Stereo dreams

When I was ten years old, Mama bought me a stereo for Christmas.  It was creamy white with a detachable speaker on each side, and it sported a radio, dual cassette decks, and a phonograph that could only occasionally be coerced into working. For a few years after I got the stereo (which was the best gift ever), I had only a couple of pre-recorded cassettes. They weren’t nearly enough, so during this time, I did a lot of waiting for something musical to happen in the world so that I could record it. Mostly, the recordings were confined to what the radio played (e.g., the weekend Top 40 countdown, and most anything between 3-5 pm); however, I also “dubbed” several of my best friend Julie’s records and tapes (she was decidedly rich according to the standards of our hometown).

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But even 30 years later, there remain a few sad little tapes — remnants that (for me) are like walking back in time, sitting on the edge of my lumpy, pink-sheeted twin bed, and staring longingly at the magazine-creased posters of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Kirk Cameron on my wall.  The barely-teenaged dreams that were in those posters and that are musically transcribed on those tapes speak volumes about a girl who wanted more and better and lovelier things, but who truly had no idea what those things might look like or where they might be found.

But it wasn’t just my life that was changed.  It wasn’t just my teenage self that was preserved by the radio.  When my brother, N, talks about knowing way too many Amy Grant songs for a guy who likes Guns ‘N’ Roses, or my brother, T, sings along with “I Huckleberry Me” in the middle of a mostly rap mix CD while he’s driving down the road, it’s solely attributable to the presence of my little white stereo in all our lives. Occasionally, when I clean out boxes or Mom sends me home with accumulations of stuff she’s found that I don’t remember ever having, I’ll discover yet another of the hundreds of tapes I made on that stereo.  The songs are always a little crackly under the surface.  The beginnings are missing the first three or four seconds, and the ends are sometimes reduced in volume so the voice of the radio announcer can be heard.

Life is almost never perfect, but it’s probably even less so when you have to work with so little money and so many unknowns.

I remember laying on the bed reading, waiting for the song I wanted to come on the radio.  I’d be up in an instant — leaping over the rag rug next to the bed (so as to avoid breaking my neck during its inevitable slide), and hitting play and record together with the most practiced and expert maneuver you can possibly imagine.  And the whole complicated feat usually took less than five notes to perform.  (To this day, you’d play hell trying to beat me at “Name That Tune.”)  I wasn’t missing a song if I could help it.  And oh the joy if they played a couple tunes I wanted back-to-back; I usually ended up dubbing these more complete copies onto new tapes…why settle for missing notes when you can have perfection?  To this day, the five or so tapes I managed to cobble together without static or missing pieces still make me think the Universe was on my side.  At least sometimes.  At least for a little while.

I don’t know how much Mama paid for the stereo, but I’m sure it was too much.  Everything was too much back then.  But unlike all the fad gifts I got (and didn’t get) over the years, the stereo stood the test of time.  Without it, I would’ve had no background noise for the composition of thousands of journal entries, at least a couple hundred of which were written in a purple, lockable diary that my little brother had no problem opening without a key and that I still have to this day.  There would’ve been no Beatles soundtrack for the hundreds of times I cleaned my room (which was my only refuge in the world and which never really got messy except when the cat moved her kittens to the bottom drawer of my dresser, and my room temporarily became the hub of activity in the house).  Without the stereo — and my little brother’s purchase of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet — I might never have decided that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t the music of Satan after all (no matter what they told me at the Methodist church camp).

I don’t remember Mama ever telling me to turn the stereo down, not in all the years I had it.  And I’m sure I played it loud because — no kidding — I come from loud-music-lovin’ stock.  I think Mom must’ve trusted my musical tastes to give us all what we needed during our time at home, and I have to figure I did okay if Bon Jovi, Amy Grant, The Beatles, and various showtunes are the worst things my little brothers came away singing.  Somehow, the fact that there was an assumption that everything I listened to was all right makes me feel like it must’ve been “a simpler time,” but it also causes me to wonder if (in some ways) I was more privileged than my own present-day step-kids, whose stereos are forever being shushed to a volume that is conducive to TV watching in the rest of the house.

I hate their music.  Their dad hates their music.  They even hate each other’s music.

It breaks my heart that years from now, Step-son will never amuse us, his wife, or his kids with the singing of showtunes or teenage girl music that he heard hundreds of times blaring from his sister’s stereo, entirely against his will.  It makes me think that we’ve come too far, that we’re too comfortable, that our family could use a little less money and lot more forced closeness.  Mainly, it’s just that I’d like to pull them all back in time with me, and make them appreciate the little things so much more than they do.  They don’t know what their futures or dreams look like any more than I did at their age, but I’d like them to be able to look back at this time in their lives and remember — if nothing else — that there was so much possibility around them and inside of them that it lived in the very notes playing on the radio.

Booze, broccoli, and babies

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my house is peaceful enough that I’m actually enjoying the cats weaving between my feet in the kitchen while I’m trying to cook.  Usually, even the people in the house can’t get by with that kind of proximity.  But cooking just now is striking me as a leisurely activity — I’m steaming my broccoli, zucchini, and carrots for the week, and it’s become such a rote thing that I can now actually blog while I do it.  And ignore cats, apparently.  I’m freakin’ zen, y’all.

It’s five o’clock nowhere, but I’m standing here seriously pondering the virtues of getting liquored up while I cook.  I’m supposed to go to a meet-up at 6:00 with about twenty people I barely know and my sister (in-law), who (as you may or may not know) I love.  Truth be told, I’m going for her, though I also (kind of) know a few of these people from high school.  I’m figuring that my sweet sister will get busy visiting with folks (many of whom she considers family) and I’ll be left wondering what the hell to do with myself.  Thus the early contemplation of booze.  My dear husband was initially planning to go with me to this shindig so I’d have a fallback person (I’m pretty sure this is why people get married), but he’s asleep after working all night, and I’m not inclined to get him up early.  He had eye surgery this week, and it literally looks like he was punched in the face.  I’m sure he’s in pain, plus, I don’t really want to spend the evening occupied with assuring people I barely know that I did not punch my husband in the eyeball for smarting off.  I mean, if he was normal, I wouldn’t have to ever say these kinds of things, but he isn’t (not at all), and I’m forced to grin stupidly and shake my head in the direction of my towering giant of a spouse in some kind of mocking gesture that I hope says as if! or see this dumbass?  I married him because I loved him beyond reason.  

My youngest brother became a first-time father last night.  The baby will be my fourth nephew; I also have two nieces.  All of us kids are step-parents, but until last night, J and I were the only ones who didn’t also have biological children.  Now I’m alone in that, and at 43, my biological clock has long been sounding a lot like pounding, overwhelming, disgusting death metal.  I’m unbelievably happy for my brother, but beneath the surface, I’m also pretty sad.  Since I was 12 years old, I only ever wanted to be a mom; I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.  I’m a killer aunt though.  Seriously.  And my sister (in-law) has always been great about sharing her kid with me.  (She calls her “our girl.”  As in, “you’re not going to believe what our girl did yesterday.”  She’s now 13, and though she almost entirely grew up with me six-hundred-and-some miles away, my sister swears the kid acts more like me than her.)

Anyway.  When shit gets a little real, I fantasize about getting sloshed while I’m steaming my broccoli.  It makes me feel better even though I’m too old to drink much anymore. Plus, I’m the child of an alcoholic so I really shouldn’t, and I’m trying to watch my calories, which means that all the really tasty drinks are now way out of my league anyway.  The best I could do and still stay within the budget is eat nothing but vegetables for supper; then at least I’d have room for two or three shots.  Not that I’d want to take them…that shit’s nasty without a mixer.

Sonny

My cat has kitty breath.  I know this because he’s sitting on the arm of the couch leaning against my arm, periodically meowing in his beseeching little kitten voice. He’s not a kitten anymore.  In fact, he’s five years old and freakin’ huge.  But when he addresses his mother (me), he uses a different voice — the same one he used when he was little and afraid something was going to get him.  Nothing ever did.

He doesn’t like it when I sit the computer in my lap and type.  In fact, he pretty much hates the computer on principle.  Although it is equipped with rubber feet, he tries diligently to push it off the counter when I put it on the charger at night.  And when he finally gives up on attempting to move it, he lays down on it, determined that if it will not die, then at least I won’t have access to it.

I like his smarts.  When I’m not paying attention to him, he walks around doing all the things he’s not supposed to until I get up with the water bottle and chase him around the house.  Once I’ve sprayed him, he follows me back to my chair and gets on my lap before I have the chance to put anything else there.  Sonny is better at recognizing the worried tone in my voice than any dog I’ve ever had.  If I’m looking for him and can’t find him, he comes to my side as soon as I call, sometimes still yawning and stretching from his nap.  When we see one another, I say “there you are,” and he meows in response as if to say “hell yes I am, crazy woman.” Sometimes I think he just talks to hear himself talk, much like his mother.  We spend an inordinate amount of time meowing back and forth at one another, a pastime that my husband finds more amusing than he probably should.

Sonny, I think, is a lot of the reason why I ended up married to Hubby.  Aside from me, there is no one else on the planet besides him that my smart and evil kitty can stand.  Sonny moves from one of our laps to the other while we sit in front of the television; he greets us both when we come home; and he walks across both of our chests at night when we’re going to sleep.  Sonny and I agreed on Hubby, otherwise I’d probably still be single.

Kitty Boy might be evil (and unlikable as far as other people are concerned), but he has undeniable good taste.

Non-practicing

I have bookshelves overflowing with Heschel, Wiesel, and countless named and unnamed rabbis who wrote before, during, and after the Holocaust.  I have books on trauma theory and on bearing witness to history as well as on scapegoats, missed experiences, and wounds that connect us to one another.  I have siddurim and Torah commentaries and even woo-woo books on Jewish mysticism that describe how to find joy in traditions that have long been thought past their usefulness.  My Tanakh is in Hebrew and English, because once upon a time, I could read both.  There is wisdom in these books, and although I did not write them or in any way inscribe them with my own experiences, they are marked somehow.  Or are they are a marker.  Maybe it’s this:  they bore witness, and I find that difficult to bear.

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When I was 36, I wore a white kippah on my head when I was called to Torah to read (for the very first time) on Yom Kippur.  I was terrified and self-conscious, and I thought I would never be as good or as confident as the rabbi who stood to my right, checking my pronunciation.  Until that moment, I’m fairly certain she thought the same thing.  But I was good.

I was converted to Judaism by a panel of three Renewal rabbis in Denver, Colorado a few months later.  Mainly, I flew out there to see the rabbi ordained; my own conversion was secondary to that, except in the eyes of my beit din.  Despite a year of extensive reading and introspection, despite learning (and then teaching) Hebrew and co-leading weekly services, these people were not at all convinced that I was prepared to convert.  I possessed virtually zero knowledge about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I had no opinion on the subject.  This was not okay with them and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been okay with me, either.  I also didn’t have a solid opinion about God.  The latter, it turns out, was much less of a problem than the former; Jews often don’t know what to think about God.  The beit din was reluctant to approve my conversion.  In fact, I’m almost certain they only did so because of the insistence of my rabbi (who was not yet officially ordained).  I think their refusal of her wishes (given her knowledge of me and their lack thereof) would have been unacceptable.

So yes, once I was a practicing Jew.  And I didn’t understand at all why the majority of born Jews weren’t.  I made my Jewishness as official as it could be.  I went joyfully and mindfully into the mikveh the next morning, I said the magic words, and when I came out, I knew I’d never be anything but Jewish ever again.  You should know this:  when I practiced, I was good.  I knew all the songs.  I read all the books.  I gave of my time and talent and money.  I was both teacher and perpetual student.  I wore the Shoah on my sleeve and I railed against present-day injustices that bore too striking a resemblance.  This you should also know:  nowadays, I’m still Jewish because I can’t ever again officially be anything else.  Once a Jew, always a Jew; my name has been writ.  But the closest I’ll ever come to practicing again is lighting the Sabbath candles, drinking wine, and sleeping with my husband.  (Rumor has it, that last thing is a double mitzvah if done on the Sabbath.)

The rabbi had previously been my teacher.  I was an undergrad in a Judaic studies class when I first met her.  I don’t know how she tells the story now, but it used to go “I knew you were one of us the first time I saw you.”  In actuality, I don’t know what she saw, but certainly, she found a sucker in me.  I take some comfort from the fact that I am in good company.  She targets the emotionally vulnerable, the smart, and the talented, and at least at the beginning, we all mistake her for one of us.  But she is predator, not prey, and she just keeps feeding.

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I have bookshelves full of Heschel and Wiesel, and the accounts of the Holocaust that I have both read and heard steal my breath to this day.  I am a Jew, and I became one even though to do so meant enduring the worst time of my life.  I don’t think it’s good for anyone to take history too personally, but during the years I spent studying the Shoah, I could find no other way to take it.  The horror of the event is unfathomable.  The descriptions of even the smallest atrocities become the stuff of nightmares.  It hurts to look and yet you can’t stop looking.  No matter what — for years — I couldn’t exile it from my thoughts.  It became nearly impossible to do my schoolwork, which had long since passed onto new topics.  I had been a writer, but writing with any semblance of my previous joy or humor became inconceivable.  How could there be joy in a world that could allow something like this?

If my rabbi had been anything but a self-interested narcissist, she would have seen where I was and tried to turn me away from it.  (According to her, she had been similarly consumed by her own studies of the subject years before.)  Instead, her only notice of how I was faring came when she realized that I was finding friends in our congregation, both personally and in my capacity as Hebrew school teacher, board member, and lay cantor.  People began to ask when I was singing again, and they sat with me at oneg after services.  We all enjoyed one another, and sitting with me did not mean that everything had to revolve around me.  The same could not be said about sitting with the rabbi, and I have no doubt that my teacher, rabbi, and supposed friend began to experience some jealousy.

I was thrown under the bus for no longer needing her and for making a path to friendship and happiness within a group of people she had considered hers beyond a shadow of a doubt.  A friend of mine (and former best friend of hers) who remained in the congregation after I left called me a year or so ago, days after her own departure:  “I had to go, Angie.  It finally hit me that I just couldn’t take another year.  I couldn’t stand there while she made yet another annual sacrifice.”  My breath caught in my throat, and when I went to tell her that I understood her decision (and so identified with her choice of words), I had to clear my throat to speak.

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I have books on my shelf that I walk by every day.  They are written by wise men and women — great teachers and thinkers and rabbis.  Some of them talk about traumatic events (Freud and Feldman), about missed experiences (Freud, Lacan, Barthes), and about the holes in our very being that connect us to one another (Bataille).  And then…there are also those that stare back quite pointedly from my shelves, and whisper-scream about scapegoats, and about how someone must be made to pay the price if the community is to go on (Rene Girard, and even Shirley Jackson).

Of course, the Jewish population of 20th century Europe was itself scapegoated by the communities in which they made their homes and raised their families.  Other Europeans (particularly Germans) became convinced that they could not survive or be successful while Jews (German Jews) were in their midst; their success and integration could not be permitted to go any further than it already had.  In the end, of course, the Jews were sacrificed by the very communities of which they were a part, by people whose daily lives were almost identical to their own.  The resemblance had become too great.

I studied the Holocaust as well as the events that led up to it.  I read the books that should have taught me all I needed to know about what was happening in my own personal life, and about what had happened to many, many people before me.  And we’re not even going to talk about how my mom was yelling at me from 650 miles away, trying desperately to warn me that A TRAIN WAS COMING.

The train hit, and when it did, my long-awaited adult bat mitzvah was only two days in the rear-view mirror.  (It was a rousing success.)  I was in the middle of a semester of grad school, and I considered my relationship with the rabbi one of the closest in my life.  So I was utterly flabbergasted and totally devastated by the betrayal and abandonment that came.  One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re not.  One minute I’m a teacher at the Hebrew school, a board member, a student in her department, and a friend, and in the next I’m not even worth a conversation, and the remaining members of the board are convening by phone to remove me from the temple so the rabbi never has to see or talk to me again.  (For the next six months, a repeating chain of questions cycled through my head, totally cutting off all other avenues of thought:  Can she really do this to people?  Of course she can — I’ve helped her do it two or three times before myself.  Why didn’t I realize that this wasn’t okay, that other churches and clergy don’t do this?  Why didn’t I recognize that I’d been manipulated into helping her?  Why didn’t the board full of people who knew me realize it?)  In the five years that I had known the rabbi, the pieces of my world that didn’t include her had become very small indeed.  I had changed my area of study, my religion, my friends, even the music that I listened to.  Without realizing it, I had made the differences between us negligible at best, and — as Girard could have told me — one of us had to go.

I went.

Less than two years later, I moved back to Illinois.  A year and a half after that, I was married to my husband and thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t still stuck 650 miles from home, living a life that only looked good from the outside but really was never supposed to be mine.  In retrospect, I’m so glad she showed me who she was.  I got away late, but at least I got away.

When I left, all that remained for me to finish grad school and get my master’s was sitting for my comprehensive exams, and frankly, I was never worried about whether I’d be successful.  I was a writer and a thinker, and I have no doubt that I could’ve done it with one eye closed and one hand behind my back.  But my questions — the ideas I would’ve chosen to be “tested” on — reside entirely between the covers of those books that I once loved and now can hardly bear to look at.  I couldn’t have reread them if my life depended on it.  In the end, my life depended on me leaving them alone, and I haven’t opened them since.

But I do look at them often in the course of standing and admiring my bookshelves (as we book freaks are wont to do).  I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop loving them, and they’ll always be an integral part of who I was and even who I am now.  Occasionally, I manage to forget for a while the pain they caused in me or witnessed from me, and I catch myself quoting their ideas before I even know what I’m doing.  I also frequently recommend them to others, though I am careful to keep certain volumes out of the hands of the younger ones.  I know better than most what these books can do, how sometimes the tales of other people’s destruction can so closely mirror our own as to become indistinguishable.  Our feet follow our thoughts more often than one might think.  And I also believe there’s something of the truth in this eerie description of traumatic resonance from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

Where I was before I came here, that place is real.  It’s never going away.  Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies.  The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.

I read this and I think simultaneously of my former rabbi and my over-exposure to Holocaust history, testimony, and literature.  And yet…I am Jewish and I always will be.  Though I am usually deceptively silent on the subject(s)– though there are books I will not open for the sake of my own joy and sanity — I am not broken or crazy or even as forgetful as some might like.  I remember who I was, what I did, what I felt, and why.  And nowadays there’s nothing I can do but honor that memory and keep my distance.

[Note:  This blog reflects only my thoughts, feelings and opinions.  None of the statements herein should be construed as objective fact.  Feelings are not facts.]

Jammies and judgments

If you were sitting in my living room right now and we were having coffee, it would no doubt occur to you to wonder exactly how long I stay in my pajama pants on an average day.  You might even think about asking me directly, because right now it’s like one in the afternoon and to most of the world, my comfy clothes might look a lot like clinical depression.  You’re probably a really caring and nurturing soul and I appreciate that, but before you jump on the bandwagon, I can assure you that everything’s all right.  I’ve had a shower today.  Hell, I’ve even shaved my legs and put on moisturizer.  I am not depressed.  If I was, my mom (whose name would have been either Frank or Earnest if she were a man) would’ve called me out on it like two seconds after it started, my cats would’ve been really pissed about their dirty litter boxes, and my husband and step-kids would’ve wanted to know where the hell their supper was, and that would’ve been that.  So again, I’m not depressed.  But admittedly, there are a few things contributing to the plethora of pajama pants in my possession as well as the frequency with which I wear them.

  1. I keep my house cold enough (even in the summer) that most people need an afghan to be comfortable.  (This is not at all inconvenient because I actually MAKE AFGHANS, so I have plenty and I like to share.)  Since I’m either on the computer or crocheting, I can’t really cover up; the pajama bottoms mean that I don’t have to.
  2. I have a cat who barely lands on the nice side of satanic.  If I don’t wear pants that he likes to sleep on (fuzzy soft pajama bottoms), he’ll scratch my legs until I reconsider my choice.  The scratching is, of course, unintentional.  (Yeah.)
  3. I’m going through a bit of a heavy phase at the moment, brought on by the purchase of Oreos, ice cream, and potato chips every week for the past six months.  The pajama bottoms are among the few articles of clothing I own that still fit.  The way I see it, folks should be grateful I’m wearing pants at all.

Probably none of these explanations is really good enough for you, and I have to admit that even I occasionally find my attire appalling and problematic.  Mostly, these moments occur in the presence of other people.  For example, there are times when I have felt truly and unfairly judged by the UPS guy.  And we’re not even going to talk about the visiting 12-year-old friends of my step-son.  Except to say that those kids really need to work on keeping every thought they have from crossing their faces.

Thankfully, I can at least say that in my house, I am not alone in my preference of pajama bottoms.  To illustrate:  last night, step-daughter and I returned from an afternoon out with my mom.  As she walked through the door, she was tweeting about taking off her makeup, putting on pajamas and binge watching Supernatural.  By the time she finished typing, I’d already re-donned my fuzzy ‘jammy pants from earlier in the day, grabbed the Chromebook, and started a cup of coffee.  By the time my coffee was done, she had on her own fuzzy pants.  We could only smile at one another as we grabbed various bags of unhealthy food and seriously contemplated having frozen pizza for supper for the second night in a row.  In the end, we couldn’t be bothered to wait for the oven to preheat and we ate whatever we could find that took even less effort than that.  (Parenting goals!)

So, if you were sitting here right now drinking coffee with me, it would probably occur to you that I’m not depressed so much as I’m an obnoxious teenager in a 40-some-year-old squishy body.  And I couldn’t really argue with you there.  Not at all.