Category Archives: Jewish

New Beginnings and Better Endings

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You don’t have to be Jewish to love the tradition of dipping apple slices into honey.  This Sunday night we celebrated the start of the Jewish New Year – a/k/a Rosh Hashanah (rosh = head; ha = the, shanah = year. thus endeth my Hebrew lesson.)

The custom of dipping apples into honey is to express our hopes for a healthy, sweet and fruitful new year. Since I’m way too old to be the fruitful in the biblical sense, I will settle for a sweet and healthy new year instead.

Unfortunately, the new year in my family has gotten off to a rocky start. My friend Liz reassures me that if your year starts off poorly, it can only get better. I am relying on her prognostication abilities.

Let me also take retract what I just said about not expecting this to be a fruitful year. Not in the sense of producing human offspring (now that would be a miracle) – but in the sense of producing another kind of product. You see, this fall I returned to school. Not just “taking a class” but I made the leap to  formally enroll – with the photo student I.D. to prove it – in a university graduate school program to “pursue” (such a lofty word) a M.A. in Writing.

I am thrilled to be back in school.

If only there had been a high-paying career called “student” where I could have earned a salary to go to class, do homework diligently and study hard for exams, I would have done that instead of becoming a lawyer. Studying is something I find fun. Learning is even better. And wow, am I learning.

The class I am taking is called “Techniques of Fiction”. What, I can hear you say, there are techniques involved in the writing of fiction? Yes there are. Moving right along in the syllabus from character, setting/place, plot and structure to scene v.s summary, point of view, voice, dialogue and description – and I am loving every classroom minute of it.

The great irony is that while I am taking a course in the writing of fiction, my real life seems to be blurring a bit into the territory of fiction. Or what I wish was fiction (e.g. events that really did not happen to me.)

My fabulous (she really is) professor told us that it is acceptable to steal from your real life to write fiction.

That seems like cheating to me. Although right now it seems appealing to base a short story or novel on deeply upsetting real life events where you get to change the way the characters behave, modify the plot and write a totally different ending. That would be a form of therapy, I guess.

But I don’t view writing fiction as therapy. I am taking this Fiction course in order to learn a craft, to become very good at it and to produce work that other people will want to read because it is well-written, not because it is an endless, Nancy-filled, woe-is-me-story.

We all have our problems, don’t we?

If you had looked at me last Saturday night when my husband and I attended the wedding of the daughter of a close friend, when we were dancing to every song the d.j. played, raising our hands in the air to the music and pretending we knew the words, you would likely have never guessed we were going through such rocky stuff in our non-dancing lives. The photos taken will no doubt prove I had a big smile on my face.

And I bet others on the wedding dance floor who were also smiling were doing so despite whatever personal difficulties they are enduring.

So here’s to a sweet, fruitful and healthy new year for all – whatever you celebrate – and also to the reading and writing of fiction.

Now back to my homework.

 

 

 

 

 

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“No Woman Is An Island” (Even When She Wants To Be)

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Twice last week I was reminded of the famous John Donne poem.

First, when I listened to President Obama use the phrase “No man is an island” while speaking before a U.K. audience alongside Prime Minister Cameron –  (and no matter what you or I may think about the foreign policy implications of “Brexit,” that word itself is fun to say.)

But I digress.

Second, when we read a stanza of the Donne poem in the Haggadah during our Passover Seder on Friday night. Friends put together a contemporary “Haggadah”  (the name for the Seder service telling the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.)  Modern versions of a Haggadah, like the one we read from last Friday, often include non-religious readings on the subjects of freedom and humanity.

Thus, we come to the British poet John Donne who in 1624 wrote, in part:

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent” – an ode to the connectedness of mankind (and womankind too.)

Yet sometimes connectedness can be over-rated  – as proved by my recent dreams about fleeing to a remote island where WiFi is unavailable .

Which is an odd thing, perhaps, to say for someone who is likely perceived by friends and family to be an “extrovert”, but lately I’ve had severe pangs of over-connection leading to fervent wishes to relocate to an island where no one can reach me.

(with the possible exceptions of weekly visits by my toddler and baby grandsons and the occasional conjugal visit from my husband.)

Or as Greta Garbo was to have said, “I want to be left alone.”

I think we all sometimes get to this stage – when we have given SO MUCH of ourselves to SO MANY PEOPLE that there is very little left and we just want to retreat and not hear, talk or write to anyone for a few days. Or maybe longer.

In my case it has been a confluence of the extraordinary neediness of a certain family member which has overwhelmed me, combined with having to deal with the many trivial “issues” that come up when trying to get a house ready to be sold. Too many demands, too long of a “to do” list and I long to cover my ears, hide my iPhone and escape.

Hence, the “island” metaphor. How good that looks to me at this moment.  Solo and selfish seems like a wonderful place to be.

And though we may want to run off with a small suitcase (for me, it would be very large, because I never have packed light and don’t intend to start soon) to a tropical island (or by a lake or near a mountain, you pick the scenery ) retreat where no one can:

  • irritate us with their ceaseless questions,
  • checks to be written,
  • deadlines to meet
  • calls to make
  • and responses to our emails that show us that they never bothered to read our initial email – for if they had read our first email with more care, they would not have responded with yet another dumb question…

(plea here: we have become a nation of skimmers. a bad thing! I urge you to read emails all the way through. with care. that will enhance our inter-personal communications. trust me on this.)

…we cannot really flee, because, yes, as Donne said, we are all inter-connected, on the same continent of life, and our personal relationships – even when they are mighty demanding – are what – in the end – hold us together and make us human.

So much for the island idea. I must comfort myself with the knowledge that we all go through these episodes of being overwhelmed by life’s demands.

Retreat isn’t the answer even if those tropical drinks with the little perky parasols (but who would be on the island to prepare and serve them to me?) do seem awfully appealing just about now.

 

 

 

 

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Words That Matter

“Woe to those who start a blog for their words may live forever.”

That’s a pretty snappy quote for one I just made up, don’t you think?

It came to me as I’ve been considering the wisdom – or the folly – of regularly putting my thoughts out there for all to read.

The other night my husband and I attended a memorial service for a relative of a friend who died too young.  The woman who died was in her 60’s, a highly regarded mental health professional, very active in her community and in her synagogue, known for her good deeds and exemplary behavior.

She received an unexpected diagnosis of a terminal illness and soon after started to blog which she kept up regularly until shortly before her death.

At her memorial service family members stood up at the front of the room, taking turns reading excerpts from her blog.  She wrote beautifully about coming to terms with her illness, making peace with her impending death and learning to accept the care she received from those she had previously cared for.

Her words were elegant, deeply felt and often profound. I’d never met her, but came to know her through what she wrote. I was struck by how she remained larger than life through her writing (a cliché somehow appropriate here) – finding meaning in her world as it narrowed as she grew sicker and sicker.

There I sat in on a folding chair in the living room of my friend’s house hearing words from someone else’s blog – and realizing their power.

After the service ended, my husband hugged me – and whispered in my ear – “Don’t worry, at your funeral, we won’t read from your blog.”

Was I supposed to be reassured?

I know he meant it kindly. He rightly guessed, that as I was listening to the speakers read the blog excerpts, I was thinking about what I write and how lighthearted it often is. How no one would confuse me with a deep thinker  – unlike the woman we were remembering at the memorial service.

Perhaps, if faced with the prospect of my own imminent death, my writing would take a turn towards the profound? More likely, however, I would be joking until the very end, putting off with humor what I would be afraid to face.

I am, as you may have guessed, the kind of person, who likes to laugh – loudly – at anything said at funerals that is remotely funny. I love it when family members and friends share humorous anecdotes about the person who died. Laughing breaks the tension, helps us cope with the loss.

And I come from a long line of funeral-laughers. At my paternal grandmother’s funeral – she of the sarcastic one-liner and critical eye – the rabbi lauded her as having a personality as sweet as the flower for which she was named – “Daisy”.  My father, knowing his mother far better than the rabbi did, turned to me and whispered – “the rabbi never met my mother. sweet she was not.” Yes, I laughed aloud at my grandmother’s funeral. (Perhaps a possible title for my yet-to-be-written-autobiography?”)

Maybe I should have cautioned the students in my Blogging 101 class that the words they will write in their blogs-to-be might have unexpected permanence?

I loved teaching this workshop and in true Sally Field fashion, was touched by the appreciative notes my students sent me last week after the final class. A dose of humor while leading a Blogging 101 class is appropriate. And if when the words flow, the humor naturally flows with it, that is appropriate too.

Yet I am still thinking about the words I heard at the memorial service. No humor there. Perhaps looking towards death took the humor right out of her system. Or perhaps the woman who died wasn’t a very funny person to start with. Instead of being semi-envious of her ability to create meaning from the most serious of circumstances, I should just accept that we all cope in different ways with tragedy.

Still I hope my husband is right. That no one thinks it is a good idea to read out loud from my blog at my funeral or memorial service. But if they do, please laugh, loud and often if you happen to be in attendance. Think of me, floating away on a cloud somewhere, chuckling along with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Last French Fry”: A Meeting of the Minds and Palates for Valentine’s Day

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I had another post all ready to go for today, but then realized that Valentines’ Day is this Sunday. Luckily, the wonderful women in my DC writers’ group liked a recent essay I wrote about the meeting of the minds and palates that led to my long marriage. They urged me to share it with the readers of my blog. So I’m posting it here. WARNING: It’s very food-centric and may pique your appetite; perhaps you should eat a delicious snack of your choice before reading it.

The Last French Fry

 

I blame my parents for my love of fried food

My Mom died when I was 28 and my Dad is now 93 years old and no longer eats fried food, with or without his false teeth in place. Except when we travel from DC to visit him in Connecticut. Then for old times’ sake, even though we all acknowledge it is not half as good as it once was, a fact which does not deter us, we drive to our favorite place, Rawleys, the old hot dog stand with the wooden booths on the Post Road where locals patiently stand in long lines to eat deep-fried hot dogs. We order with “the works” for my Dad, with “light mustard and onions” for me and with “chili and onions” for my husband. And two large orders of French fries, please.

I always fight over who gets the last French fry.

It is not that I am overly-attached to French fries. It is that I never used to eat the last French fry. For many years I meticulously avoided eating the last of anything, the last cookie on the plate, the last slice of pizza, the last chip in the bag.

My Mom told me that eating the last of anything meant I would become an old maid. A spinster. Unlikely to wed. She shared this bit (among many others) of folk wisdom of unknown origin with me when I was in my vulnerable teens and I took it quite to heart. It was not likely I would be without a husband since I was, from age 13 on, perhaps due to my large breasts, never without a boyfriend in tow. But I studiously refused to eat the last of any food item. Just in case.

When I met Jim, my husband-to-be, at a mixer in our dorm’s courtyard on the first night of international relations grad school, I tried to impress him with my sophisticated tastes.

I pretended to knowledge of foreign films I did not have and acted like I understood his position on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. I did not want to let on that I regularly watched low-brow shows on TV to relax, read murder mysteries set in cozy British villages for the same reason and relished all fried foods. He thought he had met an intellectual, highly cultured young woman raised in an upscale suburban town. The part about the upscale suburban town was true.

On one of our first dates he set about to impress me with his high-brow interests. He took me to the Brattle Street theatre in Cambridge to see one of his favorite films – the painfully long, classic black & white 1938 Russian drama “Alexander Nevsky” which told the stirring tale of a 13th century battle on the icy steppes of Siberia. As giant horses and costumed Cossacks galloped on the screen, I feigned interest and glanced frequently yet discreetly, I hoped, at my watch.

After the film finally ended, he steered me to a Cambridge cafe he had found earlier that day. For all of Jim’s lofty talk about Eastern European politics and his multiple language abilities, he did not know how to read restaurant menus very well.

Only after we sat down did he discover that the menu he had seen outside the restaurant had been for lunch only. When the waiter handed us dinner menus with their significantly higher prices, I saw him wince. It was then I learned he was a scholarship student from a working class family.

The lunch menu he could afford; the dinner menu was well beyond his budget. I offered to go 50/50 on the check, an arrangement well suited to my 1970’s era feminist policies. And thus our long-term dating and dining relationship was born.

We both liked talking about international affairs (I acknowledged to his delight that he had the more in-depth knowledge), but when it came to eating ethnic cuisine, our palates were on equal footing. It had not gone unnoticed by me that ethnic cuisine offered many varieties of fried food. Somehow it was less guilt-inducing to indulge in fried food if it originated in another country.

As we continued to date through our first year of grad school, we frequented inexpensive restaurants of every ethnic stripe in the Boston area – Greek, Mexican, Sushi, Szechuan and Thai. When those became too tame for us, we ventured further out to Armenian neighborhoods to sample lahmajuns, to Korean communities to eat kimchi and to an Indonesian café to taste nasi goreng.

One of the reasons that Jim liked me, or liked eating with me, which was almost the same thing, given how often we dined out or carried in, was that I talked far too much. I talked more than I ate. He figured this out early on and took advantage of my garrulousness.

While I was busy chatting, he would nod his head, appear to be listening closely to me, but actually was aiming his fork at my plate of half-eaten Kung Pao Chicken, spearing a piece or two or three as I blabbed on. It was only after we had been together for about six months that I realized half of my dinner was regularly disappearing into his mouth. By that time, I was so besotted with him that I didn’t care.

When Jim was introduced to my Mom, she fell in love with him too. In part because he was an adventurous eater, but more so because he was always willing to share his dessert with her. When we visited them in Connecticut, my parents took us to their favorite French restaurant where Jim enjoyed moules Biarritz and the restaurant’s signature, Grand Marnier soufflé (order 25 minutes in advance please) for the first time.

Jim impressed both my Dad and Mom as a thoughtful person and a well-mannered eater. However, when he asked the waiter for mayonnaise to put on his tongue sandwich during a lunch at my parents’ mostly-Jewish country club, my Dad’s eyebrows raised high with disapproval.

It took us nearly four years to gain my Dad’s approval, and to realize that despite our religious and socioeconomic differences, our shared food palate would unite us forever. After we got engaged, my Mom gladly set about finding a caterer who would offer a menu to suit the tastes of both our families.

The ceremony was set for 12:30 p.m. rather than noon, because, according to another bit of obscure folk wisdom courtesy of my Mom, it was luckier to marry when the hands of the clock were on the upswing. On a lovely day in late May in the backyard of my family’s house, we toasted with Greek metaxa whiskey sours, dined under a big striped yellow tent on spanakopitas, gazpacho andaluz and coulibiac of salmon and then danced the Jewish hora and the Macedonian horo in circles around the dance floor.

There was nary a French fry in sight at our wedding reception. But then I didn’t have to worry about biting into that last fry anymore. And, luckily, 37 years later I still don’t.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

 

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Gift Giving and Gift Getting: “I’m not hard to buy a gift for, really I’m not.”

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I spotted a bright blue bag semi-hidden on a chair in our dining room earlier this morning.  Frothy bits of tissue paper erupted from its’ top. It must be another Hanukkah gift! How fun, I thought, my husband, JP, is going to surprise me tonight – on the 8th and last night of the holiday with an unexpected extra gift.

Hanukkah is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. We light candles, say the blessings, sing songs and celebrate with friends and family. As adults, we exchange small gifts only on the first night.

So what could this extra surprise gift be? I told myself I should wait until he gets home from work. But curiosity often (always?) gets the best of me and I walked over to the bright blue bag. I’m not proud to admit this, but I rumbled through the tissue paper to get a peek.

And what did I find inside the bag?

A kit of prescription preparation supplies for JP’s colonoscopy scheduled for later this week.

Another gift search foiled, serves me right.

I could go all treacly here and say how wonderful it is that my husband remembers (after numerous post-it note prodding by yours truly) to have regular health check-ups and that the real gift will be his news that the colonoscopy went well. All clear, I hope the doctor tells him later this week, no more unpleasant details needed, please.

But instead the dashed expectations of the bright blue bag made me think of my own less than satisfactory history as a gift recipient. Which puzzles me because, all modesty aside, I am both easy to buy for and a truly great gift giver.

Known among family and friends as a “good picker”, I have an eye for that special gift. Like the customized cross-word puzzle I gave my Dad with personalized clues based on his own life history. The perfect vintage poodle print for my friend Liz. The hand-created framed collage I made for JP, then my boyfriend, featuring creative images from the early days of our courtship.

That was also the year that my future-husband-to-be reciprocated by giving me a set of metal nail clippers in a red leatherette case. A few seasons later his Hanukkah gift was a heavy flannel nightgown sporting delicate white eyelet ruffles at its’ high neck. There was also the time he gave me huge, hideously dangling, bright orange fan-shaped earrings.

And when I turned sixty, my closest friends hosted a small dinner for me after which I eagerly opened their gifts. Skin cream. Hand cream. A gift certificate for a facial. More moisturizer. Another hand cream.

So this is how I am perceived: As someone who needs help cutting her nails, likes to dress in the image of an American pioneer woman while sleeping, enjoys wearing large flashy earrings and has very, very, very, very dry skin.

All untrue! Shouldn’t my husband and friends know me better?

You can attribute nice motives to each gift giver, of course.  The nail clipper set proved useful. The nightgown was intended to keep me warm. The earrings were handmade, purchased at a favorite crafts fair.  And while my skin is well-kept, thank you, I do have a known weakness for creams and lotions that smell of lavender. So points there.

Perhaps the real point of the bright blue bag colonoscopy supplies episode is that reality intrudes even during the happiest of gift-giving seasons.

This year it was our two-year old grandson who received from us – in my humble opinion – the most thoughtful Hanukkah gift of all. A relatively inexpensive toy kitchen which we quickly discovered was reasonably priced because it had been falsely labeled as “easy to assemble”. The 75 lb. box was delivered to our door by a brawny UPS guy last week.

Inside the box we found a 16 page booklet of visual-only instructions, 42 separately numbered particle-board and plastic pieces and 104 (I counted) small screws and bolts encased in individual plastic bags.

With my minor assistance, JP completed the kitchen in four plus hours which included much cursing and “whose idea was this” grumbles. But so worth it when our grandson’s eyes lit up when he saw his very own faux stainless steel refrigerator, oven, stove and dishwasher ensemble – including a non-working kitchen faucet and painted-on subway-tile backsplash.

This week while our grandson is busy stirring painted wood food inside tiny pots and pans on his new-four-burner stove, my husband will be busy shall we say, modifying his diet (again, no unpleasant details needed) in “anticipation” of his upcoming colonoscopy.

Celebrations, holidays, spending time with family always coincide with reality. Getting gifts we may not like. Giving gifts we hope our recipients love. And waiting on the news of the one gift always high on our getting older wish list, one you cannot assemble, construct or purchase –  good health.

 

 

 

 

 

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Speaking of Hilarious Humor on a Serious Subject

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Friends in high places? I have exactly one. She is a top political reporter for a national newspaper and I am lucky to count her as a good friend.

Three of the best things about her are:

  •  she lives in my neighborhood
  •  she is a very generous person &
  •  she appreciates my sense of humor.

One night a few years ago, when we were sitting in her family room, as she had her ever-present iPad on her lap, following along on social media (reporters are allowed to do this at all times), she looked up at me and said:

Nancy, you know, you should be on Twitter. You’re funny!  You have a lot to say. You should start a Twitter account.”

Now you have to understand this was said by someone who currently has (I just checked) 56,300 followers on Twitter!  People follow my friend because she is astounding insightful on all things political, but also because she is very generous in sharing the work of others.

Plus she has a wicked sense of humor. Which is extremely hard to do in a maximum of 144 characters,

I thought sure, why not give this a try, I love to communicate, to stay on top of the news, Twitter will be fun. Just after I created my account, my friend tweeted to her thousands of followers, something like:

Be sure to follow @_nwolf, new on twitter and very funny”

Within a matter of hours, I had nearly 1,000 Twitter followers!  And then within a matter of days I had nearly lost them all.

Why?

Because being funny on Twitter is an art form I could not master. As soon as my friend told her twitterverse to pay attention to me, her funny friend, my sense of 144-character-driven humor disappeared.

Since then I’ve figured that my sense of humor comes through better when I speak than when I write. Not that everyone gets  my sense of humor. Some do not.

Humor like cilantro or olives, is an acquired taste. You either enjoy it right away or sniff in distaste and never come back. I happen to love both cilantro and olives; you may not.

And oddly enough my sense of humor really shines through when I talk about difficult topics.

A few years ago I gave a talk about the parenting of teens and young adults with mental illness to a roomful of Jewish clergy at a DC area organization. The rabbis wanted to know to respond when a congregant with a troubled kid came to them for advice. What did they need to know about awareness, stigma and support?

I launched into my tale of my experience as a parent, laced with insights from the many families I’d gotten to know while I was leading the parents’ support group (“parents of young adults who struggle”) I founded at my synagogue.

My audience nodded appreciatively as I spoke, laughed often. When I finished, one of the rabbis came up to shake my hand, and said something like –

Thank you so much for your candor and helpfulness; you really have a knack for being hilarious when talking about mental illness.”

I smiled, said thank you but as I was driving home, suddenly thought, what did he say? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be funny when speaking about such a serious subject?

I decided it was a good thing. Humor can often reach people in a way that solemn speech cannot.

Ever since then I’ve tried to talk about “mental health” (which everyone has, even your dog or cat) and “mental illness” (a diagnosable medical condition which everyone does not have, but some do) in a relatable way.

To carry the message that mental illness is a disease of the brain – you can think of it as a broken brain. You’d go to a doctor and easily find the appropriate care if you break your ankle (as I did 3 weeks ago), but when you have a broken brain, it is inexplicably much harder to find the right treatment. (and to stick with it.)

When is the last time you saw someone stigmatized because of a broken ankle?

(I thought so.)

If in February, 2016, you find yourself in or near Marin County in northern California,  I am thrilled to tell you that I will be speaking there at a reform synagogue about young adult mental health and mental illness. Fair warning that what I will likely say will not be solemn or serious but it will be heartfelt.

And in case you are as fascinated by the connections we make on social media, I have not given up on Twitter.

You can follow me @_nwolf  – where I tweet about books, college, mental health, parenting, women’s issues and other topics that strike my fancy.

Just don’t expect to laugh out loud when you read my tweets. For reasons I am still trying to comprehend, my funniest moments come when I am talking about the most serious of subjects.

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