Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Dream of Nuclear Winter

The dream presented a perfect facsimile of reality.

It was a Sunday afternoon. There was a warning of imminent nuclear attack. Manhattan was the target. There was a chance to flee but it wasn't taken.

A siren went off. We gathered in the dining room to watch the world around us -- Amsterdam Avenue and the Columbia University campus -- disappear inside nuclear winter.

Opaque white air filled our vista. Little particles dotted the air.

I turned to my husband, speechless with panic. "Are we all going to die?"

And then, mercifully, I woke up.

It was early morning, too early for a Sunday, darkish, quiet, save for birdsong.

Beneath the down quilt, I had broken into a sweat. My throat burned with thirst and my eyes burned with fatigue. Next to me, HOBB slept peacefully. Tempted to curl into him for comfort, I resisted. We had come to bed very late the night before. We were guests at a benefit dinner where the wine was delicious. I had three glasses. Now, through half-opened eyes, I saw clothes scattered on the floor.

Despite my thirst, I fell back into troubled sleep, only to enter the dream again...through a different portal.

We were no longer in our apartment, having moved to the Upper East Side. It was shortly after the nuclear attack. Miraculously, we had survived. We were now cramped into a place with several other families. I was aware that we were refugees. I was sitting on a bed with Little Babe and Middle Babe, taking stock of the meager possessions we managed to take with us. From a large picture window, we watched warships sail right up to the FDR Drive, enormous robotic frogmen jump from the deck into the water, swim hurriedly to the shore, then turn into tank-like vehicles, barreling towards us along First Avenue.

Once again, I awoke out of the dream, this time prompted not by terror but by the ringing of my BlackBerry. It was 9:05 a.m. and my sister, visiting from Israel, wanted to make plans for the week.

The day began and the dream retreated, but not really. First, I told HOBB about it, curling into him for comfort as I recounted the terrifying narrative. Sharing it, I felt no lessening of the horror, indeed, found myself getting sucked back in. Rolling out of bed, I recovered my clothing, pulled on shorts and a sweatshirt, padded into the dining room. Turning on my computer, I searched the headlines for news of a nuclear attack, worried that my nightmare had, in fact, been a premonition.

In my family, I'm famous for foreshadowing dreams. There was, for instance, the tsunami dream, two nights before the terrible tsunami hit Southeast Asia. There was the dream encounter with my late mother-in-law, where she told me that I would give birth to a son...three weeks before I gave birth to Little Babe. There was the visitation by my late Grandma Dorothy in a dream, the giving of a quilt I had never seen before but which was given to me shortly thereafter by my mother.

Thankfully, I found nothing on the internet about a nuclear attack.

The day began. The cold was bracing, returning me to the reality of a Manhattan not currently under nuclear attack. I greeted Little Babe's cello teacher, then rode the subway down to the JCC, reading Moravia's The Woman of Rome on the way. I did several miles on the elliptical, pumped iron, worked on my abs, talked to friends, relaxed in the steamroom, showered, returned home, greeted Little Babe's Japanese teacher, ate the fresh cod prepared by HOBB and then we went to the Natural History Museum, where we wandered for hours before ending up at the Silk Road exhibition. Along the way, there were phone conversations and coffee breaks and a delicious banana bread pudding that we shared and a shopping excursion to West Side Market and walks along Columbus Avenue and a marvelous dinner at home with homemade cream of mushroom soup yet somehow, this terrible memory stayed with me -- the terror, the helplessness, the unthinkable, the swirling white, nuclear winter, the end of the world.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Rabbis and Revolution


A Shavout Sermon

Rabbi Jack Riemer

(Printed by permission of the author who sent an advance copy to Bungalow Babe on Wednesday, informing her that her recent article in the Forward on the high cost of Jewish education had inspired this sermon. This subject is one that preoccupies Bungalow Babe, causing her to continually kvetch about it as a way of keeping it on the communal radar screen. As Rabbi Riemer is the quintessential rabbi's rabbi, whose articles and sermons are read and quoted from by an international, interdenominational rabbinate, Bungalow Babe could not be more honored. In addition, she is newly reminded of the role that rabbis and other religious leaders play in fomenting social revolution. Her Forward article, which ran in last week's paper, can be read at

This is the holiday of the giving of the Torah. And therefore, it ought to be a holiday on which we think honestly and seriously about the state of the Torah in our time, and about what we can do to enhance it.

I want to teach you two new words today, two words that I believe have much to say about the state of Torah in our time. One is the word: “STEPPY”, and the other is the word: “TIPSY”

Does anyone here know what STEPPY and TIPSY mean?

I want to talk about these two words today, because I believe, in all seriousness, that the future of Judaism in our community will depend in good measure on how these two new words relate to each other. And therefore, if you care about the future of the Torah, hear me well:

I learned the meaning of the term: STEPPY from Shira Dicker, who is a prominent publicist and the owner of a communications company, and who is a parent whose child goes to one of the best day schools in New York City.

She says that some time ago she got a call from the parent of a child in the school, reminding her that the school’s annual fund-raising dinner was going to be held soon, and that she had not yet bought a ticket.

Shira Dicker says that a year ago she would have been embarrassed to tell the woman that she could not afford the seven hundred and fifty dollars that the dinner costs, but this year, she found herself feeling sorry for the woman who was calling her, because she was probably getting a lot of turn-downs. In this post-Madoff, recessionary time in which we now find ourselves, there were probably a lot of people in the school who were STEPPYs.

What is a STEPPY?

The word is an acronym.

It stands for: Struggling, Two-income, Educated, Professionals Paying Yeshiva Tuition.

STEPPYs are people who are struggling to make enough to send their children to day school, which is not easy these days. The cost of day school education has climbed from four figures a year to five figures a year. And now that the economy has gone south, parents who are struggling financially have only two choices, neither of which is very pleasant to contemplate. They can either take their children out of day school, or else they can ask for scholarships, which is not easy to do for people who are middle class and not poor, but who find ten or fifteen or twenty thousand dollars a year for tuition a big nut to crack.

And I have just used modest figures. There are some day schools that approach tuition figures of forty thousand dollars a year, and some of these schools now find it difficult to give scholarships because their investments have tanked, and some of their donors are no longer able to give as generously as they did before.

Shira Dicker says that nobody talks about this, but the stress of coming up with this kind of money for tuition has permeated the lives of many people. It has impacted marriages, made wives wonder why their husbands can’t earn more, and made husbands wonder why their wives are always so tired and cranky. It has turned Shabbat in many homes into a day for physical recuperation instead of spiritual rest, and it has made the prospect of college tuition seem out of reach,

A STEPPY is any Jewish parent who has changed careers, or taken on additional work, or who forgoes a social life, or who limits the amount of cultural events she goes to, or who lets the cleaning lady go, or who passes on sending a child to summer camp, or who puts off her own continuing education, or who drives a run-down car, in order to be able to keep her children in a Jewish day school.

Sharon Strassfeld once observed that “In her circle of friends, the cost of day school education is the most effective form of birth control”.

And, as Shira Dicker says, all this is without counting in the costs of having a bar or bat mitzvah, or sending your child on an Israel Program, or keeping kosher or belonging to a synagogue.

Who is to blame for this situation?

Or to put it more constructively, what can we do about this situation?

I think that there are two answers.

One of them is the TIPSY solution, which I heard about recently.

Does anyone here know what the TIPSY solution is?

No, it is not to go out and get drunk in order to forget the seriousness of the STEPPY situation.

The TIPSY solution is also an acronym. It comes from the Kohelet Foundation, which has two goals. One is to lower the cost of day school tuition, and the other is to increase the involvement of parents in Jewish education, because they believe that a home in which parents study Torah is a good role model that will encourage children to take their own Torah study seriously.

What does TIPSY stand for?

It stands for “The Tuition Incentive Program for Subsidizing Yiddishkeit”.

The idea is really very simple.

The foundation has worked with four day schools in the Philadelphia area so far.
What they do is first determine the actual cost per child if the school operated at full capacity.

The school then agrees to lower tuition in order to attract more students.

The Kohelet Foundation then agrees to provide funding to make up for any losses incurred if the class does not reach full capacity.

At the Kelman Academy in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for example, they lowered the tuition for the first two classes by four thousand dollars, and they lowered the tuition for the third grade by thirty five hundred dollars. They figure that after the families have become hooked on the day school, they will continue sending their children after the first three years, even if they have to pay the whole tuition themselves.

This is one suggestion. It can only work in those schools that are under capacity. In schools that are full and have waiting lists, some other idea will have to be found. But what the Kohelet Foundation has shown us is that there are innovative ideas that can be found to make day schools better and also more affordable, if only we look.

My second suggestion is a simple one—which is that we get over---once and for all--- the idea that the cost of a Jewish education is the sole responsibility of the parents.

Every one of us pays public school taxes, whether we have children in the public schools or not.


Because we understand that the entire society depends on raising the next generation to be good citizens, good people, and good workers. In exactly the same way, the members of the Jewish community must learn to accept the concept that Jewish education is the shared and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish community, whether we have children enrolled in a day school or not.

All of us have to consider it our obligation to support our local day schools, whether it be by purchasing tickets for its annual dinner, or ads for its journal, or by making donations in our lifetimes and in our wills. For it does not matter whether we ourselves have children in the school or not. The future of the Jewish people---nothing less than that---is at stake!

All of you probably know the Midrash about what happened at Sinai on the first Shavout, but let me tell it to you again. I have heard this Midrash ever since I was a child. But do you know what? Now I hear it, not just as a fanciful legend, the way I heard it, when I was a child, but as the simple truth.

The Midrash says that when God gathered the Israelites together at the foot of Mount Sinai, He said to them: “I have a great treasure which I am prepared to give to you. But before I give it to you, what can You give me as a guarantee that you will keep it safe?”

The people offered Moses as a guarantor. But God said: “No, Moses is mortal. And therefore, He cannot be a guarantor that you will always keep this treasure.”

The people offered the Prophets as guarantors. But God said: “No. The Prophets are also mortal. Therefore, they cannot be guarantors that you will always keep this treasure which I am about to give you.”

Finally, the people offered the children as guarantors. And this time God said: “Yes! Your children are the best guarantors. If you promise me that in every generation, your children will guard this treasure, I will give it to you.”

And then God gave the Israelites the Torah.

Now that I am a grown up, I understand this ancient Midrash better than I did when I was a child. Now I understand that what it means is that with serious Jewish education, the Jewish people will live. And that without it, we will not be.

And so, on this, the day when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, let us reaffirm the promise that our ancestors made on Mt. Sinai long ago. Let us---all of us---whether we have children of our own in the school or not---accept upon ourselves the personal responsibility for the Jewish education of the next generation.

And may TIPSY and other ideas like it help the STEPPYS in our midst so that the Torah may live and flourish from generation to generation.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Being Present at the Brooklyn Museum

We missed the mega-fabulous New Year's First Night celebration at the Brooklyn Museum because of an equally fabulous yoga/health food/karaoke birthday party, a situation that reminded me of one of my favorite Yiddish expressions – “With one tuchis, you can’t dance at two weddings.”

Thrown together hastily, the birthday party was a perfect combo of holistic healthfulness and drunken revelry. Our adorable British hostess charmed us with "Super Trooper," "Lady Marmalade," "Ebony and Ivory," "We Belong Together," and other songs that I was evidently too plastered to recall, while I held my own with "Centerfold," "Alone Again, Naturally," "Tiny Dancer," and Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," – the last song performed atop HOBB's lap while growling into the mike.

We arrived home after 3 in the morning, exhausted yet exhilarated.

It was great fun, yet with the light of day, I was beset by the hysterical fear that I would miss the photo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum I'd been dying to see for months -- Who Shot Rock & Roll?

You see, I knew that once the holiday ended, my life would take on its usual relentless pace and the chances of getting out to Brooklyn before the exhibition closed were slim. Though it sounds geographically implausible, I knew I had a better chance of making it over to Berlin than Brooklyn.

And indeed, that is exactly what happened. I left for Berlin on January 10th where I saw a great many museum exhibitions, but it was only yesterday that I made it to the Brooklyn Museum to finally see Who Shot Rock & Roll. And though I was gratified, gladdened and greatly relieved to finally be able to scratch this exhibition off my cultural To-Do List, what captured my imagination at the Brooklyn Museum was not this energetic assemblage of photos of rock stars and their performances.

Instead, it was a small black and white watercolor, based on a sculpture made by Harriet Hosmer, a remarkable 19th century artist. Created by Patricia Cronin, a Brooklyn artist of my own vintage, the watercolor depicts the interlocking hands of Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was part of the exhibition closing that day, Harriet Hosmer: Lost and Found.

Having completed the rock and roll exhibition (my brain on joyous overload from ingesting pictures of a near-naked, Christ-like Iggy Pop, David Bowie with a red punk-shag 'do from his Ziggy Stardust phase, Elton John in platform boots and humongous glasses, the baby-faced Rolling Stones before they even signed a record contract, the famous Avedon portraits of the Beatles, Madonna in the early ‘80’s when she was a quasi-homeless East Village character, the underfed Talking Heads at CBGB’s and other such delights; my husband humoring me by pretending to be interested) HOBB and I wandered happily through the cavernous and largely empty rooms of the Brooklyn Museum, which recalled Berlin’s sprawling temples of culture.

Recalling a listing in the New York Times that Cronin’s exhibition was about to close, we headed down to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the third floor.

There, just around the corner from the legendary Judy Chicago work – The Dinner Party -- was Cronin’s exhibition, a tribute to the largely-forgotten art of Harriet Hosmer.

There is nothing quite like stumbling onto the work of a master one has not previously encountered. The joy of this discovery is indeed akin to embarking on a new adventure. And so, in this quiet room, on the last day of the exhibition, I avidly read about Harriet Hosmer’s life, learned that she was born in 1830 and died in 1908, lived in Rome for forty years, becoming part of the expatriate artist community; that she was a lesbian; that she sculpted in marble.

Listening to Cronin’s curate her own work on my cell-phone through some newfangled technical wizardry, I also learned that while in Italy, Hosmer became a close friend of the Brownings, whose literary partnership Cronin discusses briefly in the course of her shpiel. Cronin explains the placement of the hands and their symbolism; what the physical conveyed about the emotional, spiritual and artistic bond shared by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Which stopped me dead in my tracks, making me bookmark the Brownings for an upcoming obsession…when I conclude my current obsession with Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante.

It is now Monday afternoon. Between phone calls and emails, I found myself Googling the Brownings, giving myself a sneak peak at the literary couple who might next consume my imagination. (I like the way that Italy forms a perfect thematic segue between my current crushes and those in line for forthcoming consideration.) I realize that at this time last week, I had just landed in New York, leaving behind a madcap, frenetic weeklong adventure with Big Babe, my expatriate American son. During my time in Berlin, I observed and recorded the scene, as Hosmer did during her time in Rome. And while I was missing from my regularly-scheduled life in New York, the truth of that old Yiddish adage was further underscored.

With my one body, I couldn’t be on two continents at once, a source of frustration to those who wanted me to be on Eastern Standard Time in New York – stationed before a computer and next to a landline -- and not bopping through Berlin, with unreliable internet access.

Here’s the thing about life. You have one tuchis but many weddings to attend. Some are local, some are far-flung. Some are fun and others are obligatory. Some you will blow off; others you might miss due to unforeseen circumstances. Some conflict with each other…or with your happy little habits of living or with life itself.

And here’s a reality check: by choosing to attend one wedding, you choose to miss another. You give up one experience to gain another.

Of course, like most contemporary multi-tasking maniacs, I’ve tried to be at two…or three…or ten weddings with my one tuchis, in fact, this delusional modus operandi has characterized most of my professional adult life over the past eight years. Perhaps yours as well.

I’ve tried to behave as if sleep is optional to human functioning. I’ve tried to keep my BlackBerry activated in countries with ridonculous roaming charges to prove my commitment to those who wish to reach me all the time.

I’ve tried to obliterate boundaries of time and space through constant contact.

But we now know the truth about multi-tasking as a way of life, which is that a wee bit improves our productivity but if multi-tasking becomes standard operating procedure, the integrity of individual actions is severely compromised.

In other words, if we are always here and there, we are not really present anywhere.

So, I’m entering into a new contract with my tuchis because it is related to my heart, mind and soul.

From now on, it dances at one wedding at a time.

Flashback to the New Year's weekend. Initially, I tried to engineer a two-wedding solution to the evening, proposed going to the Brooklyn Museum and our friends’ party, catching two hours at the museum first, then meeting up with our friends at the Korean karaoke joint in midtown Manhattan.

The plan was actually doable – and didn’t entail meshuggeneh multi-tasking -- but HOBB doesn’t roll that way. He's a one-wedding guy.

Besides, he was looking forward to the yoga and health food.

I was frustrated at the time because my plan to dance at two weddings was being thwarted, but looking back, I am glad at the way it worked out.

After all, if we had gone to the Brooklyn Museum for New Year’s First Night, I would have likely missed the chance to discover the art of Harriet Hosmer, as interpreted by Patricia Cronin. Three weeks ago, I would have felt no urgency to see the exhibition, would have arrived with my First Night agenda -- dancing in the great hall with the live orchestra, standing on line to catch a glimpse of Who Shot Rock & Roll?, drinking in the spectacle of thousands of people filling the museum on a Saturday night.

Instead, on a Sunday afternoon in late January, I shared a unexpectedly magical and intimate moment with Patricia Cronin and Harriet Hosmer at the Brooklyn Museum.

Instead, I learned about the interlocking hands of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning, was reminded of their love and literary partnership.

Locking hands with HOBB, my own partner in literature and life, I walked through the rare quiet rooms of the Brooklyn Museum, grateful to be doing just one thing at a time, to be fully present in my life, if only for a single Sunday afternoon in January.

Friday, January 22, 2010

If I Wanted to be on Call 24/7, I'd be in Haiti

Attention Misguided World,

Something has happened to the concept of URGENCY.

Something terrifying.

Blurring important distinctions.

Obliterating boundaries.

Producing dire consequences for our humanity and ability to distinguish between the realms of work and life, between the wish to advance one's agenda and humanitarian crisis.

Here's the thing: from teens texting their friends a million times a day as if rapid thumb movement was vital to respiration, to the expectation that one should be on call around the clock for work matters that are removed from life and death considerations, the modern world has gone gaga, losing its soul or simply its mind.

"I have no choice," a friend recently confided, out of sheer exhaustion. "If I'm not always available to my boss, I'll lose my job. I'll be instantly replaced by someone else who is willing to take calls at midnight or sleep with their BlackBerry under their pillow."

"How can you stand it?" I asked, though I am up against the same expectation all the time.

"Where's the organ transplant?" demanded another friend, at her wit's end. "Whenever I get this urgent message about something completely pedestrian -- from my kids or my boss -- I wonder why we're all living as if we were EMS workers, transporting vital organs. Who will die if we do not return a call or text within seconds???"

It is Friday morning, the eve of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, God's gift to humankind. In His or Her Infinite Wisdom, in His or Her Omniscience, a preview of our present reality was requested and made available and the Sabbath created as an antidote.

But here's the scary reality: Shabbat is not enough. It is not adequate to have one 25 hour black-out zone per week.

We need our mornings.

We need our evenings.

Unless you are transporting vital organs, you should be sleeping or partying or reading or making love at midnight...not sending texts to your staff.

And unless you are down in Haiti, pulling bodies from the rubble, feeding the hungry, transporting goods, rebuilding the devastated country, saving lives, there is simply no excuse for a 24/7 -- or even a 24/6 -- expectation of availablity, built upon a perverted concept of urgency.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First We Take Manhattan. Then We Take Berlin.

In Berlin, the winter sky is gunmetal grey, the streets are covered with a slushy covering of snow, several inches deep, the cold seeps into your bones, no… deeper. Into your organs.

In Berlin, people ride the U-Bahn with or without the proper tickets. On the train, they sport haircuts like Peter Frampton, like Marilyn Manson, like Billy Idol. Sometimes you see someone who is a dead ringer for Dieter, Mike Myer's West German television host. They wear clothes that are old without being vintage. There is no fashion one-upsmanship, no status-seeking labels to be flaunted, no must-have accessory or pair of jeans. There are only curious gazes at the foreigner wearing the noticeably fashionable clothing, the expensive-looking ring.

In Berlin, there are little bronze plaques on the sidewalks telling you that at this location, in the year such and such, a Jew named so and so was taken to the (fill in the blank) concentration camp. Their family had lived in this city until that very date, was part of the life of Berlin. And then they were never seen again.

In Berlin, the museums are plentiful and palatial, cutting-edge or classical. There are three opera houses. There are symphony halls and theatres. Bars and clubs are everywhere. Everyone is drinking. Everyone is going somewhere, up for a party or celebration. Money is optional. Friendly sex is everywhere. People are welcoming. There are no cliques, no In-Crowd. Everyone is getting a free degree at one of the universities. Many are on welfare. If you don't have money and you want to drink or dance, someone will probably pay for you. The city is sprawling and architecturally discordant. The past is alive everywhere.

In Berlin, you will often feel like you are living in the past. Any moment in the past except for that slew of years in middle of the 20th century, which is a place unlike any other, a destination that is impossible to revisit.

But that slew of years permeates Berlin, giving the wind a special sorrowful sound, providing the reason for the gunmetal grey sky, making the bone-chilling cold a metaphysical matter.

In the winter world of Berlin, your feet are always cold and wet. You will take your boots off in restaurants and massage your toes. Some places you visit will have coal ovens you will need to feed with bricks of coal. Even when the embers are burning brightly and the ceramic tiles are hot to the touch, you will feel chilled, unable to remove your clothes to sleep. You'll wonder how anyone survived even one winter night in a concentration camp.

In Berlin, you will sleep with your street clothes every night -- even your bra -- because your fingers will be stiff with cold and unable to manage the unsnapping procedure. You will put your head under the covers, wear a ski cap one night. You will shower hurriedly in the morning after heating up the water for half an hour, stooping beneath the shower spray to get wet, soaping up briskly, bravely applying shampoo while praying for the water to remain hot long enough to rinse the stuff out, then going out on a limb of faith to apply conditioner or shave your legs and armpits.

Inevitably, the water will turn cold too soon and you will emerge from the tub, shivering, onto a cold-tiled floor, the thin shower curtain sticking to your cold, wet, goose-prickled skin.

In Berlin, the winter Spree will be frozen and black with sheets of ice floating on the surface. Crossing a footbridge slippery with snow, you fear that you will skate, slide under the rail and end up in the terrifying waters.

The Spree seems sadly meager as compared with the Thames, the Siene, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Danube. And then you hear about the bodies that were dumped into it and it becomes something else.

Evil. Complicit.

In Berlin, you have come to be with your oldest child who has chosen this place as his (hopefully temporary) adopted home. You bring him goods from Zabar's, about $150 worth of coffee, smoked salmon, salami, babka and coffee paraphernalia. You infiltrate his life while you are there; shadow him around his Berlin world. Thus, you meet his friends. You got to his haunts, see his operas and films, walk through his museums. Together, you crowd into Humboldt University for a free lecture by Orham Pamuk and sit on the floor with the student revolutionaries who have occupied the school for reasons that elude you.

In the morning and at night, you shovel his coal into the coal oven and brew his Zabar's coffee, the French Italian roast, first grinding the beans, then pouring the powder into the Chemex filter, adding the hot water, measuring out cream. You note the prices, instantly translate them from Euro value to dollar value. Things are cheap, generally.

In Berlin, you interview his expatriate friends, finding out why they are in Berlin, what the lure is. You have too much wine and ask a native German if anyone ever asked her what her grandfather did during the war. She laughs uncertainly. Your son stares at you.

The two of you fight, of course. Over stupid things but also over the division of time; how much you get to attend to your work versus how much time you get to spend together. You spend mostly every waking moment together and come home from clubs at four and five in the morning.

And then, it is time to leave. And then you are back in New York, on American soil.

Berlin is a conundrum, a paradox, a destination. To some it is endlessly problematic, forever desecrated. To others, it is a neverland of cheap, easy living, good times at the ready, a steady stream of people making little or no money. Lacking professional ambition or even the desire for a lasting love relationship. In Berlin, you will never feel like a slacker, a loser, an underachiever.

Because my son has chosen it, Berlin is of endless fascination to me. As a New Yorker, I see the lure of Berlin burning most brightly at this moment in time, offering an alternative to the collapsing American scene.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Who's that Girl? Is She on Facebook?

Why, it's none other than me -- BUNGALOW BABE -- enjoying a glam brunch at the home of James Cunningham, the American Ambassador to Israel last month.

This pic arrived with a bunch of photos yesterday, via email, and is actually a cropped version of a larger, more panoramic shot featuring none other than HOBB, who was the DISTINGUISHED AMERICAN SPEAKER that morning.

An upcoming posting might have the original pic, but I present this artfully-modified photo because it warms me to gaze at my sun-drenched visage, allows me to teleport myself beyond the frigid climes of New York City to a more temperate locale.

I also present this photo because it is the face of someone who is about to hit the 300-Friend mark on Facebook.

And while this number might not be formidable for all those less mature individuals who have been promiscuously acquiring "friends" for years before I even considered going on Facebook, I am proud to say that I am actually real-life friends with all my FB pals.


Not that 300 is the total number of human beings that I have befriended in my two-score and change years on Planet Earth. Oh, no, no, no. Don't be silly. The people I know from the four summer camps I attended total over 300 alone. Had I the time, you'd find me avidly trolling Facebook with the intention of picking up friends of friends (as giddily as Zabar's customers when all the baked goods go to half price) in order to further boost my numbers, because it does become a game or race of sorts, doesn’t it?; a sort of cyber-popularity contest.

Indeed, when I saw that my daughter, Middle Babe’s friend list was over the 1,000 mark, I admit to feeling envious.

But more is not always better and besides, my Facebook Friends list is a work-in-progress.

To my list of 300 – I am moved by the special bond we share. To you, I send a group cyber-hug.

FBFF: Facebook Friends Forever!!!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Waltz #2 @ Starbucks

Last Monday, I camped out at the Starbucks on Broadway and West 75th Street, working on my laptop for hours.

My perch near the window -- a round table small enough for no one else to consider joining me -- was perfect.
Well, it would have been perfect if not for the woman seated inches away from me who was also camped out for hours, variously sleeping, muttering to herself, eating candy bars, refusing to allow elderly people to sit in her extra chair, watching cat videos on her laptop and laughing hysterically, rolling cigarettes and then ambling outside to smoke them just outside my window so that it appeared as if she were deliberately blowing smoke into my face, then returning inside to settle back into her chair, groaning, while feeble senior citizens stared covetously at her chair, piled high with her stuff, and she complained that my power cord was touching her shoe and that the spoiled babies of Upper West Side yuppies were crying too loudly, and that it was frikkin’ freezing outside and that life in general just sucked.

As experienced laptop road warriors know, once you snag a good table near an electrical outlet at Starbucks, you are not moving except in the event of an actual emergency. And once you snag a window seat at a solo table, you are basically prepared to work doggedly sans bathroom visits AND coffee if your absence will imperil your hold on the table.

Fearing that my scary Starbucks neighbor might smash my laptop should I leave my post to order a coffee while sprinting to the potty, I worked in a state of dire discomfort for nearly an entire hour, trying to concentrate on my work and not the candy bar wrappers accumulating on her table or my increasing need to run to the bathroom which seemed paradoxical given my now-unbearable thirst.

At the brink of near-collapse, I finally made a run for it, scoring a restroom with the beautiful word VACANT on the door without as much as a minute's wait, ordering not just coffee but a bottle of that ridiculously overpriced eco-friendly water, a pack of buttery, ridiculously caloric madeleines and a cheese and fruit platter on my way if I were about to hunker down in an underground bunker for the rest of the afternoon.

I practically sacrificed a goat in gratitude when I returned to my table with my loot and everything was just as I left it.

Thus relieved and fortified with sugar, water, caffeine and protein, I was able to work for the next two hours, willing myself to almost ignore crazy lady who must have gone through six candy bars and smoked about as many cigarettes when she was not having crazy conversations on her cellphone, which I suspected of being a toy.

Checking the time, I realized I needed to leave and started shutting down my laptop.

And that's when the unmistakable intro to Elliott Smith's “Waltz #2” began over the Starbucks sound system, the slow rat-a-tat drum beat, the guitar strumming in three-quarter time, the piano joining the party, the crooning John Lennon-like voice finally filling the air with the song’s opening lyrics:

First the mike
Then a half cigarette
Singing "Cathy's Clown,"
That's the man
She's married to now
That's the girl that he takes around town

I sat up straight in my chair, ears straining toward the music. Omigod, I thought. That song. I haven't heard it in such a long time!

I'm never gonna know you now
But I'm gonna love you anyhow

Where had "Waltz #2"gone for so many years? Or was it there all along, living in the musicsphere and I simply didn't have the ears to hear it? Elliott Smith's stubborn sorrow resides in that song, all his pain and longing, his well of loneliness, his broken heart... and I had actually forgotten about it.
Yet now, at this very moment, it came back into my life and demanded that attention be paid. So I did... and the crazy lady, my laptop, my coffee, the other customers, the fact of Monday and my work simply evaporated. For a moment I couldn't even remember where I was headed once I left Starbucks. It was just me and the music, me and Elliott Smith, locked in a courtly embrace, waltzing through time and space. And, was it my imagination or had someone raised the volume on this song? It sounded loud, good loud but much louder than the previous songs, which I barely even heard. Perhaps one of the baristas also loved "Waltz #2" and pumped up the volume. The effect was holistic. I was surrounded by mournful melody, carried in a bubble of sadness that was oddly comforting.

A week has passed since that magical moment and I must have listened to "Waltz #2" seventy or eighty times. I have brooded over the candid disclosure: “Tell mister man with impossible plans/to just leave me alone/in the place where I make no mistakes/in the place where I have what it takes,” and wondered who was being addressed. His famously abusive stepfather? The world at large?

During this time, I also re-read all the newspaper accounts of Elliott Smith’s suicide and the theories behind it. I contemplated his cosmic despair. I wept over his photograph and the statement released by his family. I downloaded "Waltz #2" from Middle Babe's iTunes library, thereby freaking her out. ("What? That's MY favorite Elliott Smith song! You can't have it! You're a grown-up!") I have run on the elliptical trainer to it on an endless loop for 40 minutes, several times. My BlackBerry ring tone is now its chorus. I purchased the sheet music from and will be singing it this week with Mary Rodgers. And I am learning how to play it on the piano.

Am I obsessed with "Waltz #2?"

No doubt.

Have I indulged in an adolescent-like fixation regarding the artist, his music and its message?


But if "Waltz #2," or any song, can make crazy people disappear, can transport a fortysomething woman from the mundane reality of a Manhattan Monday into a magical realm of transcendent beauty, it is the truest kind of art and will live on forever.