Monday, December 28, 2009

Hook-Up = Heartbreak? Ask George Clooney!

No one dates anymore, I was recently informed by a young woman of college age. They either do casual hook-ups or rush to get married.


I've been hearing about this dating-free philosophy for some time now, have even seen signs of the fact that we are becoming a Hook-Up Nation but what I want to know is -- beyond a fling or two or three, who actually believes that emotion-less, commitment-free sexual relationships are desirable?

The quick answer, it might appear, is boys and men, but George Clooney recently informed me otherwise. The no-strings-attached fling can be downright demoralizing, he told me during a recent intimate encounter at the Loews Lincoln Square Theatre where he was seen racing to the home of his hook-up to see her between business trips. And why was this? Because, despite his up-in-the-air lifestyle and allergy to coupledom, it turns out that he actually cared about her. Now that I've gotten the Gospel according to George, I'm intent upon spreading the word that men have feelings too, though I'm all-too-aware that the concept of the sheerly recreational sexual encounter (termed famously the Zipless F^*% by Erica Jong in Fear of Flying some thirty years ago) seems tailor-made to the male species, reputed to be sluttish from birth.

But lest I jump to pre-feminist conclusions, said my college campus spy, I should know that girls were fully complicit in perpetuating this dating-free ethic. They have willingly adopted the Hook-Up habit themselves, thereby becoming hookees, or as our mothers might have wisely said - hookers.

It was liberating, she insisted. Why should boys be the only ones to fool around?

Only under strenuous cross-examination did this young lass confess that her female friends frequently ended up getting emotionally screwed because they cannot squelch the secret hope that the boys they jump into bed with might end up liking them. Significantly, my source admitted to being unusual for her generation, craving neither young marriage nor the casual encounter but that obsolete thing called a relationship which involves a prehistoric life form known as a boyfriend.

It's obviously not only college girls who end up disappointed by this decree of divorce between body and soul. I've heard from single men who are in a state of near-despair, longing for an intimate and caring relationship and fearing that most modern women are infected with the wish to only hook up with them. One twentysomething lad reflected on the general state of things with real sadness, bemoaning the loss of sincerity in human interactions, expressing his desire to bond body, heart and soul as possibly old-fashioned and increasingly unrealistic.

True, I know way more women who weep for the lack of a loving partner but the fact that I even know a handful of men who are disappointed in love informs me that the ethic of the Hook-Up as standard operating procedure is an illusion, if not an outright lie.

And though it is considered to be the new, cool way to relate, the habit of hooking up is actually a two-dimensional trap, killing off the possibility of having a truly erotic or romantic experience, both of which form the whipped cream and cherry on the sundae of life.

Which brings me back to George Clooney and two recent films that riff on the limitations of the Hook-Up habit from a male perspective -- Up in the Air and 500 Days of Summer.

If you have seen neither film and wish to do so, please stop reading this post as it contains a plot spoiler in the next paragraph.

Maybe it's because I just saw these films weeks apart (one in the theatre, the other aboard my Continental flight back from Israel) but I found it striking that both Clooney's Ryan Bingham and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom Hansen have their hearts broken by women who treat them all-too-cavalierly.

Who participate avidly in the relationship and then withdraw, revealing themselves to be not the least bit emotionally invested.

Which is striking and kind of Man-Bites-Dog because we know all about women getting screwed over by men. But there is nothing liberating or score-settling about the screw-you shoe being worn by the other foot. Instead, as a filmgoer and fellow human, I felt deep disgust toward Zooey Deschanel's and Vera Farmiga's characters Summer and Alex, indeed, had a fleeting fantasy that I might re-educate them in a Clockwork Orange kind of way, teaching them how to treat the people who care about them with kindness and concern.

And though it is only The Movies, I found this plot twist important and reflective of the way that things really are.

Which is that our hearts are located within our bodies.

And that real people don't come in single-use packaging to be used once or twice and tossed, that is to say, to be treated like hookers.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Feliz Navidad 2009

For those who ride the rails, a familiar sight and sound, this one captured aboard the #1 train heading downtown from W116th Street to W14th Street.

This photograph and post is dedicated to our valiant cleaning woman -- Leidy Dominquez -- who keeps the urban bungalow clean and orderly.

Leidy and thousands of others like her are the unsung heroes of this city, the hard-working people who remain below the radar screen in order to keep this town running.

To Leidy and all her amigos -- Feliz Navidad!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From Cosi to Carnegie Hall

At 8:10 in the morning, Cosi was sparsely populated by Upper West Siders who seemed dazed to be awake and out in public at that hour.

Wearing a blazer and pashmina incongruously atop gym clothes, I gulped a Cafe Americano, fortified with an extra shot of espresso, and virtually inhaled a rare chocolate chip muffin in an effort to enter the state of alertness necessary for a brainstorming session followed by a workout at the JCC, just around the corner.

The subject at hand was the normalization of Israeli society in the post-Intifada era. The matter we were discussing was how a people who are accustomed to the adrenaline-rush of crisis deal with life-as-usual. Our focus was the cultural landscape of the country over the past couple of years, the facets of life that were now coming into focus, the new direction of contemporary art, even the welcome proliferation of wine bars...a clear indication of a society that can finally relax.

Not that things are perfect, as we were quick to point out to each other, noting the political and religious issues. But still...for those of us who pop back and forth between New York and Jerusalem as if were a Metro-North commute from midtown to, say, New Rochelle, there has been a profound sea-change.

"I find myself un-obsessed with checking the news from Israel every hour for the first time in over a decade," I confessed.

"Me too!!!" affirmed my breakfast mate, smacking the table in solidarity "It sometimes feels like something is missing without the constant sense of emergency."

"The question is -- can Jews handle calm for long?" I mused aloud. "We're so excitable. Were we born this way or conditioned by our history?"

That question hovered in the air as I took my seat, twelve hours later, for Part II of the Messiah performance last night at Carnegie Hall. Unlike the public sing-ins of the Messiah which I have attended, this performance was dull and pro-forma, kind of like a religious service one was duty-bound to attend or an endless funeral for someone you hardly knew. Sitting between HOBB and a German tourist, I felt trapped, bored and increasingly sleepy.

Indeed, just before everyone rose for the Halleluyah Chorus, HOBB roused me from sleep.

Dazed and somewhat embarrassed, I was also amazed. I had never fallen asleep in public before, rarely slept on planes, had an abnormal ability to endure sleeplessness.

Just before closing my eyes (having tried first to read the novel I lugged with me, yet failing, due to the dim lighting) I remembered thinking that the performance was not just boring, it was truly soporific, should be marketed, indeed, as a sleep-aid. I recalled looking around and taking note of the vast sea of placidity, the calm Christians who had come to hear this, the ultimate Christmas-time cultural offering, realizing that their perception of the performance likely differed dramatically from my own.

I tried to focus on the message of Handel’s Messiah, tried to try on the theological underpinning, share, perhaps, the sanctity of the impending day for those who believe that Jesus was the son of God and that this hugely commercialized holiday marked his miraculous, virginal birth.

Tried and failed miserably. Failed to rustle up even an iota of empathy. Found myself feeling, instead, confrontational towards Christianity for its history of persecution of Jews, found myself sneering as I spotted classically goyish faces or outfits, wondered if I appeared overtly Jewish to those sitting around me with my dark hair and eyes and cynical mien.

As the chorus sang “Glorious,” I longed for the campy, sacrilegious glory of Jesus Christ Superstar instead, for the critical gaze of Constantine’s Sword, for the music of Madonna.

Standing, dazed, during the Halleluyah Chorus, I wondered at my ability to fall asleep when normally I would be beset by that ultimate of Jewish existential modes -- shpilkes -- roughly and inaccurately translated as being on pins and needles, more aptly described as a state of extreme and pervasive agitation.

I thought about the various catalysts of artistic inspiration, wondered which would be proven by history to be the stronger muse -- heartbreak, hysteria or Halleluyah.

Sitting in the balcony of Carnegie Hall last night I felt alienated by my Jewish tendency towards shpilkes, my interpretation of the calm beauty of Handel's Messiah as totally and utterly boring, an assault of normalcy evoking in me the desire to tune out and seek refuge in my haunted dreams.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Morante & Moravia: A Brand New Obsession

I will be brief as Elsa Morante's outfit in the picture to the left.

Just three books into my love affair with Alberto Moravia (Contempt; Boredom and The Conformist), I learned from my brother-in-law that if I loved Moravia, then I would really, really love his wife, Elsa Morante.

I was vaguely aware of Morante, knew that her novel La Storia (History) is regarded as a 20th century masterpiece. I also knew that both writers were half-Jewish, a fact of great consequence in Europe during the time of the Second World War.

Already, a stack of Moravia's novels awaits me, bedside; to these, I must now add Morante's works. Considering the output of both, I think my literary dance card will be full for a few months. And that's without even consulting the biographical works, which I most certainly will have to, in order to feed my voracious interest in the lives of writers who are married to each other.

I wrote last month about my penchant for burning through the complete works of a single writer, immersing myself in his or her life, supplementing their work with biographical data -- sometimes in the form of books, other times cribbed from cyberspace.

Even more fulfilling, though, is discovering a literary couple, reading him, reading her and reading about their shared life. Over the years, I have become a groupie of Paul and Jane, Diana and Lionel, Sylvia and Ted, Jean Paul and Simone, Dash and Lillian, Vera and name a few. (No matter that Vera didn't write; her partnership with her husband was entirely literary.)

I was even briefly obsessed with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (who committed suicide) and found myself wondering about Stan and Jan Berenstain, authors of the Berenstain Bears series. The teenage Joyce Maynard who lived with the much-older J.D. Salinger for a while in the seventies was fascinating, if disturbing, for me to comtemplate. More recent writing couples, however -- Nicole Kraus and Jonathan Safran Foer; Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, for instance -- evoke not a shred of curiosity in me.

The literary marriage is both a glorious ideal and a total nightmare, dangling the paradoxical promise of soulmate and eternal nemesis. There is shared ambition and deadly competition. There is the clash of ego; the clamoring for all-engulfing attention. There is the desire to serve as The Muse. There is the infantile demand to be read and savored; to be held, to be heard, to be seen as one sees oneself.

And then there are the complicating factors of sex, money, children, family and overlapping circles of friends.

And success coming to one but not the other.

Though I try to enforce strict rules with myself, refraining from reading biographical information until I have completely swallowed the literary ouevre of the respective writer, sometimes I weaken and take a peek.

Usually, this is a deadly mistake as the information I discover proves so enticing that I am in grave danger of abandoning the reading of the work prematurely and diving headlong into the heart of the marriage...where I never wish to leave.

And when a photograph of the couple is glimpsed -- invariably showing them as impossibly glamorous, as in the case of this picture of Morante and Moravia -- it has the same effect as portraits of movie stars have on the young and impressionable, blinding and dazzling me, seizing hold of my imagination, making me lovesick, nearly delusional, providing me with a portal through which I can understand my own life and marriage, a context within which I can view my own life as a great dramatic work.

The Midnight Scream

Exactly 45 minutes ago a bloodcurling scream rang out through the frigid night. Rushing to the window, I saw scores of Columbia students hanging out of their dorm windows, arms flailing, mouths agape. It was a surreal, horrifying spectacle.

Oh yeah, I realized, as the melodramatic keening continued, looping into arias, traumatizing the winter air. The Midnight Scream.

The Midnight Scream, a biannual ritual, typically takes place the night before finals commences but I understand from Jody, Middle Babe's friend who is currently sitting on our dog-chewed red leather couch, that the test schedule got a bit screwed up this semester and the Midnight Scream is towards the end of exams.

No matter. It is a quirky, oddly-reassuring thing to witness: this witty expression of exasperation and panic in the face of finals. This expression of solidarity in the face of stress. This communal ritual of catharsis.

"Today is the greatest day of my life," proclaimed Middle Babe to me last week, the day after her last final. It had been an intense semester for her, having switched in her junior year to a philosophy major. I recall when Big Babe was a Columbia student and participant in the Midnight Scream, not so very long ago. I make a mental note to drop him an email about hearing the scream tonight.

Or perhaps I'll tell him in person when I visit him in Berlin in three weeks' time. I can casually mention it as I unpack the goodies I have brought him from New York, which might include the following items, thoughtfully itemized by him in an email he sent me earlier; the first installment of his annual Berlin Wishlist.


  1. A study, heavy-ish coffee tamper with 49mm (2") diameter (should be easy to find at Zabars) + a thermometer for heating frothing milk (we might have one of these at home, in the drawer with all the non-silverware cutlery stuff)
  2. 6 lbs of Zabar's whole bean coffee (3 French-Italian and 3 dark espresso)(I'll write more about food later, but you know the drill - babka, lox, cheddar, melinda's etc...)
  3. The myriad dvds that have arrived to dad's office over the past two weeks: feel free to open any and all boxes. The DVDs I'd like to have close by are: Pandora's Box, Le Plaisir, La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame De..., The Seventh Seal and Last Year at Marienbad.

From the couch in the living room, Middle Babe requests a Snapple. She is wrapped in a blanket, Alfie the Pomeranian sleeping happily in her lap. Jody's snowboots are melting onto the wooden floor. Shara, visiting from England, checks information online for a train to Newark.

As for me, I'm frankly falling asleep.

The Midnight Scream, after all, was 45 minutes ago.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Today, I booked my flight for Berlin next month to visit Big Babe and research my forthcoming article on the young ex-pat hipster scene in Berlin.

Not that Big Babe is a hipster or anything. But he's part of the scene. And it is crying out to be documented, especially by a post-Holocaust era American Jew whose son has decided to make the city his adopted home. It'll also be great fun to hang out with Big Babe and his friends in Berlin's clubs and bars in the name of reportage.

Speaking of fun, at this very moment, a marching band is making its way across the Columbia campus towards our apartment on Amsterdam. The ability to witness such acts of chutzpah and silliness is one of the best parts of living across from a university. I rush to the window and watch the parade; the band members are decked out in military uniforms, feathered hats and all. There are tubas and cymbals. A true celebration... except for those who might be asleep at 1 am.

I've been sitting at the dining room table, writing in the dark -- a favorite habit. At this hour of the night, the dark settles around me, velvety and lush. About an hour ago, I fell asleep next to HOBB while watching Mad Men on DVD in a desperate effort to catch up with our friends who have been following the show since it first aired, succumbing to jet-lag from my recent trip to Israel.

Roused from my slumber by HOBB, I staggered to our bedroom, drunkenly undressed and slipped shivering beneath the covers. Thus delivered to bed, I was therefore surprised to find my mind suddenly snapping to attention, the delayed result, no doubt, of the strong cup of Zabar's French Italian blend I brewed just before running out for the screening and talkback of Inglourious Basterds at the Jewish Theological Seminary earlier tonight.

So, here I am, writing in the dark, burning off the caffeine, listening to the Columbia marching band play "Sweet Dreams," trying to recollect the highlights of my trip to Israel.

We returned Sunday night. HOBB had been away for three-plus weeks; me, for only one. As always, the trip was mindblowing and all too brief. There was Tel Aviv and Herziliyah and Jerusalem; dinners, drinks, endless cups of cafe hafukh, huge salads that were impossible to finish, gallery openings and parties, the famous Israeli breakfasts, transcendent davening, epic conversations, three different places to sleep, passion of the variety that only seems possible in hotel rooms, business meetings, friends, relatives, the lighting of Chanuka candles, red wine, schwarma, Hebrew in my lungs, King David whispering love poems in my ear, an ancient song in my heart.

There were the imprints of all my previous trips, beginning in 1968, when I first came to Israel as a young girl. Amazingly, I have reached the point where I lost track of how many times I've been, so frequent is the fact of my eastward travel. The amount has far exceeded thirty, possibly more. Last year alone, I journeyed to Israel three times -- four, if you include last week's trip.

There was the international writer's conference on the theme of exile at Mishkenot Sha'ananim and Beit Avi Chai. There were the unforgivably boring sessions on what it means to be a Jewish writer, there was music and poetry, there was the thrill of rubbing shoulders with the writers in attendance; there was the magic of hearing great authors talk about the experience of exile in their lives and work.

There was the visit to Ruti the psychic in Rehovot - my first such foray - the startling truths she told me about myself and my life. There was the joyous discovery that Ya'acov, the ancient Jerusalemite who managed the kiosk near the German Colony apartment I lived in during our sabbatical year in '97/'98, was alive and well...and still stationed behind the manual orange squeezing machine in his tiny shop on Emek Refaim.

And then, before I knew it, there was the return to New York and Little Babe, whom we had left behind. There was the joyous anticipation of Middle Babe's return from college for winter break. There was the comical, near-hysterical reunion with Alfie and Nala, our loyal Pomeranians.

It is now 1:30 in the morning. The activity of writing appears to have burned off the Zabar's coffee. The marching band has gone to bed, or was arrested for disturbing the peace. As my hyper-alertness wanes, I recall the film I saw earlier tonight, marveling at its artistry, power and message. As was amply noted when it first came out, months ago, Inglourious Basterds is not for the faint of heart, nor does it make apologies for the desire to exact vengeance on those who seek to kill us. On this, the sixth night of Chanuka, I think of the Maccabean spirit of the Basterds of the film and feel a deep bond of kinship.

Some of us are natural-born warriors. I am one, endowed with the instinct to fight for what is true and important and mine. There is no universal experience or agreed-upon quantity when it comes to an individual's experience of struggle; some are fated to face down Nazis while others are privileged (or stunted) by the lack of adversity in their lives. Most of us are delivered something in between.

I'd never visited a psychic in my life, heeding the Biblical verse, "Do not let a witch live." That, coupled with my basic skepticism about the validity of soothsayers and tea leaf readers kept me away. But it was my sister's birthday gift to me and Ruti the psychic -- Yemenite, crippled by childhood polio -- won my confidence, intuiting secrets and intimate details ofmy life. She told me that I arrived into the world like Superman, of mysterious provenance. She told me that, like Superman, I had a hidden identity because I had to adapt myself to my adopted surroundings. She spoke of fortitude and solitude. She spoke of my path, the struggles I have endured and their meaning. Looking into my eyes, she spoke the truth about my unique experience of exile -- both artistic and existential.

My time with Ruti was time out of time, a goosebump-inducing adventure, one of many in the Holy Land. I did not fear the Divine retribution that comes from consorting with those who channel dark forces, having recently learned that witches and ogres more frequently come disguised as holy people. Instead, I was mesmerized by Ruti's kindness and her smooth, coffee-colored skin, comforted by her respectful regard for the stranger who sat before her, captivated by her cheekbones, her apartment, the pictures of her family in long-ago Israel, the one I remember from my own, ever-accessible childhood.

At this hour, there is a blending of here and there, then and now, what once was and what always will be. At this hour, Hashem's hashgacha prah'ti feels as accessible as my memories of childhood; it forms a thick and cozy blanket, like the quilt I will shortly be pulling up to my chin. As I recall my recent visit to Israel from the epicenter of a New York night, I see it as complete, a lovely little package, a charming collection of short stories, a ballad, the pillow on which to rest my increasingly sleepy head, tablet for my dreams.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Gimme Al Maysles

"Hey, you're dressed perfectly for the movie," said a young woman as I burst into the lobby of the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, ten minutes into the screening of Gimme Shelter, the iconic documentary of the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.

Having shivered my way through the day in my black mini-dress and over-the-knee socks, I had to admit that I was, indeed, channeling some of the spirit of the era. The compliment lifted a bit of my dismay at arriving late, rain-soaked and chilled.

"It literally just started," the woman added, soothingly, reading my thoughts. I smiled gratefully, stepping inside the screening room.

I had seen Gimme Shelter two and a half decades earlier, nevertheless, the image of a stunningly young Mick Jagger on the screen startled me. Slumped down in his seat as lawyer Melvin Belli negotiated over the phone with the management of the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco in advance of the band's performance, Jagger is boyish, barely out of adolescence, the same age as my oldest child, Big Babe.

Though it was conceived as love 'n peace Woodstock West -- with other performers on hand, such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young -- the Altamont concert turned into a complete disaster, with security provided by the local Hell's Angels, members of the audience repeatedly rushing the stage, kids climbing the scaffolding, stoned people dancing naked, women giving birth and violent confrontations.

The most infamous of these confrontations resulted in the stabbing death of a young black man named Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hell's Angels as the Stones performed "Under My Thumb." The filmmakers accidentally captured footage of the killing, revealing that Hunter had a gun. The fact of the killing -- often erroneously referred to a murder -- overshadows the film, providing an extreme if accurate depiction of the lawlessness that was the flipside to the social, sexual and cultural revolution of the times.

Gimme Shelter is a revolution of its own in terms of filmmaking, documenting in an utterly unscripted way, interacting with the unfolding drama, revealing by telling detail, asking the audience to engage in a personal way, capturing the zeitgeist unlike any other film of the time.

But it wasn't just the prospect of revisiting Gimme Shelter that drew me out of my house on a rainy Wednesday night; it was the post-screening talkback with Albert Maysles and cameraman Kevin Keating.

Having met Al the previous year at a party held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (and subsequently having been invited to a Christmas party in his Harlem brownstone) I was utterly charmed by him... as is everyone he meets. For the first ten minutes we spoke, I had no idea that I was talking to the most renowned documentary filmmaker of the day (though I knew he was someone extraordinary) and then Big Babe whispered to me that we were in the presence of Al Maysles. Entirely without pretense or self-importance, Mr. Maysles is remarkable on many levels. His warm candor -- coupled with his menschlichkeit -- is not a small part of his legend.

And then there are the glasses, spoken of by many, fetishized, elevated to celebrity status recently by Barneys New York, which started an Al Maysles Eyewear line.

I was greatly looking forward to the post-film talkback this past Wednesday evening, having not seen Al for an entire year. While I knew that I could expect memorable stories and valuable behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of Gimme Shelter, what I did not anticipate is that I would leave the event feeling as if I had just sat at the feet of a master who imparted valuable life lessons.

Over the course of a generous hour and change, Al Maysles and Kevin Keating provided the longed-for glimpses into the making of the film (including ample insights in Grey Gardens, Salesman and other film projects), but what left me nearly breathless -- every cell in my body standing at attention -- are what I call Pirke Albert or the Ethics of Albert. In other words, his teaching. His Torah. Herewith, I have reproduced some of them:

Turn on your camera and let it capture life, unscripted, as it unfolds. Let it record spontaneous conversation, unseen moments...the parent weeping against the bedroom wall, the banter of six-year-olds, the spoken last will and testament.

To pay attention is to honor, not to exploit. To film is to immortalize.

Much of contemporary culture is entertainment, which is merely distraction.

Greet life with curiosity...and compassion.

Seek to understand people.

The human face is not the only canvas of expression. Sometimes hands tell the story better.

Form relationships...and nurture them.

Learn to recognize genius.

Identify what is authentic...and focus on it.

Challenge misinterpretation of your work. Take arms against the judgment of critics.

Remember important insights handed to you by others.

Heroes are often found where they are least expected.

Serendipity and coincidence have a connection to the Divine.

Be there.

Be unafraid.

Embrace life.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Shira Means Song

Mary Rodgers teaches voice in her tiny studio apartment, well-situated in the heart of the Upper West Side – West 72nd Street, next door to Ricky's, down the block from Fine and Shapiro's, a hop, skip and a jump from Columbus Avenue.

Like Mary, the apartment is neat and spartan. Students come and go on a half-hour turn-over schedule throughout the day. Doobie the dog is the only other steady inhabitant. It is rare that the lessons start on time so I treat my 30-
minute lessons as if they were actually one hour long.

Mary is Middle Babe's professional coach, discovered when my daughter embraced singing as her art while yet in elementary school. I first encountered Mary’s empire from the perspective of the parent who sat on the couch in the dining room/living room during her child's lessons.

During those years, I loved to sink back into the cushions and hear my daughter discover the range and possibilities of her voice in the other room, adored hearing Mary give out praise and guidance, thrilled to the thought of my child getting the proper push to pursue her dreams.

When Middle Babe hit high school, she went to Mary's on her own, sometimes on the way back from her school, located on the East Side, nearly straight across the park from W72nd Street. During the gap year after high school, Middle Babe went abroad and the lessons stopped. From there, it was off to college in Maryland and only nostalgic visits back to Mary; a half hour here, 30 minutes there, separated sometimes by an entire year.

Last spring, Middle Babe developed polyps on her vocal chords with weeks left to her school play, in which she had a prominent singing role. She had to drop the part -- and her major -- start therapy and concentrate on healing.

Virtually overnight, my songbird became a philosopher, excelling in her new pursuit, stoically redirecting her energies until such time that she might resume her musical trajectory...if so she chooses.

Paradoxically, it was during the autumn following Middle Babe's voice trauma that I underwent a series of personal cataclysms that pushed me to contemplate an untapped instrument that I possessed -- my singing voice.

And while I harbored no illusions about the professional potential of my endeavor, I believed strongly in the power of my breath, in the passion I might express -- the anger, the disappointment, the pain, the hope, the quest for transcendence and redemption -- through the act of allowing melody to pass through my lips.

I wished to reclaim something that had been taken from me and singing was my means.

So I called Mary and set up regular sessions. On my first visit, I told her about my name, which means song or poem. I told her that this pursuit was spiritual, not artistic or career-directed. I spoke to her about the singer-songwriters I love, the lyrics that speak to me; the music that has provided the soundtrack to my life.

Thus we began. Mary’s lessons are half vocal exercises, half singing. The choice of the music is entirely up to the student. I told Mary that in about two weeks, she would begin to see a pattern to the songs I selected.

It began with “Sisters of Mercy,” morphed into “Halleluyah,” moved into “The Gypsy’s Wife,” turned into “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” and is currently perched on “Alone Again, Naturally.”

Singing alongside Mary is unlike anything else I’ve undertaken. It makes me feel goofy and graceful at the same time; self-conscious and weirdly self-satisfied. Though I’ve sang along with each of the aforementioned songs dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of times, the experience of singing while standing by her piano, facing a mirror, is entirely new.

I mostly read the lyrics from the sheet music or close my eyes when I know them by heart, but every now and then I catch my reflection and regard it in a combination of embarrassment and admiration. Do I look normal singing, I wonder? Could I do this in public? How should I set my features? Should I even think about what my singing face looks like?

“Ogod, your singing face!” groaned Middle Babe recently at the Shabbat table. We were singing Shalom Aleichem and I was really into it, closing my eyes, swaying, clapping my hands. Little Babe joined his sister in snickering. Over the past couple of years, I have learned from my children that I have a variety of highly amusing faces, chief among them - the dancing face. Middle Babe has lampooned this to no end, affecting a hipster’s expressionless mug, shaking her hair, shimmying her shoulders, mouthing the words, “I’m so cool.”

But much more than the startling reflection of my face in song, it has been the lyrics that have jumped out at me over the past five weeks, providing commentary on my life at this moment in time. I have hugged certain words to my heart, been shocked and pained by others, soothed and comforted by still others. The melodies that accompany the words seep straight into my soul. Like an adolescent fixated on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or the Beatles’ White Album, I am obsessed with reading meaning into these songs.

Within and without the cocoon of Mary's apartment, the words of Leonard Cohen, Elton John and Raymond O’Sullivan have befriended me on my personal journey. Even now, there is a multi-colored swirl of lyrics in my head, forming a magnificent cloak of sorts, perhaps like the one Jacob fashioned for his favorite son, Joseph. It goes like this: we weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be alright and even though it all went wrong I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Halleluyah she said my body is the light my body is the way more than ever I simply love you more than I love life itself seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended left unattended what do we do what do we do?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Columbia Campus 12/1/09 7:40 p.m.

The view earlier tonight as I crossed the campus on my way to the subway at 116th and Broadway from Amsterdam.


Eight Hours on Saturday Night

One hour after Shabbat ended, I sat behind the wheel of our Honda with Middle Babe, Little Babe and our Pomeranians Alfie and Nala, negotiating where we would pick up our salads for the impending trip to Towson, Maryland, home of my daughter’s college.

It was the Saturday night of the Thanksgiving weekend and the plan was to start the trip before the traveling madness set in, spend a day in the charming town of Hampden, do some local Target shopping, settle my daughter in her dorm and get on the road sometime in the range of 5 pm on Sunday afternoon.

At 6 pm on Saturday night, I didn't have food on my mind but Middle Babe made the case that instead of eating Cinnabons and guzzling Starbucks from the endless rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, we could enjoy decent dinners. Though I was eager to hit the road, I had to admit that her suggestion made sense and relented. Thus did our first stop on the Bungalow Family Saturday Night Road Trip become the new Whole Foods outpost on Columbus Avenue.

When I say that I sat behind the wheel of our Honda, what I really mean is that just before our road trip commenced, I was rendered temporarily immobile due to a combination of post traumatic stress and pre-trip stress. The previous fifteen minutes had been a scene out of a dysfunctional family drama -- or comedy -- with a Marx Brothers-like failed first attempt to leave the apartment en masse that ended in Middle Babe's lava lamp flying out of my arms and crashing to bits in our hallway while our pooches fled in terror and red viscous matter spread all over the floor.

Sitting in my car -- sans lava lamp - daughter texting frantically on her BlackBerry, son plugged into his iPod, I contemplated the three hour journey ahead, wondering if I had lost my mind completely. Though I didn't know it at the time, the broken lava lamp was a premonition.

Eight hours later, when we finally pulled into the driveway of the Sheraton North Baltimore after a hideous crawl down I95, due to an earlier accident in Delaware, I felt certifiably insane, not to mention homicidal (though I shouldn't really use that word in this context because last year, a father of two from Long Island killed his wife and daughters in this very hotel. The room was on the 10th floor. We made a point of requesting any floor but). For about $60, I could have put Middle Babe on an Amtrak back to Baltimore and gone out dancing instead of staring at the ironic license plate of the car in front of me – Bashert – wondering if it was all a cruel joke.

And yet.

Here’s the takeaway from our Saturday evening adventure. For eight straight hours, I was locked inside an increasingly messy vehicle with two of the people I love the most in the world…and our adorable, uncomplaining pups. For eight straight hours, we listened to rock count downs, local news and Spanish music, played Elton John and The Talking Heads, told family stories and talked, talked, talked.

Middle Babe and I talked about relationships and friends and dreams and disappointments. We talked about food and our bodies, her ambitions and her studies. She explained just why she hated the movie A Serious Man, which I took her and Little Babe to on the night of Thanksgiving. We talked about Judaism and God. I was overcome with pride in her intelligence and integrity.

In the back seat, Little Babe dozed on and off, listening to his music, interjecting a comment here and there, providing entertainment and comic relief. Every now and then, he joined the conversation. Middle Babe responded to him, sounding like a sister, a mother, a friend.

Sometimes we vented about the horrible waste of our Saturday night, laughed ruefully at our foolishly optimistic plan to crawl into bed at the Sheraton around 10 pm and watch a scary movie together, or maybe SNL. Despite our Whole Foods salads, we ended up buying Cinnabons and Starbucks, finding excuses to pull off the road at the various rest stops in the vain hope that the traffic would ease once we inched our way back onto the highway.

The takeaway from our eight hour traffic jam is that we were together. Is that our eight hour drive became an awful yet awesome adventure, a moment in our shared history and that one day, when we looked back at this night, we would remember it as magic.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Erev Thanksgiving

It is the day before Thanksgiving, gunmetal grey, chilly, harbinger of winter.

Though I haven't called to check up on her, Middle Babe should be en route to her 8:20 Acela from Baltimore's Penn Station and Little Babe left 10 minutes ago for his half-day at school.

This year -- with Big Babe in Berlin and HOBB in the Holy Land, it is the three of us for the holiday, plus FOBB and MOBB -- Father and Mother of Bungalow Babe. Whether our Thanksgiving feast will be at their home in Great Neck, a local restaurant or the hospital is up for grabs. Yesterday, FOBB underwent surgery for kidney stones and had an overnight stay in the hospital. While he was in good spirits when I left him at midnight, the doctor will determine whether he can go home today.

Though my dad is itching to get out of the hospital, Thanksgiving will be wherever he and my mom are. In my childhood home, Thanksgiving was celebrated with enthusiasm and great emotion. My dad recited the special Hallel prayer. It was, and still is, considered a Yom Tov of sorts.

Among the recent extremist developments in Jewish life, the one that has bothered me no end is the decision not to celebrate Thanksgiving, because somehow it is "goyish" and in conflict with Judaism.

This notion -- small-minded, based in ignorance and generally silly -- is especially galling because America, of all countries, has been especially hospitable to the Jews. The very notion of giving thanks draws on Jewish tradition, obviously, and there is no denominational claim on gratitude.

"Thank God," my father sighed last night when the Percoset began to take effect. He sat in the straight-backed chair in his paisley hospital gown, looking somehow regal, reminiscent of the pulpit rabbi he had been. We had been talking for hours and I was reminded of the silver lining of these hospital stays and visits -- the extra time we take with friends and loved ones in the aftermath of surgery or illness. Some of my sweetest memories of being with my parents have taken place in hospital rooms; some of our deepest conversations have occured during these times. As the eldest daughter, it is my privilege and honor to be with them in this way.

The hour approached midnight and my father looked concerned for my trip homeward. Though it had taken me two hours to get to the hospital because of the holiday traffic out to Long Island, I knew my trip back to Manhattan would be a breeze, likely under half an hour. I asked my father if I could help him to bed and he dismissed the notion; he was now doing just fine.

I love you so much, he said to me as I kissed him on his forehead.

I love you back, Aba, I said, tears of gratitude springing to my eyes for my father, our conversation, the memories we share, this moment, this good recovery, Thanksgiving looming.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pink Dress from New Orleans

Nala the Pomeranian has found herself a comfy perch beneath the pink dress from New Orleans that hangs in my closet, the one with the cabbage roses and slim fifties waistline.

I wore this dress last night to a Swing Dance party at the JCC in Manhattan, hoping that the charms of my outfit would compensate for my inability to do the fancy footwork I would surely see on the dance floor.

To complete the look, I added a silk flower to my hair. My dress-for-success strategy both worked and back-fired, prompting compliments, yet also making me highly conspicuous as the klutzy girl in the back of the room, turning the wrong way, knocking into people and generally dancing with two left feet. (Shout out to everyone who saw the ultra-hilarious film, Best in Show)

Thankfully, there were lessons given in this method of dance and as the evening wore on, it became immaterial whether I officially knew the moves or not. I danced happily if hazardously, found people I knew, made new friends and thrilled to the sight of the pros on the dance floor. Had I not been famished, I would have stayed even past midnight.

As HOBB is in Israel, I went stag, only slightly concerned about being taken for a single woman. From previous experience, I knew that the chances of my actually dancing with a man my age were slim; more typically, I have danced with 80-year-old men, women or boys the age of Big Babe at the JCC.

And that's basically what happened last night...with the exception of the boyfriend of a friend or the guy in his sixties who was insistent upon teaching me the moves and spun me perilously on the dance floor, then pulled me in so hard he almost cracked my ribs.

When I wasn't dancing or talking to people, I tried to focus on the feeling of being alone at a dance party, aspired to recollect the experience of singledom, of being unpaired, of waiting to be asked or chosen or courted.

It was odd for sure, standing on the periphery as a married woman without her mate, having to tell a few eager guys that I was indeed married -- just to put it out there – then finding myself in the middle of a rather hilarious conversation with a guy in his early 30's, the kind of funny, flowing conversation that's only possible once the boundaries have been established.

With HOBB out of town this time, I set up a whirlwind social schedule, to echo the rather frenetic extra-curricular life we've been pursuing over the past month, a kind of jumpstart empty-nest reaction, though we still do have one chick in residence -- 14-year-old Little Babe.

Not that he minds being left long as there is Gan Asia to deliver chicken lo mein or Cafe Viva to bring the pizza or Fine and Shapiro to send up the cold cuts. And friends for the weekend. And the ability to text or call me.

Still, total child-neglect is not a good thing and I found myself hanging around till mid-day today, taking care of work, finishing a press release I had started previously, walking Alfie and Nala, being on hand during his cello and Japanese lessons, making phone calls.

It was sweet to be able to get bagels for my young adolescent and his friends this morning, grab a hug or two from him after they left, hear him pick out the notes to a Coldplay song on the piano, listen together to Elton John's Pinball Wizard, live, from his Captain Fantastic tour, play my favorite George Harrison song for him, note his darkening moustache as I said Shma with him on the mattress that is yet on our dining room floor, a vestige from his frat-house weekend with his buddies.

"This would make a sick dorm," he said sleepily as I kissed him on the forehead.

I was reminded, in that moment, of the incredibly sweet times the two of us have shared when HOBB has taken to the road, our sleepover parties, Sunday adventures, film-going, shared meals – in and out – travels and museum-hopping. Over 25 years of being a mom, I especially treasure the times I have solo-parented my children because of the magic bond of intimacy, the little world of Mom 'n Me that we created, our little clubhouse, just the two -- or three or four -- of us, Bonnie and Clyde, co-conspirators in the pursuit of fun.

But now Little Babe is a teen. "Do you mind if I go out?" I asked on Friday night before heading over to the Shabbat prayer, potluck dinner and Open Mike Night hosted by Romemu at the church on 105th and Amsterdam.

The boys were in the middle of a poker game. There was a moment of silence and then they burst out laughing. What a lame question, I thought as Little Babe assured me in his deep baritone that the boys would be great and the house will not have burned down in my absence.

It is now Sunday night, technically Monday morning. The house did not burn down but it is a huge frat-house mess. Though I threw out all the empty cans of soda, bags of popcorn, pizza boxes, cups and random plastic bags that littered the living room, the place is still in shocking condition.

I sit on my bed in running shorts, writing on my laptop well past the hour of midnight. Inside my closet, Nala has vanished but my pink dress from New Orleans still hangs pretty, reminding me of my adventures last night, of the store on Decatur street where I bought it, of times yet to come when I shall wear it and it will make me conspicuous, a grown-up girl in a flowered dress with a slim fifties waistline and pleats so plentiful that when I twirl around, it blossoms around me like a ballerina's tutu.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Steep Price of a Certain Education

Saving u a seat, texted Ellen from inside Theatre 2 of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

I checked the time on my BlackBerry while climbing frantically out of the cab I had caught on Columbus Avenue ten minutes earlier. Somehow, I was always rushing. Not that I didn't have a good reason, having just driven down from a business meeting in Westchester, stopped in Riverdale to pick up Little Babe from choir practice, made a pit stop at our Morningside Heights apartment to drop him off (and then ran upstairs after him to place an order for pizza only to dash downstairs before the car got ticketed), drove like I was on crack to find a parking spot that was good for Friday, which turned out to be right off of Columbus, where I grabbed the cab that brought me to the theatre.

It wasn't that I was actually late; the film would start in twelve minutes. In Manhattan, however, failing to get to a movie early can result in that most severe form of film-goer's agony -- sitting in the front row.

Though I had to squelch the desire to strangle the two ultra-slow patrons in the line ahead of me, I needn't have worried in the least. But I didn't know that yet, so I fled down the escalator like a fugitive, ripped through the ticket-holder's line like a marathon runner breaking through the finish line and stomped into Theatre 2 like Godzilla on a rampage, whereupon I came to a complete standstill. Smack dab in the center of the empty theatre sat my friends and their adult daughter. Aside from them, about 10 other people had shown up for the 8:15 show of An Education.

Of course, the film had been out already for over a month and evidently every other person in the city had already seen it.

This film came with the highest of recommendations from HOBB and Big Babe, who had gone to see it together when it first opened. "You will LOVE An Education," my husband enthused when they returned home. "The girl will remind you of yourself."

"Yeah," chimed in Big Babe. "Especially her obsession with Paris. And her relationship with an older man."

"Hey," I said. "I was not exactly SIXTEEN when I met dad."

"Mhhmmm. Twenty-two is really old," observed my son sarcastically. "Of course, not quite as old as thirty-three." I rolled my eyes, having heard this drill before. Since my two older children entered their twenties, they became fixated on the fact that, by the tender age of twenty-two (almost twenty-three!! I keep insisting) I had married their dad, who was thirty-three (actually a couple of weeks away from thirty-four) at the time.

This fact always constituted a unique selling point of my marriage yet as my children have approached (and surpassed) the age at which I got married, I have become outraged at the notion of the cradle-robbing that took place twenty-six years ago... involving me. Who supported this idea? Why did my parents hand me over at such a tender age? And wasn't HOBB uneasy at the prospect of marrying such a young girl? Not that I remotely thought of myself as a child or little girl at that time. By moving in with an older guy, I felt myself to be on the cutting edge of rebellious sophistication, jump-starting my adulthood, skipping over all the awkward and unnecessary stuff. And it was not wifedom that I sought but adventure; intrigue, dinner parties, travel, ideas, witty conversation, a passport to the grown-up world where I could charm one and all by being perpetually younger.

Some 26 years after hooking up with an older man -- the oldest in a series of older men, in fact -- I found myself in a darkened theatre with friends watching a young British schoolgirl pursue an affair with her older man (Peter Sarsgaard unconvincingly playing a Jew named David Goldman.) Allow me to skip over my chief objections to the film – too predictable, too obvious, too glib, too unrealistic for such a smart girl to fall in with such a rake, too That Girl in its wide-eyed depiction of how the world opens up to Jenny through her association with David (the cliched weekend in Paris scenes actually made me want to slash the movie screen) – and simply state that I watched this film mostly without pleasure. As I was really hoping to love An Education (and afterwards call son and husband to gush and reminisce about our favorite scenes), I felt tremendously let down.

Over the past day, I've tried to analyze the situation and concluded that what ruined the film ultimately for me was the certain knowledge that Jenny, not David, would end up with the broken heart. There is a sad and unspoken truth in most situations involving older men and younger women (excluding Lolita, but perhaps not really) and that is that the romance is never equal to the reality, the younger partner never properly "catches up" to the older one and that there is a steep price to be paid by those who seek premature access to the adult world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who's the Slut?

I was having a conversation the other day with a dear friend about marital protocol -- what we could and could not properly do within the bonds of wedlock -- and the talk turned to the case of a man we knew who was the very picture of propriety. Cultivated and somewhat reserved, he was the last person whom one would suspect of promiscuity.

"You wouldn't guess it from looking at him, but the guy is a slut," I told my astonished friend. "Not in the conventional sense. He doesn't sleep with other women. What is sluttish about him is how he cultivates relationships with young women, flirting and pursuing them, keeping them in his orbit. As he hits his middle years, he seems to have stepped up his courtship more aggressively."

My friend fell silent, looked stricken, really. This conversation had taken her to an unexpected -- and unpleasant -- place. We had been talking about the rules that spouses abide by, the degree of flexibility in these rules, the boundaries we set for ourselves and those we break. We were talking about testing limits...not trespassing them. We talked about acceptable and unacceptable forms of flirtation. Sipping Starbucks early in the morning, we traded tales of our own marital situations, testing out stories against the other in an effort to gain insight into our own actions and reactions. Our mood was lighthearted. And then our conversation turned to this matter.

Obviously, someone who is promiscuous with his attention does not deserve the same designation as a true Don Juan, still it is useful to examine the question of how much we are allowed to share of ourselves when we are in a committed relationship. Being married requires a certain degree of tzimtzum, contracting the essence of oneself, bestowing it only upon one's beloved...or an inner circle of loved ones. Flirting is a part of life but fidelity is not just a matter of NOT sleeping around. Giving too freely of your time and attention -- or pursuing emotionally intimate relationships -- is a breach of exclusivity, I believe.
Do you think I'm judging this man too harshly, I demanded of my friend? Do you see what I see when I look at this situation? I see a married man trying to have it both ways...getting the wife, yet setting up a lifestyle where he is able to essentially court young women. Don't you think that makes him a slut?

My friend looked pained. She was deep in thought. Finally she said, "Maybe no more than most men. But I guess it comes down to how his wife feels about his behavior. What does she think?"

Suddenly, I felt depressed by the whole conversation. "I was merely borrowing the word she used when she talked to me a couple of days ago," I replied. "Frankly, she's pretty disgusted because he figured out a way to be married and single at the same time. So, yeah, she thinks her husband is a slut."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Music. Prayer.

It's just past midnight. Little Babe is lying on the couch watching the Black-Eyed Peas perform on SNL, HOBB is camped out in our bedroom on his laptop and I'm writing at the dining room table, listening to Leonard Cohen's live recording of "Gypsy Wife" from the 1979 Field Commander Cohen concert tour through headphones for possibly the hundredth time this week.

Earlier tonight, the three of us went to see Pirate Radio, the most joyous, entertaining and rock-saturated film I've ever seen. For those who HATED such films as Across the Universe and Moulin Rouge as much as I did -- not just for the thin plot line but for the torturous experience of hearing great songs performed by mediocre singers -- Pirate Radio is a thrill-fest, offering a flash flood of the best rock music of the late sixties alongside a kick-ass cast and creative storyline.

Even as the credits rolled at the end of the film, the audience was loathe to leave the scene of so much musical defiance and transcendence.

This week was a music-saturated adventure, which included a Monday evening performance by Mimi Cohen of a show based on the life and music of Laura Nyro; my second singing lesson with the legendary Mary Rodgers where I worked on Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah;" an obsessive infatuation with a recording of Elton John and Mary J. Blige singing "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues," from the One Night Only concert (which I love so much that I sang it at the top of my lungs several times in a row while driving around the Upper West Side on Thursday morning trying to find a parking spot); a similar fixation with "Higher and Higher," the title cut from Neshama Carlebach's newest CD (which caused me to spontaneously choreograph -- and then perform -- a dance in my kitchen late one night); a half-hour spent listening to George Harrison's "Cheer Down" over and over while pumping my way through two miles on the elliptical trainer at the JCC; a visit to the Metropolitan Room on Thursday night to hear Karen Oberlin perform caberet songs...and finally the good-spirited fun of rock 'n roll captured in Pirate Radio.

Like my focused fiction reading, I listen to songs intently, delving deep into the world of a particular artist through one or a select few songs. I sometimes feel as if I am stuck eternally in adolescent fascination with music, especially rock music, which is my medium, going as far as to ponder the lyrics of a given song and the weird coincidence of their relevance in my life at that particular moment in time.

In Mimi Cohen's impressive one-woman show-in-progress at the Cherry Pit Theatre in the West Village, she brings Laura Nyro to life in all her obstinate artistry and integrity. I openly admit that prior to this past week, I had no idea that this young, quirky, awkward woman with unruly dark hair had written so many of the iconic songs of her era, had indeed been clueless about the extent of her legacy and incalculable contribution to music from the sixties through the present day. Mimi's Laura is a fragile yet stubborn hippie girl-woman, refusing to lose weight or prettify her ethnic features, understanding her destiny as a singer-songwriter and ideological purist, speaking in synesthetic imagery about the colors of particular musical phrases, insisting that her music be played a certain way, refusing to compromise.

My crash course in the life of Laura Nyro comes at exactly the right time for me - b'sha'ah tova. She and the other artists who are my current faves are my rebbes, imparting wisdom, guidance and truth couched sometimes in riddles. As I score my life with songs that speak to my soul, I take their lessons to heart. I am empowered by Laura Nyro to insist that things of importance be done a certain way. I am inspired by Elton John, who sought out Mary J. Blige to bring soul to his sixties-inflected song. I am uplifted by Neshama Carlebach who opened up the music of her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, to brand-new interpretation through the portal of a gospel choir, I am gladdened by the Beatlesque essence and sweet playfulness of George Harrison's message, I am endlessly moved by the prayerful songs of Leonard Cohen.

It is the quiet essence of prayer that I am aiming for when I sing "Halleluyah," I explained to Mary Rodgers by way of asking if I could sing the chorus an octave lower instead of reaching for the higher notes, which sounded to my ears like a preteen auditioning for High School Musical.

Ever flexible, Mary complied, and we took the song from the top. I sang about King David's secret chord and when I reached the first Halleluyah, it poured from my soul -- mournful and elegant, respectful and sad -- just as I had intended.

Meeting my eyes in the mirror above the piano, Mary nodded, almost imperceptively. I continued crooning Halleluyah, my voice a searchlight, my brokenness revealed. Halleluyah morphed and bloomed, unfolded, contracted, expanded and took flight; God's word, His song, my song, my prayer, my name, my destiny.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Sharing a Bed with Alberto Moravia

Alberto Moravia shares my pillow tonight, in the form of a paperback edition of Boredom, published by the New York Review of Books in 1999.

Having finished Contempt mid-Saturday, I took a one-day hiatus to recover from the perfect devastation I felt at the book's conclusion only to plunge into Boredom...a novel whose dense and suffocating atmosphere rises up from the very first paragraph.

On the floor next to my king-size bed is more Moravia -- The Conformist and The Woman of Rome. The groaning shelves in our dining room bear others of his work, but it is so late that I cannot recall their titles and I am too tired to leave my cozy bed to check.

Over the past few months I burned through Clarice Lispector and before her Junichiro Tanizaki and before him Richard Yates. The most heartbreaking encounter I had was with Oscar Wilde, two winters ago, begun with The Picture of Dorian Gray on a trip to Dublin, concluded on a bitter cold afternoon in New York with the reading of De Profundis. The most ill-fated affair I had was with Elfriede Jelinek, whom I had to ditch in the midst of Lust, begun in good faith after The Piano Teacher shattered me. The most epic authorfest I've ever had was with the novels of Nabokov, read in their entirety over one glorious summer, on the Shortline Bus traveling from my country bungalow to my then-job in Manhattan. The most fun? The works of Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, begun with an avid and conspiratorial reading of A Series of Unfortunate Events with Little Babe and concluded on my own, with his uneven adult works.

This is my preferred way of reading -- an intense and exclusive audience with a writer's entire body of work, best accomplished when the writer has ceased writing, that is to say, when he is dead, though I will make exceptions for exceptional living authors, reading them in real time.

The hour has crept past midnight and it is time to close this instrument of a century that Moravia did not live to see. After all, he is my date tonight and for probably many nights to come. I lay back on my pillow and wait for him to overtake me.

Reservoir Walk

About a million hours ago it was Sunday morning and HOBB and I fled the urban bungalow at an hour we normally dedicate to coffee, tea and a sleepy perusal of the New York Times.

The sunshine was abundant and the forecast was for a day of unseasonable warmth. Pulling on shorts, t-shirts, sweatshirts and sneakers, plunking his 'n her baseball caps on our heads, we left our home in record time, leaving a sleeping teen and perplexed Pomeranians, who could not recall the last time they saw their masters so alert at this hour on a Sunday morning.

The Central Park Reservoir Walk has been a cherished feature of our marriage, an approximately 75-minute opportunity for information sharing, gossip, negotiation, political debate, dream analysis, complaining, calendar coordination, strategic planning, child and household maintenance, problem solving, arguing, advice-gathering, current event discussion and philosophical musings about matters important and trivial alike.

It is around a five-mile journey from the urban bungalow to the reservoir, once around and back home. We are creatures of habit, walking pretty much the exact same way each and every time -- heading east on W116th street, turning right on Morningside Drive, heading down until W110th Street, turning left until we hit Manhattan Avenue, walking along the avenue until 108th Street, crossing the street until Central Park West and entering at the transverse -- closed for cars on Sunday -- joining up with the reservoir at the tennis courts, stopping first at the bathrooms.

For variety's sake, we might walk through Morningside Park or take the stone bridge directly onto the reservoir. What is important to state is that HOBB and I walk. And not in a particularly speedy fashion, either. There is no heavy breathing, no rhythmic running for us. While others whizz past us on blades, bikes or the power of their own feet, we amble happily, neither fast nor slow -- just right. As the season changes, so does the scenery, but a reservoir walk is a reservoir walk is a reservoir walk.

It is now a million hours later. The day was busy -- I barely got to read the New York Times, nor did I lose myself in the Sunday morning spate of television shows featuring pundits and talking heads. Aside from the briefest perusal of internet news (;; and the Huffington Post), I have no idea what's going on in the world...aside from the tragedy at Fort Hood and the anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The day took me to other places, both on foot and by car, actual and conceptual. Some of the destinations were shared by HOBB and Little Babe, our only child at home right now. Others were mine alone. There were adventures of the spirit and of the body. There was good food and delicious drinks. There was the opportunity for creative expression.

I think about the essence of Sunday -- a handbasket to be filled sparsely or generously with experiences, a day dramatically different from Saturday, if you are a Sabbath observer. I ponder the lifesaving quality of the weekend for all people, but especially those who are deprived of unstructured time, oppressed by the commitments of work during the week. I regret the melancholy I have experienced on so many Sunday evenings, the threat of Monday encroaching, muttering in my ear, breathing down my collar. The marked absence of that dreaded feeling -- Monday as a bully -- is a gift, recently acquired. A great tikkun is underway.

My focus is fading. It is time, finally, for dreams. I think about this particular, inimitable Sunday and recall that it began with a reservoir walk with my husband of 26 years, early in the uncomplicated morning.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Between proofreading Middle Babe's essay for her college class in Biomedical Ethics (which defends the sale of human organs) and catching up on correspondence with the press for a conference on female clergy last night, I managed to snack my way through half a candy necklace, left over from Halloween.

The necklace was classic, featuring pastel-colored powdery disks strung on a elastic string, exactly as I remembered from my own childhood. To get each candy bead off, it was necessary to bite down, breaking it in half. Though my internal health nut looked on in horror (tooth decay!!! simple carbohydrates! empty calories!!!) primal instinct kicked in.

A joyous munching of flavored sugar ensued...until the powdered confection melted and it was time to snap off a new bead.

Those who know me would surely be shocked to hear that I was eating candy close to midnight and frankly, I'm not sure how the candy necklace came to be between my teeth. Perhaps slicing the new Macoun apples on my kitchen counter seemed too taxing and wasn't the necklace -- discovered draped suggestively on a desk in Middle Babe's room -- begging to be bitten?

As I ponder this puzzle by the light of day, I think about yesterday -- a manic Monday framed by two separate phone conversations with loved ones on a similar theme: their sadness, even despondency in the face of disappointment from friends. And while my morning caller vented her feelings of rage and betrayal in the face of unrequited loyalty from a long-term friendship, my evening caller sounded emotionally depleted by his realization that a more recent friend lacked the most basic sense of personal responsibility towards him.

Dealing with heartache is draining; indeed, I've done my share of venting to the point where I was sick of hearing my own voice. As someone who loves and lives by language, I am nevertheless struck by the human need to use words to quantify, examine, contain and ultimately transcend our pain. Clinging to words, working in words, trading in words, dreaming in words, I am still continually surprised that tears alone do not suffice when they are such a spontaneous expression of our grief. Proponents of psychotherapy talk about the talking cure where words become the rungs of a ladder we construct for our emotional and spiritual redemption or the beads of a candy necklace that we string for our comfort, to be eaten in case of emergency.

We use words to rationalize our actions, to construct our arguments. The problem with sanctioning the sale of human organs rests in the notion of the slippery slope, admitted Middle Babe in her Biomedical Ethics paper. While the case can be made for the sale of kidneys from living donors, imagine the possibility that a poor family might consider selling a vital organ -- the heart, for instance -- of one of their members in a desperate and sacrificial bid to keep the entire group from starving.

Such an act of obscene indifference to human life arouses horror in all people of conscience and the ghoulishness of this scenario is obviously extreme. But in truth, human hearts are sold all the time, ripped out of their living hosts, traded for something that masquerades as salvation.

By the light of day, I note a half-eaten candy necklace next to my computer. Nothing has changed and everything has changed. The world remains full of heartache yet it is also true that creation has renewed itself through the dawning of a new day. The blank slate of the new day poses a tantalizing opportunity.

I drop the limp candy necklace in the trash.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Leonard Cohen for Shabbat with a Side of Broken-Heartedness

"You are hungry for experience," observed a friend last year, seated opposite me at a cafe just north of Columbia University.

"Sometimes you skate close to the edge of danger," he offered as a bonus, leaning in to catch my expression. "You have to be careful."

As I sat next to Big Babe this past Friday night at Leonard Cohen's spectacular one-night-concert at Madison Square Garden, crammed into my seat, shivering with fever, weeping at the beauty of the music, shattered by new sorrow, hypnotized by the aesthetics of the performance, saddened by Leonard Cohen's advanced age even as I was enchanted by his ageless elegance, bonded to my first-born in love of him, this moment and this music, I thought of my friend's observation and uttered a shehechiyanu -- the blessing Jews are commanded to say upon attaining a remarkable experience.
Because it was Shabbat, there were several other prayers I might also have uttered, in fact, I teasingly dared Big Babe to yell out "Good Shabbos," between songs. Though we did not recite the kiddush over wine that night, Shabbat was not forgotten; indeed, she was all around us. Squeezed into the inadequate seat beside me was the Shabbat Queen -- dressed as a gypsy, wandering, forsaken, almost human, also shivering, also broken-hearted. The Shabbos aspect of this concert was key. A strictly Orthodox person would likely have given up the experience of being at the concert, but it seemed to me a worthy challenge to both attend this great cultural event AND keep Shabbat.

Thus, all the measures we had undertaken en route to the concert were in service to this ideal -- the pre-Shabbat cab to the Time Warner Center before sundown; the Whole Foods salads hastily purchased within the magic eighteen minutes; the brisk jaunt down Broadway to the Garden; the stoic resolve to walk home after the concert, traversing the four miles by foot despite my hacking cough, high temperature and the hairline fracture in my right foot.

Those were the reasons and that was New York and this concert is now in my recent history, having taken place one week ago tomorrow. My firstborn sat beside me, he who made me a mother. The music drew my sadness from me, as a healer draws venom from the bee-sting. The tears flowed easily. It was, for me, the day after the discovery of a painful truth; the third generation of a particular sorrow. The discovery introduced me to true loneliness, which exists in a physical sense, weighing about the same as a human heart.

Last Shabbat, in Madison Square Garden, Leonard Cohen befriended and comforted me, he lay down beside me, he was my man, my rabbi, my brother of mercy, my yedid nefesh, friend of my soul; his music my personal kiddush, my Shalom Aleichem, my promise of redemption.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Howl of the Wild

The Bungalow Bunch participated in a rare family-wide cultural excursion last night -- an opening weekend viewing of the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, easily the most beloved book of the Bungalow Babies' respective and collective childhoods, a book I read so often I can recite it by heart, even now, at least a dozen years after I last held it in my hands.

With Big Babe living in Berlin, Middle Babe living at college in Maryland, Little Babe and me spending two-plus months every summer at the bungalow in Monroe and the general peripatetic pace of our lives - not to mention an 11-year spread between Big and Little Babe - we tend to take our culture in clusters, bunches and a variety of configurations and geographical settings.

Because I was in New Orleans last week, HOBB put himself in charge of the family's social life over the weekend, suggesting Where the Wild Things Are for Saturday night, a plan I enthusiastically endorsed. With Big Babe visiting for a month due to an NEA fellowship, Middle Babe popping in for a long weekend and Little Babe forming our only source of resistance ("I hope it's not a baby movie!" ), we wanted to create an indelible family memory, revisit a moment in our history, bond over the cinematic interpretation of a favorite book.

We had the magical experience of meeting, en masse, at the movie theatre -- Big Babe fresh from dinner at Alouette with the NEA fellows, me walking uptown after my workout and art lecture at the JCC, and HOBB, Middle and Little Babe coming, via taxi, from our apartment.

We had the further surprise and pleasure of meeting friends inside the theatre, playing quickie catch-up with them, showing off our kids.

And then we settled into our seats for the film to begin...which is where the family togetherness ended.

Two of us loved the film, two of us hated the film and one stated that he was "confused" by the filmmaker's intentions.

Two of us were enchanted, two of us were bored silly and one sought to articulate his problems with the film in a measured, nearly academic manner.

Such was my hatred for the film that I found myself chomping at the bit, then blurting out my assessment before the credits even stopped rolling.

"Omigod, I HATED this movie! I could not wait for it to end!! What did you guys think!!!!???"

To which Middle Babe snapped, "Stop being so negative!" and Little Babe high-fived me. "I know!" he groaned. "It sucked!"

HOBB looked surprised by his youngest son's reaction. "Really?" he asked, stung. "I loved it!"

"Me too," said Middle Babe, narrowing her gaze at the alliances being formed. All eyes instantly fell upon Big Babe, the family culture critic.

"So," I asked, holding my breath. "What did you think?"

Big Babe looked pained. He cradled his chin in his hand. He tilted his head slightly to the side. "I was confused by what the filmmaker was trying to do," he finally said.

"Did you hate it?" Little Babe asked avidly.

"Nooo," Big Babe said, thoughtfully. "I'm just disappointed. It didn't work for me."

"I loved it," repeated Middle Babe, tossing her hair. "I think it's not nice to diss the movie when dad planned this and bought us all tickets."

"We're not criticizing dad," I protested. "We're just debating the film's merits."

"But you were crying!" she stated, accusingly."I saw you! You cried when Max had to leave."

Middle Babe was right. When Max leaves the island, causing Carol the Wild Thing to let out a wrenching howl, I sobbed at the sound and the sight of the awkward creature expressing his grief. That howl pierced me and held me captive to its honest sorrow.

That howl reverberated all day long; it still echoes within the chambers of my heart. It has the texture of unadorned loss. It is a primal wound. It might be a small or negligible or even forgettable moment in the film but for me, it is what remains.

Now it is late, so late that my eyes are closing as I finish this post. In her room, Middle Babe is Skyping a friend and I have heard every word of her animated conversation. Next to me, Big Babe is grumpily writing a classical music review -- an assignment for his fellowship.

Little Babe is asleep now for nearly two hours and I suppose that HOBB is reading or went to sleep without saying goodnight.

Now Middle Babe is singing. Big Babe is still typing. With my fatigue comes a grace of sorts, or at least a reprieve. My sadness feels less central to my definition of self. This new thought forms the boat that delivers me to the shores of a new workweek with this dislocating day finally coming to a close.

I hold tight the magic of my family gathering on a Saturday night in October to watch a new, much-heralded movie -- two young adults, one teen, one parent newly turned 60, the other caught in the amber of forever waiting for her real life to begin -- lured by the romance of revisiting cherished memories from points in time both distant and forever at hand, by the irresistable offer of putting on a wolf suit, making mischief of one kind or another and joining Max as he sets sail for the place where the wild things are, knowing that the only way to survive a wild rumpus is to have a home where someone loves you best of all.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Birth, A Death, a Glimpse of the Soul

Seventeen years ago this weekend, I got a call from my friend Judy at 10:30 at night. "I'm in labor," she told me. "Can you come now?"

It was the festival of Shemini Atzeret, a time that I would normally not even answer the phone. However, as we had arranged that I would not only attend but photograph the birth of Judy's child, I readied myself to leave for the night, tossing off a guilty goodbye to HOBB, who looked skeptical about the entire enterprise.

"Is this really necessary?" he asked, alluding not just to my departure but to the forbidden act of driving during the holiday.

I did not answer, wondering the same.

It was the early 1990's and Judy and I were revolutionaries in Westchester County, New York -- critics of the often-invasive style of obstetric care, avid consumers of midwifery, which most people believed to have been outlawed about a century earlier. My own daughter, Middle Babe, had been born in 1987 in a crowded municipal hospital in the Bronx because Westchester hadn't yet granted delivery privileges to midwives.

I gave birth to Middle Babe in a hallway, assisted by four women and HOBB, lying sideways on a purloined gurney with one foot pushing on my midwife's shoulder, moaning melodically through my contractions, bellowing like a female moose as I pushed my child out of her private ocean and into the brightly-lit world. The drumbeat of my ancestors echoed in my ears; I walked the path of my great-grandmothers, I transcended the here and now, reached above and beyond myself, became a she-wolf, a lioness, a galloping mare, sinewy and wild.

After the terrifying premature birth of Big Babe four years earlier, when I was only 23, my midwife-assisted second childbirth was spectacular, primal and deeply spiritual -- the ascent up Sinai, the face to face encounter with the Almighty. When I walked out of the chaotic hospital hours later against medical advice, tiny girl wrapped in my arms, I felt like I could run a marathon.
And now, with Middle Babe just three years old, the right for midwives to "catch" babies in Westchester County had been won. Judy queued up to be one of the first to take advantage of this miracle, booking her birth at a swanky, state-of-the-art birthing center in Yonkers which came equipped with Laura Ashley decor and a country cottage motif.

My friend had given a great deal of thought to her midwife-assisted birth and had an elaborate birthing plan. It included long walks down the peaceful birthing center corridor, sips of red raspberry leaf tea, dedicated breathing, visualization, journal writing, dips in the Jacuzzi, talking, resting, listening to music and a harmonious childbirth with her husband at her side.

A writer, she intended to sell her story and asked me along to capture the event on film.

Flattered and greatly moved, I said yes.

And now the drama was about to unfold.

When I arrived at the birthing center, a business-like midwife opened the door. "Diane," she said, by way of introduction, shaking my hand. A far cry from the soothing, hippie-chick midwives I had found up in Ossining, Diane set about to scrub the Jacuzzi in preparation for Judy's immersion. Judy's contractions are quickening, she tossed over her shoulder, disappearing into the bathroom. Remember, she doesn't have to suffer needlessly, she shouted from inside the bathroom. I have medication if she needs it.

I entered a spacious room where Judy was deep into labor -- serious and unsmiling -- leaning into a wall in a flannel nightgown, her dark curls sticking to the back of her neck. Her husband sat on the edge of the bed watching TV. The sound of running water filled the space between us. I put my hand on the small of her back, felt the heat of her labor.

"This is tough," she reported.

For a long while, the water ran. I went to make red raspberry tea with sugar, steaming hot. I brought it in for Judy, who could barely drink it. Her contractions were layered, two and three-tiered, peaking and waning, chasing her then disappearing...only to ambush her again a minute later. Her nightgown grew sweaty. Her eyes were wild and agitated.

"Let's take a walk," I suggested.

We walked and walked. We walked the entire night, it seemed. We stepped forward one or two or three steps, then paused to honor the contraction's will. We barely spoke. I held her hand or arm. I touched her back. I made her drink water. I argued when she said she couldn't do this thing -- give birth. I reminded her that labor ends and babies are born. I told her that she could have medication if she wished. I wondered where Diane was, realized I hadn't seen her for a while. I hope that I was right, that this labor would end...and soon.

The labor squeezed Judy's spine, producing that rare form of torture -- back labor. I had had it with my first child and thought I would not survive the pain. After back labor, regular old labor is a walk in the park.

Do you need anything? I asked uselessly.

"I need the Jacuzzi." she said. "I want to give birth there."

I found Diane sleeping in a small room and woke her up. She examined Judy and found her fully dilated. Together, we helped my friend into the tub, but the hoped-for relief she imagined would arrive cruelly eluded her. When the contractions came, she draped her arms over the sides of the tub and moaned. Diane poured warm water over her back, smoothed the damp hair from her forehead with a washcloth. A female scent hung in the air, thick and heavy. Suddenly, Judy let out a cry.

"I'm going to have a baby!" she cried, nearly collapsing as the relentless waves of labor overtook her. Diane crouched at Judy's head, administering a blood pressure test.

"Out of the tub!" Diane commanded, directing me to get my friend up. She turned off the jets of the Jacuzzi and opened the drain. "She's too weak. Her blood pressure isn't stable. This is too dangerous."

"No!" Judy cried. "I want to give birth in the water!"

"Out," Diane said, handing me a large towel. The water slipped down the drain with a gurgle and a hiss. Judy looked like a mother sea mammal, sleek, wet and magnificent. I threw the towel over her shoulders. Diane stepped into the tub and wriggled her hands underneath Judy's arms.

"Stand up," she said. "We've got to get you to the bed."

I don't remember the process of walking my laboring friend to the bed. I don't remember draping the nightgown over her. I do remember her crying. I don't remember seeing her husband. I do remember her kneeling into the bedpost, panting. And then, I recall hearing the sound of something cracking.

"Ohhhh!" she exhaled.

"The baby!" cried Diane, gloving her hands, bringing her birthing kit close.

A current went through my friend. Her face took on a beautiful agony. Her brow was knit in concentration. Her legs were quivering. My heart started galloping. Every cell in my body stood at attention. A white energy filled the room.

"!" she panted. "Pictures of the birth."

What camera?

My lungs filled with the purest air. I felt sheer elation. My breath caught in the back of my throat. Something was in our midst. Something had joined us. We were not alone.


Slipping, sliding, slithering out from my friend's body came a tiny creature, face scrunched in earnest concentration -- the baby, her baby, Judy's baby. We let out a whoop, catching the being, escorting her from the ocean of her mother's womb into the new, waterless world. We told Judy it was a girl. Judy broke into happy tears. "A daughter!" she said. "I have a daughter," she repeated. Diane took the child and did her midwifely or doctorly things. Flushed, Judy lay back on the pillow, weak, relieved, smiling. The punishing labor was now just a dull reverberation in the ever-growing distance.

The baby born that magical, tortuous night is now a beautiful and poised 17-year-old. My friend looks more magnificent with each passing day; indeed mother and daughter share an uncommon resemblance. These intervening years have been dramatic and sometimes difficult for my friend, witnessing the break-up of her marriage, innumerable heartbreaks and staggering successes, personal transformation, stellar achievement, the stuff of life itself.

As for me, I would leave my beloved Tudor home in Westchester a couple of years later for a Manhattan apartment, leave the life I had built as a freelance writer for one which offered greater financial stability, have the remarkable chance to live in Israel and Europe, travel more than I ever had before, give birth to a third child -- also with the help of midwives -- undertake challenges both professionally and personally, endure my share of heartache and disappointment, find myself thrillingly in the middle of important conversations and pressing issues of the day, watch my older children grow to adulthood, have adventures of the mind, heart and soul, keep alive the dream of returning to my life as a full-time writer.

You know, I never did take pictures worth anything that night, I reminded my friend when she called me the other day. I was a good labor support but a lousy photographer.

I know, said my friend. I forgive you. You stayed with me throughout my labor. It was awful. I'll never forget that.

And I will never forget the presence that filled the birthing room at the instant of the birth of Judy's daughter. It was luminous and comforting; it stayed with me for a while afterwards. I have pondered it many times since, trying to recapture the wonder, shyly and secretly wondering -- was it the Shekhina? And if so, are all laboring women so visited?

Or was it the descent of a new human soul into this realm, separating itself from the great collective of souls that is God, that is eternity? Was it the contraction of the Great One, the mystical concept of tzimtzum that I witnessed, the physics of the soul which must be poured into each new person at the moment of birth?

Since that time, I have been visited only once more by the same overwhelming presence and it was in the exact opposite context -- standing graveside at the funeral of my mother-in-law in the spring of 1995... in the eighth month of my pregnancy with Little Babe. With greatly swollen belly I stood next to HOBB in the cemetery, watching the coffin of my vibrant, beautiful mother-in-law lower into the ground. I had feared this moment since she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, nurtured nightmares about the spectacle of her burial, nearly campaigned to stay home, away from death when I was bursting with new life.

As the coffin slipped ever lower into the ground, one of the planks on the top shifted suddenly. The assembled mourners took a collective intake of breath. One of the party -- I cannot remember whom -- knelt to right it. And at that moment, I was visited by that same overwhelming presence, filling me with a feeling of wonder and happiness. It enveloped and comforted me, powerful, maternal and eternal. My eyes filled with tears as a message made its way into my heart. I am saying my farewell. Don't worry about me anymore. I am released.

There are things that I have doubted, there are people who have left me feeling bereft, uncertain, unloved, there are questions that I carry. There is sorrow that I carry in my soul. There are mysteries that surround me.

But one certainty of my earthly life has been the existence of a universal being, He or She whom we call God or any variety of names. And the other certainty has been the existence of our eternal souls, compressed and poured into human form to accomodate our time on earth, property of God, patient and indwelling, longing to be free.