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.