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Friday, June 1, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

AllegraandmeatMemorialDayparade.JPG        One of the key skills in being a good Jewish mother (which is like being a nice Jewish mother, I guess, but even better) is learning to respect your kids’ boundaries. This becomes increasingly important as your children grow old enough to potentially have children themselves.
But another almost equally important skill is learning when to take your kids at their word and when to ignore what they say to you and realize that Mother knows better. And that came into play with my own daughter more than once during the past week.
As I wrote last September (and have mentioned on many an occasion since), Allegra has spent the past nine months doing an unpaid internship teaching human rights to high school students in Harlem. That program was scheduled to draw to a close last week with two major events, one on Tuesday and another on Wednesday. Each time she alluded to these occasions, at which her class would make major presentations, she said that I shouldn’t even consider driving down to NYC to attend.
But last Tuesday afternoon, when she began to explain the enormous amount of work and effort that had gone into these huge undertakings, I suddenly thought to myself, “AM AllegrainHarlemclass.jpgI CRAZY!?!”
She’d spent the entire year working long hours for free, and proudly devoted the whole second semester to spearheading a group project with her students. This was the only chance I’d ever get to see what she’d been up to all that time, and no one she knew was attending. Was I really going to stay home in Connecticut and miss it?
So suddenly, purely on impulse, I ran upstairs to dress and throw some clothes into an overnight bag, figuring that after a 2½ hour drive down I’d want to stay overnight. Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to leave it was already 3:30, and her program started at 5. The best-case scenario was that I’d arrive just in time to see it end. This being rush hour, I might not even get there in time for that. So once again, I thought, “AM I CRAZY?”
But I was already in the car and had too much momentum going to give up now. So, hoping against all odds, I hit the highway at full speed and then some.AidanatScarlattoheadshot.jpg
I realized at this point that I didn’t even know where this event was being held. (Was I insane?) And neither did my son, whom I quickly called for the info, so there was no chance of surprising Allegra. To my distress, I wasn’t able to get her on the phone. But I left her a voice message, and to my relief she called me back soon sounding unequivocally delighted that I was coming. To my even greater relief, she called back an hour or so later to report that they were now starting at 5:30 instead of 5.
        I suggested that she try to delay even further by running on Jewish time -- 10 minutes late. Then I stepped on it.
I guess in some ways I was still harboring regrets that in all the years my mother had been a teacher, I had never visited her at any of the schools at which she worked. At her funeral, my brother had described in his eulogy how moving it had been to once visit her at work in her final years, when she was in her mid-70s, and to view for himself the enormous respect with which she was regarded and see countless children in the hallways greeting her affectionately by her first name, Bunnie, as everyone always did.
How odd it is that we can know our family members for their entire lives and still never actually see them at what may be their best – at work. So I really stepped on it.Allegrasadlabclass.JPG
Between countless pockets of traffic and a very large and conscientious security guard who insisted that I sign in, I missed both Allegra’s opening remarks and the guest speaker’s entire address. But I entered the gymnasium at her school, on 107th Street and Columbus, in plenty of time to see her class’s oral presentation, plus the amazing video they had created and put on YouTube to use as a public service announcement.
I also got to view the entire lively scene, which I really couldn’t have pictured othKidsingymonbleachers.JPGerwise.
Plus I got to chat with Sandra, the head of the organization, who invited me to the next day’s event, even though it wasn’t open to the public. So I hadn’t raced down like a maniac just to catch the tail end of one of Allegra’s presentations. I’d get to attend both of them.
As a so-called “facilitator” from a non-profit organization called Advocacy Lab, Allegra had spent the year teaching about 30 high school freshmen about human rights issues, ranging from racial and religious discrimination to genocide and child soldiers. For the second semester, the class had been assigned to choose one cause to focus on in depth and then create a public campaign that might help affect change in the world.Stopphoto.JPG
The cause her class had chosen was human trafficking, which is essentially the illegal trade of human beings for unsavory purposes such as commercial sexual exploitation, reproductive slavery, and forced labor, a modern-day form of slavery. To illustrate their concerns, each student in the class had been photographed with a piece of tape across his or her mouth or other body part, imprinted with a single word of his or her choice.
“Stop,” said one.
“Sold,” said another.
“Helpless,” said a third.
        Allegra had posed for one of these photos as well. "All our children," it read.
For added impact, each of these vivid photos had been blown up to be a sizable 18 by 24 inches and attractively mounted in sequence on the walls. Beneath them, her students also had posted short essays conveying their concerns about this issue, some of which evidently hit close to home.
“Many girls and young women who are involved with sex trafficking feel like they are worth nothing,” wrote a girl named Elaishia. “I’m a young woman, and I have young women in my family that could, God forbid, be in a position like that. It would devastate me. I hope we can accomplish all the goals we had in the beginning of this project.”Allegrasphoto.JPG
One of those goals was to get people to sign a petition protesting funding cuts; evidently, in the past five years New York State has reduced aid for runaway and homeless kids by 80 percent. Toward this end, the kids had created that short video, illustrating how easy it is for naïve young women to be sucked into a life of prostitution.
In it, a girl from the class is shown telling one of her friends that a man she met at the mall is taking her out to dinner and has insisted that she come all by herself. The friend becomes alarmed upon hearing that the man is 27. Both girls are only 15.
“You barely know the guy,” the second girl argues. “I don’t think you should be going anywhere with him, especially alone.”videogirl.JPG
But the first girl, obviously flattered by the man’s attention, cannot be dissuaded. “I’ll be fine,” she asserts, adding wistfully, “You’ll probably like him!”
In the next scene, the man tells the first girl that he’s bringing her to a party to meet some of his friends. “You trust me, right?” he asks. But when they arrive, he grabs her forcefully, saying, “You’ll do whatever I tell you at this party, or I’ll kill your whole family.”girlsigningpetition.JPG
At the end of the presentation, in which Allegra’s students got to show off their efforts to the entire school, the whole group watched the video, then repeatedly chanted the catchy slogan with which the class had come up: “Need change to break chains!” Then everyone was invited to view the photographs on display and sign the petition.
Until this moment, I’d had virtually no idea what Allegra had been up to all year.studentviewingphotos.JPG Although I’d visited her class once to bring a guest speaker from home, I’d never gotten to see her or the students she’d taught in action. I felt incredibly proud and very moved to be there.crepesimage2.jpg
To celebrate, we went to a cozy nearby restaurant that she likes called Crepes on Columbus, where in our usual fashion we shared two different savory crepes for dinner, then split of a third for dessert. Then we went back to her place, where she’d invited me to stay over, so we could rest up for Day 2. Which is when the real craziness began.
Tuesday’s event had involved only Allegra’s class. Wednesday’s was a much bigger deal — Advocacy Lab’s final event of the year, involving all of its particiAllegrawithMariama.JPGpants.
Actually, it wasn’t just a culmination. It was a competition. Ad Lab, as it’s known for short, currently conducts nine classes in several schools around the city, geared toward students “from marginalized communities,” as its Web site says, “where exposure to violations and social injustices are more likely.” Its objective is not only to educate these youngsters about world issues that relate to human rights, but also to empower them to take action against the many forms of social injustice that might affect them personally.
To add motivation, an award was going to be presented to the class with the most effective campaign – the one most likely to actually create change in the world. And that winner was going to be chosen democratically, by all the Ad Lab students themselves. So all of them had been invited to gather that afternoon for a closing celebration, during which all the class’s campaigns for change would be presented to the group at large.Helplessphoto.JPG
        To be honest, Allegra seemed fairly optimistic about this – not that she ever had gotten involved in this effort merely to win any sort of recognition, or that winning was all that important to her in the scheme of things. But her group’s campaign was so well conceived and skillfully executed that she thought they had an extremely good shot of coming in first. And I may not be the most objective judge, but, frankly, so did I.
All the other classes were traveling by bus to the designated place, a large meeting space on the Upper West Side. Allegra’s group was a different story. Hers was the only class held during an after-school program, rather than convening during normal school hours. All of her students attended different schools in Harlem, and since the event was being held at noon, they had regular classes to attend. Only two were able to come.Mariama.JPG
One of those two, a girl named Mariama, had no way to get there unless Allegra picked her up personally at her school on West 133rd Street and brought her down to the event on West 83rd. Allegra planned to collect her by subway. I was worried about her wandering around in Harlem alone. I offered to drive her to pick the girl up instead. She retorted, “No way.”
She was worried that I’d get stuck in traffic. She was worried that I might get lost. But most of all, she was worried that if anything happened to the girl while I was driving, there would be liability issues up the wazoo.
I couldn’t really argue with her there. Then again, if you really want to talk about liability issues, just imagine my daughter walking alone around Harlem from the subway, which was located five or six blocks away from the school through a small, urban park. So we came up with a reasonable compromise. I would drive Allegra to the girl’s school, then she would escort the girl by subway down to the event and meet me there.
Then, afterwards, I would drive her across town to her real job – her other job, that is, the one for which she actually gets paid – taking care of a 5-year-old girl after school.
It was a deal.Harlemhighschool.jpg
It was a deal, at least, until we finally found Mariama’s high school in Harlem. It was in the middle of nowhere and looked more like an urban fortress than the suburban high schools adjoining athletic fields with which I’m familiar, and I slightly freaked out. I worried that this girl might not even be there, and that Allegra would end up walking to the subway alone. So I said I wasn’t leaving till I heard from her that everything was OK.
Then I proceeded to sit parked in front of the school for nearly 20 minutes, waiting. Finally, a text. “This is horrible,” it said. “All the people are giving me so much trouble.”
Then, to my mounting anxiety, another 20 minutes went by without another word.
Then she finally wrote, “OK, we’re good!” and she and Mariama came out beaming.
Evidently, when she’d first entered, she’d been told that they didn’t have any student by that name. Then, after a lot of rudeness and hostility, she had learned she was in the middle school office and been sent to the high school office instead. But they also had claimed to have no such student and demanded to see her credentials. Then finally the girl had been located, with a permission slip, no less, and been released.AdLabevent1.JPG
The problem was that it was now 11:40, and we realized that the only possible way they had a prayer of getting downtown by noon was if I drove them, liability be damned. So I did.
We arrived right on time to see about 150 students seated on folding chairs, chatting volubly as the various other facilitators and volunteers milled about trying to organize lunch. How do you feed that many teenagers efficiently and economically? Pizza, of course – 37 of them, to be exact. All plain. With soda to wash them down.PizzaatAdLab.JPG
After all the kids had eaten their fill, we were invited to help ourselves, which led me to wonder whether I should perhaps make a small donation to compensate. But Allegra assured me that I’d already made a donation. I assumed that she was alluding to the fundraiser for the organization I’d attended last fall, until she explained otherwise.
“Me,” she declared. “You donated me.”
This was arguably true. Some friends probably thought we really were crazy to let our daughter volunteer there for the entire year. And I do mean “let.” Sure, at 22 she’s a grown woman and able to make her own choices in life. In this case, however, the only way she’d been able to afford to accept an unpaid internship was that we had agreed to subsidize her, by paying the lion’s share of her expenses. Which we had gladly done.AdLabevent3.JPG
As I explained in this space last fall, I was the one who’d found the position posted on Craig’s List in the first place and encouraged her to apply. Although she majored in music and aspires to sing professionally, Allegra is a fervent activist who started her own human rights organizations in both high school and college. She’s determined to remain active in the field in some capacity, and this sounded like an ideal way to start.AdLabevent2.JPG
I also wholeheartedly espouse the notion of new graduates contributing to society in some way before they seek their fortunes or become consumed with their careers. I only hoped that this experience would turn out to be rewarding and well worth her while.Sandra2.JPG
Sandra, Ad Lab’s youthful and highly committed executive director, obviously believed that it unquestionably was, because she called the meeting to order by stating just that. “I want you to know that everything you’ve done this year has contributed to positive social change in your communities and in the world,” she declared to the group.
Then she proceeded to introduce the keynote speaker – a term that I use loosely.EbonyatAdLab.JPG
I use the term loosely, but with enormous admiration, because Ebony Noelle Golden knew better than to talk at these adolescents, or to talk too much at all. Instead, she engaged them in a variety of activities that were both verbal and physical, as well as so interactive that she instantly had them totally engaged and shrieking with joy.
A conceptual performance artist and self-proclaimed “cultural worker and public scholar,” along with being the creative director of something called Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, Golden did begin with a short rousing speech, assuring all of the students gathered that, even with the persistence of such social ills as poverty, illiteracy, disease, and discrimination, “We are still making change. You are making change!”Goldenwithboy.JPG
But she soon segued into a lively exercise in which she set up a jumbled group of chairs at the front of the room and challenged the kids to come forward and rearrange them in any manner that would “change an image of injustice into an image of justice.”
One girl proceeded to take one of the chairs and stack it on top of another “because two people together can be strong together,” she stated. Everyone cheered.
Another girl added a third chair on top, explaining, “More people, more power!” Everyone cheered again, only louder.
Then a lanky boy named Umberto created a similar stack of chairs beside it, “so they can all have equal rights,” he explained. At this, the entire crowd went wild.
Golden glowed with elation. “It’s not just about your campaign,” she told them. “It’s about what comes after your campaign. It’s about longevity.” Then she entreated them all to remain active and “keep pushing and working for the change you want to see – in the community, in the world, but most importantly in yourselves.”AdLabevent4.JPG
In a subsequent exercise, she invited members of the group to step up to the microphone, introduce themselves, and then enumerate all the special talents that they possessed that they could offer to the world and use to help create positive change. A long procession immediately obliged by volunteering to proudly sing their own praises.
“I’m a gifted rapper and a writer...”
“I’m an athlete.”
“I’m a dancer.”
“I like to paint.”
Each time, the group roared back its approval. It was inspirational. Very powerful. Very moving.
But also, for me, a little unnerving, I must admit… only because this segment of the program had now gone on for nearly an hour. It was already 1:30 p.m., and there were nine groups that had to present their projects before everyone got to vote for the winner.AllegraatAdLabevent2.JPG
Not only did it seem unlikely that the event would end by 2:30, as scheduled, but Allegra’s group was up third to last, and she had told me that she absolutely needed to leave by 2:30, if not before, in order to get to her other job on time.
I told her how anxious I was getting about the time, but she assured me that it would be fine. Sandra, after all, had allotted only five minutes for each presentation.
The first group, however, took nearly five minutes just to set up, then proceeded to eat up a good 15 minutes more with a multifaceted presentation that included several speeches, a display of posters, and a live rap song with this rather haunting refrain:

Can you hear me now?
Can you hear me now?
There’s no light. There’s no sound.
        Hard to breathe when you’re on the ground.
This was chanted by the boy who had identified himself as a gifted rapper, and I had to admit he was good. I whispered to Allegra that she had some real competition.
She nodded calmly and shrugged.
The next group, which also was campaigning against human trafficking, took over five minutes to set up, too, before delivering an inventive presentation in which several of the group’s members hid in large cardboard boxes at the front of the room. Then another member auctioned off the boxes’ contents to the highest bidders in the room, proclaiming what they had won. “This is a boy who was brought over from Europe for sexual purposes…” “This man is going to donate his liver – but he doesn’t know it yet.”
Subsequent groups railed against child labor, inhumane conditions in foreign factories, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Each one went well beyond its allotted time. And by now even Allegra was becoming anxious too.AdLabgroupwithboxes.JPG
Everything was running so far behind schedule that Sandra announced that there would be no time to vote. Instead, ballots would be distributed later on to the students in their various classes (since each class was going to meet at least once more). The winners would then be named at a later date.
Unfortunately, it was already 2:30 by the time she called Allegra’s group up, and Sondra announced in the same breath that the buses were waiting to transport about half the group back to Brooklyn, so they had to leave right away without ever seeing it.AllegraatAdLabevent.JPG
It also took at least five minutes to organize these kids’ less-than-orderly departure. Now we were already very late. Yet Allegra had no choice but to go up and do her best.
A third student from her class had surprised her by also showing up, but she and her co-facilitator, Abbey, still had recruited kids from another class to help by holding up some of the photos. Then they helped lead the entire room in chanting their slogan: “Need change to break chains!”
Then Mariama and Elaishia each read short speeches, after which the video they’d made was played on a large screen. The audience vacillated between being quietly attentive and laughing at several parts. But they were unmistakably rapt and engaged.Allegrasadlabgroup.JPG
It was an impressive effort and a surprisingly professional-looking one. Once again, I was beyond proud of my daughter for all of her hard work. But we were now hopelessly late.
So the moment the applause had ended, Allegra hugged her students goodbye, and we raced down to my car. En route, Allegra phoned the school of the girl for whom she baby-sits to warn them that she was running late.
The school was on the Upper East Side, and had she been taking the subway there it would have taken at least half an hour, and that little 5-year-old girl would have been left waiting for her. Instead, we arrived on the dot of 3, just minutes after dismissal. Everything was fine.Allegrawithherphoto.JPG
“I really hate to admit it,” Allegra announced as she gave me a hurried hug goodbye, “but I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there today.”
That was exactly what I’d been thinking myself. “Hate to admit it?” I asked. “Are you crazy? I can’t tell you how happy it makes me feel that I was actually able to help.”
Yet I still wonder what would’ve happened if I’d listened to her and stayed home. Yes, the little girl would have been stressed. But I also can’t imagine having missed this entire experience. I got a rare glimpse into my daughter’s life that I never would’ve had otherwise. I got to see a program that I do sense now is incredibly empowering and, yes, worthwhile. And I got to feel like a nice Jewish mom again, and a good one, too – one who actually helpsAftershotofPattie.JPG.
I don’t know how Allegra’s campaign will ever win that competition now, however deserving it may be, since half the kids never even got to see it. But as I said, she didn’t get involved in this noble effort to win anything, merely to work towards making change. As they said, we need change to break chains!
       As for me, she’s totally right. I did make a contribution. So I already have my prize.
        To view the video that Allegra’s class made, please click on this link:

12:06 am 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

AllegraandSamaraheadshot.JPG        My daughter Allegra and her BFF Samara have been “best-ies” for so long that I often refer to myself as Sam’s “other mother,” and she often jokingly calls me “Mom.” There was no question that I would be honored to attend when she graduated from Smith College last weekend. So we were thrilled weeks ago to get the invite in the mail – or should I say the email?
This also would give us a rare chance to spend time with Sam’s parents, Laurel (Allegra’s own “other mother”) and Chengiah, two of our own very closest friends, who moved back to South Africa in January so that Laurel could accept a job as head of a medical school in Johannesburg.JaneLynchonGlee.jpg
Further sweetening the already irresistible deal was the fact that we had learned recently that the person giving the keynote address was none other than comic actress Jane Lynch, best known for her continuing role as Sue Sylvester, the wickedly crusty, deliriously spiteful and politically uber-incorrect gym teacher you love to hate on Glee.
So please understand that when I balked last week at an updated email from Sam suggesting that we arrive by 8:30 sharp on Sunday morning at Smith, which is a good hour’s drive away, it was not out of any reluctance to attend this illustrious event. It was simply that I am really, really not a morning person… and neither is Nice Jewish Dad.
So, although I had no doubts about Sam’s warnings that parking might be a challenge, we resolved merely to do our best to arrive before things got underway at 10.AmyandRichFechtor.jpg
That, at least, was our game plan, until a few days earlier, when I heard from Amy.
Amy and her husband Rich are the parents of Michelle, one of Allegra and Sam’s other BFFs, and they also were invited to the festivities. The problem was that Amy had to attend a cousin’s bridal shower that day, so Rich was hoping to hitch a ride with us.
I instantly agreed to have him come along, with the stipulation that they understand that we were not willing to leave at the crack of dawn. In fact, we had to drop the dog at daycare that morning, probably wouldn’t take off much before 9, and might even be late.Amyheadshot2.jpg
I love both Amy and Rich dearly – I really, really do -- and I was eager to have Rich join us. But to a mixture I felt of both slight amusement and just as slight frustration, rather than either declining our offer or accepting our terms, Amy began emailing me to debate our schedule and exhort us to depart much, much earlier.
She cautioned me that there was only one way into the town from the highway, and that this probably would be mobbed, due to graduation. She also tried to impress upon me the urgency of our arriving on time. “I think they feel we all are family,” she wrote.
This simply amused me even further. I also think of all of these people as family. On the other hand, my actual family knows us well enough to never expect us to arrive anywhere close to on time, let alone manage to turn up anywhere early in the morning.Latkestandingonbed.JPG
At her urging, though, I decided to capitulate somewhat. We arranged to board the dog on Saturday night so we could make a quicker getaway, and agreed to leave at 8.
Even this didn’t appease Amy, however. She said that Rich would be at our house at 7:45 a.m., but was willing to come even earlier if we were willing to reconsider.
“Would hate for you guys to be late and miss something,” she wrote.
“Miss something?” I thought to myself. How could we possibly miss something? Having been to two graduations in recent years, for both Allegra and her older brother Aidan, I knew that these events are endless and they unravel at a glacier’s pace, since you watch hundreds of students and faculty march in before a single word is even said.Allegrasgraduationallthreeofus.jpg
I also began to think back to Allegra’s graduation last May, when the only people who attended on her behalf were her dad and me. Granted, we invited dozens of people to come the weekend before for her solo senior recital -- the culmination of her four years as a jazz vocal performance major at New England Conservatory of Music -- and many of them, including Laurel, Chengiah and Sam, traveled quite a distance to do so.
However, when Aidan graduated from Brown three years earlier, we only had our immediate family and my late mom, who was still alive then and well enough to join us. We didn’t even invite my brother’s family because we figured that they lived over three hours away and wouldn’t be eager to shell out for multiple nights at an exorbitant hotel. (For graduation weekend, rates were jacked up astronomically and there was a two or three-night minimum.)
Then again, we’d been thrilled to be included in my nephew Charlie’s graduation at Wesleyan, which we were invited to in part because it was only half an hour from our home. So I began thinking that perhaps we’d been invited to Sam’s event because one of Laurel’s two brothers lives in Arizona, the other is out of the country, and Chengiah’s family are all in South Africa. So presumably we were the stand-ins for the real relatives.
Maybe Amy was right. We were like family and, like it or not, we should try to hustle.RichFechtoratSams.jpg
But as I easily could have anticipated, we didn’t get to bed until 1:30 a.m. the night before. As I also easily could’ve anticipated, Rich didn’t arrive at 7:45 a.m. He got there several minutes earlier, and not one of us was dressed sufficiently yet to open the door.
My husband soon let him in, though, and when I finally got downstairs (after much calling and cajoling by Rich to stop fussing over my beauty regimen and get a move on), I discovered that he had arrived with breakfast for everyone – not just bagels and cream cheese, but individual bottles of OJ, plastic plates and knives, and pretty little napkins, presumably so that we could make this a moveable feast and get right into the car.bagelscloseup.jpg
This is something I also could have anticipated. Once, when Nice Jewish Dad had his first hip replacement and I came down with the actual, full-fledged flu, Rich showed up on my doorstep with two bulging bags of groceries. He’s that much of a mensch.
He’s also quite a story-teller and wise-cracking raconteur. (“Do you know the four levels of graduation?” he inquired, to get us into the mood for things to come. “There’s summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude, and ‘how cum’?”). I got so distracted listening to him in the car that I accidentally drove several miles in the wrong direction. But by some miracle we arrived in the town of Northampton, Mass., just after 9:30 a.m.Noparkingsign.JPG
Unfortunately, we did have the devil of a time parking, and by the time we walked to the campus, the quad was a mob scene. Saving seats, I’d learned from the college’s Web site, was verboten, so we couldn’t join Sam’s folks, who were seated way up front. However, we managed to score four adjoining chairs in the blazing sun just as the clock struck 10 and the lengthy procession of black-robed students and faculty got underway.bagpipers.JPG
With 734 students receiving degrees, including both undergraduates and grad students, this procession was so lengthy and slow-moving that Rich and my husband decided to seek the facilities before anything significant could happen. Unfortunately, this caused them to miss not only the bagpipe band, but also Ms. Lynch, who passed within three feet of us decked out in her honorary-degree regalia while they were gone.JaneLynchatSmithmyshot.JPG
They also missed our first sighting of Sam, who marched by proudly in her robe, prompting Allegra and me to shriek her name, then choke up and dissolve in tears.
But even after the menfolk returned, the parade continued. Then we had to listen to an invocation by the dean of religious life, plus a welcome from the college president, who’s named Carol T. Christ. (Clearly, I was not at my own alma mater, Brandeis, anymore.)
Smith, if you aren’t already aware, is known not just for its academic rigor, fine faculty and long tradition of turning out capable, quirky, and staunchly independent-minded young women. As one of a handful of remaining so-called Seven Sisters schools to resist succumbing to co-education, it is also well-known for having a large proportion of lesbians, both on campus and in the surrounding town of Northampton.Smithgradsmarchingwithbanner.JPG
In fact, so many people present, among both the graduating students and the viewing audience, were of such indeterminate sexuality that it was no major surprise when senior class president Caitlyn Kirby began her own address with the salutation, “Good morning ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between.”
But finally Ms. Lynch, one of five candidates for honorary degrees, was up at bat.
She started off by acknowledging her fellow honorary degree recipients, “who I am so proud to be in the company of. We have an architect, a climate scientist, a writer – and I get to talk because I’m on Glee!”JaneLynchwithGlee.jpg
She also, of course, congratulated the graduating students… Sue Sylvester style. Today is all about you. But just a little bit about me.”
Being there inspired her to reflect back on her “four mostly unfocused years as a solid ‘C’ student at Illinois State University, in the aptly named Normal, Illinois,” she said. However, she knew quite a bit about so-called “Smithies,” too, “because I married one.”
She said that she’d spent much of her own youth feeling deeply disgruntled because nothing ever went quite the way she wanted it. “I wanted to ride my bike with my shirt off all summer. I wanted to play Little League baseball. I did not want to wear a dress or curl my hair.”JaneLynchatSmithCollege.jpg
Similarly, when she’d first finished grad school as “a classically trained pain in the ass,” she’d initially looked askance at her first big break, a chance to join Second City, Chicago’s famed improv troupe, because she fancied herself a serious actress.
“Sketch comedy was not on my radar,” she said. “In fact, it was a bit beneath me.”
But she had since learned the delicate art of approaching all situations by saying, “Yes, and…”
“Yes, and…” is the only fundamental rule of improvisation,” she explained, noting, “Never deny your fellow actor. You should be willing and able to accept whatever your fellow improviser throws at you. For instance, if I say to you ‘Stick ’em up!’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun, that’s your finger,’ then we’ve got nowhere to go.”
Similarly, we all need to learn to accept the world as is, along with every single situation that is dealt to us, “the good, the bad, the thrilling, the heartbreaking; every emotion, occurrence, event, person, place or thing... That’s the ‘YES’ I’m talking about.”JaneLynchatSmithwaving.jpg
The “and…” part was doing whatever was within your power to change the status quo. “You accept influence, and then you exert influence. You can’t make a cloudy day a sunny day, but can embrace it and decide it’s going to be a good day after all.”
This was an approach that she was sure would serve the graduates well in the many years ahead, as tough as it might sometimes be. “I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you’re gonna want to say is ‘Yes, and…’ You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one. You’ll probably have to say goodbye to a lover. You’ll experience rejection, maybe have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You’ll age.”lemons2.jpg
The trick wasn’t to try to avoid or ignore tough experiences, because you can’t, she said. Instead, you need to step up to them courageously and embrace them, realizing that they’ll both strengthen you and soften you by making you more compassionate.
“If life gives you lemons, grab it by the horns and drive,” she said, quickly adding, “Yes I just mixed three metaphors. Remember, I was a ‘C’ student.”Smithgraduation2012.jpg
It was both an uplifting speech and an uproarious one, not to mention rather apt, since we then continued to sit there for a good hour or so while students marched up one by one to receive their diplomas, and it was unbearably hot out there, and we realized that just as you cannot make a cloudy day into a sunny one, you also can’t make a sunny day cloudy, and I had inadvertently left the suntan lotion back in the car.PattieatSamsgraduationinhat.JPG
Then again, unlike the rest of my family, I was at least wearing a rather large hat.Allegrawritingcard.JPG
        Allegra, who was burning up beside me, made the best of this extended time by using it to write an effusive inscription on the card I’d purchased for Sam. And it was a good thing that there were 700 names or so to go because, as with my Mother’s Day card last week, she managed to fill both pages inside and half the back.Laurelheadshot.jpg
As soon as Sam’s name was announced, though, and we’d cheered loudly enough to risk laryngitis, Laurel came by to greet us and understandably kvell. Then, to my slight surprise, I saw that Laurel’s brother Hillel and his lovely wife Jenny were with her. They’d flown in from Tucson to be there for the graduation, after all.HillelandJenny.JPG Not having children of their own, they explained to me, particularly made this a do-not-miss.
Also with them were Laurel’s friend Lynn and her daughter Nora, who’d driven about four hours up from New York for the occasion. After introducing us, Laurel made a quick departure, saying that she needed to cook lunch before everyone else arrived.
“Everyone else?” I asked, a bit mystified. “How many people are you expecting?”
“About 40,” she said with the shrug. She declined my offer to come help, however, saying that the only thing she needed me to do was get Chengiah and Sam back to Sam’s house in time for the party, which would start whenever they were ready to come. (When it comes to punctuality, Sam and her folks are even more laid-back than we are.)JaneLynchgettingsnapped.JPG
This seemed like a simple enough task. But only minutes after the ceremony ended, I managed to lose Chengiah in the crowd when I got distracted snapping more photos of Jane Lynch and a very impressive "Mom" tattoo that I spied on the arm of a female attendee.
This threw us all into a momentary state of panic. Chengiah may be extremely youthful and spirited for a man in his late 70s. But he was not just the father of the new graduate  (or as Rich had just congratulated him for being, “the oldest person I know who’s finally no longer paying tuition”). He’s also a world treasure, a renowned peace activist once exiled for 25 years from his native South Africa, where he served as a pre-eminent leader of the anti-Apartheid movement with Nelson Mandela during the 1960s.Chengiahaftergraduation.JPG
Rich quickly assured me, however, that I would not need to explain to Laurel how I’d managed to misplace her husband, because if we all began yelling “Chengiah!” in unison, no one else in this crowd of thousands was all that likely to turn around.SamingownwithAllegra2.JPG
Indeed, we finally found him seeking refuge in the shade just as Sam emerged, and I got to snap countless photos of my real and honorary daughters smiling radiantly.
Next, I trained my camera on the proud dad and his daughter and got to capture the moment for eternity, far more priceless than celluloid proof of any celebrity sighting.SamingownandChengiah.jpg
And then we managed to endure the long trek back to my car and drive over to Sam’s, where at least 40 people were indeed gathered, so that the party could begin.
There were so many people present that I never managed to meet everyone there, but also on hand were Laurel’s childhood friend Marla, who’d flown in from Chicago; several past graduates who’d come from as far as Vermont and New Orleans; and of course Sam’s older brother Avi, down from Montreal.Samgreetingguests.JPG
        Granted, many were taking advantage of this rare chance to see the proud parents in the Western hemisphere. But mostly, all of them were there because, like me, they felt like Sam and her “fam” really were family, and they wanted to help celebrate this milestone and wish them mazel tov.Samsgraduationmyplate2.JPG
And no such celebration would be complete without a toast or two. So after an ample lunch, which, like our hosts, was an eclectic Indian-Jewish mix of baked salmon, green salad, tomato curry with boiled eggs and rice with dal, we all raised many a glass.AllegraafterSamsgraduation.jpg
Allegra, starting off the proceedings, talked about how they’d always been there for each other, ever since the day back in middle school when she’d first spied Sam wearing purple glasses (her favorite hue). Then, gushing about how proud she was of her gorgeous, confident and fiercely independent friend, she once again dissolved in a flood of emotion and tears.
Laurel, bidding everyone and her daughter a rousing “l’Chaim,” noted that Samara was actually Sam’s middle name, and that her formal given moniker was in fact Shanthi, a Hindu name meaning “blessing,” which is what her lovely daughter had always been.Laureltoasting.JPG
Chengiah, a longtime college professor (and as he terms himself on emails, “currently an Intellectual Derelict at the Academic Sweatshops of Adjuncts”), waxed philosophical on the vagaries of today’s educational system. (Other than that, I’m not exactly sure what it was that he said, but I'm sure it was extremely brilliant and eloquent.)
Avi and several of Sam’s close friends also held forth on her many notable strengths and just as notable eccentricities. Then, being Sam’s other mother, I felt moved to raise a glass myself, echoing the words I’d inscribed on her graduation card:

I would say that I know you’ll go far, but I fear that will only encourage you to stray farther away from us than we can bear… like your parents already have.
I’d say that I know you’ll amaze us all, but frankly, dear, nothing you do amazes me.Samandfriends.JPG
I’d say that wherever you go, you’re always welcome to come back and stay with us… but that goes without saying.
So I’ll just say that we love you and are proud of you – proud of all you have done already, and all that you are destined to do next.
After all the toasts and a good old-fashioned Carvel ice cream cake, I joined a group of core participants outside, and we took turns photographing our hosts, then the girls and we “other mothers,” and finally, with the help of a passerby, the entire “family.”Samandfambest.JPG
Then it was time for Sam, at last, to make a speech of her own to all of us.
A confirmed free spirit and committed social activist, she has taken a year off from school to travel in India (the reason that she was graduating a full year after Allegra), participated in the recent “Occupy” movement and countless other causes, and even briefly landed in jail for civil disobedience. So you might say that she’s a chip off the old block. But I would say she’s totally her own woman.
        And so, quite plainly, would she.

She told us how much it meant to her to have all of us there on her special day. She said that we were the people on earth who mattered to her most, and how much she loved each and every one of us. But most of all, she said that she loved the person whom she was and had grown up to be, and that she owed this fact largely to all of us.
These were words that it was well worth getting up at the crack of dawn for, driving for hours on a beautiful day, and risking sunstroke and almost anything else to hear.
Yes, I may have been among a cast of thousands (or in Sam’s case, a cast of 40). But as her “other mother” – her other Nice Jewish mother -- I really couldn’t be prouder.Samsgraduationmomsandgirls.JPG
Amy was right. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss a thing. But even though we were a bit late, I’m happy to say that we did and saw it all. We didn’t miss one moment.
Maybe Rich was right, too. When some kids graduate, you wonder, “How come?” But in this case, whether she finished with honors or not, it was an indescribable honor to be there.AllegraandSamara.JPG
And Jane Lynch was also right. There are so many things in life that require us to compromise and strive, or accept what we can’t change and make the best of things.
But sometimes – just sometimes – there are perfect days when there is no “and…” There’s actually nothing at all you would possibly want to change. There is only “Yes!”

10:51 pm 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

NineWestblackshoewithpolkadots.jpg        I was striding past the shoe department to pick up a gift when I spied them out of the corner of my eye. The heels, alas, were way too high, or at least too high for my taste. But they were sleek and black and adorned like button candy with brilliant polka dots in every hot shade you could name, and I knew at once that I needed to buy them.
When I dangled the display model from my index finger hopefully, a nearby salesman urged me to have a seat while he checked for my size. I said thanks, but that I didn’t have time to sit and wouldn’t be trying them on anyway. Then, when he came up empty-handed, I prevailed upon him to search their other stores and have them sent asap.AllegraatTheLyonssmiling.jpg
“Oh, my God, they’re me!” my daughter squealed when I flashed a photo of them that night.
“They’re not just you, they’re yours,” I told her. “I ordered them in your size today.”
That’s one of the many reasons I got to spend Mother’s Day with both of my kids. No, not because I buy them stuff. Rather, because I totally “get” them, I think of them pretty much every second of every waking hour, and I am constitutionally nearly incapable of walking by almost anything that I know is guaranteed to make either one of them happy.
        I mention this only because not everyone I know got to see all of their children on Mother’s Day (considering that few of the women I know still have kids living at home). And so, many of my friends thought I was pretty lucky to be spending the day with mine.
Lucky? Are they serious? Luck has nothing to do with it. I leave nothing to chance.AidanandAllegraatPo.JPG
Yes, I know that my children genuinely love me (even though I can be extremely irritating) and want to spend time with me (even though I annoy them on contact). But I also know that life is busy, and that they’re both in their 20s and juggling multiple jobs, and although they’re happy to celebrate with me, they have other things on their minds.
So when it comes to Mother’s Day, I don’t wait for them to call me. I call them. Rather, I email them. Not on the actual day. About a month or so before. I think about exactly what I’d like to do, and then I make all of the plans and send them an itinerary.
I also do my best to find something that we’ll all enjoy, which usually means a play. But that probably isn’t key. The critical thing is that they don’t have to plan anything. They just have to show up. And they always do. Nicely dressed, no less. With presents.
At some point in my life, when I’m old and gray (OK, I’ll probably never be gray), maybe I’ll let them actually take charge of the situation. But for now, I’m sticking with the program because it works for everyone involved. And lest you think I’m a control freak (which is, well, true), then let me just point out that we’ve been doing it this way for years.Bunnieat53cropped.jpg
I’ve always made all of the plans because up until three years ago I had my own mother to celebrate, so the day was more about her than me. And since she loved theater and lived en route from my home to New York City, it worked for us to pick her up along the way, eat brunch, see a matinee, and drive her back home that evening.
The only problem we’ve ever had was finding somewhere to leave the dog. Mother’s Day, you see, is the one day of the year when almost no one is willing to dog- sit because almost everyone has their own children and/or a mother. And now that we have a dog all over again, that very thing nearly derailed us this year again.
Before I dared to buy any tickets, we asked our puppy’s breeder if she might be willing to take Latke for the day. (It may sound prissy, but just as I dote on my human children, we pamper our pets and have never had the heart to leave them in a kennel.)
“Linda” replied that she’d be away that weekend visiting her own kids, but that her husband might be willing to watch Latke because he’d be staying home with her many other dogs anyway. She said she’d let us know after Latke stayed with her earlier this month, and that it depended on how well our baby fit in with all of hers.
        When we picked her up at the end of that weekend, Linda assured us that the dogs had gotten along famously, and that her husband had agreed to take her last Sunday. So that night I ordered four tickets to a Broadway play that I had been dying to see.Latkewithbowl.JPG
        Then late l
ast Tuesday night, which was nine days later, my husband emailed “Linda” to say that we hoped to drop Latke off on Sunday morning before the play and pick her up by 8. He heard back the next morning, and the response was so terse that he woke me up to read it.
I have told you all along that Sunday night is family night for me and my family,” she wrote. “It is also Mother's day here too. I wish you had told me what you were planning before you bought your tickets. I did ask you to let me know right away so that I could plan.”
Somehow, I thought we’d made it clear that we’d definitely take her up on her kind offer. But clearly she recalled otherwise.
She went on to state that her husband might have since made other plans for the day. But even if he were still willing to help us, the schedule we'd proposed wouldn’t work. “I do not have people pick up their dogs in the evening,” she said. If he was still game, we'd have to pick her up by six or leave her until the next day.PortugueseWaterDogs.jpg
I wrote back to apologize profusely and explain that we couldn’t get back by six, so we’d have to get Latke on Monday. And that if her husband was no longer available, to please let me know soon because we’d now have to scramble to make alternate arrangements.
        This only managed to antagonize her even further.
        “When I didn't hear from you, I figured you were not interested in bringing her,” she replied. “You must understand that I am not a boarding kennel.” And as if that weren’t blunt enough, she added in for bad measure, “This is my home and my family, and we have other obligations.”
er words put such a chill in my soul that I wrote back instantly to apologize again, saying that it was clearly a miscommunication, but that we didn’t want to impose any further and would definitely make other plans.
        By now
I figured that we didn’t actually have a prayer of finding any alternative. So I made -- excuse the expression -- a Hail Mary pass. (Is there a Jewish equivalent? Do we hail, say, Miriam?)MargaretwithLatke.JPG
Actually, what I made was a Hail Margaret pass. I asked the wonderful woman who has cleaned our house weekly for years and happened to be here at the time.
Margaret loves Latke. And Latke loves Margaret. The problem was that Margaret has a teenage daughter and would probably be busy on Mother’s Day with her.
Margaret is so nice and wonderful, however, that she hates to ever disappoint me. We’d barely gotten the words out when she shrugged and said, “Sure.”SmigusDynguspicture.jpg
Also in my favor was the fact that she celebrates different holidays than we do. While we prepare for Passover, she always talks about Smigus Dyngus, something Poles observe the day after Easter by having boys douse girls with water. I don’t know what they do in Poland on Mother’s Day, but Margaret assured me that she was going to an event at the Polish National Home on Friday night and was totally free on Sunday.
So suddenly, we were right back on course, with the best-laid plans of mice… and moms.Scarlattosign.JPG
I made lunch reservations at Scarlatto, on West 48th St., a pretty Italian eatery, and told the kids to meet us there at 1. And by some miracle, even with the drop-off at Margaret’s and vagaries of Mother’s Day traffic, we managed to arrive exactly on time.AllegraatScarlatto.JPG
Allegra was waiting for us inside and, in what I took to be a gesture of daughterly love, wearing a new dress I’d bought for her recently that she hadn’t particularly liked. (Unlike the shoes, she didn’t think it was “her,” but had agreed to keep it because I did.)
After hugging her, I immediately reached for my iPhone to snap her in this regalia. Normally, I’m such a nuisance with the camera that I’m repeatedly ordered to cool it. But now she declared to my delight that, this being Mother's Day, I was free to snap away.
Aidan arrived moments later, dressed in a nice, checked lavender shirt I’d given him as well (although, as he knew, this was actually a reject from my husband, who’d found it a little snug and didn’t think it was really “him”). Anyone see a pattern here?LevysatScarlatto.JPG
To my delight, this ordinarily bustling bistro was nearly empty for some reason, so the level of noise was nearly nil. So our food began to arrive almost immediately, but the kids still couldn’t wait. They wanted me to open my gifts at once.
I’d urged them both to forego any presents, on the grounds that I was grateful enough just to have their company and that it seemed like my birthday was only yesterday (OK, it was back in January, but time flies when you’re a nice Jewish mom). Both, however, had either not gotten this memo or chosen to disregard it completely.FishsEddypitchercropped.jpg
Aidan handed me a large bag from a hip, funky housewares store called Fishs Eddy (“We do dishes,” the bag wryly advertised). Inside, I found a sleek and stylish rectangular glass pitcher, an attractive as well as thoughtful and timely gift because during the summer I pretty much subsist on guzzling iced tea almost round the clock.
He urged me to dig further, though, and I also came up with a divine dozen amusing cardboard coasters emblazoned with the names and images of four different “Heroes of the Torah,” including A. Hildenseimer, R. Elizer Goldberg, S. Y. Rabinovitch and Yitzchak Spector. “Swap ‘em with your friends,” they each read. “Collect the whole set.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think any of my friends can trade me, say, two Hildenseimers for a Rabinovitch and a Spector. Hmmm… Maybe I need some new friends.HeroesoftheTorahcoasters.jpg
But I was flattered that he would buy me something that was clearly acknowledging my identity as NiceJewishMom.com. The coasters were truly me – or the me I want to be.
Allegra, not to be outdone by her big bro, had also been thinking along these lines. To her frustration, she’d gone to great lengths to procure the perfect gift, only to find that it didn’t arrive in the mail on time, despite her having shelled out for expedited shipping.EarringsfromMothersDay.JPG
Having been warned of this, I’d assured her that she could simply show me a photo of her offering, but she’d chosen to buy me an interim item nonetheless, a stylish pair of sparkly drop earrings in shades of pale blue, purple and green, all colors I decidedly favor.
They were definitely “me.”
But after I’d finished gushing over these, she pulled out her iPhone to show me the pictures of the real gift, and I had to admit she had indeed come up with a doozy. She’d gone onto Zazzle.com, a hip Web site that lets you create your own stuff, and gone to considerable time and effort to design me a custom-made NiceJewishMom.com T-shirt.NiceJewishMomtshirtfront.jpg
The front featured a redhead (like me, only much, much better-looking) with the slogan “Because nice Jewish moms know best.” Above it were printed both my Web site title and subtitle: NiceJewishMom.com – A Modern-Day “Ima” on a Modern-Day Bimah.
The back was equally inventive and appealing, if not moreseo. Beneath an image of a bowl of matzah ball soup emblazoned with the phrase “GOT CHUTZPAH?” was a brand new slogan she’d created for me: “NiceJewishMom.com – serving up the best Jewish dish in town every Wednesday.” 
In fact, both designs were so charming and clever that she had struggled to decide which should be on the front and which the back.
I loved them both so much that we discussed the prospect of my having more of them made to sell to my readers on this site. I’m seriously contemplating that now. (So stay tuned for instructions on how to order. Would anyone out there actually buy one?)
Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, she’d also spent considerable time making me a homemade card, one of those priceless things you treasure when your children are small, save forever and sadly never seem to get anymore of once they grow up. The front had been painted using walnut oil, a bottle of which I’d bought for her as a gift after she’d invited me to join her for her very last studio art class at college last spring, and we’d spent that session painting together with this delicate, sepia-toned elixir.
As for the inside, she’d scrawled such a lengthy and effusive inscription that it covered both sides and spilled onto the back. So at her suggestion, I set this aside to read later, in private, after I got home that night.Scarlattopasta.JPG
Our food soon arrived, and both dishes Allegra and I had decided to split were so delicious that we were thrilled we’d decided to go “halvesies,” as we almost always do.
        We topped this off by splitting two of our favorite desserts between the four of us, tiramisu and an order of profiteroles filled with ice cream and smothered with hot fudge. (In case you can’t tell, we enjoy all the same stuff and like our food served family style.)
Then we hurried off to the nearby theater just in time for the main event.TheLyonsmarquee.jpg
After purchasing tickets to The Lyons, I’d been warned by my good friend Liz that a fellow she knew had seen it and said that the play itself wasn’t all that exceptional, and the only real reason to go was for its 74-year-old star, the inimitable Linda Lavin (best known perhaps for playing the eponymous character on Alice, a popular CBS sitcom based on the 1974 movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that ran from 1976 – 1985).LindaLavin.jpg
I’m glad I’d already bought them by then because my friend’s friend obviously isn’t Jewish. And as a Jew, I can honestly say that this production deserves the raves it’s been receiving, because it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, or seen in quite a while.
From the very first line, my family, along with nearly the entire audience, was totally convulsed with laughter that didn’t abate for more than a moment or two till intermission. (Act II is darker, and more thought-provoking, although it also holds its share of hilarity.)TheLyons.jpg
As Ben Brantley noted in The New York Times, “if you stood in the Cort Theater lobby and listened to the laughter that rises in close and regular waves, you could easily pretend that the time was the 1960s, and that you had just dropped in on the latest hit by Neil Simon, directed by Mike Nichols. That’s because the laughter you hear there is cadenced, as if in some sort of call-and-response ritual. It’s the sound of New Yorkers reveling in target-hitting one-liners fired in high exasperation by urban neurotics.”
As he further observes, however, this laughter is not without its bitterness or bite. That’s because the four title characters in this acerbic play, by Nicky Silver, are not just members of a normally dysfunctional Jewish family. They are all each other’s worst enemies, blunt, venomous and grotesquely self-absorbed enough to attack one another ruthlessly, betray each other’s deepest confidences without reservation, and beneath it all neither genuinely love nor even give a darn about one another.
In other words, they remind us of ourselves at our very worst. But they aren’t us.TheLyonsRitaandBen.jpg
As Brantley aptly notes, “Mr. Silver’s characters crack wise not out of loving, familiar irritation but from a forlorn awareness that there’s no lonelier place to be than in the bosom of your own family, even — no, especially — in times of crisis.”
Act One unfolds in a sterile hospital room where fatally ill patriarch Ben Lyons rancorously rages against the dying of the light, while his far-from-devoted wife, Rita – embodied with bravado and chilling verve by Lavin -- is not just resigned to his imminent departure, but more than ready to move on with what remains of her life without him.
When he laments to her anxiously that he’s dying, she shrugs it off, replying glibly, “I know, dear. Try to look on the positive side.”TheLyonswithCurtis.jpg
Far more focused on redecorating the living room than rendering him any comfort, she flips idly through a design magazine while debating the virtues of early American versus Danish moderne. This helps bring to mind a former acquaintance named Bunny. “She had the most beautiful taste. Elegant taste – like goyim!
Ben, however enfeebled, has the koyach to be enraged by both her indifference and her decor plans. “I love that house – I love everything in it, except for the people.”
Those people include Curtis, a young man who he’s alarmed to hear is about to pay him a visit. “I don’t like him. He’s creepy,” Ben whines.
“He’s your son,” Rita replies.TheLyonsallfour.jpg
        Also taking advantage of visiting hours is their adult daughter Lisa, a petulant recovering alcoholic and reluctant divorcée. She and Curtis, who is gay, are in for a big surprise, since no one has bothered to mention yet that dear old Dad has cancer and only days, if not hours, to live.
“You’ve known this for two months and you didn’t tell us?” Lisa shrieks in a rare moment of genuine concern, since she spends most of her time onstage assailing her folks for “the infantile and pathetically narcissistic manner in which they normally speak.”
No, these people definitely aren’t us.iphonewith20minutesmessage.jpg
Sure, Nice Jewish Dad and I are as infantile and pathetically narcissistic as the next guy. Yet in our house, the reaction to bad news of any sort would go more like this: “You’ve known for two hours and you didn’t tell us?” Or better yet, "You're known for 20 minutes...?!?"
Don’t these people know how to text? And use that technology to keep the rest of the fam abreast of their every move and/or mood swing? Nope, they’re definitely not us.
I don’t want to spoil the fun for those of you who might see this fabulous play by revealing any further gory details. Suffice it to say that we enjoyed every minute of those two hours we spent in the dark (and immersed in its dark humor). But most of all, I think, I enjoyed being able to assure myself repeatedly that these people definitely weren’t us.
Or were they?
During intermission, Allegra and I ended up having a small, unfortunate altercation, due to my well-meaning but ill-conceived tendency to blurt out unsolicited advice. And although Act II distracted her, as soon as the curtain went down her ire came up again.
Also, although we’d all enjoyed the play, right afterwards a bit of a subplot arose.Allegragotatext.JPG
        Allegra’s longtime friend Emily had planned to go home for Mother’s Day, but then discovered that her car was out of commission. Allegra had asked before the play if we’d mind giving Emily a ride home to Connecticut afterwards, since her mother still lives in our town. I had readily agreed and suggested that Emily meet us outside the theater after the play ended at 5. But upon exiting Allegra received a text saying that Emily wasn’t quite ready and hesitated to hold us up, so we should leave without her.Emilyheadshot.jpg
Far be it from me to let down one of Allegra’s good friends, however, let alone deprive a fellow mother of her children on Mother’s Day. So I said that we were willing to wait, provided Emily could arrive by 6.
Once again, I meant well, but my attempted magnanimity came back swiftly to bite me in the tush.
        The last time we retrieved our car from a parking garage following a play, we had to wait nearly half an hour. This time, instead, it appeared within moments. I had no choice but to drive off and park it on the dingy, commercial street outside the garage.AidanandHarlanafterTheLyons.jpg
We didn’t really have time to go elsewhere while waiting, so we just stood around waiting, and getting more and more antsy, and pretty soon were all at one another's throats.
        Aidan wanted Allegra to go out with him for a drink, but she didn’t want to leave until Emily came. But Emily, taking me at my word, was understandably using the full hour I’d allotted her to show up. And so we spent that entire hour bickering, criticizing one another, and otherwise re-enacting many of the antics and family dynamics we’d just seen onstage… minus the dying dad, of course.
Allegra grew so exasperated with me, even hostile, that I finally insisted the kids take off, which they did after I’d slipped into a nearby hotel to use the restroom, so we didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye. Emily arrived at 6 and we took off at once, only to receive a text on my phone from Allegra.
        “Have you left yet?” it asked.
As I could have easily anticipated, she was already regretting her crankiness, feeling terrible to have attacked me, on Mother’s Day, no less, and eager to apologize.
“It’s fine, honey,” I called to assure her. “Just forget about it. I’m not upset.” (This was a 22-year-old who'd gone to the trouble to design me a T-shirt. How upset could I be?)Pattieintshirt.jpg
But I knew that she still was, so I felt a little disheartened the whole way home. Argh! All that planning, the hours of driving, enormous expense, and good intentions, and we still couldn’t just have a nice, calm day as a family without discord and conflict.
The moment we walked through the door, however, I remembered the handmade card I’d tucked away at lunch and eagerly pulled it out to finally read its contents.
“There should be a Mother’s Day and a Nice Jewish Mother’s Day,” it began. “Honestly, how could one day be enough to celebrate and worship the mothers who sacrificed and gave and loved so much?”
OK, I’m not going to divulge its entire message, because it wasn’t written for public consumption. Besides, it would be far too immodest and shamelessly self-promotional. But here’s one more choice excerpt:MothersDaycardinterior.JPG
         “…I’ve revered and looked up to you as the nice Jewish mom I hope to be – in style, wit, charisma, CHUTZPAH and thoughtfulness… You are my style consultant, my mom-ager, my editor, my constant and overwhelming inspiration, but most of all, my best friend in the universe…”
By the time I had reached the non-Hallmark insignia on the bottom of the back (“Made With Love by nicejewishdaughter”), I had to put it away for safekeeping right away because makeup was cascading off my face in a voluminous torrent of tears.AllegraandPattieatScarlatto.jpg
Then I grabbed the phone to call the person who truly is my style consultant, not to mention my best friend in the universe (along with the person I immediately called next, to thank him for his thoughtful gifts and company and announce our safe arrival home).
        Why is there no Son's or Daughter's Day to celebrate them? Maybe almost every day is already Children's Day, but I'd say that they deserve it.
I love them both beyond words, think of them almost every second of every waking hour, and am constitutionally incapable of staying mad at either one of them for more than a moment.
        They’re not me. They’re much better than me. And better yet, they’re mine!
12:18 pm 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Happy Mother’s Day, everyone, from everyone at NiceJewishMom.com (i.e.. me)!
And before I say another word, I need to issue a few provisos and disclaimers for what I’m about to write. I would probably be best off simply not saying another word, period, considering that my daughter has implored, discouraged and all but forbidden me to post anything about this subject, and my son, upon hearing that I was even contemplating it, promptly seconded the motion, on the grounds that I was all but guaranteed to end up offending someone, if not almost everyone involved.
My husband, on the other hand, has urged me to report on this event anyway, on the grounds that he found my account to be illuminating and thought others might, too.Harlanatpinkberrycropped.JPG
        I must hasten to point out, however, that I usually find my kids to have pretty sound judgment, which is a case of the apple not just falling far from the tree, but in a whole ’nother orchard – and I am not speaking exclusively about myself, if you get my drift.
So as hazardous as it may sound, I’m going to proceed, but proceed with caution, simply because I think the subject is kind of interesting on a cultural basis. Also, I have nothing negative to say about the issue, so if I hurt anyone -- well, it’s truly inadvertent.
The event I am referring to is a bridal shower I attended, and before you note that this is not exactly controversial or offensive territory (last summer’s madcap mega-hit Bridesmaids notwithstanding), then let me just explain that the bride who was being showered with gifts in this case was the fiancée of my daughter’s high school boyfriend.Bridalshowerinvitation2.jpg
And if you wonder why my daughter and I were both invited for the occasion, then let me explain that our families were close before she and Spencer began dating, way back in middle school, and although their relationship ended nearly five years ago, our longtime family friendship easily survived its demise and continues to thrive to this day.
I must confess that I wasn’t terribly surprised by my own invitation, since Spencer’s mother and I remain very close, and we four parents still go out as couples all the time. Allegra’s inclusion came as a bit more of a surprise, though, because the typical bride is not necessarily keen on having her future husband’s old flames attend the festivities.Rachelheadshot2.jpg
Heightening the delicacy of the situation somewhat was that the bride, Rachel, happened to be a member of Allegra’s high school class. Then again, Allegra has remained friendly with both Spencer and his mom. So, to Rachel’s enormous credit, she was gracious enough to invite us both, not just to the upcoming wedding, but also her bridal shower.
It also may be to my daughter’s credit that she was gracious enough to accept the invitation and fully participate in sincerely wishing the bride well and a hearty mazel tov.AllegraatTomiheadshot.jpg 
Given the circumstances, though, I must confess that I felt a little self-conscious about attending the shower and wanted to do as little as possible to call attention to ourselves there. So I wanted to make sure that we both wore appropriate attire and brought presents that were tasteful and absolutely beyond reproach. Yet not having attended a bridal shower in decades, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. (When I got hitched, a few friends took me out for a bachelorette party and tried to embarrass me with kinky lingerie, but I didn’t think that sort of stuff would seem right coming from us.)
I considered consulting friends whose kids are older and already on the wedding circuit. But instead I simply Googled the gift quandary and read that it’s routine to select an item for the shower from the couple’s wedding registry. This seemed like the safest bet, anyway, since I don’t know the bride well and cannot presume to know her taste.Pattieinbridalshowerdress.JPG
As for the clothing, the event was a Sunday brunch at the maid of honor’s house. So we both bought new spring dresses, convinced that we couldn’t go wrong with that.Latkeat14weeks.JPG
Allegra came home from New York City the night before just for the occasion, and Nice Jewish Dad agreed to stay home with Latke, our new puppy, while we were gone. We anticipated that this would involve a couple of hours or so. So my husband was a bit mystified when we left the house at 11:30 a.m. and returned more than four hours later.
What the heck had we been up to all that time? Wasn’t this just, essentially, lunch?
Clearly, husbands have no idea what happens at bridal showers. And maybe you don’t know either. Having been to only that one during this century, I can’t swear that this one was typical. But I’m happy to fill you in on the festivities, which went as follows:
We worried that we might be overdressed, but arrived to find dozens of women mostly decked out in garden party-type dresses, just like us (except for the bride, who was a vision in afternoon white). Phew! We’d called it right.Lorryatshower.JPG
On the way in, I ran into Spencer’s ever-youthful and stylish maternal grandmother, Lorry, who greeted me warmly, saying how much she missed those wonderful days gone by when we’d see each other regularly at the kids’ school concerts and other events, and my beloved late mom would often be there. OK, everyone cries at weddings, but bridal showers? I’d barely set foot inside the door and was already fighting back tears. But this was no time to turn into a puddle. Lunch was being served.
After helping myself to the ample buffet of bagels, fruit salad and crudités, I was urged to make my way quickly into the living room and finish filling out the bridal quiz. With dozens of women already there – I was told 57 of them had RSVP’d to accept – the place was already mobbed, but Allegra and I managed to find seats in the back beside her good friend Emily and another couple of former high school classmates.Bridalshowerguests.JPG
The quiz, a copy of which had been placed on each seat, turned out to be a multiple-choice affair designed to test our knowledge of the bride and groom’s romantic history. What was the name of the local preschool at which the two had first met? How had they happened to reunite in recent years, long after graduating from high school together? Where had they gone on their very first date, and where had he proposed?
Having read the detailed account posted on their official wedding Web site, I knew that they had met when they first attended the Lollipop Tree; that they had reconnected one summer during college when the bride had worked at a local pharmacy (the exact same place where Rachel’s own grandparents had met 60 years earlier); and that he had proposed on the top of a mountain in Vermont last summer. I took a good guess that their first date had taken place at The Cheesecake Factory, which his family favors.CongregationBethIsraelBuilding.jpg
        I also knew that our temple, where the happy couple will marry this summer, was where both the groom’s parents and maternal grandparents had also once tied the knot. But with luck I managed to get the last of the eight questions, about the bride, wrong.
I say “with luck,” for this turned out to be a rather fortunate thing. Because after all the answers were revealed, everyone who’d gotten a perfect score was asked to stand. Then, before submitting to a bonus question to help break the tie, the nine or 10 winners were asked to each make a speech, explaining to the crowd how they knew the bride.
This hadn’t been mentioned beforehand. And seriously, what would I have said?Suzyatbridalshower.JPG
At the time, nothing quite appropriate came to mind, and I think I might’ve just stood there looking somewhat embarrassed, hemming and hawing rather awkwardly. In retrospect, of course, I realize now that I could simply have explained that, although my daughter had gone to school with Rachel, we were essentially there from the groom’s side… that Spencer’s older brother and my son were bff’s, we’d been family friends forever, there weren’t finer people to be found anywhere on earth, and so Rachel was about to acquire the best possible in-laws (and grandparents-in-law) on the planet.
But never mind that. Two winners were winnowed out by Round Two’s bonus question (“At which game does Rachel always manage to beat Spencer? a) Scrabble, b) Monopoly, c) Risk or d) Set?).
Who knew? The answer turned out to be d) Set.
“What’s Set?” I asked Allegra. But we were already getting set for the next shower game.EmilyatTPbridewithAllegra1.JPG
The guests were divided into groups of five or six, sequestered in different areas of the house and given a single roll of toilet paper per team. Our mission? To designate one team member as the bride, then spend about 10 minutes fashioning a wedding dress for her, complete with veil, bouquet and any other accessories we could manage to create using that one roll. Afterwards, the “brides” would walk down the center aisle in the living room, and the actual bride would judge our creations and designate a winner.
I found myself paired up with Allegra, Emily, and their friends Adina and Ruthie, and this turned out to be even more fun than it may sound. As you can imagine, Allegra was not a plausible contender to play the bridal role. Neither was Adina, a local rabbi’s daughter, who had married Rachel’s high school boyfriend, now a rabbi in training. Fortunately, Emily quickly cottoned (or should I say Cottonelle’d?) to the idea and volunteered to submit to this honor herself.Emilyasbrideholdingtube.JPG
I didn’t hesitate for a second when Allegra pronounced me a sort of team captain, considering that I was both our group’s only grown-up and years ago had gotten my start in journalism as a fashion writer. Ripping off a generous hank of “cloth,” I directed the girls to fasten this around Emily’s waist and tie a large bow in the back. We could then use this to attach a row of paper panels encircling her waist to form a skirt, which we decided to make short in the front and longer in the back. (Irregular hemlines are in!)
Emily mugged for the camera as the girlsEmilyasbridemugging.JPG proceeded to tuck more toilet tissue into her neckline to create a bodice, then added a paper rosette at the shoulder. They also fashioned a headdress and shoes, plus a bouquet (which looked more like the Statue of Liberty’s torch) by crumpling a few spare squares into the empty cardboard tube.
Then I got our design team to pose with their model for some final parting shots.
We all felt rather proud of our handiwork. In fact, the exercise gave me an idea. Despite the insane expense to which most brides go these days for their wedding attire – the average gown cost over $1,000 in both 2010 and 2011 – the fact remains that these organza and silk confectionsToiletpaperbrideteam2.JPG in white will be worn one day and one day only. Perhaps when the time comes, Allegra could be convinced to economize in this novel way on her own get-up. We’d set aside more than 10 minutes for the design, of course. I’d also gladly spring for a second roll of (ultra-absorbent, premium, two-ply) toilet tissue. Maybe even a third.
Moments later, everyone reassembled back in the living room, and here came the brides!
         AndthewinnerisJessica.jpgEveryone cheered as the assorted contenders “squared off,” and I must say that each looked even more Charmin’ than the last. We were so overcome with hilarity that we barely minded when we lost the competition to Spencer’s adorable cousin Jessica, who, with her Empire-style gown and perfect paper rose in her hair, easily wiped us all.Cakewithfreshfruit.jpg
Afterwards, we all repaired to the outside deck where dessert was being served. Many guests had brought along home-made offerings. (Should I have baked one too? Who knew?) The picnic table groaned under the weight of at least three dozen different irresistible confections, including heart-shaped brownies, raspberry-studded cheesecake, Lanaheadshot.jpgchocolate micro-cupcakes embellished with blueberries, and a massive, mouthwatering whipped cream cake studded with fresh fruit and slivered almonds, created by the mother of Spencer’s older brother Andrew’s gorgeous girlfriend Lana.
        Then we went back inside for the shower’s main event, which turned out to be not just the traditional opening of the gifts, but a high-spirited round of Bridal Shower Bingo.
Placed on each seat was a card printed with a bingo grid, with the center space occupied by the image of a wrapped gift. Instead of writing in numbers as they were called out, we were instructed to fill in the remaining 24 blanks with items the bride might receive as gifts. We were also given a sheet depicting probable prospects -- from a blender and toaster-oven to a vaccuum cleaner and crockpot -- to stimulate our imaginations.
Having perused the bridal registry, not to mention once been a bride myself, I knew the drill and had little trouble coming up with two dozen plausible offerings, ranging from glasses and serving utensils to crystal vases and salad bowls.
This being Allegra’s very first time at the rodeo, as it were, she entered a few similar housewares, then evidently drew a blank and finished by scribbling in the words “jewelry” and “lingerie” multiple times.
Then the bride was seated at the head of the room and the gifts, which had been safely stored in another room, were brought to her one by one to be unwrapped before the assembled crowd. The idea of the game was that every time she opened a gift that matched one of the entries on your grid, you were to cross it off. The first few guests to achieve “bingo” would receive a prize (although hopefully not need to make a speech).
Having purchased an extremely innocuous item from the registry, I figured that I had nothing to worry about… until I saw the first gift carried in and realized it was mine.
I know this was probably no big deal, but I had really wanted to keep a low profile, and (whether it’s being the first brave soul to hit the dance floor or the first to sport a new style) it’s never easy taking the lead. I braced myself as she read the signature on the gift card aloud and called out my name. Then I raised my hand to identify myself, imagining that everyone was gaping and someone must be whispering to her neighbor, “Wait, isn’t that Allegra’s mother? Why is she here?”Rachelsglasses.jpg
I watched as Rachel reached through the wads of tissue paper I’d crumpled inside the beribboned silver-gray gift bag from Macy’s bridal registry and carefully extracted… drum roll, please -- a box containing four Crystal D’Arques 12-inch highball glasses. Then, lest I appear cheap before the crowd, I clunkily hastened to point out that there was a second box bearing another identical set of four such tumblers inside.
Nobody oohed. Nor ahhed. But the bride’s mother smiled broadly at me, declaring that now the happy couple would be able to entertain both sets of in-laws at once. I beamed back. And with that, both my despair and my moment in the spotlight were over.
Allegra fared much better with her own offering. With her approval, I had picked up on her behalf another even more mundane item from the bridal registry: a Calphalon 12-cup muffin tin. But as a contemporary of the bride, she’d dared to get more creative by supplementing this with a pair of relatively funky related items – a set of measuring cups shaped like nesting Russian Matrushka dolls and a matching set of measuring spoons.Matrushkadollmeasuringcups2.jpg
The bride gushed with pleasure, and now many an ooh and ah resounded around the room, even before I remarked that we’d found these at the Museum of Modern Art.
Other notable items included an exquisite cheese board, a set of three (strictly kosher) cookbooks, and an enormous wooden Dansk salad bowl and matching servers. Representing the “jewelry” category was a single silver bracelet with a heart-shaped charm. But the closest thing to lingerie presented was a gift card from Victoria’s Secret. (Sorry, Allegra -- although somehow she still managed to achieve five in a row before me.)bridalshowerribbonhat.jpg
In keeping with bridal shower tradition, as each item was unwrapped and its donor acknowledged, Allegra’s friend Ruthie retrieved the ribbons from the corresponding gift and attached them to a paper plate. By the time the last crystal goblet and vase had been opened, she had created a rather frilly, froufrou and ungapatchka hat for the bride to don as photos were snapped all around… plus, at least a dozen guests had declared “Bingo!”
The climax came, however, when the last gift was presented by my friend Suzy, after which she brought out yet one more box. This one was totally devoid of ribbons, though, because it wasn’t intended for her future daughter-in-law. The groom – along with his father, his maternal grandfather and the father of the bride – had been allowed to join us just in time to see the gifts opened, and this final box was meant for him.
After the wedding, he and Rachel will be moving to Philadelphia, where Spencer, a stellar student, will enroll in a Ph.D. program in biological engineering at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rachel, a lovely, brilliant, and multi-talented girl, will enroll in a nearby program to achieve her ambition of becoming a physician’s assistant.OldTeddyBear.jpg
Toward this end, Suzy had packed a box for her son to take to their new home. This included a bag of his favorite brand of jasmine rice and a few once-cherished childhood keepsakes, including a large stuffed teddy bear known simply as Teddy Bear. “As you know, Spence, he’s been in a box under your bed for several years,” Suzy said.
At this, Spencer piped up and blushed deeper than the azalea-pink shirt he had on. “More than several!” he protested plaintively. Everyone laughed.RachelandSpenceratbridalshower.jpg
When all the tittering died down, however, Suzy went on to explain that she’d assembled only this handful of items because she was in no hurry to see him leave, nor was she viewing this as losing a son. Rather, as the mother of two boys, she was finally gaining the daughter she’d always longed for. And she couldn’t be happier because the daughter she was gaining was perfect for her son and was beautiful both inside and out.
What did I say about crying at showers? There was barely a dry eye in the house.
Neither was there an empty hand, because as people began to bid each other lengthy Jewish goodbyes (WASPS, as they say, leave and never say goodbye, while Jews say goodbye but never leave), Suzy began to pass out the novel party favors she’d assembled for the occasion, colorful felt “flower pots” filled with tissue paper leaves and fake Gerber daisies, with cute heart-shaped manicure kits tucked inside.Flowerpotbridalpartyfavor.JPG
We also were directed to pass through the kitchen and make plates to go, helping ourselves to the copious desserts that had been left over from the lavish buffet. Presumably, the bride and her entire wedding party wished to make sure that they’ll still fit into their (actual cloth) gowns and other stylish attire for the wedding this coming summer.
That, however, is a whole other affair. And as much as I look forward to attending it, I doubt that there will be any more games involved. Nor do I believe that it’s remotely fair game to cover. So (along with once again hoping that I haven’t upset anyone involved), I can assure the bride and everyone else that I won’t be blogging about that.

10:43 am 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Word From the WeissPizzaheaven2.jpg

        “There is no God!” my daughter declared, having just learned that our favorite new pizzeria had failed an inspection and been closed by New York’s Department of Health.
“You’re wrong. There is a God!” I countered huffily. “He’s simply on a diet!”
Is. Isn’t. Who can say for sure? All I know is that for me, the past week has been riddled with countless random acts of both kindness and chaos, as fate or luck or something otherworldly has intervened repeatedly to give my wheel of fortune a spin.AllegraatTomiinAprilfulllength.JPG
Most of this revolved around our plans to take a trip to New York City last Saturday night to see our daughter, Allegra, perform with her band at a jazz club.
        This was the very first time we were going to leave little Latke, our new Portuguese Water Puppy, overnight since we had adopted her a month ago, and I decided we might as well make a full weekend of it. So I bought tickets to a play for Friday night as well. As the weekend approached, I began to feel giddy and breathless, as if we were going on a honeymoon…Latkeonkitchenfloor.JPG minus the wedding reception and romance, of course. The only problem was that Latke was going to board with her breeder, but we had absolutely nowhere to stay.
As I’ve noted in the past, there’s a real art to finding affordable accommodations in New York City. Often, if you have the koyekh (Yiddish for “inner strength”) to wait it out, the prices suddenly plummet at the very last minute. But sometimes taking a gamble on this risky strategy can bite you in the tush because the rates go precipitously up instead.
The hotels were so exorbitant last weekend, with nothing in Manhattan for under $350, that I resorted to checking out my trusty new alternative for temporary sublets, Airbnb.com. To my delight, this yielded a spare bedroom in an apartment near Allegra’s for the nominal rate of $90 a night. But my husband balked at sharing the premises (not to mention, presumably, the bathroom) with the young man who lives there, and by the time I had decided to take it anyway, it had already been scooped up by someone else.AllegraoutsideMoMA.JPG
So on late Friday morning, when I realized that we were leaving within hours and still had nowhere whatsoever to stay, I became understandably frantic (too frantic to be remotely amused by Nice Jewish Dad’s proposal that we sleep in the car). That’s when the phone rang. It was Allegra, calling to say that she hoped we hadn’t booked anything yet. She had just realized that one of her roommates was moving out that day and her replacement wasn’t moving in until the next afternoon, and we were totally welcome to use the empty room for free.
Thank God (or whoever) or my balky husband that we hadn’t reserved that first room after all. Now we only had Saturday to worry about, and I had an idea for that.HamptonInnbreakfastroom.jpg
Last fall, during a 10-day power outage, we ended up staying at a Hampton Inn, and we enjoyed it so much that we now rarely stay anywhere else. Hotels in this chain appear to be almost universally modern and efficiently run, as well as to include a full buffet breakfast, featuring eggs, make-your-own waffles and (my own breakfast fare of choice) yogurt and fresh fruit salad. This past winter, however, we stayed at one in New York that turned out to be under construction, and we had such an unpleasant experience that afterwards I wrote them a scathing and very detailed letter of complaint. This letter was so detailed and so scathing that the company sent me a letter of apology, along with a coupon good for one free night at the Hampton Inn of our choice. We had yet to cash this in.HamptonInnChelseaexterior2.jpg
The Hampton Inn of our choice, on West 24th Street in Chelsea, had been solidly booked for last weekend. But now it suddenly was showing a vacancy for the first time in two weeks. This was a room with a kingside bed, for the hefty price of $450 a night. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
My husband has much more chutzpah than I do, so I put him on the case. He called to ask if we could use our coupon for the $450 room. No problem, they said. They only asked if we’d mind taking a “handicapped room” (meaning one that was a bit larger than a regular room and equipped with handrails in the shower). No problem, we said.HamptonInnkingbedroom.jpg
I also happened to have purchased a few $16 certificates on Groupon allowing you to park overnight at any Icon garage throughout the city for less than half the usual rate. Suddenly, we were all set, and our weekend away wasn’t looking so exorbitant. What it was looking to be was almost free.ClybourneParkmarquee.JPG
Along with having a free room for us, Allegra also allowed that she was now free for the evening and willing to join us for the play. She had declined our invitation when I’d purchased our own tickets a week earlier (no big surprise, since most young people hesitate to make plans too far in advance, especially plans to hang out with their folks), and now the closest available seat I could find was six rows behind ours, in Row K.
When we arrived at the theater, I advised the woman at “Will Call” that we had two separate sets of tickets. Hearing this, she looked over our seat locations, looked over our family, and without my even asking declared, “I think we can do better thanClybourneParkticketlady.JPG this!” Then she assigned us to three consecutive seats that were even closer to the stage. When does that ever happen, especially in New York? Does this mean that there is a God -- one who believes that the family that sees plays together stays together?
I had previously resigned myself to sitting in that solo seat and letting Allegra take mine. This small concession would no longer be necessary, but another one would. While my husband lagged behind to procure himself a headset device to amplify the sound, I followed Allegra to our new and improved seats, whereupon she paused in the aisle.
“Am I sitting next to Dad,” she asked, “or are you sitting next to Dad?”
“I’m not sitting next to Dad,” I replied. “Wouldn’t you like to sit next to Dad?”
A middle-aged couple seated behind us were clearly listening in on this exchange. “I’ll sit next to Dad,” the wife offered brightly.Harlanintheater.jpg
Hadn’t we already been blessed with more than our share of windfalls for one day?  “No one should have to sit next to Dad,” I informed her. “He can’t hear a thing and asks you to repeat practically every other word, then laughs 10 seconds after everyone else.”
“The theater provides listening devices for that, you know,” she offered helpfully.
        This of course was not news to me
        “Even so,” I said.
With luck, this play proved so uproarious that through the nearly nonstop laughter I failed to notice a single instance in which my husband came up for air long enough to ask for a translation or chortled on a 10-second time delay.ClybournePark1.jpg
Clybourne Park, which won the Pulitzer for drama in 2011 and was nominated this week for a Tony for Best Play, was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. The first act takes place in 1959, when Russ and Bev, a white, middle-class couple in a Chicago suburb known as Clybourne Park, prepare to sell their house to a black family who, it quickly becomes apparent, are the Youngers, the main characters in Hansberry’s classic play. They receive visits from both their glib local minister and a neighbor, Karl Lindner, the insipid character in Hansberry’s play who tries to bribe the Youngers not to move into the house. Bev, who is perkily obtuse, prevails upon her long-suffering black maid and her husband to get in on the controversy. Hilarity ensues.ClybourneParkBevandmaid.jpg
In Act 2, all of the actors portray completely different characters as, 50 years later, a white family prepares to buy back the same house in what has now become an all-black community – one that is not particularly keen on being subjected to gentrification.
Piercing social commentary and pathos both abound. But if this doesn’t sound like particularly fertile ground for frivolity, then, believe me, you have to see it for yourself.
“Superb, hilarious and explosive,” raved John Lahr in The New Yorker.ClybourneParkwifeonlap.jpg
“Ferociously smart!” concurred Ben Brantley in The New York Times.
We left feeling in such high spirits, in fact, that I remained almost completely unperturbed when we returned to the parking garage and my car was returned to me with the mirror on the driver’s side detached and essentially hanging by a single wire.
Or maybe it’s just that there was something rather divine about this adverse development.Carmirror.JPG
I’m not suggesting that having my mirror disengaged was possibly an act of God. It was merely the act of a careless or inept parking attendant during the post-theater rush. The cashier on duty assured me, however, that the garage would pay for the damages, and although I tried to appear royally miffed, this news filled me with undeniable delight.
Nearly two years ago, you see, I was exiting our garage at home in a great hurry to reach the post office before it closed to mail a birthday card to my childhood friend Lisa. I was in such a rush that my car grazed the doorway, partially dislodging that mirror. After learning that it couldn’t simply be reattached and would cost a whopping $500 or so to replace, I chose to simply tip a guy at our service station 10 bucks to jimmy it back on. It had held and functioned just fine ever since. But it had long loomed in the back of my mind that someday I might actually have to get the situation remedied for real.Carmirrorwithtape.JPG
Yes, I would now have to waste half a day acquiring two written repair estimates, which the garage required. I’d also have to drive around for a week or two with my car cheesily patched up with tacky-looking brown packing tape (and end up driving the two hours home from New York on a frigid day with my window slightly cracked and whistling loudly, because the tape prevents it from closing completely). But at last I had a chance to get my car fixed up properly and not have to shell out a dime.
Or did I? I’ve been agonizing about the ethics of the situation ever since. Did I really deserve to have the garage buy me a spanking new mirror to replace the slightly damaged one I already had, on a 10-year-old car, no less? On the other hand, there’d been no pressing problem with the mirror before I parked the car there, and I hope to continue driving the car, a Toyota with under 100,000 miles on it, for many years hence.Avalon.JPG
The lower of the two estimates I received came to $451, and all three of my family members insist that I should have no qualms about forking over the bill to the garage, part of a huge chain with over two dozen outlets in the city. I still feel a little squeamish. On the other hand (although I think we’re running out of hands here), Allegra maintains that its staff was expected to do one thing, and one thing only -- park my car for a few hours and return it to me intact – and if they screwed that up, then they should pay.
In the meanwhile, we got to enjoy that free night in Allegra’s apartment. However, as they say, you get what you pay for – or what you don’t. So when the toilet overflowed, I spent much of the next morning plunging it and mopping the bathroom floor, as well as vacuuming and cleaning the room of the girl who’d just moved out prior to the new girl’s arrival so that Allegra could be free to prepare for her gig that night.TomiJazzsignupright.jpg
Yet another important task also fell to me, although this one was so much more appealing that I readily volunteered for the job.
Allegra was performing at Tomi Jazz, a small club on East 53rd Street, a place I’d written about when she first played there a few weeks ago. Like many clubs, the place paid the musicians a pittance, even though we managed to pack the house with friends. It frustrated me at the time that the club made a sizable profit on her performance by charging a $10 cover charge plus a $10 drink minimum, then failed to even provide a tip jar in which enthusiastic fans could help pad the band’s take. I urged Allegra to bring one with her from now on, but she had no time to make one, so I offered to do it for her.
        That wasn’t as simple to do as it may sound, considering that I was away from home and without any supplies. After checking into our hotel, we spent the rest of the day wandering around the city seeking out materials to make an appealing receptacle.Flamingosign.JPG
Oddly, while unloading our luggage from the trunk of my car, I came across a funky vintage-style sign I’d bought at a flea market a year ago. “Tropical drinks… Cocktail Lounge… Dine and Dance,” it read. Embellished with pink flamingos, palm trees and martini glasses, it seemed ideal for a jazz club. I simply needed something to hang it on.tipjarwithflamingosign.JPG
        I asked the clerk at the hotel’s front desk if he could find anything suitable in the kitchen, like an empty, industrial-size mayonnaise jar, but he came up empty-handed. Yet I found something in our room that was just the right size and shape: a semi-circular plastic inset from the wastebasket, intended to help sort out recyclable trash from actual garbage. I decided to borrow this for the evening, in case we couldn’t find anything else.
We found assorted stylish antique urns in a quaint vintage shop called Olde Good Things, but each cost over $150, far more than the tips we hoped to collect. Instead, we picked up a small tin bucket for 4 bucks in a hardware store, along with a black Sharpie I used to draw two small signs stating “Tips for the Band.” Thank God (or whomever) for that mishap with my car; the parking garage had given me their roll of packing tape, just in case the mirror came off my car again. I used this to attach the signs.PattieApril2012.jpg
So you can only imagine my disappointment when I sauntered into the gig with my two lovely creations, eager to have Allegra choose between them, only to discover that this time the club had seen fit to put out a nice silver bucket to serve as a tip jar after all. So much for my artistry.Silvertipbucket.jpg
No matter. I shoved both examples of my handiwork under my seat and settled in to enjoy the music. This would have been much easier if my husband hadn’t proceeded to have a wrestling match with his video camera, which was inexplicably malfunctioning, and the two of them (he and the errant camera) finally took it to the bar, punctuating the music with a barrage of threats and stage-whispered obscenities.
Yet the show must go on, as they say, whether or not the performer’s father is able to capture it on tape.AllegrawithCousinIlene.JPG
         And a wonderful show it was. When the first set began promptly at 8, to my distress the place was nearly empty, except for my husband, myself and our dear Cousin Ilene, who valiantly joined us even though she had just returned an hour earlier from a week in Washington, D.C… and she’s about to turn 85 later this month.
By the time the second set began, however, countless people had arrived -- including our good friends' son Tom and his girlfriend Lynn, recent transplants from London -- and there wasn’t an empty seat to be found in the joint. Still, this tiny place, a basement-level space that’s essentially a hole in the wall, was intimate enough that she had no trouble interacting animatedly with the crowd.AllegraatTomiJazzinApril1.JPG
In comedy clubs, it’s routine for audience members to heckle the performer, but in this case the performer ended up heckling one of the audience members: namely me. Whenever I’m there, Allegra has a tendency to reference me while introducing various numbers, along the lines of "I’m going to sing this next one for you, even though my mother hates it.” This particularly came into play in the second set, which was comprised mostly of songs she'd written herself.
Jazz, keep in mind, unlike most pop, rock and Broadway, tends to be dark and gritty rather than bubbly and cute, and her original tunes are no exception. After apologizing for how grim many of her titles sounded – from “Lonely City” to “I Don’t Want to Be in Love” – she introduced the one that “my mom just can’t stand.”
This is a number entitled “I’m Not OK,” and, just for the record, my own mom heard her sing it while she was still alive, and she found it so disturbing that she couldn’t stand it either and kind of heckled Allegra about it at subsequent shows. It goes, in part, like this:Allegrasingingwithcrinklednose.JPG

        “I’m not OK, and I never will be
I’m not OK, and that’s all right with me.
Don’t be a fool and try to save me
I’d rather sit and live the blues God gave me…”
        But before she could launch into the opening strains, I felt obliged to correct her. “Actually, it’s growing on me,” I protested. “The only thing I object to is the title itself. What do you mean, you’re ‘not OK’? You’re fine!”
OK, she may not be fine. But her singing is, if you ask me. And so was the crowd’s reaction to it. The club’s tip jar got passed around afterwards and yielded an extra $52. Allegra said that she planned to give most of this to her three instrumentalists, even though she’s the one who had landed the gig and done most of the legwork, choosing the musicians and set list and doing all of the necessary organizing behind the scenes.HarlanatPinkberry.JPG
Afterwards, my husband and I went to a nearby Pinkberry for dessert while Allegra joined a college classmate and the girl’s boyfriend for a drink at a nearby bar. On the way back, as noodgy as it may sound, I stopped into the bar just to check whether Allegra was ready to go home and might appreciate a safe escort to the subway. She admitted that she was indeed tired after all that singing, but said that her companions were going out in the East Village and, being newly single, she was eager to join them.
        I observed that it was already past midnight and she’d had a long day and night. She replied that her friends were planning to introduce her to “some cute Jewish boys.”
At this, I reached into my wallet and pulled out a twenty. “Here,” I said. “Have fun!  But please take a cab home afterwards.”
        (P.S.: Yes, there is a God!)yellowtaxi.jpg
Since the night was no longer young – or was that just us? -- my husband and I also chose to take a cab back to our hotel. But when the driver ran into heavy traffic and was obliged to take a very circuitous route, he chose to not switch on the meter until he had driven us several blocks. Now, seriously. What New York cabbie ever does that?WesternomelettesatHamptonInn.JPG
We thoroughly enjoyed our free hotel room, as well as the ample free breakfast the next morning (even though the eggs of the day turned out to be Western omelets, not exactly what the rabbi ordered, considering that they’re chockfull of diced peppers – and ham!). We also must say we had no problem with that “handicapped” room, with its spacious dimensions, king-sized bed and extra-wide doorways. My husband has had two hip replacements and owns a whole arsenal of canes he may now carry on trips. Handicapped is clearly the way to go!MuseumofModernArt.JPG
Then we met Allegra and her friend Veronica at the Museum of Modern Art because during a field trip with the class Allegra teaches in Harlem, she’d been given two free family passes to the museum, good for free admission (regularly $25 apiece).
Free parking… free room at Allegra’s… free hotel… free breakfast… free car repairs… free museum. Seems like there is a God… and he wants us to feel FREE!electricgaragedoor.jpg
Or is there? When we arrived home, we discovered that my husband’s own car had developed a flat tire and the electric door to our garage had spontaneously broken out of the blue and cost us over $300 to repair. So much for our nearly free weekend.
Then again, the next afternoon Allegra called to report an unprecedented incident.AllegraatClybournePark.JPG
         She took a cab with the adorable 5-year-old girl she baby-sits for and a little boy the girl was playing with. The kids chatted sweetly all the way from 96th and Park to 61st and Broadway while Allegra schmoozed with the driver, a white-haired man of about 70 who reminded her eerily of my late dad, Grandpa Stu. And when they arrived at their destination, a good 15 minutes later, she reached for her wallet, but the driver waved it away.
“It’s on me,” he asserted.
She tried to pay him anyway, but he staunchly refused, repeating his munificent mantra. “It’s on me.”
Just good karma coming back to reward her?
        Did he assume she was a struggling young mother of two?
        Or could it be that there actually is a God… and he drives a taxi in New York!?Cabdriveritsonme.jpg
That would explain a lot. He’s kind, he’s giving, he listens, he cares. But like any other cabdriver, he gets into the occasional fender-bender, can't be everywhere at once, and sometimes he’s simply off duty.PizzaatStarita.jpg
        The other good news is that our favorite pizzeria is back open for business, its pesky little rodent problem all resolved. Yes, there is a God. But the diet is definitely off!

2:47 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.