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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Word From the Weiss

        Last Sunday, we were invited to a surprise party. I love being invited to things. I love surprises. Surprise parties, though? Not so much.
         What is it about them that appeals to people so much – the intrigue? The subterfuge? I’m not sure what the origin of this wildly popular cultural phenomenon was. (I had no lucking tracing it on Google, Yahoo, Ask.com, or even Wikipedia.) But the concept seems profoundly American to me: spontaneous, brash, and tasteless, rather than refined. The whole idea, after all, is to fool, delude, and basically hoodwink the guest of honor for weeks, then shock them as explosively as possible, with shouting, confetti, and maybe even showers of Silly String. It’s the social equivalent of riding a rollercoaster or other spine-tingling ride at an amusement park (something I avoid at all costs).
         Surprisepartyscene.jpgSo I’ve never been a big fan of this peculiar convention. Rather, I object to it on a number of levels. First of all, let’s face it. At least half the enjoyment of almost any event is the anticipation. This is a good thing, since even if the actual celebration ultimately fails to live up to your expectations, you still have had the prolonged pleasure of looking forward to it, or what you had hoped it would be.
         Second, in place of all this eager anticipation, the guest of honor ends up feeling sad, neglected or otherwise dejected as the joyous occasion approaches, assuming that no one he or she knows could care less about the impending birthday or other simcha. Then, finally, when they least expect it, they learn otherwise, as everyone they know jumps out from behind the sofa screaming. Surprise! You do have friends, after all!  Unfortunately, you now have to spend the next two hours with them. They’re dressed to the nines. You didn’t bother to wash your hair and are wearing jeans or some ratty old shmatta.Birthdaygirlinjeansplus.jpg
         But when you’re invited to a surprise party, like it or not, the last thing you can consider doing is spoiling the surprise for the hosts, other guests or honoree. You simply must play along and keep mum. This was particularly agonizing for the party in question last Sunday. But I had no choice.
         Let me explain.
         I knew months ago that my good friend Pat had a big birthday approaching. She was turning 60. Personally, I’m not inclined to celebrate my own birthday with a crowd. The only time I’ve done it in recent decades was when I turned 40, and that was not my own doing. Rather, I suspected that my husband was planning a surprise party for me, so, being the controlling nut that I am, I sprang into action. First, I slipped him a guest list, just in case. Then I had my favorite affordable caterer call him to offer his services. (Yes, maybe that was a little extreme, but believe it or not, my husband actually went along with the program.)
         The thing is that, along with loathing surprises, I dread being the center of attention. My friend Pat? Not quite. She may share my name, but not my aversion to commanding center stage. On the contrary, she’s a (kosher) ham, a born actress who relishes having others riveted on her often manic antics and her every word. Neither is she averse to having people sing her praises. And by “people,” I mean me.
         For years, when she chaired the popular Jewish Book Festival at Hartford's Mandell Jewish Community Center, she would call me the morning after she made a speech, to have me critique her performance.Miroweddingdancingcropped.jpg
         “How was I?” she’d ask.
         “Good,” I’d say.
         “Good? That’s it?”
         Really good,” I’d say.
         “What else?”
         “I don’t know. You seemed very… self-assured.”
         “And --?”
         “Articulate. Polished. Impressive…”
         “Never mind that. How did I look?”
         “Great? That’s it?”
         Really great?”
         After a while, I got the idea. Persuading me to be effusive was no longer like pulling teeth. She liked hearing that she was cultured, brilliant, clever... not to mention that she looked gorgeous, sexy, and well-to-do. In a way, it became a private joke, sort of a running gag between us. You might also surmise that she has a healthy ego.  (A really healthy ego.) Then again, who among us wouldn’t enjoy hearing all that?
         She reminds me a little of my late (great) mother, who was given to self-aggrandizing compliments like “You’re exquisite and shapely – just like me,” as well as blurting out her favorite catch-phrase, “I’m so smart! I’m so brilliant!” before revealing some solution that was “Elementary, dear Watson” to her, thanks to her extraordinary Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction.
         Whatever. Pat likes to be admired. She also embraces life and likes to celebrate almost everything good in it -- to "festivize," to use a term that she recently coined. So when a mutual friend suggested that we throw her a party together, I readily agreed.
         I began to have misgivings when this friend soon lobbied for making it – you guessed it – a surprise. It didn’t help that we turned out to have wildly disparate sensibilities. I observed to her that Pat enjoyed things that are high-style and elegant. This gave her an inspiration. She has beautiful china, silver flatware and large gold-colored chargers. Why not set the table with all of this finery, then serve sandwiches from Subway? To me, this might be briefly amusing, but would not be a welcome surprise. As soon as the joke wore off, we'd be left eating five-dollar foot-long subs.Champagnesoireeimage.jpg
      I envisioned a swanky soirée at a posh restaurant instead. Before proceeding any further, though, we decided to confer with Pat’s husband. That’s when he revealed that he was already holding a party for her. It was – you guessed it – a surprise party. (Never mind that they aren’t even American, having been raised in Montreal.) He was throwing it at their second home in Vermont, however, for their friends up there.
       It didn’t offend the mutual friend or me in the least that this event would not include us. We don’t know their friends in Vermont and weren’t eager to drive eight hours round-trip to attend any gathering, even this one. Instead, we prevailed upon Pat’s husband to let us join them, along with our husbands, for a special dinner out at Pat's favorite restaurant.SouthPerscificPatandPattiecropped.jpg
          Knowing that the big surprise party would take place the following weekend, though, I decided to contribute to it in my own special way. Pat has long collaborated with me on our temple’s annual Purim shpiel. I write all the lyrics, based on the music from some popular Broadway production. (This year it was “The Bubbeh Challah Story,” based on BUDDY: The Buddy Holly Story.) Then she usually directs. What better tribute could there be than a song written in her honor?
         I had no doubt whatsoever what song to choose. Her unquestionable all-time favorite was last year’s grand finale, “There Is No One Like the Jews,” a takeoff on “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s inimitable South Pacific. And so was born a new variation: “There Is No One Like Our Pat.”
         It took me the better part of a day to pen this, based on my copious knowledge of the many things Pat has accomplished in her 60 years. (Did I manage to convey that she’s not shy about mentioning these things?) I finished it the day before her birthday, just before joining her for our weekly Zumba class at the JCC, after which we always meet our husbands for a light dinner at Panera Bread. Although I’d written the song for the big bash and planned to air it during our dinner out, I figured my husband and I could sing it at Panera too, after Pat blew out the candles on her pre-birthday cake. (With Pat, more is always better. Did I manage to convey that?)Pats60thatBricco2.jpg
        As we sang, her face lit up with exuberance brighter than the candles she had just extinguished. Moments later, though, it fell. It wasn’t enough to have a composition about her life sung for her alone. “I want a party!” she declared. I assured her that we’d sing it again during our dinner out. That wasn’t "dayenu," though. It wouldn't be enough. She wanted it performed in front of everyone she knew. “I need to have a party!”
         As I well knew, her husband had already planned one. But there was nothing I could say to console her. Somehow, I had succeeded not in delighting her, but making her almost despondent instead. My only consolation was imagining her delight when it was sung in front of a sizable crowd in Vermont. When she began to stuff the printed copy I’d brought into her purse, her husband snatched it from her grasp. “Don’t fold that!” he cried. At this, I realized that there was no need to call him privately at his office to explain my intentions. Like my husband, he was more than able to take a hint.
         I brought more copies along two nights later for our dinner out. Once again, her face glowed as we sang. Then, once more, her smile dissipated. It wasn’t enough to have her virtues extolled to an audience of six. “I really want a party!” she lamented. She began firing off possible dates in the coming weeks. I didn’t know what to say.
      Meanwhile, I received an email from another one of her local friends. She also knew of Pat’s birthday and was planning a party. You guessed it – a surprise. This one was to be a so-called progressive dinner, with each of three courses to be consumed at a different person’s house. Unfortunately, it was slated for the last Sunday of the month, coinciding with both my daughter’s last day of spring break and the opening weekend of the Greater Hartford Jewish Film Festival, which we help sponsor and always attend. It seemed unlikely we’d be able to make the party. So, although I knew Pat would want the song sung there, I chose to decline.Patsbirthdaywinelabel.jpg
         I spoke with her the day after the party in Vermont. She was indeed thrilled, although she had to admit that the party hadn’t turned out to be a total shock, after all. It’s hard to pull off an event for 30 without someone letting a few details slip. Still, there were many surprises. One of her friends had cleverly created custom wine bottle labels bearing her image. Two of her sons and their wives had chosen to make the extensive journey up for the weekend. And, yes, her husband had distributed copies of my song to all the guests. He and one of her daughters-in-law, a gifted singer, crooned the verses together, then everyone had chimed in on the chorus.
        Even so, she remained mildly unsatisfied. She still wanted her local friends to hear the song. So she was still eager to have another party. She wanted to hold it the weekend before Pesach. That’s when her relatives would be able to attend. But my own relatives were coming for that weekend too. There was no way I’d be available. She urged me repeatedly to rearrange my plans. How could I tell her she was already having a local party? Instead, again, I said nothing.
        Just before Purim, I ran into April, the president of our temple, at synagogue. She was hosting the final segment of the progressive dinner and prevailed upon me to come for dessert. We were going to New York to see a play on Friday night, returning home Saturday, then driving my daughter back to college on Sunday. But I knew how much Pat would appreciate having the song performed. How could I refuse?
        In the end, that party didn’t end up being much of a surprise, either. Pat called me the morning of the event to divulge that she had learned something was up. The friend who’d been designated to get her to the first location had called pretending that she wanted to take Pat out to an early dinner. But Pat wanted to attend the Jewish film festival that night, so she had insisted that they go out late, after the movie. She also wanted to meet at the restaurant rather than be picked up. Finally, the woman had given up the pretense and openly admitted that there was a surprise underfoot.
        Pat clearly was trying to gauge if I was in the loop. But, of course, I kept mum.Birthdaycakeimage.jpg
        By the time we set off for the party, around 9 on Sunday night, my husband and I were ready to collapse. I’d just driven to Boston and back, and April lives nearly half an hour away. But I was a woman on a mission. A manic, musical one.
        We walked in just as April was about to cut the cake. And for once, I could see that Pat was genuinely surprised. Surprised that we were there.
        “You knew!” she said. “You knew everything all along!”
        What can I say? I may not be smart, I may not be brilliant, but I can keep a secret.
        We ate cake. Pat made a lively speech thanking us all for "festivizing" on her behalf. Then I distributed the copies I’d prepared and gave everyone a starting note.
        The grand finale, as I construct it, never has anything to do with Purim, specifically. It’s simply a Jewish pride song. We survived, and we are great. This, too, was a pride song – a pride song about Pat.

 There Is No One Like Our Pat
(to the tune of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame")
She is stunning, sexy, rich
       She is staggeringly smart
       She’s renowned for her exquisite taste
       In clothing, rugs and art 
      She can entertain like Martha Stewart
 with a Jewish soul
       For seders and the Super Bowl!

       She has hosted her own children’s show with "TX" on TV
      She has chaired the Jewish Book Fest 
     At the Mandell JCC
     She has doubled for Ivana Trump
     And in enough plays starred 
   To earn her own Equity card!

     There is no one like our Pat
     No one in the world
     She is fabulous, not fat
    There is nobody like our Pat!

     We’ve got something special today
 thank “HaShem” for
     For Patsy may be 60, but she’ll still be sexy
     for at least 60 years more!

     She’s sophisticated, clever
     And so quick with a retort 
    That she’s opened as a comic
     For Jim Carrey, Martin Short 
    She has built a house in Stowe, Vermont,
    The size of a resort
   She’s fearsome on the tennis court!

   There is no one like our Pat 
    No one in the world
    She is fabulous, not fat
   There is nobody like our Pat!

    She’s been as far as Papua, New Guinea,
  Biked through Spain
    She’s had her share of tsuris
   But never dares complain 
 For valor and "rachmunes"
 Chabad gave her an award
  When she’s around we’re never bored!

   There is no one like our Pat
  No one in the world
  She is kosher, but not glatt
  There is nobody like our Pat! 

 No one can cook quite like Pat!
 Or can look quite like Pat! 
No one can act quite like Pat!
Or distract quite like Pat!

  There’s no mother like Pat! 
Or any other like Pat!
No one else from here to Montreal
 Is the best wife and friend of all…. 
 She’s the un-toppable
 and unstoppable PAT!!!!!!!!!!!! 

        Everyone sang along with gusto. And I mean everyone. Even Pat. And afterwards, at last, she was totally satisfied. At last, I was done!
        Later, I announced that I had a surprise for her. Well, maybe not a surprise. An assertion. The assertion was that, at long last, the parties were over.Surprisepartyinvitesinplastic2.jpg
  OK, so maybe the song was over the top. (Really over the top.) Or was it? After all, there is no one like Pat. No one in the world. Then again, all she really wants, I believe, is what we all hanker for, but are afraid to ask: to be reassured that we are noticed, known, maybe still somewhat sexy, and genuinely loved by others just the way we are.
        I also still believe that she would have been happier if she’d known about all the arrangements from the start. Or maybe that’s just me.
        Meanwhile, I’m glad that I don’t have any significant milestones coming up for several years. Because even after reading all this, will my husband, my children, or even Pat herself still try to throw me a secret celebration? I wouldn’t be surprised.
11:28 am 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Word From the Weiss

My nephew, an aspiring young fiction writer, can’t fly home for Passover this year because he's taking an LSAT prep course, in anticipation of applying to law school. He also aspires to earn a steady income, I guess. My son’s good friend Andrew, a gifted artist and marketing whiz, will enter Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law this fall. He wants to earn an advanced degree.
All around me, people keep coming up with reasons to go to law school, other than the most obvious, yet most mystifying to me – that they actually want to practice law.bulldog.jpg
Now here’s a reason that actually makes sense, or as much sense to me as any:
Yale is initiating a pilot program next week. Along with boning up on jurisprudential procedures at the school library, law students will be able to check out a therapy dog named Monty for half-hour sessions, in order to counteract their rabid stress.
Why is Yale suddenly going to the dogs?
“It is well documented that visits from therapy dogs have resulted in increased happiness, calmness and overall emotional well-being,” Blair Kauffman, the school’s law librarian, wrote in a recent e-mail to students, according to The New York Times.
The school has yet to specify what breed of dog Monty is, the paper said. Neither is it clear what they will do to help Monty keep the muzzle on his own mounting stress during this revolving door of play dates.
Hmmm. I may not be in the market to become NiceJewishMom.com Esq., but I could sure use help with stress, not to mention an occasional canine escort, right now.
I especially could have used both of those things last Sunday night, when my daughter called to report that her flight home was delayed due to raging thunderstorms.
Have I managed to write a full 10 paragraphs without mentioning yet that I worry about my kids? The only thing that makes me more anxious than having them in potential danger is flying – especially flying in a thunderstorm, about which I have a serious phobia.
This stems from a horrific flight my husband and I took 25 years ago this week. We were flying home from a wedding in Washington, D.C. when lightning began to flash all around us. The plane repeatedly plummeted in midair, as if it were an elevator dropping 5,000 feet in seconds. It was so traumatic that I swore if we ever landed -- which seemed dubious -- I would never leave the safety of earth again.
By some miracle, we made it out alive. And yes, I have dared to renege on that vow many times since. But the very thought of flying in a storm makes my teeth sweat.
The prospect of my beloved daughter being subjected to my worst fear? Seriously? Just shoot me now.McAlisterDriveatSXSWhorizontalcropped.jpg
As I reported last week, Allegra (pictured here, second from right) was destined to spend much of her spring break in Austin, Texas, singing with her boyfriend’s rock band at a mammoth music festival called South by Southwest. She called daily to report that she was having the time of her life. They played two shows daily, met countless other musicians, and attended all sorts of concerts and other raucous events. And although it turned out that they weren’t actually opening for the well-known band Counting Crows, as she’d been told, they did play directly after its famed lead singer, Adam Duritz (below) – a not-so-nice Jewish boy known for his great mane of dreadlocks and gravelly voice – and hung out with him night and day.
AdamDuritzCountingCrows.jpg        So I was feeling delighted that I had subsidized this trip for her and urged her to go, rather than traveling somewhere with us or coming home for Purim, as she’d been inclined to do. At least I was delighted until she called from the airport in San Antonio on Sunday night. She was flying home via Chicago, but had just learned that there were severe thunderstorms in the Midwest. Her first flight was delayed two hours, making it likely that she’d miss her connection home. She'd probably have turbulent flights both in and out of Chicago, as well – if she managed to get out, that is. More probably, she'd end up stranded there overnight.
Hearing this, I flew into full-blown panic mode. Unfortunately, she’d called just as my husband and I were walking out the door. Some friends had invited us over for pizza. When I get anxious, though, I lose all perspective. Then I lose my appetite. Hang out with friends? Eat pizza? All I wanted to do was sit at my computer tracking her flights. But we had accepted and were already late. Canceling would have been rude.
While en route, my husband urged me not to mention my duress to our friends. He knew how people tend to ridicule me for being both a nervous Nellie and a Nice Jewish Mom. But I figured that I needed to explain my agitation, as well as my lack of appetite. Plus, I was too manic to keep mum. So I just blurted it out the moment we walked in.
Our friends happen to be both nice and Jewish, and to have children themselves. In fact, we originally became friends through our daughters, who have been close since childhood. The wife, Amy, immediately requested the flight number and raced to her computer, not caring if the pizza grew cold. She reported back that my daughter’s flight, contrary to the dire news I’d heard, had actually just taken off, nearly on time after all.
        I texted my daughter, but got no response, so I could only assume this was true.sliceofpizza2.jpg
It was wonderful to have the distraction of good friends chatting amiably around the table. But to be honest, I spent the next two hours forcing myself to down a single slice of pizza while trying not to keep checking my watch. The moment dinner was over, and the other couple there made their exit, we excused ourselves and raced home.
Home sweet home, to where my computer was. Sadly, that was now the full extent awaiting me there of what I’ve long considered the comforts of home.
As I reported a month ago, we recently lost our beloved dog Zoe, after 12 years, to liver disease. Since then, I've come to realize even more fully the extent to which having her near me, to see and to touch, was the only thing that truly calmed my nerves. To be honest, I’ve always been on the anxious side. And by anxious, I mean ANXIOUS. Zoe was my personal antidote to this problem, far more effective or reliable than Prozac (not that I’ve ever tried it).ZoeonMarthasVineyardcropped.jpg
Ever since she left us, though, I’ve become a mass of free-floating anxiety. I worry about almost everything and am no longer able to come close to sleeping through the night. My doctor even speculates that I may be somewhat clinically depressed.
OK, so he based that assessment mostly on my own description of how I’m feeling. Plus what happened when I went in to discuss my bad (make that very bad) cholesterol last week.
My triglycerides and whatnot appear to be much higher than they should be. But I don’t want to take Lipitor, Zocor, or anything else that might lower my cholesterol, I said. I'd prefer a drug that might raise my cholesterol. Otherwise, I’m going to start eating eggs and butter round-the-clock. Why take anything that might prolong my life, when it will just mean living even longer without my dog?Ativansinmidair.jpg
Hearing this, my doctor decided to table the cholesterol discussion for a few more months, in favor of more pressing issues. Then he prescribed Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication. To help me sleep, he said.
A doctor friend once prescribed this for me to temper my fear of flying when I had to take several successive flights to attend a funeral. It did help me drift off on the plane. But I only took it that once. And being staunchly anti-medication, I had yet to fill my new prescription. Besides, assuming my daughter would still make it home, I'd have to pick her up at the airport after midnight. I didn’t need something to make me sleepy. I needed something to keep me awake.
Soon after 9, my phone rang. “I just landed in Chicago,” Allegra whispered. She was still on the plane and said that the flight had actually been fine.
Phew! One down. One to go. She phoned again to say that the next leg was delayed. Then she called to say it was back on track and boarding. So I logged onto an online program called Flight Tracker, which allows you to track almost any flight if you have the airline name, flight number, place of origin or destination.
Mysteriously, for the next hour, it kept telling me that my daughter’s flight was en route but hadn’t left the ground. Finally, she called with an explanation. It had boarded as scheduled, but then remained sitting on the tarmac for 55 minutes.
I groaned. “No, wait, we’re taking off!” she crowed, then hung up instantly.
It was nearly 11 p.m., Eastern time. I'd gotten little sleep, as usual, the night before, then performed that morning in our temple’s annual Purim shpiel, for which I’d written the lyrics, in front of about 600 people. I was now exhausted beyond words, yet also so wired that I couldn’t sit still. Where was Monty, the therapy dog, when I needed him? Instead, I did the only thing I could do. I kept checking my daughter's status on Flight Tracker, refreshing the page every 30 seconds or so.
Despite what she’d said, her flight still didn’t appear to have left the ground. Then, finally, the little plane icon on the online map began to move, wending its way oh so slowly across the country. I studied the stats like they were a gift from God. 
“She’s at 5,000 feet,” I informed my husband.
“Now 6,000 feet!” I said shortly after.
“They're up -- 30,000 feet!” I announced.
My husband was calmly watching TV. “You’re insane,” he replied.
        I agreed
. Then I made myself wait three minutes before refreshing the screen again. “She’s over Ohio,” I said.
The whole time, I kept picturing her gripping the seat rests on either side, turning green as she hurtled through stormy skies. Would the plane be safe? Would she?
        Due to the
delay, the plane was now slated to land at 1:02 a.m. I’d watched as it had inched its way all the way up. But we live half an hour from the airport. I wasn’t going to be able to watch it come down. So around midnight, I took off, bleary-eyed, letting my husband stay home. He had to work early in the a.m.
The terminal at Bradley International was darkened and nearly deserted. I waited in baggage claim, as we'd planned. I'd arrived half an hour early. Even so, I kept checking my watch. The Connecticut skies were overcast but calm. Yet I remained in an anxious dither. I may not have studied law, but I know the laws of physics. Whatever goes up must come down. But must it come down in one piece?
Just after 1, my cell phone buzzed. “Mom?” a hushed little voice said. “We’re down.”AllegrawithCathyatSXSWcropped2.jpg
It took 15 minutes before a cluster of people appeared at the end of the corridor. I studied them for a familiar face. When I saw it, I began to run.
“I had so much fun!” she gasped, grinning radiantly as I crushed her against my chest.
“Oh, I’m so glad you went!” I exclaimed. But what I was really thinking, I must admit, was, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re back!”
        Sorry. Just shoot me now.
        Getting older means learning to let go, again and again, of the people and things we love. I know that, and I'm trying. But when your world is getting smaller, inch by inch, it's hard to let go, again and again, of the people and things you love. 
By the time we had retrieved her bags and driven home, it was past 2. Then she was starving. And bubbling over with tales of her trip. We got to bed shortly before 3.
I emailed Amy when I woke up to thank her and apologize for my nervousness. She said she understood, having been through flight issues with her own kids. Then again, her daughter spent a semester last year studying in China.
“If you get this jittery when she’s only flying from Texas to Chicago to home, then you would not survive Hartford--Chicago--Shanghai and then a bus trip to Hangzhou,” she wrote.
        She’s right. The next time my daughter flies anywhere, maybe I should take some medication and let my husband drive. Then again, the next time she flies will be to Israel; she’s going on Birthright with Amy’s daughter early this summer. I may still suffer from fear of flying, but there are no thunderstorms in Israel, to my knowledge. Plus, I have total faith in El Al. (Flights for Jews, run by Jews. Now, that is flying done right!Dogonplane.jpg)
Meanwhile, I'm wondering if anyone has ever considered having dogs fly on planes as a form of therapy, for passengers, the crew and/or those anxiously awaiting their arrival. I also am tempted to sue the airline or the entire aeronautics industry for pain and mental anguish -- inflicted during my favorite Jewish holiday, no less. Seriously. It could be a class action suit. First class as well as coach.
        So, tell me. Does anyone know a good lawyer?

12:59 am 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Word From the Weiss

        We all worry at times that we are turning into the one thing we swore we’d never become – our own parents. This fear flares up for me whenever I worry about my kids (i.e. constantly); when I step on the scale (but I don’t feel like I’ve gained weight); and worst of all, when I glance in the mirror (could those be… jowls?!?!) But at no time is it more pronounced than when I listen to music, or what passes for “music” these days.
        JoniMitchellphoto1.jpgMy son grew so exasperated with me about this during a phone conversation this morning that he began firing a barrage of names at me – names of musicians, that is. His contention was that my taste could be summed up in two words: “Joni Mitchell.” Or maybe three more, at most: “Simon,” “Garfunkel,” and “James” (as in Taylor, not Tommy James or James Brown). Adding The Beatles to the roster was meaningless, he said.
        “That’s like saying the one person you’d like to have lunch with is Jesus Christ.”
        First of all, I’d choose to chow down with Hillary Clinton, or maybe Golda Meir, instead, thanks. Second, I’m not a musical Neanderthal, nor an old fogey, despite the continuous loop of show tunes playing in my head, thanks to the LPs once stacked on my parents’ hi-fi. So I managed to score some points with him by favoring a few evergreen rockers, like Fleetwood Mac and The Allman Brothers, plus Big Band icons like Benny Goodman, and all the big machers of Motown, from The Temptations to The Four Tops.
        JamesTayloralbumphotobw.jpgBut beyond that, I relegated everyone he proposed in this cultural Rorschach Test to one of two categories: “no interest” (all heavy metal groups and so-called hip-hop artists) or “nostalgia” (my attitude toward everyone from Jimi Hendrix to James Brown).
        Jimi and his guitar riffs instantly conjure images of Woodstock and the ’70s for me, along with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and their no-longer-young friend Neil. Bruce Springsteen and Lionel Richie, each in his own way, manage to evoke the eighties… along with Gloria Gaynor, of course, whose inimitable anthem “I Will Survive” was awarded the only Grammy Award ever given for Best Disco Recording, back in 1980.
        The nineties and beyond remain little more than a blur to me. And no offense to current pop luminaries, like Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga, but nearly every musical personality who’s hit the charts since then does little more than make me nostalgic for the sixties and seventies. So maybe I am a fogey, after all.
        JimiHendrixwithname.jpgSpeaking of nostalgia, here are two more words I’m reluctantly about to file inside my burgeoning cache of fast-fading memories of times gone by: spring break.
        Ever since my kids entered school, back in the “awesome” eighties, our family schedule has been largely enslaved to one school calendar or another. Vacations were dictated, not by our personal preferences, whims or work routines, let alone when hotel and airfare rates were down, but strictly by when our children were free to travel with us.
        The upside to this was that it motivated us to plan a family trip to somewhere warm every single winter (the only thing that made the interminable cold months in New England bearable). When our kids were in grade school, this meant fleeing to sunny Florida during Presidents’ Week, along with half the population of the frigid Northeast… and all of Canada.
        After they’d graduated high school, our mid-winter excursions coincided instead with the beach-bound getaways of nearly every college student in the country. (Wet T-shirt contest, anyone?) Now our youngest is graduating college in May. That means we may travel whenever we wish. Then again, we’ll have no limitation motivating us put a trip on the calendar, meaning we may never travel in winter again.
        MiamiBeachMrsNinphoto1.jpgI worry about something even more distressing: Our youngest will soon enter the world of work (we can only hope). This means that both of our kids will have their own limited availability. Or maybe no availability. We may never take a family vacation again.
        It’s been disappointing enough in recent years that our son, having graduated from college, could no longer join us for our annual respite. We compensated by letting our daughter bring along a friend; for a teenager, spending a week alone with her parents, even in a temperate and ultra-hip tourist mecca like Miami Beach, is no real vacation.
        AllegrainMiami2cropped.jpgAs time wore on, in fact, her eagerness to travel under parental supervision began to wane. So did the likelihood of our looking back on these adventures warmly with nostalgia. On our last trip, two years ago, we became irate when our daughter could barely stand up on the tennis court one morning. Finally, she confessed the reason why: After we’d gone to bed, she and her female traveling companion, both 19, had stuffed their beds with pillows, then gone out clubbing till 4 a.m. with their waiter from that evening, a young man who’d turned out, to their horror, to be 29, have a 14-year-old son and be a convicted felon for selling cocaine.
        Now, with her last spring break looming, we wondered what to do to make what might be our last joint getaway unforgettable (but maybe less memorable than that last one). Should we return to our usual haunt one last time, or try something new and different? Mexico? An island? A cruise? (No, to me that last one confirms old fogey-hood more conclusively than ordering one of those “Sounds of the Seventies” CDs hyped on late-night TV.)
        Now that she’s 21, might she prefer to go away with a girlfriend or her boyfriend instead, or to have her boyfriend join us on the family trip? (As awkward as it might be having them share a hotel room, at least she’d have less temptation to sneak out.)
        I decided to approach her directly with all of these questions -- at which point she somewhat sheepishly confessed that the answer was, in fact, none of the above.ChristophMcAlisterDrivephoto3.jpg
        As I mentioned recently, although my daughter is an aspiring jazz singer, she has begun singing backup occasionally in her boyfriend’s rock group. That Boston-based band, McAlister Drive, was scheduled to perform during her spring break at a massive music festival in Austin, Texas, called South by Southwest (a.k.a. SXSW). Stevo, the boyfriend, had invited her along on the trip. No one had ever clarified, though, whether she was going as his girlfriend or a member of the band. As the girlfriend, she’d just be tagging along as a groupie, watching him rehearse and perform. As a band member, she’d not only be integral to every concert, but also admitted to all sorts of VIP parties and other events.
        She was dying to sing with the band because it had been booked as the opening act on the festival's final night for a well-known rock group called Counting Crows. She wasn’t going to demean herself, though, by going along as a mere hanger-on. What’s more, she had been offered a well-paid gig for that same weekend in Massachusetts. That gig was at a retirement home, to sing -- guess what! -- show tunes, and she had promised to tell the people there whether or not she would take it by that very night.
        “So just ask Stevo if you’re singing or not,” I said.
        CountingCrowsonRollingStone.jpgIt wasn’t Stevo's choice, she explained. It was up to the head of the band, Christoph (pictured above left), a nice young man notable for what I consider to be an excess of facial hair. And she assumed that he didn’t want her to sing. For one thing, he’d recently hired two new instrumentalists who also sang. For another, he had yet to ask her.
        I pointed out what every newspaper reporter knows – when you assume, you make an ass out of “u” and “me." But she didn’t have the nerve to ask Christoph, she insisted. If he’d wanted her to sing in Austin, wouldn't he have mentioned it by now? So she was going to give up and book the retirement home gig – favor the fogeys, forego the fun.
        Hearing this, I forgot all about the fact that I had been hoping to take a family trip. The prospect of her giving up so easily made me sing out loud and clear.
        “Let me try to explain something to you,” I began. Women (particularly Jewish ones, I suspect) have a ridiculous way of pursuing what they want in life. They rarely, if ever, come out and say what it is they want. They expect other people to simply intuit their desires from their facial expressions, or body language, or maybe even sheer mental telepathy.
        psychicreaderimage2.jpgSometimes they go so far as to insist that they don’t want something when they’re actually desperate to have it. They expect the other person to read between the lines, ignore their protests, and realize that, although they’ve firmly declined an offer – for a slice of cake, a cup of tea, or a lift to the doctor or airport – they’d do almost anything to have it.
        And I happen to know that because I happen to be a woman, a Jewish one, who has been relying on subtle nuances and subliminal messages to absolutely no avail for her entire life.
        Christoph hadn’t asked her to sing in Austin yet simply because he wasn’t even thinking about it, I said. And he’d failed to pick up on any signals she’d sent, not due to his surfeit of facial hair, but rather his ability to grow it. He was a man, and men just don’t operate that way.
        “Face it,” I said. “Men don’t intuit or notice nuances. If you want something from a man, you need to state it, clearly and directly. Just ask him. Seriously. The worst he can say is no.”
       Being female, my daughter dug her heals in and continued to argue with me (even though she secretly wanted to agree). Finally, she summoned her nerve and composed a fairly direct yet diplomatic text message. Typical of most cellphone messages, it was somewhat lacking in punctuation.
           “Chris, just wanted to say thank you for everything this weekend. Listen theres something i need to ask you. Its about sxsw. I was offered a gig that sunday night. I was gonna go to sxsw, but i know kathy + damien are going so i wouldn't be singing, and i feel like itd be silly to go and miss a gig when i'm not performing. But before i say yes to the gig today, just wanted to make sure that i wasn't needed.”

Anxiously, she pressed “send,” then went upstairs to her room, presumably to fret. An hour later, she came down screaming. “They want me!” she cried. Then she added something that will be eternally fresh music to my ears, for as long as I live.
 “You were right!” she said.

So much for our final family vacation. But I don’t mind. It’s almost Purim. It’s almost Pesach. It might as well be spring. And then, soon enough, it will be summer. Summer vacation, anyone?Allegrasingingsparklydress2.jpg
Meanwhile, my daughter is flying to Texas tonight. The band is playing six shows and opening for Counting Crows. (And don’t make the mistake that I did and call them The Counting Crows, thereby branding myself as an automatic fogey, according to a friend who’s far more familiar with rock. I guess that’s like saying The Jefferson Airplane or The Foreigner – not just wrong, but absurdly formal, like calling Meatloaf “Mr. Loaf.”)
       I must confess that after learning that the band planned to shack up with some other friends at the festival, cramming a dozen young people into two small hotel rooms, I insisted on booking her and the b.f. a room of their own. (I don’t mean to spoil her, but honestly: We’re not rockers. We’re Jews. We don’t share bathrooms or beds that communally.)
My daughter called today to discuss final plans. “I can’t wait to get there,” she said. But almost in the same breath, she admitted, quite directly, to at least a twinge of regret.
“You know, I kind of wish we were going somewhere together,” she confessed.TheAllmanBrothersalbumcover.jpg
I told her how excited I was that she was going to Texas instead, somewhere I’ve never been. Still, I disclosed my fear that the family trip will become a thing of the past. Like Peter, Paul & Mary. Disco music. The Dave Clark Five. Or, yes, show tunes. Recalled fondly – with nostalgia -- but from another distant era that is undeniably over.
“No, we’ll still have them,” she ventured. “They may just not be only the four of us.” Girlfriends and boyfriends will soon be included, then my kids’ husbands and wives. Or dare I even say it? Some new, smaller members of the family. But I’d rather not start singing that tune just yet.
        That would brand me an instant fogey.
And I’m not an old fogey. I listen to Fleetwood Mac. The Allman Brothers. I’m still kind of hip. Right?
12:28 pm 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Word From the Weiss

        Before I admit to my latest little indiscretion, let me say this: Forgive me if this weekly forum has quickly evolved into my personal online confessional. As if unloading my latest mix-up or bout of misbehavior might fascinate you or maybe even make you feel better. As you well know, we Jews don’t do Confession. Yes, we transgress. We do things to excess. We mess up and moan about it as much as the next guy (or goy). We just have nowhere to purge our consciences, to leave our misdeeds curbside along with our empty bottles and cans.
        Screw-ups, after all, are not the same as screw-tops. They are not recyclable. And even if they were, we’d probably still hold onto our guilt. Stick it on some psychological shelf for safe-keeping or future self-flagellation. Savor it in reruns, like Seinfeld.
        JoelatCharliesgraduation.jpgSo there I was, on the phone with my brother last Friday. As I’ve noted before, he phones me almost daily, even when nothing much is going on. When I’m having a tough time, he checks in more often. Lately, he’s been calling a lot.
        “What are you guys doing this weekend?” he asked. Other than attending a Purim rehearsal, we were doing nothing. And by “nothing,” I mean nothing. Nothing Friday. Nothing Saturday. Nothing Sunday.
        “You?” I asked.
        He said his wife was away visiting relatives, so he was meeting a group of our old friends for dinner near our hometown. Among them was one of his female sidekicks from high school, a high-spirited and chatty woman named Betsy whom I’d always liked, but hadn’t seen in 40 years.
        They were convening at a homey, family-style Italian restaurant I’d never tried. I pictured platter-sized plates overflowing with pasta. Long-lost friends hugging and howling with hilarity over long-forgotten memories of youth. And a small light clicked on in my head. Like a lighthouse beaming over a cold, black sea or a flashlight flicked on in the middle of the night.
       Dare I even suggest it?
        “Gee, I’d hate to insinuate myself into your plans, but I’d love to see Betsy,” I said.
        My brother, amazingly, actually enjoys my company. I didn’t need to ask twice.
        “Are you kidding?” he asked. “We’d love to have you. Seriously. You should come!”
        “Eh,” I replied.
        My own spouse, you see, was not away for the weekend. Far from.
        As I mentioned in a recent blog entry, my husband has been struggling with a painful hernia. His surgery was slated for last Tuesday afternoon. It was supposed to be a relatively simple outpatient procedure, performed laparoscopically at a nearby surgical center.
        Supposed to be. It did not go as planned.
        Laparoscopic, or “keyhole,” surgery minimizes the pain and recovery time that normal abdominal surgery entails by using some sort of camera device attached to a tiny rod. As I understand it, rather than making the customary lengthy incision, the doctor creates a nominal hole or two near the navel. There’s less bleeding. Fewer sutures required. Within a few days, the patient is expected to be comfortably back on his or her feet. Maybe even back at work.
        My husband was so confident that all would go well that he had firmly insisted I plan to attend a big concert that night in which our daughter, an aspiring singer, was performing in Boston. She'd been rehearsing for this event for months. Along with wishing he could join me there overnight himself, he recognized the extent to which I was beyond burnt out from having taken care of ailing family members in recent times – my mother, our daughter, and (after two hip replacements and assorted illnesses) him, not to mention, just two weeks ago, our sweet dog Zoe, who had not survived. He perceived that I was at my wit’s end. He also was reluctant “to be a burden,” he said.
        AllegraattheAlchemist2.jpgTo allay my misgivings about leaving him alone after surgery, he had arranged for a young man who is a close friend of our son’s to stay with him in our home overnight. All that he expected of me, he asserted, was that I drive him to and from the procedure. He didn’t even want me to wait there while it was underway. That, at least, is what he said.
        Being neither a cold fish nor an optimist, I chose to disregard all of these instructions. I’d packed an overnight bag for Boston, just in case things actually went without a hitch. But I intended to remain on hand while the procedure took place, and at the very least get him settled at home before even considering driving to the concert, a good 100 miles away.
         Tuesday turned out to be unusually sunny, and the window-lined waiting room was uncomfortably overheated. We had been instructed to arrive an hour in advance. Then the doctor was delayed indefinitely. I realized that I’d be sitting in that room for perhaps five hours. So as soon as my husband was finally wheeled into the O.R., I decided to take a walk.
        Good thing that inertia intervened, as it often does for me lately, and I didn’t.
        Twenty minutes after the surgery had begun, the receptionist called my name. The doctor needed to speak with me. Right away, she said.
        The procedure had been expected to take an hour. This couldn't be a good thing. Had he found something awful upon opening my husband up? Pacing frantically, I flew into panic mode.
        But when the doctor came out, he seemed composed. I caught my breath.
        The problem, he explained, was that he had unexpectedly encountered extensive scar tissue in my husband’s abdomen. Somehow, he had never been clued in about the major car accident my husband had survived 22 years ago, one that had shattered his spleen, shredded his diaphragm, and temporarily displaced most of his internal organs. There was no way that he could perform the procedure laparoscopically, he said.
        Instead, he gave me a choice: He could close up the holes he’d already made, wait for my husband to wake up, and then get his permission to operate via a regular incision at some future date. Or I could give my permission to do the procedure with a full incision now.
        My husband is a bit of a hypochondriac, feels great anxiety about getting general anesthesia, and was already on the operating table comfortably sedated. “Now,” I said.
        I still wonder what would have happened had I taken that walk, or just dropped him off, as he’d urged. Would they have bothered to try to contact me by cell phone? And if they hadn’t reached me right away, might they simply have closed him up and gone on to the next guy (or goy)?
        I also cringe thinking of all the time I've killed wandering around hospital corridors while waiting for family members to get out of surgery. I secretly relish cafeteria food, but may never see the inside of a hospital dining hall again.MrNinphoto.jpg
        When he woke up afterwards, my husband was very disoriented. He was also, I must admit, a little belligerent, although he was extremely grateful about the choice I’d made once the sedation wore off. After the anesthesia wore off, though, he was in considerable pain. Besides, after he’d had full-fledged surgery, there was no way I was going to Boston that night. (I still think it was a little crazy that they sent him home with me an hour later. Shouldn’t he have been hospitalized? But such is life, or life as we now know it, in the era of managed care.)
        So I stayed home with my husband that night, and almost round-the-clock through Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Each morning, I prepared a hearty breakfast – cooked oatmeal, scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit and coffee – then served him a nice, healthy dinner each night. I also ran up and down the stairs repeatedly, fetchng him things to drink, medications, socks, pillows, salt and pepper, and anything else he might desire.
       And by Saturday afternoon, I realized that I was beginning to go out of my mind.
        For two full weeks, ever since Zoe had died, I’d been virtually confined to our house, gazing morosely at all of the places my adored dog had always been and now no longer was. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so shut in, so hopeless and dispirited. I sensed that I needed a change of scene almost as deeply as I needed to breathe.
        My brother phoned repeatedly, urging me to come. I desperately wanted to join him. My husband even encouraged me to go. But how, in good conscience, could I leave him alone?
        We briefly discussed the prospect of his coming with me. But the trip was an hour and 45 minutes each way, and dinner would be over so late that I intended to stay overnight. He was exhausted and still recovering. He needed rest as much as I needed a respite.
        I persuaded him to phone a couple of male friends whose wives were out of town. Perhaps they’d come to visit or join him for a movie out, which wouldn’t be too taxing. But one said he had to stay home and do his taxes. The other already had other plans.
        Then I prepared my husband a plate for dinner that night and another for breakfast the next morning. And I picked up the overnight bag that was still packed from my aborted Boston trip four days earlier.
        And still, I hesitated to go. Although this time it had nothing to do with inertia.
        My husband asserted that he didn’t mind at all, was actually happy to have some time alone to relax, and would be perfectly fine reading and watching TV.
        “So, what’s the problem?” he asked. “If the shoe were on the other foot, would you mind if I went?”
        I thought about it for about 10 seconds. “Yes,” I said. “To be honest, I’d be furious.”
        I could only imagine what I’d say under those circumstances, how incensed I’d be. How bitterly I’d probably complain about him to friends. “He left me, after I had surgery. He went out to dinner…in Westchester! He left me alone on a Saturday night. All night!”
        And isn’t the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Not, “Do unto others as they tell you to, even if you think it’s wrong”?
        Then again, the proverbial shoe has never once been on the proverbial other foot. He’s always been the patient. I’ve always been the dutiful nurse. Time and time again.
        And this time, I was worn out and in no shape to take care of anyone. I could hardly take care of myself.
        Roaringfireimage.jpgSo I got in the car and drove. I met my brother at our good friend Mark’s house, where we relaxed in the living room, chatting cheerily in front of a gorgeous, roaring fire. Then we drove to the restaurant, where we joined Rob, an incredibly sweet guy we grew up with, and his lovely wife Lynn, as well as Betsy and her husband Rick.
       And as much as I'd basked for two weeks in the concern and compassion of close friends -- friends who had continued to console me about the loss of our dog and had let me recount the details ad nauseum -- I can’t tell you what a relief it was to be surrounded by upbeat people who knew nothing about my heartache.
         Continuing to wallow in misery among them seemed incongruous. I had no choice but to act normal and be sociable. It was like taking a vacation from grief.
        A vacation to Northern Italy, via North White Plains, New York.
        lasagneimage1.jpgThe food at La Manda’s was just as plentiful and sumptuous as I’d imagined. The animated conversation was more so. It was also even more exhilarating than I’d anticipated to reconnect with Betsy, who was clearly happy in her marriage, ecstatic to have recently reinvented herself as a jewelry designer, and brimming with juicy updates about countless former classmates --- who had turned out to be gay, who had died or been divorced, and who was living with whom.
        Afterwards, we returned to Mark’s family’s exquisite home, where he continued to ply us with assorted beverages and to behave like the consummate host he always is. A fellow writer, he’s widely read and traveled, well-informed, and a scintillating conversationalist on an unlimited range of topics. A description that pretty much sums up my big bro, too.
        Presidentialsuite1.jpgAfter an hour or so of lively banter, and, yes, a small snifter of Amaretto liqueur, I was assigned to the well-appointed master bedroom, quarters so spacious and replete with antiques that Mark aptly refers to them as “the Presidential Suite.”
It truly felt like spending the night at a five-star country inn.
        So why, soon after I turned in, was my body suddenly racked with mysterious stomach pains just below the rib cage, so excruciatingly sharp that I could barely sleep? Had I simply overindulged or eaten something that disagreed with me? Had the heavy, greasy meal, which had begun with shared appetizers like fried calamari and concluded with chocolate-dipped cannolis, provoked a gallbladder attack or some other gastric malady? Might I be developing an ulcer?
        And if it were an ulcer, was it the result of struggling to rebound prematurely from my grief because I feared that everyone I knew was sick of hearing about it? Or was it the product of guilt over having cavalierly abandoned my ailing spouse?
        I don’t know.
        What I do know is that I need to start taking better care of myself. That I did need a brief break, as we all sometimes do. And that I need to give myself permission to take the occasional vacation from self-doubt, self-flagellation and, yes, my Jewish guilt, before I make myself genuinely sick.
        I also know that, despite those pains and a semi-sleepless night, I still felt better the next morning than I had in weeks. As I cruised homeward on I-84 the next morning, a small part of me still craved a longer respite and regretted that I wasn’t driving in the other direction, toward New York City for an adventure, or maybe even parts unknown.
        And, yeah, I felt a small twinge of guilt about that.
        But my husband was just fine when I returned and seemed to harbor no resentment. In my brief absence, he’d even weaned himself off the painkillers. (In fact, I suspect he was secretly thrilled to get me out of the way, so he could get back to drinking wine, which I had vehemently banished in the presence of Percoset.)
        So no harm was done, and maybe even some good. I needed to get away. He needed space. We needed some time apart.
        Since then, my stomach pains have continued to slowly subside. And as much as my husband keeps urging me to go to the doctor, I’ve decided to wait and see. I’ve had enough of the medical profession for the moment, and can only imagine what they’d find if anyone dared to open me up: Calamari, half a cannoli, and a whole lot of unresolved angst.
        Besides, my daughter has another concert this week. My bags are packed. I’m ready to go. And if anyone tries to stop me, they’re really going to need to see a doctor.
11:02 am 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.