Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Stephen Sondheim taught me about blogging

Never Done: Stephen Sondheim and Tony Kushner in conversation
Tshuve: Paperwhite narcissus are blooming and fragrant on the kitchen table

I had been looking forward to it for weeks. Months, actually. My favorite playwright talking with one of the greatest lyricists of all time. Produced by the Public Theater. It was one of those events I live in New York for. Until it happened. Sure, Kushner was charming and funny. And Sondheim was honest and obliging. But it was not, as it was billed, two masters of the theater talking about their craft. It was ... dare I say this about these two heroes of mine? ... actually quite banal.

I have head Tony Kushner speak many times, and have met him many times as well. I think he is brilliant, insightful, and warm, with an uncanny ability to be as brilliant as he is without making other people feel less so. I adore that trait in people, and know very few who embody it. I have never seen Stephen Sondheim speak, and I have never met him, so I really didn't know what to expect out of him. Except that I did expect something, because the billing and the introduction both indicated that the two men would be discussing their craft.

Instead, Tony interviewed Stephen about his book. Sondheim recently released his book called Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes. Kushner had read it, and prompted Sondheim to tell anecdotes from the book, which while sometimes entertaining, are ... in the book. Which we can read. Which wasn't what I went there to hear.

When I start a new blog post, I often don't know where I'm headed. Today I find myself in the middle, feeling strange that I am criticizing this conversation between two artists I respect so deeply, and unclear about what I want to say about it. I just remembered that I wrote some things down during the Kushner-Sondheim conversation, which means that there must have been something I found interesting enough to write down. So I went to get the paper where I took notes, and amazingly, perfectly ... what I wrote down was that Sondheim did give one piece of technique advice. He said that since song form is so short, your job as a lyricist is to be surprising, but not too dense -- because people have to get it the first (and often only) time they hear it. He then went on to say that he usually writes the last thought -- or line -- of the song he is writing at the bottom of the page, so he can see where he is heading.

I should just end there, right? And make it seem like I planned it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I bought an iPhone app

Never Done: Paid for an iPhone App

I know. I said I wouldn't do it. I said I had to draw the line somewhere.
I said if I bought one, I would start buying them all the time. I said only free apps. I even sounded self righteous about it. I know.

And then I went and bought one. OK, actually, I bought two. But it's not really like I bought two, because they were created by the same person, and one is the second version of the first. Really, I'm not defensive, really, I'm not.

I bought Yiddish for Kids: Alef Beys (alphabet) and Yiddish for Kids 2: Verter (words.) I always get confused by the letters kof, khof, khes, tof, and sof. When I read Yiddish, I tend to give up on those letters, and see if I can figure the word out from context. I usually can't, because those words are usually Hebraic words, which I have very little reference for. I can usually figure out the Yiddish words I don't know if they come from German or French, or even the Slavic words. But the loshn koydesh words
(literally, the Holy Tongue) -- the ones that come from Hebrew -- are completely foreign to me, and they also tend to be the ones with the letters that confuse me the most.

So my hope is that this little app will keep me from giving up. Remember when I wrote about going running, and all of a sudden realizing that I wasn't running anymore, without having decided to stop? And then realizing that I had stopped because I had had a negative thought of some sort (usually disconnected from running) which had made me give up? Well, the letters
kof, khof, khes, tof, and sof are like negative thoughts that make me stop reading Yiddish.

Josh is reading a short story by Chaim Grade right now, who was a brilliant Yiddish writer, and also a Mussarnik. Ever since he told me that Chaim Grade is a Mussar guy, I've been wanting to read him myself, but I read so painstakingly slowly that I haven't gone for it. It goes like this: I read so slowly, sounding out the words as I go, that by the time I get to the end of a paragraph, I've forgotten the beginning. I know that the way to get better is to do it. I used to do it -- back when I took lots of Yiddish courses, 12-15 years ago. I surely have the mental capacity to do it. It would be good for me to summon the patience to do it. And now that I have the iPhone app to help me with those tough letters, is there really any excuse?

I'll put it on a list of things I've never done: read a Yiddish short story on my own, not part of an assignment.

Also, I've never gone to Ikea.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I'm in hot water now

Never Done: Russian Baths in Brooklyn

I love water.
I love cold water. I love hot water. I love drinking water. I love swimming in water. I love oceans. I love rivers. I love lakes. I love waterfalls. I love swimming pools. I love baths. I love showers. I love natural hot springs. I love hot tubs. I even love rain. And snow. And hail.

I have been many times to the Russian and Turkish baths on the Lower East Side, and I've been to Spa Castle in Queens, and I've been to most of the hippie hot tubs and natural hot springs in Oregon. But I'd never gone to the shvitz in Brooklyn. Until now. You won't be surprised to hear that I loved it.

I went with Rimma, Dana, and Dara B. to Sandoony USA Russian Style Banya, on McDonald Ave and Avenue I, either in Midwood or Kensington, depending on who you ask. It's completely unpretentious and easy-going, with plastic tables and chairs interspersed with the hot tub, the cold plunge, and the cool pool, which are all in a central area, surrounded by three saunas, a steam room, and a restaurant where you can get dried fish, pickled fish, smoked fish, salads, meat dishes, potatoes, potatoes, and potatoes. And potatoes. And beer. And hot tea with cherry preserves. And green tarragon soda. And honey to rub into your skin while you're in the steam bath. And people of many body types walking around in bathing suits and sheep felt hats to keep their head from overheating in the sauna, but I don't understand that; it seems more like it would help retain the heat from the sauna and keep your wet head warm when you are not in the sauna, but what do I know? And potatoes. It is so not American, and I loved it.

I even remembered to say the Shehekhianu when I got into the hot tub. Maybe I remembered because it felt ritualistic to get into the hot water, and maybe I remembered because this had been on my list of things I'd never done, and wanted to, for years. The
Shehekhianu, because I haven't written about it since the very first post of My Mussar Year, is the blessing that Jews say when we experience something for the first time, or for when we celebrate a ritual for the first time this year.

Baruch ata Adonai Elohenu, melekh ha'olam, shehekhianu, v'kimanu, v'higianu, lazman hazeh.
Praised be you, Adonai, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day.

It's such a simple prayer, and for someone like me, who doesn't believe in God, it's such an easy one to embrace, because I believe that so many people and factors other than myself contribute every day to keeping me alive, preserving me, and enabling me to reach this day -- most of all, friends and water, in whose relaxed company I spent the entire day.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Some things are better left unsaid

Never Done: Pitched my politics to a movie star

You don't run into famous movie stars at post-Thanksgiving parties in the other places I've lived. Or at Passover seders. You do in New York. Well, I do. Or, I have. I just did. Not that it's better one way or another. It's just true. I was at one of my favorite parties of the year -- Pat, Dan, and Amanda's annual day-after Thanksgiving leftovers party which always rocks wonderful food and people. (Tshuve!) The food is a combination of the leftovers people don't want and food they bring just for the party. The people are usually an assortment of heady radicals and arty types. I always have deep and fun conversations with new people at this party, which is pretty much my definition of a great party.

I had a conversation with a woman that contextualized a traumatic event that happened to me in Sri Lanka in 1984. I have told the story to many people before, but never to someone who has been able to offer me any insight. I didn't even have to tell this woman the details, and she was able to offer me an analysis of power, culture, and silence specific to that time and place in Sri Lanka's history. I then told her details about the most important political lesson I learned there (about the role of allies during wartime and other political struggle) and she validated it and personalized it for me -- by telling me what was happening for her family at that same political moment.

I hesitate to write what happened, but am nudged to do so by this week's Mussar mide (middah), or character trait: Truth: Say nothing unless you are 100% sure it is true. And for me, since there are so many true things that I tend to keep quiet, I think I will be thinking this week about telling things that are true, even if they are awkward and uncomfortable. And awkward. Also, I have been feeling a little strange in this blog that I mostly write about things I haven't yet done in my life, and that I don't write extensively about things I have done. So ....
I studied Buddhism and Anthropology in college, and I took a semester abroad in Kandy, Sri Lanka, at the University of Peradinaya. I studied Theravada Buddhism, Sinhala language, Social, Economic, and Political History, and had an independent field study. During the field work, I went to the home of the relative of the man who ran the program. The relative was a traditional astrologer, and had agreed to allow me to shadow his work and interview him for 3 weeks. This never happened. Instead, he isolated me from the outside world while never leaving me alone at the house, and sexually threatened me. By that time in my life, at 21, I had been sexually assaulted more than once, both as a teenager and also as a little girl, and this threat really scared me. I don't remember much else from being there, except that he also red baited me for being a Jew, and gloated when Ronald Reagon won his re-election in 1984.

I ended up escaping with the help of the two young girls who worked there, and then walked 20 miles, alone, on small rural roads, back to Kandy, where, when I told the people in my program, they didn't believe me, and didn't set me up with an alternative place to stay. I figured out to stay for a few days at the YWCA before I thought to contact a family I knew from AFS (American Field Service) -- the exchange program I had been on just out of high school. This family took me in immediately, and not only made me feel welcome, safe, and at home, but also allowed me to shadow and interview them in their work: maternal and child welfare.
I don't think I told my parents any of these details -- only that I was going to stay with this kind family of doctors.

While I was at these people's home, the civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority flared, with increased attacks on and by both Tamil and Sinhalese people. The family I was then with was Tamil, and they were part of an extensive network of Tamil and ally Sinhalese families who let each other know when police mobs were coming to attack Tamil homes. (Important political lesson about the role of allies during political struggle.)

The family I had fled, and the people who neither believed nor helped me, were Sinhalese, and the family that took me in was Tamil. For 25 years now I have refused to assign any political or cultural significance to those facts -- and maintained that it was coincidence, and not a commentary on Sinhalese or Tamil people or cultures. And yet there's always been a political context lurking behind these events that I couldn't parse. Then at the post-Thanksgiving day party, I met someone who could offer me the context I've been grasping for for 25 years. Context that shed light on the university I was at, where the leftist student movement was in the process of being co-opted into a stool pigeon for the government. Context that let me see how in that political moment at that university, silence was power and power was silence. Context that let me see how the program I was in, which was formed without political aim or ambition on the part of the Eastern Studies programs in the States, was also vulnerable to cooption by people with political aim. Context that will allow me to go back and actually break the isolation of that period in my life.
All this in a conversation with someone I had never met before. That's the kind of party it was.

There was also a movie star at the party -- a shy, 20-something New York-based superstar, who is the son of Dan's close work colleague. Dan introduced us, and asked me to give them all the JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) elevator pitch. Which I did. An interesting and awkward conversation ensued, about the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, before we all transitioned into other conversations. Later, I considered asking the young actor if he was interested in being in a 30-second spot that Josh and I are about to shoot for Center for New Community, to combat anti-immigrants who are co-opting the environmental movement to spread their hate and bigotry. Without knowing his politics or his comfort with using his celebrity for civic engagement,
I wasn't sure I wanted to ask. I checked it out with Dan, to see what he, the host with the personal connection, thought. He encouraged me to ask. So I did, and the movie star and I had a second interesting and awkward conversation -- as it turned out, about how and why to use celebrity for a political cause, which is something he is trying to figure out for himself. (I think he's leaning away from doing our project with us, and I actually think he's right to be, but if he does decide to do it, I'll of course tell you all who it is. Otherwise, we'll leave him his privacy.) Then I loved what happened next. Another woman who I had just met suggested that we contact Leonardo DiCaprio, who has an environmental foundation, which is actually an even better idea. (Except for the fact that he does not live in Chelsea, and I am not likely to run into him at a party.)

So, it was a really good party. I haven't even told you about the feminist author, the Psychology Today editor, the internationally acclaimed recording artist, the social worker, the historian, the woman who works for the World Bank, the people who work for foundations, the people who used to work at foundations, or the young people who I can't reduce to their occupations. Or the food. Especially the cannoli. But I see that my version of telling the truth takes time, and if I want to get to the rest of my day, there are some things that are better left unsaid.

So many things I've still never done

Never Done: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Big Balloon Blow-Up the night before

And they will have to stay on my list for next year, because I still have never done them. I actually meant to go to the big balloon blow-up this year, but I completely forgot to. (I didn't mean to go to the Parade.) Instead I spend a wonderful day with Andy, Jesse, Erez, Lucas, Josh, John, and Andy's Aunt Betty (all people I've spent Thanksgiving with before) as well as with Cindy, Mark, Marcio, Betty, and Steve (never done.)

I did do a few other things I have never done (unpacked the rest of my clothes from my move 6 weeks ago; took a Thanksgiving run in Prospect Park; made whipped mashed potatoes; bought paper white narcissus with Jesse that had not yet opened (because it felt more hopeful than the alternative, which was to buy some that were in bloom but just past their prime) only to see them actually open on the dinner table, during dessert.

But rather than write about any of this, it seems like the right day to list some of the things on my big list of things that I've never done, most of which I hope to do this year, some of which I hope to do before I am 50, and some of which I never hope to do.

Go to the Upright Citizen's Brigade
Kayak on the Hudson

Have a child

Get a tattoo

Have a community garden plot

Win one of those ice cream naming contests

Get married (I have never wanted to do this)

Ride a roller coaster (this either)

Travel to Corsica

Get fluent in Spanish

Make a duct tape dress
Join a book group

Drink absinthe

Sing in the Sing Along Messiah

Go to the World Series
Shoot a gun
Complete a mini triathalon
(I don't think this is feasible/wise for my body)
Go out on a lobster boat

Cook duck

Go a day without swearing

Sleep in past noon, not sick

Consult a street psychic

Go to the top of the Empire State Building

Visit all 50 states
(I am pretty sure the only states I have never been to are Alabama, Michigan, Texas, and Hawaii)
Attend a cotillion

Submit to/ be a finalist in/win the New Yorker caption contest

Grow rice

Give an injection
Go on a game show
Make a pinhole camera

Invent retractable ear buds

Create a mini golf hole on Governor’s island

See a puffin

Learn how to sew a zipper

Go to Kripalu

Visit all my Facebook friends

Sponsor a refugee

Have my big birthmark on my shoulder removed

Join a synagogue

Sell a screenplay (I am in negotiations right now...)

If you want to do one of these with me, please do join me. I
especially can't invent retractable ear buds on my own.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

You can substitute yoghurt, but what the hell

Never Done: Wore my mother's clothes around all day
Tshuve: Made cranberry sauces with the cranberries I picked earlier this Fall in Maine

When I took out my mother's cranberry sauce recipes this year, I started to miss her and our particular closeness more than usual. My mom was the kind of person who just couldn't hide her personality. Take a look at the recipes that she sent me on November 22, 1995, and you'll see her personality even shines through here, when she writes about salt and sour cream:

Nana's Cranberry Conserve
Cook until the berries pop:
1 lb cranberries, washed
1/2 c. orange juice
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt*
1 c. chopped nuts
1 chopped, seeded orange, peel and all

That's it. Chill and serve. The salt is essential: it replaces a whole nother cup of sugar in the original recipe. In other words, if you want to leave it out, you have to increase the sugar.

Susan Stamberg's Mother-in-Law's Cranberry Relish
Process in the cuisi, or chop very very fine, 2 c. cranberries, 1 small onion

Mix in 1/2 c. sugar, 2 tbs. or more horseradish, 3/4 c. sour cream (you can substitute yoghurt, but what the hell)
Freeze it. When you're ready to serve it, defrost it (don't let it get all warm, though) and whip it. Keep it cold.

So there I was, first thing in the morning, reading these recipes and full of missing my mom. When I went to get dressed, it sort of just happened. I saw her favorite striped t-shirt in my drawer, and decided to put it on. And then I saw her favorite sporty blue sweater, and decided to wear that too. I don't have many of her clothes, but I do have a few other things: an amazing brocade gown that she had made, that fits me like a glove, and a sweater she knit herself. I also have several sweaters, scarves, and even a blanket that she knit for me, but I was on a different path. The pièce de résistance
was -- and this isn't actually as gross as it sounds -- a pair of her undies. Why do I have a pair of her undies? Because they are really nice and she never wore them.

In the last years of my mom's life, she had a list of things she couldn't find. The list included a black nightie, some blue underpants, and her family bible -- the one with everyone's birth and death dates in it. She was really upset about the bible. We looked everywhere for it. Everyone she knew knew that she couldn't find the black nightie, the blue undies, and the family bible. Then one year at our annual Christmas gift swap, I drew her name. Detour: many of my Jewish relatives have married non-Jews: Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, so we have a big family Christmas celebration. We did a gift swap in which we each chose one person's name, and that's who we gave a present to that year. For years, we drew names for our Christmas swap out of a bowl at the end of the Passover seder. So this particular year, I drew my mom. I bought her a beautiful black nightie, a new bible, and a pair of super-comfortable, surprisingly good-looking Ed Hardy underpants. She never got a chance to wear the underpants, and I, not being one to let designer gatkes go to waste, took them back. (Right after my mom died, I was going through boxes of photos to find something good for her obituary, and I found the family bible amidst the photos. It must have gotten mixed in after one Passover, when the family would sometimes look through photos together. It was the first of many times that I desperately wished could tell her something.)

So I put on the Ed Hardy undies too. And here are all the things I did in her clothes: I worked. I made cranberry sauces. I went to a matinée performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession with my friend Tara, and afterwards, when I made my annual donation to Broadway Cares, Cherry Jones thanked me and shook my hand warmly. (Never Done!) I picked up my Pieathon pie. (I never made it over there the other day) and dropped it off at Andy and Jesse's. I went to the library and borrowed two copies of the libretto of Handel's Messiah (for the upcoming Messiah Sing-In at Lincoln Center, which I've always wanted to do, and have also never done.) I came home, made dinner, and dropped, exhausted, on the couch because I've been awake during the nights -- a victim of my upstairs neighbors decision to move furniture til the wee hours. In fact, I'm writing this post at 4:30 AM, after being awakened at 2 AM. (At 2:30 AM, I went upstairs, but their Van Morrison music was so loud they couldn't hear me knock. So I slipped a note under their door, asking them to please stop moving furniture. But by then I was wide awake, and none of the usual tricks would do the trick. So I here I am. But I digress.)

How did it feel to spend a day in my mother's clothes? It felt like remembering in a sweet but not sad way. I think it's true to say that a day doesn't go by when I don't think of my mom and wish I could talk with her, but this felt steadier, and not tied to a longing. I was wearing her favorite sporty blue sweater. She wore it a lot, so every time I caught a glimpse of it on me, I caught a memory glimpse of her. So I guess this thing I have never done before really led me to tshuve, to return, to remember Ann Levison.*

*That was going to be end of the post, but when I decided to link to her obituary, and I saw the photo, I saw that the t-shirt she is wearing in the photo is the t-shirt I wore all day. What can I say, except Shehekhianu.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It takes time to make a family

Never Done: Applied for a replacement Social Security card

One of the things I really really really don't like about living in New York is dealing with New York bureaucracy. So it was with great trepidation that I went to the Social Security Bureau to apply for a replacement card. First thing I encountered was a metal detector, three security guards, and a woman going off. "Fuck you! I'm not taking off my fucking jacket? Why the fuck ... you mother fuckers! I have a right to wear my jacket into the building!" She tried to go through the detector without taking off her jacket, and one of the guys had to restrain her. Her limbs flailed like she was a three-year-old in a tantrum, and she tore at the buttons on her jacket, ripped it off, flung it on the conveyor belt, screamed a few more swears, and practically ran through the metal detector. When it didn't go off, she turned and swore some more, as if not setting off the metal detector was some proof that she should have been able to wear her jacket. Throughout this all, the three guards kept their cool, and I became incredibly subdued.

I found myself redefining myself in contrast to that woman. I became a very good girl (and I use the word girl purposefully here.) "Do you want me to take off my sweater?" "Yes sir." "
Thank you." I wanted to make those guards' jobs easier. I also wanted to take the whole scene down a notch. When I finally made it through, and got on the elevator to go up to the social security office, I realized I had instantly reverted into my childhood modus operandi: I will make everything better by becoming good. By becoming a blank slate. No feelings. No needs.

Except that of course I did have feelings and needs -- both growing up, and also in the line to get into the social security building. But the woman had so completely redefined me that I didn't notice that until many hours later, after I had already smiled obsequiously at the guard handing out the tickets I needed to get in line, and waited for 15 minutes waiting for an agent to take my paperwork, eating my sandwich while silently worrying that it might be against the rules to eat my sandwich, or that it might be bothering someone that I was eating my sandwich. Bothering someone? The guy behind me was playing a video game with the speakers full on, and I was afraid someone might not like the smell of cucumbers and oat bread? The woman who took my paperwork laughed with her co-worker the whole time she did my paperwork, while only saying the bare minimum to me in the ten minutes we spent together: "Receipt, form, and ID." "Two weeks in the mail."
I smiled, thanked her, and told her I hoped she had a good long weekend. I was so grateful that she was not a bureaucratic jerk to me that I didn't notice until later that she was basically a bureaucratic jerk to me.

Where do I go? How do I become so concerned with making everything run smoothly that I erase myself? It's not like I was in the Social Security office to get my emotional needs met, but really? I was so eclipsed that I was afraid my sandwich would be a bother? It seems poetic that this happened in the office of the institution that literally reduces us to a nine-digit number, but the truth is, this can happen to me anywhere. And the other truth is, if I haven't kicked it by now, it's gonna take something pretty huge to help me kick it. And guess why I was in line for a replacement card? For my adoption application. Wah wah wah. (That was a "something pretty huge" sound effect.)

Nobody kicks your shit like a kid kicks your shit. And from what I hear, no kid kicks it like a teenager kicks it. And from what I hear, no teen kicks it like an adopted teen kicks it. If this all works out and I do get to adopt an older child, one of my jobs is going to be to teach them how to take up space in the world. One of their jobs is going to be to find my weak spots and push push push. One of my jobs is going to be to hold my ground and provide boundaries for them. One of their jobs is going to be to find my weak spots and push push push. One of my jobs is going to be to balance my needs against the needs of the whole family. One of their jobs is going to be to find my weak spots and push push push.

On the way to get my replacement Social Security card, I spoke on the phone with the woman who leads my adoption prep classes. I told her where I was going, and that I was about to fill in all the paperwork. She reminded me not to rush -- that it takes time to build a family. When she said it, I thought that made sense, but in a sort of theoretical way. But the fact is, every step I take in the process teaches me something that I am going to need to know in order to be a good parent. I never thought I'd say this, but thank you, New York bureaucracy, for teaching me to be a better parent.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Never Done: Pieathon

My friend Nina Calloway just baked pies for 24 hours straight, to raise money for CancerCare. Both her parents died of cancer (as did mine) and she decided to honor them in this wonderful, creative way.

Actually, I think she baked for longer than 24 hours. She had a team of support people to help her stay focused and fed, and to help her stay in touch with the outside world, but she otherwise innovated and executed this amazing feat on her own. So why am I claiming it as a Never Done activity of my own? Because Nina was thoughtful enough to make the Pieathon interactive and participatory.

I sponsored Nina by buying a Sugar Cream pie. (I had to choose Sugar Cream, because it's the flavor I had never had before!) And then, to my delight, Nina web cast the entire bake-o-rama on UStream, and so I got to watch the action from the comfort of my own living room, and I also got to write in and interact with her and her support team and other viewers over the 24 hours. (At some point, I named the station PieTV, and then Mich named it even better: PieTube.) In a few minutes I am going over to her apartment to pick up my Sugar Cream pie, which I'll be sharing it with friends on Thanksgiving Day.

Did you catch that? One Pieathon. All that community building. I even met two people during the webcast. True, they couldn't see me (only the words I was typing) but I could see them, so when we are eventually in a room together, I will recognize them, introduce myself to them, and we will have a point of connection.

One of the 613 mitzves (mitzvot) is to respect your father and mother. Thank you Nina, for respecting yours so bountifully, and allowing us to join you. Zikhroyne livrokhe. May their memories be a blessing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My questions are the moment

Never Done: Read the Great Gatsby in a day

Sort of. Not really. But someone did read it to me in a day. And I paid attention. Mostly.

I saw GATZ at the Public Theater -- the Elevator Repair Service's production about a man in an office whose computer won't start, and who picks up a paperback copy of
The Great Gatsby and starts to read, at times transforming into Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator. His office mates also morph between being office mates and characters in a reenactment of the novel. The performance was six and a half hours long, with an additional 2 hours in breaks, and trying for someone like me, who does not enjoy being read to.

Is it that I don't enjoy being read to, or is it that my mind has a difficult time focusing, following, and understanding? I discussed this with the women behind me during the breaks. I noticed that if the narrator was reading and nothing else was happening, I pretty much stayed with him. As soon as another theatrical element was introduced -- action, music, sound effect -- my mind was pulled to pay attention to that, and at some point I realized I'd stopped paying attention to the words of the novel. It was easier for me when they dropped into dialogue -- a more traditional stage dramatization. But really, I found my mind wandering so frequently that it became my meta-experience for the theatrical experience, as I started to wonder if I have a significant attention problem, and then chastised myself for not paying attention, and then focused hard on the story -- so hard that I rewarded myself for focusing by telling myself what a good job of focusing I was doing, until I notice that I wasn't focusing anymore ....

By the end of the first half, my head was hurting. Not from a headache, but from trying so hard to pay attention. I ran into a friend of mine during the long break. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, she is nothing if not rigorous. I asked her if she was seeing GATZ, because I hadn't seen her in the audience, and she said, "No. That's too much theater for me. I know myself too well." As I headed back into the theater for another 3 hours, I thought to myself, "I can only aspire to know myself as well."

One of the women behind me, a smarty-pants with a sarcastic streak, asked me if I'd taken my Ritalin for the second half. Ha ha. She already knows me better than I know myself. I started to feel a little defensive. She (told me that she) had just finished reading the book that morning. I on the other hand, had either never read it, or I read it in high school, which unfortunately amounts to the same thing as my never having read it. (Meanwhile, I live with someone who can literally recite passages from literary works he read in high school, but let's not get into that.) So her experience was maybe like watching an interpretation of a story that was already running in her head, while mine was maybe more like sitting in a dark room while someone read me a novel I had probably never read, while distracting me with typing sounds and pretty shoes. But I stuck with it.

And I was surprised. The second half was easier to pay attention to and more enjoyable. Was it because much of the first half had been set-up, and now the plot was speeding along (so to speak?) (Inside joke for people who
remember the plot.) Was it because I had gotten fresh air and dinner? Were the performers more engaged with the material? Did I have something to prove to the woman behind me? Do all my questions like this just serve to distract me from the moment? Are they the moment?

And that's the point when I realized that I do know myself. I might miss what is happening externally, but I am not likely to miss what is happening internally -- so that I go through life sort of like this adaptation of GATZ: part player, part observer, part creator of a hybrid experience. I might not catch that Daisy came from Louisville, but I am going to notice what Daisy's shoes look like, how the sound effects guy works his computer, and why my mind wanders.

And not everyone else in the audience is going to notice all that. And nobody else in the audience is going to have my experience of seeing GATZ.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bells are Ringing. Bags are crinkling.

Never Done: Bells Are Ringing

I feel a little sheepish that I'm writing so many posts about seeing theater -- like I should be engaging in a greater variety of activities I've never done -- and also I feel like I should warn you that the marathon is not quite over. (In other words, expect yet another theater post tomorrow.) But one of the reasons I live in New York is to see theater and film that I can't see anywhere else, and this has been a tremendous week. My friend Jesse took me to see the Encores production of Bells Are Ringing, a 1956 Broadway musical about a boundary-loose woman who works for an answering service, and who can't help but get involved in her client's lives. Romance ensues.

I love the spirit of Encores. They do concert readings of musicals that have been rarely heard by today's audiences. Every now and then, an Encores production becomes a Broadway revival (I think this is how the most recent Gypsy made it to Broadway) but often they just live for a long weekend on the City Center stage. We sat in phenomenal seats -- front row mezzanine -- which afforded us a clear view of every orchestra instrument. And since Encores features the orchestra prominently on stage, instead of in a pit, I got to pay more attention to the instruments than I usually do. And I noticed some things for the first time. (Shehekhianu.) I noticed that I could hear every instrument in the orchestra -- literally every instrument -- except the piano. I could hear the harp, the violins, the violas, the guitar, the reeds, the flutes, the horns, the drums ... (I hope I am not leaving anything out) but I couldn't hear the piano. I asked Jesse about it at intermission, and he explained to me that the piano doesn't take the melody, and that unless it's got a specific solo, it is there to double the strings and rhythm instruments, to add texture to the sound. For all the orchestral music I have listened to, I had really never noticed this before.

The other sound we noticed, because it was impossible not to, was the elaborate meal the people sitting behind us unwrapped and masticated throughout the entire performance. I literally turned all the way around in my seat at one point to see what could be making such a noise, and saw that it was just an oversized cookie in a little paper bag. (A cookie that I could have extricated soundlessly, and eaten silently.) But this couple didn't seem interested in being soundless or silent. They crunched and crinkled and squeezed and chewed until finally Jesse turned around and spoke to them clearly, firmly, and somehow warmly -- and to my amazement, they put away their metaphorical peanuts and crackerjacks, and we heard to the rest of the show as it was meant to be heard.

I wrote yesterday that this week's mide (character trait that we reflect on in Mussar to help us lead an ethical life) is equanimity: rise above events that are inconsequential. I also wrote that the challenge then is to determine what is of consequence and what is not. There's a reason we're not allowed to bring food into the theater -- it's loud, it's messy, and it smells -- all things that interfere with other people's enjoyment of the production. In other words, it's totally against the rules to bring food into the theater, and even if I'm one to bend bureaucratic rules here and there, these people were also violating all the social rules. So why was it so hard to turn around and ask them to stop when the very rules validate that our concern is legitimate?

In Mussar practice, we are encouraged to ask how difficult situations are for the other, not to focus solely on how they are for ourselves. This is a real sticking point for people who have been socialized to always think about the other and to subsume the self. Luckily, as I've written before, a modern interpretation of Mussar recognizes this dilemma, and asks us to determine what is the legitimate concern of the yetzer hore (the selfish impulse.) It can be a complicated process. I think Jesse and I went through four of the five stages of grief before finding the path to address our legitimate concern.

Denial: That can't be Tupperware. And even if it is, they just need a little snack, and they'll put it away soon.
Anger: Seriously? Cellophane? Seriously? (Turn around and stare at their main course.)
Bargaining: Just let me make it to the intermission.
Depression: What's the point? There's nothing we can do about it.

The fifth stage of grief is acceptance: I can't fight it, I might as well prepare for the worst. But when Jesse decided that we had a legitimate concern, he transcended acceptance and went to a place of powerful engagement. He did it kindly (taking care of the other.) He did it firmly (taking care of the self.) And the end result was that he did it effectively. And I rewarded him with some chocolate I had stashed in my purse.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I am seaweed

Never Done: Free Man of Color
Never Done: Called Apple to ask them to remove white nationalist iPhone App from iTunes
Tshuve: Time with Tabitha
Tshuve: Brooklyn Soup Swap

I feel like I haven't been writing many tshuve posts, even though I've been enjoying returning to some of the new routines I've recently started. At the end of a very full day, which included reading and marking up the contract for the screenplay option I am still working on (It took five hours to read and mark up this contract. Are any of you reader/friends entertainment lawyers who would like to answer a couple questions for me that my BA in Anthropology/Religion and my MFA in Dramatic Writing didn't prepare me for?); and having a phone meeting about my new international documentary film project, which I am doing with three wonderful people (I will ask them if it's OK to blog about it, and if they say yes, I will give details about it here); and calling Apple customer service to talk with them about why it's a bad idea for them to allow an iPhone/iPad/iPod app for the white nationalist group NumbersUSA .... at the end of that full day, I was hosting Soup Swap at my apartment, and an out-of-town guest for the weekend, and also spending just 20 minutes with Tabitha while her mom went to run an errand -- all while getting ready to go see John Guare's new play A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center.

Also, it might be helpful for you to know that this week's mide (middah) is Equanimity: Rise above events that are inconsequential.

What I like about this mide is that it implies that there are events that are consequential -- and we just have to be able to figure out which ones they are.

When you are reading a legal contract that is written to represent the rights and responsibilities of two separate parties, the entire actual job is to determine what is, and what is not, consequential. That's why it took me 5 hours to sort through the document -- because it's not always easy to figure that out, even with a law degree. Is it OK if my name is not on the title card following the title card for the director? Maybe yes, maybe no. Is it OK to change the word hereto to herefor? I think it is. Is it OK to sign something that says we would have the first option to write the sequel as a work for hire, with no financial compensation. Um. No. The challenge for me though, is to be able to stay grounded while figuring these things out -- and not let anger, confusion, or frustration cloud my judgment, so I can keep figuring out what is consequential, and what is not.
Rabbi Alissa Wise likes to think about a state of equanimity as being like seaweed. You're swept around by tides and currents and waves and storms, but you always stay rooted.

It was easy to stay grounded while talking with Apple Customer Service, because as soon as I explained who NumbersUSA is, and what white nationalism is, she found it to be deeply consequential. Interestingly, she took white nationalism seriously by comparing it to pornography, which is, apparently, the offensive material that most people call in to report.

Later, Tabitha and I were alone together for about 20 minutes, and she cried the entire time we were together. I assumed she was having a hard time understanding that her mom would be back because she hasn't yet developed object permanence, and so I just stayed close to her, and held her, and got down on the floor with her, and talked with her while she cried. I wasn't very thrown by it -- she would check me out every now and then and come crawling on top of me to get a hug, and then recommit herself to crying. So I knew she knew she was OK with me, just really not happy about something. When her mom came back, she told me that this had been going on all day, but Tabitha did get more relaxed when her mom was holding her. Until she suddenly threw up -- a lot -- all over herself, her mom, and a very little bit on the 0% bedbug couch. And just then -- no, really, just then -- our out-of-town guest arrived, with an entire meal she wanted to cook, just then.

So I was getting rags to help clean up the throw-up, and clean clothes for everyone to wear, and plastic bags for the pukey clothes, and accepting a bottle of wine from our guest, and finding a roasting pan so she could make chicken, and answering text messages from Esther who was about an hour late with the 8 quarts of soup she made and was bringing over for people to pick up, and getting dressed to go out to the theater, and finding the tin foil, and answering the door, and ..... I was seaweed. I really was seaweed. I was able to see that there were no crises, and that there were enough adults to do whatever needed to be done, and that Tabitha was feeling better once she got cleaned up, and that it was totally fine that people were going to have a nice dinner in my apartment without me, and that I was going to Lincoln Center to see a play that had gotten horrible reviews.

And you know what? I liked it. First of all, I had insanely good seats. Third row center, to watch Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. I have definitely never done that before. I would sit in the third row center to watch those two play Monopoly. But also, I liked the play. Mostly. I didn't like Guare's treatment of women in the play, and while that is not inconsequential, I can forgive him for it because he set out to write about the Louisiana Purchase, race and slavery -- and not sexism and the subjugation of women. I admired the ambition of this play -- a play about race in the United States, in New Orleans, in 1801, during a transition from a racially free and mixed society to and racially enslaved one. I thought the story telling was consistent, and I thought the direction was bold, theatrical, imaginative, and also consistent. I was never bored. I was spellbound by Mos's acting. And in an unpredictable reaction, I decided I want to wear bloomers, waistcoats, and high boots this winter, and that I might try to sew myself some. Maybe in a lovely knotted-kelp green with dulse-colored polka dots.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The other 20%

Never Done: Went to Greenwood Cemetery

Woody Allen said that "showing up is 80% of life."

I was determined to go to Greenwood Cemetery. I had tried earlier in the week, but found the gate close to my house locked. I had an over-scheduled and emotionally challenging day, with a meeting with a smart young filmmaker smack dab in the middle of it, but I was determined to get some exercise and some time outside, so I left an extra hour to go walking in Greenwood. I got to the gate. Locked. The sign redirected me to 5th Avenue, which is only 5 long blocks away, so I set off. At 7th Ave, the cemetery no longer followed the road I was on (20th St.) so I took a left until I came to the edge of the cemetery again, at 23th Street. At 6th Ave, the same thing again, so I took a left until I came to the edge again, at 24th Street. I know this is a lot of dull, geographical detail, but the point is that every time I came to a crossroads where I saw that getting to the cemetery was longer and further than I thought it would be, I almost turned around and saved it for another day when I would have more time. It's like it's when you're out running (I don't know if this happens to other people) and suddenly you realize you are walking -- and you try to figure out why you stopped, because you feel like your body could still be running, and you realize you had been thinking about something difficult, and without even noticing, you had stopped running because of a negative thought.

This was like that, only I was aware of the decision point -- every time the road turned away from the block I was on, I had to actively choose to persist. And it wasn't even a hard walk; it was nice outside, and I wanted to go to the cemetery, but with every turn, I felt my 1 PM meeting time getting closer and closer, and I felt like it was just not worth it to go all this way for the short amount of time I would have in the cemetery, but each time the road turned away, I chose to follow it, so I could just get inside that cemetery. So I turned down 24th Street, and finally came to 5th Avenue, and could see the entrance from where I was. The entrance was more ornate than I had imagined -- and the commercial bread baking smell from Aladdin Bakers wafted over. I walked under the historic gate (is that a gate? It's more like an ornate entrance) and was inside. And it was already 12:35 -- time to turn around and walk back. But I didn't. I walked in further, and up onto a little hill with a brilliant yellow tree on top of it, and I stood looking over the cemetery, and the beautiful old graves and mausoleums. And then I looked down at the ornamental cobblestone work right in front of me. And then I looked out again, over North Brooklyn
and to the Manhattan skyline. And just when I was about to leave to get to my meeting on time, I got a phone call from a friend who knew things are a little hard right now, and who wanted to make sure that I had a place to go for Thanksgiving. It was like an embrace reaching over from Manhattan, over North Brooklyn, over the graves and mausoleums, through the yellow leaves, and right to me, on that hillock, reminding me that it's OK to be overwhelmed, and that people are paying attention. And I sat down on the hillock, and I had a good cry. And then I looked around and promised myself I would come back to spend many more hours exploring the rest of the cemetery, and I set off on my way.

As Woody said, showing up is 80% of life, but you also have to show up for the other 20%.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is fair?

Never Done: In the Wake

How often do you find a character in a movie, a play, or a novel who you really, truly, deeply identify with? It only comes along every now and then for me, and it just happened again: Emily from Lisa Kron's new play, In the Wake. The last time I identified so strongly with was Jessica from the movie Kissing Jessica Stein.

Those of you who know me and have seen both, can you spot the trend?

I think it's an upward trend. The Jessica Stein character was so horribly conflicted about everything in her life -- but then again, I was too at that stage of my life. What I love about Lisa Kron's character is that she is NOT conflicted. She might have a giant blind spot brought on by her middle class American socialization (and how much do I love Lisa Kron for writing a play about middle class American socialization!?) but she is not actually conflicted. She wants everything. She says as much. And she sets up a situation in which, for a while, she has everything. (No spoilers here, and this is not a theater review, so I'll stay away from discussing what happens in the play, and why.) I'm interested in the question of whether or not it is possible to have everything we want, and how class-bound the question is.

From a Mussar POV, I am most interested in how the characters in In the Wake are all thinking about the effects of individual actions on the other -- personally, politically, privately, internationally. The play explores questions of fairness, and in particular looks at the question of who expects fairness, and who doesn't. Fairness has always been super important to me -- but I have never believed that it looks the same for everyone. From my earliest years, I rebelled when someone would refuse to look at someone's individual situation, and instead just enforce the rules. (This still really gets me, and it's one of the hardest things for me about living in New York City. One of the great luxuries of growing up in a very small town is that people have time for each others' extenuating circumstances.)

So, can fairness be subjective and individuated? Or is that, by definition, not fairness? I think it can. I don't mind sometimes getting the short end of a deal if I can see that someone else gets something that really makes sense for them. I would certainly choose that over a bureaucratically-made decision that ultimately benefits neither of us as individuals. I think that real fairness between two people comes when two people agree on what best cares for their mutual and individual interests. I think this model gets exponentially harder when the groups of people get larger, which is why we rely on laws, bureaucracies, and institutions to protect us -- but I'm going to let that go for now, because what I so strongly identified with in the play was about interpersonal fairness, and not about institutional fairness. Reviewers are calling Emily, the character in In the Wake, selfish and unlikeable. I didn't think so. I found her questions bold and expansive, and found it exhilarating that she believed that one person wanting everything could lead to the best for everyone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can you hear my voice?

Never Done (and still never done): Go to Greenwood Cemetery
Never Done: Go to Aaron Alexander's Yiddish Music series at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue

I have never been into the Greenwood Cemetery. It's always felt so far away. Then I noticed it's really, really close to where I live, and I had a paradigm shift. Does that mean that I live so far away? But I feel like I live so ... central. What is central? What is far? The other day I was walking home from brunch with a friend, when I ran into two other friends. Central! Sometimes it takes me an hour to get home, when it used to take me 20 minutes. Far! (Or just poor MTA service. Same thing as far?) When I used to live in Hoboken, I was a mere 11 minute train ride across the river, or a 7 minute (delightful but expensive) ferry ride away. What Brooklyner can get home from Manhattan in 11 minutes? And yet I definitely lived far away. So far away that only a handful of friends came to visit in the 4 years I lived there (and I will NEVER forget you, thank you so much!) So I decided to go for a run in Greenwood Cemetery. I put on my favorite long-sleeved shirt, got waylaid by my neighbor who pitched me a documentary film project (a cool one about 2nd graders making an opera) and then set out for the graveyard. And guess what? They close the gates to Greenwood Cemetery at 4 PM near where I live, and at 5 PM down on 5th Avenue, and it was already past 5. That made me feel culturally far away. I grew up with a cemetery in the center of town -- you can't close it -- there are no gates. We used to play in it, walk through it, sit on the wall in front of it. It never occurred to me that a cemetery would close for the night. But of course they do that in the city -- for the safety of people, and for the safety of the gravestones. It just hadn't occurred to me. So I ran through the Brooklyn streets instead. (I am really getting in better shape -- I ran pretty easily, and even enjoyed being outside, off the track.)

But what to do when it's already evening, and I haven't planned another thing I've never done? I decided to go to a Tuesday night music series I've been wanting to get to: Aaron Alexander's Yiddish Music Series at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue. This week, Michael Alpert was doing a rare solo show. I've had some mixed feelings about going, and they are good for ethical pondering. I like and respect Aaron without reservation. He's a really wonderful man, and a wonderful musician, and I love that he has started this music series. This is worth saying again. I could not like or respect this guy more, musically, personally, professionally. AND ... the synagogue is orthodox, and follows the laws of Kol Isha (the Jewish law prohibiting a woman from singing in public for men) which means that Aaron is limited in whom he can book into the space. I know that Aaron doesn't agree with Kol Isha, and I also know that he is honoring another promise he made to a friend and colleague by holding his series there. I want to support both Aaron and the performers in the series, and yet I don't support Kol Isha either. It's complicated, right? A really good example of what we do in Mussar practice, to examine ethical questions from all sides, and ask how is it for the other? I decided that my relationship to Aaron and my Yiddish musician friends is stronger than my relationship to the synagogue, or frankly, to my understanding of Jewish law, and that I would go to the performance. I also decided that I would write about it, to raise awareness and engage the community in the conversation.

Now .... it gets even more interesting when you start to explore the issue further. There is another wonderful performance venue that follows the laws of Kol Isha -- and this one also takes public funding for the arts. The Eldridge Street Synagogue. As a national historic landmark, it gets public funding -- and that gets into the territory of religious law and civic law, right? I feel pretty strongly that an institution that accepts public funding should not exclude women's voices. But I also feel strongly that the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is a functioning orthodox synagogue, has the right to conduct its religious business as it will. Usually, conversations I've had about this stop here, in this deadlock. But isn't Judaism nothing if not creative when it wants to deal with the conflict between religious life and practical daily life? There's got to be a way to ritually create a public performance space that is separate from the space of worship -- so that everyone can live in the space in a way that feels holy, ethical, and whole. Omeyn.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Patrick Stewart after all

Never Done (and still never done): Zumba

A friend of mine posted this as her Facebook status: "Today is a loss. Stick a fork in it. I'm just trying to entertain myself for 2 hours. Then, we hit reset." That happens to me sometimes too. Occasionally it happens when I have so much to do that my brain freezes up and I get paralyzed. More often, it happens when I have too little to do, and can't quite organize my time effectively, and I get paralyzed. Most people who know me know that most days, I am the opposite of paralyzed -- long list, mostly accomplished by the end of the day, or if not, then by the end of the week. The last couple weeks have been tough though. The problem is that I have too much work to do, but not enough of it pays. And that which does pay doesn't pay up front. So how to prioritize? Usually I've been going from most pressing deadline to most pressing deadline, but not staying true to my own long-term plans and priorities. And the past couple days, I just fizzled out and accomplished very little on any work front.

Yesterday was a total wash for work (although I should say on my behalf, I was doing a good job of taking care of someone close to me.) So when I went out in the afternoon to get some medicine at the wonderful local family-run pharmacy (Ansonia Chemist) and was greeted with incredible warmth and familiarity, it felt comforting. While I was waiting for the prescription, a man came in, who was also greeted with great warmth and familiarity. I saw him from the back, and he seemed like a nice, 60-something, Park Slope guy -- nice jeans, balding, friendly. I heard him say something about a trip he was about to take, and something about his line of work. And then a younger woman came in, and the pharmacy staff made a big deal over how much better she looked. I guess she'd been pretty sick. And the guy made a big deal over how he'd had to go into Manhattan to get medicine for her, and then I caught it. There was something special about this conversation. The woman was glowing a little too much, and the staff was shining a little too much light on the guy. And when the couple turned to leave, I saw why: it was Patrick Stewart.

When I told a couple friends, they both responded the same way: "That has to be your blog post for the day!" But I didn't agree. I felt like running into Patrick Stewart in the pharmacy was pure chance, and didn't require anything on my part. I didn't choose to run into him in the pharmacy, and once we were there together, I don't think I learned much from the experience. (Except that three of my queer women friends have big crushes on him.) So I was determined still to do something I'd never done, even though all I felt like doing was going to bed early and hitting the reset button.

One of the 13 mides, (or middot) in Mussar practice is Diligence: Always find something to do. I find this useful when I hit paralysis. Mostly it reminds me that there always IS something to do, and it's not necessarily work. It helps to have a gym nearby, and a big beautiful park. When I got home I checked the gym schedule, and there was a Zumba class listed for 8:30pm. I decided to go. I went early to stretch, and found that the room was already filling up 1/2 hour before class was to start. The crowd was friendly and talkative -- a very different vibe from the serious spinning crowd. I asked them what to expect, and they said, "Just don't worry if you can't follow all the steps." OK, I thought, I can do that.

When the teacher arrived, she apologized in advance for being sluggish. Apparently she was a substitute, and had just been called in after she'd already eaten a big meal. And then she flashed a beautiful smile, and asked if anyone minded starting class 10 minutes early. No-one did, so she put on music, and started teaching us steps -- all showing, no explaining. The room was packed, and so I could neither see her directly, nor could I see her in the mirror. I followed as best as I could, and felt like I was in some kind of a crowded, mime African dance class -- a room full of confused dancers trying not to Zumba on each others' feet. After about 15 minutes, I wasn't clear if we were doing the workout, or still doing the warm-up, but there was a lot of stepping on twisted knees, which didn't feel very good to me. Also, I started to feel claustrophobic -- caught in the middle of a mime dance routine from hell. When that song ended, I grabbed my water bottle, and slipped out to go work out on the elliptical machine, feeling like I had failed Zumba, and failed to do something I had never done. That's when I noticed a woman behind me, who had also slipped out of class. I turned to her, and she said, "I am so angry. I don't know what that was, but it sure as hell wasn't Zumba!"

It was such an interesting moment. This woman was angry, but I felt relieved. I hadn't failed Zumba. I hadn't even taken Zumba! We both went into the cardio machine room, and she got on the treadmill, and I hopped on the elliptical machine (tshuve) and did a hard 30-minute workout and realized that I was going to be writing about Patrick Stewart after all. And then I went home, went to bed, and hit the reset button.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Patience part two (thousand)

Never Done: Choose patience over aggravation on a deadline night

This has be a short post today, which is fitting to its topic, because it's a topic I shouldn't spend too much time thinking about. There's an ongoing legal drama in my partner's life. It takes a lot of time. Sometimes it takes time late into the night, although that always seems (to me) to be avoidable. Usually when it goes late into the night, I get focused on the ways that it could have been done weeks earlier, planned and executed more ... I'll say it ... sanely. Also, something usually goes wrong with our communication on these stressed-out late nights, and for one reason or another I am left wondering if he'll be home at midnight, or 3 AM, or not at all. And usually when I'm left wondering if he'll be home at midnight, or 3 AM, or not at all, I spend my time being pissed off.

But it was different this time. When he didn't contact me when we had agreed to talk, and I couldn't get through to him either, I decided to do some Mussar reflection on the mide of the week: Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief. So instead of spinning into a narrative of, "This is what always happens. Let me count the ways in which it sucks," I decided to pretend this was the first time it had ever happened. What would I assume? How would I react? I assumed that the phone was turned off, or left inadvertently at home. I assumed he was more stressed out than I was. I assumed he'd be fine, get home safe, do what he had to do, and that I should do the same. The question we are asked to answer in these Mussar reflections is: How is it for the other? And that helped too.

So I watched the Virgin Suicides (never done) while doing a bunch of Sunday evening tasks; I got to bed by 11; and I slept alone in the soft bed with the flannel comforter (never done.) He came in at 4 AM, and I woke up, but I didn't wake up, if you know what I mean. And when I fell back to sleep, I dreamed about going through a series of a dozen security turnstiles to get into a Prince concert. If patience leads to Prince, then I'm sticking to the program.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief

Never Done: Popbar

I don't know where the time goes. Saturday. The whole day off. So many things to accomplish, so many things to do. I did plant my paper white narcissus bulbs so that when they come some time in December, the apartment will smell like my mom's kitchen (tshuve.) I did package up the birthday present I am sending to my friend Carol in Maine. I did go for a bike ride in the stunning November day. I did spend 3 hours in parenting class, learning that getting out of foster care is really about getting out of the foster care mindset. I did go to Queer Memoir, and listen to stories inspired by the subway. ("And then you know what it's like, when it's 3 AM, and you're riding the L train home, and you're still a little drunk, and the garbage train goes by, and you look at it, and you think, "Hi Daddy.")

After, I was with Dana and Rimma, and I had the choice between riding the direct train home, or going with them to get popsicles at popbar, which I had wanted to do since June, and yet never done, but it was going to mean I would have to take the train to the shuttle, because the F train wasn't running. I don't like shuttles and I don't like transfers. I like direct rides, and then to rely on my own feet to make up the distance. But I also like Dana and Rimma, and I also like popsicles, and I had never gone to popbar yet, so the choice was easy.

Earlier this summer, I was in Cold Spring and Beacon NY on a very hot day, and in both places ate a gourmet popsicle. The one in Cold Spring was OK -- a lemon ice with whole blueberries in it, but the one in Beacon was resplendent -- a lavender, honey, bee pollen creamsicle that I might remember for the rest of my life. That was the day that I realized that gourmet popsicles were the new big thing, and that was the day that I set my sights on popbar.

After being assured that it is made with almond paste and not almond syrup, I chose an almond creamsicle. I took a bite, and ... it tasted like almond, cream, salt, and freezer burn. I passed it around for others to taste, and after they confirmed the freezer burn, I went in to tell the popbaristas that they had a situation. I didn't expect a replacement pop, since this one was already half gone, but they offered, so after asking them what were freshest pops in the case, I chose a deep purple mixed berry sorbetto pop dipped in dark chocolate. Let's just say it was beautiful to look at, but nothing to write home about. (Or to write a blog post about.)

It's about this point in the blog post that I try to wrap things up, draw a life story, relate my experience to Mussar, or at least be funny. I think the way to do that now is to write about this week's mide: Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief. I was tired. I had a long way to go to get home. I was going to have to take a shuttle. And I didn't like my popsicle. Or my replacement popsicle. At another point in my life, my mind would have been full of should have-could have-would have thoughts. But it wasn't. Instead I noticed that I was actually content to be tired with my good friends and my bad popsicle. And you know what? The shuttle was there when we got there, and it took a really long time to get home. And that was OK too. Shehekhianu.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What I knew when I was eight

Never done: Shadow post
Tshuve: Hula Hoop
Tshuve: Spinning
Tshuve: Knitting

I did something I've definitely never done before, but it is too private to write about here. (I still don't quite know how to navigate those waters, so I am just going with my gut for now, and keeping it private when it seems like I should.)

It was also a day of returning. First of all, I got my hula hoop back out of storage! I have the most beautiful cloth-covered hula hoop I've ever seen in my life. My good friend Jensi gave it to me for my 40th birthday. It's hand-made in Portland, by someone who called her (now defunct) business Hoopla Hoops. She had an incredible warehouse of hoops and fabrics, and invited people in to mix and match colors. Mine is covered in two fabrics: nubbly grass green and furry black and white cow motif. It's 40" in diameter, and it's weighted, so it twirls very steadily for as long as I feel like gyrating. I find hooping to be incredibly relaxing. When I am writing and need to think for a while but don't want to get distracted, I like to hoop. When my body needs to loosen up, I like to hoop. When I want to show off my grass green/cow motif hoop, I like to hoop in public. People who have known me since I was little know that I have always been a perpetual motion machine. I always liked to balance, be upside-down, roll on things, climb, play with balls.... My dad made me a set of stilts that I walked around on; I jumped on a pogo stick and rode a unicycle; I did a lot of handstands, especially after dinner, which was hard for some people to understand; and my favorite toy was an old cardboard roll -- imagine the cardboard core at the center of a toilet paper roll, and now make the cardboard three inches thick, 18 inches in diameter, and 36 inches long. I walked on it like it was a log in the river -- all over the house. Until one day someone tried to tickle me while I was on it (I have always hated to be tickled) and I panicked, and my foot went through a glass paneled door. A trip to the emergency room for stitches, and no more rolling in the house, which I found to be soooo unfair. Who tickles someone who's walking on a river log? For that matter, who tickles people? (I really hate to be tickled.)

I hadn't done a handstand in a couple years, but as I've been gaining upper body strength back, I checked last week to see if I could do one again -- and I can! It's not without repercussion though -- I think that's what flared up my neck, not spinning -- so I am still going to ease into doing them more often. Speaking of spinning, I took another class (worse music, less interesting instructions, better reminders about form, like using my abdominal muscles, and breathing in through the nose, and out through the shoulders.) I think I will keep going from time to time, but probably not 4-5 times a week like a certain buff and obsessed friend of mine. I am also going to try a Zumba class, if I can get past the tagline: Skip the workout; Join the party! Eh.

But maybe the most important return -- tshuve -- came when I went to pick up soup at Abigail's apartment. Her apartment is full of yarn and knitting projects and a loom. And not just any knitting projects and loom -- exquisite knitting projects and a full-sized loom. At the end of the evening, I told Abigail how good it felt to be in her place and see her projects. I told her that I realized I had lost some of myself, and that starting to spend time with people who are connected to their cooking/crafting/art projects is good for me -- and will help me return to this part of myself.

From the time I was about 8 til 18, when I wasn't hopping and jumping and standing and bouncing and riding, I was embroidering. My mom designed crewel embroidery kits and sold them to Custom House. I used to go with her to trade shows, and I used to love to embroider my own designs. I remember bringing my embroidery to class when my third grade teacher wouldn't give me extra work to do when I finished early, which I always did because I had been in a terrific second grade class (taught by Deb Chabot.) I remember practicing the seed stitch, and the stem stitch, and the french knot, and square filet. I remember tracing drawings I liked and turning them into embroidery patterns. Maybe it was another form of perpetual motion, but for times when I couldn't move my whole body, but I at least kept my hands and my mind going.

My mom was also always a knitter, but I didn't learn until I went to college. But once I learned, I was unstoppable. I knit ponchos, sweaters, skirts. I liked to knit in the round, usually playing with color more than stitch variation. I knit pretty steadily from about age 20 to 30. And then I slowly stopped. Before sitting down to write this, I would have told you that New York made me stop. In fact, I think I told Abigail that New York made me stop -- that I don't have enough space, that I work all the time. But as I write this, I realize that I didn't move to New York until I was almost 40, and I had grown apart from my embroidery floss and beautiful wool and other projects about 10 years earlier.
Not to mention all the music I used to play, and don't anymore ... which will be a topic of another post. And while I do think New York has a part to play, you know what else it was? The computer. You can't knit and write email. You can't embroider and check Facebook.

Now, I've also become a much more prolific writer in those ten years, and I love using my computer to write. And it is true that I have to work harder to live in New York than I had to work living in Maine or Oregon. But it's also true that instead of spending my free time sitting with friends making things, I sit with the computer looking at things that other people have made. It's a radically different orientation -- and one that I am ready to shift away from.

Even though that was a great place to end the post, and this post is already long, there is something else to add. After my mother died, I had a strong urge to buy a sewing machine and to start sewing. I have never been a strong sewer, except by hand, and neither was my mother, and yet somehow this was the pull. So I bought a wonderful limited edition Project Runway Brother machine. I made several handbags, a gorgeous reversible apron, lots of balsam-filled sachets and flax-seed-filled bags to heat up to keep warm at night. But I only sew in Maine. I keep promising myself I will sew in New York, but I don't make the time. I have some gorgeous fabrics, and I owe my cousin Leigh and my friend Robin each a handbag, and I want to learn how to put in a zipper and make button holes and sew my own clothes. From now on, I'm going to think about the exquisite pair of mittens in Abigail's apartment, and how she talked about the way those of us who did not grow up in a place as vibrant as NYC, with dozens of interesting things to do every night (and I will add to that, the distractions of the internet) learned how to entertain ourselves. I think I've lost the skill of entertaining myself in this way, and I want to get it back. So I am going to ask myself if I really need to check email, or if maybe I would rather make something out of yarn, fabric, needles, and thread.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thank g-d for Jeff Goldblum

Never Done: Walked 2 blocks to the movies

We had our Mussar Va'ad last night, and I was reminded of something I had forgotten. The idea behind this practice -- of doing something daily that I've never done before, and saying the Shehekhianu (which I've been remembering to say more often) is traditionally framed as a chosen mitzve practice. The mitzves are the commandments (mitzvot in Sephardic pronunciation) -- the 613 statements and principles of laws and ethics contained in the Torah. The 613 mitzves are incredibly interesting to study. Some of them are completely relevant to being a contemporary ethical person, and some of them are not any longer. Examples of ones that I find relevant -- and in some cases, incredibly moving:

Not to take revenge
Not to bear a grudge
Not to embarrass others
Not to oppress the weak
To release the mother bird if she was taken from the nest (I really love this one.)
Judges must not accept bribes
The king must not have too many horses
Not to sell her into slavery

Some of them are, to me, subjective and/or random. With these, I think it's interesting to learn/study/discover what the actual intent is behind them. Like:

Not to engage in astrology
Not to imitate them in customs and clothing
Not to go into a trance to foresee events

Some of them I disagree with. Strongly:

Men must not wear women's clothing
Women must not wear men's clothing
Not to marry non-Jews
The rapist must marry the maiden

And many I find to be better left to personal choice. These tend to be the ones which are most explicitly about religious observance:

To examine the signs of fish to determine between kosher and non-kosher
To rest on the seventh day
To put a mezuze on each door post

These are but a few examples, of course. I've given them here to help me examine my chosen daily mitzve practice -- to do something every day I've never done, and to say the Shehekhianu. This is not one of the 613 mitzves, but maybe it should replace one of the 613 that I don't think belong. The only mitzve I could find that relates to mine is this:

He who has taken a wife, built a new home, or planted a vineyard is given a year to rejoice with his possessions.

Not that a wife is a possession or anything. Still, I sort of like this one. It says to me, Go ahead. Enjoy what is new in your life, but after a while, it's not new anymore, so you should probably go out and find something else new to rejoice.

Speaking of which ... The new apartment is perfectly situated between a gym and a movie theater, two of my favorite pastimes. Walking home from Mussar Va'ad, Dana, Josh, and I came upon the marquee of the Park Slope Pavilion, lit up for the late show, and on a whim went to see if anything was just starting. It was 9:45 PM, and as luck would have it, a show was starting at 9:45. Now, I've been to this theater many times before, but not since moving 2 blocks away, and also not since the movie theater bed bug scare. For two weeks, I've put Walk to Pavilion on my Never Done list, and for two weeks, I haven't gotten over my bedbug apprehensions. Maybe it was the perfect timing, maybe it was the new street couch, but Josh and I went in (Dana went home) and had a great time watching a pretty bad movie (Morning Glory.) We would have gone in to see anything at that moment -- it really was about the timing -- but all I can say is thank g-d for Jeff Goldblum. (Is that one of the 613 mitzves? Thank g-d for the super-talented Jew who played a hot alien in my all-time favorite romantic comedy, Earth Girls are Easy?)

Other than JG, the best, very best, really great part about seeing Morning Glory at the Pavilion was that it took less than 5 minutes to walk home. Shehekhianu!

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Thursday, November 11, 2010


Never Done: Started my Mussar journal

I feel confessional. I have not had time to start writing my screenplay in 21 days (but I did complete all the preliminary work, and think it would be good for me to do it.) I have not had time to unpack my office in the month since I've lived in this new apartment. And a week into my Mussar Va'ad, I hadn't written in my journal, which is the foundation of the daily practice. And then I did. I did it using that old chestnut of a trick -- I told myself it would only take 10 minutes. So after lunch, I pulled out my Nikki McClure Remember journal and I wrote. And guess what? It did only take 10 minutes, and in that time I learned something significant about myself and humility.

I have plenty of it when I am the student. Where I get into trouble is when I am the teacher.

Experienced teachers: When you know you are more knowledgeable about your subject than your student(s), how do you teach from a place of humility?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Free to a good home: 0% bedbugs

Never done: Free couch

It was the end of the workday, and it had been an intense work day at that -- with a last-minute request to re-write a grant proposal for a film I am involved with, on top of regularly-schedule work. I really wanted to come through on the last-minute request, and prioritized it over other work for the second half of the day, and ended up quite pleased with what I accomplished.

I had made plans with Josh to go to a 7 PM movie (it was going to be the Never Done du jour, to walk 1 block to the Pavillion) but was just finishing writing at 6:45, and I couldn't imagine sitting in a chair any longer, so I negotiated a switch in plans to go to the gym instead. The negotiation was lengthy, and morphed into secondary and terciary negotiations (do we eat first? should we go to a later movie, even it's a Tyler Perry movie?) and eventually we left the apartment, Josh having eaten, and me not, and headed to the gym. We got a half a block away, and there was a beautiful, perfect-green, feather couch, with a sign taped to it that said, FREE TO A GOOD HOME. 0% BEDBUGS.

Regular readers might remember that when we moved into this apartment, the couch didn't fit in the door, so we have been sans sofa for a few weeks. So we were, in fact, in the market for a new couch. If it had said "no bedbugs" I would have walked past. But it said "0% bedbugs" and the definitive nature of that declaration made me stop and think -- is it true? Is it safe? How long has it been out on the street? I don't even pick up free books off the street anymore, since my friend told me that's where bedbugs go to hang out when they're not in the bed. We started to inspect it -- it looked pretty great, but ..... when two guys came out of a nearby apartment, and we asked them if they knew anything about it. Why, yes they did. They had tried to give it away through Craigslist, but people kept flaking on them, so they had just, not ten minutes earlier, brought it to the street. They had just bought a newer, bigger, purpler couch. And really, there are no bedbugs.

So they helped us carry it down the block, and even helped us maneuver it into the apartment, where it fit perfectly, looks wonderful with the rug, and clashes with the walls. I love it. And I learned, once again, that even when there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything on my list, accepting my limitations can bring me exactly where I am meant to be.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I took a nap

Never Done: Take a power nap before noon

I worked all weekend -- got up at 6:45 AM both days to fit in all the stuff I had to get written, and still be able to go to parenting class, the gym, and the Paul Weller show, so by Monday morning, I was super tired, but still got up at 6:45 to get everything done I needed to. Do you know those days when you sit at the computer, and you type, but you don't type much of anything useful? Or you sit at the computer and you notice that you were nodding off for the past 15 minutes? By 10:30 AM, I had edited a short article, been on an intense conference call, and was nodding off at the keyboard.

I feel like I should set the scene -- my desk/office is in the living room. Josh uses our work space at the Brooklyn Creative League, but he was home preparing for his evening performance. So I was working on the bed. The bed with the cozy flannel comforter. The bed with the cozy flannel comforter in the dark back room.
The bed with the cozy flannel comforter in the dark back room and it was raining outside. And I was nodding off at the keyboard. Was there even a choice?

I slept for about 20 minutes, and then was awake and super-productive all day long. What I love about naps is that they work so well, especially since I don't drink caffeine anymore. A TV writer/show runner I know, when I asked him how he wrote so well on all-nighters, said that the trick is to stay away from caffeine. He eats a spoon full of peanut butter and an orange every couple hours -- protein and fructose -- and takes brisk walks around the block. I also like to hoola hoop for about 5 minutes, which both relaxes and invigorates me. But sometimes I just need a nap, but until now, I have not had one before noon. (And I am not usually bound by the constraints of the clock -- I have been known to eat a spoonful of ice cream first thing in the morning.)

As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about what this post is actually about, and I think it's about slowing down, and knowing my limits while still embracing this intense project to do something new -- and write about it -- every day. While working, and while trying to sustain some of the new things I've started into longer-term projects. It's been 53 days. That's 14.5% of the year. 312 naps .... I mean days ... to go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

No one is watching you

Never Done: Spin Class
Never Done: Paul Weller Live

My friend Rimma has been selling me on the virtues of spin class for months now, and I have been resisting her -- and spinning's -- charms for as many months. First, I lived too far from the gym. Then, I didn't think I was in good enough shape to jump into a group class without flaring up one of my multitudes of chronic injuries. Also, most of the classes are at 7 AM, and my multitude of chronic injuries prevents me from going to spin class at 7 AM. One by one, the impediments were removed. I moved a couple blocks away from the gym, and started a slow, steady workout routine to start building my muscles and stamina back up. Just the other day, I noticed that I was able to increase all my weights by 5 pounds, and still feel no strain as I lift, and also that running a mile on the track without stopping has become pretty easy. So I texted Rimma and told her I was ready for the 9:30 AM weekend class. She texted back and told me she was bringing a posse.

When the time came, I didn't want to go. My neck was tight, I had a ton of work to do, it was beautiful out. But when Rimma texted me to say she had gotten there early and set up a bike for me, I hustled over to the gym, stretched, climbed on the bike, said a silent Shehekhianu, and started to pedal to warm up. (It feels like I'm going into a lot of detail before getting to the part about the actual spin class. Maybe this reflects the 8 months of not going before actually going. Let me jump to it.)

Spinning is full of contradiction. Did you know they put the bikes in front of mirrors and then turn the lights out? Play music so loud that the instructor has to shout into a head set mic and is still inaudible over the music? It's also incredibly repetitive. Once you start pedaling, you go around and around and around for an hour. In some ways, the most physically surprising thing that is also completely obvious (another contradiction) about spinning class is that you keep spinning. It's not that my legs got tired -- they didn't, because I made sure to use light enough resistance to last for the whole class -- it's that they got bored. Of spinning. And spinning. Tshuve. And spinning some more.

It sounds like I didn't like the class. I actually did. Rimma told me something incredibly useful at the beginning: no one is watching you. No one knows how much, or how little resistance is on your bike. Just keep pedaling. Do what she says, but if the instructor says to go faster, go as much faster as you want. If she says to put more resistance on, put as much more on as you want. I followed Rimma's advice (humility -- seek wisdom from everyone) and also did everything the instructor said to do. And except for the insanely uncomfortable crotch/butt situation, and my very tense neck, I liked it quite a lot.

This is turning into a long post, but I did do something else worth a mention. My friend Eric was in town, and he had an extra ticket to see Paul Weller (from the Jam) play at night. I'd never heard him play live in any of his configurations, so of course I said yes. As much as I hated the name
(the Best Buy Theater) and corporatization (is that a word?) of the hall, the sound was amazing. We stood amidst a grove of extremely tall, white, men -- I had a sliver of a view, but could almost always see Paul's stunning silver bob, and listened to him play a full-out two hour show. I don't know his stuff well enough to identify it, but Eric does, and I learned afterwards that what I liked best came from his days with the Jam, and then his mid-career solo material. Sometimes I could hear the influence of my favorite band, the Who. But the thing I think I liked best about going to the show was going with Eric, and thinking about the few times we've gone out to music together over the 20 years we've been friends. Dan Bern, the out of town pre-Broadway run of Hairspray, and now Paul Weller. I wonder what will be next?