by Naomi Rayman

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Boxed In

Posted on September 16, 2016

“Those damn Shapiro girls,” my father said as he drove my mother and me to one of his sibling’s Oakland homes on a Sunday afternoon. “Why don’t those pushy women let my brothers drive through the tunnel to come see us for a goddamn change?” he asked no one in particular. Sitting side by side by side on the front bench seat of my dad’s brand new 1960 powder-blue Cadillac, with the champagne-colored leather interior, my mother indicated to me with an elbow to my ribs to turn up the volume on the car’s radio.

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I could see why these old people I called my aunts and uncles would fear any excursion through an ominous bore drilled into a mountainside just to get to unfamiliar and often roughly paved roads. Never mind that their baby brother, despite being in his mid-50s when I was a young girl, abandoned the urban known for the wild west of fenced-in backyards that staked off one yawning suburban patio from the one next door. He was the one who blazed new trails; not them. Let him make the drive. Plus, there were hardly any Jews on my father’s chosen side of the tunnel, and what the east side of the mountain lacked in Jews it made up for with bothersome insects and heat. As a result, two of my uncles and their wives, rarely came to visit us; so we periodically shot through the Caldecott Tunnel rolling up our windows once we were through to guard against the unpredictably cooler climate and the equally sketchy city denizens. To my father, these inner-city dwellers were much more worrisome than the bugs in our backyard.

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The Shapiro girls were my two big-boned aunts who were somehow related to each other. Somebody’s cousin married someone else’s relative back in the old country and nobody ever thought twice about it. Presumably, they felt lucky to have escaped with their lives—even if their genes were co-mingled somehow. The Russian Jewish population was rapidly being murdered; who could afford to be choosy about marriage proposals?

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My third and eldest Oakland aunt on the same side of my father’s family was a runt of a woman especially when standing shoulder-to-boob with her sisters-in-law. The two Shapiro women each lived in their small houses crammed with overstuffed chairs and sofas, most of which were upholstered with heavy and darkened-by-wear brocade. As if further embellishment were necessary, silky fringe dangled like neatly trimmed bangs from the seats of the furniture to the floor. I warded off incessant boredom during these afternoon visits lying prone on top of a deep-piled musty-smelling carpet and passing my fingers through the gaudy trimmings like a kitten with her play thing. From this vantage point, I could see my aunts’ thick ankles and the hemlines of their mid-calf housedresses. I could hear the ice tinkling in their high-ball glasses. Depending on the time of day and the corresponding meal being served, their dresses might be hidden behind elaborate and flouncy aprons—the pockets of which always held their handkerchiefs.

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Deposited, as I often was, for a night or two at one or another of the aunts’, we had projects that were in stark contrast to those of my mother’s sparse domestic activities: sewing doll clothes, for example, or making borscht. These were day-long escapades into an exotic domain (Aunt Teresa) filled with pungent and unfamiliar odors and elaborate china plates and bowls (in the case of borscht, applesauce, or tzimmes). The doll clothes we sewed were miniature creations of my Aunt Betty’s and resembled her own fashion sense—or lack thereof. My beloved Barbie Doll, with her pointy boobs and negligible waistline looked oddly like a drag queen in her homespun shirtwaist floral dresses and shapeless housecoats. Barbie was mercilessly spared the fussy aprons.

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No matter what we were up to, however, my aunts never removed their enormous gold charm bracelets that clanged like dissonant wind chimes when making the slightest move from borscht bowl to kitchen sink or from sewing machine to the nearby TV dial. Hanging from these clunky links were all sorts of charms the size of salad plates. These were mementoes of trips to the sea (an oyster shell with a pearl inside, larger than the shell itself) or to the mountains (silhouetted trees with pearls festooning the golden branches) or to Las Vegas (tiny slot machines, where pearls replaced 3-across cherries). More than once, I worried about these bracelets like a knight might fear an oncoming lance. Swung at a certain angle and velocity by one of my aunt’s pendulous arms, a hefty charm could knock out a tooth.

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Damn, those Shapiro girls could really rock big jewelry. They were my early mentors.

There was one aunt on my mother’s side with whom I spent less time visiting but more time studying. Her look was iconoclastic from her ice-white wispy grey curls raked up from the nape of her neck to form a nest on top of her head. Jewel-studded combs held the semi afro in place. Her nails were painted apple red except for the half-moons nearest the cuticles and the pointy nail tips. Never a chip of polish; never a hangnail…these slender fingers caught your eye for their artistic flair and wonderment about why anyone would take the time for this odd manicure. It really was hard to look away.

Her knitting was legendary, and possibly because she was one of only two of my aunts born in the United States, and not in Minsk, she had spent easy days perfecting her skill. She was not a cook nor a housekeeper. She never wore a housedress nor a shirtwaist nor an apron. And, all her jewels hung around her neck so as not to snag the cashmere yarn of a sweater, or full-length coat, or shawl that she was constantly knitting for her sister, who was my mother. The ropes of pearls, though luminescent white and pale in comparison to the color of her hair, were silent displays of elegant accessorizing unlike the Shapiro girls’ gaudy and clamorous collections of jewelry.

Grace, this prolific and mesmerizing craftswoman, had another sister too. But, this aunt I never met. She died before I was born. Had she been alive she never would have visited us. Despite her own Jewish ancestry, which was kept as a furtive and filthy secret by her own parents, she was ironically so anti-Semitic that once her sister was married to my anything-but-closeted Jewish dad, the relationship between the two women imploded. There’s nothing like racial prejudice and hatred to dampen the mood of a family dinner.

While the Shapiro aunts were doting—wet kisses with left-over lipstick stains on my cheeks–Grace was in a class by herself. She was all discretion and elegance, soft-scented powder instead of the cloying, thick Shalimar perfume the Shapiros favored. She gifted me pale-colored nail polish and porcelain jars of cold cream, both of which my mother confiscated. Once my mother had died, all bets were off, however. I got to keep her gracious gifts, and Grace replaced the knitting projects for my mom with ones for me. A woman who despite her age and visage understood the decade in which her niece was now floundering as a teen; and she macraméd plant holders for my room and crocheted mini skirts in neon colors. But her real value in my life had nothing to do with the needles she held in her garnished hands but the comfort and company she provided.

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In those early days after my mother died, Grace would drive an hour or more to be at my home when I arrived there from school. She kept herself busy and extremely useful: Food was bought, the table set, and the washing done. And then one day it wasn’t—none of it. Three short months after her first day as my doting, there-when-I-needed-her aunt, she disappeared from my life. I found her explanatory note taped to my bathroom mirror. In her flowery handwriting heavy with curly inky sweeps, she wrote that it was too sad for her to see me every day. Each day with me was a painful reminder of how much she missed her sister, my mother. The drive was too arduous for her weakening vision and the Buick’s balding tires; the housework was too exhausting, the chores too numerous, and my father was not adequately grateful. She said she would be moving to her former home in the Midwest and once situated she would write to me again.

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I would have much preferred a knitting needle stuck into my eye than to have received this notice conceding her defeat. The only other adult I could absolutely trust, other than my father, had vanished and what was worse, she seemed to blame us. Abandonment is one thing, but avoidance is quite another. She could write to me if she liked. I was never–not ever again–going to let her into my heart. She could try in vain to crochet me a granny dress and matching headband for my excursions to Golden Gate Park, but I would refuse to wear them. Unless they were totally cool. It’s hard to say.

Over a decade later, with still no word from Grace, I received a letter from a cousin of mine whom I had never met. She invited me to her Sonoma home for lunch and a chance to meet each other for the first time. This woman, about 20 years my senior, was the daughter of the asocial aunt I had never met. Extremely cordial and welcoming, as if making up for the poor choices her own mother made, she brought me into her dining room. There on the massive dining table that was laid for lunch was an ornate wooden and ivory-inlaid (whoops!) box, which my cousin indicated was a Mah Jongg game set. It’s funny how the brain first tries to make sense of incongruity before relinquishing that futile effort when things just don’t add up. Why was this exotic box near my plate? Where was hers? Was this the centerpiece that just hadn’t been properly centered? My cousin invited me to sit and then to open up this elaborately constructed yet totally unfamiliar box. It was she who tried to explain the how the game was played and therefore why it housed intricately carved tiles and other esoteric objects—all of which were mysterious and confounding. I was losing patience and running out of pleasantries when my cousin instructed me to open the bottom drawer of the set. There, among the numerous carved tiles, I found a yellowed piece of paper with that undeniably recognizable and trauma-inducing handwriting. It was a note from Grace. She must have placed it inside the box; did she also leave a clue someplace else as to the note’s whereabouts? Was this a message meant to be found or was it just a way to get something off her chest and into a tiny wooden one? My cousin said she had found the Mah Jongg box among Grace’s possessions after my aunt’s death. Her death, by the way, was news to me.

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I opened the tightly folded note and read:

March 11, 1958

Dear Darling Daughter,
That is correct. I am referring to you as my daughter and not as my little baby sister. That is because I gave birth to you in 1913 and yet you were raised by my mother to believe you and I were sisters. I was only 18 years old when you were born. I was far too young to raise a child and I was not marryed [sic]. I became pregnant when I worked as a stewardess on the ocean liner–the Mauretania. I fell in love with a handsome but married man—a scoundrel it turned out– who was a first-class passenger on a voyage to the Orient. It was he who gave me this box as a present. But, he never knew the real present he gave me was you, my dear child.

I wanted to tell you this story and always thought one day I would. In person, as a mother should tell her own daughter something this enormous. But I have failed to do so as yet. No one except my own mother (and the mother you now must understand is your grandmother) ever knew the truth. When you read this, please forgive me if you can find it in your heart to do so. Maybe one day, when you are much older and have experienced much of the world, you will be able to sympathize with the choices I made. Citing my youth as the reason for my actions you might think is suspect.  I meant you no harm.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I felt I had no choice and received no guidance.  But these are poor excuses for keeping secrets.

All my adoring love,
Your mother, Grace

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Lunch was served; my cousin pushed Exhibit A away from my plate and began to scoop heaps of food in front of me as a means of diversion. But there was no way for me to simultaneously eat and make any sense of what this seemingly innocuous box had coughed up.

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My mother never saw this note, of course. Grace’s weak attempt at reconciliation and her pitiful explanation whizzed right past the intended reader as life took an ironic and unfair detour. Instead, the news landed on the lunch plate of her unsuspecting granddaughter. The pain Grace must have suffered from the loss of the child she could never claim was undoubtedly surpassed by the anguish of withholding the truth once again. What was the point of her secrecy, I wondered? Although the answers I now conjure up are filtered through the lens of modernity—our current era’s worship of the total reveal–for better or for worse. It’s hard to keep any secrets anymore.

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The high seas and the floating cities that traverse them have always fascinated me but never enough to succumb to their claustrophobic lodgings. The sense of being held captive is unnerving. My grandmother formerly known as my aunt must have had the conflicting sense of freedom from the tethers of her contemporary society’s morals and the unmitigated shame of knowing that her actions resulted in duplicitousness whose rippling effects created more than waves–more like a tsunami—in a family that was never again to be whole.

All ashore that’s going ashore,
Naomi

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Code Blue

Posted on August 19, 2016

I spent most of third grade in the hospital and the rest of my life, up until now, trying to avoid going back to one.

Of course, anyone who has given birth in modern America or sat vigil next to a dying parent or a premature baby or explored the stark and sharply lighted and often overcrowded halls of an emergency room waiting for stitches on an arm, a forehead or shin has been in one. And, everyone probably feels the same way as I do–harboring the same repulsion for the place and forever grateful to have a first-rate one nearby.

But about that third-grade year…

It was a hot October afternoon and in a futile attempt to drum up some wind currents to cool off my scrawny self, I attempted a jump from my backyard swing. This idiot-proof physical activity resulted in a one-two mishap: First, my little frilly shorts caught on the swing’s chain where I dangled for a second or two before crumbling onto the dirt. My left arm bent underneath me. I loped inside to my mother, who was watching the World Series on TV, and she had to be convinced of my calamity’s severity. It took some doing on my part to persuade her that she had an emergency on her hands. Her lack of immediate concern was not because she was an unsympathetic mother. Not by any means. But, she was something of a rabid Giants fan, and for a few seconds it really felt to me as if I were on deck and not on home plate.

We scurried to the hospital, which was many miles away and in a different city than where we lived. I was sedated, the bone was set, and I was left to languish in traction for two excruciating weeks. This traction device was weighted downward from my left arm with what looked like a thousand garden rocks held inside a canvas tote. The upward tension was rigged up from bars above my bedframe. The whole contraption now seems as antiquated to me as if I had been subjected to cupping or leeches as a sound medical choice of treatment. I wish I owned a book on the history of bone setting. It might be titled, “Frontiers of Fracture Management.” Together, we might then know more about what midcentury bone-setting techniques were comprised of. One might now covet midcentury furniture in decorating the living room; but, believe me, the health care from the same period was anathema.

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I was released to my own recognizance after a couple of weeks. I met a kid who was also stashed in the children’s ward. He, however, was no novice to institutional care. He was there when I arrived; he remained so when I waved goodbye. The nurse said he was a blue boy, which of course was ridiculous. He was the same color as me. It was the kid, himself, who at approximately my same age of 8 gave his disease a name: hemophilia. That was equally ridiculous because despite this label, he looked nothing like a reptile. But, he and I bonded over the quizzical choices the nursing staff made to amuse us children. Mostly, they chose an assortment of animals that were meant to calm, distract and hopefully comfort us. This same ploy would visit itself upon me again decades later when I found myself in a hospital after breaking my hip. All of sudden, in the middle of calling out for more pain meds, a golden retriever and its owner showed up—neither one harboring pain pills. I was not the least bit comforted by their visit.

But, at my young age in the children’s ward of the hospital, even my blue friend and I were not dumb enough to think that the porcupine now put in front of us was at all cuddly. Admonished by one of the nurses for not petting it, the blue kid started to cry and it seemed like such a subversive and successful tactic, I joined him in a concert of tears.

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November rolled around and The World Series was now over. My mom returned to doting on me when she was at home. When she wasn’t, she was attending buying trips which meant that she was responsible for attending fashion shows in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco and procuring the next season’s saleable clothes to stock the yawning shelves of the small boutique she managed.

The days were closing in on Thanksgiving and darkness fell so early. In my memory of this incident, which was to change our lives forever, I don’t recall the sun shining at all that day. My mother was late in coming home. Alarmingly so considering my father was home, the nightly news on TV was over, and my usually placid and confident dad was pacing in front of door. There were, of course, no cell phones. But, he reached out to the hospitals and the police in a fruitless effort to glean some news about mom’s disappearance. Time was becoming a narrowing tunnel from which neither my dad nor I could emerge. When we heard the front gate clang shut around 9 p.m., I subsequently could now hear the slower-than-normal click-click of my mother’s high heels on the front brick path. The rhythm of her shoes hitting the ground was off somehow. It was the sound of hobbling. When she rang the doorbell instead of opening the door with her key, I scrambled to the door opening it up to a terrifying presence. My mother stood in front of me with bruises everywhere on her face; one eye was black and blue. Her coat was torn, and one shoe heel was broken off. Maintaining an eerie calm, she softly asked me to go find my dad. When he came to her side begging her to take his arm, he sternly asked me to call the neighbor. That seemed so silly to me because all we had to do was to bring mom inside, clean her up a bit, get her ready for bed, and pour her a whiskey. The usual whiskey in that fancy cut-glass highball glass always rinsed and ready in the dish rack. Let’s do what we usually do! This scene was impossible to process—to attach any sense to. She had been beaten but not by a mugger, but by the onset of heart disease. Her heartbeat’s irregularities caused her to collapse onto the unforgiving pavement somewhere downtown. I wondered, where do we go from here? The answer became obvious: She and my father went to the hospital. I stayed at the neighbor’s.

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Equal to the antiquity of no cell phones was the state of medicine–especially with regard to heart disorders. I wonder if, in the Middle Ages, people then thought to themselves, “Sure it’s bad now but you should have seen it in the Dark Ages.” We just assumed the care my mom was receiving was state of the art. After all, we now possessed the detritus of modernity in our very own home: a color television, a portable television WITH A REMOTE CONTROL, and two cars—one with an automatic transmission. The refrigerator defrosted itself, for goodness sakes.

But, as days turned into weeks and my mother was still in the hospital, the doctors remained perplexed as to her diagnosis and my father was grasping at his now dual duties of breadwinner and child-care provider. He told me that I needed to think of a friend with whom I could stay for a few months and that every evening he would try and have dinner with me.

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Tiny Karen was my third-grade buddy and my choice for this assignment. She met my criteria of consistent on-time school arrival and an awesome house in the hills. She also had no annoying siblings, which was as my own home environment was—placid, reliable, slightly boring. And, because my father was a man of his word, every evening he would pick me up at Tiny Karen’s and we would go to dinner. The only surprise to me on the first night of our new arrangement was that dinner would be in the lobby of Peralta Hospital. I don’t remember what my father ate; I devoured a tuna sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk…nightly for weeks.

The thing about children is that kids can pretty much get used to anything. New adjustments become normalized much quicker than is true for their sad-sack parents. Before long, I had my own nook in the lobby and was not unlike Eloise, the Kay Thompson’s character in the book by the same name, in exploring my new digs. But, while Eloise called the Plaza Hotel home, “For Lord’s sake,” I still called my exploration site, the hospital.

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Weeks became months and my mother was not any closer to a diagnosis or to coming home. I saw her solely during visiting hours and those, for children, were only on the weekends. Something had to be done because the nurses could see that both mother and child were spiraling into that dangerous zone of hopelessness and sorrow. We missed each other, and I needed her for sustenance; she needed me to regain her health and to mend her heart.

A solution was found by one kindly nursing assistant who proposed the preposterous. I would climb into the laundry cart and be covered by sheets and towels. God knows if this laundry was coming or going, come to think of it now. This cart was just the perfect fit for a child of my size– my adult claustrophobic tendencies had yet to assert themselves. The plan was hatched and executed without dire consequences. Quite the opposite, in fact. After dinner in the lobby, I would see the cart and its driver rounding the corner. Hopping in for my nightly excursion, I would leap out of the heap of linens and find a corner to sit on my mother’s hospital bed. It was as close to heaven as a little girl and her mother could get.

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It was in the hospital, at my mother’s side, that she would tell me all about her daily viewing of the soap opera, “Love of Life.” Who needed a bedtime story at the age of 8?

Instead, my mother would quote the opening line of the show, “To live each day for whatever life may bring…this is Love of Life” and we would double over with laughter. I’m telling you, current reality TV cannot compete with the realistic plots of this or any soap opera. If my mom and I made too much noise, we were admonished by her clinical keepers and I was tossed back into the laundry bin and wheeled downstairs.

My mother didn’t live past my 13th birthday, and still Peralta Hospital became my home away from home. It was across the street from my father’s Oakland dental office, and he and I would often enjoy a quick bite of lunch at the café located on the street level of the building. They made a terrific tuna sandwich and my father would greet his colleagues and friends as the two of us sat on backless, metal stools at the lunch counter. It became a dining destination for us.

When I was 16 and had a terrible case of the flu, my father was again faced with the enormous task of how to care for a child as a single parent. He needed to work, and I couldn’t care for myself in my weakened and sick condition. So, he checked me into the hospital for a week where he could be relieved of his duties as a caregiver. After all, I was right across the street from where he worked and he could easily visit me without the indignity of climbing into a laundry cart.

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As it turns out, I’m headed to the hospital this week for a hip-replacement, and I am told that I stay one night—two if things get complicated. It’s of some comfort to me that the diagnosis is known, my husband can visit whenever he wants, and I have my own device for watching (and laughing at) any show I choose. I told my husband, though, to see if the hospital cafeteria serves a decent tuna sandwich. He promised me he’s up to the task.

Paging Dr. Kildare,
Naomi

To My Granddaughter

Posted on July 29, 2016

There are a few differences between us: age, of course, is one. You are adorable; I’m presentable. You are short but average for your 3 years; I’m just a runt. You speak two languages, and I can manage only one. You could be a kindergartner when a woman is president of the United States; I was born when Truman was in office. By the time I was in kindergarten, Eisenhower was in the White House. At two years of age, I kissed Ike as he stood waving to the press before boarding a plane. So, that’s another thing: I could get very close to a U.S. president back then, and ANYONE could board a plane without going through security. The trade off, though, was that at any age few if any women thought about becoming the commander in chief let alone presiding over any state in the union. I can’t even remember any girl running for president of my high school.

Last night that changed. I witnessed something marvelous and historic and despite my blog readers who might not consider voting for Hillary Clinton, there is no denying that history was made. I am not sure why the press doesn’t capture the incredible milestone in more righteous terms – and again, this is less about her politics and more about the fact that the woman who is taking the helm of the Democratic party all the way to the ballot box in November is female. Like me and like you, my little granddaughter.

It takes courage to fight over and over again for what you believe and even more courage to know what you believe in the first place. I was raised to believe that the smartest person in the room, any room, was always male. I was also raised to be demure, soft-spoken, useful, pleasant, and to grow up to be someone’s wife and mother. Those were my aspirations because I thought those were my only options. In my senior year in college, I remember thinking that the rules had changed. Some of us got the memo, but I didn’t. My current physician, for example, is exactly my age, and she headed off to medical school when she graduated from college. I went on an extended camping trip. I learned how to pitch a tent, but I came home and found a job as a secretary.

But, I fought a reasonably good fight—at least for me—as I grew older and less oblivious. It was not hard to pay attention because the world was in turmoil and glorious change was the air we breathed. I marched for women’s rights and joined the National Organization for Women. I heard Gloria Steinman speak; while I truly believed her words were relevant they rang too radical for me. I studied karate and wrote a few articles for a women’s newspaper. I did what I could while remaining demure, soft-spoken, useful and reasonably pleasant. I held up placards and stopped shaving my legs—for a month. I eventually got married and became two young men’s mother. And, I like to think I brought to the kitchen table a woman’s view of the world that rounded out the otherwise male perspective in our house.

I hope Hillary wins the presidency, and I’m going to vote for her. I am voting for her because I think she is the best candidate, the smartest person running for office, and the most prepared. Eight years ago, I voted for her in the primary mostly because she was a woman. I admired Obama but I wanted to cast a vote for a woman more than I wanted him to win. In November, I’m casting my vote for a candidate I believe to be the strongest. That’s strongest, period. What a difference a few years can make in one’s relationship to the world. It’s not hyperbole to say the world has changed too. But that is the constant you can count on: change.

Darling granddaughter, you have every opportunity to become whatever you want to be. It’s not a cliché but today’s truth. Being female naturally is part of what makes you, you. But, while it describes you it doesn’t limit you. Hold your baby brother’s hand and walk on together. You’ll be stronger having and relying on each other. Also, don’t let anyone tell you to be demure. And, remember to wear what you want. I don’t think that even Hillary wakes up in the morning and says, “Great! Another day, another pants suit.”

Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Luckily for you, my sweet granddaughter, you can dance barefoot and in any direction you want. You choose the music. Take my advice and fly.

Love,
Grandma

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A 1967 Rose By Any Other…

Posted on July 15, 2016

Name.

He just asked me for mine. He’s so cute and I’m so not worthy. But here we stand, me pulling on my long red hair with one hand, tugging at my mini skirt’s hem with the other. He is shifting his weight from side to side, hands clasped behind his back, in a futile stab at coolness. He doesn’t know his fly is down; I’m not sure how big the sweat marks are under my armpits. The cavernous room’s lights have been dimmed, but not so much as to prevent me and my fellow teenagers from employing our pinpoint laser night-vision assessment capabilities. And it’s certainly light enough for the adult chaperones to be on the lookout for premarital sex. Wait! Is that Mrs. Pointdexter? Carrie’s mom? Oh God. How embarrassing.

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The boy and I stand in the middle of this church rec hall which has been transformed into our parents’ ideal of a teen-dance milieu. The theme for the evening is Land of the Midnight Sun. There are garlands of crepe paper festooned from wall to wall and sparkly Styrofoam crescent shapes glued on the ceiling. It’s early in the evening, and one sad moon has already fallen to the floor. The sun is represented by an orange-painted orb precariously dangling from one of the several fluorescent lights.

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Glossy wooden floors might be just the ticket for a clean sweep of apple pie crumbs or an errant gloppy potato that jumped ship from the rest of the potato salad on any given Sunday church social. But, for tonight’s teenage dance, it’s pure hell. Shoes stick and then squeak when the Twist or the Monkey or the Swim (come on in!) is rendered. When a paper cup, ladled full of punch, is spilled, I hear guffaws from the lower registers of the football players and tinkley tee-hees from their female counterparts who make up the in-crowd. Embarrassed teens step in and skid on the puddle. Mortification ensues for those called sissies and dorks. They weren’t going to be dancing anyway. Only the really boss ones avoid the mess, tiptoeing around the spilled pool of pink on their way to claim their dance floor real estate. They owned it already.

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As a pimply faced guitarist works out the refrain of “Light My Fire” on the Fender his parents just bought him for Christmas, his band mates nod their heads in an effort to find the beat. More likely, however, they like the way their bangs and shaggy just-ear-length hair moves when they bop around on stage for the chicks to admire. I can’t hear this potential dance partner’s name when he offers it up to me, but he asks me again for mine. Why don’t I know him? Have I seen him before or more importantly, will I ever see him again?

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This Saturday night church dance in Orinda is not my first rodeo. In fact, these dances are the answer to my angst-filled prayers. Any kid in the area is welcome to attend—regardless of religion. Such monthly dances are meant as a means to get kids off the cruising strips of Walnut Creek and Lafayette and into the clutches and guiding eyes of adults. Keeping teenagers vertical and moving, where chaperones can monitor behavior is critical as we all lurched through the late 1960s. My peer group is a moving target.

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These assemblies of teenagers from assorted high schools in the area and hosted by the well-meaning ecumenical folks–one month at the Lutheran hangout, the next at the Presbyterian joint, and later in the year, at the Catholic hangout–allow those of us on the B-list to have a crack at moving up the very steep and narrow social ladder and into the heady world of popularity. Social mobility can only be attained by those of us on the lower rungs when no one knows your name. It’s like an early rendition of the witness protection program. Your name could betray you. What if someone had heard of you or your wayward sibling? Or what if your father were a high school principal? Not that these worries were mine. Rather, my name was my millstone because of its shear uniqueness and its audacious Jewishness. It was like hitting somebody in the face with a matzo ball when I introduced myself. The resulting grimace was always followed by a “Huh?” and a “How do you spell that?” Faking my identity was an easy way to have a fresh start at each dance every month.

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My best friend, Holly (this was her church-dance moniker and not her real name) would say to her potential suitors who asked and in whom she had no interest: “Hey, Holly, can I have your phone number?”
“It’s in the book,” she answered– referring to a phone book.
“What’s your last name?” he persisted.
“That’s in the book too.” And, Holly would move on before the punch on the soles of her shoes got too sticky.

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My name is Chris, I told the boy. Thinking about my choice today, I wonder why I imagined Chris and not Kris. Nobody was ever writing anybody’s name down anyway. Last names were never exchanged — only phone numbers if you were lucky. But did we bring pens? I don’t think so. At one dance, I experimented with a last name. That night I was Chris (Kris?) Pandora. Of course, the guy who asked my name was the one kid in the whole room who had actually stayed awake for the section on Greek mythology. He asked me if I were born in Crete. If I wanted ethnic, I certainly didn’t have to make up a new name. Mine was already a mouthful of cultural diversion. I kept it simple after that and was on a first name basis with my crowd.

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That is, I kept it simple and Native American. Several years prior to developing breasts, a waistline, and a need for teenage boys’ affirmations, I had another chance to rebrand myself. As a Campfire Girl, all I was looking for was a place to belong. The group of eager preteens met weekly, at someone’s home that was more nuclear in feeling, more suburban-standard in décor, and much more filled with the fresh-baked aromas of cookies and brownies than my eclectic but more-often-than-not motherless house. It was on a tufted sofa that 4 or 5 of us could squeeze in and dangle our legs while we sewed onto navy blue vests the felt patches and assorted beads that represented our many good deeds. Just like real Indians. Except for the couch. There was a book that passed from lap to lap, and you were instructed to leaf through this bible of Indian names to pick out one that best described you. After a couple of bites of brownie and a tall glass of milk, the obvious choice was as plain as war paint: O Kee Kee La…meaning? Able to arrange flowers well. One of my fellow tribeswomen, from then on, called me O Kee.

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The first day of high school each year was a chance to start over. I don’t know what the quarterback or the prom queen worried about the night before all of us assembled in the quad to regurgitate summer stories and show off our brand new dresses. Waiting for the first bell to ring in those sweltering early days of September sun was odious. But, you couldn’t be a wimp. Locating my friends on the first day of school was as much a relief as finding my luggage after a transatlantic flight is now. I was whole again.

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What kept me awake all night before my first day of class was the worry over my name. I became frantic thinking about how each teacher, in every class, for 7 periods would struggle to pronounce it. The experience never deviated, it seemed. Even if for some reason I knew the teacher from the year before… once the kids filed into the classroom and those all-in-one desk-and-chair fittings were occupied, the teacher would address the class with a welcoming remark and then pull out the dreaded class roster. He or she would eyeball the name on the paper in front of them, find the matching student in the doe-eyed, motley assortment in front of him or her. A nod, maybe a smile, would ensue and sometimes that was followed by a “Aren’t you Judy’s sister?” or a “Oh, how is your brother doing in Viet Nam?”

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Alphabetically prolonged terror would erupt in my bowels. I was Naomi Sinai. That’s about from here to eternity when you are waiting for the massacre to come.
I’d hear the teacher going down the A-Z class list: Ezra Pound? Here. Don Quixote? Here. Robert Redford? Here. As he approached the S’s, I’d have difficulty finding any saliva in my mouth. I could tell I was next. There was always the teacher’s prolonged hesitation. Then, the long, too-loud sigh of exasperation. This was my name he was looking at. “Come on teacher,” I would think. “Do this! Put me out of my misery.” Nie-oh-ma See-ah-nigh? The inflection indicated, “Is this right?” The teacher’s face seemed to register the question: “Are you a foreign exchange student from Nigeria?” Then came my response: “Here.” Pause. “Oh, and excuse me. But, my name is pronounced Nay-oh-me Sigh-nigh,” I would apologize while tapping the eraser end of my pencil on the pressed-wood surface of my desk. The teacher would acknowledge my somewhat nervy attempt to correct him or her. Some were kinder than others. And, I would look at the clock. Only 50 minutes until I had to repeat this long march in second period. Having a unique name in the 1960s was not only undesirable it was akin to being a leper except you didn’t get to live on Molokai.

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So, obviously, my friends sensed an opportunity to make fun of one of their own by making up names for me. Cyanide (that’s with a C, dummy!), Albino (pale skin), Thin Reds (for the hair). Somewhere along my personal timeline, I became Nomi—a name which the aforementioned Holly came up with and which my dad shortened to Nome. Often I was Gnome.

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When I moved to Israel in the 1970s, Nomi was the name Israelis used instead of Naomi. And, my lifetime of correcting people’s pronunciation of Sinai (from the erroneous See-Nigh to Sigh-Nigh)? Turns out in Hebrew it really IS pronounced See-Nigh. Who could have known that the name my father’s family came up with when they pushed through the Ellis Island turnstiles had been pronounced incorrectly from the start? They arrived from Minsk as Sinaicos; to hasten their departure from the Island’s dock to the mainland they must have thought, “Oy, this is taking us too long. Just call us Sinai already.”

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When I met my future husband, so smitten was he that once we married he legally took the name Sinai as his middle name. And, a decade later, our son was given the same middle name. Two decades on, that same son bestowed the formerly unpronounceable surname on his two children. So, now two half-French kids, one girl and one boy carry with them this same name. I am eager to hear how they will pronounce it when they offer it up to an immigration officer at Charles de Gaulle airport one day.

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By the time the 1980s and 1990s arrived, there were Naomis everywhere you looked: Naomi Watts, Naomi Wolf, and Naomi Judd to name a few. I was struggling to keep my individuality – especially when easily confused with my doppelganger: Naomi Campbell. Imagine seeing my name in glossy magazines or on book jacket covers! Hearing my name on the Oscars or on the radio! Was this really happening? The public was hearing Naomi pronounced correctly, albeit with an occasional Australian (Watts) or Southern (Judd) accent.

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Back in the 1960s, I was on to something having an idiosyncratic name; but the timing was wrong for owning my uniqueness. My goal was to blend in, to go unnoticed, to get by. I thought that the roadblock to easy street was my name and its perplexing pronunciation. By being Chris, I drove straight through that barrier and onto the teen highway with glorious abandon until I realized that other SIG alerts remained. Route Teen still had its lane closures, detours, and off ramps. It didn’t matter what your name was. Maybe one girl worried about her weight, or another, her untimely zit outbreak. One guy wasn’t tall enough or white enough or athletic enough. A rose is a rose is a rose, after all. Just ask O Kee Kee La.

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I hope in the rest home, they get my name right, though. That’s my new worry for the next decade. But it’s likely I won’t be able to hear them. So, I’ll just answer to whatever they call me as long as they bring me my lunch tray.

You can call me Al,
Naomi

The Name Game
By Shirley Ellis
First released: 1964

Lincoln!
Come on everybody!
I say now let’s play a game
I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name
The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn’t there
But a B or an F or an M will appear
And then I say bo add a B then I say the name and Bonana fanna and a
fo
And then I say the name again with an F very plain
and a fee fy and a mo
And then I say the name again with an M this time
and there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme
Arnold!
Arnold, Arnold bo Barnold Bonana fanna fo Farnold
Fee fy mo Marnold Arnold!
But if the first two letters are ever the same,
I drop them both and say the name like
Bob, Bob drop the B’s Bo ob
For Fred, Fred drop the F’s Fo red
For Mary, Mary drop the M’s Mo ary
That’s the only rule that is contrary.

Listen to it here: The Name Game

Hey kids, there’s more: Check out the link à la mode which is located at the top of my homepage. There you will find fun ideas to keep you time tripping. Groovy!

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Muddy Waters

Posted on May 27, 2016

Mostly, we came for the music. Our Southern Music Crawl, how we pre-labeled this recent adventure, took my husband and me on a two-week expedition through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I now have securely cemented in my cortex both the spelling of these 3 states and their locations on the U.S. map. Prior to this adventure, both tasks were equally tedious and easily dismissed; or, shall I admit, easily handled by spell check and Google maps? Come on now. Unless your grandma lives in Friars Point, who the hell really cares where Mississippi is?

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The music we came to hear was not only found in the multitude of honky tonks, bars, clubs and restaurants where we wiled away our Southern evenings but also on street corners, music stores, and naturally, The Grand Ole Opry. As a couple of newly minted Nashville Cats, we sat on more bar stools in two weeks than I have in my entire life. Especially in the honky tonks, with no cover charges and only the expectation to drop some dough into the bands’ plastic fish bowls that were passed every hour, on the hour, it was inviting to spend those hours drinking really fine, locally brewed beer or distilled moonshine (not kidding), munching on fried bologna sandwiches or onion rings or fried chicken. All of this boozy, brassy behavior was enhanced as our bar mates or (often) table mates were hootin’ and hollerin’ to some of the best live music I’ve ever heard…in each club on every night. Walking down Broadway in Nashville or Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans was similar to taking a stroll down the radio dial—if you can remember what a radio dial is. Don’t care for country-western music? Then go next door to hear a Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie cover band. Too chaotic there? Then, how about that blue-grass quartet across the street? But the one dial you will have no control over is the volume. So, just remember you aren’t at these joints for conversation. It’s more about the hooch and the harmonies. Maybe not the ideal spot for a first date. But, that would depend, I guess.

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The other music I cottoned to was found in Southerners’ speech. The lilting patterns, the slower-than-molasses-in-June phrasing, the soft-as-summer-breeze tones all lent such a balmy resonance to the most common statements. So what if you can’t figure out what the f*^ck they are sayin’, darlin’. Sometimes, I was a “ma’am;” other times, I was a “baby.” My favorite was “hon.” The majority of time though, I was, “y’all.” And, if my husband was by my side, we were, “y’all, y’all.”

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Even the birds sang with an impressive, poignant cadence. Hundreds of birds would wake us from our one-too-many-beers-the-night-before sleep…be it in the cities of Nashville, Memphis, or New Orleans. Of course, in the latter, the birds had Mardi Gras beads around their scrawny necks. In the rural areas, these little creatures would start their symphonies at dawn and sometimes, I could swear I saw a couple of them weaving threads on a gown for Cinderella’s upcoming debutante ball at the country club–Did I mention the moonshine I drank on occasion?

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The vacation seemed so full of good music and fine food it was nearly unthinkable to recollect and then process the history of the region. But, you can’t drive very far through Delta Blues Country without coming upon museums and markers that pull you back into a wormhole. The land and its oppressive usurpers and lawful owners helped to cultivate the birth of the blues. Born of this fertile Mississippi Delta land, slaves then share-croppers then poor folk of color and impoverished whites fashioned instruments out of whatever they could find and a world-famous genre was the crop that emerged. Naturally, being a Bay Area native, I thought I had this whole thing figured out: I’ve read my American history, studied the distant accounts of slavery from an academic viewpoint and seen the occasional hard-to-watch and harder-to-comprehend movies about the subject. Who’s going to argue with my conclusion: It was a brutal, incomprehensible period of sanctioned economic and social policies. Nobody wants a lecture from me. But, as I traveled through these areas of the South, the evidence of slavery’s expansive, grotesque, and deeply rooted, ingrained legacy are, no surprise, everywhere.

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Who hasn’t made the decision, while on a journey, about where to eat? We base our decisions on a host of criteria…price, parking, availability of Caesar salads. But, at least for me, one benchmark has never before been whether or not a Confederate flag was whipping through the crisp Southern skies (excuse that pun). And, naturally, there were signs (actual and surmised) about presidential election choices. We stayed hungry longer on the road.

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Why were some restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes in some cities integrated and why were some not? Where I live, I never ask myself that question. I have a lot of beliefs and principles and political views that course through my blood without ever having to think twice about having to justify what I think. I assume most folks around me think like I do. They might not share my political party, but it’s a gut-level assumption I’ve made based on homogeneity. Seems easier that way. I live in a nearly 100% white city in a practically 100% white county. Nobody made me live here, y’all. I chose it for its educational opportunities for our children, for our feeling of safety, for our commitment to liberal ideals along with those of our neighbors, and for our belief that we could worship whatever god we choose (or not to worship as the case may be) without risking becoming a pariah and having our front lawn sport a burning cross instead of a cozy fire pit.

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See, the conflicting premise for me is this: When I speak of my trip to the South, folks where I live respond with something like, “The South is like being on another planet.” While I agree that much of any unique region is, well, unfamiliar. The South…be it these three states I visited or the other ones…are in fact not on another planet, nor galaxy, nor cosmos. The South is part of the country in which almost everyone reading this blog lives: The U.S. of A. And, that’s what blows my mind. I can’t chalk up the unrecognizable accents, drinking and driving and gun laws (all of which can be done together, by the way), the integration, the segregation, the economic-booming-versus-busted towns (there are plenty of both), the fabulous cuisine and the enormous-sized folks who consume too much of it, the home of renown writers, poets, and artists and the pathetic state of public school education there. I not only share this planet with the South, I share a president, a senate, and a congress. We pay taxes to the same federal agency and we supposedly speak the same language. Don’t we?

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There was one day of our 14-day excursion that resonated with me because of its myriad of complexities. We journeyed in rural landscapes with shoddy roads, running right next to cotton fields. A little farther on, we came upon urban venues, like the town where former cotton gins have been refurbished as the headquarters for Viking appliances. A day as varied as most and rife with contradictions. While trying desperately to find a gas station, we’d instead come upon skeletons of long-ago abandoned pumps. But in the next small town, we delighted in locating the coffee bar serving hand-pulled espresso in porcelain cups for our after-lunch pick-me-up. This day was long and hot, and we were in Mississippi.

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After checking into our (surprise!) 4-star hotel in Greenwood, we stretched our legs with a stroll through the picturesque town. It was evening, around 5:30, and the whole place was deserted. Half expecting a tumbleweed to be blown down the center of Main Street, and a pair of phantom saloon doors to keep swinging on its hinges, we ducked into a shop that was drawing its blinds against the shimmering sun – blistering even at this hour. We didn’t mention the nuclear-holocaust feeling with no visible signs of life; instead we chirped to the fashionably dressed saleswoman, “Where can we hear some live music tonight?”

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It turns out the proprietor, not much older than 40, and introducing herself as, “Miss Rebecca,” asked us, “Where y’all from?” When we told her, she offered in the most polite and cheerful way that she loves loves loves San Francisco but really prefers San Diego. “Oh, this now is Wednesday evenin’, and Wednesday evenin’ is church-goin’ night. You won’t hear music tonight.” As if she needed to further clarify (but so nicely!) to these Yankees in her shop, “Y’all in the bible belt now.”

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With that, my husband decided to spend the next bit of time taking some photographs of the town while I plowed through her extraordinarily bulbous baskets of gingham napkins and seersucker bow ties and really fabulous locally made jewelry. I was feeling at home with Miss Rebecca, doing what I do very well indeed: shop. Wednesday evening or not, a sale is a sale.

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My phone rang and my husband on the other end implored me to get over to meet him. He said I would find him at the Cotton Row Club in Cotton Row Alley not farther than two blocks from where I was paying for my Southern gift medley. As I approached the Club, I was greeted by a man about my age standing in front of the door and ready to give me a bit of an introduction into this venue. Dale asked me in such a friendly manner that at first I didn’t pay attention to the details of what he was saying or the more complicated aspects of how this club looked—even from the outside. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Are you Miss Marty [Marty, being the name of my husband]?” “Yes, I am. My name is Naomi.”

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Dale continued, “Welcome, Miss Marty, to Greenwood’s private male-only drinking club.” “Thanks so much, Dale,” I demurred. I was agitated because Marty was nowhere to be seen; I became concerned about Marty and a bit annoyed that he hadn’t sufficiently warned me about what I would find here. Oh boy, I thought, I’m standing in front of a male-only drinking club and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what a drinking club, male or female, really means. Surely, he’s not going to invite me to come inside.

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“Boys!” Dale proclaimed to the 45 or so men whose heads had now all turned in my direction as I crossed the threshold. As is the well-worn custom of Southern gentleman, each and every seated man stood up. Based on my empirical, first-hand research of the exquisite manners of Southern men, I felt oddly revered. Never opening a door myself the entire two weeks we were in the South (except when alone with my husband), I was beginning to get used to the treatment. But the sound was rancorous as all these men pushed back their chairs in unison to rise and greet me. “This here is Miss Marty from SAN FRANCISCO!” And, then just as quickly, most of them turned back to their conversations—and their Bourbon. In paper cups. The small tavern was a shit hole, really. I imagine that their wives were home with their own cocktails, sitting in their screened porches or in one of 10 or 11 palatial rooms each of which was layered in chintz and sprinkled with a preponderance of tasseled pillows. The opposite of a shit hole, in other words. The men had been talking basketball. What would the women be chatting about, I wondered.

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While I never was offered a seat, I was encouraged to acknowledge the poker table that I was now leaning up against. It was pointed out to me this was from the Civil War or was it from some guy’s garage? I forget. The wood was chipped and mauled as if the players used the edge of the table to claw their way up from the floor after being shot for cheating. To the right of the room, there was one of those soft drink machines with a brightly lit façade picturing bubbles and ice. But instead of push buttons displaying Coke, or Pepsi, or Sprite this one had handwritten labels of Bourbon, Rye, and Whiskey. There were two much younger men behind the “bar” and one black dude who was working hard to quickly refill drained paper cups.

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“Would you care for a drink, Miss Marty?” a gentleman in an elegant orange pin-stripped shirt asked me. “Oh, thank you.” I replied checking out my limited options. “But, no. I can’t stay, really.” They insisted. So I complied and asked for Bourbon…with soda. “Miss Marty, I don’t think we have soda.” They didn’t, but it made no difference because no one actually served me a drink.

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By now, Marty showed up and then the men started to approach us with such curiosity it was palpable. But, damn they were all so amiable. One guy, turns out he was the mayor, was so excited to confirm that we were from SAN FRANCISCO that he couldn’t wait to ask us if we were fans of the Grateful Dead. Not certain what the mayor wanted to hear, we changed the subject. Quickly. Although I wonder what the Mayor’s favorite Dead song would have been…“Ripple?”

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Dale, my first friend, whose belly arrived before he did as he again came toward me said, “Miss Marty, I can assume we are from different sides politically. But, it is so good to be able to discuss our differences with each other, in a civilized way, and learn from each other. Isn’t that so?”

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I couldn’t argue with that. It’s just that we never did discuss anything political. I missed a chance to do so, and I’m sorry. The opportunity would have been to hear what Dale and his pals had to say and to say to them what I really believe. To learn what they thought and why they presumably are voting differently than I am—this is what, in my state of disorientation, I prevented from happening. I was trying to lean in, but I was outnumbered and intimidated by a culture that was becoming more complex to me by the moment.

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We both, Marty and Miss Marty, thanked our hosts and went to find dinner. It was a remarkable meal that included fish I had never before tasted with exquisite vegetables and fresh pasta served with a mushroom broth that blew my mind.

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The young African-American waiter took my order after explaining to us that he was part of a restaurant-training program where the owner is partnering with the local community college to teach kids like him about the front-of-the-house restaurant business. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked me, pen at the ready.

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“Oh, yes please!” I replied. “I’ll have a Bourbon and soda on the rocks. Can you make mine a double?”

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Lock and load,
Naomi

ivebeenframed

I’ve Been Framed

Posted on April 29, 2016

Can I see a show of hands? Who here has been to an art museum in any city in the world, stood in line for over an hour–maybe longer if you are expecting to see that blockbuster show? I’m talking about that exhibition, you know the one: The A-listed spectacular depicted on the flamboyant screens that are hanging off the sides of light posts on the city’s streets. Banners of commercialism reminding you, at every traffic light, to get yourself some culture…quickly. Don’t miss out. Everyone is raving about the artist…wait, what’s his name, again?

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Maybe, as you catch sight of the mass of humanity outside the museum ahead, you quicken your pace while deliberating the advantages of joining the museum for $185/year and skipping the tedious line even though the museum is in Reykjavik–and it’ll be a cold day in, well, Iceland, before you’re back here again. Time is money and, after all, you’ve traveled all this way. By making the big-shot move to join, you aren’t going to waste time chit chatting with the other tourists–practicing your high-school French with the Québécois couple ahead of you in line. Besides you’re going to enjoy receiving the 85 daily emails you’ll receive for having joined. They will be lovely reminders of your day in this city.

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Or, perhaps you’ve reasoned that the line really isn’t that long and besides the rain feels refreshing; the wind in your hair makes you happy you lugged your coat. So, you stay in line and coil yourself around the metal stanchions with the other cued-up suckers. The line stalls because some schmoe only has a Diner’s Club card and the museum doesn’t accept it. You cautiously lean on one of the two crimson velvet ropes mistakenly believing that it’s going to support your tired bones. But, between the gale force wind and your weight…whoops. Say hello to the art lover’s chest behind you.

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Any minute now and you’ll be inside the gallery. But, you’re so distracted you hardly appreciate the moment. You’re too preoccupied with checking Google maps for nearby places to eat. Lunchtime already? Do you risk leaving the line and gambling on a lighter afternoon crowd? On the other hand, the museum must have a café on the 5th floor…or is this the art museum your neighbor said had those muffins and strong coffee in those adorable cups? You think so, but the tradeoff is that you’ll sit in the windowless basement for a shot of $4 espresso and a Zeppelin-sized pastry you don’t need. Shoot, now you’ve got to pee, or your spouse does, or it’s your child. Worse yet, it’s your grandchild. And, it’s at this point you begin to doubt your ability to make good choices. Whose idea was this anyway? Not yours, surely…visiting the museum, today, in the rain, before lunch, with a toddler? Wouldn’t it just be wiser to buy the 3-year-old a violin and enroll her in Suzuki music lessons to ensure she gets into Stanford? Art? Who needs it?

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Mercifully, you have now arrived at the front of the line, and with some of your dignity still intact, you present the guard with your flimsy ticket. You’ve been instructed to paste the bottom section of that pass onto your jacket. It won’t be until you’re back at your hotel and getting undressed that you realize the sticker is unceremoniously dangling like an untidy piece of orange lint on your collar. But bigger. And, you were trying to not look like a tourist. Busted. The guard takes your offering and warns you to not use your flash and to adjust your Prada backpack, which you bought just for this vacation, from its position on your back to your front. Now, you look like you are carrying an infant all zipped up inside instead of modeling a chic bag containing all your pursey things. Of course, this backpack rearrangement is a clever security measure to ensure that the Water Lilies painting by Monet—the one that is bigger than your car–or any one of the seascape paintings by Turner with the two-hundred-pound gilt frame doesn’t accidentally make it into your bag.

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If you planned your art museum trip well, you’ve dashed ahead to the cloak room and checked (or were implored to check) your umbrella, your coat, your earlier purchases of the day, and the leftovers from your Sunday brunch. This frees up your hands to manipulate the audio-tour device you’ve purchased. The narrator’s voice welcomes you to the exhibit, and the guard (they are everywhere) reminds you that you must hang the device around your neck. And, you’d like to. Really, you would. But, because your backpack is now your front bumper, the audio thing hangs around you like a cowbell. Pressing the green arrow, you settle in to hear about how the twelve curators from numerous museums located in a multitude of countries around the world worked night and day to bring to the public for the first time in 65 years scads of pictures from this particular genre of paintings made by this one artist. Not only that; the art works scrupulously were amassed from 49 different institutions and 23 private collections. Silently congratulating yourself on your excellent planning—to be in these hallowed and presumably solemn halls of artistic reverence at this particular time when this specific world-class, never-before-seen-in-one-place exhibition is being offered for such a brief period of time—you suddenly realize you’ve got to pee. Again.

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Serpentining through the maze of people who are gathered in front of the pictures which are designated with numbers corresponding to the audio device’s stops, you scoot in and around like a running back maneuvering to the end zone. You scuttle among the motorized wheel chairs, canes, and strollers, and you nearly make it out of that gallery. But not before, your phone rings and the guard asks you to either silence your phone or step outside to take the call. Don’t worry, you tell him. You were just leaving.

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I am not an artist, but some of my favorite people are…my son, for example. And, one of the many things I’ve come to recognize about the way I interact with the art I see in museums is that I am a passive observer. It’s not unlike the experience of attending a theatre production or a dance performance except that the former are experienced only once. The exact experience cannot be duplicated. By contrast, one could argue that a painting or a drawing or a sculpture is not transient but static. The only change that occurs is what we bring to it. What pressure! Imagine thinking that you could purchase the musical you just saw? Does the ballet look good above your couch? Is the opera a sound investment for your portfolio?

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Certainly, we experience the visual arts in a unique way. That may be why we look at art as if revering it: we stand, or move around the space slowly and deliberately, speaking in hushed tones or not at all. More than likely we are being directed and handled by those same curators who put the show together to give us a sense of accessibility to the work. Just don’t stand too close, please.

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Maybe there’s one hard wooden bench to perch on so that you can sit and reflect. In fact, most who are hogging the seat are checking their texts. I spend more time reading the placards mounted adjacent to the art than I do viewing the piece. I don’t want to risk being confused about whose work it is, when it was created, or who owns it. Ironically, I’ll never remember that information anyway. And, I can almost guarantee you, that I won’t understand a word of the pretentious artspeak in that too-tiny print. So, why the fascination with the reading material, I ask myself.

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If that audio device I rented is accessorizing my outfit, there’s a high likelihood that some mellifluous voice is suggesting what I should pay particular attention to…the way the chair is placed in the foreground. The big red swath of paint cutting the picture in two. Duh! Tell me something I don’t know. But don’t misunderstand, for all of these verbal cliff notes, I am grateful. I feel as though people are trying to help me. My visual acuity is honed when I have this much authentication. But, ironically, it doesn’t allow me to experience the art.

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And, this became apparent to me when I met a young artist recently. Engaging him in conversation about his own show which was being displayed at my son’s gallery, This Friday or Next Friday, he asked ME what I felt when I entered the space. Felt? Didn’t he mean to ask me what was it I saw? It was a challenge for me to avoid responding with a polite and innocuous comment. But here was my chance to think and respond for myself—to pay attention to how that affected what I felt. I described what I observed and how confused I became when looking at his series of installation pieces. That, in turn, made me feel confused and somewhat annoyed because, really, who likes to feel confused and dumb? Having the artist at my side was such a privilege because it allowed me the opportunity to interact with him, of course.

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That interaction gave me more insight into his work. He then said to me: Look at this one piece, for example. What you see is just the surface. He asked me if I would be surprised to learn that underneath this print he made there were sheets upon sheets of more paper. Yes, of course, I answered. I’m astonished! I said. If I can’t see them, though, how would I know they exist? Ah, he said, everyone who looks at art brings their own beliefs, experiences, and expectations to what they see. And, I’m pretty sure this young artist was talking about perspective—here, I mean a frame of reference and not necessarily the relationship between two points in space. Although, who really knows?

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If I were to go back to that fancy museum with the awesome café and omnipresent guards in some distant city, how can I evoke that same sense of intimacy with the artwork? After all, the artists are mostly dead white guys not young, engaging artists standing by to help heighten the viewer’s experience. In a recent article in the NY Times Arts section, New York City police officers were asked to come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view works of art for the explicit purpose of heightening the cops’ visual acuity. In their case, it was part professional development, part field trip as a surprising number of them had never been to an art museum.

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But the point was to view what appeared before them as an exercise in detection and awareness. In fact, the point was the painting itself. And to learn from seeing what is right in front of our noses and attaching a meaningful narrative to what we glean. One might say, ask not what the art can do for you, but what you can do for the art.

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The woman running the seminar for the above mentioned police-art experiential experiment showed the officers El Greco’s, “The Purification of the Temple,” which depicts Jesus expelling the moneylenders amid turmoil and mayhem. Whereas I might have looked at the painting and seen an allegorical representation of a biblical story depicted through elongated figures and palettes of color, one cop viewed it and said, “I’d collar the guy in pink because it’s clear he’s causing all the trouble.” That would be Jesus. Different strokes…

N.Y.C.- B'klyn & Eloïse - June & July '13

Get the picture?
Naomi

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Driver’s Ed

Posted on April 15, 2016

You, can take the A train...

Walk on By
You can take the A train. I, however, prefer to drive. It’s part of the double helix of my DNA…the molecular structure based on growing up in California. That and the fact that except for the sporadic Saturday excursions to the miles-from-home shopping district via the local Greyhound Bus, I knew nothing first hand about public transit.

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She’s About a Mover
What separated our suburban village from the great urban sprawl known as Oakland was a mountain, which was about two miles thick. Now this East Bay alp has 4 bores through the rock to hasten commuters from the hinterlands into the more-or-less metropolitan communities close to San Francisco. But back in my day, only two holes served up the traffic. One eastbound, the other toward the west. It was through these restricted passageways into domestic enclaves that fathers flew home in the evening or trundled off to work in the morning. The burrow was only just wide enough to allow the Greyhound Bus to move through it. This bus carried in it a full load of domestic workers who were coughed up on the village side of the tunnel each and every weekday morning. Housewives would be waiting in their cars to drive their employees to their place of work—one of any number of homes in my neighborhood. The bus was the only form of transportation that African Americans, as far as I knew, were allowed to take into my hometown. Once, in high school, a progressive American history teacher of mine had invited members of the Black Panther Party to address our afternoon class of 11th graders. The Panthers did not show, however. As it turns out, the car carrying them was stopped on the east side of the tunnel and told by the cops to turn back to Oakland. The borderline was clearly drawn and more deeply entrenched than that mountain. That history teacher was not invited back to teach either.
I Was in the Right Place, But It Must Have Been The Wrong Time

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I’ll Take You There
What conveyance took me through the tunnel, of course, was quite different from the bus. It was my family’s car. My working parents commuted to Oakland, and they brought me with them each morning—depositing me in a private school miles away from home. Usually, it was in the car, with my father driving, that school lessons were reviewed as were accounts of my father’s exploits on the golf course. My mother’s ever enthusiastic review of the previous evening’s baseball game was hashed out. Later, when my mother’s health became more and more tenuous and she could no longer work (and I was still in elementary school), my father used these morning commutes to teach me, through parables, what he was certain would be of use for a lifetime of gentility and decorum. To wit: A spoken word is like an elephant’s tusk; once it is out, you cannot push it back in. Or, Everyone has a positive quality that sets him or her apart. You must find that quality in everyone. Or, always smile when you cross the path of someone. It is contagious.
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Pulling up outside my formidable school grounds with its brown-shingled exterior and yawning expanses of lawn, I tumbled out of the car clutching my metal lunch box and a heap of anxiety swaddled in dread about how I was to apply these yarns into my daily life. Again today, I thought, I would be fending off the bully who relished pushing me into the water fountain as I slurped. Maybe this is the day I will try smiling when the teacher hits me on the knuckles with a ruler because I can’t quiet my nervous fingers long enough to draw straight lines. I preferred my mom’s musings about Willie Mays or Felipe Alou on our drives to school. I missed her and her lack of allegorical dialogue. She provided plenty of juicy distractions and no lessons about how to be a good girl in my challenging everyday world. A world that seemed galaxies away from the one my father believed I lived in.
You Make Me Wanna Shout

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I spent so much time in cars that it was inevitable that more and more of my life lessons were first experienced within those 4 doors. It was while sitting in the back seat of a neighbor’s car that I first felt the bracing sting of anti-Semitism. By now, I was motherless, attending school near my house and at the mercy of a number of friends who graciously offered up their own moms to schlepp me around. On this particular journey, my young blonde friend seated next to me mentioned that Stuart, a kid in our class, made her mad for some reason. “He’s just a dirty little Jew,” she said looking at me as she bounced on the seat of the car. “Oh,” she continued, “Not you, though. You’re just fine—I really like you.” Bounce. Bounce. Although at that moment we shared a back seat in this car, we no longer would share anything else…ever again. I had no parable wisdom from my dad to draw upon, so I looked into the rearview mirror and straight into the eyes of my friend’s mother for a lifeline. She stared back into my reflection and offered up nothing. Her eyes conveyed a sorrow that seemed less directed toward me and more about her young daughter who had managed to absorb hate, distrust, and vehemence at such a tender age. Sadly, the mother missed a chance to teach a lesson in acceptance and tolerance by remaining silent. My father would never have kept his council. I know without a doubt what he would have said. It would not have been polite. And, she would have stopped bouncing.
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Get Your Motor Running…Head Out On the Highway
My first car was a boxy, yellow Toyota Corona that was the toast of my high school. I don’t remember anyone else in my school getting a new car from their parents. My father said that because of the dearth of public transportation, he preferred I have my own wheels to drive myself around when he couldn’t. There was a momentary blush of embarrassment on my end, but the new-found popularity as a result of owning my own car was so worth it. I remember two things about this car: When I took delivery of the car, the entire inside was wrapped in plastic like a package of hamburger from Safeway’s meat department. There were sheets of plastic wrapping the door panels and the seats; the floor of the car was blanketed with this wrappage. I spent days pulling out strips of the stuff. At stop signs, where today one might check one’s texts, I was using the time and my nails to extract even more plastic I had found from crevices underneath the windows or around the glove box. The second thing I learned about having my own car was that boys and girls were treated very differently by the judicial system. In other words, I discovered that at the age of 16, I was not only a new and therefore inexperienced driver, I was also a burgeoning feminist.
Born To Be Wild

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My first (and get this: to date, my ONLY) moving violation was for passing a school bus while its red lights were flashing. I had to appear in court only weeks after acquiring my driver’s license. In the courtroom were other delinquents: boys who drove while drunk, drove without a license, drove a STOLEN car, ran through a red light and one who drove about 100 miles per hour in a 15 mile-per-hour zone. Dismissed. Dismissed. Dismissed. Cautioned. My violation was read aloud, and I was asked to stand before the judge. His honor said that I was to have my license revoked for 6 weeks. Blatantly sexist but not having the right parable for an appropriate are-you-kidding-me response, I smiled and thanked the judge. By now, I was a helluva good smiler.
I Am Woman Hear Me Roar

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As I got older, the life lessons while driving continued although they became more experiential and far less dogmatic. I learned how to smoke in a 1967 VW bug; I became reasonably good at kissing thanks to parking in some guy’s car on Donald Drive; I understood the value of sharing heartaches and breakups as tears were shed while driving with my best friends to Stinson Beach. Equally, I grasped the valuable knowledge that laughing with these same friends while we mimicked teachers, parents, and other friends on the way to see Santana at the Fillmore could be therapeutic—and crazy fun. Amazingly, we were able to keep our (often pupil-dilated) eyes on the road.
¿Oye Como Va?

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Eventually, my car trunk was bulging with belongings as I drove myself to college. And, again, when I moved into apartments, and then moved out and into other apartments. It was in a car where I proposed to my husband as we waited for the light to change at the corner of Divisadero and California Streets. Yes, you read that right.
Besame Mucho was playing on the radio and became our song.

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And, then, one day my car’s back seat held two children’s car seats, their adorable if messy and sticky occupants, and bundles of stuffed animals, puzzles, pacifiers, and other detritus of early childhood and desperate parents. The adjacent windows were dotted with stickers of superheroes and fish. Driving was often the only way to get those little boys to fall asleep. Some days, I would strap them in the car and drive around the block just to get some quiet time to myself before stealthily removing them from their straps and lugging them to their beds. Baby Beluga played while I repeated familiar parables from my father to my sons about how to deal with their own water-fountain bullies. For 3 years, no drive to preschool was attempted without the car’s cassette player pumping out the soundtrack to “Cocktail.”
Aruba, Jamaica…Girl I Wanna Take Ya

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As the boys grew, the conversations intensified but were made possible because no direct eye contact was involved. Girlfriends, sex, grades, drugs…all discussed while I turned my head to look into the left ear of my son; or he toward my placid (dare I say non-judgmental) profile.
Hammertime

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Son, You’re Gonna Drive me to Drinkin’ If You Don’t Stop Driving That Hod Rod Lincoln
Back in time I now motor. Back to my girlhood neighborhood. There, across the street from me, lived my little friend, Rita, who had an uncanny ability to hear a car’s engine and determine the make and model and often the year of that vehicle…without laying eyes on the car itself. She could tell from a throaty engine if the car was a Buick or a Cadillac; if the engine ran rich, she’d yell out, “Ford Fairlane.” “Wait! No, it’s an Oldsmobile Delta 88.” That was a talent that eluded me. But then, I could recite a parable without a second thought. Just the right one for a drive in a classic, purring Thunderbird, perhaps. A moral to be learned while driving in a Lincoln Continental? I’ve got it. And, probably I could think of the perfect song to accompany it. Sadly, though, I no longer have the cassette.

Why would anyone want a car that can drive itself?

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I Can See For Miles and Miles and Miles and…

Naomi
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Livin’ The Dream

Posted on April 1, 2016

You know how this works. You are 8 years old and have your whole life ahead of you. There is no question whatsoever that you can realize your dreams just by remaining alive and getting through third grade. Career-path fantasies like becoming a fireman or a ballet dancer if you are a boy—an astronaut or a rock star if you are a girl—seem utterly within the realm of possibilities. Bring ‘em on, in fact. Never say never, your parents say to you over dinner. You can do anything, they reinforce in the car on the way home from little league. You begin to accept parental intelligence and acknowledge that anything is possible, and the bigger your dreams the better. Then, without warning, but as a result of the passage of time, those fantasies collide with aptitude, talent, peer pressure, interests, availability of funds, puberty or all of the above, and suddenly you’re staring at the grey-white walls of your office cubicle wondering how that happened. In fact, your parents are also wondering what the hell happened.

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Every once in awhile, though, there is a glimmer of how different things might have been had you actually chosen that race-car driving trajectory or that Navy Seal route. Perhaps not in the form of a lightening bolt but more like a gentle fairy-wand swish, the whisper of a feeling wafts over you and you think to yourself, “what if?” Maybe and most likely, that’s as far reaching as the conscious brain of a grey-haired adult can go…the occluded neural pathways try and save us the pain, suffering, and mortification of knowing we peaked at age 40. But, as it happens, there was apparently a quark in my personal universe. It took the form of a mythical tap on my shoulder, followed by a flickering realization of possible potential (FRPP)–and all of this took place over about 3 hours at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel’s Grand Ballroom. In fact, there were glimmer and glitter involved. I’m telling you, when fairy wands are brandished, expect the unexpected. Otherwise, to try and manage your fears or expectations based on actual reality based on what you’ve definitively experienced…chances are good that you’d climb under the bed covers and shut all the blinds. Believe me, you couldn’t cope. It’s just better not to know what could possibly go wrong.

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Prior to this auspicious day at the hotel, I thought all hotel ballrooms were the purview of wedding receptions, Bar Mitzvahs, and convention lectures. Most ballrooms have similar names, like The Redwood Room, or the Pavilion, and I conjure up cavernous rooms where vast acres of floor are covered in grotesque floral-patterned carpets. Industrial-strength accordion-pleated doors run on metal tracks mounted on the white, foaming ceiling tiles. Fluorescent lights offer enough light for surgery but cast a frightening glare on faces–turning white skin to a whiter shade of pale. And, not surprisingly given what these rooms look like, there is no way a ball was ever actually held there. Or so I thought. However, there are immense yawning rooms dotted throughout the bigger hotels of America, where a secret society meets. The hallways outside these enormous spaces are boggy with racks of sequined clothes and shelves of satin-covered shoes; there are tanning booths and teeth-whitening cubbies. There are accessories for hair, eyes, ears, and wrists—each laden with Swarovski crystals if they are costly and some cheap glass bits if they are not. These certain ballrooms are not carpeted but instead house a football-sized wooden dance floor, the perimeter of which is dotted with chairs and tables draped with floor-length cloths in an attempt to replicate a cabaret. Think basketball game meets Westminster Dog Show.

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I had been taking ballroom dancing lessons for a few years prior to finding my way up that hotel’s escalator on this particular Saturday. Weeks before this infamous day, I had entered myself into my dance school’s homespun competition, which was a knock-off of the “Dancing with the Stars” TV program that had recently begun to air. Of course now, after its 5,064 season, everyone is familiar with the show’s concept. But several years ago, the spectacle was a unique and wholly entertaining view into a world most were unaware of. The dance teachers were my school’s equivalent of the TV show’s professionals, and the students were the “stars.” Heady and serious stuff as is usually the case for dedicated hobbyists of all kinds. I was partnered with a male teacher, 25 years my junior, who ran me through my paces three to four times a week trying his best to get this old mare in condition to run the Kentucky Derby of dance contests. His strength and agility didn’t fail him or me as he hoisted me overhead and twirled me from front to back and hustled me at lightening speed around the dance floor. I hear that dance teachers have referred to their experience of instructing amateurs like me as the equivalent of moving furniture. Built not unlike a small end table myself, I marveled at my partner’s composure to pick me up and place me down with a modicum of gentle maneuvering. The practicing paid off and we won. The next adventure was to take our routine on the road. I thought this sounded like a fabulous way to keep in shape and not lose a second of the newly found momentum I had garnered on the home front.

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To those of you unfamiliar with the ballroom dancing world, there are competitions held more frequently than you would ever imagine. Teachers and students gather in any number of hotel ballrooms across the country–in fact, the world–to compete. The place for me to begin, however, was at a local hotel–the above-mentioned Marriott. My partner and I were registered for the event and given our assigned time for our heat. Let me add that I’ve lived my entire life waiting for the chance to be in a sport’s heat. It was thrilling to contemplate that this was a professional competition, held in San Francisco, and that I would be judged by professionals. The thrill was tainted a bit when I was told the hour of our heat…7:30 a.m. Just imagine, if you would, that if you had to schedule the least impressive people to do anything at all in a public arena when would you schedule them? Hmmmm? We had to be there no later than 7:00 to warm up. It was a Saturday morning; there was no traffic. I begged my partner to get there early. He complied, and we arrived before the hotel’s Starbucks was open for business.

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The escalator deposited us on the ballroom floor just in front of the reception desk where we received our numbers to pin on our backs. I wore an off-the-rack Betsey Johnson dress that I bought on sale and sported slightly more mascara than I would wear to the grocery store. Surprisingly, even at that early hour, there were lithe dancers of all ages in the hotel lobby wearing pink polyester robes with the names of their dance studios embroidered on the back. Others were stretching their fishnet-covered legs over their heads to warm up. And, those were the 70-year-olds. Still others were checking on hair and makeup appointments that were scheduled in different hotel rooms that morning. My hands were cold and clammy, and I felt as if my underpants were wrapped around my ankles or I had forgotten to remove the curlers from my hair. You know that dream of being naked in front of the class? Not unlike how I felt. I had won my dance studio’s competition with my lucky dance shoes. The pair I was now wearing. These were black laced-up short-heeled shoes that unbeknownst to me were not regulation issue and had no business disgracing the professional vibe of this environment. All I knew was that they drew only a little blood on my abused feet. I learned quickly that this was only one of many costume gaffes I committed that morning.

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Our heat number was called my partner and I entered the room. Actually, only he went in. I lingered at the doorway not for the sake of drama but because I felt my knees buckle and my heart skip. I reeled from a heightened feeling of terror compounded by the way I was dressed and now as I caught sight of the dancers warming up. I was woefully, pitifully out of my league. I should hasten to add that my teachers had more than adequately prepared me for the physicality of the competition. But they were not licensed therapists. So that if one harbors even a shred of self doubt, leave it to a ballroom full of chiffon-swirling, ultra-coiffed women and vainglorious men to ramp up that insecurity. Before me, even at this daybreak of an hour, were scores of dancers in various forms of shimmery, glittery costumes which I came to find out later were standard issue. Tuxedoed men with shiny black patent-leather shoes and slicked-back hair; women, no matter the age, with hair plastered to their skulls and further held in place with jeweled barrettes and combs and tiaras. One woman had a necklace of sorts draped along her hairline and a nugget of a rhinestone falling precisely between her eyebrows. The hems of the gowns were lacy or feathery, slit up the side, the back, the front. The amount of sequins (I now know to call stones) per dress could have sunk a battleship. Feathers formerly adhering to gowns, even during practice rounds, were flying off the dance floor like pollen in the wind. No woman had on black dancing shoes except for the very few children warming up for their salsa dances. But, even those were voguish in a petite sort of way.

Nomi - Ballroom dancing-harder than it looks. SF Chron.

What was my partner to do now that I wouldn’t go into the room? He did what seemed expeditious, I guess…he ignored me and perhaps assumed I would change my mind. Which I did, eventually. Much like the proverbial toe in the water, I stepped into the room with my orthopedic black footwear thinking that my steps made a sound heard around the ballroom. Tripping, in fact, on the light fantastic and not gracefully recovering. But, of course, with all the twinkling apparel seemingly levitating off the floor and luminescent disco balls swinging overhead who was paying attention to me? No one. I suppose not even my partner.

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Our heat number was called and we were corralled into the bullpen like ball players. Again, the comparison to other sports was clunky and mismatched but still somewhat satisfying for a non-athlete like me. The MC announced the dancers’ names one by one. His staccato pronunciation was faultless and daunting considering the multisyllabic names of nearly all the eastern-bloc professional teachers’ surnames. Arm in arm, my partner and I scurried to the spot on the floor where the leader strategically stakes out his claim for a coveted swath of real estate. There we assumed this pseudo I-can’t-wait-for-the-music-to-begin pose. All phony smiles and jumbled nerves. The DJ’ed waltz music started, my partner held out his hand for me to join him, and just like Cinderella (minus the prophetic footwear) I took a few steps in his direction to assume my dance position. Fueled by adrenaline and steadfastly adhering to memorized steps, I did my best to encircle the room. Over and over again. These heats are comprised of 8 or 9 individual, 3-minute dances. We shared the floor with others of my age group and level of ability. My endurance was waning as the event proceeded, and my abilities were dwindling. I had little recall of my name let alone what the dance steps were, and I could see (and feel) the sweat accumulating on the forehead and back of my furniture-moving partner. As is the custom, after each dance, the leader rolls out his partner like pulling a sheet off a paper towel roll. It is here, after the twirl, where I am expected to courtesy before the judges. They shoot horses, don’t they?

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Mercifully, off the dance floor, I waited for some tough love from my partner. His assessment was rough and unforgiving but oddly motivating to me. In other words, I was pissed. Mad at him for proffering such an unfeeling critique and upset with myself for not performing the way I thought I could. So that when we took the floor again for perhaps the most frightening and potentially appalling moment, I was (again, sports fans) pumped. Pissed and pumped to be exact. This was to be the solo performance referred to as the Showcase. It was only about 8:00 a.m. now; however, it felt as if a lifetime had skidded by and I no longer cared what I was wearing on my feet or in my hair. I actually began to believe in myself and in my preparation and most of all did not succumb to feelings of self-loathing. Quite an improvement. I just danced for the pure and unadulterated pleasure of being out on the floor, as the center of attention, with a young stud, moving to beautiful music.

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Maybe that’s why we received high praise for the solo. The judges saw a woman who loved her moment in the sunshine and danced like no one was watching. I collected our swag from the podium and rushed out to the hallway where I could better catch my breath and inhale some air that wasn’t laden with the medicinal aroma of bronzing lotion. On my way to reward the two of us with double cappuccinos at the now-open Starbucks, my eye caught a pair of flesh-colored satin dance pumps. The kind that all the other dancers were wearing, and I bought a pair. Actually, I bought two.

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Fantasies can keep you searching for freshness in life and fuel one’s urge to compete or hanker to excel. It could be that the desire to reinvent oneself or to create something novel is a way to conquer–or just to experience–something that has been elusive. Whatever it is, sports fans, you just put one black-laced ugly shoe in front of the other and enter a world that you have no preconceptions about because you literally know nothing. I recently saw a woman at a cocktail party whom I hadn’t seen in ages. I asked what she was up to, and she told me that she was taking figure-skating lessons and was about to fly to Lake Pacid in upstate New York to compete as a beginner. I asked her what she thought it would be like. She said that she wasn’t sure exactly. There would be an enormous ice rink, maybe some gorgeous costumes, but she had just purchased nude tights to keep her warm and cover up her unsightly varicose veins. She was bringing her lucky, black-laced skates. Other than that, she didn’t know what to expect.

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May I have this dance?
Naomi

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Pop Up

Posted on March 25, 2016

My mother had a favorite dish she often made for dinner for my dad and me. She was the first to admit that domestic talents eluded and bored her. Ever a good judge of character, I must now concur with her self-assessment. She was, however, a formidable raconteur. And, at our dinner table—or over entrees set on floral-patterned metallic TV tables—she would interrupt the TV evening broadcast of Huntley and Brinkley to regale us with stories of her day spent at the small dress shop where she worked. As often as not, she would reconfigure the neighborhood news. She scooped up these morsels along with the mail as she met the housewives wafting down their driveways with nearly choreographed timing as they too gathered their mail. There was always Bourbon-laced grownup laughter at our table, stories of golf shots missed and putts sunk, advice given about how to better style my hair and tidbits recounted from the bottomless pit of gossip that percolated up from the bridge tables in the living rooms of their friends. Alongside the main dish of discourse there were always heaps of food to go around and gratefully, lots of time in which to consume it–most of that food, though, was packaged, frozen, or canned. My mother could be counted on to buck commonly held, clichéd beliefs… like the tenets of good nutrition or the merits of not smoking or even holding off until 5:00pm to enjoy her cocktail. She was positively gleeful when frozen vegetables hit the cold-storage shelves of our local market. This startling sea change in food shopping paled in comparison, however, to the onset of the pre-cooked and smartly packaged, convenience-food availability. At first, these self-contained culinary question marks were available only in our most select grocery store in town–the one with the adjacent gift shop that also sold record albums. My mother’s go-to delight was a spaghetti-with-meat-sauce entrée that came housed in an opaque plastic tub. For her, it was well worth the trip across town to pick up a couple. But, mystifyingly, she added to this spaghetti a can or two (I never had her write down the recipe for obvious reasons) of Campbell’s onion soup. She called our ensuing dinner dish, “Slop,” in a total unironic way. Slop. It’s what’s for dinner.

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My father had his specialty too. His he called, “Six Cans,” and I cannot remember much about the dish other than his enthusiasm in serving it TO COMPANY. I do think, in retrospect and in contrast to my mother’s delicacy, his dish was ironic in both name and nature. There’s no written record of this recipe either, but what I do have is a copy of his favorite cookbook, “A Wolf in Chef’s Clothing: The Picture Cook and Drink Book for Men,” first published in 1950. He would trot out this dog-eared canned-tomato-sauce-stained manual to the great amusement of my parents’ friends. This is probably why cocktails came swiftly upon the arrival of dinner guests and proceeded uninterrupted throughout the meal. Cooking instructions found within the pages of this cookbook included these for the recipe titled, “Salade [sic] Subversive.” 1. Cut two wedges [iceberg lettuce, obviously]; 2. Cut into quarters [tomatoes]; 3. Arrange THUSLY [my emphasis]; and 4. Pour over [bottled Russian dressing, amazing when you consider the political climate engendered by the mid-1950 McCarthy hearings] and serve.

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Yum.

I was a freshman in high school when my mother died, and I was hungry for companionship, food and folly. My father implored my mother’s sister to provide both dinner and supervision 5 nights a week. She too was not a gifted cook but occasionally whipped up something she called, “Nut Pie.” This constipating concoction was always arranged in a graham-cracker crust tenuously held together by its confining aluminum pie dish. The topping was canned whip cream or Cool Whip, and usually I was prevailed upon to decorate the pie while my aunt polished her nails. We enjoyed bowls of the faux white stuff as those red nails of hers were waved about to dry faster. Once she was confident that her “Cherries in the Snow” polish was set, she would bring out her knitting needles and give me a lesson in the handicraft that she was nearly world famous for. It seemed to me that in the time it took for that Nut Pie to bake, she would have finished a cable knit sweater and the beginnings of a knitted coat. I’m not sure what bound together the walnuts found within that pie, but I learned the basics of knitting as well as becoming a pro at manicures. Shortly after she served her last pie to us, she left the Bay Area and found her home once again in Minnesota. I made the pie by myself several times—even once with real whip cream. It was lousy.

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My father’s sister was then called upon to help us out with meal preparation. She would come to our home only on Sundays because she couldn’t drive and my father would have to provide her with round-trip transportation. She would emerge from his car carrying bushels of rhubarb (this was revelatory not only for the amount she would tote but because it was a fresh vegetable), pails of apples, or baskets of beets. Each of these was stewed or boiled or mashed or creamed or god-knows-what to create infinite amounts of jars whose contents languished in our refrigerator for weeks. This food from her Russian Jewish heritage was probably one reason the Tsars hated our people. As these musky smells filled our kitchen, she would retell the fables, tales, and parables she heard as a child. The stories seemed vaguely menacing and dark. Spoken to me in her juicy, Yiddish-English mash-up, she was compelling. I was enthralled with Solomon’s wisdom, David’s conquest of Goliath, and stories of the shtetl and those damn Cossacks. By the way, my aunt never heard of Russian dressing…bottled or otherwise. Anyway, the parboiling of vegetables or fruits couldn’t last long enough for my tastes. I was intrigued by her view of the world and how good always triumphed over evil–even if it took forever to get to that point. It was comfort food for my heart and soul. So what if we had no food we wanted to eat after she left. We would drive her back to her home in Oakland, and my father and I would eat dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in town. I might share with him a story of Minsk from my aunt. He would inevitably pepper our conversations with a risqué joke or two heard at the golf course. I can’t remember what we ate at these restaurants, but I still remember his jokes.

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As a fourteen-year-old solely responsible for the grocery purchases for my father and me, I felt heady with responsibility. My dad opened an account at the market so I could take a taxi to the store and buy whatever I determined was needed. He must have asked me to purchase some things for him, maybe MJB coffee or razor blades; I was not totally unaware that normal, fully fleshed-out families had things in their refrigerator like milk, and tucked within their cupboards one might find cereal or rice. But, with the logic only a teenager possesses, I reasoned that certain things were of equal importance to our kitchen staples and no one was strolling down the grocery-store aisles with me to say otherwise. Into that grocery cart, I hurled Ovaltine, fried-chicken TV dinners, Tang, ice cream sandwiches, Chef Boyardee spaghetti and my favorite breakfast food: Toast’em Pop Ups. As I recall, these were the trailblazers of a food product still available today. Looking like a brown mailing envelope that had been licked shut on all sides, the packet was coated from seam to seam with a glistening white frosting of dubious origin. Relax. There was fruit inside.

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The taxi driver would not only cart me and my bags of groceries home, he would bring the bags into the kitchen and place them on the yellow Formica counter. I assume he too was sending the bill to my father because I can’t recall ever having money on me. Once the groceries were put away and my homework was done, my father would arrive home from work and ask me to choose my restaurant choice for the evening meal. A tough decision because I had knowledge that those Swanson TV dinners were fresh for the re-heating. Ultimately, though, I would make my decision, and we would head out for our evening meal where once again jokes and laughter were shared, conversation of our days spent at school and work was parceled out. Our extended family on that particular evening might include a waitress or the short-order cook, or the couple at the next table.

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As I got ready for bed, I would make certain I had money to buy lunch at the school cafeteria the next day before heading to our kitchen to prepare further. There I would grab the toaster, two Toast’em Pop Ups, and a glass filled with milk. Taking this assemblage to my bedroom, I placed the toaster on the floor under my desk and plugged it in next to the crescent-moon-shaped nightlight. The Pop Ups stood sentry—one in each toaster slot–so that all I had to do in the morning was depress the lever. The milk would be deliciously tepid having spent the night in its glass.

A few weeks ago, I was in a hip, exposed-brick and Edison-bulb-lit bakery that sits next door to a Yoga studio in Brooklyn. The bakery’s flour is organic and whole grain, the fruit for the pastries is locally sourced, and the sugar—who knows—but probably not refined. Atop the tiled counter on a milk-glass white platter under a glass dome sat house-made replicas of my teenaged breakfast. The calligraphed-label read, Pop Tarts. I ordered two but couldn’t finish them. They were made that morning with fresh ingredients and topped with a mere drizzle of icing; not cloying in that familiar, satisfying-to-me way and definitely not toasted. I ordered a glass of milk, and the server asked if I wanted soy or almond because they did not serve dairy. The small portion of the reverse-faux pastry I did consume was a faint reminder of mornings in my bedroom, but it made me sad in a way I never was in high school.

Back then, I was wearing my flannel pajamas, firing up that chrome toaster, and washing down my week-day breakfast with a glass of luke-warm milk…all parts of a ritual that sustained me. And, there was plenty of nourishment in that.

Milk and Honey,
Naomi

To read more about meals and memories check out Tech to Tables; you’ll find the link at the top of the page.
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Reality Check

Posted on March 18, 2016

While I’m getting my nails done, my manicurist, Kim, whom I’ve known for 18 years, tells me that she’s just seen the movie, “The Revenant.” I don’t know why I asked her what she thought of it because her movie review will be communicated to me in heavily accented, broken English through a face mask with a background din of roiling pedicure bowls while their occupants make cell-phone calls. But, there’s nothing to watch on the TV perched above her station so I bite. Kim stitches together her review with something about the Titanic and Leonardo, a bear, and a bloody fight next to a river–guts being spilled all over the place. It’s as good a time as any to interject my standard question about a movie I have no intention of seeing. Ever. How violent is it, I whimper? Answers to this question vary from friend to friend, relative to relative, manicurist to… It is how I reaffirm to myself just how little acceptance I have for viewing violence, or anxiety for that matter, on the screen. It also reinforces the divide I feel between well-functioning, coping adults and me. Each year, as the movies become more violent or at least more realistic in their portrayal of violence, my own threshold for tolerance precipitously drops below sea level. And, that schism I just mentioned? The one between normal people and me? It widens like a barracuda’s mouth.

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Kim’s response to my query reminds me of when I recently had lunch with a lactose-intolerant friend. When this friend asked our waiter if there was cream in the mushroom soup (and she needed to know because she had a medical issue she stressed to him), he told her that there was none. He waxed on: The soup was completely vegetable-based, topped with chives and laced with sour cream. So, she’d be fine. Just as obliviously, manicurist Kim told me that “The Revenant” was a cool movie and not too violent. I guess “too” is relative, like the waiter’s understanding of that mushroom soup’s ingredients.

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The impact, intensity, and frequency of violence in the movies are in the eyes of the beholder. Clearly, I’m not polling 14-year-old males and asking them to put down their gaming devices to tell me how they enjoyed the latest superhero movie. See “Mad Max Fury Road?” I don’t think so. Instead, I’m asking my friends, people I have dinner with and discuss politics with and share a joke with, to give me their opinions on what the New York Times has called a beautifully rendered, thoughtful movie. Or, I’m listening to Terry Gross on NPR, who has just interviewed the beguiling director of a film that’s up for an Academy Award. I am tempted to buy a movie ticket to the latest blood-drenched film because, after all, I managed to get to the end of a challenging novel with a difficult-to-handle chapter. OK, so I skimmed over a few chapters. Last week, in fact, I saw Macbeth at Berkeley Rep and a throat-cutting scene was so palatable that I didn’t even need to divert my gaze. Yawn. But, I’m predictable if nothing else. I know from experience that any violence or what I call violo-anxi moments will leave me so squeamish and horrified that, obviously, the movie/TV show is ruined for me. My compassionate friends now will talk to me about their movie dates like I have an incurable tropical disease. There is that sympathetic head tilt and corresponding sad-eye gaze in my direction. They mean well when they say, “Yes, there’s some violence; but it’s not gratuitous.” Or, “The violence is there, but just in the beginning of the movie.” Or, my personal favorite, “Sure. It’s got some violent scenes but you can cover your eyes.” I tried that. The problem is that once your hands are used to shield your eyes, your ears remain vigilant.

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So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, what’s my deal with violent movies?

Some movies are compelling and tell an important, maybe even historically significant, story and then…wham. Suddenly, there’s a poison dress that’s eating away at the Queen’s body (“Elizabeth”). Or the scalps of invading cowboys become playthings to the put-upon Native Americans (“Dances With Wolves”), and I’m suddenly climbing out of my seat and pawing my way through the row of viewers seated next to me. I have been known to sit in the lobby waiting 90 minutes until the movie is over and my husband is ready to leave. Wait. Make that 120 minutes because he needs to read ALL of the credits.

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The same is true for highly anxiety-provoking movies. For example, movies about child abduction (“The Safe Room”), rape (“Prince of Tides”), or war (“Saving Private Ryan”). Please don’t get me started on the genre of Holocaust movies, which of course contain violence, anxiety, and perversion. It’s the trifecta of horribleness. One time, a friend asked us to meet him in line to see a movie that was part of the Jewish Film Festival. He wanted us to meet the girl he thought he would ask to marry. I know. What a perfect date, right? The movie, it turned out, was about the death camps and the horrors found therein—and not parenthetically it was also a poignant story about a survivor. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out how the survivor manages to, well, survive. Again, sitting in the lobby waiting for the movie to end, I thought if this friend of mine doesn’t end up marrying this woman, I’ll never talk to him again.

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The first horror movie I saw was when I was 12 and the movie was the “Birds.” I refer, of course, to the Hitchcock nightmare of a film where birds go ape-shit and pick out people’s eyes with their beaks and nest on the heads of denizens of a serene coastal community using their scrawny talons to dig apart the unsuspecting tourist’s hair and Tippi Hedren’s dandruff. The itchy fabric on the theatre seats rubbed against the back of my legs as I curled up into a ball of tears and sweat. This culminated in my first-ever night terrors that lasted for a week, and as I recall my mother thought that two aspirin and a luke-warm bath might calm my nerves. Nice try. A week of that remedy only resulted in my no longer confiding my nightmares to her.

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The next cinematic barrage of violence was watching “Psycho” with my teenage girlfriends. This time, the movie was on TV and it was part of a junior-high sleep over. I was captive, shy, and intimidated. Not wanting to wet my pants or be accused of being a baby, I clumsily maneuvered the two-way eye/ear block I had hastily improvised to quell the abuse being hurled my way from the tiny black-and-white screen. Having had no warning of the evening entertainment plans, I hadn’t honed this technique. It didn’t go well.

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However, with time and practice, I developed a skill that for years would allow me some semblance of control over an otherwise impossible situation. It was as a teenager, while watching “Wait Until Dark.” I found that when I hummed “Hava Nagila” during the violent/anxious/terrifying scenes, I could drown out quite a bit of the soundtrack and surprisingly no one in the audience seemed to notice. I’m not sure if another song works as well. So I’m sticking with my proven “Hava Nagila” success. Another memo of note, if you hum while covering your ears, you’re golden. But, you risk social ridicule. This was hard enough to avoid because once, also during “Wait Until Dark,” I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand to hold it for comfort and wound up shoving it in my own mouth to stifle a scream. Now, it was she who was horrified because stuffing her mitt into my mouth caused her to drop her fistful of Junior Mints. Ostracism at high school was unavoidable when Monday rolled around.

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It is May 1983 and I am getting my nails done—clearly, some things never change. This particular spring day I leave work early to treat myself to some pampering. My young son is tucked into his daycare cot and my husband is away at a meeting. My plan is to have a manicure and then catch a movie before heading back to the reality of being a working mother with a small child. I am deciding between seeing “Amadeus” or “Ghost Busters” figuring that a relaxing manicure will undoubtedly help me arrive at a decision.

But, I never made it to the movies that day. As my polish was drying, three armed men walked into the nail salon, pulled the curtains closed against the afternoon sun and lined the 3 of us customers and 2 manicurists against the wall. One man held his gun to my left temple and grabbed my arm. He ripped off my wedding ring and pulled back his other hand as if getting ready to pummel me. He stopped, however, when someone came to the now-locked door and knocked loudly. He turned his attention away from me and motioned to all of us to get down on our knees and to be quiet. After taking all our jewelry and cash, the bad men left. Tears of relief followed as did a call to the police. While pressed against that salon wall, I never once covered my eyes. Instead, I glared into the face of my attacker to forever imprint his ugly face into my memory bank. My ears heard every word those bastards yelled at us. And, I would never have given the robbers the pleasure of hearing my rendition of Hava Nagila. I embraced that violent episode like the badge of honor it was. Once I regained my composure and my dignity, I drove to the day care center to pick up my little boy and I called my husband to recount the details of the disastrous day.

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The following Saturday night my husband and I went to the movies and the choice of films was up to me. Perhaps, now, I could handle any and all cinematic representations of violence and terror, my husband mused. After all, hadn’t this real life episode shown me to be a strong and courageous woman in the face of danger? I survived a very scary event. Surely, I now was able to separate fantasy from reality. I made my decision, and we went to see “Ghost Busters.” I’ve never regretted that decision. “Amadeus” just seemed too risky a choice to me.

Careful where you point that thing,

Naomi