Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Chicken Soup Makes Me Happy

It goes without saying that the late Maurice Sendak (z”l) was in possession of a fabulous mind and a singular talent. His classics Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice emerged wonderfully into the world just a few years before I did, and have always been a cherished part of my reading life.

I still have my original copies of these and other books from my childhood, though I tend to be the only one here who looks at them anymore. Admittedly, even I do so only on rare occasion. My boys long ago graduated to chapter books, the newspaper, and Sports Illustrated. Picture books have receded into their distant memory, eclipsed entirely by i-everythings and eye-rolling at whatever I happen to do, say, or wear.

We’ve reached the era of begging them for some time in, as in some time in the presence of their mom, instead of sending them to their rooms for a timeout.

But I was once a child, and Where the Wild Things Are resonated with me then in the way it was meant to: I shared Max’s frustration with his mother, who wanted him to be quiet and stop running through the house. As a teenager, I found myself wresting with his feelings of anger and loneliness (No one understands me!), and longed to get to a place where I had some say, could possibly even be in charge of at least one tiny outpost of my own life.

Recently, after a small bit of surprise surgery that has, thank G-d, passed well under the bridge, I found myself couch-ridden in the room with our bookshelves. Perhaps because it has been quite a while since I last read Wild Things with my youngest, I turned to it for some nostalgic comfort, encountering it for the first time as a parent reading solely for my own enrichment.

Opening the familiar pages, I grinned as Max made his boyish ruckus, and bade him farewell as he sailed off to the wild things. On this read, however, I noticed something I’d never seen before in those grotesque creatures issuing their terrible roars: I saw myself. I had become some real-life version of the adults in Max’s (wild) imagination. I slammed the book shut in horror.

Unlike the roars of the wild things in the story, my real life ones tend to be quite specific: Clean your room! Shabbes starts in ten minutes and you still haven’t showered? Can’t you be nice to your brother? Put your basketball shoes away before someone trips and breaks his neck!

It is true. My job description includes making sure my sons tend to their hygiene, respect their environment, and know that they are not the only beings in the universe. Yet I gasped with shame at how I must sound.

To be fair, the boys do their share of roaring (at me, at one another), and my husband also contributes to the parental din (What did you do to your hair? What are you listening to at that volume? Pick up your clothes from the floor!). But they are all somehow immune to the effects of their own rumblings, and I’m the fool who found trouble in a picture book.

Soon enough, the boys arrived home from school, interrupting my little crisis. To my relief, no one mentioned our harried morning exchange (What on earth is taking you so long? You’ll miss the bus!), the one that ended with a declaration of my approaching redundancy (Mom, we’re big boys!). In fact, they hardly remembered the conversation at all (What are you talking about?). I finally resolved to take a page from their book and just ignore what I don’t want to hear.

Still unsteady on my post-operative feet, I hadn’t made them an impressive dinner, but I let their disappointment (roar) pass right through me. I did, however, promise that with their help, I’d be able to pull off most of our usual Shabbes menu. One offered to roll the meatballs if I could manage the sauce. Another begged out because he would be away for the weekend at a school shabbaton. My youngest said he always wanted to learn how to make chicken soup.

Early Thursday morning, the latter bounded down the steps and announced that it was time to put the chicken in the pot. I’d already washed the vegetables and herbs and he took over from there, cleaning the chicken, chopping the carrots and celery, and filling the enormous stockpot with water. He asked me to handle the seasoning, which I did, and we took a commemorative photo to celebrate our collaboration.

The pot simmered all day, keeping me company while everyone else was out. The delicious aroma transported me far away, to an imaginary place where no one roars, where everything follows quietly along a simple, peaceful plot line. As it is for Max in Sendak’s brilliant tale, this give and take is ultimately all part of the bigger picture of parenting by imperfect adults and individuating by imperfect children and adolescents.

I play my role, and they play theirs. Sometimes we roar. But like Max, at the end of the day, we all return to one another in the place where we are loved best, where a hot supper awaits.

Happy once, happy twice, happy chicken soup with rice.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Icing on the Cake

There is perhaps little sense in dwelling on something that won’t happen again until who knows when. And yet, I find myself mulling over the momentous Thanksgiving/Chanukah mash-up long after we’ve polished off the leftovers.

Here in my insignificant corner of the universe, I related on a personal level to the confluence of festivals, though it is admittedly a perspective that developed when I was still quite young. Because my secular birthday is at the end of November, Thanksgiving has long been the de facto date of its celebration with my family, whether the dates actually coincide or not. The result is that the two events are inextricably linked in my memory.

Thanksgiving was always magical, a happy standout from my childhood. It was a day that began with a televised view of the parade and ended with the opening of a birthday gift. There was turkey and homemade cranberry sauce, a houseful of elderly relatives who for the most part loved me unconditionally, and a few other guests, depending upon the year. We may well have eaten apple pie for dessert, too, but I only remember the icing roses on my cake.

Looking back now, I know that there were also less joyous moments that tainted Thanksgivings here and there: illnesses and trips to the emergency room, underlying family tensions, arguments and disappointments. But something about the day, for a long while anyway, distanced me far enough from reality to suppress those darker memories.

Of course, as an angst-filled teenager, I quipped about being a turkey baby and having to share the limelight with a platter of trussed fowl. I resented having my portion of stuffing measured. Still, for one Thursday a year, I didn’t mind the rest of the bits that muddled up my adolescent life; something intangible about the day made me able to see past the present and into a more settled future.

As it does to all it touches, time eventually changed Thanksgiving for me, stealing almost all of its charm. I missed its full-blown observance when I lived in Jerusalem, though friends and I gathered for falafel. It was a turning point anyway. My parents separated that year, and the combination of relatives around the Thanksgiving table would never be the same again.

Over time, the older generation of relatives passed on, and the holiday lost the last of its luster. Before long, Thanksgiving – with my apologies to the poor turkey -- became just another day off from work or school, another national holiday that happened to have a fine menu.

There were, however, occasional moments when I saw a flicker of the joy it once gave me. British friends I’d met in Israel came home with me one year. They enjoyed their first taste of candied yams so much that they ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

Two years later, my future husband came to visit from Croatia in order to propose, and we joined friends for his first Thanksgiving. I’d waxed poetic about pumpkin pie, only to discover that another guest had over-seasoned hers with allspice, rendering it nearly inedible. Minding our good manners, we all cleaned our plates, but it soured my husband off anything made of pumpkin for years. It is a moment we still laugh about today.

Eventually, my mother and stepfather resumed our family Thanksgiving tradition, with all the fixings and their enormous flat-screen television. The sparkle that lit up my childhood memories has been replaced by a day that is quiet and pleasant, predictable and warm. I make the pies; my mother bakes the birthday cake. The boys sit with their grandfather and watch football.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m simply grateful for the constant presence of everyone in the room, thankful for the fact that each of us has been blessed to see another birthday.

Soon after the discordant “menurkey” reached my ears, I learned that I’d be hosting this year’s Chanukah/Thanksgiving two-for-one. Though turkey-shaped menorahs are not my thing, it seemed entirely natural to me that the holidays could coexist peacefully, and not just because of their themes of gratitude. But I insisted that each get its due. I wasn’t going to let the latkes knock their mashed brethren off the buffet table and there’d be no post-dinner football until after we’d finished singing Maoz Tzur.

The only Thanksgiving tradition I bumped was the birthday cake. Two occasions are company; three’s a crowd.

Just days later, however, we attended our family Chanukah party. My son lit the menorah after dinner and the grandchildren opened their gifts. For dessert, there were sufganiyot (donuts) and a large sheet cake dotted with icing roses in fall colors.

As I blew out the birthday candles, I made my list of wishes, including more opportunities for combined celebrations. There’s no real reason to wait for the calendar – or a spinning “turkel” -- to tell us when or why. We should bundle our occasions as they come, together with the everyday blessings right in front of us, marking them in some simple or elaborately splendid way.

After all, don’t we all want an excuse to eat more cake?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Few Days in Connecticut

It is a wonder, I think, how just being in certain states of the Union has the power to alter my state of mind.

Without fail, a daytrip to New York snaps me out of my sleepy, suburban New Jersey existence; the throbbing pulse of Manhattan (when I say New York State, I really mean just the city) brings my listless bits back to life. Pennsylvania, where we go exploring when we can, gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling about family and memory, as if we’ve taken the greeting card exit off of I-95.

But traveling to Connecticut to visit our Aunt Bea offers something subtler, though no less transformative. Crossing the border, my inner edges immediately soften. My worries and tautly stretched nerves give way to renewed equilibrium. We connect with one another, yet also find the time to reconnect with ourselves, and it does wonders for my soul.

In need of some of that CT gestalt, my son and I recently capitalized on his full week of fall school recess. As we drove up the Thruway, I knew – without so much as sneaking a peak in the rear view mirror – that his shoulders had relaxed. The tone of his voice, too, had calmed. He even lifted his eyes from his DS long enough to become entranced by the almost imaginary majesty of the view.

Still, it is the realness of these visits that work their most powerful magic; the Constitution State indeed has the ability to cast a spell on my constitution. We settle in, and then take each moment as it comes, making few if any plans, but no one complains of boredom. Our outings range from the Redbox machine at the Walgreens down the road to genuine tourist attractions, depending upon our mood. We sleep until we wake (though still too early) and I linger over my morning coffee, but I don’t give my to-do lists but a hollow thought.

This visit was no exception. On our first night, I crocheted for the first time since my husband enacted an afghan moratorium during my hand-made blanket mania a few years ago. Aunt Bea worked on a word jumble. My son watched an action movie that made our stomachs lurch, but we obliged him and caught an occasional glimpse of Will Smith on an intergalactic mission.

It felt great.

In the morning, we set off for the New England Museum of Aviation, stopping for coffee – medium hot regular with skim milk and two Splendas -- at Dunkin Donuts en route. The woman behind the counter asked me how many skim milks I needed in my coffee. I asked how much milk a skim milk was. She clarified by asking me if I wanted one or two. Befuddled yet delighted by the encounter, I guessed two, laughing as I sipped a perfectly prepared beverage and we headed further down the road.

At the museum, Aunt Bea and I checked out retired military and civilian aircraft while my son sat at the simulator computer trying to safely land a jet, a prop plane, and a helicopter in turn at Newark Airport. The zero-gravity toilet exhibit came in a close second on his list of favorites. “I guess they can’t hold it in the whole time they are up there,” he mused.

Inspired by a video loop of “Apollo 13” at the museum, we checked out the DVD from Aunt Bea’s local library, along with the first “Star Wars” film. There were bins of cards from the old card catalog that encouraged upcycling. Always game, I randomly chose one for a biography of John Marshall, the namesake of my son’s elementary school, and a text book on child psychology. I laughed out loud again at the irony of these choices, though quietly this time as we were in the library.

Other CT adventures included the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, where we stayed so long that a staff member suggested we consider one of the museum’s sleepover programs. At the PEZ factory, my son remarked that it was a shame we wouldn’t be able to eat any of the samples. And in fact, he politely declined when the woman who sold us our tickets offered him a pack of candy to eat while he made his way around the center.

But she saw his yarmulke as he turned away from the desk and she called out to us, asking if kosher PEZ would help us out. You should have seen my son beam! She proceeded to tell us how the rabbi comes down for a week to supervise a batch for …she stumbled on the company name … Paskesz. Laughing out loud yet again (it was becoming a habit), I assured her not to worry since I wasn’t sure I pronounce it correctly either.

Slow making our way through the exhibit, I confess that I began to feel a little giddy. Everything has a history, even candy. PEZ, in fact, created the candies in Vienna in the 1920s as a minty alternative to smoking. But what struck me as most poignant was the way in which PEZ candies make their way out of those fun plastic dispensers.

The sweetness is delivered in small doses, one brick and then another, giving you time to appreciate each and every bite….no matter which state you might find yourself in when you eat them. Not a bad thought to keep in mind, I reckoned, when we made our way back home later that afternoon.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Little House that Could

You know the story about the man who goes to the rabbi to kvetch that his house is too small? The wise rabbi suggests that the man take in a parade of animals, one by one, until the man’s house is so noisy and crowded that he cannot hear the thoughts in his own head. To drive home his point, the rabbi then has the man remove the chicken and the duck and the goat in turn, until only the home’s original dwellers remain. Suddenly, the man feels like king of the castle in a house that is spacious and quiet, and to paraphrase Goldilocks, just right.

I imagine that our house is in no way as small as the one in the tale from the shtetl, but it also isn’t a palace. My boys who share a room would certainly prefer to have their own, and we’ve already discussed on these pages my longing for a kitchen that can accommodate a second sink (February 2012). My husband would like a study, and my youngest would like to build a sound-proof, explosion-resistant science lab. No one is asking for an indoor basketball court (well, yes, they are, but even they realize that’s a total fantasy). Still, each of us has a dream.

Plenty of luxurious homes have sprouted in our neighborhood, both before and since we moved in ten years ago. I always say I don’t envy them. But I mean it in the way you might say you want a sliver of cake, when what you really want is a big piece with an extra icing flower. Ultimately, though, you just don’t want the calories and you don’t want anyone to see you eating that much.

In all things, as with cake, after the sugar rush comes the reckoning. The clutter that could accrue in such a house is mind-blowing, not to mention the heating bill. Besides, I can hardly manage to clean up the footprint I have. Just the thought of keeping everything in its rightful place in so many rooms sends shivers up and down my spine. But having extra space for teenage boys to crawl into when they are in full-blown, extremely loud, testosterone-fueled mode, or the elbow room in which I can hide from it all? Wow. I mean, wow!

Then, this morning, as I began to set the table for Shabbos dinner, I had one of those I’ve-finally-figured-it-all-out moments. As always when we are not hosting guests, I positioned the plates for the five us all together at one end of the dining room table. My mind jumped to those massive, cordoned-off dining rooms the docent shows you when you tour a mansion. The rooms – and the tables – are always long enough for the family to have hosted an entire village. But when they were alone, they would spread out -- mom at one end, dad at the other, with a spattering of children on each side – and it always struck me as sad that there was so much unused space between them.

Space, it seems, is in many ways like money. I wouldn’t mind having more of it, but you really need only what you need. After all, we squish ourselves into our car each summer to drive thousands of miles together, and they are the best two weeks of our year.

Sooner than I want to acknowledge, the day will come when my boys, in turn, will pack up and move on to set up their own homes. And slowly, before we even realize it has happened, our home – without adding one square foot -- will begin to feel spacious, like the house in the village after the goat and the duck have packed their bags.

Suddenly, we’ll have plenty of room, but I imagine it will be too lonely to live with so much quiet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

As If

This may seem to be a tale of woe, but it is, in fact, a tale of redemption.

For years, my boys have begged me to have another baby. One wanted triplet brothers, so he asked a neighbor traveling to Israel to put his written request between stones in the kotel. Even after finding out exactly how babies arrive in this world, the others repeated their wish for just one sister, as if the process were akin to placing an order for a burger and fries.

Without recognizing any disconnect, they decided that I should also return to full-time employment. The middle one is approaching high school and the eldest is looking his year in Israel and college in the eyes. Even in their cocooned little universe, they know that bigger bills loom on the horizon.

They insist, with full teenage bravado, that they really don’t need me much anymore anyway. They can surely stay home alone, know how to work the DVR much better than I ever will, and can microwave practically anything. The squeaky wheel among them should finally learn to manage on his own (he’s 11), the older two insist. It’s high time, they say.
Get out there! You can do it, Mom. We’ll help out more!

As if.

The youngest, who always shares his opinion, wisely kept out of the debate. They think they are independent, he whispered to me, until it rains and you have to drive them home from the bus stop.

Well, someone’s paying attention.
They all forget, of course, that my current assortment of part-time gigs, by necessity, replaced what had been a full-time job in the city. When one child simply needed more of me than that position and its commute allowed for over the course of a given day, something had to give. I may now be running hither and thither to multiple work environments, but I have the flexibility to manage their needs and complicated schedules. And, by the way, I enjoy what I do.

A few interesting things happened as the discussion gathered steam. I stood my ground on the baby thing (they were too young at the time, or still in utero, to remember my last difficult pregnancy). Yet the working full-time piece crawled under my skin. Admittedly, the boys had struck a nerve.

Now G-d has a sense of humor. It’s one of the things I love about Him. At exactly this time last year, the boys got what they asked for on both counts, though no one realized it at first. The opportunity to research and write the 100-year history of an international Jewish organization fell into my lap -- overnight. It suited me perfectly. I’d be exploring an amazing archive and putting together a book.
Although I was savvy enough to know the project wouldn’t be limited to the proscribed hours, I figured I could manage with a little juggling here and there. My family pledged to give me full support, so how could I say no?

We were all excited when I dove in head first and swam straight into what now rounded out a full-time schedule of part-time work. Through it all, I planned a bar mitzvah and carried on with the rest of my life. I did not miss one big moment on the home front. The boys only noticed when the little conveniences of having a flexible mother seemed to disappear one by one.
Still, I soon enough realized that I was sleeping very little and I missed spending regular time with my family.

Perhaps it was because it had all happened so suddenly, without giving me the chance to make accommodations that full-time work requires.

Perhaps it was because those promises the boys had made about picking up the slack around the house never came to fruition. Perhaps, too, they realized they’d gotten what they’d wished for and were licking their wounds.

Regardless, I realized that I was, essentially, having a baby. The gestation period stretched the usual nine months. It took its toll on my body and my psyche, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I was exhausted and could hardly move. I became grumpy when I needed quiet. A whole lot was happening to me at once.

The laundry piled up. The mail piled up. Completely out of character, the presence of clutter no longer bothered me, even when we were hosting company for Shabbos. Making dinner became negotiable, and I rationalized the fact that nachos were, in fact, a nutritious meal. Cereal and milk, too. Both offer protein and some combination of vitamins, right?

I even failed to make doctor appointments, to return calls, and to answer correspondence. I saw few friends. I wrote just a handful of articles and I posted my blog a lot less frequently.

One day this past July, my eldest texted to ask me if it were almost Pesach. There is no food in the house, he whined. When I wrote back, insistent that there was most definitely a bag of pancake mix in the pantry, he replied that alas, there were no eggs or milk in the refrigerator.

My husband, who works a 90+ hour work week, emailed me to say that he was proud of me, but he wanted his wife back. I missed him, too. Finally, our three boys shouted in unison, No one told you to go back to work!


Well, I’ll tell you. I now fully understand why authors’ acknowledgements ooze with gratitude to their families. The writing of a book, as I now know well, takes on a life of its own.

Though it was rough for all of us here to go from where we had been in terms of my near-total flexibility to such a sudden, intense lack of it, I am hopeful that when the book arrives, the boys will be proud of their contribution to it. I believe fully in the project and am so thankful to the generous angel behind it and to the editor, who graciously appreciated that sometimes life gets in the way.

As my deadline loomed, one son had an accident and lost one and a half adult teeth, while twisting around a third. I wrote to my waiting boss, Sorry, chapter eight is on hold. Thank goodness, my son was fine and everything that really had to get done, both on the work and home fronts, did. All I could do was to stand back and wipe up the mess from the working mother’s paradox as I cleaned the blood off the living room floor.

Meanwhile, I delivered the baby last week. It is scheduled to ship out to China for publishing shortly. I’ve set to combing through the piles that have accrued to new heights around the house, and I have plans to cook a real mid-week dinner. As I make my way, I admittedly daydream about what it will feel like to hold the actual book in my hands this coming spring.

I scheduled date night with my husband. I will take my son to visit an aunt over his forthcoming school vacation and plan to strategize about redecorating the older boys’ bedroom in time for Chanukah. I’m meeting a friend for coffee, taking my regular morning walks, and writing my blog.

Yet the maternal amnesia that washed over me after my first two sons were born – the one that erases the less than pretty moments of childbirth so that we are willing to go through it again—has slowly begun to work its thing. Surely, too, the “me” that came out of hiding over the course of this year will likely not want to crawl back into her cave.

I will plan better in order to strike a better balance, but I’m definitely ready to have another “baby.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Ice Bucket

I’ve just returned from two weeks abroad, where the natural splendors of a Croatian island and the man-made beauty of Florence and Venice flanked a visit with my in-laws. We were gone just long enough to have been able to put out of our minds everything stress-inducing about our actual lives.

So, as you can imagine, the return home was like sticking my head into a bucket of ice water. Of course I’m not complaining. I’d go back in a heartbeat and do it again. But re-entry into the real world has been a shock to my system, and I’m not even referring to the jetlag, the laundry catch-up, yom tov cooking, or making my way through aisles of picked-over school supplies.

What I mean, really, is the fact that suddenly, life is back to being about more than just the five of us.

For two weeks, we crammed into a Peugeot sedan with our belongings and made our way from Milan to Zagreb. Three boys with legs far longer than my own shared the back seat. There was no elbow room. One quick turn and chaos ensued. They bickered well and hard as brothers do, but they had only one another. There were no far cooler friends to distract them. They were, to be blunt, stuck.

Meanwhile, my husband and I got to share the front seat and talk above the din. We had more face time than we’ve had in months. We caught up, became reacquainted, shared anxieties and dreams for the future. Sometimes, we rode in silence, enjoying the sound of the wheels on the asphalt and the miracle that we were where we were at all, traversing European terrain from Tuscany to Istria with our three boys in tow.

It was blessing enough that my husband’s pager does not work overseas.

There were even moments when we interacted as a family, undivided by the barrier of seats in a minivan. Suddenly, everyone having his or her own space felt overrated. We played alphabetical geography games. The boys reminisced about which meal they’d eaten in which kosher restaurant in which city on our previous road trips in the US. They planned where we should go next summer.

Each of us has a favorite aspect of our family travels. But one of the things I love most is talking to people we meet along the way and having brief, humorous, serendipitous encounters with complete strangers with whom I share either no common language or experience. We may need to play charades to make our points, yet the exchanges add unique dimension to being away without leaving a lasting impression that carves into family time.

Yet the very best part of traveling is finally getting the chance to talk to the people I live with and love most in the world. Not just about carpool and what’s for dinner. But about what they are thinking and feeling and stressing over, what makes them laugh, and what are they hoping to achieve in the coming year.

All doubts about whether these journeys are worthwhile are dispelled quickly with each tête-à-tête I share with the boys. There are no everyday expectations or demands – like pleading with them to clean their rooms or begging me to buy them another pair of sneakers. It’s just unadulterated human connection and it is one of the natural wonders of the big world out there.

Our summer trips have given the boys a broader world view, at least when they bother to look up from their screens. Most important, though, travel has enabled them to gather unparalleled memories -- of the places they’ve seen, the moments they’ve lived, and not least of all, the undistracted time spent with their family.

That more than any souvenir should carry them a long way down the road.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Clearing the Minefields

Setting expectations for ourselves is akin to walking through a minefield. No matter how gingerly we tread, we inevitably misstep, and when we do, we rarely hit a dud that fizzles without doing harm. Standing there in the debris of our disappointment, we conduct a vain search for the enemy, which more often than not proves to be our own desire to do too much too well and too quickly.

Initial triage reveals a gaping wound left by our sense of failure. For failure, after all, is multi-talented and ubiquitous. It can rear its ugly head anywhere, and there are few realms in the big bad world that offer so many opportunities for achievement.

For some, the possibility of failure can be paralyzing, even when it is wrought by a bar set impossibly high. But my children seem to forge ahead undaunted, as long as the list of expectations is of their own making. They are still of that refreshing age when they believe they can expect to achieve anything.

In the weeks leading up to the end of school, I watched cautiously as they piled their plates high with summer plans to grow taller, to improve their endurance on the basketball court, to make new friends, and to broaden their worldview. While I enjoyed their casual ambition, my kishkes groaned with the fear that September would arrive on a wave of disappointment.

Remarkably, though, they have amazed me here at the seasonal half-way mark.

One left for camp shorter than his mom and returned with a bird’s eye view of her scalp. He also resolved to “become a better person,” and the truth is that he is making enormous effort to quarrel less with his brothers. His heart seems to have expanded in the sun.

Another took his first stabs at archery with surprising success and had the courage to get on the bus to overnight camp without knowing another soul. Though we had to pick him up on visiting day, there is no doubt that he was braver than I’d ever have been at his age.

And the third has at long last used his iPhone as a source for good, giving his brain a hardy workout. He loaded it with a CD to teach himself Croatian, and let’s just say that my husband and I no longer consider it our secret language.

Despite my own pronounced fear of failure, my summers are still heady with possibility, too. Though they are a mere 60 days if we discount June as a school month, I still hope – nearly every year – to declutter the entire house, shrink to a six 6, and write volumes. I plan big, but realistically, I’m satisfied if, come Labor Day, I’ve tackled one drawer in the kitchen, lost a few pounds, and managed to post this blog.

But I have another set of expectations, ones that loom much higher on the horizon between my reality and the end of the yellow brick road. Though not entirely fantastical, they are just a pinch out of reach. And yet, these wants leave the largest scar when they elude me as I navigate my way through a minefield riddled with what I imagine my life should be.

I want to forget, just for a moment, that I’m an adult with a BMI who shouldn’t eat that bowl of pistachio ice cream. I want to ignore the passing of years long enough to allow 24 hours a day to suffice. I want to throw caution to the wind so that I can replace mindless, unsatisfying obligations – at least some of them -- with the diversions I truly love.

This summer, when fulfillment of expectations seems genuinely possible, my boys approached Oz with unapologetic greed. It is I, sadly, who missed the moment while I tarried behind with the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man, shouting Go, boys, go! as my sons ran ahead. I failed to make the leap of faith required to get all the way there. Fear stopped me in my tracks.

Still, the summer hasn’t been a total loss. Should it ever come to pass that I find myself face to face with the Wizard, I do at last know what I would seek.

For starters, I would like some extra smarts, enough to know that I should embrace who I am without insecurity or embarrassment. I mean really. I’m too old to be worried what people might think and I should discount anyone who expects more than that of me. I would wisely save a little of what I’m granted for a rainy day, a reminder that my quirks and eccentricities are all law-abiding and ethical, and therefore, just fine.

Next, I’d ask for a second heart, one that would kick in when I need to have compassion for myself. It would force me to accept my right to fallibility, even when I inadvertently fail those whom I most love in the world or when all the tip-toeing in the world keeps me from safe passage.

And finally, I would plead for courage of superhero proportions. That should be enough to help me take those first steps into the minefield, ready to face my anxiety about change, the boys growing older, and the challenges that await me on the road ahead.

All of that, plus a little of Dorothy’s pluck and maybe some ruby slippers, and I might at last find my way to the Kansas of my expectations.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Leaning In or Falling Over?

Well, Sheryl Sandberg, it seemed as if I was leaning in. So far, in fact, that I fell over.

It was the end of a long Tuesday, the one day a week I work in an office, not from my computer at home. My youngest had graduated from elementary school the night before and I was still reeling from the hasty passage of time. I was so irrationally moved by the experience that I cried when the graduating class sang the High School Musical finale.

To be fair, a major project deadline loomed. I’d been eating/drinking/sleeping the writing, research, and gathering of archival documents required to get things done. Laundry dunes dispensed with all pretense of order in our house. The boys had been eating nachos for dinner on a regular basis and I kept pretending not to notice. I was just too tired, both physically and mentally.

But by early evening last Tuesday, my caffeine stores were depleted and I sank to a new level of exhaustion. It was time to head home after a ten-hour workday when I discovered the absence of two archival images from my chapter five files. Thankfully, they were copies, not originals. Still, they’d taken a lot of digging to find and I had no easy way of tracking them down again.

Luck had blessedly put them in my hands. Alas, luck giveth and luck taketh away.

As panic set in, my Aunt Bea’s voice rang in my head, reminding me to breathe. I retraced my steps and began to search frantically through my folders chapter by chapter, hoping the AWOLs would turn up. It eventually occurred to me that in my daily effort to organize the overwhelming stacks of paper related to this project, I may have accidentally thrown out the documents after a meeting with my boss.

That limited my search to three separate recycling haystacks. However, Mila from the building’s housekeeping service had already gathered the dailies from the bins and was making her way down another corridor. When she overheard my humbling admission to my boss about the missing images, she put the brakes on her cart and pronounced in her lovely Slavic accent, “We are going to find this for you!”
The recycling bags were especially full that day because the retiring chief of accounting had been clearing off his shelves. He’d also tossed in his almost, but not quite, empty coffee cup.

Before I knew it, I was on the ground with my head deep inside the recycling bag. My boss fished out a handful of documents that could’ve been, but weren’t the missing ones. We quickly ruled out accounting manuals and budgetary spreadsheets until her carpool beckoned and she left for home. I kept looking, ignoring the fact that I now smelled of someone else’s coffee.

Two colleagues passed by, one kind enough to recognize that I was in a desperate pinch, that I was perhaps singularly devoted in that moment to my career. Another chuckled and asked a snarky question about whether I do my grocery shopping in the same manner. I was too busy to offer a dignified response, so I kept my mouth shut.

Nearly a half hour into my futile search, I conceded defeat, but Mila kept at it. She emptied each of the massive bags onto the floor and sifted through the piles to find anything that resembled what I described. Eventually, she too abandoned all hope and proceeded to clear the rest of the office.

The sun had by then begun to set. For the first time since the morning, I checked my phone. I’d missed a handful of calls. Most were from home: the boys ringing to report their grades on finals and what they’d found at the bottom of their lockers, my husband asking which train I’d be taking and whether I wanted to watch an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

None of it seemed to matter as I weighed my imminent professional demise.

A fellow colleague – also a wise friend – suggested that I just head home. Enough leaning in, she implied. Turn your focus back to where it belongs.

Frankly, I hadn’t really been leaning in. Instead, I’d been grasping at straws all over the place and, therefore, grasping at nothing. Responsibilities – laundry, healthful dinners, good G-d even my children – were falling through the cracks, along with important documents upon which an entire project hinged. I felt spun about in circles, unsure where exactly my focus should be directed.

In a last ditch effort to salvage some thread of my life, I checked the one folder I’d not touched all day. And of course, both documents were right there: misfiled, mislaid, but suddenly back in my arms.

So I brushed myself off and went to find Mila, who was relieved to hear that I was back on track at work. Thanks to her nurturing at my moment of near crisis, I was reminded of my other half – the part that knows where my heart needs to be at the end of a long day, even when I’m on the office floor with my face in a recycling bin.

Constitutionally – for now anyway – I cannot lean in without tipping over. But at least my bins are better sorted, even if my laundry is not.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Breaking Bread

My road to challah baking was in no way a smooth one. It was paved instead with bumps of denial and sloth and riddled with potholes of obtuseness and indecision. Eventually, however, the blind spots cleared and I began to focus on the destination.

Though I arrived begrudgingly, I felt like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat once I began baking challah regularly. How remarkable it was to have taken yeast and eggs and flour and transformed them into that! The experience was a week at the Canyon Ranch spa: the kneading recharged my body and the rising energized my soul.

I felt so darned smart for having decided to take the whole wonderful process upon myself. And to top it all off, I got a mitzvah every time I did it. I needed to rack up as many of those as I could.

I even loved shopping for the ingredients. On Thursdays, I was part of that club of women buying high-gluten flour, not ready-made challah, at our kosher market. The packaged may be delicious, but my children do not get to smell it coming out of the oven.

Each Friday evening, my husband grinned and swooned when I plunked the loaves down on the table. The boys loved them, too.

Until one day, they decided they didn’t.

We’d gone to friends for a Shabbos meal. While walking home, one of the boys commented that the challah had been delicious. There is no question. My friend makes great challah. This particular son was quick to add a “yours is too,” but the blow had already struck its target.

I worked up the gumption to ask if he preferred hers to mine. And then that little Brutus, the one who essentially orchestrated my challah-baking in the first place, betrayed me. With a hesitation I’ve not seen from someone as forthright as he is, he confessed that yes, he did.
When I asked why, he clarified: “It isn’t that your challah isn’t great. It’s that hers isn’t whole wheat. Real challah should be white.”

The brotherly chorus weighed in, too, in a rare moment of agreement. They told me that they were sure if I were to make white challah, it would be the most delicious thing they’d ever tasted. But I didn’t and they no longer wanted to suffer through something that smacked of healthy. It was detracting from the pleasure of the Shabbos experience.

Full disclosure: I use half white whole wheat and half high-gluten. I don’t make a health food store special that supercharges the GI system like Draino. It has eggs and sugar and honey. True, it isn’t white, but that’s been my recipe for as long as I’ve been baking challah and I couldn’t imagine trying anything else.

Now if you have ever baked for someone you love, you know that the worst thing he or she can tell you is that he or she prefers someone else’s baking to your own. You can prefer it to your own and say so. They need to keep such thoughts to themselves.

I know that my family enjoys my cooking. They tell me often enough. This complaint was directed exclusively at my challah. But my relationship with challah-baking was so fraught in its early days that, mitzvah or not, I couldn’t imagine carrying on with the enterprise unless I had a cheering squad accompanying the loaves’ exit from the oven.

Weeks went by, and the boys staged a quiet rebellion. They’d douse slices in honey to camouflage the whole wheat taste or they’d eat it while reminding me how much better my white challah would taste if I were ever to give baking it a try. Though their attempts at pandering failed, I did slightly up the high-gluten to whole wheat ratio. Still, I stuck to my old standard even in the face of dissention.

When one of the crew asked for store-bought, I knew that the whole wheat version was on its last legs. I began to slink away from the table downtrodden, disappointed in the whole challah-baking “thing.” What kind of woman would I be if I were to cave so easily? On the other hand, what kind of mother would I be to continue baking challah for my family while ignoring this one little request?

The following week I gave in, though not without pangs of regret. Trying to look at the bigger picture, I reasoned that the mitzvah would be mine, whatever flour I used. Can you imagine the boys reminiscing about their youth, saying, “My mom could’ve made the best challah, but she made whole wheat instead?”

Thursday arrived, and I tossed the high-gluten in my cart along with a bag of regular, standard, run of the mill, far removed from the earth wheat flour. I turned away from the bag of whole wheat in shame. They wanted white and I wanted to bake for them, so I decided to love what is.

I hadn’t told the boys beforehand. Their eyes lit up on Friday evening when they spotted the freshly-baked loaves of white challah. Not a dash of whole wheat in the pair. They were so happy! While watching them munch away with abandon, only I seemed to notice that the key ingredient was missing, and it wasn’t the whole wheat. It was that piece of me that saw the process as an extension of myself.

For weeks now, my heart just hasn’t been in it.

This past Thursday, I stood in the market and made a fork-in-the-road decision. I bought the white whole wheat and I baked it. Miraculously, all the joy came flooding back. There was that lilt in my kneading and the thrill of expectation as the loaves began to rise. I haven’t served the challah yet, so I cannot say what the critics will write. I imagine it won’t be a pretty scene.

Over the summer, I may try to find a regular flour recipe I can learn to love, a combination of ingredients into which I can knead a bit of myself. The younger two boys will be away at camp, so there will be some freedom to experiment. I can make smaller batches that will enable me to swallow my pride in manageable bites in order to make room for the better parts of me.

For now, though, the baking is mine, and I’m going to hang on to it a bit longer.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Learning What Counts

We are, to be sure, a people who count. We count our blessings and from the
second night of Pesach, we count the omer until we reach Shavuot. Left to my own devices, I inevitably forget the whole endeavor by day three of the forty-nine-day cycle. My youngest son, however, rarely fails to turn the scroll on his omer-tracker.

Having drawn close to the foot of Mount Sinai on Shavuot, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between our desert wanderings and the antics of my children.

Eager to be where we were going, we behaved incorrigibly towards Moshe. With the insistence of a toddler, we wanted water and we wanted it now. We challenged authority like typical adolescents – remember the golden calf? -- and we broke the most sacred of rules. It felt as if we will roam the desert forever, until our circuitous route enabled us to figure out exactly who we are.

It was, in fact, those detours along the way that were so invaluable to our development. That’s why G-d kept us out there for forty years. And we did get there, rising to the occasion and agreeing to the Torah’s terms before we even knew the details.

I believe, too, that my boys will get where they are destined to go whether or not I insist that they put away their laundry. And yet, it is precisely the little annoyances, the ones that exasperate them – the requests to load the dishwasher and schlepp in the groceries, for example – that will polish them to a buff shine in time for me to hand them off, G-d willing, to their brides.

Besides, the best route isn’t always the direct line between two points. Forks in the road give us the chance to stop and think, rather than run on autopilot.

We bring children into the world, but we cannot forecast their futures, nor can we predict every leg of their individual journeys. Like most parents in our community, my husband and I always assumed that our boys would attend yeshiva, yet our youngest goes to the local public elementary school. The choice, though still fraught with anguish, was evidently clear.

I will not lie and say that there was no disappointment on our part. I will also not pretend that we were never frustrated with the yeshiva’s limitations or furious with teachers and principals who were simply not interested in trying to fit our square peg into their round schools. But at the end of the long, soul-searching day, we suspected correctly that it was in public school that he would find a smoother path to academic fulfillment.

Though we have tried to create a parallel Jewish school experience for him, he has regrettably missed opportunities along the way. For now, he learns regularly with a morah and a rebbe, and all evidence thank G-d points to him reaching the same Jewish milestones as his brothers. From his very beginnings, he has charted his own course, and we have taken the enormous leap of faith required to accept that.

When others wonder at our decision, I point them to the lessons found in the actual giving of the Torah. G-d did not have the tablets waiting in His outstretched arms when we reached the other side of the Red Sea. He first demanded proof of both our faith and our fortitude by winding us through a rigorous physical and spiritual obstacle course, one we could not initially comprehend.

Though it is primarily Jewish wisdom that guides me as we approach Shavuot, I also find myself consulting the sports philosophy imparted by my sons: Every play is the most important of the game.

Our desert meanderings were never for naught. After all, G-d gave us His Torah in an unforgettable, grand slam in the last game of the series sort of way. All of us – generations past, present and future – were there to witness it. Regardless of our background or our place in time, there could have been no doubt that we all counted in His eyes.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Maternal Barometer

With the exception of fast days and the occasional Shabbes when, Lord help me, I forget to put up the urn, I always begin my mornings with a cup of coffee. It is a total sensory ritual. The aroma. The taste. The large ceramic cup that warms the span of both of my hands. And let’s not disregard what the punch of caffeine does to my poorly-rested brain.

A simple pleasure, yes, but very little in this world makes me happier.

Though I’m perhaps less alert before I’ve enjoyed the full cup, I’m not grumpy in the morning and need no powering up time. I go from zero to sixty, heading downstairs while everyone else is still asleep, I prepare a take-out menu that includes three breakfasts, four lunches, and one dinner, plus snacks, while my hot latte looks on. If there’s time, I’ll run down to the basement and fold some laundry, then back up to empty the dishwasher.

My maternal barometer at this point remains in a peaceful state. I’m feeling productive and am reasonably certain that the immediate future will be agita-free. I sense, I really do, that I may possibly be in control of the chaos, for the moment anyway, and I’m smiling like those suddenly regular folks in the probiotic yogurt commercials.

What comes to mind, however, is what my Hungarian co-workers used to say when I lived in Budapest: The Americans are smiling because they have no idea what is really going on. Indeed, my biggest challenges are still in bed, which means the jury is still out on what kind of day I am going to have.

Like a stealth warrior, I gingerly climb the steps and proceed to door number one. At this precise moment, I don’t yet know if the prize is a dud or a dream kitchen. So I pause and breathe deeply, using the Lamaze techniques that did me no good during the birth of any of my children. I enter and head towards my eldest, tripping over piles of laundry and shin guards and who knows what else along the way. After all, it is still dark at this hour.

Quietly, I announce that it is time to wake up. And then I wait. A peaceful response from my eldest – even a short, soft grunt -- bodes well. Next I turn to awaken my middle son, who might offer a gentle “I’m up.” I exit the room feeling good, confident in my parenting and grateful for my loving relationship with my children. I giddily hand off lunches and sometimes even get a hug. I now feel like a gazillion dollars. I’m so happy that heck, I don’t even need to finish the coffee.

It only gets better when my youngest, who sleeps like a burrito tightly wrapped in blankets and sheets atop a large stuffed dog I purchased years ago during a fit of working mother guilt, wakes up on his own. When he shuffles downstairs already dressed – I mean in school clothes and shoes, not his boxers – then I know it’s going to be a great day. The stars have aligned and Mashiach is imminent and world peace is on its way. I take a sip of coffee just to be certain I’m not dreaming.

Now the morning can go the other way, too. If, when I head upstairs, the teenagers grunt loudly (Leave me alone) or rattle off a list of frustrating requests (I need an obscurely-colored, rarely available item for school – today -- and what do you mean you don’t have one handy my bus leaves in fifteen minutes?), well, honestly, it spells trouble. These disagreeable encounters cause tension, which foment a quarrel between boys who would rather be sleeping and their mom, who would prefer to be sipping her hot latte.

Suddenly, everyone is in a huff and the sun has not yet come up. I am by now entirely unhinged. All of the lattes in the world -- with the exception perhaps of one I might drink with my husband in Florence – cannot wash this away. I feel icky and sad, flagellating myself for not saying the right thing or for endeavoring to talk to them at all.

If on top of this excitement, the youngest refuses to emerge from the burrito and then cannot find his shoes because he’s tossed them somewhere, the tension intensifies. I suggest gently that one shoe is likely in his laundry basket and the other on the book shelf, and I’m often correct, but he is also determined to be right. We disagree and I’m derailed another rung.

And the guilt! Oy! Surely, if I did not work at all and devoted myself entirely to keeping house, perhaps his room wouldn’t be in a condition conducive to shoes gone missing in the first place and I’d be back to a state of calm.

Soon enough, though, everyone has gone about their day. The house is suddenly, eerily quiet, if not quite ready for its close-up. I sit down to work, first considering whether this morning was the worst of our lives, whether a spat over missing yarmulkas or forgotten permission slips will set our relationships off course. If we argue over such silliness, will they care for me when I’m old and infirm?

On cue, my phone dings. It’s a text, one of the older boys asking for something – money or permission to go a friend’s house – but I see that it begins with “Mommy please.” Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the request is for. That “Mommy” has straightened me back up and put a smile on my face. They’ve forgotten the morning’s blip, if they thought of it at all. I struggle to do the same, to reign in my innate sense of drama.

Time passes quickly and I make it through as much of my agenda as I can before heading out for school pick-ups. Like a film scene rolled in reverse, here we go again. The last out is the first home, and I test the waters as I do in the morning, gauging what kind of afternoon I’m going to have. As the rest file in, everything from the reaction to what I’ve made for dinner to the way they’ve answered my “hello” can set me off again. They are either teenagers or nearly so, and I’m a walking barometer, a too sensitive one I think my boys will say.

Before long, it is already past my bedtime. The evening’s success or failure – read: my mood -- depends entirely on the boys’ suppression or expression of sibling rivalry. As I weigh their impact on my daily life, I catch a glimpse of my morning coffee, still there, forlorn on the kitchen counter. It is cold and undrinkable at this point. Still, it is a reminder that hope will brew anew tomorrow morning. And perhaps, just possibly, I will get to drink it while it’s still hot.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Our Cleaning Lady’s Bar Mitzvah Year

I’ve heard it told that friends should never share cleaning help. But my cleaning lady came blessedly into my life on the recommendation of my friend Susan, whose own mother-in-law Anna made the initial shidduch that brought Susan’s house to order. I am forever grateful to both of them.

I’d already been through numerous cleaning people over the years, most of them lovely. The exceptions were the ones who kept breaking things and the one who cast aspersions on my housekeeping skills, which was just silly. If I had stellar housekeeping skills, I wouldn’t have needed her services in the first place.

In any case, they spoke a multitude of languages I could not understand. I then worked full-time, commuting three hours round-trip each day, and was never home when they arrived. The combined result was an entirely unproductive enterprise, since I had to leave it to them to decide what it was that I needed done.

So Susan’s recommendation was a godsend. For starters, she spoke Serbian, a sister to the Croatian language I thankfully learned to speak years ago. As she took her place in my trifecta of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who have enabled me to manage my life (sort of, anyway), my Croatian husband had a good chuckle about my being some kind of Balkan magnet.

The first of the threesome was our babysitter, Blanka. We met in the elevator of our building when I was pregnant, returning from the hospital with bed rest orders. She kindly asked me which floor. I recognized her Croatian accent and three days later, she was keeping my older boys – then mere toddlers – busy on Shabbat mornings so my husband could go to shul. Though we now rarely need a sitter, she is still a part of our extended family.

Years later, when we moved into our fixer-upper home, I sought recommendations for contractors to render it livable. Coincidentally, two of the three were ex-Yugoslavs. We chose Zak, the one from Croatia, before we could even ask that personal of a question. He, too, has since interwoven himself into our lives, in part because he still fixes everything that breaks in our house (we have boys, so let your imagination run wild).

But it is really Jovanka, our cleaning lady from Serbia, who has steadied my universe since she first walked through the door. She always tells me that I’m “naša,” the equivalent of a landsman; that I was born in New York is irrelevant. She shares riotous tales and village wisdom as it applies – or not -- here in New Jersey. For thirteen years now, she has taken me under her wing, even if the resident elves restore the house to its former state of disorder just hours after she leaves.

Every year on my youngest son’s birthday, she recalls watching me writhe in agony while on bed rest. She was sure that I would not survive his pregnancy and worried herself into knots. Tell me, though, how many people can say that their cleaning lady prays for them?

Once I’d hung a picture above the beds in our room. I came home the night after Jovanka had been here to find it leaning against the wall. We put it back up, but the next time, sure enough, the picture was down again. It seems a woman in her village had died when the picture hanging above her bed had fallen on her. Years later, still nothing hangs on that wall in our home. I wouldn’t dare.

Jovanka loves that I cook and especially that I bake challah, like a good village woman who makes her own bread. This only proves to her that I’m really a Balkan sister. That said, she has choice words for me because I don’t iron my husband’s shirts. To placate her, I taught her how to make knaidlach. It seems to have worked.

The relationship has been wonderful, long may it reign. Still, there has been one fly in the ointment: my boys’ rooms.

For years, I’ve complained to her about their mess, about their lack of fastidiousness, about their inability – despite their athletic prowess – to get their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, not on the floor right next to it. With a wave of her hand, she would poo-poo my concerns, saying, “Aaah, decki (boys).” So I’d lock their rooms, and she’d find her way in, cleaning them anyway.

Last week, though, clear out of the blue, she declared that it is now time to teach them to clean up after themselves, put away their own things, and hang their own clothes. I nearly plotzed. Surely, she knows that I’ve been trying for fifteen years to do just that, though clearly without much success and sometimes without her complete support.

In the to-the-point yet loving way in which she states everything, she added another round of village wisdom: “They are no longer little boys.” I realized then that all along I’ve been asking them to clean for me. The time has come that they do it for themselves.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Great Pesach Heist

I’ve been robbed.

Oh, it came as no surprise, though I did not exactly court the trouble myself. My son arrived in this world when he did, six weeks early of his own volition, right on the cusp of Pesach. I returned from the hospital following a C-section and immediately set to kashering my kitchen, a fact I look back upon still today with utter fascination. From whence came the strength, I do not know.

But a fleeting thought came to mind even then: his bar mitzvah would fall out on Shabbat Hagadol. For years, it was something to speculate about with a bit of a nervous chuckle. Eventually, however, the nervous chuckle transformed into full-blown panic when we realized that the first seder would begin that year on a Monday night.

Not exactly perfect timing if you aren’t the sort to spend the holiday in a resort hotel on the beach. And I am not.

Friends and family gently suggested that I consider moving the date, but that wouldn’t have been easy either given conflicts with other bar mitzvahs already on the calendar. Ultimately, G-d had the deciding vote. I’m simply not one to play games with His scheduling. If Shabbat Hagadol is when He wanted the bar mitzvah to take place, that’s when it would take place.

So we proceeded accordingly, and it all looked so doable from far from away. Distance has that remarkable ability to calm our nerves, to convince us that there’s plenty of time to get it all done, to reassure us in the way Israelis say, “yehiye tov.” It will be good.

And yet, the confluence of events suddenly struck me like a ton of bricks once the year of his bar mitzvah arrived. Then the countdown – months, weeks, now days -- began, and I immediately found myself split in two. One half lurched towards Pesach, the other half towards the bar mitzvah. A sliver of me stayed in the center lane, trying to hold down the rest of the work-life-laundry fort. I soon took to using a large piece of paper to manage it all, folding my shopping and to-do lists into three columns.

Now, with less than a week to go until the bar mitzvah and one extra day left until Pesach, I feel much like my fifth grader, whose gym curriculum includes a circus unit. They juggle. They balance plates on sticks. But as my fifth grader -- who has mastered keeping three balls aloft -- will tell you, mismatched objects cannot travel easily in a continuous round. Likewise, a fragile stick cannot keep a heavy plate in the air.

With the pressure on to do too much at once, my frustration has made me into one of those snapping turtles in the aquarium. I need a coffee I.V. to function and I can hardly eke out a smile. I barely recognize myself and Lord knows I don’t admire myself in this state.

Generally, I love this time of year. I enter Pesach cleaning season like a kid in a candy shop. All of the organizing and cleaning and sorting and clearing out set my heart beating as if I’m falling in love with my husband all over again. Almost nothing makes me as happy as lining up bags to donate or pass along to friends. I don’t even mind the smell of Windex and Comet seeping into my skin because the end result – appliances that look brand-spanking new – is so worth it.

But on another level, nothing matches the conversations I have with G-d while I’m cleaning as I get ready for seder at a slow and steady pace. We talk about everything. While wiping down the cabinets, I am wiping my slate clean, too. I apologize for my impatience with my children and my slothfulness when I do not make it to shul, hoping my fastidiousness in preparations for the holiday will somehow make amends.

This year, however, I’ve been denied that lengthy preparation time, rushed as I am with all sorts of distractions. Instead of self-reflection, I’m simply ticking things off lists. Forget about prayer. I’m lucky I’m awake! And so, what has long been a meaningful period of spiritual focus has been stolen right out from under me by thieves who snuck in under the cover of chaos.

This morning, however, I awoke annoyed with myself. Shame on me, I said, for failing to see the wonder of all that is happening around me. I decided to slam on the brakes and take a detour away from the traffic in order to find a way to be genuinely happy – right now. It is unfair, I realized, to allow all of this stress to mute my son’s simcha. Likewise, poor Pesach is awash in the tumult, too. At this rate, nothing is getting the attention it deserves.

And you know what else I realized? I’m entitled to my time with G-d as well. I have scheduled a shorter conversation with Him for later this evening when I’m cleaning the freezer.

So friends, there’s the rub! The burglars may have pocketed a few things, but they left behind the gift of focus.

Gone, for this year at least, are my Pesach-induced neuroses. There’s simply no time for spring cleaning. I will pay close attention to the blessings that nullify whatever chametz I missed in my swoop through the house. As it always is, the kitchen will be kashered and thank G-d, no one will go hungry. The important thing is that we will be together for the holiday.

As for the bar mitzvah, my sons are my greatest blessings, and I’m glad to have had the reminder this year. I promise myself to be present in the moment when my middle man stands to read from the torah. As Grandma Sadye liked to say, I will stick out my chest in pride and be grateful with a full heart.

And once the bar mitzvah is over and Pesach has begun, I will remember to send the burglars a thank you note.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

We Have Guests

About a week ago, our older sons made an astute observation. While walking through the yard, they noticed that the vent covering the attic fan had been pried open. This, we knew, could not be good. On the other hand, we were amazed that two individuals constitutionally incapable of noticing dirt could be so observant.

At first, we attributed the damage to Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps a tree branch had flown through the air, bending the metal as it slammed into the side of the house. But we quickly eliminated that possibility from the running since we’d done a thorough post-storm inspection of the exterior months ago.

After a brief moment of panic about what might be the actual culprit -– something had surely come to roost -- I made a mental note to have the vent tended to posthaste. Then the thought slipped from my sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled brain as if it had never been there.

You see, I’ve been busy making a bar mitzvah for our middle son, who first arrived into this world on the eve of Pesach, which means of course that he becomes a man at the very same time thirteen years later. The scheduling isn’t wonderful, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Although we could not switch when he will first be called up to the torah, we did decide to keep our sanity intact and book his party a month earlier. With centerpieces to construct out of assorted Nerf balls, I only vaguely recalled the open vent issue. And then that most awkward of jobs -- table arranging, which requires stealth tracking of who is not speaking to whom right up to the last moment before the event – completely flushed it from my mind.

We had guests coming from far and wide to celebrate, to laugh at my son’s jokes and to partake of a carefully selected brunch buffet. Who was thinking about silly things like vent covers and Animal Planet?

Well, shame on me, because the afternoon following the party, which was lovely by the way, I finally collapsed from complete exhaustion onto the living room couch. And then I heard it, moving its hairy little self across the floorboards in the unfinished attic. These were not the footsteps of a clomping teenager on the prowl for food. These belonged to a member of the rodent family on the prowl for food.

Moments later, the same teenager who does not hear me call him to take out the garbage heard the padding of the beast’s paws in transit and shouted as if I’d stolen his Mac.

We clearly had company.

I called the exterminator’s emergency hotline, but it was Presidents’ Day weekend and no one was available. I could not believe the company’s level of irresponsibility. What was the point of the emergency hot line? Was there no on-call doctor, I mean exterminator? This was, after all, a crisis.

Over the phone, the operator tried to reassure me: “It is very unlikely that whatever is up there will find its way into your house.” I was not reassured. It was already IN our house!

On edge, we all slept with one eye open, except my husband – G-d bless him – who can sleep through more or less anything. Our youngest, however, was so excited about the prospect of meeting whatever was up there that he stayed completely awake, afraid to miss the yet unidentified animal as it burst through a soffit.

The next morning, as promised, Brian the exterminator came to lay traps. I greeted him as if he’d arrived to redeem a city under siege, my checkbook in hand. His initial inspection hinted at nothing specific, but he has a sixth sense for this kind of thing. This, after all, is what he does.

“You’ve either got a raccoon or a flying squirrel,” he told me, as if he’d announced a school closing on the morning of a snow day.

Flying squirrels and raccoons? You could have knocked me over with a feather.

One day later, Brian – whose visits I began to treat with enormous trepidation – crawled out of the attic to report evidence that proved his raccoon theory. There were prints in the dust. At first, I got defensive about my housekeeping skills, but it’s not like I was expecting guests to stay up there.

The traps in place, the bait set (cat food on day one, tuna on day two), we went on with our lives and waited for the raccoon to find his hungry way into the cage. Brian warned us how that would sound, but I’ll spare you the details. Throughout the day, I heard things – walking, thumping—until suddenly, it went silent. Brian quickly sealed two of the vents with screen and said the raccoon had probably hidden in the insulation.

Yet another night went by with nothing doing in the traps. Brian told me not to worry, assuring me that “we” would take care of the problem. I assured him that “we” would be doing nothing of the sort. “He” would be taking care of it and “I” would be paying for it (and a pretty penny, too).

Certain that it was up there, lying low, our youngest refused to go to school. He didn’t want to miss seeing the raccoon in the cage being carted off for a road trip at least fifteen miles from here (that’s the required distance according to whatever authorities determine such things). But we employ a kind and understanding exterminator, who promised to do his daily inspection after 3:30 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning.

The week nearly over, Brian arrived on Friday and noticed that the one unsealed vent had been pried open. Apparently, our raccoon had seen the writing on the wall and fled. We were the underdogs, but we’d won this round.

While reveling in that short-lived window of victory, I suddenly recalled the ground hog that burrowed a country home under the bay window last year. And there is the family of deer – all seven of them – who take their breakfast under the swing set in the yard and the squirrels who hang out in the garbage cans.

I don’t live in the suburbs. I live on a wildlife preserve.

Meanwhile, Brian strolled off onto the horizon, empty metal cages in hand. Though I wished it weren’t so, I knew in my heart I’d not seen the last of him.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Embracing My Tfoo-Tfooing Heritage

It should come as no surprise that someone as compelled by kaparot as I am would also spend a great deal of time dodging the evil eye. But I’ve often wondered about this avoidance aspect of Judaism that requires SWAT-like tactics to maneuver around the sheydim lurking in every corner.

This tfoo-tfooing habit of mine, ingrained in me by my mother and grandmother, has not been plucked out of thin air. It is rooted in Jewish ritual and Talmudic tradition and arrived from Europe with my great-grandparents. I presume that Old World habits initially cushioned their adjustment to America’s newness, but they died hard, sticking with my predecessors -- and by extension, our family -- for generations.

My first experience with the evil eye occurred beyond my range of memory, when I was a mere infant swaddled in my crib. With my mother out of sight, my paternal grandmother stuck a knife beneath my pillow to ward off the approach of the other-worldly villains waiting to snatch me. You can imagine what the knife’s discovery did for mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations. Today, though, the pillow would be considered just as deadly, but that’s neither here nor there.

The tfoo-tfooing came later, when I was old enough to realize that relatives were not exactly spitting at me, but instead aiming to create a force field that would shield me from all shades of invisible doom. The expectoration followed something that sounded like keninahurrah to my young ears, a pronouncement preceded by shaynaponim and an often violent pinch of my cheeks.

While trying on a new dress that needed altering, I was required to chew on a piece of thread, a trick meant to send the Angel of Death walking. This always flummoxed me. I simply could not fathom how my mother would allow me to place in my mouth something that had been at the bottom of her sewing box, yet she forced me to throw out a cookie that had been on the spotless kitchen floor for mere seconds.

But there was more, all designed to keep us one step ahead of the bad guys – the ones ready to snatch our souls, our money, our belongings, our good luck, our future. There were every day proscriptions, too, like not walking around the house in socks, especially white ones, taking care not to trim our toenails in order, and never, ever, ever sitting on a table.

And G-d bless the pregnant, for there was an entire orchestra of tfoo-tfooing composed for that nine-month period alone. But my favorite, the one to which I adhered to the letter of the law when my turn came, was the prohibition against entering a zoo, for if my sons had been born hairy and funny-looking, I would have had no one to blame but myself.

I know from discussions with friends that I am not altogether unique in this way, that many of us, in fact, have a shared history in this business. I find it remarkably comforting to know that I have compatriots in the fight to scare off the ayin harah, the sheydim, and the dark angels. In the spirit of camaraderie, I have even incorporated friends’ techniques into my own already extensive repertoire. So I no longer leave water uncovered overnight and always take care to line up pairs of shoes in the correct position.

Genetically predisposed in this way, I worry about even the slightest of missteps. And I wonder, too, whether this approach is, at its core, a healthy way to live in an otherwise fragile world or if, perhaps, it is nothing more than shtetl-minded superstition best dropped in the spirit of modernity.

In the end, the arrival of the daily paper convinces me to keep at it. It offers reports of endless tragedy and suffering, natural disaster, man-made disaster, economic decline, and celebrity dysfunction, with only an occasional feel-good story about an adorable rescue dog in Montana. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a force field that keeps the scary world out, even if I appear to be a bit of a superstitious ninny.

Long-term, though, these traditions, whatever their authentic origins, seem to have found their end with my children. The boys walk around in white socks all the time and toss their shoes haphazardly about. When asked, they will tell you the reasons I’ve asked them not to: Socks get dirty. Shoes get lost. There will be no mention of the evil eye or ghosts or the satan. That part slipped unnoticed through their memories, the genetic trait through a generation.

I presume they will eventually find their own way to ward off the unwanted and to protect what is dear to them. Or maybe, just maybe, when they have children of their own, they will need the comfort that a little knocking on the kitchen table and some hearty tfoo-tfooing can provide. I may yet, one day, hear them mumble an incantation they recall from their childhood, and perhaps thoughts of their superstitious mother – their fellow soldier in arms -- will bring a smile to their faces.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Leaks, Locks and Other Kaparot

Though we are closer to Pesach than we are to the Days of Awe, the idea of kaparah in all its incarnations has been a hot topic for me the past few weeks. I figured I’d first sort through the thoughts swirling around in my head before putting them in writing, hence the longer than usual gap between postings.

Well, that, and we’ve been quite busy with repairs. More about that later.

Foremost on my mind has been the ritual side of things, but fear not. Though I have nine deer walking through my yard each morning, I have no intention of taking up the sacrificing of wild beasts as a hobby. On the other hand, it might up the ante on the gossip at the kosher butcher were someone to see me swinging a live animal around my head in the yard.

As for that sort of kapores, I have fond memories of my grandfather’s quirky interpretation of the rite on the eve of Yom Kippur. He would take money in his hand and encircle his balding pate three times, check that no one was down below, and toss the coins out the window of the apartment building onto the sidewalk. He assured me that it was always gone by the time he left for shul.

Personally, I’ve never gone for the swinging chicken thing either, mostly because of the aroma. I also feel awful about taking it all out on a bird, even if I’m not a vegetarian. Like my grandfather, I put a few dollar coins in my hand instead and designate them the new owner of my misbegotten infractions. I swing them around for G-d to see and recite a prayer that certifies the exchange. By the time I’ve put the funds in the pushka, I can breathe easier.

This symbolic shoving of my sins out of the way and the transfer of responsibility to something that will never make me feel guilty about it gives me goose bumps. It’s a beautiful thing, all that letting go.

The other sort of kaparot, though, the ones G-d sends us year round when we least expect them, are an entirely different story. They throw me for a loop, even as we pronounce assuredly, “It’s a kaparah!” when they occur. Although it is possible that I’m just noticing them more often, it seems that they are more plentiful around here lately.

A bruised funny bone, a raw egg fallen to the floor, or a flat tire -- they arrive like packages tied up in ribbon, little gifts with deeper meanings that leave me mystified. I am left to wonder whether they have wiped the slate clean, atoning on my behalf for something I have already done wrong. Or, perhaps, they have spared me from a worse fate – a broken arm, salmonella, or an accident.

Unlike the ritual kapores in which I must take the lead, in these instances it is G-d who takes the bull by the horns. Through them He offers me a cautionary tale, warning me to watch my every step, pulling me out of my stupor, and reminding me to pay more attention to His master plan. Though He had bigger, more ominous things in store for me, He’s compassionately and lovingly allowed my washing machine to overflow into my basement instead.

I take notice, but rather than think too much about what the flood replaced in the cosmic order, I simply say thank you.

Then, two days after the laundry incident, a rush of leakage-themed kaparot – small, wet, messy things – began to greet me at every turn: spilled milk on the kitchen floor, red horseradish dripping from top to bottom of the refrigerator, sour apple beverage mix seeping out of the bottle onto the carpet in my van.

Soon after that, we turned a corner, straight into a string of lock- and door-related kaparot.

First, the storm door handle broke, after which the front door deadbolt jammed. Just hours later, the spring on the adjacent coat closet flew out of position, making it impossible to close. And then came the final knell, when the handle on my van’s trunk door went limp.

We repaired and replaced, bemoaning both cost and aggravation. We pronounced the usual platitudes about houses being bottomless pits and rubbed our brows while standing in line at Lowe’s (again). We expressed amazement at how quickly ten years have passed since we moved into this house, and how many blessings – and vast, irreplaceable losses -- we have counted in that time.

But what, really, were all of these kaparot telling us? All of that water, all of those locks. Was there a kabalistic explanation? We worried we were veering off the right path or making the wrong decisions. But how were we to know?

Soon enough, we realized that we cannot know – will likely never know for certain – but the kaparot had surely gotten us thinking and praying. In the end, we resolved to take them at face value, to faithfully accept them as our package and as a sign that we were loved.

With gratitude and some peace of mind, I lit candles this past Friday night, knowing that my car and refrigerator had been restored to order and that the basement was clean and dry. I locked the repaired deadbolt on the front door as my husband left for shul and rested my weary feet on the ottoman.

Picking up a new book, I suddenly felt a chill that pointed to an expired thermostat battery. By the end of Shabbes, we realized the heating unit, too, had issues that required serious medical attention, as did the spreading pool of water beneath the humidifier.

My husband and I just looked at one another and shrugged, unsure whether to laugh or to cry, but thankful for our flannel sheets, for our plumber Bill, for our faith in G-d’s plan, and for one another.

As I drifted off to sleep, I considered that all of these year-round kaparot were possibly sending me a message that my kapores on erev Yom Kippur need a little shaking up.

Maybe this time around I will toss the dollar coins out the window, or I will give more serious consideration to the chicken.