Thursday, January 24, 2019

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Blogrolling In Our Time for Wednesday, January 23

Because you can leave the Hotel New Jersey (h/t Deborah Anna Ackner) any time you like, but you can never really leave, say a big brilliant hello to Smoking Toward New Jersey.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

On being a secular Jew in neo-Nazi-ascendant America

I grew up in a home that was sporadically Jewish.  By "sporadically," I mean one where some years we went to Sunday school at the (reform, hence Sunday) synagogue, and some years we went at the Unitarian church.  I mean one where some years we lit candles for Hanukkah and some we had a Christmas tree and opened gifts on December 25, until my parents gave up on the candles and the Sunday school entirely and we became a secular Christmas home.

My parents split up and both remarried.  My father married a lovely woman who wasn't Jewish and celebrated a mostly secular version of Christmas.  My mother married a Jewish man who went to services on High Holy Days but also ate pork.  Mom's version of being Jewish meant all the baggage of our people and none of the religion.  And to some degree, this is what I inherited.

I was always aware of being Jewish, no matter the Christmas tree, or the years we went to the Unitarian church, and long after the menorah was put away in favor of permanent Christmas at home.  I read Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. I joined the junior youth group at the synagogue in town despite the fact that we didn't go there.  I went to my friends' bar and bat mitzvahs.   I saw "Fiddler on the Roof" in the movie theatre. 

My first experience with anti-Semitism was in high school, when the mother of a friend of mine referred to me, and others of my ilk, as her "dirty Jew friends."  She was shuffled off to a private school, partly to remove her from my terrible influence, and we lost touch after that. (I am happy to report that thanks to social media, we are now friends again and when she visited me briefly a few years ago, it was as if those years had never happened.)  A few years earlier, there had been a bit of a to-do in town because of a requirement that to be in the choir, you had to be in the Christmas tableau.  A few Jewish parents and ACLU-ers filed a lawsuit, and there was some nastiness in town that eventually settled down.

I saw more of it at the provincial tiny college I attended, where once someone literally asked me:  "If you're Jewish how come you drive such an old car?"  I met someone who was perhaps the only other Jew on campus in my sophomore year, and we dated until I graduated.  After graduation, I dated Jewish and non-Jewish guys, then joined a Jewish singles group at the Y.  That was when I came closest to really returning to the fold, even having a seder one year for my mother, her husband, and my ex-nun Catholic downstairs neighbor.  But then the Y decided to eliminate our program because we weren't producing marriages and babies. And that was the end of all chances this world had to make me a practicing Jew.

So what was I?  I married a pagan, celebrated the Winter Solstice because we were obligated to endure a horrific Christmas Eve with his father and brother every year, but I have always identified as Jewish.  But what is that, really?  Someone asked me that recently, and I didn't know what to say.  I've never "tried to pass", for all that I have kept this Italian last name because I've had it for over 32 years and I'm used to it.  Yes, I bake cookies that may or may not fall during Hanukkah, and I've been known to hang a garland on the mantel, because I figure these are all symbols from Celtic and Germanic paganism anyway. 

Most years I don't even know when the High Holy Days are.  I eat pork.  When I was a child my mother somehow always ended up making pork chops on Yom Kippur.  She always said she never planned it that way, but I wonder if that was HER passive/aggressive way of separating herself.  And yet, I am still Jewish. 

Jewishness is in my soul, in a deep place that I can't even define.  It's in that deep pain that I feel when I see imagery of the Holocaust.  It's in that fear that I feel when I hear about swastikas being spray-painted on synagogues and in public high schools, and when Jews are massacred in their synagogues as happened in Pittsburgh this year.  It's in that fear when I see people in Charlottesville, Virginia shouting "Jews will not replace us", or when a Trumpazoid invokes "George Soros," which I know is code for "Jewy Jew Jew Jew."  It's that knot that my stomach turns into when anyone discusses Israel, because I am not a Zionist, I feel no strong affinity for Israel, I hate what Netanyahu is doing, and yet I feel that the Jewish state is necessary BECAUSE of the people in Charlottesville and BECAUSE of the massacre in Pittsburgh and BECAUSE of the swastikas in the high schools.

It's in the experience of having gone with Mr. B. to see Marc Maron doing stand-up comedy and him finding it funny while I'm practically on the floor laughing until my stomach hurts because I KNOW what it's like to live in a head like that.  It's in the feeling of hearing four bars of klezmer and knowing that it is the song of my people.  It's in the collective memory that the aroma of half-sour pickles and pastrami evokes; one of shopkeepers and tenements and the people who came here on ships in the early part of the 20th century.  It's about the experience of seeing the Statue of Liberty gleaming in the sun as the cruise ship I'm on approaches New York Harbor and knowing in my heart the hope that my grandparents felt when they came here from Russia and Poland to escape the pogroms because as it has always been, Jews were already blamed for everything.

I often wonder about guys like Stephen Miller and Mike Cernovich; guys who were born Jewish but have adopted views that fly in the face of the hardships their forebears endured.  They insist that they are not Jews, as if that will insulate them when shit gets real.  Perhaps it will.  There was the Jüdenrat during the Third Reich after all -- a Jewish agency charged with enacting anti-Jewish policies. But I simply don't understand how someone can NOT have that feeling in their soul of this collective history, its joys and its heartbreaks.

When my mother died in December 2012, my sister found a reel of home movies in her house.  She thought it might be from when we were kids, and took it to be digitized.  But what was revealed was even more important.  It was footage from our mother's childhood, between around 1930 and 1938.  These are fascinating snippets of the Jewish diaspora in America during that time.  Most of them are short clips, but there is a longer video of a party which appears to be a celebration.  My grandmother and three brothers had come to the US together from Poland.  Their parents and sisters came later.  This clip appears to be a celebration of their arrival.  What's striking about this clip is that my grandmother, the most sour woman I ever knew, looks happy.  My mother is perhaps three or four, wearing a little white dress and a big bow in her hair.  She is dancing with another girl and my grandmother is smiling, clapping along and smoothing my mother's hair. It is a joyous gathering.

My great-grandparents and their eldest son, Joe, who stayed
in the US along with my grandmother and three brothers.

My grandmother's sisters returned
to Poland with their parents.
From a different video.  My grandmother here is
waving at her father here, probably upon his arrival. 
My mother is sticking her tongue out at the camera.
She did this her whole life, thinking it was still
adorable even in her 80s.

My great-grandparents were unable for some reason unknown to me to adjust to life in the US, so they and the sisters returned to Poland -- just in time for Hitler.

Watching this video, and other clips which show my mother and her sister as normal, happy children, playing in the sand at the beach, riding ponies, kicking water in a kiddie pool, playing hopscotch, it suddenly all made sense.  The monster that my mother had always described her mother as being wasn't always that way.  She became that way when she learned what had happened to the members of her family who went back. I can't even imagine the guilt and recriminations she must have felt -- the "what if"s and the "If only"s -- regrets she lacked the psychological insight to deal with.  We believe she turned her grief and rage against her husband and children.  And those children turned that damage against THEIR children -- in our case, those children being my sister and me.  We too are Holocaust casualties for all that we have no Holocaust survivors in the family that we have known.  Neither my sister nor I have children, and perhaps that's for the best.  It ends with us.

I've never tried to hide that I'm Jewish.  Even when I married Mr. B. and changed my last name because I was tired of being at the end of the alphabet, I've never tried to hide.  How could I hide?  It's in the way I talk, it's in the way I overanalyze everything, it's in my dark sense of humor, it's in the neurosis and anxiety that more clever Jews than I have turned over the decades into art in the form of music and film, on canvas, and elsewhere.  It's in my blood and in my very being. 

So yes, I am a secular Jew.  The theology does not speak to me other than that I know that it is part of me, it has shaped me, it is engraved in me as it has been for millennia.  All of those who have died over those many centuries simply because they did not believe the way the majority did, are all part of me.  Even if we don't believe, we owe it to those who died to acknowledge and honor them, come what may.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The hardest thing about getting older

The hardest thing about getting older isn't the jowls, or the hair loss, or the creaky knees, or the utter stubbornness of the belly fat you really did try not to accumulate, or even the inevitability of our own certain demise, because life here on earth is going to be a dystopian nightmare in about twelve years anyway. No, the hardest thing is watching the losses pile up, as both your cultural touchstones and those around you start going gently into that good night.  Some of them are older, some the same age, and some are younger, which tends to make one wonder why one has been chosen to still be here.

On September 28, the last of the cancer vloggers I was following, Daniel Thomas (a.k.a. Peeweetoms) died after a three-year battle with an aggressive and particularly horrific soft-tissue cancer called pleomorphic sarcomatoid carcinoma.  Dan Thomas was a cheeky fellow, also from the UK, whose journey actually had him cross paths with Emily Hayward, who predeceased him into the embrace of the universe by almost exactly three months. Dan leaves behind a heartbreakingly young widow, part of an amazing and highly entertaining family who plans to keep posting what may be hundreds of hours of Dan's musings on life and never giving up that he recorded in a frenzy in his final months.  This young man faced terminal illness with a bravery that most of us twice his age don't manage, all at an age (32) when so many of his peers are playing beer pong.  I have to admit that Dan's demise didn't knock me flat quite as much as Emily's did, mostly because when  you've seen video of a formerly vital young man, his skin sunken into his skull, his face wracked with pain, still vlogging while on large doses of morphine in a hospice, you just shout to the universe "Just take him already and free him from this pain!"

I think it's also that I was in a flurry of activity lining things up for the consignment of Mr. Brilliant's cremated remains to the waters off of Negril, Jamaica, where in 12 trips to Negril and another six to other parts of the island, he was able for one week to stop fretting about work and his own self-doubt, smoke all the ganja he wanted, and just BE. 

I'd always planned to do this, I just wasn't sure when.  When he first died, I just "wanted him home", even if that meant a Japanese-inspired urn on the dresser.  But over the five years since them, the question of what would happen to them if I died started to really bug me, because the truth is that there isn't another human being on the face of the earth who was going to care what happened to him.  And just because he would tell me (when he wasn't quoting Homer Simpson about how he wanted to be stuffed and propped up on the couch as a constant reminder of our marital vows) to just throw them in the garbage, I wasn't going to indulge his more depressive moments by doing that.

Transporting cremains to Jamaica involves a TSA-approved urn and something called a transit permit.  Since I was planning a water burial, a degradable urn was easy enough to find online.  Most airlines require that cremains be in your hand luggage in order to prevent incidents like this one.  The transit permit, however, is a bit more difficult, because you are required, if you are unlucky enough to have your hand luggage searched, to present it at Customs.  Now, you might be able to find a driver willing to do this legwork for you, but then there's the issue of how to get it to you.  So to make a very long and anxiety-fraught story short, I managed to find in a Facebook group a service charmingly named Any Likkle Ting U Need, and was able to FedEx them the necessary paperwork, whereupon they had to shlep an hour and a half to Montego Bay and make three stops to get the damn thing and FedEx it back to me.

With that taken care of, the next thing to deal with was finding a boat operator who would take us out far enough to place the urn in the water, where it would float for 3-5 minutes, then sink and gradually decompose over a period of days, presumably scattering the cremains among the sands of the Caribbean, where they would lie under the Jamaican sun forever.  I'd wanted him home, but now I wanted him to have this permanent Negril vacation so he wouldn't end up either in a dumpster someday or else shocking someone who buys this beautiful urn at my estate sale.

Facebook has taken a lot of entirely well-deserved flak over the last few months.  But before it became a data-mining, election-influencing monster, it was a social network, that facilitated old friends reuniting after many years, relatives who never see each other to keep in touch, parents to stalk their children, the lonely to find support, and so on.  And just as a Facebook group brought me to the folks who went above and beyond to get me the transit permit that I ended up not needing thanks to Club MoBay, who breezed us through Customs, it brought forth a wonderful American woman who lives part-time in Negril who set us up with a friend who just happens to be a  dive instructor.  Now, all jokes about "Only you could find a Jamaican dive instructor named 'Myron'" aside, Myron and his crew proved to be compassionate gentlemen who treated Mr. B's urn with the appropriate solemnity and respect.  And Myron went above and beyond anything I had expected by diving into the water himself, and tucking the urn under some coral, where it would be not readily visible to curious divers.  Then he told me the exact name of the reef where we did the internment, and pointed out the landmarks, so if I should decide to go to Negril again, I will know where the ashes are.

When I told my sister, who had accompanied me on the trip, that both the couple who got the transit permit, and the woman who set us up with the boat, would be on the boat, she asked "Are you sure you want to do this with people you don't know?"  But the answer was "Absolutely," My gut told me at that point that these were EXACTLY the people I wanted with me.  These were the kind of people whom I truly believe that Mr. Brilliant, who hid the self-loathing I'd never known he had until the last months of his life  behind a façade of "No one I didn't meet first is cool enough", would have absolutely found to be "cool enough" for him.

As our plane took off from Montego Bay two days later, I did feel a little bit like I was leaving him behind; abandoning him somehow.  And yes, once I got home the grief journey started all over again and it continues still.  The weather grows chilly here in North Carolina, there has already been snow in New Jersey, and he always hated November.  But every time I visit that Facebook group and someone has posted yet another photo of the beach, or the beautiful sunset, I feel that he's exactly where he'd want to be.  And then I wonder how it can be five years already.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Anger is passive. Rage is a trigger for action

If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled.

If you’ve been feeling a new rage at the flaws of this country, and if your anger is making you want to change your life in order to change the world, then I have something incredibly important to say: Don’t forget how this feels.

Tell a friend, write it down, explain it to your children now, so they will remember. And don’t let anyone persuade you it wasn’t right, or it was weird, or it was some quirky stage in your life when you went all political — remember that, honey, that year you went crazy? No. No. Don’t let it ever become that. Because people will try.  

Thus writes Rebecca Traister in the New York Times.

As someone who's been angry about politics for more years than I can count, I've been told more than once that anger is toxic, that it eats away at your health, that it hurts no one but the self.  But there's anger, and there's anger.  There's the anger you feel at your husband because you're working 14-hour days and he can't seem to remember that you asked him to make a vet appointment for the cat because you're in meetings all day.  Or more trivially, that he never puts the toilet seat down (solution to that one:  always check).  That's the kind of anger that you kind of have put into perspective, lest it REALLLY give you health problems.  The anger at the driver that cut you off.  Anger at the flight attendant who fat-shamed you.  Those are the kinds of fleeting angers that maybe we do need to let go of.

But then there's institutional anger, such as we're seeing now. It flares up every now and then and then fades.  So let's stop talking about anger and start talking about rage.  Because anger is a feeling.  Rage is a trigger for action.  There is no better example of rage --> action than the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School kids.  They too are victims of trauma caused by toxic masculinity, but within 24 hours after the event that changed their lives, they managed to channel their grief and anger into a rage that has not abated even though the hip-hop stars and celebrities have gone home.

I've become skeptical of marches.  500,000 people marched in New York City in 2002 and we went to war in Iraq anyway.  How many millions of women and our allies marched in cities across the country after Trump's inauguration.  And what was the end result?  You can argue that it was a trigger for more women -- progressive women --  running for office, and that is a valid point.  But it remains to be seen how many of them will actually win, and even if they do, how many will be kneecapped by the Democratic Party in order to perpetuate the sternly worded statement --> dire e-mails --> corporate money --> consultant coffers --> failure cycle that has characterized the Democratic Party every election since 1980, except when a figure like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama comes along who's so charismatic that it supersedes everything else.

Marches make us feel good, sort of the way blogging used to.  It makes us feel like we're part of something BIG, something that's going to Really Do Something This Time.  So we put on the pussy hats and we march and we chant and we yell and listen to famous people speak and take selfies with them while they march.  We enjoy the free concert and  we feel really exhilarated by the solidarity -- and then we go home and nothing changes. 

Last spring we had the March For Our Lives -- another massive, multi-city march put together by a bunch of raging teenagers.  And we marched.  We chanted and we yelled and enjoyed the free concert and felt really exhilarated by the solidarity -- and then we went home and now at least 63 school shootings have taken place in 2018, including the Parkland shooting.  And aside from a ban on bump stocks signed by Rick Scott, who is trying to get to the Senate, nothing has changed.  And Joe Manchin has to use a gun in an ad about health care to show his penis-symbol bona fides in a state the residents of which care more about what other women do with their genitals than their own economic situation. 

We will know more about whether anything has changed after the election next month.  But in the mean time, nearly two years after the women's march, here we are, with a woman who was sexually assaulted when she was fifteen being called a skank and a whore and a liar, and a preppy, possibly alcoholic fratboy, who was no doubt told from the day he was born that he was special and entitled to everything he wanted, throwing a tantrum on national television because a woman no less might stand in the way of his getting what he regards as his DUE -- a lifetime appointment on the highest court in this country.  It took two women screaming at Jeff Flake to even get a delay long enough to look at the long anecdotal trail of appalling behavior towards women of this Court nominee, pushed forward by a president with his own well-known record of appalling behavior towards women.  But don't kid yourself.  Flake, along with Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and yes, the aforementioned Joe Manchin, will vote for this guy.   Because a six figure government paycheck and benefits that most Americans no longer have is just too sweet to risk on doing the right thing for this country's women.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Blogrolling In Our Time for Sunday, September 16

I've been reading Jim Wright's posts on Facebook for a while, so say hello to Stonekettle Station.

And here we go again

This time her name is Christine Blasey Ford.  This time she wasn't harassed on the job, she was sexually assaulted while in high school, by yet another man seeking to ascend to the high court partially so that he can reassert government (male) control over women's bodies.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.
While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”
I don't know many women to whom something like this has NOT happened.  It happened to me.  I wrote about it any number of times at the old place, but for those who don't know, here it is:

It was the fall of 1974.  I was doing a lot of partying at frat houses at a nearby college.  I was never stumbling drunk, because in those days, most of what was available at frat houses was beer, and I really did not like beer.  But I would get tipsy enough to get flirtatious and when I got flirtatious I ended up in bed with people I might not have otherwise.  Or maybe I would.  After all, I was not one of the pretty girls to whom the guys flocked.  There was a boy at my school who had already branded me as "The Evil Troll" for no good reason at all. So yes, there was a certain amount of nihilism in what I was doing -- "If that's how the game is played, that's how I'll play it."  I was hanging around with other girls who were doing the same, so I did it too. 

I had met the boy in question the summer before at a bar my friends and I used to go to.  He was attractive, went to said nearby school, drove a cool sports car, and he offered to drive me home, which I accepted.  He drove me home, and was a perfect gentleman.  I don't remember if I went on a date with him, I might have.

I ran into him at a frat party that fall, and agreed to go to his room.  Had I been more savvy, or less nihilistic, I would have realized that a guy whose frat house bed is on a raised platform with a desk underneath, and at one end of the bed was a full bar, and along the wall was a high-end stereo system, was not just inviting me back to listen to music.  I might have had sex with him anyway.  But I stupidly climbed up into the loft bed, and the next thing I knew I was being held down, pinned by my shoulders, and told that I was either going to "put out" or my clothes would be torn off and thrown out the window.

He wasn't joking.  So, like most women who are assaulted, I put my mind someplace else until it was over.  I wasn't about to challenge him.  I knew someone who had gotten drunk the semester before, gone off with a guy she had a crush on, and woken up naked in a frat house bed.  All of her clothes were gone except her coat and shoes.  She walked back to our campus in the dead of winter wearing nothing but her coat.  I think the coat was dark green. 

I was not about to follow in her footsteps.

After it was over, I gathered up my clothes and drove back to campus.  I remember thinking "That was a really stupid thing to do."

I did run into the boy again, at another frat party -- the last one I ever went to, because I heard "whispers" when I walked into the room.  I remember walking up to the boy and smacking him HARD across the face (not an easy feat, he was about a foot taller than I was), then turning around and leaving.  As I left, I heard laughter and knew it was not directed at me.

I never went to a frat party again.

The following semester, I met someone at my school and was with him until I graduated.  He was a year behind me and I broke off with him after graduation.  The relationship had grown stale by that time and it was the best thing for both of us.

I went on to live a normal life, including a normal sex life.  I know that seems like TMI, but it's important.  I met Mr. Brilliant when I was 28, and the rest is history.

For me, it was an unfortunate incident partially caused by my own incaution, an incident from which I learned that the sleeping around I was doing was NOT satisfying, it was NOT empowering, and I was getting what in 1974 was known as "a reputation."  It may have been 1974, but it was a provincial area of Pennsylvania, and the "double standard after the fact" was in full flower.  I never thought of it as a sexual assault until much later.  I thought of it as something dumb that I did.  The thought of "pressing charges" would never have entered my mind, and if it did, what would have happened?  I went to the boy's room willingly, and that would have been all anyone needed to know. 

I've been hard on Certain Bloggers who decades later insist on defining themselves as "survivors of rape."  I have never, and still don't, define myself as a "survivor of rape."  I don't have "triggers" -- at least not about an incident that happened 44 years ago.  It really didn't affect my life all that much.  Perhaps I was just more resilient than some people, or perhaps even with my lousy self-esteem, I recognized that a jerk in a frat house didn't define me.  Or maybe it was the slap.  I don't know.  I don't care.

Now if I heard that the boy in question was a Supreme Court nominee, would I feel an obligation to come forward?  Hell yes.  Would I have the guts?  I don't know.  What I do know is that what happened to Christine Blasey when she was 15 happened to me, with a different perp, when I was 17.  And I'll bet it's happened to one hell of a lot of women. many of whom have gone on to put it aside and go on with their lives. 

I don't know how many girls/women that boy went on to assault because of his feeling of privilege, that he had a right to stick his dick into any woman who came to his room,  I suspect I was not the only one.  I also suspect that he went on to get married, have a career, have kids, coach his son's little league team, take his daughter to soccer practice.  Maybe he's still married.  Maybe he became a drunk and had affairs.  I don't know.  Here's what I do know:  I know that sexual assault is not the natural order of things.  I know that even then there were boys who recognized that no meant no and that a girl can go to your room to listen to music.  And that is why it matters.  That is why what Brett Kavanaugh did in high school matters. It also matters because this is a man who detailed graphic sexual questions he thought Bill Clinton should have to answer.  This is a man who has called contraceptives "abortion-inducing drugs."  This is a man who kept a 17-year-old girl from having an abortion EVEN AFTER she had fulfilled all the legal requirements.

I don't know if Brett Kavanaugh still assaults women.  But his documented track record sure tells me that he'd still like to.