1,000 Apologies

At the moment, I feel very lucky. That’s all fine and dandy, except that feeling lucky is waaaay beyond my comfort zone. This makes me feel uneasy, which makes me feel unworthy, which makes me feel guilty, which makes me feel compelled to apologize for the less-than-admirable things I’ve done in my life. 

Some of the things for which I am very sorry:

1978:  In one of many futile attempts to be cool, I participated in the emotional torture of a nice girl named Julie by pretending to have a severe allergic reaction to her.
1981: Obsessed with the generous ink flow only a Mr. Sketch could provide, I lied to Lew and told him that the uber-cool coloring book I was about to receive with my McDonald’s Happy Meal would only “work” with magic markers. I did this knowing full well that magic markers had been contraband in our home ever since I drew a mural on the chartreuse velour couch.
1983: Clad in Snoopy-adorned flannel pajamas, I summoned Jamie as if I was going to provide a sisterly hug, then poked her in the eye. Please note, she sustained no permanent injury. Please also note that while I AM sorry, I do still find it a little funny.
1984: I let Grandma Ethel eat the saddest hamburger I’ve ever seen – a Whopper sans ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions – while I enjoyed her fully condiment-ed meal after the Burger King drive-thru attendant in Plainfield screwed up our order.
1986: In another futile attempt to be cool, I joined one of the popular girls in the gym class mockery of another girl’s last name, which happened to be a homonym for a woman of ill repute. I, of all people, had no business doing any mocking whatsoever in gym class.

Here in modern times, there are two people I’ve used disproportionately for comedic material in this blog. 

To one of those people, the ex-husband formerly referred to as “Sloth,” I sincerely apologize. I know you’ve only said nice things about me, and I haven’t been as big of a person. Per your suggestion, and in honor of your beloved Red Hot Chili Peppers, l shall hereby call you Flea, even though I personally don’t think of that as a promotion.

The other person is Jan. As I tell her often, she does have a few indisputably funny traits that I can’t possibly be expected to ignore. But she happens to be a very nice lady with many wonderful traits as well.  As such, I shall now officially share a few cute Jan tidbits.

  • Jan is an excellent chef. In all the cookbooks she’s given me, there are little notes indicating which dishes are “delicious,” “bland,” “dry,” things that Lew “lapped up,” in need of more garlic, harder than they sounded,  best served with a nice green salad, and so on. She always likes to hear about my culinary inventions and will almost always respond with, “What could be bad?”
  • If Jan makes you a meal, it will invariably include representatives of all vital food groups:  deliciously seasoned protein source, grain (often rice pilaf) and vegetable (most likely green beans). A dessert you once mentioned liking, in 1987, will be provided as well.
  • Keep in mind that if you ask her for the recipe, you will get it, in real time, from tomato selection to supermarket check-out to 10-minute simmering period to table.
  • If you receive a present from Jan, you can be sure she has spent hours investigating the options, thinking about what you might like and imagining you wearing or using it.
  • She is one of the smartest people I know. I consider her grammar skills on par with if not superior to those of Strunk & White.
  • If I have a doctor’s appointment, or any event I’m nervous about, she will always call within minutes of its completion to ask how I “made out.”
  • When she hears a story that touches her, or she feels sorry for someone, she has a particular expression — a morph of “Aw” and “Ah” — that I find quite kindly.
  • Jan is not easy to please. It’s a rare nail salon, Italian eatery or produce vendor that makes the cut. This can be frustrating at times, but gives added meaning to her compliments.  And the ultimate compliment a fellow human can hope to garner from Jan is the “fine” classification.  Keith is a “fine boy.”  Loren, Kiki, Karen and the Thirteen Girls are “fine friends.”  Nicole is a “fine, old friend” and Nicole’s mom, who wrote me a very nice note when I got engaged, is a “fine woman.”
  • The summer before I left for college, she waited until almost 3 pm — when I got home from my job as a camp counselor — to have lunch with me, every day. Even 20 years later I still miss our chats at various Union County hot spots like Charlie Brown’s, Winberrie’s and a long closed gourmet salad place next to the train station in Westfield, whose name escapes me.  
  • Speaking of my college departure, she was not the type of mom who choked up or got the least bit sentimental when she thought of her first-born leaving for college 300 miles away. In fact, the way I remember it, she couldn’t wait to get rid of me. She claims she was just excited about the wonderful opportunities that awaited me. (None did, FYI.) I didn’t buy it.  I wanted tears. She found it incredibly irritating that I continued to question her lack of emotion about my impending departure, but I couldn’t help it. Then, just before she and Lew left me in my 2×4 freshman dorm room, she gave me a mug decorated with pleasant gold script that read, “I Miss You,” “Hugs & Kisses,” and “XOXO.” It was wrapped in purple cellophane and filled with Hershey kisses.  Looking at them after she left made me so happy I couldn’t even eat them. And you know how much that says.
  • She is very astute at detecting anxiety and always worries when someone she cares about is “not themselves.”
  • When people are mean or obnoxious to me, she always takes my side and makes me feel better. Unless I happen to be telling her about it after 10 pm, in which case, she can only respond with something that sounds like “feh.”
  • She exchanged emails with Ollie (snausagefan@yahoo.com) when we lived in Philly and once wrote, “Dear Ollie – I laughed and laughed at your newsy email.”
  • She is the best owner I can think of to Claire, the fuzzy Maine Coon/Norwegian Forest cat who used to live with Kiki and me on East 95th Street. Claire is fed jars of baby food, premium yogurt and slices of fresh turkey. When I was Claire’s age, I made my own lunch on mismatched pieces of bread.
  • I am incredibly proud of what she’s been doing in her post-retirement years. She has overcome her fear of MetroCards, mastered the public bus system here in Manhattan and spends her time exploring the galleries in Chelsea and leading museum tours on the Lower East Side.  She’s much more New York than I am!

One of my favorite college professors, Joyce Antler, has written extensively about the topic of mothers and daughters – particularly those of the Jewish persuasion. Last winter, Jan and I were scheduled to hear Professor Antler speak and attempt to answer the question of “Why We Make Fun of Our Mothers.” Jan chickened out at the last minute because of the inclement weather (giving me another reason to make fun of her), but I went anyway with Kiki and Lisa.  The audience was full of daughters who couldn’t wait to share their mockable mother stories. Even Professor Antler herself – a woman I had always thought of as a model mother – reported that she was the main topic of her daughter’s stand-up comedy routine. 

I’m still not sure why we make fun of our mothers. But I am sure – even if Jan isn’t – that a mother can be very much made fun of and very much loved at the same time.

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1,000 Apologies

On Your Mark …

I can’t get into the details because doing so would cost several people their jobs and their good names. But suffice it to say that a recent and riotously funny incident at my place of employment reminded me of a story of yore. I know, I know, my last post also relayed a tale from the childhood crypt, but people, just suck it up.

My first-grade teacher – let’s call her Ms. B – was really, really mean. To me, at least. According to Jan, Ms. B had been a “bitch on wheels” to begin with, but happened to be going through a bitter divorce at the time, which sure as hell didn’t help her mood. Furthermore, according to Jan, I was a nervous kid who talked a lot (SHOCKER!) and Ms. B was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with someone like me. (Many people are.) 

Being nervous made me chatty, but it also made me a frequent bathroom visitor. (Not much has changed.) So at any given time, thoughts of the little hall pass made of two paper plates that were stapled together and Magic Markered yellow were never far from my mind.

The medium is the wrong message

Each morning, Ms. B would write a few of our vocabulary words on the chalkboard, with one or two key letters missing. We’d receive an 8×10 piece of manila paper, which we’d fold into six small rectangular sections.  We were supposed to figure out how to complete the chalkboard words and then draw a picture of their meanings in each of those sections.

Our reader at the time featured a very Wonder Bread brother and sister by the names of Janet and Mark. (I had a lot of trouble finding them on Google, but here’s something from 1970.) As you might imagine, many more of our vocabulary words came from the stories we read than from Ms. B’s divorce proceedings.

There I was, dressed in my rust Jet Set corduroys and a striped shirt that I’m pretty sure was meant for boys, with Buster Brown shoes, eagerly beginning another day of hard work at school. I read down the list of words and found none I couldn’t complete with grace and aplomb: D_G.  TR_E.  BOO_.  I was purdy smart, I had to admit.

But this one struck me as odd: MA_ _. 

I looked around to see if any of the Jennifers or the pair of (naturally conceived) twins noticed what was going on.  There was no indication that they did.

They must just not know how to spell it.

Which was odd itself, because the twins could spell “from,” and that was HARD.

Could that REALLY be the answer? I felt a little weird about it, but what could I do?

I went for it. I wrote, in my best handwriting, M-A-K-E. And I drew a very realistic stick boy on a stick toilet.

I had heard that everybody pooped, even mean people, but I didn’t really believe it. Obviously Ms. B – herself a questionable pooper – was trying to help us come to terms with this topic.

When Ms. B collected the manila sheets and was out of hearing range, I turned to Jennifer 3 and commented on the answer I’d just filled in.

“Wasn’t that strange how ‘make’ was one of our words today?”

Jennifer 3 stared at me as if to say, “WTF are you talking about buck-toothed T?”

But she was nice, and instead of saying that, she pointed out that the correct answer, she suspected, was actually “Mark,” as in, the little red-headed boy from our book.

Jennifers 1 and 4 nodded in agreement.

On Your Mark …

Mmm…Pie

Recently, Keith’s mother relayed this tale to me.  Some time ago, she planted a paradise-like array of wild flowers in the backyard.  This was something she had always wanted to do, but unfortunately, cultivating wild flowers in suburban New Jersey proved very challenging.  Eventually, after many moons, her hard work paid off and the wild flowers bloomed in all their glory. Until, that is, she and Keith’s father returned from a weekend away to find that Keith’s twin brother, Craig, had mowed and manicured both yards, inadvertently destroying her floral pride and joy.

Keith’s mother was devastated, but knew that Craig had just been trying to do something nice for them by surprising them with a freshly mowed lawn. She didn’t want to make him feel bad, so she thanked him for mowing the lawn and endured the loss of her wild flowers privately, in the comfort of her own room, never saying a word.  (Presumably, she did at some subsequent point.  If not … um … oops.)

You know the parallel universe technique oft used on TV (see the unbearably bad Slomin’s Shield commercials currently airing), in which a narrator or protagonist gets to witness the same situation with different outcomes? I pictured the accidental wild flower extinction in my own childhood home, a mere four miles away.  Lemme tell ya.  It would NOT have gone down the same way.

Travel back with me, if you will, to an average weekday in central New Jersey, circa 1976.  Jamie (age 2) and I (age 4) were entertaining ourselves in the living room.  I was overcome by a brilliant idea: we’d make a pie.  It would be great! Crustless. Beautiful. Delicious. And the best part?! We could make it RIGHT THERE IN THE SHAG CARPET!

Jan would be soooooooooo proud.

When I revealed the plan to Jamie, she was thrilled to be serving as my sous-chef.

I believe her response went something like this [insert gremlin voice]: “Yeh. Heh heh. Yeh.”

The main and only ingredients in the pie were brown sugar and salt. This is because the sensation of opening and closing the little silver spouts on their respective containers filled me with satisfaction. Should you wish to make your own crustless brown sugar and salt pie, the recipe is as follows.

You Will Need:
1 box brown sugar, with silver spout
1 box salt, with silver spout
1 eager beaver diaper-clad toddler
1 shag carpet

Preparation:
Add brown sugar and salt to taste
Hand boxes to eager beaver diaper-clad toddler; instruct her to put them away
Wait as eager beaver diaper-clad toddler waddles to kitchen, then waddles back
Immediately instruct eager beaver diaper-clad toddler to turn around and fetch brown sugar and salt again
Wait as eager beaver diaper-clad toddler waddles to kitchen and back
Add brown sugar and salt to taste
Repeat until bored

When we were done, we summoned Jan. I could not wait to see the look of pride on her face. She’d see how much I admired and wanted to be just like her — I too was a domestic goddess. I clearly had a passion for creative baking. Maybe Jan would give me my own kiddie apron.  OMFG! Maybe it would have Holly Hobbie on it! Or maybe she’d hug me and tell me what a fantastic job I’d done! Maybe she’d even pour us glasses of milk like Mrs. Brady would and we could enjoy the crustless pie together!

Or, maybe she’d take one look at it and burst into tears.

And then scream for about half an hour.

And then talk to herself in a rage for another 10 while she vacuumed the mess formerly known as pie.

And then refuse to talk to me for a day.

Sigh.

I still remember eating our breaded chicken cutlets in sad silence that night.

Mmm…Pie

Shell-Shocked

After

My parents — b.k.a. Jan and Lew — are not the most adventurous eaters. It’s not that their palates aren’t sophisticated. Jan is an excellent, flavorful chef and inspired my own love of cooking. They enjoy fine dining, would never be caught dead at some of the trailer trash venues I love, and in fact eat many items that I personally can’t tolerate. It’s just that they do have a culinary comfort zone, occupied largely by Italian food. 

So I was surprised last Friday when I made plans to partake of the evening meal with them and Jan suggested we patronize Totoya, the sushi restaurant up the block from their abode. I couldn’t imagine what Jan would eat at such an establishment, since I’m well aware of her strict policy against the ingestion of raw fish, but she assured me that Totoya’s chicken teriyaki and assorted dumplings were quite tasty. Lew, I am proud to report, has recently developed an appreciation for things like toro and yellowtail thanks to a sushi-eating colleague.

Fabulous! I really wasn’t in the mood for chicken piccata or garlic breath that lasted three days.

After a solid 10 minutes of debate about how many appetizers to order, a decision was reached. Jan and Lew selected some shumai and gyoza, and I requested edamame (pictured above). Seeing as how they were being so generous with their dumplings, I offered them some of my delicious green soybeans.

Jan brutally rejected me. Lew said that he didn’t really like edamame, citing its chewy texture and lack of taste, but that he might try some anyway.

That’s odd, I thought. I like edamame because it’s NOT chewy. Oh well. I guess one man’s chewy is another man’s … not chewy.

A few minutes went by. I was pleased to see Jan enjoying her shrimp shumai and Lew reaching for an edamame. How cute were they?!

A few more minutes went by and I noticed that Lew was still chewing the original edamame.

Wait a minute. Why was it taking him so long to chew that edamame? Why wasn’t he spitting out the shell? Where’s the pod? SHOW ME THE POD!

It dawned on me that whomever tutored Lew about sushi had failed to teach him an important lesson.  

Lew! Oh no! Lew! You know you have to spit the shell out, right?”

In a nanosecond, and a most sit-com like manner, Lew reached for a napkin. I surmised from this gesture that he had not, in fact, known.

“What happens if you eat the shell?” asked Lew in a mildly concerned tone.

At last, I could return the favor for the man who spends 65 percent of his day reassuring me that I won’t barf and telling me that I probably don’t have a 24-hour case of typhoid.

“Nothing happens Lew! Don’t worry! It just doesn’t taste good.”

I also felt it was important to note that perhaps he would actually like edamame if he’d eaten it properly. Edamame in the shell = chewy and tasteless. Edamame outside of the shell = dee-LICIOUS!  

Shell-Shocked

Childhood Trauma: The Infectious House

The following tale is really more of an oddity than a trauma, but for consistency’s sake, let’s ignore that fact. When we first moved to New Jersey from the city — circa 1975 — my dad spent many a weekend making rounds at the hospital. This meant that my sister and I spent many a weekend in the company of my mother (you remember Jan) and grandmother (aka “Grandma”).

There were trips to the Woodbridge, Short Hills or Menlo Park Malls, and there were afternoons spent on the playgrounds of Middlesex and Union counties. But by far one of Jan and Grandma’s favorite activities was something I have recently dubbed “the infectious house drive-by.”

We’d climb into the blue Volvo and cruise through upscale neighborhoods of towns we didn’t live in. Jan would drive at about 5 mph down tree-lined blocks, admiring the massive center-hall colonials and sprawling modern ranches that belonged to strangers.

Jan: Would you look at that one? That is JUST breath-taking.

Grandma: [SOMETHING YIDDISH] Is that a BREAKFAST NOOK? [SOMETHING YIDDISH]

Jan: Marla says the guy who lives here is shtupping his nurse. Rich plastic surgeon. The wife’s a real piece of work.

Grandma: A lotta people gotta lotta money.

Me: I like candy.

I understand the desire to view beautiful homes. To this day, I enjoy touring the posh neighborhoods of whatever city I’m visiting. What I did NOT understand, however, was what my mother said every time we left one of these tony neighborhoods: These houses make me SICK. Just SICK. Feh.

It was very confusing, most notably because I had no idea what the word “feh” meant. But moreover, it defied my limited knowledge of epidemiology. I knew that the kids in my nursery school class could contaminate me, but not that HOUSES could. Did Jan mean that if a house had chicken pox, we could all catch it from the car? WTF — was she trying to kill us? And how come I didn’t feel sick, if she did? Oh my god! Could houses DIE?! Wait, if these houses made her sick, why did she voluntarily subject herself to them?

It was too much for a 3-year-old to process. Actually, I’m pretty sure it drove me to invent Evan, the invisible friend who passed away suddenly when my dad threw him out of the car on the Parkway one day.

Childhood Trauma: The Infectious House

Childhood Traumas: The Mozzarella Incident

Note: I have decided to trash the “Childhood Traumas” page and move its contents here. So, you can look forward to intermittent posts about some of the memorable things that befell me as a youngster.  Below, the first “Childhood Trauma.”

Picture, if you will, an innocent three-year-old girl with bouncy brunette pigtails, sporting a snazzy floral bikini and even snazzier white leather Buster Brown sandals with crepe soles. It is 1975 in New Jersey, and while my parents (Jan and Lew) are sunning themselves by the swim club pool, I am sitting down to a tasty lunch with my fellow day campers.

The counselors — a bunch of stoners in cut-off Levi’s shorts and halter tops — pull our small brown paper bags out of a giant plastic garbage bag and toss them to the appropriate camper. 

Stacey Cohen is already digging in to her PB & J on Wonder Bread, while Kenny Stein pulls out his turkey sandwich, which features a perfect lettuce ruffle.

I can barely contain my excitement! What did my future hold — what had Jan packed for me this morning?! MMMMM … maybe some egg salad? OOOH. Maybe some of that plastic yellow cheese?

I giggle, thinking of the thrilling little sandwich bags that await me — one containing my delicious main course, one containing a fistful of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish or maybe some Berry-Lu cookies …

My brown bag comes flying at me, hitting my forehead.

After nursing my injury for a few minutes, I reach inside the bag and pull out a rather heavy item wrapped in tin foil.

It’s so heavy! What could it be?!

Eagerly, I tear open the foil. It’s … it’s … it’s … A BIG CHUNK OF SOMETHING WHITE.

I am quite confused, as anyone expected to ingest a big chunk of something white would be.  My confusion turns to embarrassment, and I look around to see if anyone notices what’s sitting in front of me.

Sadly, someone does:  Cindi, one of the stoner counselors. 

“What the hell is that?,” she asks as I try not to cry.

I have no answer for her.

She calls the other counselors over and they take turns speculating about the nature of the big white chunk as all 20 of the other nursery school-age “Lenape Lizards” listen.

“Is it cream cheese?”

“It looks more like butter.”

“It actually looks like SOAP.”

SOAP?! Why would Jan give me soap?! Was she mad at me?!

I can’t help but be moved to tears by my own plight.

Then Cindi asks, “What kind of mother gives her kid SOAP for lunch?”

Wait, are they insulting my mom?! That’s so mean! My mom is nice! My mom must have made a mistake! Take that back, evil stoner counselor!!!!

I am afraid to taste the mystery chunk, so Cindi has to page my parents by the pool.  I only hear part of the conversation, but it seems Jan mistakenly grabbed the wrong tin-foiled item that morning. My real lunch was still at home, and what I had with me was mozzarella cheese.

Cindi and the other stoners, as well as the Lenape Lizards, all find this rioutously funny. 

Chuckle away, I think. YOU had leftover macaroni and cheese.

I can’t recall what I ended up eating for lunch that day, but I do know that the whole thing scarred me for many, many years.  I referred to the trauma constantly, eventually dubbing it “The Mozzarella Incident.”

At first, Jan was apologetic and expressed sincere remorse for her error.  But as time went on and she realized I wasn’t going to get over it, she changed her story.

“Look, for the LAST TIME, I thought you LIKED mozzarella! I was trying to do something NICE,” she repeated in self-defense, adding an unintelligble Yiddish phrase that I assume meant “You’re driving me crazy, shut the fuck up.”

To this day, I can only buy string mozzarella cheese, as the sight of the chunks bring tears to my eyes.

Childhood Traumas: The Mozzarella Incident