Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Building – and Keeping – Traditions

Oh, I love New Things, but Old Things hold such comfort and warmth. Here in Alaska, far from our original hometowns, we’ve had to create our own traditions: our own Thanksgivings, New Year’s Eves, Passover seders.

Let me tell you how much I love Passover! In telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, we tell a story of slavery and freedom, injustice and social conscience. We do this while sharing a meal and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a thousands-years old tradition, but for us, now in our Third Thirds, our version is almost thirty years old, too.

We tend to alternate Thanksgiving with Bob and Connie so this year, Tim and I got the seder. This means that I got to pick the haggadah, the book we use to proceed through the rituals, engage our kids, and give meaning to the holiday.

I pull out my huge collection of haggadot and that’s where I see the years of accumulated Passovers. My very first: a faded, yellowed one on newsprint, the one we used back on Long Island, the free one from Chase and Sanborn Coffees. Mine has a post-it note on it, “Love, Mom.”
Then I have the college haggadot from Liberation Seders. Each year, we’d focus on another population that needed both freedom and our attention; One year, gays and lesbians, another year Ethiopian Jews. I had lots of them so they were the ones we first used in Alaska. This year, my new additions focused on refugees.

I remember that first seder in Alaska. Gathered together were maybe a dozen of us who’d all grown up with our own family’s Passover. We all thought that’s how seders had to be done, and then we encountered … deviation. “No, you’re not allowed to eat until we finish.” “My family always let us eat.” Sacrilege!

Mark reminded us about the time he’d been assigned matzoh ball soup. He’d had no idea what he was doing so he just got some matzoh and kind of broke them up and kind of stuck them in canned chicken broth and kind of made a mess of the whole thing. This year, he brought Brussels sprouts. Marla did the soup.

There are years of tradition in the charoset, the mixture of apples, walnuts, wine, honey, and cinnamon. One year someone introduced Sephardic charoset with dried fruit, different spices. One year, a newbie didn’t grate the apples or chop the nuts: it was like a chunky salad, not like the mortar it’s supposed to represent. And then, because one of the kids had a nut allergy, we offered a non-nut version.

Kids changed the Passovers over the years. Kids meant the introduction of the shorter haggadot, the ones with pretty graphics, the ones that didn’t take hours.
As we sat at this year’s seder, with Rebekah the youngest and so the one who had to ask the Four Questions, we looked around. Yes, there had been a time when Tim was the youngest. Max and Sophie used to do it together, and now Max is back at the table as an adult.

There was the year Sophie and I bought little toys of the Ten Plagues: rubbery frogs, little cows, plastic bugs. Somehow, when tossed out, they stuck to the ceiling. Throughout the seder, frogs would rain down on us. It was very profound. For months afterwards, I’d find plagues in the potted plants. I hope Sophie found a seder this year, that she’s creating her own traditions.
This is what I know to be true: every year, Connie will want to make the special Passover dessert; Celia will make gefilte fish from Alaska fish (halibut or salmon). Rebekah will usually slice all the eggs with my special egg slicer. Someone will grate fresh horseradish root, and I will repeat the story of the time I grated it, sniffed it in the food processor, and passed out on the kitchen floor. Karen will remember the time, after dinner, when her dog grabbed the leftover turkey plate and ate it all. Poor _____, not a Passover goes by without someone remembering the time as a baby he projectile vomited grape juice all over the single guy at the table. Things change, and things remain the same.

This is what tradition is: the memories that hold us together.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Culture Clash

I just finished reading a novel about Russian/Polish Jewish mathematicians who came to America. It’s an odd book – The Mathematician’s Shiva – because families are odd, Russian/Polish Jews are odd, and mathematicians are really, really odd. At one point, the narrator comments on how different his family is from Americans. But I kind of know his family – my birth family and relatives – and it felt familiar and sweet and I’ll even say it, heartwarming.

When I was in New York City, waiting on line for discount theater tickets, everyone talked to everyone. That’s what New Yorkers do, but my sister told me an over-the-top even for New Yorkers story. She and my other sister were waiting on line in terrible humidity and heat. They were quietly talking to each other about the rash one had gotten under her breasts from all the heat. The woman behind them interrupted, “I couldn’t help overhearing, but I know just what to do for that rash. Y’know Monistat cream, the stuff you get for yeast infections? Just rub that on your breast rash and it’ll clear right up!”

#!*X%! TMI? Huh, what’s that?

So there I was in Katz’s Deli, waiting on line to order my gigantic pastrami sandwich. Sophie was going to meet me there. The people in front of me were chatting with the carver, saying how her father used to come there for years, he liked it thin, whatever. Sophie arrived, and I waved her over. Then it was my turn to place my order. I told the carver I’d come all the way from Alaska for this pastrami sandwich, and we chatted. Sophie glowered at me, may have even told me to shush. Pretty sure she told me to shush.

Possible interpretations:

  1. This is a mother-daughter thing, and the mother was yet again doing something embarrassing in front of the daughter. The mother is clueless; the daughter is upholding social standards.

  2. The daughter wisely thought the mother was interfering with the carver’s ability to do his work.

  3. The mother realizes that the daughter was raised in Alaska.
Yes, of course I know my daughter was raised in Alaska. Yes, I know she laughs uproariously at the craziness of my relatives. But suddenly, I had the realization that she was raised in a different world. As different a world as the immigrants who looked at the “Americans.”

I married a calm, genial Midwestern guy. Things don’t fluster him. Mostly, I realize that two of me would be a little too … volatile. I am glad that our daughter had the evenness of his temperament and background in her upbringing. And we raised her in Alaska.

On a kayak trip here in Alaska with friends, Sophie, and my friend Janet from San Francisco, I had some trouble getting the kayak on the roof of the car. Sophie and her friend jumped on the car, lifted the kayak, threw the ropes around, tied them off, secured the whole thing. Janet looked at them and said, “They don’t make them like that in San Francisco.”
In my Third Third, I’ve known that things I experienced as part of defining me – Howdy Doody, terrible assassinations, Vietnam, drive-in movies – have come and gone. They would never be part of any next generation’s formative years. Those were events, bits and pieces, time-sensitive occurrences. Our kids have their own, more current influences.

But this is what just hit me: a whole culture that I still participate in, that still exists, that created a whole personality type – my personality type – is not my daughter’s. It’s too far away, too infrequent, too inaccessible to transmit. Many Alaska kids only experience grandparents on an annual basis, not every weekend. They couldn’t know from overbearing relatives, nosy New Yorkers, old-fashioned delis. You can’t inherit a culture outside that culture. Culture isn’t a trait. It takes a community to transmit it, not an individual. Alaska Native families know this.

At a certain point, my parents must have looked at me – this girl who didn’t know the Depression, Brooklyn, or the seltzer delivery guy – this girl who didn’t speak Yiddish to immigrant parents – and realized I would never know those things either.

Culture isn’t inherited; it can only be absorbed.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Post-Vacation Blues

Re-entry is hard.

Really hard.

I got home and saw the mountain of a month of mail – junk, magazines, bills, newsletters. I sagged under the weight of it, both literally and spiritually. The junk is easy; it’s the “do-something-with” pile that overwhelms me. The renew-my-membership or this-is-your-new-PIN or please-switch-to-automatic-deposit or look-through-the-catalog-because-the-30-year-old-sheets-finally-died. Or the simple but overwhelming pile: “read me.”
 And I’m not even talking about doing the taxes.

Then I looked around the house. Tim had cleaned, vacuumed, swept, laundered, put away for the summer, all that. He was great. (It may have all happened the day before I returned; I’ll never know.) But there were still things I needed to do. Chores, maintenance, obligations.

Not to mention confronting the need to GET IN SHAPE for the Chilkoot Trail hike.

There was the thrill of the Defiant Requiem, but then…. My life felt like the mountainous pile of mail: it had to be endured, chipped away at, slogged through.

Someone said the problem with not working is that you never have “time off.” No weekends; no 5:30, it’s over. But in New York City, I had Vacation. Real vacation. From chores, commitments, mail. All I had were interesting things waiting for me to pursue them, enjoy them, plan more of them.

Remember when getting mail was a treat? You’d race to the mailbox to get there first? When I was about ten, I wrote to every airline, asking for their calendar. I got spectacular calendars with glorious pictures from around the world; I lived for the mailman.

Same with the phone. It rang and you were electrified with possibility.

Now? Oh, yuck.

In New York City, I lived with the six shirts I brought, the three pairs of pants. Instead of all my paints and art supplies, I had nine colors, three pencils. Dinner was two bowls, a fork and spoon, one glass. Back home, I have a closet and a dresser of clothes, a kitchen of dishes and equipment, a pantry of supplies. An office of paper, bookshelves of books.

I wanted to fire bomb my house.

I think of myself as a high-functioning depressive. I don’t lie around in bed; I do get moving. But it doesn’t seem to influence my mood. Recognizing that fire bombing the house was a tad extreme, I started Getting Rid of Stuff. I have moved out planters, jars, knick-knacks. I am eying everything with venom: “You are crowding my life: Get Out!”
But that’s not it really.

The “it really” is my life. This Third Third. I still need a theme, an overarching purpose, and I don’t know what that is. New York City proved I could have fun, but when I saw Laura Poitras’ Astro Noise exhibit – just one example – and the life work she’s done on exposing injustice, torture, and surveillance, I think, “That’s valuable, worthwhile, important.”

New York confirmed that I’m a very good “appreciator.” I really, really appreciate all the terrific things other people do.

But right now, the biggest thing crowding my life is me.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to drown you in the Black Hole. But I am still trying to figure all this out, this Third Third business. (Someone once told me he’d never heard the expression “figure it out” so much till he met me….)

Okay, the mood has broken: I’m back.

Friday, April 8, 2016

More than the sound of music

When I wrote yesterday about all that culture in New York City, you might have noticed a glaring absence: what, no music? Well, barely any: there were two Broadway musicals, but that was just incidental. I don’t seek out music. Mostly, I actively avoid it.

I don’t know if it’s being sort of tone deaf or the ulcer I got at age 12 from piano lessons. The day I quit piano lessons – and I was pretty far along – was the last time I touched a piano.

Oh, I love the Rolling Stones and a good dance beat. I like the early Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker and Laura Nyro; and lately, I’ve been experimenting with cello performances and I enjoy them. When Sophie played the bass, I loved the deep, enveloping sound. I’m thinking of taking bass lessons. So I’m not a music-hater, more like music-reluctant.

When Grant Cochran of the Anchorage Concert Chorus asked if I’d take the part of the narrator in this week’s (tomorrow and Sunday) performances of Verdi’s Defiant Requiem, so many alarm bells went off for me: music! Classical music! Religious classical music! Catholic religious classical music! And then, because these performances highlight the Requiem in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, more alarm bells: not another Holocaust-Jewish-victimhood story again! Jews having to perform for Nazis like little puppets.

Everything said No! … so I said yes. But I was worried that with two performances AND two rehearsals it would be a struggle not to fall asleep in front of an audience.

Then my world shifted.

Wednesday night was the first rehearsal, and I am STUNNED. No, let me put it more accurately: I have FELT music, and it is TREMENDOUS!

Even the first view of the stage can knock you off your feet: 200 singers and 80 musicians! It’s the Anchorage Concert Chorus and UAA Singers, 13 music professors, Anchorage Concert Chorus orchestra and UAA Sinfonia. They’re all there!

I sit with six basses, ten cellos. There are four bassoons. Way over the sea of violins are giant drums, more trumpets. And when the singers sing, it’s no anemic, barely-heard-above-the-music singing – it’s a thunder of singing.

Murry Sidlin, the conductor who brings the Defiant Requiem around the world, clarified things. The inmates of Terezín sang the Requiem – from one copy of the score, committing it to memory – for themselves, not for the Nazis. They were nobody’s puppets. Long after they’d labored all day, mostly starving, mostly sick, they sang. They sang for an audience of mostly starving, mostly sick, mostly beaten-up fellow inmates. When one survivor says this singing gave her “pure joy” – in a concentration camp – I started to understand. This music was their creativity, their affirmation, their expression of personhood in a place that sought to deny it. It kept them alive.
When they were forced to do it for the Nazis – just once – they sang it to their faces. They sang out their courage, their being human, their having dignity and character and music. The Defiant Requiem is a story of defiance, not victimhood. It’s a story of standing up in refusal to be beaten down.

Now I get it. Music-reluctant me gets it. When the trumpets do call-and-response, when sweet sounds come from some place I can’t locate, when the voices rise up with spirit and defiance; I FEEL it. When all those basses rumble, my insides rumble. When the whole chorus erupts in song together, something inside me boils over. My whole self gasps and stands up.

Is it the music or the history? I don’t know; I’m a music novice. But I suspect they can’t be separated. I don’t know the words; all I hear is boldness and will, just like the Terezín inmates heard. Do the musicians and singers inject the spirit? Did Verdi? Do we the listeners?

Or is it just the sound of the big life force of being human?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Emerging from total immersion

I’m home. New York City is now reflection, not possibility. (Oh, no! I’m missing The Crucible!) It did SO MUCH, but what was that exactly? What does it mean for my Third Third?

I absorbed A LOT of culture: art, theater, and the simple culture of being around humans making lives. I was awash with creativity – I had IDEAS and oomph and motivation and plans and energy.

I kept a calendar of my plans for the month. If I heard about an author talk or a free day at one of the museums, a special event in Central Park or a comedy show, it went on the calendar. Sometimes I had three things for the same time period, and then I had to choose. New York is boundless and limitless!

And if, by chance, there wasn’t anything on the calendar, I’d say to myself, “You haven’t explored 23rd Street. Today, walk 23rd Street.” So there I was, walking down 23rd Street and a woman handed me a card and explained it was Holi day and an Indian feast in her restaurant was only $2 today so would I like to eat? So I looked inside, stayed, and had a great meal for $2. Little surprises popped up all over New York, and I had the flexibility and curiosity to follow up.
Just before I chalked Yetta Goldstein’s name on the sidewalk to honor the victims of the Triangle Factory Fire, I got a call from Michele, Yetta’s grandniece, so we did it together. Turns out Yetta was from Bialystok, the same village my grandmother emigrated from! Here I was, an anonymous visitor from Alaska, and I managed to find connections to the inside stories of New York. With 8 million people, there are stories to connect everyone with everyone.

But I have to tell you some of the astonishing artistic creations I discovered. I like museums, but if you give me my choice, my preferred art moves, it performs. So I sort of stumbled into New York’s art museums – mostly because they all have free days so what could I lose?

I saw things that were direct infusions of creativity into my brain! I saw things I couldn’t have imagined, but they were windows into a way of perceiving the world that simply blew my mind. Here is Barbara before – here is Barbara after.

I entered the world of Peter Fischli and David Weiss at the Guggenheim (which I’d never been to before; it’s the round one with ramps). In Suddenly this Overview, they displayed hundreds of funny little clay sculptures – with hilarious titles – that freed my mind.
Anna O. dreaming the first dream interpreted by Freud. 
How different the world is when you see it this way! Everything is so comical, so full of alternative reactions. Later, sitting on the airplane looking through the Safety Information pamphlet at all the graphic instructions for water landing emergencies, I thought, “What if I told a different story with the same graphics?”
Inexpensive cruise line delivers your luggage.
Okay, maybe it’s not art, but it’s a mental shift. I like mental shifts. They’re interesting.

I went to youarenowhere (meant to be confusing: is it “now here” or “nowhere”?) Andrew Schneider’s one-man show. Later in the play, the light shifted on the curtain, making it reflective. Andrew did a batch of gymnastic moves and we saw the audience behind. Eventually I realized I wasn’t in that audience: it was another audience behind the curtain! With another guy mimicking Andrew! Finally, the curtain dropped and a confrontation ensued between the two guys, and we had to stand up and change places with the other audience. I’m still not sure what it says about simultaneity, perspective, or who’s right (I am sort of shallow that way); but I had never seen anything like it before! The reviews – which thankfully kept the secret – said it was “brilliant,” and it was. When I got home, I had an email asking if I wanted to come back, to be in the “other” audience.
I learned the word bricolage, building something from just regular old stuff you gather. Tom Sachs, in his A Space Program film, built a whole space center and Mars landing expedition from junk: cut up FedEx envelopes yielded the Tyvek to make astronaut space suits. It all looked so real-ish, and now I’m looking at my junk differently.
Oh, I can’t even describe Laura Poitras’ installation on surveillance. (She made Snowden’s documentary.) She fueled both my outrage and my awe – how she moved us through an immersion in surveillance and what it feels like.

So many creative people. Hundreds of creative people. Writing about them is so stale compared to the experience of them. For a month – a whole month – I got to steep myself in the worlds they created. I was changed.

Now the question: can I hold onto this “Barbara after”? Can she survive removed from that environment?

Friday, April 1, 2016

Natural woman?

Saved! Saved by a miraculous infusion of fresh air and green space! Today I took a walk with Bonny, another Alaskan-in-New-York. Her apartment is right near a cemetery.

“Oh, wow, you’re near a cemetery! That’s terrific! You have air space, sunlight, real weather!” Then we walked along the Hudson River where the trail was asphalt and dirt, not concrete or fancy pavers. Oh, will the glories never cease?

We have discovered how un-urban we really are.

I marvel at the wonders of Central Park. On the free tours, I’ve gotten to know the docents who point out the brilliant planning of Frederick Law Olmsted. He designed the stone arches so the paths curve away on the other side so you always have a sense you’re entering another world. Roads are masked by the terrain, landscaping, and foliage. There are automobile-free areas and days, and the bird sounds are so sweet and varied. It’s quiet, peaceful, restorative. Central Park is truly a masterpiece.
But every single piece of that park is man-made. Ditto for the beautiful Lower Manhattan Waterfront Esplanade. Ditto for the glorious New York Botanical Garden (although it has an area of natural forest). Ditto for the thousands of children’s playgrounds everywhere. Ditto for the millions of buildings with people living on top of each other, looking out windows at each other, shielded from sunlight and weather.

Is it obvious that I’ve spent a month in Manhattan?

I hadn’t expected this to happen. I hadn’t expected that I’d develop King Kong fantasies of knocking down buildings. As I rode the subway through the Bronx – where the subway is really an elevated – I made it to all five boroughs! – I saw acres and acres of high-rise apartment buildings. Acres and acres! I felt like Edvard Munch’s The Scream (temporarily in the Neue Galerie!). I couldn’t breathe because – as my sister puts it – all those people are breathing the same air!
What I love about camping: all the air is unconfined air, air that isn’t inside four walls and a roof. It just … circulates. But here in New York, even the outside air is still confined. It’s confined by buildings, shade, scaffolding (not to mention all the people breathing in and out). Compound that with inside air that’s over-heated because you can’t turn off radiators so you open the windows to let in the air from outside, but it’s not really “outside” air as we know it. It’s not fresh.

One day it rained, and I never felt it. There is so much construction going on with so much scaffolding everywhere that rain never reached the ground. Besides, it’s so hard to wash the windows on these tall, tall buildings that most windows are dirty. How do people ever see the “real” outside or the “real” weather?
I was never a “city kid.” I grew up in the wooded areas of Long Island. New York City was a rare expedition by train. But in Alaska, by Alaska standards, I’m not a wilderness-aholic. I have friends who hike every day; I can pass on it. Mostly I can even be ho-hum about it.

But now I’m suffering Nature deprivation. I yearn – yes, I YEARN – for rawness, wildness, decomposition, rotting trees, decay, real dirty dirt. Anything that isn’t manicured.

I’d been so gung-ho for my urban experience that I wrung every drop out of it, and it’s exceeded all expectations. I have been enriched beyond measure. But I also learned something about myself because I take it for granted in Alaska: in Alaska, I have outdoors, wilderness, and Nature on her own, in her natural state.

You don’t get to be a big, incredible city in the middle of a wilderness or national park. New York is a big, incredible city, and I needed an injection of what it offers. Now I need a little recovery, I guess. Perfect timing!

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