Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bitch on Wheels

Looking at the mug shot of Madlyn Primoff at 2 in the morning provides a jolt of adrenaline. This image seems borrowed from a seventies horror film; it is reminiscent of the psycho vagrant hanging around the parking lot or an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

It's not nice to make fun of the way someone looks (even when they are being booked on charges of child endangerment) but it is the vacant-eyed, strung-out Sunday evening expression that Mad Madlyn wears that I wish to address.

Working people everywhere (but probably less so in France or Italy) know the bittersweet quality of Sunday evening, that last refuge of blissful non-work before the relentless pace of the work week resumes.

A certain melancholy always sweeps over me at sunset as I bid farewell to unstructured time with my family and friends, to trysts with the New York Times spread out on the couch, to the memory of red wine, to the joyous cessation of demands, deadlines and deliverables, to the freedom to just be... without the pressure to constantly produce.

Of course, to working parents of young children, the weekend is often just as stressful (if not more so) that the work week...with the exception that you have no lunch hour, no arena in which to feel smart and competant, little or no time away from your kids and very little control over just about anything.

Though I have always preferred weekends to the workweek throughout my nearly 25 years of motherhood, I have often heard people with young kids say that they cannot wait to get back to work following a weekend and that their true work is at home, being a mom or a dad.

Maybe that sense of utter overload is what Madlyn Primoff was experiencing last Sunday evening when she dumped out her young daughters, who had previously been bickering in the backseat of her car, in downtown White Plains and drove away, leaving the girls miles from home.

According to news reports, the older ran after the car and was admitted back. The little one did not and was left alone by her mother and sister. A short while later, the crying kiddie was found by a concerned couple, fed ice cream and handed over to a passing cop.

The police took the agitated 10 year old to the station and waited for the parents to call. When Mommy Madlyn finally did, it was to report a "lost child." She then went on to tell the cops that she had let her daughter wander around downtown and couldn't locate her, blah blah blah, neglecting the troublesome part about throwing her out of the car.

White Plains' Finest reassured the mom that her daughter was safe and instructed her to come down to the precint to retrieve her. When she arrived, she was arrested and thrown into the clink for the night.

I provided this recap to save you from googling "Madlyn Primoff" on the off-chance that you hadn't heard of this story. Perhaps you have been working day and night on your doctoral dissertation or are engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Swine Flu or have just been in a remote village without internet access.

In other words, chances are that if you are breathing, you've heard about this infamous woman: Scarsdale wife, mother of two young girls and white shoe lawyer at a fancy pants Manhattan firm.

Not to mention bitch on wheels.

Over the past week, I've clocked untold hours reading civilian reactions on the myriad blogs and websites dedicated to Maddy's misdeed and have been fascinated to find that there is a hearty debate in this country (and even in such places like France and Italy) about the degree of heinousness of Madlyn Primoff's actions with some parents calling her insane and irresponsible while others give her a You Go, Girl! (and even 'fess up to having done the same to their bratty offspring) and still others admit to having had the urge but stop short of condoning Primoff's penchant for putting her kids out, curbside.

As my POV on L'affair Primoff is pretty evident, (yep, I find the notion of actually throwing your young kids out of the car hostile, crazed and nearly unforgivable) I don't wish to belabor it.

Instead, I want to draw a lesson from this story, one with practical ramifications.

And the lesson can be drawn from meditating upon the scary face of Madlyn Primoff.

We can learn from the face of Madlyn Primoff a truth that we have long suppressed: that it is too steep a transition to go from Sunday night to Monday morning when you are a working parent of small children.

Too jarring is the passage from a weekend at home where it can often feel like your kids are your boss to the office where your boss is your boss.

Honestly, how do we expect people to behave in a sane, responsible manner if they go straight from two days of chauffering their kids to various sports activities and birthday parties, overseeing homework and school projects, buying shoes and eating at fast food restaurants - not to mention playing referee between on-going squabbles in the backseat of a moving car -- to the world of stream-lined professionalism?

Working parents of small kids need a little buffer zone...where no one is their boss.

So, in the spirit of preventing more kids from being thrown out of cars (or worse) or to avoid the melancholy meltdowns of people like me who are guilty of loving weekends too damn much, I suggest the following modest proposal, which I will call Mad Monday Morning, in homage to Madlyn herself:

A mandated work week that resumes at NOON on Mondays, thereby creating a half-day recess for the working parents of young children -- or hell, just about anyone! -- who has trouble making the transition from Sunday night to Monday morning.

The time can be spent communing with nature, watching television, taking a long bath, saving the world, having a mani-pedi or enjoying intimacy with your spouse now that the kids are finally out of the house.

Working parents of America! Let us re-envision Monday morning, thinking of it not as a destination but as a portal between the realms of work and leisure.

Let us honor the need for a journey from one to the next.

And maybe, if we can build this bridge of sacred time, there will be less road rage along the way.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Close Encounters of the Unexpected Kind

On Shabbat afternoon, I left HOBB (husband of Bungalow Babe) and thirteen-year-old Little Babe after the communal pre-Passover shul luncheon known as The Last Challah, and walked down to the JCC to meet a friend.

It was a notably blustery day. Though I typically look forward to this two-mile Shabbat hike -- a personal ritual -- I felt more than a bit daunted by the prospect of traversing 40 windy blocks. In addition, the sky was gunmetal grey with a moist sting in the air. Having decided against a hat, I had a vision of myself arriving at the facility drenched, shivering and miserable.

Forty minutes later, having stopped in at least half a dozen shops to warm up along the way, I arrived. Despite my fears, it hadn't rained, though my fingers were nearly numb with cold and my hair looked like it had been blow-dried by a hairstylist on crack.

As planned, my friend arrived at 3:30 and we quickly commandeered a couch in the lobby in the minutes prior to the performance of the Acapella group -- a standard feature of the JCC's Shabbat R&R program. While she guarded our seats, I went to fetch cups of hot tea and cookies -- all free, courtesy of the observance-friendly community program.

Though we had thought to meet for a couple of hours (before she went off to her Torah class and me to my regular afternoon workout at the JCC), the sun was setting by the time we parted company.

As we spoke in the lobby, and then in the vacant reception area of the nursery school, four hours had passed. And when I arrived home at 9:30 pm, HOBB was completed baffled as to how I had managed to spend six hours "at the gym."

But I wasn't "in the gym" for six hours, I attempted to explain. I was with my friend and then I went to the gym only for the last hour...after which I fell into a locker room conversation with some women about the limitations of talk therapy and philosophy of Viktor Frankl.

While HOBB looked at me skeptically, I asked, don't you ever get into long discussions with your friends or meet really interesting people in unexpected places? Don't guys have these kinds of talks in locker rooms?

But even as the words were leaving my lips, I knew that the kind of locker room talk men were renowned for was hardly about matters such as logotherapy.

No, he stated, continuing to stare at me as if I had just announced my conversion to Wicca. I have never had any kind of extended conversation in the locker room nor do I have four-hour long discussions with my friends in the lobbies of buildings. That's not the kind of thing that happens to men.

I uttered a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord for not making me a man. And happily pondered my penchant for unexpected connections, for interpersonal adventure, for encounters with friends and strangers...the good, the bad and the unbelievably weird.

This, you see, is a recurring theme in my life. I leave Point A bound for Point B. Most often I arrive at my appointed destination...but not until visiting Points Z, Q, G and V along the way.

Or my pre-supposed destination becomes a launching pad for another kind of adventure.

Most of the time, the journey feels magical, marvelous and tinged with bashert, a sense of the pre-ordained.

Mainly, these adventures occur when I am on my own. I have also come to see that there is a special category of Shabbat afternoon close encounters of the bashert kind.

And every now and then, my very openness leads me into an awkward or questionable or unsavory situation.

Such an encounter took place earlier this week, far from the protection of Shabbat. In the course of a prospective business meeting with the kind of client I invariably avoid, my openness exposed me to a sense of personal trespass.

But life adventurers don't easily wear the mantle of victimhood, expect for obviously extreme situations. Creepy though this particular connection proved to be, I proudly toss it into the valise of personal experience, looking back at it with a kind of horrified fascination.

The sun has just come up on the start of a new work week. Twenty minutes ago, my daily alarm went off and I silenced it quickly, so as not to wake Little Babe or HOBB. Sitting at the dining room table in my quiet apartment, I pause to consider that three nights from now this very space will be filled with the clutter of conversation as Middle Babe and Big Babe will, GW, join their little brother, grandparents and guests at our first Seder.

Though I am now rooted in secular time, Pesach will shortly pour its magic over my household. Within the pre-ordained structure of the Seder, unexpected adventure, interpersonal revelation and connection with our collective past and future will occur. As we sit together, recounting the story of our people's journey from slavery to freedom, spontaneous, sometimes startling discussion becomes interwoven with the timeless text of the Hagaddah.

It is for this, I believe, that we were liberated from Egypt. The Children of Israel were the first chance adventurers, refusing to go directly from Point A to Point B.

Indeed, forty years elapsed between their departure and appointed arrival, an epoch that has erroneously been called Wandering.

But as the descendent of this nation of early adventurers, driven to seek an alternative to the straits of servitude to Pharoah, I toast the first recorded road trip in Jewish history, knowing that, though the going was often rough, it was an excellent adventure.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Haagen Dazs at 5 A.M.... and Other Cool Things About Being a Grown-Up

At five in the morning, having been awake and working for one entire hour, I padded into the kitchen, removed the pint of Vanilla Haagen Dazs I had bought for Shabbat…and had breakfast.

The ability to eat Haagen Dazs whenever the heck you want is definitely one of the coolest aspects of being an adult. In my mind, it just about cancels out other, less cool factors, such as stress, the prospect of one's impending death and belly fat that refuses to go away even after millions of ab crunches. (Of course, ice cream might have something to do with that. A bitter irony.)

My pre-dawn ice cream party catapulted me back to a dear and precious memory -- the first time I tasted Haagen Dazs ice cream.

The year was 1977 and my family had just moved to Forest Hills from Douglaston, NY, where my father had been the rabbi of a busy Conservative synagogue. Having recently earned his PhD in clinical psychology, he made a bold career change at the age of 47, leaving behind the highly public pulpit position he had held for 21 years in favor of a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan and Queens.

The move away from Douglaston was actually a move up on the socioeconomic and sophistication ladder. Our new home was a solid, impressive brick home that cost more than three times the cost of the Douglaston home: a staggering $80,000.

Though we had lived in a woodframe nineteen fifies colonial house owned by the synagogue, most of the members of the Douglaston community lived in modest walk-up garden apartments in the Jewish section of town. (Old Douglaston was as grand as Great Neck. Alas, few Jews had been allowed in.)

Down the block from our house, on 61st Avenue, was an EJ Korvettes -- an emporium of downscale dreck, with the exception of their fine record department.

The other local department stores were Mays and Alexanders. Between these fine shops, the Danskin "irregulars" outlet on Union Turnpike and the occasional trip out to Williamburg to the ever-crowded and dusty Natan Borlam's, we built our uncool wardrobes. The Bloomingdale's branch that opened up in Fresh Meadows a few years earlier was some kind of fluke and I wondered where the store's customers actually lived.

Going out to eat entailed driving to Main Street in Kew Garden Hills for kosher pizza 'n falafel at Shimon's (the first such establishment) or Levi's (the competition, just a couple of blocks away).

Occasionally, we would troop into a diner, such as the Scobee Grill on Northern Boulevard or the Georgia Diner on Queens Boulevard where we ate tuna salad sandwiches festooned with frilly toothpicks, which came accessorized with a generous handful of potato chips, sour pickles and a scoop of cole slaw.

For special occasions, we headed down to the Lower East Side for Ratner's (milchiks) or "Schmulke" Bernstein's (fleishiks). Weirdly, there was one year that we made frequent visits to Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, which my mother, the rebbetzin, somehow deemed kosher.

Though Waldbaum's was our local supermarket, my mother preferred to drive the few extra miles to Pathmark, which became our family's mecca, an alternate spiritual retreat, the consumer counterpart to our synagogue -- The Marathon Jewish Community Center.

I therefore grew up on Pathmark brand everything, including notebooks, shampoo and ice cream. Especially their ice cream, which my mom claimed was actually Breyer's in Pathmark packaging -- a sad delusion... or outright lie. Glorious exceptions to this included actual Breyer's ice cream, when it was on sale; the creamy perfection of Carvel at the local Douglaston outpost; and -- the pinnacle of every kid's dream -- Baskin and Robbin's, with their free tastes, pink spoons and 31 amazing flavors.

Despite my fondness for getting tastes of such creative ice cream incarnations as Bubblegum and Blueberry Cheese Cake, I always chose Pralines 'n Cream. And because there was a Baskin and Robbin's on Main Street in Kew Garden Hills, our pizza and falafel forays often included ice cream.

So, I was hardly deprived of ice cream pleasure in my youth.

However, when, at the age of 17, I discovered the heaven that is Haagen Dazs, my life changed.

I was babysitting for a glamorous young couple with two little girls. The wife was blond and beautiful, with a Lauren Hutton-like gap between her two front teeth. The husband was geeky, with a frizzy halo of hair. Still, they dressed to kill and were the uncontested king and queen of sophistication within the Orthodox community, which my family had awkwardly joined, now that my dad was no longer a practicing Conservative rabbi.

Thirtyish and the very quintessence of Yuppie-ness, though the word hadn't yet been invented, they lived in a massive and gorgeous corner property with landscaped lawns and chic interior decor.

The kitchen of their home was stocked with babysitter-friendly snacks, which the wife graciously pointed out to me. It was during my second visit to their home that I discovered the Haagen Dazs, indeed, a stash of the frozen stuff in a dizzying array of flavors -- Chocolate, Vanilla, Honey and Carob.

I tasted them all.

And depleted more than a few pints by myself.

The parents never noticed or complained.

It was a dream babysitting assignment -- a beautiful home stocked with multiple flavors of Haagen Dazs and two adorable little girls who were invariably asleep when I arrived. It was an excursion into fantasyland for me, a guest pass to a magnificent life on a scale of grandeur I had not experienced before.

And though I was hardly the kind of teen who fantasized about marriage or playing house or even being a mother (running away from home to live in Paris, or at least California was a more common daydream) this was a fascinating experience for me. Settling into their ultra-comfy leather armchair for an evening of prime television viewing, my fave thing was to save the Haagen Dazs blitz for the beginning of the Carol Burnett Show.

To this day, I have a Pavlovian reaction when I sample Haagen Dazs after a long period of abstinence. As the ice cream melts over my tastebuds, a song runs through my head: "I'm so glad we had this time togeeeether; Just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know iiiiit; Comes the time we have to say, so long. So long, everyone!"

In the home of my babysitting clients, I glimpsed a world of tastes and textures well beyond what was available to me in Douglaston. The fine clothes of the wife, the fashionable hats she wore for Shabbat and holidays at the Orthodox synagogue, the heavy furniture that bespoke taste and discernment, the well-behaved little girls with their dream bedrooms...all this was new to me.

And the readily-available Haagen Dazs was the cherry on the sundae of this new experience -- a taste of the World to Come.

Within a decade of my babysitting assignment, this beautiful couple divorced in a blaze of scandal involving matching his and hers affairs. Close-knit communities are always rocked by these things; even more so, Orthodox communities who sometimes consider themselves innoculated from the common temptations and downfalls of humankind.

Over the past thiry years, I've seen the two of them with their respective second spouses. They seem happy; however, I cannot help having a twinge of nostalgia when I recall my wide-eyed introduction to their home, their perfect-seeming family and their endless supply of Haagen Dazs ice cream.

The sun has now come up. Three hours have passed since my unorthodox breakfast and I took a break from blogging to get Little Babe ready for school, the dogs ready for their morning walk.

Naturally, I hid the evidence of my Haagen Dazs-fest from my son and husband. For Little Babe, this is obviously the worst kind of nutritional behavior to model and for HOBB, well, he just wouldn't understand.

Though I expected a blood sugar crash, none has come. Instead, I feel happy and calm, ready to face the Friday madness.

Perhaps I will institutionalize this little ritual every Erev Shabbat, a kind of spa for the soul and treat for the senses. As I grin at my secret indulgence, the words of the Carol Burnett theme song revisit me:

I'm so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, so long.