Sunday, October 11, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 5 - Part 1

Let's call this one Estrella Guimaraes, or maybe we should call this one Sonia Croquet. She always kept her name shrouded in secrecy. Come to think of it, everything about her was deliberately concealed. And yet, as so many people do who wish to conceal their true identities, the truth would come out like a torrential flash flood beneath the break of a dam.

I don't know the precise timeline of when Estrella Guimaraes changed her name to Sonia Croquet, or when she changed it back, or when she started mixing and matching the two so that her life story might remain mysterious in case hormone besotted bloggers devoted posts to her exactly like the upcoming, and mysterious she certainly remains in ways completely unlike the manner she probably wanted to be.

She was electric in the manner of a woman who wants to be noticed above all else. When I first met her, she was a college freshman. She tried desperately to be elegant without quite knowing how, and would pile foundation and lipstick on her face to the point of looking like a harlequin. Yet by the time I graduated a year and a half later, she got it exactly right and never forgot how. She had an allure that people lazily associate with Latin culture, only in her case, it was quite real: eyes formed out of dough, clothes that were inevitably form-hugging, a massive shock of thick black hair, clown-like lips that protruded like braille off a page which concealed enormous, shark-like teeth. I always wondered if she found it cumbersome to form that enormous mouth into words, because it seemed at times to give her a slight lisp. But no excess of lip or lipstick could conceal the brilliance beneath. Estrella was one of the most dazzlingly articulate people to whom I'd ever spoken. She also was, unfortunately, a person with more imagination than critical eye, and trying to play a role in which being a critic of people was far more important than imagination.

The only thing I truly understood about her was that she wanted more than anything else to be a muse to a great man. It was plainly obvious. She based her whole life around it and concealed all of those parts of herself worth knowing so that a certain kind of man would be besotted with her.

Lou Salome, Alma Schindler, Dante's Beatrice, The Dark Lady, Zelda Fitzgerald, Camille Claudelle, Kiki de Montparnasse, Edie Sedgewick, these are all important names in cultural history. They are not great creators in their own right, but they inspired the men in their lives to great creations. What is sad but inevitable is that not a few of them could have been creators of true distinction in their own rights, but no such identity was open to any but the most dominating and charmless of women. The myth of the creator, all the more powerful because the myth is probably true, is that to be a great creator requires enormous work, enormous concentration, and enormous suffering. But to be the muse of a great creator is like a badge of endorsement - the genius of entire women goes into being vivacious and charming to the world and providing the ideal domesticity for the solitary creator who is her companion, who broods in his study. This woman who brings him tea is his sole source of mirth and cheer, his sole reason for trudging on, and is immortalized in the inspiration she draws out of him.

I know you all think you know where this is going, but you really have no idea...

Apparently she came from one of New England's many Portuguese immigrant families, or at least her original name betrayed that. Some Portuguese families came in the mid-20th century to escape the persecution of the Estado Novo, known better in America as the Salazar Dictatorship. Others, probably many more, came over during the still ongoing economic and political chaos that followed Salazar's death in the early 70's.

Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, the Right-Wing Dictator of Portugal who ascended a year before Hitler. Salazar was no fan of Hitler who allowed a few thousand Jews to take residence in his country and allowed tens of thousands of Europeans to escape to America through Lisbon (as documented in the movie Casablanca). By 1943, he was firmly onto the side of the Allies and allowed them to use Portugal as an airbase. In 1940, Life Magazine named him 'World's Best Dictator.' To the world after Ataturk, Salazar personified the benevolent autocrat. Anyone living in a Hitler or even Mussolini-level dictatorship choose to live in a Salazar-level dictatorship in a heartbeat. He was still, however, a true authoritarian with enormous imperial ambitions in Africa, who used an enormous surveillance network and arbitrary imprisonment of the innocent as means of maintaining order.

Since Salazar's death in 1970, the economic and political chaos of Portugal is unremitting. In 45 years, Portugal underwent more than two dozen governments. So great is the fiscal chaos that the IMF granted Portugal three separate bailout packages since the 70's, which Portugal still has no hope of repaying. As of 2013, national debt was 129% the size of its GDP.

In his time, Salazar was considered a financial wizard who brought economic order to a country which new nothing but chaos. The truth seems to be that his economic model was quite simple: profit from the raw materials of Portugal's African colonies, and extreme anti-communist views also made an enormous impression on the generations who grew up in his rule. In Portugal, the Communist Party thrives to this day as it does few places in the world.

I often speculated as to why Estrella needed to feel so needed by smart men. But I doubt she needed a better reason than that she felt like a fish out of water. I did meet her parents once, at her college graduation, and they seemed like perfectly nice Portuguese immigrants: very friendly, and, of course, very dapper. You could see easily where Estrella got her looks. But I'm sure that her parents being aesthetically pleasing and nice people didn't matter much to her. Like any children of immigrants, she probably didn't need more reason to feel isolated than to grow up in a family without much understanding of the world in which they raised her. She dreamed, as so many smart people have, of better things - a more exciting world, a more glamorous one, a different world that would appreciate her particular qualities. And as so many women from immigrant families are brought up to believe, or American families for that matter, she probably assumed that people would only notice what was extraordinary about her if she was tied to an extraordinary man.


When I was an American University student, tuition at AU was already roughly $40,000 a year, with an alumni giving rate of roughly 18%. At the time, AU didn't even have the 'sterling' academic reputation it has now. It was, basically, a babysitting school which hoped that by charging underachievers through the nose for a college education, it could give scholarships to lots of promising students who would then raise the school's reputation. AU reasoned that between grateful parents of underachieving children and upwardly mobile alumni who made good in the world after scholarships from AU, perhaps they could get the money to become a better school. It was a plan set into motion a few decades before any student I knew had ever come to AU, and the plan was fundamentally successful, but AU's progress from an expensive 'party school' to a school that was taken seriously would always be at a snail's pace and incur many problems along the way.

Fundamentally, there were three types of student at American University.

The first, who still comprised the plurality of the school when I was there, was the fratty douchebag and his female counterpart - the sorostitute. Hailing from relatively rich families, they were intellectually lazy kids who simply needed a college degree before entering into some kind of job that ensured a lifetime of middle management. In fact, one of AU's many nicknames was 'Middle Management University.' These kids didn't really care whether they went into middle management in the public or private sector, they just needed a degree before they would take a job that made them anonymous members of the upper-middle-class. They would often major at the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), but were more likely to major at the Kogod School of Business or the School of Communication (SOC). It's curious to think that at a school as notoriously political as AU, they probably didn't care a fig for politics at all except for their general annoyance at the AU kids who cared about politics. I was probably accepted into AU because admissions looked at me on paper and thought I might turn into this type of student.

The second type of student at AU, a rarer student, but the student AU is probably most stereotyped for, is the 'ethno.' It didn't really matter whether AU's 'ethnos' were from Casablanca or Des Moines. They were students so interested in a particular culture that they would absolutely immerse themselves in it. Every day, you could encounter the bizarre sight of two girls with fashionable looking hijabs; one covering a girl with black hair and brown skin, another covering a fair-skinned blonde girl with blue eyes. You could also go Anime screenings after which the lights would come up to reveal more white students wearing Akira and Princess Mononoke T-shirts than East Asians. You could go to Salsa Dances at which white kids would be the best dancers. These 'ethno' students could either be rich or poor - though they were inevitably very rich if they came from abroad, and rarely were any of them averagely middle class. What united them was a sense that they were born to the wrong circumstances. Inevitably, they all came to AU to study at AU's School of International Service (SIS). The SIS students from America came to AU to learn how become the culture they idolized. The students from abroad came to AU so they could be more American, but the students from the USA came to SIS to study the politics, the culture, the atmosphere of the place which their 18 year old brains told them they were truly from. Halfway through their AU experience, they would go to the place of their dreams for a semester or two abroad, where they inevitably thought they would live ever thereafter. Reality was a tenuous concept for these 'ethnos', and perhaps their politics therefore tended toward the progressive. But the early 2000's was precisely the time when America began to realize by the barrel of history's gun that they needed a bit more 'ethno' in their worldview. To the shock of the rest of us, a lot of what these annoying ethnos believed was vindicated. I no doubt came to AU believing I was this type of student.

The third type of student at AU, the true backbone of the university, was the future community servant. These were kids whom the vast majority came to study at the School of Public Affairs (SPA). They were also kids who could expect to end up in middle management, but they were middle managers of a very different type.

In retrospect, it amazes me how many AU kids came from small towns around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Upstate New York, even Ohio. These kids were almost inevitably white, and they were almost inevitably the kind of kid who wasn't supposed to exist anymore - small town American kids with very mid-century, Kennedyesque ideals about government and public service. Many of them, it's true, had political ambitions, and could be rather insufferable about them. Many of them, however, did not, and even among the ones who had higher ambitions, it seemed to come as much out of genuine concern as about ego (though hardly always...).

I may have been accepted on the thought that I would be the first, I may have thought I was the second, but it turned out that I fit in best among the third, and fit in among them better than I have anywhere in my life. It was at AU I discovered that I was not too emotionally damaged to follow my bliss, it was at AU I discovered was a better writer than musician, and put the writing to better use. It was at AU that I made the best friendships of my life. Would that more places in the world had room like that for me, but there are still pockets of the world that are, or were at least, built for people like us. But the future, however, is built far more for people like Estrella Guimaraes.

Friday, October 9, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Conclusion of Part 4

Friendship between an unmarried man and woman in their late twenties is something completely different than between boys and girls at thirteen. Of course nothing of that nature happened between Kelly and I, and the chances that it ever would have were quite slim at best. Five years ago, I didn't have the confidence to even admit to myself that I wanted anything to happen, and I'm still not entirely sure I did. Nevertheless, it gave me enormous pause when two friends of mine who met her through singing with Voices of Washington, friends who do enormously well with women as every straight singer but me ever seems to do, told me unprompted and separately, that she clearly had a thing for me.

If by some unlikely event she did, I doubt she ever viewed it afterward as more than a small but egregious lapse in judgement. And if asked, she would probably deny it forever regardless of whether or not it was true. No matter how cheap the jeans she was wearing, a girl like Kelly Liebe has to see herself in dire straights indeed to consider me anything but a sidekick.

The friendzone very much exists. It is a convenient country to visit, but a dangerous one to stay too long in. In the State of Friendzone, the right of both men and women to behave terribly to one another while still viewing each other as friends is perfectly legal. It's dangerous to men because it can turn nice girls into beastly manipulators, but it is far more dangerous to women, because it can turn nice guys into beasts.

I used to take rejection from women personally. I'm not an attractive man, and I'm sure that any woman who's ever had dirty thoughts about me probably just needed a vessel for their dirty thoughts. But once you're no longer twenty-two, who cares? None of us looks as good as we used to. It only occurred to me in my thirties that so long as an unattractive man is conveniently present at the right place and time, there will be women around whom, for reasons unfathomable to him, will at some point find him attractive. You never really know where or when or how or why, it just happens. Louis CK put it only slightly differently, "when her life circumstances match your looks, you're the sexiest mo-fo out there."

It was, of course, never to be between Kelly and I, and it would have been an atomic disaster if anything happened. In fact, I'm pretty sure that she brought a friend into the chorus with the express intention of fixing us up. She was nice and funny but also morbidly obese and clinically depressed. Perhaps I was no better, but that wouldn't have been the first time thinner, better adjusted friends try to make fixups like that, and it inevitably feels like they're saying "You're fat and depressed like her, you should be perfect for each other." What is clear though is that things were always going to brighten for Kelly, and the moment they did, it was only a matter of time before she withdrew from the organization, the group, and from our reignited friendship.

This is where, six years later, things still get too painful to think about... and in thinking about it now, this has all been a lot of buildup for very little. It's still too painful to write about the details of it. The facts of it are not dramatic, and I know that it's in some ways my fault, it always is, but even if it weren't my fault, the endgame would have always been the same. Her career was too important and too time-consuming, and my languishing in first gear is ultimately nobody's problem but my own.

It will suffice to say that I hope Kelly gets everything she ever wanted, which I'm sure is at stake in the 2016 election, and that she does not find this victory as hollow as she seemed to find the others.

Kelly Liebe was the daughter that every parent in Pikesville wished they had. The bed was always made, the homework always done, the trash always taken out. She was a veritable machine of 'nakhes' for her parents, for her school, for her community. But she hated every minute of it, and would have given anything if they would have allowed her to just be a regular girl. The values with which we grew up placed the highest possible premium on achievement and obedience. But while they claimed that they lauded the humanity that was in her heart more than any other person I'd ever met: kindness, patience, charity, generousness, humility - Jewish Baltimore would have plucked them out of her soul if it meant getting her another award.

I liebed Kelly Liebe, and I'm sure there's a tiny part of me that still does. As I look back on this first act and change of my life, there's no one outside of family who ever inspired that much love or that much hatred. We were two smart misfits in Krieger Schechter, both of us dumb in exactly the way the other was smart, and both of us yearning for acceptance from people who will never give us their true approval. Twenty-five years ago or so, I realized I was never going to get it, and am living the life of a guy whose every gesture seems to be a rebuke to the values with which we grew up - it hasn't made me very happy, but what other choice was there for a guy like me? Perhaps Kelly's approach: kill with kindness, always make the best possible impression, look for a way to grind their noses in the shit of your success, is the right one that will lead to a happier life. And even if it doesn't, it's gotta work better than my approach.

Like everything that happened at Schechter, this should all be well past ancient history. Yet history always repeats itself. Three months ago, I was the smartest musician in Baltimore, in four bands with no less than three shows at or around Artscape. In the time that's passed since then, I've had to leave two of them, and another is on hiatus until spring. The band I run, so strong seeming six months ago, now looks to be in tatters. The seemingly unbreakable friendship with the colleague who told me when I started the band that no matter how disorganized I was, he had my back through thick and thin, has now been broken. As far as I was concerned, that friendship ended when he did a complete about face and told me, publicly in an email to the rest of the band, that he could no longer abide my disorganization and was leaving the band permanently - in retrospect, I don't doubt it ended for him a while before that. Leaving Orchester Prazevica, my musical home of three-and-a-half years, hurt like a bitch - I was being 'two-timed' by the bandleader with another violinist, who lied about it when I asked him. But ultimately, that was the kind of thing you recover from. However, the friend who left my band after so many assurances of confidence and trust, that felt like a deep stab in the gut, right next to and almost as deep as the wound left by Kelly. How can I ever have the confidence to lead any organization again after both hits? Some people have a steel bravado exterior to conceal the fragile interior beneath. Other people present a surface that is all softness, and beneath it conceal unbreakable steel. I don't know much about where Kelly Liebe is in life today, but I know that in the end, she will come out on top. People like her always do. People like me? Well...

I feel almost exactly back to where I was at the middle of 2010, when Voices of Washington was faltering, and nearly every rehearsal was preceded by a anxiety attack followed by volatility in the rehearsal followed by more flyering the city for people who never noticed followed by incessant letters to old members begging them to come back followed by notices from current members of their departure followed by the same cycle over again the next week. Around this time in 2009, there was a small, oh so small, period when I felt like I did everything right, and there would be a few days at a time when the depressive fog would finally lift and I could breathe freely for the first time in years in a world that finally allowed me a secure place within it. I felt similarly earlier this year when Schmuck was going well and I was in a long-term relationship, at 32, my first - but the longer I stayed in the relationship, the more obloquious and vituperative my girlfriend became, and the more my band members became fed up with my disorganization - no doubt partially brought on by the stress of the relationship.

But this time, I know the drill. It's entirely possible that no matter what I do, I'm going to watch as the edifice I worked and worried about its success is collapsing all around me. Rather than what I did last time - doing everything to bail out the ship when everyone but me realized that there was no hope of keeping it afloat, I am now just coasting along, starting to take gigs for Schmuck as they come, and otherwise checking out of a project that was supposed to signal my genuine success as at least a part-time musician. I have no gigs for the next month, I once again have no allies. I have just completed the three best years of my life, so good did they become that by this summer, I honestly felt as though my life was finally blossoming at least a little bit, and I didn't have to run so hard from depression, because it no longer chased me every day of my life. The goals of this group were so much more modest than Voices of Washington ever was, and I was delighted to settle for success so much less than power and glory that would make the struggle worthwhile, and yet even success this modest was too much to ask of God. When oh when will the next time be when depression relaxes its grip?

So six years later, my revenge on Kelly Liebe is my recommendation letter. Ten people actually read anything on this blog, maybe fifteen on a good day. No employer in the Clinton administration or anywhere else would ever find this unless they were searching with a comb so fine-toothed that the country would go to shit because they're too busy trying to find inconsequential miniscule dirt on talented potential employees rather than pick the best candidate for the job, which Kelly absolutely is. If someone in the Clinton camp ever found this and read it, they would see exactly the sort of person completely moulded in their own image that they want and need: someone who would do everything for friends until the friends got in the way of their advancement. Someone extraordinary who already lifted herself up from humble beginnings to stratospheric heights and can do so half-a-dozen times again. Someone whose personal weaknesses only made her hungrier for achievement and acceptance. If a Clinton rejected a work candidate as worthy as her because of a blogpost like this, then there is no chance that the Clintons will go down in history as anything but an ignominious failure. Trust me Hillary, Kelly Liebe is everything you want and then some, and in case it means anything at all, I'm in a position to know - search this blog, I'm as knowledgeable an amateur political junkie as it gets and that's not just the mania talking. If it's organization, she could command D-Day. If it's a policy job, she probably doesn't know enough about it, but she would work twenty hour days and in a few weeks she'd know the subject better than any one of her colleagues and always recommend the most cautious, face-saving option. I might be crazy in every other way, in politics I'm as sane as a day is long, and I'm telling you that Kelly Liebe would be the best of the best.

But the thought that you might not believe me will keep Kelly up for nights on end.

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 4 (Part 3)

For five years after college, we lived in the same city, but we might as well have lived on opposite coasts for the amount we saw each other. I was in the Northwest of Washington DC with my friends from AU, and Kelly was in the center of the city with her friends from... well, wherever she had her friends from - college, workplace, Meetup... I don't really know. Occasionally we would run into each other in bars and catch up. For all the craziness of the high school years, she was still, in her way, a good friend for whom I always had a soft spot in my heart. And in that way that old friends who are weary of each other and relieved they didn't have to spend too much time with one another anymore, it never cost us much to feel affection toward one another so long as it remained in small doses.

Such was the way I tried to feel about the rolodex of the Schechter overachievers who gradually trickled their way into Washington DC. If you were a smart middle class or upper class kid from Baltimore looking to make your name in the world, Washington, not Baltimore was the place to properly make your mark. Our parents slaved away so that we could have better opportunities than they ever did, but the Baltimore of our generation provided no such opportunities. Washington was the Kingdom of The West Wing, Baltimore was the Failed State of The Wire. To settle permanently in Baltimore would be to acknowledge that we'd given up on ambition.

We would all make a point of getting together once every few months. I would dread going to those hangouts days in advance and almost inevitably left with a horrible taste in my mouth, because the supercilious attitude from our days in Schechter still pervaded their manners. I don't know why always went except perhaps for a pathological desire for approval from them which I knew I would never get. I could never get over the idea that I was the weird fuckup they were burdened to see occasionally by social obligation. I don't doubt that I read a lot into this from my own insecurities, but I couldn't possibly have read it all. There were just too many jokes at my expense, too many side glances when I spoke, too much laughing when I did something that seemed peculiar to them. Furthermore, I'm sure that my anxiety around them made me seem still more peculiar than I otherwise would have been.

But something truly odd happened as time went along. The other kids at Schechter began surpassing Kelly. Not exactly surpassing - none of us ever looked poised to become masters of the universe, not nearly, not yet at least, and not that this rat race should ever matter in which we compare ourselves like prize stallions in a horserace. I doubt it would matter to anybody but her and maybe me, and if it does, there is still decades of time yet to jockey for position. But in our twenties: Saul Rosner, who 'merely' went to Northwestern for undergrad, got into the Georgetown Security Studies program, from there, it was pretty much a straight shot to a job at a think tank. Meanwhile, Kelly, who didn't have a radical bone in her body, had to 'settle' for the Georgetown Social Justice program. Aaron Smilowitz went to Georgetown Law and then clerked for a major circuit court judge, his future as a distinguished lawyer was assured. Shifra Zilber got a lucrative job doing PR in the corporate world that required her every few years to move between New York and DC. And all of them got married with children seeming to sprout up everywhere. A bunch of more adventurous souls from our class lived the single life of New York and Finance, and still more adventurous ones married outside the faith and live in the far flung corners of the country or even in Europe.

By the time Kelly Liebe came back into my life, she probably felt extremely down on her luck, and relatively speaking, she probably was. She was temporarily unemployed, she had no boy in her life, she always looked wan and tired - like a regular person. There was a little bit of time in that inlet when life would seem to have derailed an extraordinary person in an extremely ordinary way.

But there was clearly something different about Kelly. For years she was always impeccably dressed and made up. She was now going around in sweatshirts and jeans. Sure, the old competitive edge was still there, it'll never go away, but there never seemed to be an edge of resentment or anger about her, as though I was no longer the spongy loser friend taking up valuable time.

All things in this life are short-lived, but when you want to believe something, you will believe it against your better judgement. When Kelly came first back into my life, I had roughly $50 to my name, I was not speaking to my father, I was living on the couch and charity of friends in a house in Takoma, and I had the bad luck of partially snapping out from a four-year-long (eventually roughly seven years) crippling post-college depression, just in time for the Great Recession. I applied to more than a hundred jobs, received callbacks from two, and got an offer from one, which turned out to be a pyramid scheme.

But like Kelly, I maintained my dreams and a little bit of pride through every humiliation. The humiliations didn't slake my ambition, it ballooned my hunger for achievement exponentially. As Hitler said, the poor man doesn't dream of bread, he dreams of caviar, and every new defeat made me dream of triumphs that grew ever bigger in my mind that would blot out the stench of defeat and make all the suffering worthwhile.

The first true opportunity of my adult life came four years after I graduated college, and my delusions of grandeur made a complete hash of it - not that it was that great an opportunity, but a desperate man will do everything within his power to turn obstacles into opportunities.

In the summer of 2008, I joined to middling chorus in DC. In the span of a year, I'd 'risen' through the ranks to become their assistant conductor, and then the heir apparent when the conductor left DC for grad school. It's not like I had anything better to do...

DC is the choral capital of America - where seventy choruses created musical homes for the musically talented and untalented people of DC's community-minded civil service. Ours was an organization comprised mostly of recent Ivy League grads with musical talent who were looking for a place to sing serious choral music. It was a pretty good chorus - we certainly weren't Accentus or The Sixteen, but we gave thoroughly adequate performances of serious, difficult music. The conductor, however, may or may not have been a psychopath: a giant Aryan blond who studied political science at Yale, but who probably made so many enemies in his few years doing DC politics that he decided to retrain as a conductor, where his temper might be written off as 'artistic.' He was not a bad conductor, and he certainly was a wonderful voice teacher, but like me, conducting was the playground where he could indulge the giant delusions of grandeur he set for himself.

He was clearly determined to charm and bully his way into creating good performances. I was both disgusted by his methods and begrudgingly admired his seriousness. When he wasn't plying us all with flattery, he was flipping his lid, and lost it badly at nearly every rehearsal. He once literally said to the chorus, "Sometimes I want to KILL you." It's amazing that most of the singers didn't simply walk out mid-rehearsal and never return. On my 27th birthday, he nearly got me arrested for possession of his weed, and shortly before one concert, he screamed at me so loudly that I literally feared for my physical safety. Never in my life have I claimed to be a easy person to get along with, but even my temper didn't hold a candle to his.

When he left DC, there suddenly was a $4000 gap in the chorus's bank account. I'm sure that most of the money was his own, but the way he withdrew the funds created a gap in our accounts that set our application for non-profit status potentially by two years. It's almost as though he wanted us to fail.

I was and remain an organizational imbecile who has no idea how to run my life, let alone an organizational body. A few of my more organized school friends heard of my trouble and offered to help by sitting on the board of directors, but once they were there, they, of course, did nothing at all to help out.

Perhaps their jobs were simply too stressful and important to be bothered with such trivial concerns as my life, perhaps they thought I should be able to organize myself a hell of a lot better than I could, and it wasn't their job to do it. True as that second statement particularly is, it was an impossibility in my case. I was left completely in first gear with an organization I had no idea how to get off the ground, and I was ready to give up before it even started. In retrospect, it would have been the best thing I could have done in the situation.

"What can I do to help?" was the first thing Kelly said to me when she heard about it. To my astonishment, and to my skepticism, Kelly Liebe, the most important friend and life coach I ever had, seemed back in my corner, behind me every step of the way to street fight my life out of yet another impossible situation.

"Please, before we even get started, tell me if you can't be there all the way." I said to her.

"Of course I've got your back! How can you even say that?" She responded, obviously offended that I would ever impute that her loyalty was anything but ironclad.

And so, with as much time elapsed in our lives as we'd ever had during the first period when we seemed so crucial to each other, the reset button was placed upon our friendship.

With my last ounce of youthful hubris, I spent the vast majority of 2010 trying to get a group called Voices of Washington off the ground. There are some men in the world for whom nothing is written, and it was my final chance to be the man of destiny that my mania always thought was my divine right. I was and remain a musician in my bones, and I wanted to create an organization that would revolutionize everything about the way music was played and listened to. I wanted a revolving door of the sixty best amateur singers in Washington to form a chorus for the ages that could equal the greatest professionals in the world, performing the best music in the world - music for classical chorus or transcribed into choral music by me from any other genre. I never much liked singing in choruses or a capella groups, so it would sing half classical for singers who thought a capella groups were too frivolous, and half a capella for singers who thought classical music was too pompous. We would get great composers, local composers, and young composers, and all the same for songwriters from other genres, to write other music for us. We would become a champion of unknown musicians to audiences unknown to other classical organizations. We would take our musicmaking into the poorest pockets of Washington DC to play for its most impoverished citizens, and also gala-ready to sing at national events and fundraisers. We would franchise ourselves to every city in America to create similar organizations. Classical music would come back into people's everyday diet, pop music would stop being stupid, and music would be a force again that unites people rather than dividing them. And such still is the hubris and outsize ego in my up moments that were I the same person but as organizationally competent as I am musically knowledgeable, I think there's a chance I could have done it.

In my manic ups, I have an idea like this every day, but whether up or down, I usually don't even have the organizational knowhow to show up to rehearsals on time, let alone put these dreams into reality.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue Part 4 (Part 2)

There was one key way in which Kelly differed from the Hillary Clintons of the world - Kelly was, by the standards of eighth grade, or even most high schools, gorgeous - gor-Jewess perhaps, but gorgeous nonetheless. By the time we graduated Schechter, Kelly Liebe was coveted by most of the boys in our class, and why not? She had dark brown hair with just enough of a nose bump to give her face more character, with swarthy olive skin and an older figure than most high school girls, let alone the girls of our class whose figures had yet to grow into anything at all. She looked like a college freshman and had not an ounce of fat on her hourglass figure, and who even knows what a girl even that age has to do to keep a figure so trim? Two years later, when Zaydie died, she came to the Shiva at my Uncle's house and for some reason was dressed up in gorgeous formal wear that clearly was a half-size too small. I remember watching as the jaw of my twenty-five year old cousin Jonathan fell to the floor.

The girls of our class couldn't fail to notice either. A girl as innocent as Kelly can't help taking advantage in the innocent but only slightly guilty way that teenage girls do of showing her figure off with tight shirts and skirts and stretch pants. But as in every school in America, a few of the more aggressive and plain girls decided to do something about the beauty in their midst. Most dangerous among them was Ofra Rosenfeld.

Ofra was the flat-chested bitch of our grade whom I announced to the teacher and my classmates was my 'worst enemy' when I was nine. I never knew Ofra well enough to know much about her background, but she was the child of Israeli parents, and from an early age, she had the kind of abrasive personality that only a true Israeli would have, and for a nine-year-old, she had a lethal wit that made other kids cower in fear. I'm sure she became the kind of wicked adult that is delightful company, but I feel sorry for her children...

Even so, it's not like she was entirely guilty in her deviousness, because nobody at that age can't help but react to the environment in which they live. Sam Roschberger, the class bully, who, cruelly, was also the handsomest and most athletic guy in our class, charmingly began to refer to her as 'Crater,' because, according to him, she was so flat that her tits went in where they should go out.

Nobody could stand up to Sam, so in our immature way we all took it out on each other, and when a girl called 'Crater' sees a beautiful girl walking the halls and boys staring at her open mouthed in class, she begins, in medieval logic all too often employed in the modern era, to think that this girl is bringing it upon herself - as though she has a responsibility to the Craters of the class to be modest. Seven hundred years ago, she would have accused Kelly of being a witch. But in 1996, she began circulating rumors that Kelly was a 'slut,' and when Kelly confronted her about it, she called Kelly a slut outright to her face.

In the sheltered though hardly innocent environs that were Krieger Schechter Day School, who the fuck knew what a 'slut' actually was? All they knew was that it was something so horrible that to be called one was the ultimate censure. I doubt Kelly had even kissed a boy at this point in her life. But something in those years tipped Kelly over into a different kind of human being. I have no idea what ultimately did it, or perhaps I misunderstood the sort of person Kelly was from the very beginning. But let's just say that this was the moment that could stand in for a hundred other similar moments in those years that turned Kelly from a sweet, beautiful soul to one with something desperate to prove.

The good girl wants nothing more than to make people happy; for everybody just to get along and be proud of each other and bathe one another in nothing but love and respect and support. And being the apple of so many people's eyes, she has no reason to believe that such a world isn't attainable. But it's inevitable along the way that some people don't offer love and respect and support, and when that happens, something in her snaps. The effort to make people love one another becomes a pathology that if not assuaged becomes more desperate, more driven, harder, pushier. The world is not as it should be, but if she just tries hard enough and does her damndest, maybe everybody will be happy again.

I have not mentioned Kelly's father until now, Charles Liebe. Charles was as laid back, unassuming, relaxed, as his wife was a balleboos (not quite translatable term for a pushy mother/housewife). He worked for the City of Baltimore as a parole officer, and between him and Helen, who was a social worker, they probably made a decent Middle Class living with good benefits. Helen made the rules, and Charles, a quiet, mousey sort of man with a combover, would pretty much go along with whatever Helen wanted.

Whereas Helen's father, a vigorous man in his early-to-mid eighties, was a regular fixture in my childhood who would occasionally drive us home from school, Charles's parents lived in Florida. Around 1991, Charles's mother and a few fellow cute old Jewish ladies kibbitzed about politics as so many Jews in Florida do who have little else to while away the time. When the Clintons became a force to be reckoned with and Hillary stood by for all the bimbo eruptions, the rest of the country was erupting in its first rash of Hillary-hatred. But Mrs. Liebe and her fellow Mrs. Liebes decided that Hilary had gotten a bum rap, so Mrs. Liebe became the founder and first president of the "Hillary Clinton Fan Club," a club which quickly grew to 20,000 members.

Even for those in the farthest reaches of Clintonland, a Clinton always remembers loyalty or dissent.

Now I have no way of knowing this, but I can't imagine that Helen Liebe didn't sit up immediately and start making plans for her 9-year-old daughter. "If you do your extra credit, you can be First Lady." "If you do just one more extracurricular, you can be a New York Senator." "If you get a Master's Degree, you could even be President!"

Who knows how a Jewish woman could mould her daughter with the potential for world domination as both the carrot and the stick? But by the time Kelly had to leave Schechter for High School, something changed.

I have no idea if Kelly needed a scholarship to go to a private high school, but there's no doubt that Kelly and Helen could have procured one at any school in America. And in the years since, everybody, including Kelly, always said the same thing: Kelly should have gone to McDonogh - a recently co-ed goyish private school in Owings Mills for rich kids that specialized in nothing so much as excellence. Kelly would have had a new start at life after leaving a place that was not particularly kind to her. She would have become a well-adjusted girl again, associated with girls of the same temperament as her, dated nice boys, and been just another excellent honors student free to discover what made her happy. I have no doubt that Helen wanted her to go to McDonogh. It may not have had many Jews, but if Kelly proved a big academic success at McDonogh, the rewards in College Acceptance would be truly enormous. But for reasons that were probably related to rebellion against her mother, Kelly chose The Park School - the traditional private school of choice for rich Jewish kids known throughout Baltimore to be the ideal place for two types of students: artsy kids and Jewish American Princesses. Many of the kids who went from Schechter to Park were both, but Kelly was neither.

Every other Schechter student of our grade who came with Kelly to Park commented upon the change in Kelly and how they didn't like what she'd become. Of course, that was completely unfair, those girls weren't all that close to Kelly to begin with, and knowing Schechter, they probably were never all that nice to her beforehand. But at Park, Kelly had clearly become something every girl hates: the double threat - a popular girl who always did well in school. The girl who can go out weekends and some weeknights still get all the work done at an A-level, the girl who can chatter away in class and the person she was talking to would inevitably be blamed.

The boys loved her, and they absolutely should have: not only was she beautiful but she was probably the nicest girl in her class. As her high school boyfriend she nabbed an alpha male who was also the most gifted student in the school. These other girls from Schechter were clearly jealous: they were more creative than she was, from more prosperous families than her, and much more accustomed to getting what they wanted, and yet she was clearly their academic and social superior. And yet, like all popular girls, there was something about Kelly that clearly seemed more miserable than ever.

Meanwhile, as high school went on, our friendship became as volatile as an off-track train carrying nitroglycerine. Kelly was miserable, but outwardly she seemed like she was blossoming, not just into a young Hillary Clinton, but into a young Bill. After she and her high school boo broke up, she seemed to be with a new boy during every break from Hyde. She was much too busy for little old me, who was floundering as much as ever, and found himself without the support of a saint who no longer wanted to be a saint. To her credit, she sometimes tried, but more than one attempt we made at rekindling our old platonic romance ended with horrible names and shouting matches.

When it came time for college admissions, she was of course the Golden Child. Other kids from our grade were legacies at Columbia or got in through the Barnard back door, but she was the only kid from our class worthy of acceptance to a school that good completely of her own merit. I wasn't even going to college that year, and all of Pikesville commented upon my absence when Schechter printed their annual boast in the Jewish Times of their graduates and where they would go to college.

Two years later, after 9/11 when George W. Bush was a popular President, she interned for a summer for no less than Ari Fleischer, Press Secretary to the President to a President who badly needed to be handled by the most competent people in the world. Again, stories made their way to me from jealous peers about social climbing - trying to sidle up to Anna Paquin and Julia Stiles, becoming good friends with nothing less than Rider Strong - her teen idol crush who was now her classmate. Rather than try to be an intellectual giant, she became president of all Greek Life on campus. She might not have been brilliant, but she was brilliant at organizing people, and she organized the world in a circle around her. Where could someone brilliant the way Kelly was brilliant go next but Washington?

And yet, in her last year at Columbia, the bottom fell out again. She broke up with her long-term college beau, and I never heard whether he broke up or she did, but after it happened, she went off the deep end.

Let me rephrase that. She only went off the deep end by the standards of a great student at Columbia who doesn't know what her future holds but knows, as every Columbia student does, that the world was her orange to squeeze. But by the standards of the perfect Jewish girl who graduated from Columbia and always did what she was told, I heard through the grapevine that she did something truly shocking: She briefly..... wait for it....................

dated a Muslim. The horror.

There's not a single sane person in the world who would have cared about this. But from the way her peers talked about this, you'd think she'd converted and was following Sharia. Can you imagine anything more salacious and scandalous to Pikesville, a town which would have nothing to do occupy its time were it not busy making mountains from molehills? I doubt Helen thought this was anything but a small temporary blip, but I can only imagine how she must have dreaded that other people would freak out. Can you imagine a bigger or better fuck you to the secretly bigoted values which we all grew up with? Can you imagine the jealousy with which her classmates and friends must have bristled: not only does she get better grades and have better sex and become friends with famous people, she even rebels better than we do!

Kelly was the perfect Jewish girl, but I often wondered if she'd have rather been anything else. 

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 4 (Part 1)

Let's call this one Kelly Liebe. In my generation, every grade in every Jewish school in America had a Kelly Liebe. I dare say, every grade in every private school in America had a Kelly Liebe, and a good deal of the public ones as well. You may know her better as Tracy Flick, or Leslie Knope, or even Hillary Clinton.

Behind every limited woman of limitless energy probably lies a girl too average to be extraordinary, and too above average not to notice. A girl of no special talents determined to make every brain cell work double overtime. A girl who does everything she's told and makes sure to cross every t and dot every i. A girl who looks around and sees the ultimate injustice: it comes easier to everybody else, but I'm the only one who's being responsible!

This is the good girl who inevitably equates her infinite competence in life with being a good girl. As she goes through life, she sees that she has more organizational ability than all the faster rising men and smarter women in the world put together, and it never quite occurs to her that achieving your responsibilities is not quite the same thing as virtue. She is a girl who uses her tornado-like executive function to know more than the rest of us, to see more than the rest of us, to desire more than the rest of us, to obtain more than the rest of us, and never get dizzy in the heights to which her fearsome ethic lets her climb over us all. This is a girl who collects friends smarter than her like dolls in a house and resents every one of us for everything that seems to come to us so easily. A girl determined to work harder, rise faster, and soar higher than anyone she knows to prove that she too is extraordinary. In our generation, she is almost doomed to success in life past everybody she knows. It's almost inevitable that she'll rise so far that she'll become more extraordinary than the rest of us put together. But the higher she rises, the more common she'll feel.

Three generations ago, these girls became the pushy Jewish mothers that made such great stock characters for Philip Roth and Woody Allen, emotionally lacerating their sons to do all the things they never could. In our generation, these women are the pushy unmarried Jewish girls around the office who toil by the sweat of their brows for every promotion, every pay raise, every ounce of the self-respect they reward themselves with so sparingly. No achievement is enough in the psyches of such women, no honor proves to her that she's a smart person, no praise proves to her that she's a good person. Everything that the nice Jewish boy was fifty years ago, the nice Jewish girl is now. One day, she wakes up to realize that she's no longer Leslie Knope or even Tracy Flick, she's Alexandra Portnoy.

She is a member of the first generation of women in a thousand generations of women for whom the majority have a fighting chance to achieve on par with men, so just imagine if you can how much greater the pressure must be for Jewish women of my age - only the second generation of Jews in a thousand generations of Jews who can break the glass ceiling, and only the first generation of Jewish women. Until sixty years ago, a Jew in the world was a swimmer with one arm, so a Jewish woman was a swimmer with stumps.

But among the hundreds or thousands of Kelly Liebe's in today's America, only one Kelly Liebe was my Kelly Liebe, and she was the most beautifully souled person I ever knew.

"Do you like Kelly Liebe, or do you Lieeeeeebe Kelly Like?" 'Liebe,' in case you don't know, is Yiddish/German for 'love,' and my all-too-mischievious father would ask me that once a week when we were small children, because no age was too young for Dad to put us through his machine of discomfort.

Did I lieeeeeeebe Kelly Liebe? Of course I did. I was twelve fucking years old!... or six... or fourteen... or seventeen... or whatever age I was.... It was the combination all early adolescents feel of lust and hintele-liebe (puppy love), and after all these years, I'm sure that my 12-year-old self is delighted that I'm finally shouting it from the rooftops (to three people). What else was I ever going to feel at that age? I was an incredibly awkward kid who practically lived after school at the house of the pretty girl in my class who lived down the street from me (almost literally the 'girl next door') who happened to refer to me as her best friend, though she had at least two others... All I knew was that, as the now unacceptable saying goes, I was 'friend zoned.'

And honestly, to be friend-zoned by Kelly Liebe was far from the worst punishment in the world. Much as I sometimes 'liebed' Kelly Liebe, there was a whole coterie of girls I liebed even more. At any given time, there were probably four girls I thought about more than Kelly, and at any given point, I probably told her who they were so as to lead her off my trail. To a kid like me, she provided something far more important than a first love. She was my lifeline into normalcy, a reminder that no matter how different I was or at least seemed, there were nice people out there who still wanted to be friends with me.

Nice people. How a description like that would have gnawed at Kelly. She was smart enough to understand anything, but not smart enough to be interested in anything. I don't doubt that that lack of passion gnaws at her still. When I knew her well, she desperately wanted to be 'something' - a label, any at all, that she could affix to herself: artistic, theatrical, musical, political, scientific, whatever it was that could define her as having a passion and a talent. She never realized (or was never satisfied by) the fact that her talent was rarer than the lot of us combined.

I suppose I have to put this proviso in, and feel ashamed that it's even necessary. Kelly was never brilliant (and oh how that rankled at her), but she was nevertheless as smart as it gets. Some people might have mistook her girlish voice and not particularly articulate manner for something less than that, but in so many ways, she was smarter than any of us, and as she got older, anybody who mistook her for anything but smart would pay dearly for the fact. But her great regret was that she had no poetry in her soul, because she was something more beautiful than poetry: in her soul she was the nice person we should all aspire to be. She knew that, and it killed her.

Until we were about eleven or twelve, I was a friend, probably a good one, but we were not yet 'intimate' in the chaste manner that only pubescents of the opposite sex can be. Her 'best friend' during those years was Micah Zapruder (Zippy to his adult friends), the real extraordinary student of our year, and who was also my best friend. When we were ten, Kelly and I used to get into big fights over whose best friend Zip was. Even at this age, Kelly was extremely competitive, and I had a streak of resentment a mile wide. Even at that age, Kelly, or more likely Kelly's mother, knew a meal ticket when she saw one. She had other good friends of similarly prize intellectual stock - perhaps the closest of all being Jessye Bloomfield who was rather brilliant in math and science and became a gynecologist in Philly. But I suspect that Kelly was never truly relaxed in our company and became good friends with us more out of a sense of responsibility (more on that later). She was probably happier around kids like * Abby Cohen and Mara Eliezer. But even so, both of these girls were ordinary girls, not as smart as Kelly, perhaps not nearly as smart, but I'll bet that Kelly felt more herself around them than she ever did around me or Micah.

I would bet anything that most of Kelly's early social life was completely engineered by her mother, who made sure that Kelly would be friends with the smartest kids in the class - Micah lived a good eight miles away from either of us, but his parents were struggling graduate students, so Kelly's mother Helen volunteered to keep watch over Micah until they could drive over to Pikesville to pick him up. Micah Zapruder is now a high-power attorney in Chicago. I'd put the chances at about fifty/fifty that had Zippy not moved away when we were all eleven, Kelly, perhaps though her mother Helen, would have latched onto him forever, and Zippy would be married to Kelly with three children by now.
Helen will always be the key to understanding Kelly. She was another beautifully souled woman who tragically fell for just a few wrong priorities in life. One of the reasons Kelly and I got along, even at an early age, is because beneath her ditzy surface and my melancholically pompous one, we actually had a great deal in common. Both of us were just one generation removed from the Baltimore working class, and were clearly ashamed like hell about it. Many, perhaps most, of our friends' came from families who'd long resided in the Middle Class (or Upper Class in two cases). The vast majority of them were professional families who'd recently relocated to Baltimore - many of them doctors who came here to go to Hopkins Medical School. Most of the kids we knew didn't have longstanding roots in Baltimore, and very few knew what it was like to grow up with your relatives instilling in you a hunger for something better, because their parents had already achieved the maximum life gives us. While my family was upper-middle-class, we were so new to it that even now, a quarter-century later, my father still worries every day about falling out of it, so I certainly knew what that burden felt like. Micah, who also had survivor grandparents and Israeli army veterans for parents who raised two children on a graduate stipend, so he knew what that was like much better even than me. But I doubt either of us, or anyone we were friends with, knew what that was like to the extent that Kelly did.

Tuckers always joke that had we come over in the 19th century, we'd own IBM by now. But Kelly's family was genuinely there since the 19th century, and was definitely not owning IBM yet. Her grandfather lived to be 100, and couldn't have died too far from where he was born. Simchas at the Liebe household were always a dizzying array of loud, warm-hearted Baltimore 'huns' with oewverwhelming Baltimore accents and every conceivable variation on the beehive hairdo. Such a statement is probably classist, but would we had those kinds of huns in my family. I had plenty of older relatives born in Baltimore on Zaydie Witow's side, and some of them were far too PWT to be 'huns.' More on them another time...

But I was the mere 'consolation prize' for 'best male friend' after Zippy moved away, and such an inferior copy to the real thing as I wouldn't even merit a second look as more than a friend on my best day. But when our trio went down to two, my worst days began to stare me right in the face. And at that age when I could easily have been put into the looney bin for good, Kelly became my guardian angel in a way that would have exhausted even the best meaning adults - and since depression is one of the most contagious of all illnesses, God alone knows what toll being good friends to such a depressed kid did to her.

There are two saints in my life without which I'm 75% sure I would have died at that age: my mother, for whom I have no particularly complicated feelings, and Kelly Liebe, for whom I have too many.
Kelly literally saved me, and it is the height of cruelty for me to ever feel anything but gratitude toward her ever again. It was a labor she bore patiently past the capacity of any other 13 year old and most 40 year olds. She did it not out of responsibility or burden, but genuinely out of love. Imagine the capacity of anyone but the most competent 13 year old in America to bear a contemporary who could not stop talking about how horribly he felt, who talked about suicide so often, who was so violent to so many people, and who felt so close to giving up on life. I may even have pulled something violent on Kelly at some point, I can't even remember, yet at no point was she truly deterred. Only the best human being of us all: the most responsible, the most competent, the most courageous, could have any idea what to do at that age when dealing a peer like me.

Kelly, like her parents, had unshakeable morals at the bedrock of her soul. There was nothing they would not do for anyone whom they cared about. Everything Kelly, and by extension Helen, did for me was love at its purest variety. But as so many people come to see, there's no reward for moral conduct.

Whom in this world has ever been rewarded for being kind and generous and loving? Most people who have an unbreakable ethical code probably turn into petty tyrants about fulfilling them like Zaydie Tucker. I can't imagine that a women like Helen Liebe, smart as a whip and responsible as a mule but not in a position to be appreciated enough for either, didn't say to herself many times: 'I deserve better than this.'

And of course she did. So it was let to Kelly to achieve everything Helen did not.

* Abby seems to have turned into a pretty nice woman, but she was a bit of a cunt as a kid. At one point, I forget exactly when, she decided to make anonymous prank calls at sleepovers to nerds in the class and pretend she wanted them until she started listing all the things that made them irredeemable nerds. I heard about the pranks later, and I knew I'd been called in a similar fashion because my mother picked up and all I knew was that she said the person on the other line "This is obviously a prank call." My mother hung up and told me that it was nothing, but I knew better, because she started to cry.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - The Bolton Street Synagogue Part 3

Prepare to start to be creeped out. The next umpteen posts will go over old hurts, old longings, old scores to settle. They will necessarily be uncharitable to their subjects, and no doubt at times an uncharitable reader will probably think me misogynist if they haven't already thought me an antisemite. There's little I can do about that. I'm doing my best to be a reliable narrator, but there is no sense in disguising feelings of uncharity if they're there.

But at the same time, at least in relation to other, perhaps realer, misogynists, I don't think what I have to say is all that bad. When you spend the majority of your life in varying states of unrequited love, you have a lot of uncharitable and regretful thoughts about women. Perhaps if you had better things to say about women, you wouldn't feel unrequited love so often, but there's nothing to be done about thoughts that simply occur to you except to question why you have them and try to solve it so you don't have them in the future. Sadly, there's not much success yet in that regard...

But I will also say, I think that overall I've been a lot kinder to womankind than womankind has ever been to me - and I don't even mean romantically. I don't think men can get much more feminist than I, but I am precisely the sort of liberal the modern feminist, female and male, is told to fear and loathe by the internet, by modern etiquette, by the zeitgeist itself - a man who considers himself a liberal, but is unswayed and unsympathetic to any argument that smacks of critical theory, or militance, or censorship. More importantly, I have never been shy about saying so in the most public, and probably most obnoxious, possible manners. It's one thing to disagree with the party line, it's another to make a show of disagreeing and dispel the demonstration of unity. I don't doubt that to most feminists I know, the word 'mansplainer' was invented to describe me. And no matter whom it is, I refuse to apologize for my 'splainin' to anybody. I may be a white male, but we're all in this together, and there is something fascist about the idea that the rest of us should just shut up and listen.

Such attitudes haven't just cost me romantically, I believe it's cost me a great deal of emotional closeness with women whose companionship I would have greatly valued, romantically or platonically. We can't help whom we are, and I'm clearly a little nuts, or perhaps more than a little. Even if I weren't, I'm not the sort of person who finds it easy to keep his opinions to himself. My ability to speak out is like a hose that bursts if I don't keep the valve relatively open all the time. A childhood and adolescence spent in some environments where contrary opinions were particularly unwelcome like Beth Tfiloh, Schechter, and particularly Hyde, showed me just what happens when the valve is closed. Perhaps the hose wouldn't burst again if I closed the valve, but I reallydon't want to find out.

But also, I don't doubt that men with emotional disorders like mine are responsible for a lot of the abuse perpetrated against women over the centuries, so in an era when women are finally somewhat able to choose their own fates, an impossible man like me is shit out of luck. That's just the way it is. Had I been born in 1932, a man like me would probably be on his sixth wife by now, and who knows what it would have taken for me to get there? Had I not been a man in therapy for most of my life, in touch with all the things I know I have to atone for and acquired an obvious need to confess my sins which this blog provides amply, God knows what other abuses I might have perpetrated upon people by now. I'm well aware of the demon that lurks within me, and at the moment, I fortunately live with much more fear of it than anyone else. Some people say that any man is capable of violence. Perhaps that's true, but most men of my demographics don't have confirmation. As yet, there is no reliable cure for such demons, and so men like me must be viewed with suspicion, and perhaps with all due justice. It may be wrong for men to be held silent on issues of feminism purely by virtue of being men, but I may be the prosecution's best evidence that such extreme measures are necessary, and my own best evidence that my feminism is of a completely wrong type.


Let's call her Sharon Kazin - an old fashioned Jewish intellectual name for an old-fashioned Jewish intellectual girl, even though she was only quarter-Jewish on her patrilineal side. She was five years older than me, though she looked at least five years younger. She was a little waif of a thing, barely five feet tall and looking as though she would blow over from consumption at any moment. Though she had no children, to friends I called her the 'Manic Pixie Dream Milf.' She looked like dead ringer for one of those dying Italian opera heroines she so seemed to love (*footnote): Violetta or Mimi or a white Aida. But in her waif-like way, she was absolutely gorgeous - long strawberry blond hair, huge eyes, and a giant toothy grin - beautiful like a porcelain doll. She reminded me very much of Carol Kane, a celebrity from the years between our births that only Jews remember.

In May of 2013, I met her from, and she is still the only good thing that ever came out of online dating for me. Even moreso than the girl from my not-so-longterm relationship this year, she was the one woman I've known in my adult life whom I honestly could see us having a real future in a better world than this one, where neither of us felt quite so obviously damaged as we did. I didn't mention Sharon all that often to my now ex-girlfriend, but she nevertheless commented once or twice upon the way I occasionally spoke about her, and said that it sounded like she had an invisible rival. It was just one of the many ways she showed her contempt and disgust for so many aspects of me, and no doubt, there was much to be disgusted by, even if not quite as much or in the ways that she thought. But in this case, though not too many others, she got it exactly right. My ex, whom I have yet to give a name on this, has many wonderful qualities. Charitableness to the motivations of others is not always one of them - and just because we're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get us.

To this day, that month-long not-quite-fling makes me think more better and worse things about my life than anything since then. I can't say that my time with Sharon changed me in any profound way, there are experiences far more tattooed on my heart than this one. And yet, in terms of the implications for what I knew about myself, it confirmed everything in the most brutal possible way.

Sharon's aspirations, like mine, were astonishingly anachronistic. She loved classical music, she loved classic lit and art, she was politically and philosophically knowledgable. I fell for her on the first date, probably at the moment she told me that she felt like a New Yorker of two generations ago.

On our third date, we sat together in the Lyric Opera House during a performance of Rigoletto, taking nips from her flask of scotch, and I thought to myself that I'd finally hit the jackpot. Later that night, we had our first kiss before we parted in the parking lot of the Associated Jewish Charities, and as I went home, I glowed as I have never glowed before or since.

But the oddest and most beguiling of all things about her was that I saw exactly the moment that she fell for me on that same first date. It was, and no doubt this should have been a sign to run for the hills, the moment when I confided to her about my various learning disabilities. It was the first time I ever confided anything nearly so personal on the first date, and I hope like hell it will be the last. There's a famous old English poem, not by Shakespeare, which opens 'Pity is sworn servant to love', but if that's true, then as Shakespeare says: Most love (is) mere folly. The reality of loving, or even kinda romantically liking, the person you pity eventually reveals itself in all its splendid ugliness. Such did it seem with both her and my more recent romantic foray.

As I got to know her better, it became clear to me that Sharon had a Bubbie - my Bubbie-like quality. She was a narcissist who clearly lived in her own world. I could never figure out what she was going to say next or how she was going to react to anything. It was thrilling in a way, but it was also clearly the source of some kind of psychic disease - perhaps she was on the autism spectrum, which Bubbie, with her amazing intelligence for social situations, is most assuredly not. There was a certain 'Lillith from Cheers" quality about her, frosty on the surface but explosive beneath. Whatever the source of it was, Sharon was clearly an impossible woman. Like the impossible man she was quite briefly with, she was a tyrant of opinion who judged disagreement as a failure of character. And as a man terrified of turning into the firebreather I once was in any setting but the internet, I did my best to accommodate her fatwas and skirt around whatever subject might raise her fearsome intellectual ire.

From the very beginning, even being vaguely in love with this impossible woman, I knew that rejection would eventually come, perhaps because as an impossible man I seem only to be attracted to impossible women. She was standoffish from commitment as only someone whom you can tell will never be happy can be. She claimed she was very happy, but I didn't believe her for a second. I doubt I'd have been as attracted to her had I believed her, and frankly, I doubt that anyone truly happy can ever be truly attracted to me.

We never had sex, we barely even made out, and yet we spent the better part of a month in constant contact. Long dates, long conversations on the phone. I don't know why she was so standoffish, but I think it wasn't (or wasn't just) because she was insufficiently attracted to me. She clearly was hesitant as only someone terrified of something can be.

From the way she spoke about them, I had to conclude that her family was abusive in one way or another, because she kept talking about how she had to 'get out' from her family situation as a teenager and spoke about them with unconcealed rage. In spite of them, she put her way through Columbia alone even though her family thought her rather 'uppity' for doing so, and was honestly convinced she'd gotten rid of her Queens accent. When I told her in an unguarded moment that it was plainly audible, she got slightly offended.

It was not more than five minutes after the moment I assumed I was in the clear for the next few weeks or months that she broke things off. The breakup - was it anywhere near long enough to be a breakup? - was probably over Israel, during which our conversation got ever-so-slightly heated. The tension of this argument was negligible, but more on that in a moment.

When she broke things off, I, of course, went insane. I spent a day trying to calm myself down at the house of friends who had assured me the day before that I was 'in like Flynn', and there's no way I didn't have myself a long-term girlfriend. The urge to calm myself was unsuccessful. I showed my true colors to her in an outraged email, yet another masterpiece of invective and self-justification from the master of both (rather like this blogpost...). Any chance that she might have regretted her decision was immediately dispelled.

I was virtually inconsolable for weeks afterward, slogging through my days in a depressed haze. And then, as only a true nutter can, I sent her another email a month later, practically begging her to give me another chance in spite of my obvious maladies, the extent of which I detailed at length - while still omitting some... I knew that this was the best shot I'd get for a long time, and that for all our mutual damage, a girl this externally compatible will not come again any time soon.

I could of course be wrong, but I doubt that a boy more compatible for a girl like her has come again for her. There is no way our relationship would have ended in anything but the same brutal storm of mutual accusations and anger that my last relationship did - but in retrospect, knowing what I know about her, I would have put the chances that it would have come so soon slightly lower than it was for the woman who came after her. Nevertheless, we'll never know. People like her, like all people who are relentlessly not themselves, do not admit partners in life. Whether that implicates me as well, I can only guess that the answer is no, but current evidence shows that in this way as so many others, I'm completely wrong.

Nevertheless, it's types like her, not like me, go through their lives carrying the Shel Silverstein myth within themselves that they want someone complete and without problems as a complement to their already whole selves. But if we are truly whole alone, why would we ever need companionship? Even so, perhaps a partial version of us is better off alone than in trying to make two halves come together comprised of explosive contents. In retrospect, there was nothing about that Sharon that seemed whole except her narcissism, but beneath the narcissism was something relentlessly curious about the world, a fragile inner beauty that clearly craved love and to be loved. There was a warm and generous side to her that only meant people well. That was the side I desperately wanted to bank upon, but I doubt a person like her would ever allow herself enough vulnerability to display it fully, nor do I doubt that a person like me would know how to handle it once I saw it.

But the question still remains? Why did the 'breakup' happen just minutes after the Israel argument? There were plenty of other moments which would have been more obvious to end things. She knew from the very beginning that I was severely learning disabled, and had to know that the probability of a learning disabled person having emotional disabilities was exponentially higher than in the general population. She was clearly, though silently, disgusted when I introduced her to an obviously drunk friend at a party I'd brought her to two days earlier, but she still spent two hours with me on a date and a half-hour beforehand on the phone that day.

I have deliberately saved the thesis of this entry until now. The true point of airing this old, and admittedly a bit creepy, obsession in public is that I really believe that a disagreement over Israel was the real reason she broke things off. A girl as closed off from the messiness of emotion as she was clearly determined to be could not allow for such a disagreement, and my loyalty to Judaism and to Israel - a loyalty which so many people I grew up with found insufficient - was the place where I made a subtle stand against her edicts that she could not abide after a few dozen fatwas that I let slide, knowing that by doing so, I was jeopardizing the future of a relationship I hoped against hope would work itself out.

Even being only a quarter-Jewish, she still seemed (seems) to me a self-hating Jew, ashamed of all those dirty New York qualities associated with that little bit of Jewishness in her. In me, I don't doubt she was attracted to the very things in me she was repulsed by. I was a fucked up Pigeon-Yiddish speaking Jew like so many she no doubt knew from the 'old neighborhood' who went out of his way to refine all the qualities that were still so raw in her family. She had no way of knowing, except perhaps intuitively, that I too had all the demons she tried to escape, but when she saw that I had failed to escape them in the way she coveted, she fled. It was not when she realized that I was mentally imbalanced that she fled, nor was it when she saw that I was hanging around with immature drunks that she broke up with me, it was when she saw that I was a proud Jew willing to defend Israel that she could no longer abide the thought of my companionship.

Halakhically (that is, according to Jewish Law), people don't get more 'quarter-Jewish' than Sharon, and yet my radar for Jewish shame went off in spades. This was a girl from Queens who decided to give up everything in her life - her humble origins, her accent, her ability to connect with others as a real person - to become the very model of the modern intellectual. There was hardly a single opinion of hers that did not confirm to what she so assiduously read in her print editions of the New York Review of Books. To show support for Modern Israel was not merely in contradiction to everything she was supposed to believe, but a betrayal of everything she tried so hard to become - nothing less than accepting a reversion to the old Sharon.

In that second letter, I wrote her in that if she didn't want to give me another chance, I'd prefer no answer, and I swore I would never contact her again. I was true to that promise. She lived in Mount Vernon on the block of the old Red Emma's. For months afterward, I was terrified to even drive past it, and would avoid that stretch of neighborhood even though it was the most convenient way to get downtown for any driver or cyclist.

In November of that year, during the brief period when the old Red Emma's was converted to a performance space, there was a performance at it that I had to go to for the sake of making musical contacts. I was truly terrified, and begged friends to come with me lest I be seen by her on her block. No friends came with me, and I had to park alone and try my best to be inconspicuous.

My worst nightmare nearly came true. I don't know exactly what happened, but as I walked through the cold wet November dark of Mount Vernon Square, I saw a waif-like figure walking her dog fifty feet away. I could swear that I heard this figure say at mid-volume: "Evan?"

Rather than brave the chance of an awkward and unresolvable reunion, I crossed the street, and did what I could to put the whole thing out of mind forever. I'm pretty sure I saw Sharon a few times more as I biked around the city - it is impossible not to see a person in Smalltimore, particularly the person you're trying hardest to avoid.

I know a person or two who knows her from her place of work, who tell me that she is known by the office staff as one of the most impossibly arrogant colleagues. Perhaps as a brilliant woman in science, she earned the right to be so, or has to be so as a defense against a field inherently biased against high achieving women. I must say, hearing that a person like her makes enemies is the least surprising possible news. But I wish it were differently. She deserves better than she got,... we both did....

* Never trust any opera lover who prefers 19th century opera to Mozart. With the exception of lovers of lighter opera/operetta like Rossini or Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan, nothing good can ever come of them. Mozart operas express, one and all, the need for characters showing equanimity and empathy in the face of other people's concerns. Characters who empathize are rewarded with greater happiness, characters who refuse to empathize are punished mercilessly. Their moral is that by considering one another's emotions, our communities can arrive at greater happiness, and therefore we can be happier as individuals. But for all its glories, 19th century opera, whether Italian or German, is at best an incitement to narcissistically emote as though your emotions are more important than others. At worst, it's about transcending the human messiness of the world by blowing it up. People who draw spiritual sustenance from Verdi and Puccini and their related sub-genres, like Sharon did (and to a certain extent Bubbie), are narcissists. And, of course, people who draw sustenance from Wagner are downright fascists.... I'm not entirely certain that I'm kidding.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4: The Bolton Street Synagogue Part 2

What can you say about your childhood perceptions that you know are accurate? Our understanding as adults are incomplete enough, but when you're a walking ball of id that would probably eat fritos and shit yourself if left to your own devices, you can't be expected to have accurate perceptions of the world. Even the retrospective glow of my alleged childhood promise is seen through a filter so unreliable that perhaps there is no way to call it an accurate perception - particularly because of the adult this child became.

And isn't it doubly so when remembering the people of your childhood? No matter what age we are, the idea that our memories from a quarter-century ago are completely accurate is a dubious proposal, but at an age when it doesn't occur to you that anything is worth remembering, it's particularly odd to say anything important about it. Add to the fact that nobody has any reason to be interested in another person's distant childhood, and you have a recipe for narcissistic, inaccurate prattling that nobody should want to read.

We're going to plow on regardless, because we're recording a stream of memories about love and acceptance above all else; and it's obvious that there is no time in life that love more crucial than in years when you would die if you didn't have people who love you and accept your flaws enough to take care of you. What follows in this strange history of my life may or may not be a simplified approximation of the whole truth, but it's almost certainly not. There's too much I don't know, and too much I'm simply not willing to talk about. Some memories will be recounted in detail, some will not be recounted at all. Nevertheless, in recounting childhood memories, what is important is not to recount yourself, but the people you remember. I've already extemporized on myself much too much for it to hold much interest for anything further that I have to say about myself. What is important is the supporting cast.


The logical person to begin this series of memories with is Bubbie, because Bubbie is, in so many senses, my formative influence.

To any kid but one like me, Bubbie would have been, and in some senses is, a horrible grandmother. Almost as horrible as she was a mother to my mother and uncle. My mother seems, in most senses, to have been raised by her grandparents. My grandparents had only one child, Bubbie Witow, who was the saving consolation of their lives. My great-grandfather, Abraham Katz, apparently had a goyisher mistress whom he kept in a house around the Southwest of the city near the bay. By all evidence, my great-grandmother Tessie (Teertzah) Katz was never an attractive woman. Even in her youth, she had the same porcine face with an enormous pug nose and an envelope-shaped mouth which was shared by all three of her siblings. As she grew older, she became enormously fat, well over three-hundred pounds. Eventually she had a stroke which left her paralyzed.

Nevertheless, she was a Bubbie very much like my Bubbie Tucker, a woman worn down by life who perhaps suffered from lingering depression and anger at how life had treated her, but who positively doted on my mother as she did my grandmother before her. Like Bubbie Tucker, much of her passion went into food, and she was by all accounts an amazing cook even after her paralysis.

Even to today, Bubbie's relationship to her parents is doting to a point that creeps my father out. Before I was born, Bubbie absolutely insisted that I be named for her father - Abraham Katz, and so my Hebrew name is Avraham, and I was apparently supposed to be named Abraham in English - though Bubbie suggested Bram as a substitute (ew). When my mother went into labor with me, my grandmother insisted that my mother keep pictures of Bubbie's parents at her bedside.

Bubbie's loyalty to her parents was ironclad, and with good reason. They sacrificed everything to make sure she would spend her life in the upper-middle-class, with a cultural background and graduate-level education they never got. When the Metropolitan Opera came to town for three nights, they saved the often paltry savings from their corner store so that Bubbie could go see it for two of those nights.

Bubbie repaid their loyalty in a way that defined everything thereafter for her, for my Zaydie, and for their progeny. By the end of World War II, Zaydie could look forward to a brilliant career in the Defense Department as an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As a Jew, he couldn't get hired by a private engineering firm.  He was one of the key engineers on the team that created the Smart Bomb, and apparently made one of the team's key discoveries himself. But her parents were so miserable without their only daughter to fill their lives that Bubbie ordered Zaydie back to Baltimore, the bad memories place where Zaydie slaved away as a young man to lift himself out of the poor working class, so that they could live with Bubbie's parents.

Zaydie took a job as an the Pentagon, and for a quarter-century, he lived in Silver Spring and only returned to Baltimore on weekends. My mother recently recalled seeing how undistinguished Zaydie's career had become when she came to his work place one day and saw that he had by far the smallest office on his corner. In Washington, Zaydie was nothing more than an administrator, and he loathed it. He wanted to be working on the important Pentagon missile defense that no doubt killed hundreds of thousands, instead he was stuck working in the Pentagon's increasingly fearsome bureaucracy. Who knows how many millions more the Pentagon could have been killed in the thermonuclear light of Zaydie's scientific brilliance? And yet, he ultimately didn't seem to mind it that much. He had children he both loved and didn't have to see often enough to become sick of them. He had his books and hobbies (apparently he even enjoyed solving math problems in his spare time), and took pleasure in being left alone with them. My Bubbie's crazy Tante (Aunt) Miriam always thought he had affairs when he was living in Silver Spring, but while I think Zaydie might have been tempted, anybody might have been when separated from family for five nights of the week. But I doubt he ever truly had enough ambition to find a girlfriend. For the most part, he seemed happiest being left to his own devices.

My grandparents and great-grandparents owned just one floor of a house on Maine Avenue in Forest Park, which they shared with Crazy Tante Miriam - more on her another time... When Barry Levinson made the movie Liberty Heights, the street upon which the main characters lived was just a cross-street over from the Witows and Katzes. But unlike this family, the living space of my family was so small that my mother had to share a bedroom with her five years younger brother. While her grandparents were doting, her mother was a curious mixture of absentee and domineering, and my mother swore she would be a different sort of mother to her own children.

It's worth talking about Forest Park too. Forest Park was once a Jewish neighborhood in far west of Baltimore. In its original design, it was supposed to be a copy of the far more goyish Roland Park, which was itself America's first planned community, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also the designer of Central Park. Forest Park was another hugely important symbol of Jewish aspiration, the perhaps misguided attempt of Jews to show that they can be as respectable, as upper middle class, as American, as any Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Reality, as ever, had other plans.

Decency prevents me from going into the sheer barrage of harassment encountered by the Witow/Katz family on Maine Avenue by a few of the blacks who moved in as the Jews moved out, though perhaps the fact that I'm mentioning it means that I'm not being decent enough. But it must suffice to say that at times it was truly breathtaking and horrific - in some ways as bad as a Jew would encounter from Poles and Russians in the Pale of Settlement. It is more than enough to explain the lifelong conservatism my mother and uncle acquired residually, because who can blame them? My mother and uncle, to this day, don't know why Bubbie didn't immediately move the family out when the harassment began, let alone when it became more intense. But my Bubbie, a hoarder and procrastinator who had once heard of organization without ever learning how to do so, kept the family in Forest Park until 1970. When the urban riots happened in 1968, sometimes my family was literally escorted around West Baltimore by a tank.

Two years after moving to Strathmore Avenue in Mount Washington, Zaydie was faced with a choice: early retirement or transfer to Huntsville, Alabama. He was 55 years old, and being on the old government pension plan, got what would today be a prince's sum for his 30 years of service - a pension which my always lucky grandmother still lives upon 43 years after his retirement.

The house into which they moved was the former house of Marvin Mandel, the Governor of Maryland who just died at the age of 95 and who was convicted for racketeering in 1982. To this day, I wonder how Bubbie managed it. She had a realtor license, but my father always implied to me that there was some sort of machination with the Democratic political machine - which is truly ironic considering how conservative my Zaydie, mother, and uncle all were by the end of the 60's. Virtually everybody in Maryland is still registered as a Democrat, because it's the only way to influence elections: in both Baltimore and Washington there is no Republican party of which one can truly speak. My father, ever the contrarian, registered as a Republican twenty years ago - half as a joke, and half because the idea of a Phil Graham scared him (of all things...).

Zaydie Witow was, like his father, a true intellectual. Unlike his father, a Communist whose principles refused promotion to foreman he was offered, Zaydie was educated, a lover of America, and a true conservative at a time when conservatism was deeply unpopular, and even moreso among Jews. My father used to joke ad nauseum that in the Witow household, there were portraits of Richard Nixon in every room, whereas in his house there were pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

Zaydie lived only to see his brand of conservatism begin its ascendance, and would never know that his son would eventually rise in the federal government far further than he ever did. Though Nochem has only now rose to levels that shape public policy, it was men like Nochem who dominated world discourse in the 2000's, and had Nochem enlisted in the foreign service fifteen years earlier, he could easily have been one of the neoconservatives that planned (and botched) the Iraq War.

Nochem is a man not unlike his father. Saintly of a sort, utterly non-confrontational except on political matters, a polyglot intellectual, well-read on all sorts of subjects, beloved but a bit distant from his children, and with the kind of bourgeois aspirations that died in American life a half-century ago. There will be much more to say about Nochem at a later date, but for all our political arguments, he has been one of the greatest, most beneficial influences in my life, and I love him as I love few people.

What's worth talking about is Nochem's early career, and how it related to Bubbie and Zaydie. In his twenties, Nochem, like his nephew, didn't really work. Unlike his nephew, he was a gazillionaire. It didn't take much intelligence to benefit from the American stock market forty years ago, but apparently Nochem played it with virtuosic flair in his early adulthood. Why get a job making $50,000 a year when he made or lost that much in a day? The image my father paints of Nochem in those years was that he sat around his various apartments in his underwear until it was time to put on clothes and visit us or Bubbie.

In the late 70's, Nochem, trained like his father as an engineer. By Nochem's generation, Jews no longer trained as engineers. Jews were upper-class enough that those of scientific/mathematical talent were no longer engineers but outright scientists and doctors. And yet, Nochem trained as an engineer and was hired by Westinghouse, who sent him to Iran in the late 70's...

Why did Nochem train as an engineer when there were so many other options open to a promising young man of the Baby Boomer generation? There are a few explanations of this. One is that Nochem loved Zaydie and always idolized him, so perhaps he went into the same field as Zaydie. Another is that Nochem, like so many people with Witow lineage, felt directionless, and so he chose a field which his father could help him navigate. A third explanation, a more gloriously theatrical one, is that a young man as promising, as politically knowledgeable, as polyglot, as Nochem could not have gone unnoticed by places where promising young men were recruited. With his head for making money, he could easily be headhunted by a financial firm, and indeed by the early 80's he was in Columbia Business School. But the facts are these: He worked as an engineer for Westinghouse when the Sha fell, he spent six weeks in the USSR just a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. When he joined the State Department at the age of 40, his first assignment was in Mexico just as the one-party system fell after seventy years in power. He was stationed in Israel as the Second Intifada happened, and he worked on the Afghan desk just as America began its withdrawal.

At this point in my life, I find the possibility of Nochem working for the 'agency' extraordinarily unlikely, because he would have to hide in plain sight. Considering that my father mentioned the possibility of his working for the CIA in a toast at his wedding, I think an agent would have to work under much deeper cover than Nochem ever would have. But who knows? Many relatives have often speculated as to what my uncle did.  If he's with the 'agency', he's done a horrendous job covering his tracks and it won't make any difference whether or not I talk about it here, but perhaps that's his plan... Even so, I find it very hard to believe he is. Even if he worked for them, he'd probably be a simple administrator (think Louis CK in American Hustle), but the romantic in me would like to picture him as the kind of assassin no one would see coming, with G. Gordon Liddy right wing obsessions, who knows 100 ways to kill us all, because such a figure seems so unlike the person he is. Imagine the James Bond parody you could make from Nochem's CIA career...

I'm 98% certain that the reality of Nochem's life, as reality usually is, is much more mundane. After Columbia Business School, Nochem moved back in with my grandparents, just as my grandfather entered the last year of his life - dying of colon cancer. It was only in the last few weeks of Zaydie's life that Nochem moved out of the house into his Bonnie Ridge apartment. I'm pretty sure that both my Bubbie and parents were furious at him for it, but who can blame him? From the moment Zaydie died, Nochem would have been under Bubbie's thumb. A few years later, Nochem's financial portfolio took a huge nosedive from which it never recovered. He was probably a much richer man at 30 than he will ever be again. The independence of the rest of his life probably hung in the balance. Five years later, he was married, and five years after that he was stationed abroad for what's become a distinguished career in the State Department.

In any event, the act of living alone was the best thing that ever happened to Bubbie. She sacrificed everything, including her husband's happiness, to keep her parents together, and while I'm not sure how good a job she did, she did what she could to take care of her parents and children. She is the American Jewish ideal, or at least my picture of it - not assimilated at all, and yet completely accepted by the world. She is completely Jewish yet basks in the acceptance and love of quarter-century younger non-Jewish friends who hold her in awe. Many family members find her remote and difficult in ways I haven't even elucidated here (some of which are hilarious, eventually I'll write them up...), but to people she just met, she has more social skill than any of us. Were she twenty years younger, she might have been a politician as skilled as Barbara Mikulski or Helen Bentley. In two weeks, she'll be 95. She seems to have more energy than my parents, and take more joy in living than anyone I know. She is the youngest of us all.

But how did she grow so young?

There are many factors in this - the independent means she had from her husband's pension and stock portfolio have their part. The community of little old ladies with whom she experienced a second adolescence had its part too (and it really is amazing how much like adolescents my Bubbie usually acts...). The fact that her children were fully grown and she was unencumbered by taking care of them played its part. Her relentless curiosity about subjects and people alike played its part as well.

I don't want to take credit that is not mine to take, but I do think I can say that I was a small part of it. Even in my case, I think she was surprised how well she took to the job of being my Bubbie. Bubbie was already in her late 70's before her younger grandchildren have any memories of her, and to her younger generation of grandchildren, she is the epitome of the out of touch old person. They are typical kids who have no interests in common with her, but I already had many memories of her by the time Bubbie was the age my father is now. I have many memories of her husband doting upon me, but in my first few years she always seemed to be a couple feet away. It was only as I became a precocious little twerp that she really warmed to me. Were I not, she probably would have felt as awkward and resentful around me as she was with her other grandchildren - a resentful awkwardness that has by no means sometimes absented itself from our relationship even so.

It often seems that her younger grandchildren can't stand her. Who can blame them? If ever there's a retrospective candidate for an undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder, whom if not her would it be? And yet, when a narcissist sees a kid so much like her, who takes an active interest in everything cultural that she loved, who was so clearly as disorganized and perhaps as selfish as she, how could she not fail to love him? For her, I was like a prize possession she could show off to friends. The way she loves may be misguided, but it can never be mistaken for anything but love. I think her relationship with me was perhaps no small part of what allowed her to claim more joy in living than anyone in her family has yet experienced.

She is the dream of assimilation - to remain completely apart from assimilation while still assimilating. She did not assimilate, she associated. It would not have been possible without her amazing luck - parents (and now children) who doted on her, an emotionally low-key husband who provided for her spectacularly and accommdated her every wish, and a feisty personality which makes a searing though positive impression on those who associate with her in small doses. We should all aspire to be like her, and yet her negative personal qualities show precisely why this dream is a bit hollow.