"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Racked With Gelt

Like many Jewish children, I wanted to celebrate Christmas when I was little -- strictly for the presents. While gifts were also a part of our family's Hanukkah tradition, they were doled out in what my younger self viewed as a parsimonious (I was a bright little fellow with a precocious vocabulary) fashion, only one per day. And I got stuff like: handkerchiefs. What seven-year-old carries a handkerchief, much less uses it for his snotty nose? That's what sniffling and, in a pinch, sleeves were for. My Christian friends received seemingly endless quantities of toys, games, bikes and motorized scooters, ski trips... goyim gift-getting overstuffed like a deli sandwich piled high with corned beef between two slices of irony. I wanted in.

I grew up in a reform (i.e., not so much "observant" as "nodding familiarity with") Jewish family, a sibling-free child of a Jewish mother and born-Christian-but-converted-to-Judaism-under-pressure-from-her-family father. When I entered elementary school our neighborhood had a substantial Jewish population. I recall at least a quarter of my classmates being Jewish; there were enough that most classes went into a holding pattern during the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since so many students were absent. I used to stay out for the first day of Rosh Hashanah but then plead to come in on the second since school was so much fun. Lots of arts and crafts, extended recess, no homework -- much more education-casual than the norm. But midway through 5th grade we moved, and within my new school district there was a mere handful of Jewish families. In a high school with over two thousand students there were, to the best of my knowledge, less than a dozen Jews. "Excused absences" for the Jewish holidays meant a frantic effort to catch up on missed assignments, make-up tests, and the need to answer the same questions from my classmates every year: "Where were you?" -- "What holiday is that?" -- "Why can't you eat?" -- "Where's your beanie?" A priest offered an invocation at my high school commencement, blessing all the graduates and their families "in the name of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Hmm, I hadn't met this Christ fellow.

As I've gotten older I've become even less observant. My religiosity is akin to Elizabeth Warren's take on her purported Native American heritage: "I grew up with these stories about my family and always assumed they were true." I haven't been to temple for many years and usually lose track of when the Jewish holidays come around each year. As I type this I know we're in the middle of Hanukkah but I'm not sure which night. As mentioned here, my wife and I are in a mixed marriage (she is level-headed and I am not), and neither of us did much in the way of introducing our son to either or, for that matter, any religion. My feelings about faith and organized religion are too complex to articulate here but I will say, even as someone who hasn't attended synagogue in a long time, I still identify with that part of my background. I don't trot out the "I'm Jewish! How dare you?!" card when convenient, but maintain sensitivity to the challenges of a life lived as part of a minority. While nearly everyone can come up with a hyphenate as part of their self-description (African-American; mentally-challenged; differently-abled), it dismays me when people who are clearly advocating from a position of privilege or their own self-interest adopt some fabricated minority status in order to claim oppression or discrimination against them or others in their class. "White Rights"; "The War on Christmas", and "Every Word Out Of Lena Dunham's Mouth Is Pure Genius" are examples; there is no more a war on Christmas today than there is peace in Iraq. And even within legitimate minority communities, there are those who seek to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for their status or (in)actions through some other fractional distinction. It would be like me claiming I was "present-deprived" as a kid because of my "Christmas-negative" status.

But I digress (did I mention I'm also "attention-deficient"?). Besides the handkerchiefs, I also recall receiving Hanukkah gifts including:
  • The soundtrack to "My Fair Lady", that perennial children's favorite.
  • A subscription to Horizon, a hard-cover, rather high-brow arts magazine ostensibly ordered in my name but just so my mother could read it.
  • A remote-control car. Now, this sounds like *exactly* the kind of thing a young boy would be thrilled to get. This version, however, wasn't controlled by a radio remote but instead by a plastic bellows attached to a narrow tube running to the car; squeezing the bellows was supposed to change the car's direction. 1) It didn't. 2) The hose was only about three feet long, so I had to waddle along behind the car as it rolled aimlessly across the living room floor. 3) The batteries in the car lasted about 20 minutes and there were no replacement "C" batteries in the house, ever. I played with it for that brief period on one day and never again. (And yes, I recognize the "... and the portions are so small" contradiction here.)
  • A pretend medical kit, the kind with a plastic stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff where the needle would spin wildly just like when your grandfather was having a stroke, a fake thermometer that ended up getting stuck in all kind of places -- a true classic toddler toy. When my parents gave this to me I was twelve years old.
I'd like to believe I've grown up into a generous person -- not extravagant by any means, but not anywhere near as stingy or misdirected as my parents were when it comes to giving gifts. Certainly our family is quite fortunate in that there's nothing we need, and little we want. At this time of year, it seems more appropriate to be focused with what we can give to and do for others and not at all concerned with what we may receive.

There's really only one thing I ask: if someone could point me toward where I can get a decent corned beef sandwich up here in the middle of Maine... I mean, I've heard even Jesus grew up in a kosher household.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Give A Man Enough Trope

People say I'm stubborn but I refuse to believe that.

"Look after the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." Yes -- while you've got your head buried under the couch cushions looking for spare change, your ungrateful family will raid your wallet.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Alright... you'd be a lot easier to take with a couple of cold beers.

Everyone has at least one good book in them. Those diagnosed with pica may have six or seven lodged in there.

I expect to pass this way but once. However, my GPS is so goddam useless I might be back again to ask for directions.

My psychiatrist told me I was crazy. I said I wanted a second opinion -- he said that wasn't covered under Obamacare.

When I was little I knocked on my friend Billy's door and asked his mother if he could come out. She said, "Not until his grandparents are dead."

My wife was excited when I told her to expect great sex after dinner. She didn't even wait for dessert to be served before dashing over to the singles bar.

I'm not so much "hard of hearing" as I am "soft of listening".

Where words fail, music speaks. Where music fails is in any bar hosting a Karaoke Night.

I was just diagnosed as a pathological liar -- psych!

Success is a bastard with many fathers. Failure is an orphan, with no takers. But I'll think about it if you'll throw in the leather upgrade at that price.

Never say never. Personally, I prefer "No fucking way."

It is said, "Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." Then why do people have résumés?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Let's Face It

My dear friend Charlotte is in the midst of an around-most-of-the-world trip: her itinerary includes stops in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and maybe even Poughkeepsie. She is occasionally meeting up with family and friends in various locations but is largely seeing two-thirds of the world on her own. She maintains a lively travel blog and recently wrote of traveling inward -- spending time exploring solitude.

Charlotte describes herself as an extrovert, so consciously choosing to spend some portion of her time minimizing contact with other people and stimuli was challenging and ultimately rewarding. I, however, am quite the introvert. This might come as a surprise to those of you reading this who know me. Years ago I was part of a work team that completed personality assessments; we compared outcomes afterwards and when I said the test indicated I was an introvert most of the others expressed disbelief -- "You're always joking around!" "You're so outgoing!" But one very perceptive co-worker looked at me and offered the correct analysis: "You're an introvert posing as an extrovert." Truer words were never spoken, other than "Don't order the seafood platter at Denny's." If we've ever had a dialogue or been together in a group activity, you've no doubt noticed how remarkably red-faced I become the moment I open my mouth. It doesn't matter what I have to say -- something as simple as introducing myself will trigger a blush so profound that I'm frequently asked how I got so sunburned... in the middle of winter. It's embarrassing, making it self-perpetuating behavior -- I say something, which gets me red-faced; I'm aware I'm blushing, which makes me even redder. Sometimes in photos my face is blurry when others are in focus because my head is throwing off so much heat. Unlike Charlotte, I embrace being by myself. When I used to travel for business, my wife would complain being alone in the house drove her nuts. Carol recently enrolled in a class that takes her out of town for one long weekend each month. I miss her while she's gone, but I look forward to being on my own, with only the cats as my companions. They share my aversion to conversation and don't care if I leave the dirty dishes until the next day.

I've spent a fair amount of my working life in roles where presentation was an essential part of the job -- corporate training consumes much of my resume, and other roles involved running demonstrations or leading meetings. I've always liked to believe I'm a good communicator and facilitator, reasonably articulate and can manage the flow and interplay among participants well. Perhaps that's because I am uniting them with their collective amazement at how red my face is, their curiosity at how much redder it can possibly get, and even a touch of fear regarding their proximity if my head were to spontaneously combust and explode.

Please don't confuse my introversion with being anti-social. I do tend to shy away from large functions and am not much at striking up conversations with people I don't know. But if I spy some familiar faces at a big party, or a stranger initiates a chat with me -- I can be very loquacious and occasionally entertaining. But I inevitably hit a point where the well runs dry and I go back to hugging the wallpaper, often leaving the function hours before its scheduled end. Once I was a participant in a week-long training class of a dozen employees, most of whom I hadn't met before our session began. I sat quietly during the first two days, speaking only when spoken to. At the start of Day Three, I made a conscious decision to be more outgoing and initiate some discussion during our group breakfast. I smiled broadly when I entered the room, offering a boisterous "Good morning!" to all, and began to recount some anecdote, using sweeping gestures and giving dramatic voice to the narrative. Everyone was entranced, keeping their eyes focused on me throughout my "performance". I concluded my tale, and shortly afterward one of the session leaders came over and asked if she could speak with me for a moment. She took me by the arm and led me away from the larger group. She smiled and kindly said, "You've got something hanging from your nose." I grabbed a napkin and swiped at my face -- dislodging a dried booger the size of a raisin. There wasn't another peep out of me for the rest of the week.

Since moving to the lake I've been fortunate enough to work from home, keeping in touch with co-workers via various electronic methods. On one project I've been working with a team that has a daily video check-in; our webcammed faces joining a row at the top of the screen as we log in. When I'm added to the display, I see a cozy warm halo surrounding my head. I'd say it's almost Christ-like if I weren't Jewish. I guess that makes it more nebbish-like.

One day I hope to find myself completely at ease, able to let go of whatever angst is buried deep within that contributes to my introversion and discomfort in the spotlight. However, I suspect the only time I'll ever be completely at peace will be when I die -- I'll make a milky-faced corpse when my brain is no longer wrestling with my anxieties.

Kind of ironic I've requested to be cremated.