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 bananarepublic.com 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.