Tag Archives: personal essays

The Yom Kippur Post

When I was a kid I was in awe of my parents and grandparents who had the privilege of fasting on Yom Kippur.

“Believe me,” said my grandfather, “it’s no privilege.”

But I knew he was just being modest.  To me, fasting was an activity that adults got to do, like driving or going to work instead of school.  I remember how my grandmother used to prepare for a whole day of atonement.  “I bring a sweater to shul.  You always feel cold when your stomach is empty.”  My mother would also have only the highest reverence for Yom Kippur, and every year would deny herself her morning honey cake.  “But the coffee is not negotiable,” she would say.  “I don’t want to get a headache.”  And my father would always say, “I feel better when I don’t eat,” a statement that always won him a lot of friends when he repeated it in the crowded temple throughout the day.

Then I turned 13 and at last had the privilege of fasting on Yom Kippur.

“Make sure you don’t eat too much the day before,” my father said to me.  “You’ll get an enlarged stomach.  It’ll think more food is coming on Yom Kippur and then you’ll get sick.”

Knowing that part of being a teenager was ignoring your parents’ advice, I stayed true to my age and the day before Yom Kippur I gorged myself on three times my usual diet of cereal, bread, and cookies.  I figured that if a gluttony could get a hibernating bear through the winter, the same approach could get me through the Day of Atonement.  And I had plenty of time to reflect on that logic while I was dry heaving in the mens’ room, my prayer shawl hanging on a hook in the hallway, while upstairs someone chanted the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale that obviously did not have the privilege of fasting that day.

The following year I was smarter.  I did not gorge myself the day before, but ate sparingly so that my stomach would shrink.  I sat through the whole Yom Kippur service, allowing the lightheadedness to enhance the spirituality and bring the fast-breaking buffet that much more quickly.

“Be careful when you break the fast,” my father said.  “Take little bites and see how each one goes before taking another.  Your stomach is too small to handle the usual portions.”

Knowing that my father was just kidding, as soon the sun went down and I was inscribed in, as it turned out, the Book of Life, I raced home and inhaled two blintzes and a bagel before I even one arm out of my high holiday jacket.  And as I took the other arm out I was racing upstairs to the bathroom where I got a second look at the blintzes and bagel.

The following Erev Yom Kippur I didn’t gorge myself and I didn’t starve myself.  I ate my normal diet and went to temple and focused my full attention on atoning for my sins of the previous year and how I was going to be a better person in the coming year.  So immersed was I in God’s glory that I did not think of food at all.  And at a certain point in the service, I looked over to my mother, and made a signal, and without a word we went outside, and got in the car, and drove to a bagel shop that was out of the way so that we would not run into anyone from the temple.  My mother stopped the car in the front, let me out, and then she drove around again, giving me enough time to scope out the bagel shop out and see if there was anyone from the temple before they could see me.

“Coast looks clear,” I said when she came around again.  We confirmed with the proprietor that there was a back door exit, and then took a table near the front so that we could see who was coming in before they could see us.

And when we were done we returned to the temple, checked our teeth in the vanity mirror, and took our seats among the congregation praying fervently for forgiveness.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Holidays

Remembering My Aunt Helen

When I was born and brought home from the hospital in a Volkswagen Bug that had no baby seat but was otherwise very reliable, my parents had no bassinet in which to place me.  My father suggested the floor, which he had recently refinished and was very proud of.  But Aunt Helen, my mother’s older sister and sole sibling, had a wiser suggestion.  “Put him in my laundry basket,” she said.  And so I was placed in the laundry basket, with perhaps a pair of socks supporting my fuzzy little head.

When I started forming words, my name for her was “Aunt Hen,” and Aunt Hen was always a part of my life.  She and my Uncle Joe lived in the next town over, and it to was their house that we went for those kinds of special occasions that require chips and dip.  At Christmas, there was an ornament of a man in a boot that Aunt Helen would hide in the tree, and the first of my brother and I to find it got an extra helping of candy canes.  At Easter, she filled her house with jellybeans, and I would stuff my pockets as if I had discovered an ancient treasure.  Whatever confusion I might have experienced as the child of an interfaith marriage, such confusion was swept away by large servings of pie.

I particularly remember the Fourth of July.  We would all sit in Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe’s backyard, and when their black Labrador retriever—first Max, and then Abercrombie—came by with a tail swishing this way and that, we would all hold on to our drinks and hamburgers lest they be swept to the deck where all dogs have a right of first refusal.

Aunt Helen had a funny way of putting things.  She was quick with the one-liners.  Whenever we attended a Jewish funeral, Aunt Helen used to say, “Okay everybody, let’s take a bet.  Meat or dairy?”  And when my mother was doing Christmas shopping and needed some gift ideas for Uncle Joe, Aunt Helen famously said, “Don’t buy him any more clothes.  He wears the same shit every day.”

Yes, Aunt Helen’s defining trait was her sense of humor.  When my mother was in middle school, Aunt Helen helped her study for an exam in American history that was going to test the various acts—the Navigation Acts, the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act—that led to America declaring that it had a right to pass its own oppressive acts.  My mother was wearing ski pajamas during this study session, so Aunt Helen asked, “And when was the Ski Pajama Act enacted?”  Decades later, when yours truly was studying those same acts, my mother would ask me about the Ski Pajama Act, even though I had never heard of ski pajamas.

Aunt Helen was at her funniest when talking about the family.  She knew all the family gossip.  If this cousin wasn’t talking to that cousin, Aunt Helen always knew the gory details and we would all gather ‘round her like our ancestors once gathered around storytellers in the days before the E! channel.

Just because she was funny, however, did not mean Aunt Helen was a pushover.  She taught elementary school, and even outside the classroom there were still only two ways of doing things: her way, and her way without being told.  She liked to moderate the speed at which my Uncle Joe drove the car, saying, through clenched teeth, “SLOW…DOWN…JOE.”  Averaging about 35 m.p.h. on the Long Island Expressway, we knew we had to tell them to be places 3 hours ahead of time.

But they always made it.  Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe went to everything.

Even after diabetes confined her to a wheelchair, Aunt Helen was determined to attend every major event in everyone’s life, no matter how much she had to travel in a van or yell at my uncle.  She went to my college graduation.  She went to my law school graduation.  Even the morning of my wedding, in a hotel some 300 miles from her home in eastern Long Island, she passed out and had to be revived.  I knew nothing of this until months later, for at my wedding she was dressed up, and alert, and happy.

When she went on dialysis, I was worried that she wouldn’t be as funny as she had been.  But the moment I saw her those worries went away.  She didn’t talk about her illness at all, and instead would talk about the latest politician to momentarily forget about the existence of video cameras.  Of all the limitations her illness placed on her, it did not touch her mind, her voice, or her personality.  She was at all times—healthy, sick, standing, seated, lying in a hospital bed—a mixture of unconditional love and sharp wit.  She never let anything get in the way of seeing her family and friends.  And she never let anything get in the way of a laugh.

I remember visiting her in the hospital after she had both legs amputated.  She was sitting up in bed and asking me about how I was enjoying work.  When I told her about how the hours were long and that the partners were driving me crazy, she said to me, “Well, don’t let it get to you too much.  Make sure you have fun, too.”  And then she sent Uncle Joe and I out for some food in blatant violation of hospital rules.

Three weeks before my wedding anniversary this past May, my wife and I received a card from Aunt Helen, congratulating us on making it through yet another year without killing each other.  She was always very thoughtful like that, and I laughed at the time because I figured that she had just forgotten the exact date of our anniversary.  Why else would she be sending me a card that early?  I made a mental note to call her.

As it turned out, a few days later it was my Uncle Joe who was calling me, to tell me that Aunt Helen had passed away the night before.  My first thought was that I should have called her.  I guess I was too busy downloading the latest version of iTunes to find 10 minutes to talk to my aunt.  The guilt was terrible and I didn’t feel like eating that day.

But then I thought about what Aunt Helen would say.  “Don’t worry about me.  Enjoy yourself.  And eat.”  And I smiled, and knew that Aunt Hen would never really leave me.  And then I went and got a sandwich.

25 Comments

Filed under Family

Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

My first Valentine’s Day  involved a second-grade class and a sheet of perforated Valentines.  We had to give them out to every other kid in the class, and I’m pretty sure I gave them out to the boys as well as the girls, and signed “Love, Mark” at the bottom of each one.  Even in the midst of Freud’s latency period I felt a vague uneasiness, but did not see how I could discriminate.

My phrase of choice that year was “Holy Baloney,” which I said every time the teacher told me I answered something wrong, or assigned another project involving construction paper and paste.  One girl in my class laughed out loud every time I said it, and on her Valentine to me wrote “Holy Bologna” just above the salutation.  I was touched by the thought, and figured that I could accept her even if she did not know how to spell.

Valentine’s Day was so simple in the second grade.  No flowers, no dinner reservations.  I even think my mother bought the sheet of perforated Valentines, and instead of chocolates we snacked on those little hard and powdery candy hearts that said “Be Mine,”  “I Luv You,” and  “We Need to Talk About Your Choice of School Bag.”

But Valentine’s Day was not always this romantic.  There were many a year where Valentine’s Day was spent seeing how many beers I could drink before the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of my bedroom looked like a work of modern art.  If was lucky, there would be a friend who was also single, and we would go to the local dive and watch ESPN with the sound off, hoping that with each round we’d forget our loneliness and be able to read Mike Krzyzewski’s lips as he yelled at his players and, sometimes, the referees.

And then one Valentine’s Day I proposed to my now-wife, and my perception of this day of flowers and chocolate changed forever.  I don’t see Valentine’s Day as an obligation.  I see it as an opportunity.  For 364 days of the year (or 365 days in a leap year, like this one), I sit in my house and look at my wife and think to myself, “She’s so beautiful and wonderful.  I’m such a lucky man.  I wonder what she’s annoyed at me for this time.”

I wish there were answers in the back of the book, or a teacher’s edition, but there are not.  I have to make educated guesses of how to make my soul mate view me as less of a parasite who watches football.  Could it be the glass I left on the kitchen counter instead of putting it in the dishwasher?  Could it be that bowl with four floating Cheerios that I left in the sink instead of washing out and putting in the dishwasher?  Could it be that pair of dirty socks that I left on her laptop instead of washing them out and putting them in the dishwasher?  The greatest fear in any relationship is the fear of the unknown, and for a marriage that fear is codified in statute.

But for one day a year I am relieved of that fear, and handed a game plan with three simple steps: bouquet of roses, reservations at a nice restaurant, and then…you know…HGTV.  It is as simple as snap, crackle and pop.  My grandfather used to say that problems that can be solved with money alone are the kind of problems you want to have.  I’m sure that he had Valentine’s Day in mind when he said that.

So fellow husbands and boyfriends, my brethren in arms and credit cards, do not fear Valentine’s Day, but embrace it and its obligations with gusto, and be thankful that for one day you get to enjoy the greatest pleasure you can enjoy in a relationship: not having to think.

And to the ranks of the single who complain that there is no single person’s day, I respond: every day is single person’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to the students of Mrs. P’s second grade class.  I meant what I wrote on those perforated cards.

22 Comments

Filed under Holidays

Remember When Pitches Were Just For Movies: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference (Part 3)

After Donald Maass spoke about how to intensify novels and convinced everyone that the novels they came to New York to pitch needed to be rewritten from scratch, we were treated to the last speaker of the evening, Chuck Sambuchino, who gave us a crash course in pitching a novel.

Chuck summed up the novel pitch like this: It is the back of a DVD box.

You start with a logline.  This is a one-sentence hook to draw in your readers to checking out your title instead of that book of 101 pranks that can be performed with fruit.  Can love survive tragedy?  What do you do when the world’s most wanted terrorist is also your mother?

Then you move on to the pitch itself.  A pitch, Chuck explained, is a three to ten sentence description of your manuscript.  Three to ten sentences to get the attention of an agent.  Three to ten sentences that determine whether you are going to become a published author or spend the rest of your life working customer service at Harvey’s House of Milk.

The pitch is supposed to take between 60 and 90 seconds to deliver, or between 5 and 8 seconds if you talk like that guy who did the commercials for Micro Machines.  It begins with a sentence that introduces your main character, preferably by name, that sums up the status quo:

Frank thought he had found the perfect job as a taste tester for Lucky Charms.

Next, a sentence or two that sum up how that status quo is disrupted:

But one day he sees a marshmallow that he has never seen before.  It is black and in the shape of a PlayStation controller.

Then, a few sentences about how the main character confronts that disruption to the status quo:

At first, Frank thinks it is just an accident.  But as these black PlayStation controller marshmallows keep showing up in his assignments, he starts to ask questions, and finds that these new additions are more than just a test.  Rebuffed by his superiors, Frank digs deeper and finds himself embroiled in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave the eaters of sugary cereals.

Finally, close with a sentence that shows how the main character grows as a consequence of confronting the disruption to his status quo, but that does not give away the ending.  It helps if you can throw in a sidekick and a romantic interest:

Aided by an animated leprechaun—and motivated by his newly found love for the mysterious Wanda Slapjankles—Frank learns that breakfast cereal is more than just for breakfast.

 And that’s it!  Now you try.

2 Comments

Filed under Blogging and Writing

Remember Life Before Memory Sticks: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference (Part 1)

This past weekend I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  It just so happened that there was another Sheraton Hotel directly across the street.  Two Sheraton Hotels facing each other [caution: double spoiler alert], like the identical twin white mega churches at the end of Wayne’s World 2, during its parody of the end of The Graduate.

After I’d finished my coffee and noticed that the lecture I was attending, “Growing Bananas In Your Old DVD Player: An Introduction,” did not seem to have very much to do with writing and publishing and other ways to work in jeans and long t-shirts.  I wanted my money back, but all refunds had to be in banana seeds.

I was fortunately able to make the three lectures by author A.J. Jacobs, agent Donald Maass, and Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books (an imprint of F+W Media).  A.J. spoke about some approaches to writing about yourself in the 21st Century.  I started to think of myself as a robot, with a Pentium brain and a 75-page Terms and Conditions.  Then Donald Maass—known by some as simply, “Don”—talked about breaking through genre boundaries, and right then and there I began outlining a generational epic based on a family of extreme couponers.

The last speaker of the night was Chuck, who showed the attendees how to write the perfect pitch.  To write a pitch, he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, you have to make your book sound like the back of a DVD.  I wanted to ask him if the emergence of Blu-Ray discs required any adjustments to pitches, but the microphone was in the middle of the room, and to get to it I would have had to squeeze in between table and probably would have knocked some coats off of the backs of chairs.

The highlight of the evening came, however, from a question from a member of the audience.  The vigorous conference attendee said, “Now, let’s just say I’m pitching one of these agents tomorrow, and let’s just say I have a memory stick with my completed work on it.  At what point might be able to slip my stick into the agent’s hands?”  When the laughter died down, Chuck looked at the man, and advised him to not put any sticks into any agents’ hands. 

You just couldn’t achieve a public-speaking moment like that 10 years ago.

6 Comments

Filed under Blogging and Writing

Remember When Television Screens Weren’t Measured in Acres?

This weekend I am attending the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York.  It is my first conference, so I’m a little nervous about what to do and whether I’ll like the lunch that the conference agenda has promised me.  Is it okay to take notes at a writers conference?  At most times it is considered weird to take notes around other people.  But maybe this will be a conference where everyone will be taking notes…taking notes on people taking notes.

Remember when TV screens weren’t all flat and measured in acres, and people didn’t throw terms like “refresh rate” and “1080p” and “contrast ratio”?

I do.

One day, a long, long time ago, I was in an electronics store, staring at a 32-inch Magnovox TV, with screen-in-screen, sleep timer, and a remote control.  It looked enormous.  The TV’s screen was like a movie screen.  Whatever was being shown on it enveloped me, wrapped me up in it its arms.  I wondered how I, suburban peasant, could ever hope to possess something so magnificent.  I looked at the price tag.  It said $750.  I sighed, lowered my head, and walked away to whichever parent had pulled the shorter straw that morning.

Twenty years later I’m standing in my friend’s backyard.  It is summer, and he is hosting a barbecue to celebrate the day the Americans defeated the British by tossing M-80s and shooting bottle rockets at them.  Katy Perry has decided not to dye her hair avocado, and so there is nothing to talk about except televisions.

“Yeah, just got one myself,” my friend says, straightening his stance and expanding his chest.  He turns aside and gazes through the double glass sliding doors, into his den, to the television that doesn’t so much hang on the wall as be the wall itself.  He gets choked up and looks like he’s about to cry tears of happiness.  He shakes his head and smiles.

“How big is yours?” he asks me when he’s recollected himself.

“What?”

“How big is your TV?”

“Oh, my TV.  Uh, 32 inches, I think.”

“Really?”  He looks embarrassed for me. He pats me on the shoulder and walks away.  I decide that maybe it is time for me to get a new tube.

Except televisions aren’t made with tubes anymore.  I learned this during the six months of studying televisions and television technology, a mandatory course for all television purchases in my state (exemptions for veterans and celebrities).

This past weekend, my moment arrived.  The local electronics behemoth was running a special on TVs for $750, the lowest price I’d ever seen for something that still distorted the space-time continuum.  I ran to the store and announced to the first salesperson I found, “I want to buy a television!”  I thought these were magic words.  I thought I was going to be welcomed with open arms and champagne.  But instead he pointed to a long line of humans—a line of disappointed humans—and said I had to wait on that line if I wanted to ask any questions before making a purchase.

As I waited on the line I had a lot of time to look at the televisions on display.  All the TVs looked the same to me.  Only some were bigger than others, or came with a family living inside.

A salesperson caught me looking at a 46-inch LCD.  “That’s a nice picture,” he said.  “Yes,” I agreed, “it is a nice picture.”  I didn’t really care about the picture.  I was transfixed by a school of fluorescent fish that was airing on this fish channel, which apparently broadcast to this TV alone.

“It’s nothing compared to the LED,” he said.

I replied that I did not know there was a difference.

“Oh yeah, man, there’s like a HUGE difference.  I mean, I don’t want to talk you out of something if you’ve made up your mind.  But just check out those two TVs side-by-side.  The one on the left is an LED.  The one on the right is an LCD.  Now look, see that that cat there?”  We were watching a commercial for cat litter on both TVs simultaneously.  “See the black splotches in that cat’s fur when she scratches in the box?  See the difference?”

Not wishing to fight, I squinted like I was squishing around a glass of fine wine, and said that I did see the difference.  But then, I really did start to see the difference.  The LED had brighter colors, sharper images, darker darks, wrinklier wrinkles.  My mind was made up.  I would get an LED.  There was just one last thing I wanted to know.

“How come the LED is $100 more than the LCD?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but I’m not allowed to answer questions.  If you have questions, you’ll have to wait on that line over there.”

9 Comments

Filed under Television and Movies

Remember When You Could Buy Things Without Being Asked to Write a Review?

The other day I used a smart phone to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  I have never found it so convenient to buy the tickets and pick them up in plenty of time to sit through the half-hour of coming attractions, commercials, celebrity pleas for charity, and animated robot warning moviegoers to turn off their cell phones or trade them in for a small popcorn from the lobby.  And the movie I saw, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Special Effects and Marketing, was really quite good, and I thought I might even see it again once my ears stopped ringing.

But upon arriving home and sitting down to a hearty meal of cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, and sprinkled with coarse green sugar granules, a text message appeared on my smart phone, which occupied the other place setting at the table.  It was a message from the Fandango application:

“How did you like Sherlock Holmes?  Click here to go to Fandango and be your own reviewer!”

I politely declined the invitation to write a review for this Fandango, feigning a prior commitment to review movies on another website.  But the following morning, I was greeted with yet another text message from Fandango:

“It has been 12 hours since you saw Sherlock Holmes.  Surely by now you’ve formed an opinion.  Click here to write your own review!”

Again, I opted not to write a review, and figured that Fandango would get the hint.  But I figured wrong, for two days later there was yet another text message from Fandango, reminding me that it had been three days since I saw Sherlock Holmes, and that if I did not write a review soon the movie would no longer be fresh in my mind and I would risk being influenced by the review of others.

Since when did it become customary to ask someone to review something they just bought?  Fandango is not the only one.  It seems like every time I buy something online I am immediately asked to rate it, participate in a survey, or post my own review.  Not only do I have to pay money for the product and transmit my credit card information into the ether, but I have homework on top.  Isn’t the fact that I bought the darn thing enough to show that I liked it?  And if I really like the product, I will buy from the same vendor again.  That is, if I’m not too busy taking a survey.

I know what the answer will be: to obtain marketing research.  But why do the evil corporations need me to participate in a survey to obtain marketing research?  Isn’t that why they implanted that chip in my brain while I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled?

Before long, all purchases will be followed by offers to rate, survey, and review.  We will buy milk and be asked to rate the milk on the milk-producer’s website, or to like the milk’s Facebook page.  “Follow your 1% Non-Homogenized Milk on Twitter, and don’t miss any news!”

One might be able to support the reviewability of products if the reviews were helpful.  But the reviews leave me more confused than I was in the beginning.  I’ll look at the Amazon reviews for a digital camera.  One review will give the camera five out of five stars, and proclaim that it is “the best camera for pictures of people holding drinks in their hands.”  And another review, of the same camera, will give it only one star, and state that it is “the worst camera I’ve ever used; my family looks just as ugly as before.”  One reviewer will hate the camera because the viewfinder shakes too much.  Another will say, “Love that shaking!”

I suppose that some people like the reviews and surveys and ratings.  They like being a part of the collective consciousness of a Blu-Ray player or restaurant or toilet plunger.  Perhaps it is more than just market research.  Perhaps this new source of information—the consumer—is a new branch of literature, and will give us the same insight into the human condition as novels, poetry, and that song where you take someone’s name and add those “bo-banana-rama” lyrics to it.  Perhaps I’ve gotten this all wrong.

But this discussion will have to be tabled for another day.  For there is a man at my door, wearing a Fandango shirt, and holding a baseball bat.  And he does not look happy.

8 Comments

Filed under Technology