day showing of "King Kong," my family lingers in the theater:

Dad: "How does Skull Island sound for vacation next summer?"

Offspring chuckle at the thought of our father hoisting Mom into the rainforest canopy as an offering to The Beast.

Dad: "Whaddaya think, guys? Would Kong would take her away?"

Me: "Sure. But after a couple days he'd probably be ready to give her back." Then I point a finger at my mother and warn, "You'd better watch your nagging if you want to be returned in the condition you were received."

My brother, in an uncanny imitation of Mom: "Look at this cave! You couldn't clean up for me a little bit?"

Me: "No salt? No garlic? Who eats this way?"

Dad: "It's enough already with the climbing! What can you do up there that you can't do down here?"

Mom ignores the fun-making and turns toward my father with a sweet smile. "Would you do that for me, honey? Climb to the top of the Empire State Building to save my life?"

Dad considers the question, scratching his chin, then shrugs. "Yeah, I guess so. As long as I don't have to schlep you down."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

she's full of holiday spirits

On Christmas Day/Hannukah Eve my grandmother called to wish me a happy holiday. While my half of the conversation was spare -- I generally loathe the phone and tend to clam up when forced to use it -- Grandma rambled on about the Hannukah party her friend was throwing for a new great-grandson that night. She was sort of sad that not all her friends could be there but she planned to go and enjoy herself anyway.

"Some people might sit around and mope, but I'm not the kind to become a shriveled old prune. I choose to be around people. I choose to have fun." This was what came out of her mouth; Her tone, on the other hand, sent a more pointed message: "Your mother told me you decided to skip the Matzo Ball last night. Nice going -- you just bought yourself another year without a man."

(Year after year the Matzo Ball has been at best a disappointment, at worst a spectacular nightmare. Ten years of ex-boyfriends and one-date disasters convene to haunt me on Christmas Eve, rattling about Lulu's bar like the Ghosts of J-Date Past.)

"You know, Grandma, some people can have fun without being party animals," I countered. "Look at me: I like company, but I also need a lot of time alone. And I prefer to be with only one or two people at a time. Crowds make me uncomfortable."

"Well, sure," she said, "that's your choice. You can find yourself one nice young man and be alone with him..."

"No, I was talking about friends. One or two friends, like to sit and have dinner. I'm just saying I don't always enjoy a big to-do."

"Well that's something different!" She was getting louder. "I'm talking about a boy. Why can't you meet someone, get married, have a family? I mean, let's face it--" and then she began to sing off-key -- "the clooooock is tiiiiiick-iiiiinnnnnng, la la la laaaa deeeee daaaaah..."

Had I been paying closer attention I might have realized sooner that I'd been drunk-dialed by my Grandma.

"Conversation over," I said. "Happy Hannukah." Click.

And then I thought, "Nice going -- you just bought yourself another month without a tedious phone call." Happy Hannukah indeed!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

I love Christmas. No, really!

It has come to my attention that the self-portrait I've painted here may not be entirely true to life. I realized it last week when a fellow blogger confessed, as if admitting to a puppy-killing spree or a career in telemarketing, that he is not Jewish. "You may hate me for this," he said, "but... well... I love bacon. There, I said it."

People, people, people... I am not some kind of uber-Jew. Jewish in culture and personality, yes, but my religious observance is spurred only by celebrations, funerals and rare instances of obligation or guilt. Holidays are an excuse to eat something naughty and wear something nice. My dating pool spans the breadth of the world's races and spiritual persuasions.

And I love bacon too.

I do write a lot about being Jewish, and I suppose my cultural identity is partly responsible, but mostly it's just good material. Let's face it: My people are like cartoons. The mothers, the grandmothers, the issues with food... You can't make this stuff up.

In fact -- and you may find this hard to believe in light of my Hannukah poem -- Christmas is my favorite holiday of all. There's something about the smells and the sounds and the warm fuzziness of it all that makes me feel like a small child in footie pajamas, wrapped in an oversized quilt.

Every year when I was a small child my Grandma escorted me to Santaland at Macy's department store in Manhattan. It was the pinnacle of my year. I was intoxicated by the smell of pine, the merry elves, the warm, glittering lights and ornaments and tinsel I'd never experienced at home. And candy -- there was always so much candy.

On my third Christmas -- 1978 -- we sat in the front of a mostly empty bus on our way from Queens to 34th Street. Maybe the driver liked my curls, or my wide-eyed excitement, or my Grandma (she was a real knockout back then)... Perhaps he was just having a long and lonely day. Whatever the reason, he was hell-bent on conversation.

"Are you going to visit Santa, little girl?" he asked me sweetly.

I sat silent and played with the rings on Grandma's hand.

"Have you been to the North Pole before?"

I tugged at my mittens and didn't answer.

"What are you going to ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?" He was a patient man, I'll give him that.

I stared out the window while we went on like this for a dozen blocks or so, the bus driver lobbing festive queries across the aisle and me playing deaf and dumb, until finally I leaned against my grandmother, cupped my little mitten around my mouth and whispered, "Grandma, I don't think he knows we're Jewish."

In December the following year, I came home from the small church where I attended nursery school (my Mom was the music teacher there; it made sense at the time) eager to share the story I'd learned in class that day: The Tale of Baby Cheeses. Throughout December and into the new year I recounted the miracle to anyone who would listen. Needless to say, my version was...a little off, but people seemed to find it entertaining still.

That was the year the Bensons moved into the white columned house up the street. They had one little girl the same age as me, and a boy about a year older than my baby brother. We were all fast friends. The Bensons were from Oklahoma; their traditions, canned chicken soup and charming Southern lilts opened up an exciting new world to me -- especially since I had yet to enter the public school system and shake my Forest Hills accent. When Jennifer caught sight of the menorah glowing in my kitchen it was the first time I'd heard the word "purdy." When I was greeted at the door by her cockerspaniel, Cookie, it was the first time she'd heard the word "dawg." One year my brother got antsy about his Hannukah presents and enlisted his buddy to investigate the scene: Little Stephen, slick as Bond, sauntered up to my mother and asked, "So, uh... what's Matthew getting for Jewish this year?"

I'll distract the Mommies; You start looking for the G.I. Joes.

Matt and I were always invited to help trim the Bensons' tree. Hour after blissful hour we lifted delicate baubles and figurines from their cardboard cradles and listened, rapt, to the sentimental history behind each one. While my family lit candles that burned in the kitchen for an hour or two, the Bensons' entire home twinkled and glowed from the moment the sun went down and long into the night. Their house smelled like eggnog, mine smelled like grease and potatoes. We had an eight-inch menorah, they had an eight-foot tree. At seven years old, where would you want to be? They had to kick me out each night when it was time to go to bed.

Since then I've developed a deeper fondness for the traditions of my own wintertime holiday. (Though it's not widely known that Hannukah is barely a blip on the radar in other countries around the world. American consumerism made a mountain out of that molehill.) But I will never shed my love for Christmas, and tomorrow morning I'll celebrate with special touches to my Sunday breakfast: a dash of cinnamon in my French toast; a dash of nutmeg in my French roast; and of course, a sweet, smoky slab of bacon to round out the meal.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

if a mug falls in the kitchen and the grouchy man downstairs isn't around to hear it, does he still get pissed?

This morning my favorite mug shattered all over the kitchen floor. (Because I dropped it; I should take ownership of that part. I'm the klutz.) It was more like a bowl with a handle, really; round, the color of cranberries, roughly the size of my head. It cradled my breakfast cereal every single morning for the last three years. I loved this mug because it understood that the average cereal bowl could not accomodate my morning appetite; It rose to this challenge day after day without ever losing its kiln-fired shine.

This is not a great tragedy. The mug had little sentimental value, just the merits of its perfect size and the fact that it took the guesswork out of breakfast. Usually my Weight Watchers®-brand OCD dictates that I measure every grain to be consumed. But the mug had rendered measuring cups nearly obsolete: When Special K crested the rim, the cereal was poured; When milk peeked through the flakes, it was time to dig in.

I've always been a believer in fate and omens. Maybe this incident is a wake-up call for me to examine the routines in my life. Or start wearing shoes in the kitchen. Or eat a little less at breakfast. Deciphering that hidden message will be a project for the weekend; In the meantime I'll simply count my blessings. The mug could have been full, after all, and while I'm not the type to cry over spilled milk, it would have been a real bitch to mop pottery shard soup from my kitchen floor. And the sight of a head-sized bowl of cereal going to waste -- delicious, nutritious, munchy, chewy cereal, my most favoritest thing in the whole wide world -- that might've been more than I could bear.

So my glass is half full. Because my mug was empty. And if I don't dredge up some decent blog material soon I'm going to have to start writing about my love life. Then we'll all have something to cry about.

(In memoriam: Faithful Cereal Mug, 2002 - 2005. Rest in Pieces, old friend.)
I feel like I just spent three hours backstage at Lilith Fair.

What a treat to meet some new guys at the December blogger meetup, and to see again a couple more. But this one... this one was for the girls. I had the divine pleasure of schmoozing with some of the most delightful women, the most gifted writers, I may ever know. Ladies, you are all rock stars to me. (You too, even though you weren't there. Or were you.....?)

It was surreal, sublime and incredibly difficult to be surrounded by these women I've been so anxious to meet. I likened it to having a dozen browser windows open at once; So much information to take in, plus too much noise, activity and smoke (it drives me to distraction) to concentrate on anyone for more than a second at a time. A ladies' lunch may be in the works, which would thrill me to no end because there's so much I want to know about all of you and I just couldn't focus enough to ask the right questions tonight, let alone fully absorb your answers.

This feels a bit like the aftermath of a first date. Was I too awkward? Did I talk too much? Did I talk enough? Could they tell I was nervous? Was there a booger in my nose? Why can't we just skip this part and get to the comfort zone? God, I hope they call.

In related news, Sunday afternoon marked my sixth annual Girls' Nite holiday gathering. Every few months since 1999, six former co-workers have assembled to eat, drink and be our fabulous selves. The venue may change -- we take turns hosting -- but always there are cocktails, home-cooked meals and, at holiday time, an exchange of small, creative, meaningful gifts.

Grape juice and vodka: heaven in a martini glass.

The Girls were amazed by my bottomless capacity for love and Nicoise salad.

This year I made little Harry & David-inspired goodie boxes,

and wrapped them up with pretty bows. (Details, details!)

Guess who gave out this goodie. Go on, guess.

These Girls and I, we've seen each other through some major life changes; forces of growth and destruction, bliss and pain. All of us -- the wives, the mothers and the steadfastly single -- are powerfully independent. Conversations may touch on shopping and skincare but typically steer toward home improvement and retirement funds. From the outside we don't seem to have much in common: Our ages, backgrounds, lifestyles and personalities are all over the map. I'd say the same is true of the bloggers I met tonight. And yet we're all bonded, I think, by our love for womanhood and the affirmation we glean from being women together.

This is getting a little schmaltzy and I'm starting to make myself sick, like when I'm forced to watch "The View." I'll close with the lyrics of an appropriately nauseating ditty:

Thank you for being a friend.
Travel down the road and back again.
Your heart is true, you're a pal and a confidant.
And if you threw a party
and invited everyone you kneeeewwwww,
you would see
the biggest gift would be from me
and the card attached would say,
"Thank you for bein' a frieeeennnnnd."
(do-do dooo doo doo dooooooo......)

There, I feel much better now.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Did you catch Bush's address Sunday night? I happened to be watching CBS at that moment, so it was Bob Schieffer who delivered the intro on my TV. I don't know if it was just Schieffer's take on things or if all the networks came off this way, but I was not feeling the standard seriousness.

Usually the anchor barges in: "Oh, were you watching "The Simpsons"? TOUGH SHIT; The president's got something to say. And when he's done, we'll be back to beat the horse for TWO. MORE. HOURS. Don't make any plans."

But this time the tone was almost... apologetic. Schieffer seemed to sigh, "Look, he promised to keep it short this time. You won't miss your shows -- our schmaltzy Christmas movie starts in like 15 minutes, I swear. I'll be back later tonight if you wanna hear my take on the speech. But please, don't feel obligated."

"Look, I know he's an idiot. You know he's an idiot. We all know he's an idiot. Let's just get this over with, okay?"

About three minutes in I switched the channel to UPN, where "Boogie Nights" was in the middle of a scene that was, for all intents and purposes, soft-core porn. It was a long scene, and while there was a good deal of blurring I don't think any content had been cut. Just as my heart was starting to thaw for the ass-backwards, selectively-puritanical networks and their "tits-but-no-nipples / thongs-but-no-butt-cracks" censorship guidelines, they bleeped out the word "cum." Three hours of sex, drugs and bullet wounds, and they're afraid impressionable teens will get in trouble if they let a little "cum" slip by?

I mean... You know what I mean.

(If you laughed at that one, you're on the next bus to hell. I'll save you a seat.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

here's looking at me

Last night I came home to a MySpace message from a man who rides my evening bus home.

"I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time," he wrote, "and today fate walked into my office." He went on to say one of his co-workers had been tooling around on this "MySpace" website he'd never heard of and suddenly my face was on the screen. So he set up a profile and sent me an e-mail. "It’s just that I’ve always believed how very nice it would be to know you as more than just the girl on the bus with the pretty red hair."

All this time I was minding my own business on the N2, shuffling through my iPod while I stewed in sweaty gym clothes, and somebody was keeping an eye on me. I should pay attention more; I never know who might be watching.

I've had my own secret crush (or five), most recently the disturbingly handsome man who frequents my favorite lunch joint on M Street. Who knows if I'd have seized an opportunity to reach him had I stumbled across his mug online. In real life, I failed to make the connection.

I think the expectation of privacy – especially among bloggers – has been stretched thin across the Internet. In public spaces like this one we fool ourselves into thinking strangers don't care enough to hunt down any more information than we've extended in our open palms. Or maybe we tell ourselves they're dying to know more when in fact they couldn't care less. Either way, we enjoy a sense of control, false as it may be, that's shaped by how much or how little anonymity we choose to forfeit on our blogs, our Friendster profiles, our MySpace pages and our dating sites.

We may do a lot of living here online, but we still have lives. I ride the elevator with my neighbors, run alongside other members at the gym, zone out on the bus with the same commuters every day. I meander through Whole Foods each week and almost always pass George Stephanopolous in the produce section, or wave to the girl with dreadlocks who works behind the bakery. A community is comprised of citizens, and if you live in a neighborhood long enough you're bound to start recognizing a few. Even those you don't see on TV.

A few months ago I was waiting for the bus after work. And waiting. And waiting.... And after a half hour or so I started to hoof it home. Several blocks along I realized someone was walking next to me, matching me stride for stride. We exchanged a knowing eye-roll -- "Ugh, doesn't DC public transportation suck?" -- and then he blurted, "Don't you work out at Gold's?"

"I used to..." I said, "but I moved to Washington Sports Club, like, a year ago."

"Oh, that would explain why I haven't seen you in the gym lately." Honest to God, I had no idea who this guy was. Which is not so unusual -- I do tend to orbit on my own semi-conscious moon. But even for a space cadet like me -- or maybe particularly so -- it's a little jarring to meet a complete stranger who's familiar with both my face and some element of my life's routine.

We made small talk for a while, discovered we live on the same street and work a couple blocks from one another. We talked about blogging -- he wasn't familiar with the medium and promised to give mine a read. By the time we arrived home three miles later we'd exchanged business cards.

The next day he e-mailed me at work: "It was nice to finally meet you last night and thanks for providing me with evening reading material... I must say that for as long as I have seen you around (year and a half I guess-from my Gold's time) I always took you to be quite shy..." As usual, I'd been engrossed in my own world, oblivious to the fact that I'd been, if not watched, at least seen. And also apparently judged with some accuracy -- from a distance, just by my expression and body language.

Later that day my boss called me into her office as I was on my way out the door. She grinned at me and said, "I think I saw you get picked up last night."

My left eyebrow shot up in surprise. "Oh?"

"Yeah. Tall blonde guy. Cute! You were walking and talking on your way up Mass Avenue while I was stuck in traffic, so I got to watch you for a good fifteen minutes or so. Looked like you were getting along famously."

"Ohmigod, I can't believe you saw that," I breathed.

She chuckled. "I got pretty bored sitting there in my car and I thought about honking, but I figured that was the sort of thing that would've made my kids want to kill me. I didn't want to ruin it for you."

"Thanks, I appreciate that," I said, smirking at the thought of my own mother, who would have honked, pulled over and brewed coffee on the side of the road. ("So... Bobby, is it? What line of work are you in, Bobby? A lawyer, really... Here, have a cookie.")

This Wednesday there's another blogger happy hour at Pharaoh's Bar in Adams Morgan. It'll be my third. At the first I was nervous, and I met a few strangers. At the second I was... less nervous, and I made some acquaintances. This time, I'm excited to share a drink with people I feel are sort of friends. Whether or not I've met them before, they're part of my community. We see each other every day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

like a bowl full of jelly

My weight has always been a complicated issue, but I think I've finally distilled it to a simple matter of choice: I can choose to lift weight, in the form of metal bars and dumbells, for an hour or two each week; or I can choose to wear it, like a subcutaneous snowsuit, every minute of every hour of every single day.

Most of the time -- like 90 percent, give or take -- I'm an obsessively healthy eater. Raw vegetables, lean protein and cereals from the whole-grain hippie aisle are my main dietary staples. While I adore all food and will discuss at great length the sweets and pastas and steaks and cheese that entice me from day to day, I go to great pains to keep them the hell away from my mouth. In theory indulgences are sweet rewards; in practice they breed bitter regret.

Still, lately I suspect... who am I kidding, I know some unsanctioned junk has been sneaking past the bouncer. 'Tis the season, after all, and on top of the usual holiday suspects my Jewish office has been gifted with Israeli chocolates (the best in the world), Zabar's babka (the best in New York), and fried dough in every size, shape and flavor (a tradition at Hannukah time).

A bite here, a nibble there, it adds up. So I've been running 15 miles a week to offset the expansive effects of this most delectable time of year. (Thank you Kayla, Patron Saint of Cardio, who materializes in my doorway each afternoon chirping at me to "Put those sneakers on! Gym's getting crowded! Don't give me the pouty face, I saw you with that muffin today.")

To some degree the strategy has worked... but here's where I hit a snag: My job has lately kept me from my weekly strength training class. Keep in mind, it takes only two weeks for muscles to start breaking down; In twice that time I've fallen victim to a phenomenon known as Sorority Girl Body, which was described to me by a gym instructor like this: "It's, you know, skinnyfat. Like when you look great in your clothes, but then you get naked and everything's just a fucking mess."

Yeah, I'm turning into that girl. Soft, lumpy, round-of-belly and dimpled-of-thigh. Her uniform of denim is more than just stylish; jeans conceal a multitude of sins.

Late nights at the office are done for now; Our big fat fundraiser has been a big fat success, and I'm back in the groove of squats, thrusts and curls. Lessons learned: 1. I can run like a hamster for miles and miles, and it's great for my heart and for burning off carrot cake with sweet glistening raisins and a paper-thin layer of the richest cream cheese icing I ever tasted, it was almost like a glaze, how do they get such intense flavor in there, is it lemon juice......? Sorry. I mean, jogging burns calories, but weight training wards off Cottage Cheese Disease; and 2. Gorgeous golden fried peanut butter-honey-and-banana sandwiches, and warm apple-cherry pie with vanilla bean ice cream and candied pecans, and steaming baskets of cheese fries smothered in five-alarm chili, and melty cheesy meaty doughy yummy yummy pizza... these are but siren songs wafting from the deep fat fryer in my subconscious mind. Resistance is tough, but not futile.

The holidays are here and temptation will chase me as sure as Santa's gonna skip over my chimney Christmas Eve. When willpower fizzles, muscles may triumph.

Failing that, I can always run away.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This poem was the product of a slow day at work in 1998. My mother got her hands on a copy, and that copy begat many more copies, until they'd been spread all across the land, with enough left over for the guests a-gath'ring from far and from wide to bestow their pasta salads and swedish meatballs upon my family's annual Hannukah party buffet. And thus was born the Hannukah tradition in which the eldest child is humiliated before 50 of Mommy's nearest and dearest friends.

This year I think I'll beat her to the punch and embarrass myself; on a global scale, no less. Who's laughing now, Ma? Who's laughing now? (I believe this is what's known as "taking back the night.")

Here's my loving tribute to Christmas -- which is, believe it or not, my favorite holiday of all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

‘Twas the month before Christmas
in Oakton, V.A.
All Halloween costumes
had been stashed away.

Second grade students
sat eating their paste
while Mommies at home
prepared turkeys to baste.

In finest attire
the children were dressed,
with iron-on Rudolphs
adorning their sweats.

Their classroom -- it looked
like the North Pole exploded;
canned snow had been schpritzed
and the windows were coated.

Red and green bows
spiffed up macrame elves,
googly-eyed reindeer
wore cheap metal bells,

tinsel and popcorn
and twinkling lights
swirled 'round push-button Wise Men
that played “Silent Night.”

Trinkets were hung
on the tree by the door,
the branches so heavy
they sagged to the floor.

Boy, when it came to Christmas
they laid it on thick;
‘twas no end in sight
to this holiday schtick.

You'd find nary a dreidle
or latke in sight,
no homemade menorahs,
no candles to light,

just stockings that hung
o’er the blackboard and wall,
the names of the students
glued onto them all.

But one stocking was missing —
belonging to who?
It was little Danielle,
second grade’s only Jew.

Now I send out this message
to all fellow Yids
who felt a bit slighted
when you were just kids:

We Jews have a lot
that most goyim can’t claim --
stuff that puts doilies
and fruitcake to shame.

There are words like meshugenah
mieskeit and tuchas,
and schlemazel,
farklempt and mishpucha.

We never pay retail,
we’re most of us smart,
we know from good food,
we have great taste in art,

our chicken soup heals,
our brisket’s delish,
it’s amazing the stuff
we can make out of fish.

So next time you fancy
a tree filled with chotchkes,
or you wonder if fruitcake
tastes better than latkes,

remember how wonderful
Jewish can be.
I’ve been to the other side;
take it from me.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I've got my muvs to keep me warm

Several months ago my mother joined a local choral group -- a mixed bag of Washingtonians of all ages, walks of life and levels of... ability, united by their common love of song. Mom has been working hard to rope me into singing with them; So far I've resisted a variety of tactics including bribery ("I'll take you shopping after rehearsal..."), threats ("If you're too busy to sing with me once a week then maybe my laundry machines will be too busy to wash your clothes next weekend."), and guilt ("But there's another young woman who comes with her parents -- you're letting us all down!").

Joining wasn't going to happen but I did have an opportunity to listen yesterday afternoon, when the group sang an all-Haydn program at the First Baptist Church on 16th Street. Since I'd never been to a Baptist church or seen this chorus perform, I imagined my tiny blonde mother, clad in a satin robe, clapping enthusiastically like Forrest Gump amidst a throng of black gospel singers. (Once inside I realized I'd been way off base, but still I've tucked the mental picture away for future amusement.)

The rest of my family arrived a few minutes into the first number. My sister plopped down beside me in the polished wooden pew; I was happy to see her so I said a silent "hello" by tilting my head onto her shoulder, where I promptly fell asleep until intermission. A smarter girl would have left time to swing by Starbucks on the way to the church after running out of French Roast that morning. (I'm crippled without my second cup.) Or failing that, I might have spared a moment to pencil green irises on my eyelids so I could snooze through the concert unnoticed. But as usual, I didn't think ahead. (Mom, I was listening, and you sang beautifully. Please stop crying.)

After the performance, as we bundled back into our warm things, my brother looked down at my hands and asked, "What... are those?"

"I'm not sure if they have a name," I said. "I was thinking maybe glittens or muvs, or pawpaws... maybe camel toes? Oh -- no, scratch that one. Shut up, it's not that funny. Lately I've been calling them splittens."

"I see," he said, pressing his lips together.

I continued, "They're warm like mittens, but they allow a little more dexterity -- it's tough to a work an iPod with your all your fingers stuck together. Plus these match my new favorite hat."

My brother looked them over, nodding thoughtfully as he inspected my hands. After a long pause he said, "Interesting design. As far as I can see there's only one drawback." To which I raised my eyebrows -- Yes, and what is that?

"You look completely retarded."

"Josh, that's not true, don't tell her that," my father scolded. Always my hero. "She looks more like a circus freak. Like that Lobster Man we saw on The Learning Channel."

My brother shot me a wicked grin and sneered, "While we're on the subject... Well, I think you ought to be told there's a fuzzy tumor growing out of your head."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

my dog ate all my good material

I realize that lately my blog has been a little lean, and also a bit lame. Since I don't usually talk about work here I've neglected to mention that this is my "busy season," and currently I'm juggling a workload that might be manageable for two and a half fully capable professional artists. But for a lone, self-taught designer with the attention span of a fruit fly, it's proving too much to handle. In the last few weeks I've devolved into a snarling bitch around the office and a zombie at home, so mentally exhausted at night I can scarcely form one complete sentence, let alone string a few together into a cohesive anecdote.

The pressure at work has been building and yesterday I snapped, just briefly, and spent four and a half cathartic minutes under my desk in the fetal position, weeping into the collar of my peacoat. (My desk is awesome for hiding -- the front panel goes all the way down to the floor.) Afterward I felt much better and went back about my business. Things should ease up after today.

On an unrelated note: I was watching "Nature" on PBS last night (as I often do, since I chose a gym membership over Cable TV and there's not a lot to see on the networks these days), and I think this year for Hannukah I'd like a capuchin monkey. They're just so precious. Also they seem intelligent and dexterous, and I could really use some help around the house. I bring this up because live monkeys are apparently unavailable on and thus cannot be added to my wishlist. (An Amazon search for "monkey" turned up, among other things, Donkey Kong Country 3 for Game Boy and Anti-Monkey Butt Powder Anti-Friction Plus Sweat Absorber. Personally I'm a Johnson's baby powder girl, but I find the banana-yellow package design quite appealing.)

Actually I understand monkeys are not so easy to come by: I've got a friend who traveled through India and Asia after college. When I ran into his mother at a holiday party she told a shocking tale in which my friend's neck was slashed by a broken bottle in a Nepalese bar fight. "They missed his artery by this much," she said with her fingers pinched together. A couple years later I repeated this to the slashee and he said, "Jesus, why does she always tell that story? She never mentions that I managed to buy a car and drive all the way to China with a monkey in the passenger seat. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a monkey?" Maybe it's just the way he said it, but every time I think about that conversation I laugh out loud. Indignation by itself is amusing; demanding respect for successful procurement of a primate -- to me, that's comedy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Although I am an American girl, I can honestly say I've never experienced a traditional American Thanksgiving. In my family there is no such thing as pumpkin pie. Giblets are a suburban myth. Stuffing belongs inside a teddy bear, not a turkey, and cranberries dance across our holiday table in a quivering ring my Grandma calls a "jelly mold." From our cornucopia spills a Jewish bounty of chopped liver, kasha varnishkes, brisket and cholent (that's my Grampa's legacy of beef, lima beans, potatoes, barley, garlic and schmaltz). Don't bother looking for recipes; They're all variations on a theme of meat, starch and fat. No fiber, no veggies. These foods were the building blocks of my culture. Literally: I think they used leftovers as bricks and spackle in the old country.

cholent will keep you warm at night, one way or another

One such meal is manageable, but after a couple days we're all suffering from... sort of a trade imbalance, if you will. Not to mention this stuff really fills your gas tank. The long ride home, uh, passed as it always does: argue, argue, gossip, argue -- “Alright, who did it?” -- bicker, complain, insult, chuckle -- “Damnit! Again?" -- joke, bicker, punchbuggy -- "Jesus Christ, open the goddamned window!” -- and finally a tripping, clawing race from the garage to my parents' downstairs bathroom. I promised not to point the finger at anyone in particular, but I will say this: I'll think twice before I bully a certain sibling of mine into the middle seat -- the one farthest from the window -- for another lengthy car ride. Payback is a bitch.

Every year I make this trip, and every year I moan that it's a pain in the ass with the driving and schlepping and missing a day of work. But I wouldn't skip it, not for all the stuffing in the world. After a few days of loving squabbles and gastrointestinal distress with the 15 crazy New Yorkers collectively known as "The Cousins," I leave with my gut heavy and my heart light, and I feel restored. Traditional Thanksgiving I can take or leave, but I'm definitely thankful for tradition.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

some days in the life

As I get older and years tick by, I notice that certain dates start to take on a personal significance, sort of like a holiday just for me. For example, on January 20th my first period started (at age 12), Dr. K cemented braces to my teeth (when I was 13), and he pried them off (exactly two years later). So I've come to associate the date with coming of age, and I find it comforting that the guiding force in my life seems to be on some kind of schedule.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving is another one I've come to anticipate because history indicates that something exciting -- for better or for worse -- is a little more likely to happen on that day.

Seven years ago today was the first time I broke a bone (unless you count my nose when I was 17, but, um, that wasn't exactly an accident). I was living in my first post-college apartment, a three-bedroom duplex I shared with Ryan -- a rich kid who worked for his Dad and brought strippers home on the weekends -- and Anna -- a girl so dumb that when I told her my tale of breast reduction surgery to stop her complaining about her little mosquito bites, she nodded sympathetically and said, "Oh, right, I remember you mentioned you're lactose intolerant..." But my roommates weren't home that night, and my parents were already on their way to pick me up for the drive to New York, so after I tripped over my Thanksgiving suitcase and fell with my foot turned under I could only sit and wait, and turn the TV up loud enough to drown out the "crack" that had issued from my ankle and was now echoing inside my head. It still makes me shudder. My mother didn't want to take me to the hospital; We were already off to a late start and my ankle wasn't swollen to her satisfaction. But I put my (other) foot down and even though the ankle did turn out to be broken, the satisfaction of that irrefutable "I Told You So" really took the edge off the pain. For the next six weeks I told people I'd been injured wrestling in jello.

Three years later, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2001, was the first time I learned what it meant to make love. No, it wasn't the first time I'd had sex, but it was the first time I slept with the first man I loved, and I honestly felt so deliriously in over my head I couldn't even remember the person I'd been before we met. (Not so healthy, I know, but I was young and foolish and it was exhilarating at the time.) On Monday -- the day before -- we'd finally admitted we were head-over-heels crazy for one another. Tuesday was our first night together and I declared it the best sex I'd ever had simply because I was so damned happy. Wednesday morning I left for my annual pilgrimage to New York (pardon the pun) and on Thursday, just before Thanksgiving dinner, he called my cellphone to say, "I'm running out the door but I had to tell you that I love you and I miss you terribly." And seriously, I thought my heart would burst.

And finally, there's this: On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving two years ago, I moved into my condo. Not the first time I'd lived alone, but the first home I ever owned. (And so far the only one; I'm still here.) My relationship with S had ended a few months earlier, just before we were set to move into the apartment he'd bought for us. (This is an experience I liken to being kicked off the Titanic just before it left port.) I was between jobs while we were dating, so I'd spent a great deal of time making our new apartment feel like a home. I took particular care designing the kitchen. I love to cook, so I'd be spending a lot of time in there, plus I'd always wanted a black-and-white tile floor like a 1950s diner. Oh, the lengths I went to pulling that place together. I met with S's contractor, spent days tracking down the best tile store... It was a labor of love. For the apartment, really, not so much for him; I'm a sucker for a corner unit. And then we split up on the second day of my new job, and I -- emboldened employee of a women's empowerment organization, champion of economic security for chicks everywhere -- informed S that I would simply buy a place of my own. To which he guffawed, "You're not buying shit."

Oops, look at the time! I'm running late so I'll let this picture tell the rest of the story for me:

Eat my glazed ceramic dust.

I'm off now to celebrate another Thanksgiving with my family in the (other) Land of the Jews, Flushing, New York. Since Grandma only just signed up for touch-tone dialing, I think it's safe to assume WiFi will be out of the question for the next three days. But I'll be back home on Saturday with a couple amusing anecdotes or at least photos of some Jewish holiday food that'll make you either drool on your keyboard or wretch in disgust, depending on your nutritional leanings. I should be finished digesting sometime next week.

Have a brilliant holiday, everyone. I'm really going to miss you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I took this picture on Sunday while one of my oldest friends was visiting from out of town. Huddled over my camera's tiny viewfinder -- just like we used to crouch over Jennifer's Easy-Bake Oven -- I declared that "We still look like a couple of kids," and promised to e-mail the image as soon as I got home.

An hour later I was staring at the picture on my 15-inch screen and my eyes were drawn to... my eyes. To creases I'd never noticed. Real, grown-up, been-around-the-block, I-know-how-to-walk-in-heels, let-me-show-you-how-to-work-that-power-drill, I-don't-need-a-boyfriend-but-I'll-take-you-as-my-lover creases. I was mesmerized. I adored them instantly.

Is this odd? Aren't women supposed to rue the day their wrinkles arrive? Is this my cue to toss the soap-n-sunscreen regimen and start using words like "collagen" and "peel"? I'm sure I'd feel differently if I'd noticed, say, a sagging neck or train tracks across my forehead (all in good time). But there's something about that crinkle in the corner of my eye that lends a deep, rich texture to my self-expression. It substantiates my stories. Punctuates my jokes. Implies all the empathy, passion, warmth, lust and joy I've always struggled to convey. A prism to refract the twinkle in my eye, an ornament that gilds the window to my soul... This, right here, is character, and it only deepens with age. What in the world is not beautiful about that?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The introvert went out

...and made some friends.

There was another blogger happy hour at Pharaoh's in Adams Morgan tonight, and this time more than five people came. It was more like eight or ten or so -- I'm not sure exactly, I spent most of the night at one end of the bar clinging to Merujo, ostensibly because I don't like crowds but also because, well, she's cool as shit and tells awesome stories.

Frank was there -- I just adore Frank, such a sincere and interesting guy -- and he brought a copy of his new book. Buy it. It's beautiful.

And you were there. And you, and you -- who apparently work in my office building and ride the elevator with me from time to time. Small world.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how the Internet is growing simultaneously broader and more intimate, and I remarked that it's the natural progression of things for a space or an entity -- like the blogosphere -- to reach a certain size and then start to divide. And later that day AJ said something about bloggers tending to run in the same circles; After clicking around a bit beyond my usual haunts I'm inclined to say that's true. Our universe has become so vast that in order to manage it we've broken off into our own solar systems -- some defined by geography, others by interests, and others by a common readership that almost sorta makes us... friends. I'll drink to that. Actually, I just did.

See you at the next meetup.
Mom was a little upset about my "free soup" post last week... She thought I crossed the line and she gave me an earful about it, though her criticism makes me wonder just how carefully she was reading.

"Jesus, Danielle," she was almost in tears, "I'm not saying there isn't a grain of truth in there, but you made me out to be some kind of criminal. I mean, you called me a pillager. How am I supposed to feel about that?"

"No, Mom, I said 'pilfer.' I said you pilfered pastries. It's not the same thing."

"Oh. Ok, that's not so bad."

Sunday, November 13, 2005

rack 'n my brain

Not long ago I was ribbing a friend with my typical knowitallism -- "Duh, don't you know you need a sponge to seal grout?" "It's nook-lee-ur, not nook-you-lur!" -- when he sighed deeply and said, "Sheesh, girl, you're not easy to impress."

Really, not true. Smart people -- like this friend -- dazzle me all the time; It's actually me who wants to impress. I have this awful habit of trying to prove I'm as intelligent as the company I keep. I'm afraid if I relax too much in conversation, if I let my A Game slide, someone might think me stupid.

I am neurotic, it's true, but in this case there's an explanation: Until I was 18 or so I didn't realize I was smart. I didn't think I wasn't smart, I knew I was bright enough, and I don't mean to suggest now that I'm some great undiscovered mind of my time... It's possible my Mensa card is lost in the mail, but for now let's assume I'm an average girl with a good head on my shoulders. Unfortunately I was in college before it occured to me that what I thought or said might be of interest to anyone not related to me or paid to listen.

Why so unsure? Two reasons: The breast on my left, and the breast on my right.

Stop laughing, boys, this is serious. I hope you glean a lesson from this story, one that informs both the way you interact with women and the way you teach your sons to do the same.

Excessively large breasts skipped a generation in my family -- skipped right over my mother and landed with all their crushing weight directly on top of me. By the time I was 15 I had my grandmother's bosom. Literally. Eight out of ten people would not have been able pick mine from a lineup of busty old maids. I didn't jog or booty-dance (as was the style in those days). I wore a tank top at the beach. Maintained a strict over-the-shirt policy when it came to second base. I wouldn’t even consider undressing for a boy, no matter how cute he was or now sweetly he wooed me. I could scarcely stand to be naked alone.

Boys my age sometimes teased but usually they avoided me or gawked from afar. On the other hand, older men made it their business to leer, approach, conduct entire conversations with my chest. The lack of eye contact stunted my self-esteem, I think. In my formative years -- a time when strangers' judgment trumped parents' pride in shaping my sense of self -- I was just learning what my assets were and how I was supposed to use them. I thought if my measurements were all anyone noticed, maybe they were all I had to offer. Eventually I replaced attempts at witty banter with tight shirts, short skirts, and longer, blonder hair; People expected a bimbo, so a bimbo I would be.

This charade served me for a while but still there was no denying my breasts were a problem. They spilled out of bras, bumped into strangers, knocked over water glasses and announced my presence by entering a room just before me. I tried not to be self-conscious but it was a losing battle: They were always a step ahead. I was always a step behind.

My back ached. My shoulders were strained. Physically, sexually, emotionally, my body was holding me back. I was fortunate to have options, and I think you can understand the choice I made:

Bound and wrapped like Yentl the morning after surgery, I took a few deep breaths and peeked beneath my hospital gown. My body felt light and it looked so small... It was the first time I’d seen my lap since I was 12. That was when it hit me how much my life was going to change.

Bit by bit I tasted sweet freedom: I strolled into Victoria's Secret and picked a bra straight off the rack. I auditioned for -- I danced in -- "A Chorus Line" with a community summer theater. When the cast went skinnydipping, I joined in the fun. At college parties with boys I showed off nothing but my wits, and to my surprise they listened and laughed when I made conversation. They saw me as smart. They saw me as funny. They saw me. And the first time one of them asked clumsily, "Are you wearing colored contacts or are those your real eyes?" I blushed and swooned and said, "Wow, that's the sweetest thing anyone ever said to me."

So you see, my smart friend who cannot pronounce "nuclear" but amazes me nonetheless, I'm pretty easy to impress. All you have to be is yourself.

Monday, November 07, 2005

free soup for you!

Are you familiar with the term finagler? It's Yiddish, referring to a person who skirts the rules, circumvents the system to get what she wants. A person like -- come on, you know who I'm talking about -- a person like... my mother!

Oh, that Mom of mine. When she's not hatching a harebrained scheme she's seizing an opportunity to bamboozle and dupe. If I had a nickel for every time Dad declared she had some 'splainin to do... It's no coincidence my cellphone plays the theme from I Love Lucy whenever she calls.

My siblings and I still laugh about our trips to the multiplex when we were younger. It was always an exercise in sneaking in -- from the contraband popcorn and candy Mom would pour into the "feed bag" at home, to the Under-12 movie passes she continued to buy after our bar mitzvahs had long since passed. "I thought I told you to shave this morning," she'd scold my younger brother. "Now go stand behind that pole while I buy the tickets. Hello, one adult and two children, please."

For higher forms of art, my mother promises theater companies a "review" in her entertainment agency's client "newsletter" and widespread word of mouth (on which, I must admit, she has always delivered). Being in the business has paid off: In the last 20 years she's wangled press tickets to every play, concert, opera and ballet to pass through D.C. And for this I cannot criticize. I've been treated to dozens of shows, often seated in the center of the third or fourth row, and it cost me only a few paragraphs of critical acclaim pulled out of my ass, printed on letterhead and faxed with gratitude to the marketing office at the Kennedy Center. Better still, our press packet usually comes with an invitation to the opening-night cast party. That little bonus once led to a fling with a guy in the cast of STOMP.

As finagling relates to foodstuffs, it's pretty much what you'd expect: A bushel of bruised tomatoes from the farmer's market that my mother graciously offered to take off someone's hands ("They were just going throw them away! Can you believe that? Tomato soup for dinner!"); a platter of leftover desserts from the luncheon/wedding/fundraiser of the week; the obligatory dinner rolls wrapped in a napkin and stuffed in her purse "fuh lata"... My Mom is the patron saint of leftovers, rescuing orphaned pastries wherever she goes.

These tactics and behaviors were not developed late in life; over several decades my mother has collected an impressive CV of season tickets and seven-course meals. But I think it was this one encounter -- an inspiring (and admittedly innocent) orchestration of chutzpah and opportunism -- that finally earned her an honorary PhD in Stickin' It To The Man:

Last year during an afternoon at a local shopping mall, my mother stopped by the food court for a bite to eat. She stood before the Chinese buffet a while, contemplating which three entrees to choose for her lunch-deal combo meal. After a few minutes the man behind the counter grew impatient and offered a suggestion to speed things along.

"Here," he said, "you try taste. Orange Chicken." With a toothpick he speared a sticky nugget of fried batter and handed it across the sneeze guard. My mother popped it in her mouth and grimaced as if she'd bitten into a rancid lemon. (Now is a good time to mention that, while Mom's mental filter was never reliable, in recent years it's disintegrated completely, leaving behind a veritable waterslide for all her thoughts and expressions -- the good, the bad, the ugly.)

Understandably, the man was miffed. He turned to a woman ladling soup from a kettle and muttered something in an Asian language that made her chuckle. Which Asian language was anybody's guess; just because these two were selling Chinese food doesn't mean they were Chinese. You can be sure my mother had no idea.

But that didn't stop her from blurting, "You know what? I speak Chinese, and I know what you just said about me, and I don't appreciate it one. single. bit."

She planted her hands on her hips and stood there, unblinking, daring them to call her bluff.

Half a minute stretched into eternity while my mother stared down this quivering wisp of a man. There was no sound but air whistling through the vent overhead, no movement but the tiny bead of sweat that trickled down his forehead. The soup lady dropped her ladle and scurried to the kitchen through the swinging double doors, like she was runnin' from trouble at the O.K. Corral. I'm pretty sure a tumbleweed dusted by.

Finally the man crumpled; his jaw dropped open and out gushed a string of apologies in broken English. "So sorry lady!" he wailed over and over. "You take hot sour soup! No charge! On the house!" He shouted for the woman cowering behind the kitchen window and she filled a large container in one fell swoop.

"Well, okay..." my mother scowled. She grabbed the soup, slapped a few napkins on her tray -- extra hard, for emphasis -- and started to turn away from the counter.

And then, just as everyone started to relax and breathe again, my mother whipped back around and barked,


(and they say there's no such thing as a free lunch in this town...)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I've been blessed with good jeans

Last week I visited and spent a disgusting amount of money on denim -- a purchase made only a bit less profane by the vanity sizing which allows me to wiggle into jeans a full size smaller than I usually wear and zip them without incident. ("Incidents" may include, but are not limited to, broken nail, bruised hipbone, ruptured spleen and/or collapsed fallopian tube.)

Vanity sizing is a bonus, but what made this purchase worth all my lunch money was the style: After years of searching, I had finally tracked down the elusive SAJs -- Spectacular Ass Jeans. (Triumphant sidenote: They don't look so hot on the model 'cause she doesn't fill them out.) I don't know what's in this denim -- maybe it's woven from magical fairy thread on an enchanted loom, or infused with the soul-essence of angels who drop by the Banana Republic manufacturing plant on their way to heaven -- but it creates the illusion of the keister of my dreams: Round and firm, more like a butt double in a J. Lo video than, say, a stand-in for the title character in "James and the Giant Peach."

Upon successful zipping of the new jeans I twisted around before the mirror, gasping at this sublime rear-end that resembled a distant, exotic cousin of my own. In that moment I was stirred by ambivalence -- part guilt, part glee -- which I later recognized as the simultaneous terror and exhiliration that comes from realizing you've just put one over on God. ("What tuchus? The one you bestowed upon me? I have no idea what you're talking about, you must have me confused with my sister. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm needed on the set and Ms. Lopez doesn't like to be kept waiting.")

Maybe God won't smite me for writing this post, but I wouldn't be shocked to wake up tomorrow with a few extra Pounds of Punishment upon my bum. But it's all good! I've got five pairs of SAJs in a size that, even if it isn't honest, makes me feel so very svelte. I plan to rotate them throughout the week again and again and again until the day I die, at which time you may bury me in one pair and line my coffin with the rest because in these jeans I have a Spectacular Ass, and ain't nobody gonna take that away from me.

Friday, October 28, 2005

a portrait of the artist as a young 'un

Possible explanations for the Liberace suit: 1) Everyone looked like a gay musician in 1982; 2) I thought I'd try Christmas on for size; 3) I was preparing to run away and join the circus (not the first time, not the last); 4) this getup was a hand-me-down from one of the clowns who worked the birthday party circuit for my mother's entertainment agency. Really there's no excuse for this outfit; let's just throw it on the what-was-I-thinking pile and walk away. As for the haircut: My mother claimed it was "chic" and "French." She's always been obsessed with French stuff, I think that's why she named me Danielle. I still can't stand to hear my name issue from her mouth or my own, but enough men have cooed, growled and whispered it to dissuade me from becoming a Jennifer or Samantha.

But this is not about my French name or my red polyester jumpsuit or the haircut that necessitated daily earrings until I sprouted breasts and people stopped mistaking me for a Daniel. It's about my relationship with the piano. Recently I was inspired to start playing again after a year-long hiatus, and I was relieved to discover that I've still got it, even if I'm a little rusty. I guess after 23 years the music is embedded so deep in my subconscious, even if my brain forgets a few bars my fingers can pick up the slack.

I was seven years old when I first was plunked before the upright Wurlitzer in my parents' living room. At that age I was painfully aware of my differentness in the Northern Virginia community where we lived; I was the only Jew in my class, the only girl with cropped hair and strange green eyes and a bedtime ritual that often included falling asleep to the Puccini duets my mother and her opera friends rehearsed in the living room downstairs. Some part of me knew that embracing classical music in the second grade would widen the gap between my classmates and me, but my desire to fit in was not as great as my yearning to become a bona fide musician.

It took only a few lessons for the flashcards to sink in and pretty soon I was reading music and playing "Wheels" at breakneck speed. "Where's the fire?!" my mother would shout, stomping in from the kitchen to slow me down. She meant to scold but couldn't help grinning at the sight of me, brow furrowed in concentration, fingers dancing across the keys, little feet dangling inches above the pedals. After a year, once my legs had grown longer and my parents were sure it'd be worth the investment, a 1906 Steinway baby grand arrived in our house. It was beautiful like a movie star, all smooth curves and polished shine. Eighty-eight copper wires tensed precisely for the perfect pitch. Eighty-eight ivory keys, elegant as a string of pearls. It was the first time I fell in love.

The Steinway had what's called a "stiff action": The keys didn't feel loose like a new Yamaha, they demanded that my fingers work hard and responded with rich, resonant tones. Within a few months my hands had grown strong and nimble. "Look at those instruments!" gasped one new piano teacher, marveling at the long fingers that must have looked out of place on a little girl's arms.

Once I'd settled into my relationship with the Steinway my teacher began to introduce The Men: At age nine I discovered Bach and Mozart; by ten I was flirting with Handel; and then, finally, Chopin arrived in my life. Frederic Chopin, my beloved, my soul mate. I started with his simpler waltzes and worked up to the nocturnes. The concertos were out of my reach but I fantasized about them often (with full orchestra).

My grandmother always said I understood Chopin's music best because we were both Polish. "It's the passion," she would declare with her chin held high, and point out that the "Oriental" kids who won all my piano competitions didn't know from passion. "They play like machines." (Tact has never been my grandmother's strong suit. Her entire view of world is colored by stereotypes and she fails to see the irony.)

Year after year I was schlepped to a statewide piano competition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Year after year, through guilt and promises of extravagant Hanukah presents, I was made to play. And year after year I won the number-two spot, which was just fine by me. I hated to compete. Actually I hated to perform at all; I just wanted to make music. But the validation was important to my parents -- it was, after all, their investment that paid for my education and the stunning instrument that few other 12-year-olds had the privilege to call their own.

A different young pianist claimed first prize at each competition I entered. Except for one they were all Asian-American kids. I suppose it was a matter of culture: Their parents had instilled in them a discipline that just wasn't part of my family dynamic. They practiced two and three hours a day and turned out technically flawless performances for which they deserved nothing less than a true blue ribbon. Honestly I felt a little guilty; my performance was never perfect. It was sort of a travesty that I came in even a distant second after I'd practiced for 20 or 30 minutes each day before sliding quietly off the piano bench in pursuit of books or television or something to eat. My grandmother insisted that even though I missed a few notes here and there the judges took a shine to me because I could feel the music. "You play it from here," she'd say, pointing her tiny index finger into the middle of my chest. Be that as it may, I wasn't above learning from my peers. From my seat in that sterile conservatory classroom I admired my competitors' brand of passion -- more precise than mine but equally artful -- and it always inspired me to go home, plant myself in front of the keys and really get to work.

At least until snack time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

there's no assistive listening device for the selectively hearing-impaired

Mom: So when is your article coming out in the Washington Post?

Me: What article?

Mom: The article about the cookies.

Me: I didn't write any article.

Mom: You said you were writing a review of that cookie recipe you made with B a couple weeks ago.

Me: I said we were testing the recipe.

Mom: But you were going to write about it. And it would be published. You said so.

Me: No, I said our names would be mentioned. All we had to do was tell the food people at the Post if the cookies tasted good.

Mom: I don't know why you're so afraid to promote yourself. Just tell them you'll write the article, I'll bet they're dying to have young people do some writing for them.

Me: It's a paragraph, Mom, not an article. And they already have people to do writing for them. They're a newspaper.

Mom: (deep sigh...) Fine. Just sit there and play with your blog all day. See where it gets you.

I cannot win.

Here's the recipe, not in the Post (don't know when that's coming out) but the one in Leite's Culinaria Update is the same, I recognized the photo. Sure, I could have iced mine to resemble precious little lime wedges like the ones in the cookbook, but honest to God people, who has the time? Do you own a piping bag? If you did, would you know how to use it? I didn't think so.

The cookies really are divine, with or without the icing. Don't try to roll the dough without parchment or wax paper, it's very sticky.

Enjoy, and save a couple for me.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Most of today was spent designing a book for my organization's newest domestic abuse program, which included a section of quotes from battered Jewish women. None of them were terribly dramatic; actually they were quite concise and matter-of-fact, which somehow made them even more powerful. I've met most of these women before - spoken to them at the domestic violence conferences we run every couple years - but to see their stories in stark black and white, sitting alone in my office with no distractions, that brought it home for me.

At first I was sad. And then angry. And then I started to shake a little because I remembered how easily it could have been me.

Our first inclination is to shake a finger at these women and ask, "How could you let it happen? Why didn't you just walk out the door?" We don't understand that it's impossible to see a situation as a "situation" when you're looking at it from the inside. Good God, I thought again and again today, it could have been me. I am so strong, so aware, my take-no-crap policy is so firm... and still it could have been me.

All the times my ex-boyfriend S snapped at me for singing in the car, when he squeezed my arm too tight and pulled me too hard while we were crossing the street, when he put me down with subtle comments only someone tuned into my deepest insecurities would know to use... His explosive, hair-trigger temper with strangers in shops, at the movies, on the street. The way he pushed and manipulated me the first time we had sex - I never said "no," but I didn't really have a chance to say "yes." Even when he would tickle me too hard and too long until I couldn't breathe, until I was begging him to stop. And of course there was the biting. Beneath all his affectionate gestures was an undercurrent of resentment and anger that came up slowly as our relationship wore on. From the outside it was a clear pattern of aggression -- made worse, I think, by the fact that he was nearly twice my size -- but at the time, in the thick of it, I couldn't see the forest through the trees. I wanted so much to make us work.

S works in law enforcement, and while we were dating he was involved in prosecuting a man who brutally murdered his girlfriend. I saw the photos; it was horrific. In the months he spent preparing the case S would wonder aloud, over and over, "I just can't understand how a man could do a thing like that." The more I got to know him the more I could hear what he really was saying: "I understand how a man could do a thing like that. I could do a thing like that, and I hope to God I never will." I think he finally broke up with me because he realized what he was capable of and it terrified him.

So why didn't I leave? Why did I try harder and harder to make it right when I should have just walked out the door? The same reasons all women stay: We had as many good times as bad and he could be so sweet, so charming. My family adored him. I adored his family. I felt responsible for him, almost maternally so, and I thought that with enough nurturing I could lead him to the inner peace he so desperately wanted to find.

And there was his dream of this "perfect life": With his connections (he had many) and my...whatever he thought I brought to the table, he envisioned us as a team that would send poor kids to college, end world hunger, and be the D.C. Power Couple everyone expected us to become. "You'll be the brains of the operation," he used to say, "and I'll be the face." (This is the danger in socializing children to desire a lifestyle, instead of a life of their own creation.) Most of what he promised didn't much appeal to me, but his ambition was infectious and I eventually warmed to the idea of a number of things, most of them material, that I've since cleared from my vision of the future.

S is not an evil man, he has a big heart and a serious behavioral problem, not unlike a hyperactive child. Last winter I agreed to meet him for a drink but he canceled at the last minute saying it was too painful for him to be in the same room with me knowing we couldn't be together. Last spring I again agreed to see him for a few hours and things quickly became uncomfortable. (I know, you're wondering what the hell is wrong with me, but understand that it's very easy to want to make peace with an ex when you're 100 percent confident that you will never, ever, ever want him back. Ever.)

I curled up in a chair at Starbucks. S sat next to me with his hand resting on my foot. He ran down a list of all his friends and what was new in their lives: Engaged. Married. New House. New Baby.

"I'm going to be 39 this year," he said, tracing my ankle bone with his finger. It turned my stomach. "I want to have a family. I think about you a lot and I know nobody will ever take care of me the way you could." I couldn't bring myself to say 'You must be fucking kidding me' -- he looked so vulnerable it kind of broke my heart -- so I let my silence speak for itself.

He kept smiling but I could tell he was hurt, and on the way out the door, when nobody was around, he started to tickle me. The mean way. He dug his fist into my armpit and didn't stop until my eyes stung with tears. A half hour later at home, I sat down on my bed and touched the tender spot he'd knuckled into my side, wondering why I hadn't thrown my elbow into his ribs, crushed his toe with my heel, something. The answer is the difference between S and me: I may have a wicked temper, I may think nasty thoughts from time to time, but when it comes down to it I just don't have it in me to willfully damage another person.

S called last week to wish me a happy new year and ask if I'd like to have lunch. "No agenda this time," he swore, "I just thought it'd be nice to see your face." I told him I was busy, but of course that wasn't true. It's simply time to stop playing this game. He's no longer my responsibility and no longer my problem. And let's not forget -- let's not ever forget -- it could have been me.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

this is why your browser comes with parental controls

Mom: What's a bong?

Me: Where did you learn that word?

Mom: In the comments on your blog, from the squirrel story.

Me: It's something you use to smoke marijuana. You put water inside and hold your finger over the hole and... Never mind.

Mom: Oh, I thought it was a phallic thing. I got a little upset because I thought people were writing sex comments on your website.

Me: Nope. Just drug paraphernalia.

Mom: Okay then, that's fine.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

In my last year of college I shared a house with friends in a quiet College Park neighborhood near the University of Maryland. We didn't throw loud parties and we considerately limited our pot smoking to the interior of the house, so most of our neighbors -- families and a few elderly couples -- went about their lives as if we weren't there. But there was one fortyish man named Earle, living with his parents down the street, who would sometimes stop by and chat with us while we lazed on our porch swing on weekend afternoons. He was harmless, if a little odd, and he liked to talk about the squirrels in our yard -- particularly the albino that lived in the tree out front.

As the weather turned cold we'd watch the squirrel out there every day, working hard for his acorns -- find, dig, bury, dig, chew, chew, chew -- day in and day out. I don't know if it was his milky coat, his admirable work ethic or the fact that a snow-white squirrel is simply captivating when you're twenty-one, bored and high as a kite, but we took a shine to the little guy and adopted him as the unofficial mascot of our happy home.

Sometime in late winter the white squirrel up and disappeared. We noticed, it was briefly discussed, but we were too busy with our studies and social lives to give it much thought... until one day in February when a storm stranded us at home, classes cancelled, with nothing to do but get stoned and play in the snow. When Earle spotted us outside he walked over to ask if we'd noticed the squirrel was gone. We said yes, as a matter of fact we had noticed. Did he have any idea what had happened?

Earle's eyes got kinda shifty and he kicked at the snow a moment before confessing that he'd found it lying on the ground in our yard one day when no one was home. "Must've fallen from the treetop," he said.

We bowed our heads in silence but Earle continued, "Nothin' to be done, he was already dead, so I took him home and put him on ice."

"What do you mean you 'put him on ice'?"

"I stuck him in the freezer." He said it casually, as if he was talking about a steak he planned to thaw and grill up for supper next week.

"You mean our white squirrel is sitting in your freezer at home? Right now?"


"You're full of shit, Earle."

He shrugged and walked away, seemingly unfazed by this bizarre exchange.

Ten minutes later Earle came trudging back up our walkway holding a plastic bag with a fluffy white tail poking out the top.

"See?" he said, and when he dropped the bag on the porch it clattered against the floorboards like...well, like a frozen rodent falling on a two-by-four.

There it was, our little white mascot, now a squirrelsicle in a grocery bag shroud.

We cut back considerably on the dope after that, and stopped hanging out on the porch altogether. I wish I could say the squirrel is in a better place now, but Earle took him back to the freezer that day and for all I know he's still there, chillin' out, waiting for a new class of half-baked college brats to start playing in the snow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

If you want my opinion...

I'm the girl to whom everyone comes for advice. Friends, relatives, colleagues, strangers... Everybody wants my opinion: "Does this need more garlic?" "Do I need weatherproof paint?" "Should I leave my husband?" "Does this mole look like cancer?"

I don't know why they do this. Maybe I have an honest face, or my glasses create the impression that I'm learned and wise - what my father calls an "optical illusion."

Lately I've been corresponding with a guy in another state who reads my blog. At first he said he'd gotten in touch with me because he'd seen a few of my posts about shyness and my chronic verbal paralysis and/or spastic flailing around some persons of the male persuasion. He told me, "I read those essays about the lunch place guy and I thought, Great! Another 30-year-old just like me who also has no idea how to talk to members of the opposite sex." (You know, I didn't think much about that remark at the time, but now I have to say it isn't exactly true. I know how to talk to them, I just avoid it sometimes because it makes me very uncomfortable. And it's not specific to men, it's all humans, plus some of the larger-breed dogs.)

The funny thing is that within a few days this guy shifted from relating to me as a socially dysfunctional kindred spirit to mining this wisdom he's projected onto me for advice on his love life -- specifically a budding relationship with a woman in his town. I was amused and flattered by his confidence in me, and began to dispense tips that seemed to make sense. Nothing too profound, just "You don't have to wait four days to call," or "Take her to dinner next time, it's enough with the sports already." At first I held my breath waiting for his social life to implode, but so far it seems to be going pretty well.

Of course, this guy seeks fairly basic guidance. But what of the others? When solicited for counsel I always have something to say, but what if I say the wrong thing? I don't know from painting a shed. Who am I to say if your marriage is doomed? Do I look like a dermatologist to you?

I want to be able to help these people. All of them, from the hypochondriac in my aerobics class to the drag queen at my bus stop who asks how I make my lashes look so feathery and long. So I'm thinking maybe I should start my own advice column to get some practice, hone my skills. Kind of a Dear-Abby-meets-Carolyn-Hax type deal. Come tell mama your problems; she'll make you feel better, even if the advice she pulls out of her ass ultimately ruins your life.

It'll take some time to iron out the details. For now I'm working on the look and feel. I'll need a headshot that portrays me as accessible but strong, maybe in the middle of a hearty laugh, or gazing off with my chin in my palm. And I'm playing with a few titles that'll capture the essence of the column -- let me know what you think: "Write On," sort of an affirmative high-five approach; "Always Something," which feels warm and commiserative; or -- actually I think this one really speaks to those who'd trust me with their major life decisions -- "Hey, It's Your Funeral."
7:30 p.m. last night, my phone rings with my mother's cellphone number on the Caller ID.

me: "Hello?"

my grandma: "Hello?"

me: "Hello?"

grandma: "Hello? I can't hear anything. It's not working. Hello?!"

highway sounds. click. dial tone.

fifteen seconds later the phone rings again.

me, annoyed: "Hello?"

grandma: "Hello?! I still can't hear."

me, shouting: "Grandma! I'm here!"

grandma: "Helloooo? Are you there? Why can't I hear anything? Celia, something's wrong with the phone."

my father, in the background: "Did she push Send? Let me see it..."

rustling. click. dial tone.

ten seconds later the phone rings. again.

me: "WHAT?!?!"

my mother: "Hi honey, we're in the car with Grandma. She wants to talk to you."

rustling, fumbling.

grandma: "Okay. Hello?"

me: "Hi Grandma."

grandma: "Hello? Helloooo?!?! I don't understand what's wrong. Celia, your phone is broken. Fix the phone, Celia. HELLOOOO?!?!"

more rustling and fumbling, then my mother, in the background:

"Ma, you're holding it backward!"

Sunday, October 09, 2005

My parents are a lot like Abbott and Costello: My mother, short, round and impulsive, is always pulling some stunt that leads my taller, leaner, more sensible father to chastise her for the fine mess she's gotten them into this time.

Yesterday Dad recounted an incident from their summer trip to San Francisco: During dim sum in Chinatown they shared a table with an Italian couple visiting from Rome. An incurable eavesdropper and master of schmooze, my mother recognized their accents and began a conversation using the rudimentary Italian skills she picked up studying opera 40 years ago. Most people would have realized after 30 seconds or so that the couple's English was close to perfect, but my mother was on a roll. She pelted them with questions in English -- punctuating her slow, overenunciated shouting with the grotesque sign language that only confuses foreigners and makes them hate Americans that much more -- and met each of their increasingly nervous answers with "assolutamente!" or "molto buon!" Eventually they became so uncomfortable that they packed up their food and left. "I wanted to crawl under the table," my father said, shaking his head. "I kept kicking her foot but she just wouldn't take the hint."

At that moment my mother arrived and caught me cackling over the tail end of the story. "Oh, you're telling that one," she scowled. "I'll just leave you two alone to exaggerate about me some more," and she walked off in a huff. My father chuckled and shrugged. "There's nothing to make up here, she's totally self-exaggerating." It's so true; The woman is like a cartoon. She's not bad, she's just drawn that way.

I should explain that we were all together yesterday because we were working: My mother runs a small entertainment agency -- she hires music, magicians, clowns, etc. for parties and such. Whenever one of her commercial real estate clients asks her to orchestrate a seasonal event she turns it into a family affair, recruiting my father to set up the deejay equipment, my sister to play the music, and me to paint hearts, flowers and small woodland creatures on the cheeks of children who walk by. Cheap labor, I guess; We're like a low-budget Partridge Family. It's not a bad way to earn some fun money. I do it once or twice a season and get to play with paint and meet a few babies, which is never a bad thing.

When the event was finished my father left to run an errand while my mother, after handing me a check for my day's work, pulled her station wagon up to the curb. Predictably, she overestimated the turn and swiped the yellow concrete post that was probably placed there to protect pedestrians from drivers like her. (With my mother behind the wheel you're guaranteed the ride of your life. Possibly the last one.)

The scrape itself was less hilarious than the fact that Mom didn't even notice it and had to ask why my sister and I were cracking up when she stepped out of the car. When we told her what she'd done she insisted we were full of crap. "Look at the bumper!" we cried, and she glanced over and dismissed the blemish as a mark from a similar run-in two weeks earlier. "But there's yellow paint all over the place!" we screamed, now clutching each other to keep from falling down, we were laughing so hard. She bent down for a closer look and sucked air through her teeth ("whoops..."), looking only vaguely troubled until she discovered the yellow paint would rub off easily. Then it was okay. "Why would they put bumpers on my car if they weren't meant to be bumped?!" she exclaimed with wide eyes, as if it was the most obvious and logical question a person could ask. (And you know, it kind of is.)

Then she skulked over to me -- The Evil One, the one she thinks is always out to get her -- and she begged me, "Please don't tell Daddy. If I put one more dent in this car he's going to send me away." I smirked at her, remembering the last time I found myself in this position, and then I handed her the envelope with my check inside and said, "It's not too late to add another zero."

Saturday, October 08, 2005

My good friend B, of the unexpected birthday floral arrangement, either volunteered or was goaded into testing a soon-to-be-featured cookie recipe for the Washington Post. She invited me to join her because I know my way around a kitchen and she trusted me to do right by the recipe. More than she trusted herself, apparently, because I mixed, rolled, cut, baked and frosted the cookies and she washed the dishes. But it's all good; I got to lick the bowl.

We'll both be mentioned in the Food section next week or the week after; If you can find us, you win... I dunno, a picture of me licking the bowl. (It's not as hot as it sounds.)

one of these is in my tummy now

Friday, October 07, 2005

play date

Act 1: Introduction
On my way out to lunch the handsome fortyish man who always smiles at me on the elevator crosses my path and says, "Hi. I always see you on this floor. I just wanted to introduce myself, my name is Jason. What's yours?" He's charming and a little bit goofy, so sure of himself in his cowboy boots and hands buried casually in the pockets of his jeans. He seems sweet. Genuine. Like he's sensed my shyness and made it his business to coax me out of my shell.

I answer with just my name. "Nice to meet you," he says, "I should warn you I'm terrible with names. I'll remember everything about you except what to call you. Don't get mad." "I won't take it personally," I say, and grin more broadly than I mean to.

Act 2: Drama
A week later I'm late for the bus when I dash past Jason in the empty lobby. I smile politely and half-wave.

"Do you have any idea how much it brightens my day when I see you?" he calls as I sprint by. It should sound trite since we've only met once before, but for some reason it doesn't. In fact it's not the words but the sincerity in his voice that makes me stop in my tracks, pluck out one of my earbuds and cock my head in his direction.

He raises his right palm in mock defense. "I'm not coming on to on you," he says through a grin. "You just should know that you have an incredible spirit about you. It's really amazing; You shine. And you always make my day."

For a moment we're locked there staring at one another -- me stunned by his brazen, possibly (but not definitely) romantic gesture and him waiting to see whether I'll step toward him or break and run. Then elevator doors open and the clack of heels on marble breaks the daze, and without taking his eyes off me he puts his finger to his lips and whispers, "Shhhh."

My face flushes, probably light pink but it feels like crimson. This time I don't grin, I beam, and say "thank you" before I run out the door. I smile and blush and tug on my lower lip (I do that when I like someone; it's my tell) all the way home.

Act 3: Finale
The next day I'm running again, this time to the gym. Jason is walking into the stairwell just as I turn the corner. He holds the door for me. "Going to exercise?"

He asks which office on our floor is mine and what we do there, where I'm from, if I was caught in the rain today, do I have anything fun planned for the weekend... It's that verbal hopscotch we all play while we're scheming, building nerve or making our way to the point. His gaze doesn't break for a single second; It's unnerving and entrancing. I'd like to learn to hold eye contact that way.

He adjusts the stack of papers he's carrying and something catches the light. Plain gold band, left hand; It's hidden again in half a second but there's no mistaking what it was. At this time yesterday all the blood was rushing to my face; It's amazing how fast the tide can turn.

I've been through this test before and I won't fail it again. My last few syllables -- "...nice weekend" -- are still on their way out when I turn on my heel and bolt down the stairs.

The End.