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Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Ravinglunatic.jpgIf you’re ready for a break from our new little darling, then only imagine how I feel. Fortunately, this past Wednesday I actually got one (and I don’t mean a cathartic walk around the block to clear my head; I mean a real break in terms of both time and space, so that I could regain my sanity or at least some semblance of composure and stop shrieking at my husband almost ’round the clock LIKE A TOTAL RaViNG LUnATiC!!!). As it happened, my sister-in-law and I have been planning a trip to Kripalu for ages, and when at long last she finally zeroed in on going last week, I readily agreed to join her.
What’s Kripalu, you ask? I’m talking about true Mecca when it comes to meditation. I’m talking about the largest and best-known holistic retreat throughout North America. I’m talking about the famed Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in Lenox, Massachusetts.Kripalugrounds.jpg
This bucolic Shangri-la in the Berkshires, named after an Indian yoga master born in 1913, attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually for its enriching and energizing activities that focus on far more than yoga. Many guests come for extended stays to participate in rather hokey-sounding, holistic health programs ranging from “Living the Evolutionary Life: Through Death, Beyond and Reincarnation” (May 11-13) and “The Mantras of Spiritual Warriors” (June 1-3) to “Transforming Stress: Mindful Living and the Art ofSwamiKripalu.jpg Nourishment” (Oct. 28 – Nov. 1). Others come seeking a rejuvenating weekend in the mountains complete with meditative walks, massages and other therapeutic services (although posh like the lavish nearby Canyon Ranch this is not; most of its overnight accommodations are so Spartan that you’re better off thinking “yoga motel with healthy meals" than actual spa).KarenonFacebook.jpg
My brother had won a three-day gift certificate to the place for my sister-in-law at a fund-raiser several years ago, and she decided to extend this by registering for a five-day program that was more practical than spiritual in nature, focusing on nutrition and weight loss (not that she actually needs to lose any weight -- she looks great!).
It’s also possible to go for just a day visit, however, and considering that I live within a 90-minute drive of the place, and that this sort of so-called R&R Retreat runs a mere $100 ($120 on Saturdays), including three meals, I chose to go for just a quickie instead. I’d done this twice before with my book group and returned feeling as renewed and relaxed as if I’d sent my entire being, both body and soul, to the drycleaners.Kripaluyogaposetwisted.jpg
After all, according to its promotional pamphlet, Kripalu (pronounced “kri PAH loo”) aims to be “a place for people to develop physical health, nurture emotional wellness, and draw spiritual sustenance.” So it seemed a little ironic that when I texted my sister-in-law, Karen, the afternoon before my arrival, she informed me that on her second day there she’d come down with either food poisoning or a virus and was still in the throes of severe gastric distress. After being up all night, she was still unable to keep anything down, felt completely sapped of energy and sounded like she was on the verge of passing out.
I’m not casting any aspersions on the food or the cleanliness of the facilities there, mind you. In past visits, I’ve found the premises to be pristine and the meals to strike a remarkable balance by being both ultra-healthful and incomparably delicious. However, I was extremely alarmed about her condition. She was all alone in her room, with nothing but water to drink and barely able to stand up, and I was frantic to get her some help.Joelheadshotwithglasses.jpg
I briefly considered calling my brother to see if he knew of her plight. But he’s a highly successful criminal defense attorney, and one of the reasons she’d chosen to go last week was that he was in the midst of a major trial and was scheduled to be in court daily. Perhaps she had elected not to worry him, under the circumstances. Besides, what could he do for her? He was down on Long Island, even further away than I was.
So I decided to take matters into my own hands instead, which, if you ask me, is always the best approach if you want to be sure that something gets done. I called Kripalu to report Karen’s conditionGatorade.jpg and request that someone quickly bring her either some ginger ale, Gatorade, or other beverage with electrolytes to remedy what I feared was serious dehydration. After being transferred twice, I wound up speaking to the head of guest services, who said that she’d be happy to help, but she was about to go into a short meeting and also couldn’t provide anything unless a guest made a request herself.
I tried to remain polite as I told her I understood and that this wouldn’t be a problem. Then I texted Karen, who called to make the request personally. With luck, she was soon supplied with an assortment of appropriate beverages and feeling significantly better. I proposed postponing my visit for a day (which the guest services director had said she would allow under the circumstances, despite their strict cancellation policy). But Karen insisted that she was up to it and wanted me to come as planned, so (armed with Saltines and a large assortment of sports drinks and other healthy beverages) I did.Kripalumainbuilding.JPG
Kripalu can be found just a few hundred yards past the entrance to Tanglewood, the pastoral summer home of the Boston Pops. The original main building, the largest private home in America when it was erected in 1893, went through several incarnations in ensuing years, serving briefly as Andrew Carnegie’s summer retreat and for nearly 50 years as a Jesuit monastery. But when the original building burned down in 1956, the Jesuits replaced it with the current brick structure, a rather austere and inelegant one at that. The interior is much more gracious, however, and the grounds, encompassing 150 rambling acres including sweeping lawns and a vast lake, are panoramic and exquisite.YogaposeatKripalu.jpg
Karen and I had agreed to meet at 9 a.m. at the first class of the day, a Qigong (and don’t even ask me to pronounce that). The program guide described it as “Chinese yoga energy exercises to train the body, aim the mind and feel an easeful spiritual presence,” and went on to explain, “This Taoist healing art uses breath, motion, and meditation to restore balance and vitality.” Led by Ken Nelson, a rather jacked-looking former Fulbright lecturer and Kripalu scholar-in-residence, this 90-minute session consisted of assorted slow-motion yoga moves performed both standing and sitting. We became “the Mountain,” “the Warrior,” and various goddesses and whatnot while Nelson dispensed assorted Eastern-sounding aphorisms and other mumbo-jumbo meant to calm and strengthen the spirit.bowandarrows.jpg
One maxim that particularly struck a chord: “The Tao says that there are only two arrows. The first always gets through. The first arrow is called Pain. But we have a choice whether the second arrow gets through. The second arrow is called Suffering. We can prevent the second arrow from getting through by learning to forgive. Not necessarily to forget, but to forgive.”
I don’t have much in the way of physical pain, but like many a nice Jewish mom I’ve had my share of psychological suffering and have never thought of it as a choice. As for forgiveness, that’s something I also could really work on. And it’s not just a matter of needing a little R&R. I’m far better at holding a grudge than holding my tongue. “Learn to forgive” is far from my own personal mantra, especially when it comes to the various schmucks who have crossed my kids. That’s when I truly become “The Warrior.” It’s more like “Don’t get mad. Get even.”Kripaluwritingteacherstanding.JPG
What I had mostly come to Kripalu for was to get away, though, so I’m not sure the following class was exactly what the doctor (or yoga master) would have ordered. Entitled “Swift Ink,” this 50-minute program offered a series of quick writing exercises “designed to dissolve the internal editor and allow you to “speak your truth.” ’ The participants, about 25 of us seated in a wide circle on black canvas mats equipped with back supports, were supplied with pens and paper and given four simple rules:
1) Keep you pen on the page.
2) Don’t cross anything out.
3) Don’t pause to read what you’ve written.
        4) Keep going till you hear the chime.
Then we were provided with a number of different writing “prompts,” meant to stimulate our creative juices, and allowed to scribble for 10 minutes about each.
“Remember your first crush,” instructed the program facilitator. “OK, go!”
Of course I jumped in right away, but I must say this particular prompt didn’t do much for me. In fact, I don’t think the program was for me at all. I'm not a swift, spontaneous, free-spirited writer. I'm a slow, painstaking and methodical one who likes to craft my words and go on at great length (in case you haven't noticed).PattieatKripaluheadshot.jpg
        Also, I have no desire whatsoever to silence my “internal editor.” My internal editor is actually much sharper than my spontaneous, unadulterated, blurt-it-out-self. I’m my own internal editor’s biggest fan. But this wasn’t her moment. So here’s what that other person had to say:
Remember your first crush: Jeez, how far back does first go? I was in kindergarten. That tells you the truth about girls – we always wanted a boy to be more than a friend. Mark Eckstein lived down the block. But he’s not the one I really want to tell you about. That goes back just too far. Let’s fast-forward to my first obsession. Phil. He was my brother’s best friend. Or was he mine? I spied him across my classroom during 9th grade biology, clowning with my brother in the window. Did you say crush? I say obsession. That was the end for me, or should I say the start of something bad – real bad? Before long, he was finding excuses to give me a lift home after school in his parents’ Plymouth Duster on the pretext of coming by to visit my big bro, who was, of course, nowhere to be found in this scenario. I would give him a snack, a drink and my full attention (make that gaze of pure adoration) as he sat in our living room, practicing piano on our upright, as though he were alone and I didn’t exist. Did I? For him? Summers, he would write me at camp. So I guess maybe I did.
And then the chime went off. (That is to say, the facilitator called out, “Chime!”)Kripaluwritingteachersitting.JPG
She asked for volunteers to read their work aloud, and several people readily obliged. And in each case the leader -- a sweet, gentle, former creative writing instructor from Rutgers who’d left the pressures of academia and city life behind and now worked at Kripalu full-time – always found something positive and encouraging to comment. This, however, was when my internal editor really took over. And what it told me was that what I had blurted out on the page was just babble and barely the beginning of a story, and it was hardly good enough for public consumption. So I chose to keep mum, hoping that the next prompt might yield something more profound or worthy of being aired.
The next one began like this: “Describe your favorite meal using all five senses. Go!”
It’s probably lame to admit this, but at the tender age of ___ (a number I hesitate to admit), I am ready to confess that I love nothing more than my own cooking. But maybe that’s just because my mother is no longer alive to cook for me. Now that was real food. I guess I learned from the best.matzahballsouppicture2.jpg
So… it’s Passover, as it was a week or so ago, and there’s a brisket re-warming in the oven and fresh matzah ball soup simmering on the stove. The soup scents every molecule of air for miles around, and it says Mom, Grandma and home. And guess who’s home to eat it? Both of my children are there, to sink their teeth into not just a magical combination of soft, succulent clouds and sweet, golden broth succumbing to their eager mouths, but also generations of love, suffering, schmaltz and hugs as only I can deliver them. I hear the gentle bubbling of devotion on the stove, the heat and heartfelt yearning for childhood rising to fill my nostrils. Yes, they’re home, and so am I.
Once again, I listened to several other brave souls read their creations, to the teacher’s unequivocal approval. Once again, I read through my own words and thought, “What drivel! Needs work.” So I kept my hand down, even when she said, “Just one more,” and a young woman from Manhattan read her own account of Passover dinner.PattieinNov1981.JPG
I won’t even dare to bore you with my rather feeble response to the third prompt, which was simply, “Describe your childhood room.” Suffice it to say that it was no better than either of the first two, not to mention a good deal darker in spirit, and I deemed it much too bleak to unleash to a room full of strangers who were virtually on vacation (even if I do divulge much of my dirty laundry to the world at large in this blog each week). So I kept silent again, hoping that the next prompt would prove more fruitful.
By now, however, nearly all of our time was up, and our fourth and final prompt turned out not to be a writing exercise so much as a listing one. We were directed to simply enumerate ten things that were blue. Then we went around the room as each person was allowed to contribute one thing from their list.
“My toenails,” said one.blueeye.jpg
Several others stated “eyes,” although one easily outdid them by specifying with exuberance and sheer delight in her own eyes, “The eyes my new grandchild will have.”
I merely offered the first item on my roster, which was a song title, and not so much a blue thing as, well, a blues thing: “Blue Moon.”
The most memorable contribution to this litany of all things blue, however, easily blew mine out of the water. It was also, luckily, the last comment of the session, because anything said after it would have paled by comparison:MonicaLewinsky.jpg
“Monica Lewinsky’s dress.”
By now I was really ready for some R&R and I don’t mean reading or writing. Fortunately, it was time for yoga dance, which is without question my favorite activity offered at Kripalu or almost anywhere else.
Yoga’s not for you, you say? Fine. I’m not so sure it’s for me, either. But yoga dance is for everyone, or almost everyone. My sister-in-law and I tried to imagine my brother doing it, and I must confess that it definitely wouldn’t be for him. Neither, although I’m not drawing any comparisons of any sort, would it conceivably be right for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, or almost any politician I can think of, although I can easily envision Michelle Obama totally getting into it, and perhaps even Barack himself.
The “it” I speak of is a little hard to categorize because it’s not quite like anything else I've ever experienced. Or to be more precise, it's like many things I have experienced rolled into one, because it's one of those “fusion” things. You’ve heard of Asian fusion, and Tex-Mex fusion, as well as nuclear fusion, no doubt. Well, this is Chakra fusion. And if that isn’t making it any clearer, then I’m afraid I will have to resort to the promotional literature I found for it online.Yogadance1.JPG
Yoga dance, it says, a concept copyrighted more fully as “Let Your Yoga Dance,” is for all ages and stages of health, including those sidelined by injury or even in a hospital bed. “It is a funky, sacred, inspirational dance of the multi-dimensional self… We dance the Yoga of the wild and woolly, the sexy and silly, the deep and delicious. We wrap ourselves in our biggest embodied self while dancing beyond our dreams… We dance our animal archetypes and our spirit prayers…We dance our energy, inviting it to flow upward from the base of our spine up through the crown of the head, and back down to earth again. Result? A blissful body, joyous heart, a steady and quiet mind.”YogaDance2.jpg
Got that? Or still not quite getting the picture? Well, I’d like to show you a few pictures, but it felt a little uncool, not to mention unsexy, anti-spiritual and far from funky to be standing there taking photos with my iPhone while everyone else was sashaying around the room dancing their animal archetypes and spirit prayers. So the best I could do was surreptitiously snap these few shots while pretending to pause for a quick sip of water in the midst of letting my biggest embodied self shimmy with unfettered gyrationsYogadance3.JPG
Let’s just say that we checked all of our usual inhibitions at the door and proceeded to channel the spirit of the supreme Hindu deity Shiva, as well as the spirit of Motown. We “Ohmed” through various mantras and danced to new-age music and “angel” music. We stood back to back with a chosen partner and gyrated wildly so that our tushies jiggled like Jell-o against one another. We formed smaller circles and boogied to a medley of pop tunes from the ’50s and ’60s. We let our arms flutter gracefully toward the sky as though invoking past lives, and we twisted again like we did last summer.Meghaheadshot.jpg
We did all this under the lively direction of a free-spirited woman-slash-goddess named Megha, a.k.a. Nancy Buttenheim, who is evidently the president and founder of the Let Your Yoga Dance movement, a longtime staff member at Kripalu, and by all outward appearances the single happiest person I have ever encountered anywhere. It wasn’t just her infectiously incandescent smile. Her whole body seemed to be lit from within, making you want to do a whole lot of Yoga dance, along the lines of the woman in When Harry Met Sally who sees Meg Ryan going into (simulated) orgasmic ecstasy in Katz’s Delicatessen and wryly proclaims, “I’ll have what she’s having.”MegRyaninWhenHarryMetSally.jpg
In fact, all of this vigorous, spirit-lifting activity helped spawned a healthy appetite. So, having missed breakfast, I accompanied Karen to Kripalu’s cavernous dining hall.leafygreens.JPG
As I mentioned earlier, the food there is both appetizing and incomparably healthy. Although there is both a vegetarian line and a so-called Basics Bar offering brown rice, millet and other gluten-free options, the main buffet is not strictly vegetarian. It simply emphasizes a mostly plant-based bounty, boasting a vast salad bar plus a large array of options leaning heavily toward kale, Swiss chard and other veggies of the leafy green persuasion. Still, I felt a little ashamed to arrive with my tray overflowing with vegetable soup, chickpeas, quinoa and other colorfulKripaluplateofveggies2.jpg offerings, and take a seat at one of the long, communal tables opposite Karen, who was still recovering from her stomach malady and nibbling only a piece of whole-grain bread slathered lightly in organic peanut butter.
Rather than rush off to another class afterwards, we decided to take a leisurely stroll around the magnificent grounds. We wandered through a painted, Asian-looking trellis into the labyrinth (a small maze, not exactly on Greek-myth scale, just a series of concentric circular paths beaten through a tranquil stand of gently sculpted shrubbery). Then we ambled down a woodsy trail to the shores of the lake, which offers kayaking in warmer weather.Kripalulabyrinth.JPG
Given the brisk mountain air and Karen’s still somewhat fragile state, we then repaired to her room for a chat and some real R&R. I’d never set foot inside the guest rooms before and must say that hers was even more ascetic and austere than I’d envisioned – just a stark college-dorm-style, 8-by-12 garret with two twin beds and a sink -- despite the somewhat hefty prices ($188 to $203 weekdays and $214 to $229 weekends for a private standard room with a shared communal bathroom in the hall).Kripalustandardroom.jpg
There are also far more luxurious accommodations in a newer building called the Annex, although these come at even heftier rates ($284 to $336 for a private room on weekends). Then again, bear in mind that these presumably include three meals a day. And for those on a budget, there are also dormitory rooms with bunk beds that sleep 5 to 22 people each for a mere $84 midweek and $95 on weekends. Now that’s a bargain.Kripaludormitoryroom.jpg
But I’m not so desperate to do yoga that I’d be willing to bunk with a bevy of total strangers. In fact, to be frank, I wasn’t and never am all that desperate to do yoga at all. But what would a day spent at Kripalu Center for Yoga and health without a little yoga?
So after putting our feet up for awhile, we headed over to one of the simultaneous late afternoon yoga sessions, which, to accommodate the full gamut of visitors to the center, come in three flavors: gentle, moderate and vigorous. Which did we choose? You get one guess.yogamatatKripalu.JPG
After removing our shoes (an absolute requirement for all activities at the center), we entered a cavernous room with sky-high ceilings to discover that, once again, the ever-mirthful Megha would be our guide. This meant that the session was as uplifting as the rays of sun ethereally streaming through the high-set windows. But it was also as gentle as advertised, with more chanting and stretching than straining, and far less in the way of typical yoga poses like Downward Facing Dog than merely lying down.
The fact is, though, that among the many aspects of yoga that I find daunting is that it’s so relaxing that I’m almost guaranteed to drift off during the final meditation. When I find myself napping, albeit involuntarily, in a roomful of total strangers, I can’t help but worry that I’m apt to begin snoring loudly. And after consuming a hearty assortment of leafy greens, there’s the far greater danger of accidentally emitting, er, other audible sounds.
Considering how somnambulistic I grew by the end, as always, I cannot say for sure that neither of these dreaded yoga faux pas befell me or anyone around me. However, 90 minutes later Karen and I were seated cross-legged on our mats, bowing with hands clasped as we bid a soulful “Namaste” (which is, essentially, the Indian shalom) to each other and everyone around us.Kripaluplate.JPG
Then it was time to repair to the dining room again for yet more salad, whole grains and leafy greens. And although I hadn’t restrained myself in the slightest during lunch, after all the day’s activities and that jaunt in the fresh mountain air I had no trouble whatsoever chowing down yet again and finishing it all off with a slice of yummy fig tart.
There is no TV or other media of any kind on the premises, as far as I can see. In fact, having now read the guidelines restricting the use of cell phones to only designated areas I now see why I attracted so many disapproving scowls during the day. Each night, however, there is some form of entertainment scheduled, although considering that we’re talking about a yoga center, a rock concert or Vegas showgirl act it is not.Kirtanroom.JPG
The night that I was there, the evening’s activity was something called a kirtan. I have always wanted to attend a kirtan, although I’ve never been quite sure what it was. Now was my chance.
Karen and I returned to the scene of our yoga class, which was now filled with rows of those low mats and rendered hipper and more sophisticated with the introduction of low lighting. Seated on the floor at the front was a guitarist named Eddy Nataraj, evidently somewhat celebrated for his knack for setting mantras to music.EddyinKirtanatKripalu.JPG
Accompanied by a trio of other musicians, including a keyboarding and drummer, he led the crowd in a series of vocal exercises. Here was the drill: He would chant a series of sounds that may or may not have been composed of actual Indian words, and then the crowd would chant it back. Then he would chant it again. And we would chant it back.
“Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung!” he intoned, crooning what is evidently a universal healing mantra, using a series of notes far too non-melodic to be dignified by the term “tune.”
“Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung!” we echoed back in the darkness, softly in unison.
This sequence was repeated over and over again. After about the fortieth rendition, I leaned over to Karen and whispered under my breath, “This is beginning to get repetitive.”Pattieinyogawear.JPG
Sadly, I soon realized that when it came to repetitive, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This mantra gave way to many others that were no less intelligible and no more tuneful. After about 30 minutes that felt more like three hours, I realized that Mr. Nataraj could probably make a mint selling a CD of these incantations by marketing them as lullabies. That is, if I spent so much as one more minute at this kirtan, it would be curtains for me.
I hated to lure my sister-in-law away from the only diversion on the premises, but after an action-packed day, she seemed to be ready to drift off with a good book as well. So she walked me out to my car, and with a few deep yoga breaths of the invigorating mountain air, that been-to-the-dry-cleaners feeling was back.
I wrote her two days later to see how the rest of her sojourn in serenity had gone. Had she ever recovered her appetite enough to enjoy the delectable buffet? Any more mingling with Megha or delving into the joys of Yoga Dance? And, most crucial of all, “Any more kirtans for you?”
She texted back that by the last day her energy level had returned to normal, only for her to discover that “the dinner was awful, some flavorless, overcooked flounder and inedible pilaf.” Yet she’d had a nice massage and a fine, guided hike of the premises. As for my last question, she didn’t hesitate. “I have had my fill of kirtans for a lifetime.”
I proposed that return sometime with our daughters, but escape for at least part of the time to downtown Lenox for fabulous shopping and fine dining instead of kirtan and kale. As for those kirtans, I would have to agree. I had had my fill for a lifetime. Unfortunately, my brain has not and has been playing its new favorite tuneless tune on a continuous loop.
To see Megha performing Let Your Yoga Dance, click on the following link.
To experience a kirtan, say this phrase after me: Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung… then repeat about 40 times.
11:33 pm 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Word From the Weiss
        My husband and I spend so much time together, especially now that he’s working at home often to prevent me from blowing out both my brains and those of our spirited new puppy – not necessarily in that order – that it’s hard to find much to talk about. So I was excited when I remembered something that I’d forgotten to tell him over the weekend.MrNingrabbingMrsNininNY.jpg
        “Oh, here’s something that will interest you,” I began.
“Is it about sex?” he replied eagerly, suddenly all ears.
        I can't say what prompted his remark, since the number of times a year I choose to spontaneously begin bantering with my husband about sex is approximately none. So u
nfortunately, it wasn’t. And neither is this. But now that I’ve presumably gotten your attention, I hope this is something that will interest you at least a bit. In fact, if you have any suggestions for me, I would love to hear them. Because I could really use some advice.
Beyond being a devoted mother, reliable-to-the-max friend, passably decent wife and reasonably responsible citizen of the planet, I like to think of myself as a pretty nice neighbor.  And since moving to our current house, 13 years ago, we’ve had mostly amicable dealings with all the people on our block. But when we decided to get that spirited new puppy two weeks ago, I knew there was going to be a serious problem.Angryneighbor.jpg
It wasn’t a question of our little darling relieving herself on adjoining properties (although there was an unfortunate confrontation several years ago when one neighbor mistakenly thought that our previous dog had left a sizable deposit on his driveway, and he threatened me irately with what sounded like serious bodily harm).
It wasn’t about our dog disturbing the peace (we’re not the sorts of oblivious dolts who let our pets become a public nuisance by staying outside barking for hours).MailmanwithMilkbone.jpg
And it wasn’t about her biting the mailman (like Zoe, our last dog, Latke already seems to be a sucker for these men in uniform, thanks in no small part to their tendency to dispense Milkbones along with the mail).
The problem is that, despite my interminable kvetching about how she has curtailed my freedom and sabotaged my life, our new puppy is exceedingly cute. Irrepressibly cute. Irresistibly cute. Or so she is proving to one neighbor in particular.MotherTeresa.jpg
When we first moved in, 13 years ago, we discovered that one of our neighbors was arguably the nicest person in the world. OK, maybe we weren’t living next door to Mother Teresa, but pretty damn close. “Meg” was not just a former Peace Corps volunteer and longtime nurse, but the sort of selfless and incomparably kind woman who’d opted to become a single mother by adopting a special needs child from abroad.
That child, “Rosalita,” was 7 or 8 at the time and an affable and gregarious girl. Maybe a little too affable and gregarious. Starting from the first day, she began visiting us almost round-the-clock, routinely just waltzing into our house without even knocking.Megwithbaby.jpg
I must confess that I wondered at times why Meg was lax enough to let the girl wander around unsupervised, riding her bicycle up and down the block and paying such house calls at will. But I could only imagine how much effort it took to manage a child alone, let alone a child with special needs. I admired her boundless decency and unwavering geniality and wasn’t about to complain to her or cast any aspersions.Goodneighbors.jpg
I don’t remember if we ever got up our nerve to say something overt to her, or if Meg saw what was happening herself and took charge of the situation. But eventually those incessant house calls largely abated. We remained on good terms, exchanging pleasantries whenever we met on the street, and all was well between our households.
Until two weeks ago, that is.
        Over the years, Rosalita would often wander over to visit our previous dog (just as, I must confess, Zoe often wandered into their yard, although they never complained). An obvious animal lover, Rosalita invariably played delightedly and fairly gently with Zoe, who was always happy to see her. A few years ago, Meg gave in to the girl’s pleas and finally allowed her to get a dog of her own. But with Meg’s long hours at work, the animal was left out in the yard for much of the day, and began to bark relentlessly. I don’t know if other neighbors made a fuss – we certainly didn’t – but within a year it was gone.LatkeandRosalitasilhouetted.jpg
And so within a couple of days of our new pup’s recent arrival, Rosalita was back.
With our own children now grown and off on their own, we no longer keep the doors unlocked so that they can come and go at will. So she can’t just saunter in. But she still turns up several times daily, peering through the sliding glass door that leads to our back yard or knocking loudly, asking if she can come in to visit Latke again.
The first time she arrived, I welcomed her warmly, encouraging her to play with the puppy while I was cooking for Passover and even letting her help give the dog a bath. But my husband has been less than thrilled about the innumerable intrusions. This past Sunday, she came over seven or eight times. And when he would tell her -- gently at first, but later not so gently; rather gruffly, in fact – that this wasn’t a good time, she’d quickly depart, only to return within 20 minutes to see if it was a better time now.LatkewithDaddyinthediningroom.jpg
I argued with him at first that he was being cruel and insensitive, and that it wasn’t such an imposition to have the girl visit, since it was giving her such pleasure. But I came to regret this stance. When I insisted on letting her in Sunday morning, she got the dog so riled up that we then couldn’t get her down for her much-needed morning nap. That may sound like no big deal, but it largely ruined the day. When Latke becomes overtired, she grows manic and starts nipping, yipping and racing around uncontrollably. She drove us crazy for hours.
I also must admit that Rosalita undermines our painstaking efforts to train the animal, who’s just learning how to behave and is in the throes of teething right now. We’re trying to break her of her nasty nipping habit, but Rosalita just lets her gnaw away on her fingers, and after she leaves Latke is totally wired and starts doing it savagely to me. Of course I worry that the dog might hurt her, but I also feel a bit frustrated that Rosalita either continually disregards me or simply can’t manage to do something as simple as give the dog a toy or bone to sink her teeth into instead of her own flesh.LatkebitingRosalita2upright.jpg
I realize it’s probably absurd for me to expect the girl to heed my instructions, although Rosalita, now 20, is no longer a child. She clearly grasps what I’m saying; she just can’t seem to follow through at all. She also understandably doesn’t get normal social signals or have the slightest notion of what’s within the realm of reasonable amounts of contact.
On Monday morning, when my husband first opened the garage door to take Latke out, he found Rosalita standing there waiting. It was just past 7 a.m. She popped over again about 30 minutes later. He apparently told her she shouldn’t visit during the week because I work at home and can't be distracted. That discouraged her... for a few hours. Yet she still tapped on our door again just after 7 p.m. as I was putting the finishing touches on dinner.Pattiecookinginpolkadotapron.jpg
        I told her we were about to have supper, but it was fine for her to come in for five minutes, until we were ready to eat. My husband, I’d say, looked daggers at me, but it was actually more like carving knives.carvingknife2.jpg
Where is her mom during all of this? She still remains in my mind among the nicest people in the world, even if she lets the girl wander around without apparent restriction and does nothing to intervene in this burgeoning comedy of terrors.
Why, you might be wondering, doesn’t she? I’m probably, at least in part, to blame. The first time that Rosalita wandered over, Meg soon came by to retrieve her, clearly concerned that she might be overstaying her welcome. But trying to be a good and understanding neighbor, I assured her that Rosalita was welcome and that she was even helping me by entertaining the dog while I prepared for my holiday guests.
So now it appears that we will be entertaining Rosalita day and night, indefinitely.basketballandhoop.jpg
I’ve always made it a point to be kind to her, letting her play basketball in our driveway and instantly complying when she asks me, as she often does, to move a car that’s parked near the hoop, even if I’m right in the middle of writing or doing something else. But it’s one thing to let her amuse herself in our yard and another to let her become a constant house guest.
And even if I want to be neighborly and don’t mind her coming by so often, my husband clearly does. Her visits proliferate during the weekend, when she’s out of school… and he’s home from work. Can I really let her needs take precedence over his?
Although he’s inclined to say something to Meg about it, I keep urging him to wait. My hope is that she will eventually take notice herself and intervene. Or that perhaps the irresistible allure and novelty of our adorable new arrival gradually will begin to wane. Yet that seems far from likely to happen anytime soon, and I worry that before it does my husband will explode and say something so hostile to Rosalita that she will report back to Meg… and our long-amicable relationship will no longer be quite so neighborly.
He has suggested telling Rosalita that she must call us before she comes over. I seriously doubt that would work. Nor would it prevent him from hurting her feelings, because when he answers the phone, the answer to “Can I come over?” will invariably be “No.”Latkeat10weekssilhouetted.jpg
I've also considered setting up some sort of a schedule that would be kind to her and convenient for us. For example, she could be welcome to come over at the same time for a short visit every afternoon or evening. But the fact is that our lives aren’t that predictable. And you can’t schedule a puppy and its naps and moods any more than you can schedule, say, rain.
Maybe I’m ridiculous to hesitate to confront Meg, however gently it might be done. But in 13 years I have never once complained about Rosalita. Neither have we ever invited the two of them over for dinner – something I feel extremely guilty about – although they’ve had us over for large open house-style parties countless times on New Year’s Day and other occasions.
Perhaps the best answer is to invite them both over for a nice barbecue at long last and hope that the subject comes up, at which point we could be diplomatic, yet frank.Latkebitingonthegrass1.JPG
My friend Liz counseled that I sweetly ask Rosalita to stop coming over so much and offer to bring the dog over to her yard for frequent visits instead. That, at least, would spare my husband and help to restore shalom bayit (“peace in the household”) here.
        Our longtime dog sitter, Pet Nanny, cut right to the bone and advised that we prevent the girl from visiting anymore entirely. She says we need to explain to Meg that we're training the dog and simply can't have anyone around her who reinforces bad behavior. After all, we wouldn't allow a guest to feed our pet at the table just because they wanted to (something I made the mistake of doing with Zoe and lived to regret for years).
        In fact, we began puppy training classes this week and have already managed to get her to sit. No more biting, my sore fingers can only hope, isn't far behind.Redheadlosinghermindinverted.jpg
         Whatever we decide, we need to do something because
this is becoming an exasperating situation. So I’m open to other suggestions. I want to be a good neighbor. I want to be politically correct. But I also want to be a good puppy mom, passably decent wife, and reasonably responsible citizen of the planet.
Mostly, I want to figure out some tactful way to resolve this little dilemma before I blow my brains out, or those of our spirited new puppy… not necessarily in that order.

1:35 pm 

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Latkefacecloseup.JPGIn the jungle, the mighty jungle, the Latke sleeps tonight...
        Actually, it’s late morning in my living room, and I’ll have to give you this update fast. The rambunctious beast that is now ours is indeed sleeping soundly, but only for the moment. Last night? Not so much. We turned in at 1 a.m., but she needed to be patted back to sleep at 2, then demanded that I walk her around 4. Then she began whimpering just after 5. At 6:15, I shook my husband and declared, “Your turn!” Then I rolled over and continued snoozing… until almost 8. That’s when she began whining that she needed to go out again.
Yet I’m not complaining, really. Those pesto green eyes, that nose, that snout. She’s our precious baby girl. It’s astonishing how rapidly intense attachments can form between human beings and a live ball of fur.
Since picking her up on Saturday, March 31, my husband and I have collectively snapped at least 200 photos of her. There she is blinking! And sitting. And sleeping. And biting the heck out of my hand. Have you ever seen anything so demonic, yet adorable? I mean, ever?LatkewithPattieinblueshirt.JPG
OK, so there also have been plenty of moments when I’ve had some second and third thoughts and wished for my old unfettered life back (and not only at 4 a.m.). But I also find myself leaning down to kiss her fluffy head even when she’s not clawing at my clothing, clambering into my lap with a toy or otherwise clamoring for attention.
        I already find myself worrying that something terrible might befall this tiny creature that was a total stranger only days ago. Then again, something happened to make my still-ambivalent attitude change dramatically even before she arrived.
I was out walking in the park with my cousin the day before we collected her, enjoying a last taste of true freedom, when my husband called to remind me that we needed to pay for our 8-week-old bundle of canine joy in cold, hard cash.BoinfrontoftheWhiteHouse.jpg
I don’t even want to admit to you how much it costs to get a pure-bred Portuguese Water Dog (an amount that has doubtlessly outrun inflation ever since a PWD named Bo took up residence in the White House). But as I drove to the bank, I realized that I had never withdrawn quite that much in cash in my entire life, and how uncomfortable I felt doing it.
        I began to fret, a
s ridiculous as it may sound, that it might look a bit suspicious that I was withdrawing so much. Never mind that the teller who waited on me was one whom I’d dealt with for years. So after presenting my check and endorsing the back, I held up my iPhone to show her a photo of the Kahlua-colored treasure that this vast sum would buy.iphoneimagewithLatke.jpg
“We’re getting a dog tomorrow,” I explained to this woman, a robust blonde with a Russian accent as thick as borscht. “This dog.”
I expected her to smile back and nod, then ask to see my driver’s license -- the usual officious formality, even though she essentially knew me. But that’s not what happened. Instead, she reached beside her and held up a photo of her own toward my face. It was a small, framed snapshot of herself and a man that I instantly recognized, snapped in younger days.Blondewomanwithglasses.jpg 
“It is good you get dog,” she said with her heavy accent. “For many years, my husband, he wanted dog. I say to him, ‘No, we live on third floor. We cannot get dog.’”
Her eyes filled with tears as she gazed at the photo, then looked back at me. “Why did I say this? My poor husband. All he ever wanted was little dog. Now he will never have dog.”Russiancoupleframed.jpg
I looked at her in horror. Her companion in the picture was a heavy-set man with dyed, jet black hair I’d often observed driving around town in a huge, old Cadillac. Once, while parked nearby, I’d seen her come out of the bank and get into his car, and I'd realized that they were a pair. Many years had passed since then, although I sensed from the depth of her grief that her loss was fairly fresh.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I replied, fighting back tears myself. “Was he ill for very long?”
        She nodded grimly. I probably should have held my tongue beyond that, but on impulse I chose otherwise.LatkewithDaddyshirtopen.jpg
“I’m glad you told me,” I said. “My husband is the only reason we’re getting her. We had a wonderful dog who died suddenly a year ago, and after the agony of losing her I wasn’t intending to ever get another. But my husband just can’t stand living without one. We’re getting the puppy tomorrow entirely because of him.”
She nodded, sniffling pitifully, then, collecting herself, inquired whether I was willing to take the sizable sum I’d requested all in twenties. But after proffering two thick stacks of bills, she also doled out a last word of advice. “It is good you get dog,” she said. “You must do this for your husband. For me, it is too late. My husband will never have dog.”
I’ve thought of her words repeatedly since then, every time I’ve taken a step back and wondered why I went along with this ferkakta (Yiddish, essentially, for “f---ed up”) plan – which means I've pondered them all day, every day for nearly a week, since our precious pup woke up and sprang into action shortly after I began writing this and kept me busy for the rest of that day and all the rest that followed.Latkebitingfrog.JPG
I wrote all of the words above a week ago. Ever since then, between cooking and baking for Passover and taking care of her never-ending needs, I haven’t managed to put one single sentence together.
I haven’t been able to write. I haven’t been able to read. Whenever she’s awake, she demands so much attention that I can hardly unload the dishwasher. I can’t go anywhere when my husband’s at work because we’re not ready to leave her home alone, even confined to her crate. (We paid a teenager from down the block 25 bucks to pet sit while we went to our friends Pat and Michael’s seder on the first night of Passover.) And when my daughter and I went to a movie on Sunday night, my husband kindly volunteered to stay home.LatkewithPattieindress2.JPG
There are prisoners of war and prisoners of conscience. I am a prisoner of a canine, confined to my own house other than when I take her out to make periodic "business" calls to the designated patch of rocks outside our door.
Worst of all is the nonstop gnawing on my fingers and hair (yes, she bites my hair) because she’s teething. I try to shove chew sticks and toys into her gaping maw instead, but she’d rather chew on me. And when she gets tired, rather than growing lethargic she gets “the zoomies,” racing around the room in wide circles, yipping madly. She bares her teeth threateningly and essentially goes berserk.Latkebitingmyfinger.JPG
        So one moment she is nestling in my arms, craning her little neck upwards in order to lovingly lick the tip of my nose, her tiny pink tongue tickling my nostrils. The next she is glaring at me with a menacing grimace, then lunging at me, jaws agape, in a crazed, kamikaze attempt to sever my nose from my face.
        No wonder I've begun to refer to her as "Doggie Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."Latkeonredpillow.JPG
        And let's not even begin to calculate the number of times she has dashed across the room in the midst of playing contentedly to demurely squat and release a miniature amoeba-shaped pool of liquid on the living room carpet.
        But beyond any of these outbursts of crude, uncivilized behavior is the subtle toll they're beginning to take on our marital relationship. A full 25 years after our first bout of parenthood, we are suddenly back to square one. We're also once again keeping score and compiling ammunition to be deployed during arguments.
        At least I am.
        "It's your turn," we find ourselves chiding each other all day and evening. It's almost always his turn, as far as I'm concerned, to play with her, bathe her, make her stop biting, and take her out (something we have to do more than a dozen times a day, hoping to forestall those unfortunate rug-related mishaps)LatkewithDaddyinbluetshirt.JPG.
        And never mind that my husband has done the yeoman's share of escorting her out at dawn because she seems to rise instinctively with the sun. I did it this morning for the first time in days, and am now so tired (and cumulatively sleep-deprived) that I'm poised to detonate at the slightest offense from almost anyone, even though I know that, yeah, it was unquestionably my turn.
        She's also costing us a small fortune. Beyond the mammoth fee we laid out to acquire her, we've already shelled out $131 to the vet, nearly 200 bucks for food, a crate, and assorted other supplies, and $186 to register for puppy training classes. (Our youngest may never make it into Harvard, but with luck and liberal use of treats she won't remain a barbaric little brute forever.)
        Dare I even mention that my living room looks like a puppy playground, and my house is far too messy to be fit for man, thanks to this raging beast? 
        So, why am I putting up with all this?
I’m doing it for my husband. I'm doing it because I expect that I'll eventually grow to love her with at least a fraction of the fierce passion I have long held for our incomparably remarkable late dog Zoe.Latkeoutsidelooking.jpg
         I’m also doing it for Latke herself, the cute little bugger, who seems to kind of love me already. At least she hates to let me out of her sight for so much as a second, although mostly she loves gnawing my fingers, facial features, jewelry and clothes.
I’m doing it because eventually this period of quarantine and constant nipping and yipping will be over, and I’ll presumably be able to return to my previous life and work as NiceJewishMom.com. Until then, my blog entries, like this one, are apt to be shorter than usual (although don't worry, I don't intend to make my blog all about the dog).
        For now, I can hardly find the time or presence of mind to compose a shopping list.
In fact, I give up for the moment. The rest of this week's entry will be authored by a guest columnist. Make that pest columnist.
        Take it away, Latke!

        Yip! Yip! Yeep! I bite. I bite. Where’s the Mommy? I’m hungry. I'm thirsty. I want to bite.
Before I lived somewhere with all of my brothers and sisters and my doggie mom, in a house that also had terrible cats. It was fun there, but every time I wanted to eat or drink or wee or snooze, I had to fight off everyone and their brother just to get a spot.
        Also, if you ask me (although nobody did), I really coulda done without those stinking cats.Latkewithgiantbone.JPG
Now I have a whole house to myself. And stuff. Toys, bones, beds -- a crate bed both upstairs and down. I even have a bone much bigger than me. I have so much great stuff that sometimes I can’t decide what to play with or bite on next. So I just bite on the Mommy.
         There are also people here. I don’t know who they are. But I really like the Mommy. She has long fur and wears shiny metal stuff on her fingers and ears. Plus she gives me chicken. Have you ever had chicken? I really like chicken. Wish I had some now. Want chicken. Where’s chicken?
One time the Mommy saw me biting the long, hard thing she wears on her foot, and she screamed at me and said a bad word. Another time, when she was getting dressed, I grabbed a soft thing she took off her foot and brought it into my crate and chewed on it for awhile until she took it away from me and growled.
        My favorite thing, though, is to chew one of those things while it's still on her foot. Then she says a really bad word and pulls it away. Whatever. It doesn’t taste that great, anyway.LatkewithDaddy.JPG

   There’s a man here too. He’s OK, I guess. He takes me out a lot, but has a scary, angry voice. Won't let me bite him. And he gives no chicken.
Sometimes there’s this girl too. She has darker fur than Mommy and a high voice. She plays with me a lot, but says not to bite her silk pajamas. She has silk pajamas. Why don’t I have silk pajamas? Why don’t I have chicken? Want some chicken now.LatkewithAllegrainAsiandresssilhouetted.jpg
Sometimes the Mommy sticks her face in my fur and rubs my tummy and says, “That’s my good little doggie.” But when I get up in the dark, she pats me a little, then wakes the man up and says, “Your dog is whining.”
Wait. Whose dog am I? Does anyone know?
This afternoon after lunch I went wee on the rug and everyone said a bad word. Even the girl. Then the man picked me up and took me outside, but I didn’t need to wee anymore.
Who are these people? When will I go home? Did you ever have peanut butter? That’s good too.
Where’s the Mommy? I’ll go sit on her. And bite. I bite. Maybe she’ll have chicken. Want chicken now.
5:27 pm 

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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.