Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Battle of the Blowhards

Saturday morning I was feeling so languid and lazy that I almost skipped out on Tot Shabbat altogether. Then I remembered the damage that two cooped-up kids can wreak in a single morning, and the very thought bolted me out of bed with renewed determination.

I smiled when I walked into the classroom and caught sight of Sweet Sue, who I hadn't seen in forever, but my heart sunk when I saw that she was accompanied by her husband, Windbag. Windbag is the person that people fight NOT to sit next to at potluck dinners. It wasn't always quite this bad. He is about 20 years older than most of the others in our group, and so at first we tried hard to be charitable when he blurted out completely outdated, vaguely sexist or racist expressions, things that your great-grandpa might have uttered while shaking his cane menacingly.

But after his son was born, his behavior became even more execrable. He was paranoid about germs and would not let anyone so much as breathe near the baby. Worse, he would not allow Sweet Sue to leave the house for months for fear that the kid might catch something. He could have watched his own son for a couple of hours just to give her a little break from her quarrantine, but no - as a man, it wasn't his job to do the dirty work of changing diapers and cleaning spit-up. His offensive, ignorant comments became more blatant. No kid of his was going to the grocery store, where some illegal wetback might breathe diseases onto him! Eventually his controlling behavior drove everyone away, including Sweet Sue's parents who had flown into town to help care for their first grandchild.

We've all done our best to maintain a friendship with Sweet Sue while minimizing our contact with Windbag, but it doesn't always work. Being her husband, he does tend to show up every now and again. And so it was that I found myself stuck next to him, perched on a tiny orange plastic chair in the toddler classroom.

Maybe it won't be so bad, I thought, to make a few minutes of polite chat while I keep an eye on the kids. I was wrong. It was excruciating. Our dialogue went something like this:

Me: So, how is your little boy doing?

Windbag: Oh, he's great. He's really lucky because Sweet Sue stays home with him. That's what kids really need, is for their moms to be there for them full-time instead of running all over--

Me: --ooookay, uh, how's your job?

Windbag: Good - I have a home office, you know, so I am there most of the time. I like to know what's going on at home. Sweet Sue probably thinks I micromanage too much, but hey, I can't help it! Gotta keep everyone in line, that's a man's job right?

As I sat there fervently hoping someone or something would save me from this dreadful conversation, the classroom door opened and - just my luck - in walked the *other* most annoying person I know, Nebbish.

Now, Nebbish and I have a long history, of which he is entirely unaware. Almost 15 years ago, my friend Eve was recovering from a failed romance with a coworker. On the rebound, her self-esteem shot, she fell into a long-distance correspondence with an older guy, a grad student she'd met at Hillel while attending college on the East Coast. They spoke on the phone for hours, wrote each other 20-page missives detailing their devotion. Within a month they were making plans for him to move cross-country. Like most 19-year-olds, she was impervious to suggestions that she slow down a little, maybe spend some day-to-day time with the dude. She flew to Boston, helped him pack up his apartment, and several weeks later showed up in Berkeley with a paunchy, balding, middle-aged man who looked not unlike George Costanza. This was how I first met Nebbish.

We took an almost instant dislike to one another. After a brief conversation, he pronounced me a "bleached blonde bimbo" (my response to that was "hey - my hair's not bleached!") and I, for my part, had no clue what my bright, smart, talented friend was doing with this dull nerd who always managed to bring conversations to a thudding stop with his awkward, unfunny jokes. Eve came to the same conclusion shortly thereafter - in fact, she later confided to me that the knew it wasn't going to work the moment she arrived at the airport and saw him standing there, a big cheesy grin on his face and a bright red carnation pinned to his lapel.

After they broke up, I never saw or even thought about him again . . . that is until he showed up with his kids at Tot Shabbat services a year ago. He must have gotten married and moved to the suburbs in the interim. Between his thick Boston accent and his distinctive name, I figured out it was him right away, though I somehow managed to keep my composure and not reveal that I was his nemesis from years ago. In fact, to this day he has no idea that we have ever met before.

Because we run into each other so often at shul, he now sees me as an old pal. This means that, without fail, each time I see him I get stuck in some tedious conversation about the merits of various automotive engines or computer operating systems, or I have to listen and nod politely while he advises me on how to further my career by networking with this or that person or joining some sort of professional organization or other. Never mind that I have worked steadily and successfully in my industry for the past seven years while he has been unemployed the past two. So I wasn't too thrilled to see him show up that morning when I was already gritting my teeth through Windbag's endless blatherings.

Then suddenly, I was struck with the type of brilliant inspiration that comes only when you are truly desperate.

"Hey Nebbish, over here!" I called across the room. "I want you to meet my friend Windbag. He was just telling me about his new camera."

"Not the Blahblahblah XSJDKE 740, I hope! That one has some major flaws, the shutter speed is off and - - -"

"No way! The 740 is much better than the old model, the Blahblahblah XKDSI 656, the enhanced lighting options alone are a reason to upgrade!"

And so they were off. For the next hour, I sipped apple juice and caught up with my old friend Sweet Sue while the kids made Play-Doh sculptures and the two most annoying men I know happily talked at each other until the morning drew to a close.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

Among the many frustrations that Chelle and I have with our coworkers is their dogged resistance to trying new and unfamiliar cuisines. Here we are in the Bay Area, with amazing Thai, Indian, Japanese, Ethiopian, Afghan, and Greek restaurants right under our noses, and still these people quiver with disgust when faced with anything other than pasta, steak, or broiled fish. Over the years we have tried in vain to sell them on the pleasures of hot and spicy pho on a blustery day, of plates full of fragrant, delicate dumplings at the local dim sum house, or of cheap, satisfying Filipino food at a nearby bakery - but each time they blanch at the very thought of all those foreign tendons and tripe and chicken feet and retreat to the safety of good ol' Mary's Pizza Shack across the street.

I just don't get it. It is one thing for young kids to turn up their unrefined little noses at anything more exotic than PB&J or Kraft macaroni and cheese. But as an independent, thinking, voting adult, why on earth would you choose to completely close yourself off from new tastes and experiences?

So, that is pretty much how I feel when people tell me that they don't like Bob Dylan. Believe me, I am no music snob - my personal CD collection includes Barry Manilow, John Denver, Neil Diamond, and the Carpenters, not to mention the soundtracks to Flashdance, Fame, and A Very Brady Movie. I turn up the radio whenever that one song by Avril Lavigne comes on. For god's sake, I have seen Night Ranger in concert! And I hate - absolutely hate - when people try to browbeat me into liking some musical group or another because they are supposedly so cutting edge or avante-garde or deep. Just leave me alone with my Lionel Richie ballads, would you?

Still, it really galls me to hear people dismiss Dylan based on nothing but his few odd, shambling, marble-mouthed public appearances or the overplayed "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" (the "everybody must get stoned" song). I realize that his music is an acquired taste. He doesn't exactly have the sort of voice that makes you think "Boy, this guy was just destined to be a professional singer." No doubt he would have been kicked off American Idol in one of the "what is this deluded person thinking" early rounds. In fact, he was routinely laughed at and booed right off the stage in numerous clubs and coffeehouses until he eventually built up a groundswell of grassroots fans who responded to his astonishing ability to evoke the most complex, intimate emotions - heartbreak, resignation, passion, wistfulness, tenderness, regret - sometimes all in the same song.

The first time I really listened to Dylan I was 14 or 15, catching a ride to Foster's Freeze with a bunch of hippies from school. "Shelter From the Storm" was playing on the tape deck. Though my musical tastes at the time ran to New Edition and Duran Duran, I was struck by the lovely, poetic imagery of the lyrics:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
"Come in," she said,"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
"Come in," she said,"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

Soon I was rocking out in my bedroom to a scratchy Greatest Hits album I found at a secondhand store. "Was that 'The Times They Are A'Changin?' you were playing?" my dad would ask incredulously. "Don't you know that all the people who listened to that song in the '60s are now investment bankers for Shearson Lehman?"

Maybe he was right. But is there any doubt that "Masters of War" is as true now as it was in 1963?

Like Judas of old, you lie and deceive
A world war can be won, you want me to believe
But I see through your eyes and I see through your brain
Like I see through the water that runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers for the others to fire
Then you set back and watch when the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion as young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud.

I once had a psychology professor who was also a huge fan. She carried around a heavily dog-eared biography of Dylan, from which she would often quote to illustrate some point about human nature. Since I was becoming more and more enchanted with his music, I bought the same book and tried to get through it. I never got past the first chapter. I found that I didn't much care about Dylan, the person. I have no interest in hearing about his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, or his musical influences, or his controversial decision to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. I never followed his dizzying switches from Judaism to born-again-Christianity and back again, though I have purposely avoided listening to most anything from his Jesus-centric Slow Train Coming era. And unlike most of his die-hard fans, I was not waiting anxiously for his autobiography to be released, though I expect I will get around to reading it eventually.

I don't even understand most of his lyrics. I have no clue what the hell "The kings of Tyrus with their convict list/Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss" means, but "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is an epic elegy of love and longing nonetheless. And when it comes to the ultimate fuck-you song, you can forget about "Go Your Own Way," "Hit The Road, Jack," or the screeching, overly literal "You Oughtta Know." None of these can touch the scathing brilliance that is "Idiot Wind."

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin' 'bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin' me see stars.
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb,
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Hey, sometimes you have a craving for a nice, tasty, familiar Big Mac - and that's okay. But if you ever decide to expand your horizons to include, say, contemporary Vietnamese fusion with a French twist, you can't go wrong with Three Seasons. And if you want to enjoy the aural equivalent of a richly layered feast, might I suggest Blonde on Blonde?

Monday, November 15, 2004

I Confess

I have very little patience for snobbery in any form, having been on the receiving end of it too many times. Ex-boyfriends who gnashed their teeth over my preference for cheesy, swelling, Styx anthems over the more cerebral Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa. The friend in an elite MFA program who turned up her nose at my bookshelves full of modern literature, noting tersely the lack of obscure Chekhov dramas or Elizabethian poetry or whatever it was she was entranced with at the time. The couple across the table at a JCC dinner who very obviously lost interest in speaking with me once it was determined that I graduated from a lowly state university and was neither a doctor, lawyer, nor pampered stay-at-home mom with a nanny in tow. If people can't look beyond their prejudices and see that I have kick-ass taste in music and books and can easily match wits with any Stanford graduate despite my bargain-basement education, well, screw 'em.

That said, I too can be a terrible snob, mostly about ridiculous issues with no logic behind them whatsoever. For example, last night Chef and I were giggling over the latest For Better or For Worse strip which depicted Mike and Deanna trying to sleep in a crowded bed with both kids sprawled over them - a common scene in the Aimless household. "Hey, look at this," said Chef. "We MUST cut that strip out and put it on our refrigerator immediately!" And we laughed and laughed, because of our shared - and baseless - belief that people who cut out comic strips and put them on the refrigerator are fuzzy slipper-wearing, fluffy kitty poster-having loons. Same with most people who collect things. I mean, vintage records or books, okay. Antique jewelry or depression glass, maybe - if you don't get too carried away. Beanie Babies, Hummel figurines, Harmony Kingdom boxes, Longaberger baskets, Disney memorabilia, no. People who need an extra wing on their house to accomodate rooms full of Campbell's soup or Coca-Cola crap, just no.

I do try as best I can to keep these feelings hidden. I hope my good friends, a brilliant and refined couple with a beautifully decorated home, will never know that my esteem for them forever dropped a few notches after I learned that they regularly water down their Starbucks dark roast coffee with that awful flavored creamer that makes your drink taste like mocha almond or butter pecan. Ugh! I could see maybe using those if you were stuck drinking some cheap swill from a truck stop and needed to mask the taste, but tossing that gunk in your good quality, $3 cup of gourmet coffee? That's like going to Ruth's Chris, ordering the prime filet, and then dumping ketchup all over it.

Likewise, my virtual friends from various forums and message boards do not really need to know that I take their posting less and less seriously with each blinking, animated emoticon they employ - and they get extra points taken off for every use of "LOL" or "OMG!!!!!"

I'm actually much better than I used to be. For the longest time, I prided myself on being one of the select few who were above the frenzy known as American Idol. I smiled indulgently when my co-workers tried to talk to me about the contestants, shrugging apologetically and explaining "I just don't really watch that show." In truth, the only reason I had never seen it was that it came on right around the time that I usually give the kids a bath and get them ready for bed. But I liked to pretend that it was because I was busy with bigger, more important pursuits (like, say, reading all about the show in Entertainment Weekly).

Then one day my friend called me to say that I HAD to turn the TV on to see these kids butchering Elton John tunes. So I watched that episode, and naturally I had to tune in the next night to see who got voted off. That's all it took - for the rest of the season I was hooked. I arranged my schedule around Tuesday and Wednesday nights and logged onto the internet immediately after each show to review the commentary from fans. I angrily demanded a recount when Diana got more votes than Fantasia, and I cried racism when LaToya got voted off rather than the clearly inferior Jasmine.

I discovered that it was actually a lot of fun to know what everyone in the country was buzzing about, and to finally be able to participate in the many conversations in which the topic arose. And as an added bonus, one of my all-time favorite performers appeared on the show! Yes, I am speaking of Barry Manilow.

So much for being a snob.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Happy Birthday Bug!

May your life always be filled with this much joy. Posted by Hello

Monday, November 08, 2004

Sunday School Stories

When I arrived to pick up Bug from Sunday School a few weeks ago, the students were sitting in a circle discussing the harvest festival of Sukkot. The teacher went around the group, asking all the kids to name their favorite fruit or vegetable. Here in the land of Whole Foods Organic Market, the pre-schoolers all named things like Fuji apples, Japanese pears, and heirloom tomatoes. I wasn't even sure if Bug would be able to respond, as his verbal skills are just emerging, so I was prepared to prompt him to say "banana" or "melon," two items that regularly appear in his lunch box. But he spoke up clear as day, announcing to those assembled that his favorite snack was "fruit roll-ups and coffee." I immediately clapped my hand over his mouth as I sheepishly explained to the others that, no, I don't actually serve him coffee - though the fact that I was tightly clutching a steaming commuter mug at that moment probably didn't help my case. (I didn't mention the fruit roll-ups, since I am guilty as charged). Bug found this hilarious, and continued to shout "fruit roll-ups and coffee!", slapping his hand to his mouth and convulsing with laughter. This is probably why they haven't tapped me to be in charge of class refreshments.

Yesterday Bug's grandpa drove him home from Sunday School, as I was busy hosting the mother/daughter book club. When they arrived at my house, my dad told this story: The class is now learning about tzedakah, the Jewish committment to helping others. The pupils have all made brightly decorated boxes to which they add a few pennies each week. During circle time, the teacher asked them to consider some of the different things they could do with the money they are collecting. One of her ideas was to donate it to families who are homeless.

"Did you know that some boys and girls don't have houses to live in or beds of their own to sleep in?" she asked. At this, one of the little boys burst into tears.

Awwwwww, said all the women in my book group. How sweet and how sensitive this child was, so personally moved by the plight of homeless children.

But no, said my dad.

Through his tears, the boy explained: "I don't want to give away my pennies!"

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Preschool Saga Continues

Ever since the exasperating debacle of the JCC 16 - 24 month class that fell apart days before Bee was slated to begin, I have been scrambling around trying to find a preschool for her. My poor beleaguered mom could use the time off, and Bee is at the point where she will really benefit from spending time in a stimulating classroom environment with other kids. The problem is, Bee is at that awkward age, at least where nursery school enrollment is concerned. Most places will only accept kids starting at age 3, and the few that have programs for younger toddlers require that they turn two by September, meaning she would not be able to start until next year. We can't wait that long!

Given all these roadblocks, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that Bee will be enrolled in the JCC's two-year-old class in January, despite the multitude of frustrations I have enumerated on this site regarding the Center's disorganization and lack of follow-up. While I hate to give them any more of my money, I am comforted by the fact that I know and like the teacher, and that many of my friends send their kids there so Bee will see plenty of familiar faces. Plus - and this is no small matter - I have no other options.

Or at least I thought I didn't. On a whim, I decided to call Springfield Montessori, located right across the street from my office, and arranged for a tour. As soon as I walked in, I thought "Now this is what I am looking for!" They have a huge, well-appointed playground with slides, climbing structures, sandboxes, play houses, and all kinds of toys: shovels and rakes, water tables, mixing bowls and sifters, tricycles, cars and trucks. The inside of the school was a regular child's wonderland of textures and colors and touchable surfaces. "We rarely have to use the word 'no' here," the director explained as Bee ran around picking up seashells and Play-Doh and paintbrushes and books and fabrics, "because we make sure that everything they can reach is safe to play with." She showed me the plans for the new site they are building, which is even closer to my office - in the same business park, actually. The new school will be surrounded by fruit trees and great, canopied live oaks, and there are plans for a children's garden, picnic areas, and a spacious arts and crafts studio.

I was very impressed with the way the classrooms were run. Maybe I just visited the JCC at a bad time, but it seemed to be a fairly chaotic, clamorous environment, with kids constantly whizzing by from one activity to another. I rationalized it by figuring that two and three year olds probably don't respond well to a strict schedule anyway, and that the best you can do is to give them a safe place to play and let them go at it. Yet, while the staff at Springfield repeatedly reassured me that the kids are not forced into any sort of rigid structure, I was amazed at how well, and how happily, the students naturally followed along with the planned activities. During circle time, Bee joined right in as the others sang, danced and clapped. Next, it was time for the kids to perform their assigned "jobs." One little boy picked the proper day of the week out of a stack of cards and stuck it on the bulletin board, and another sifted through a series of weather-related pictures and selected the ones that matched what he saw outside the big picture window: sunshine with a few fluffy clouds.

The students were a diverse group, representing a wide spectrum of ethnicities. One of my concerns about sending Bee to JCC, and later to the Jewish Day School, is how overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class her peers will be. At the Montessori school, they celebrate many different holidays - Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year - and use them as opportunities to learn about other cultures. In the older classes, they even begin teaching French and Spanish through songs, stories and pictures. By the time I left, I was convinced that I found the perfect place for Bee - and the director agreed that Bee was completely comfortable in her surroundings and absolutely ready for preschool.

All that said, I don't think we will be able to send her there. The soonest they can enroll her would be this summer, or possibly even September. I put her on the waiting list for January, but if nothing opens up then I will have to send her to the JCC. Which is fine - I mean, it's not a bad place at all, it is just that the Montessori school is a hundred times more conveniently located and has a far more cohesive program, staff, and philosophy. I'd consider signing her up in September, but that is when our synagogue is supposed to launch its own preschool program. Given that my best friend J. is in charge of the planning committee, and that I have pledged my unwavering support of the project from the start, it wouldn't be a very good idea for me to enroll Bee somewhere else. And in fact, I am really excited about the new school and think it will be an awesome program - with J. in charge, it won't be anything less. I just wish Bee could go the Montessori too, at least for a little while.