Since the written word continues to fail me (and because the wise and talented Mama Kat told me to), I have selected a series of (unremarkable) Instagram photos that represent highlights of the past week. What is remarkable is the fact that it took me five pathetic years to figure out how to add multiple images in a given post.
In the 70s, “they” used to say that kids who were completely forbidden from eating junk food ended up becoming the equivalent of cookie crack heads when left to their own devices later on. I was not forbidden from eating junk food but ended up becoming the equivalent of a cookie crack head anyway. And in today’s day and age I’m sure “they” no longer say that. My point is, growing up Jewish in my town meant growing up with Christmas tree envy. Sure, we had menorahs and mezzuzahs and clear, golden plastic dreidels filled with gelt. But they didn’t cut the deli mustard.
Christmas trees just never struck me as religion-specific. Their German appellation — tannenbaum — is, after all, a common Jewish last name, is it not? To me, they simply symbolized the good side of winter, an impending 10 days off from school, the festive mood of the holidays, and most important, being like everyone else. The smell, the tinsel, the lights, the colorful balls, the popcorn strings, the personal significance of each little ornament … they were the most beautiful home accessory I could imagine. I fantasized for years about what kind of tree I would get in the unlikely event Jews ever started getting Christmas trees. And it was always the tackiest, most over the top tree — white plastic with shiny silver garlands, blue spruce, sparkly orbs, blinking bulbs, battery-operated ornaments out of which came dancing Snoopy … in short, I was a Christmas tree crack head.
So it was kind of a dream come true when I married someone of Italian descent and at long last had justification for securing an actual Christmas tree. (Of course, plagued by Jewish guilt, I remain compelled to refer to them as “Chrismukkah bushes.”) And as it turned out, the tree selection tradition in Keith’s family was just as I always imagined such an activity would be. On the crisp Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, everyone caravans to an idyllic-sounding tree farm in western New Jersey. We partake in mediocre free coffee and cider, plus homemade donuts and cookies, and we walk the land. Afterwards, we return to my MIL and FIL’s house to make turkey sandwiches on white bread. This year, it happened to be 65 degrees, my nephew peed in his pants and my niece was painfully constipated, but that just added to the charm.
There was so much for a Jewish girl to learn! I’d never realized that not all trees were created equal — I’d thought, ignorantly, that the choice was merely real or fake. Blue spruce had a lovely color but painfully prickly needles, for instance, while Balsam fir gave off that iconic piney smell. And who knew?! You actually had to water the trees! Tinsel was a nightmare, as it shed out of control and left its DNA in random places until Memorial Day. Getting a tree topper to stay on? Not so easy. Those balls I had so admired as a girl? They broke if you breathed on them. (Perhaps this is not the case if you buy them somewhere other than Target.) Also new to me? The idea of bases and skirts, available in different sizes to accommodate whatever type of tree you had.
Selecting ornaments, however, was pure joy and came easy to me. I found the strength to resist my own tacky taste (sort of). I pinpointed a plethora of interfaithy options, including my personal favorite, a ceramic disc featuring Santa Claus, a Hassidic rabbi and the text “Oy to the World.” Kiki brought us a Jonathan Adler piece sign. Katy imported a Latvian doggie. We have crystal doves, sparkle snowflakes, silver pine cones and, I am proud to say, a battery-operated dog house out of which comes dancing Snoopy.
But with the joy of the Chrismukkah bush comes the darker, more sinister side as well: the de-ornamentation and the removal of the dying icon. Keith was more than willing to assist in this process, but I felt, as a rite of marital passage, that I had to go through it alone. Last eve, while Keith attended a spin class, I forlornly packed up the aforementioned ornaments and called “The Guy” downstairs in our lobby who had said he would come fetch the tree carcass. When he arrived, he asked me if I wanted to keep the base.
Um … er … are bases disposable?! Do most people keep them?
“The Guy” looked at me like I was insane, which prompted me to explain that I was Jewish and thus dense, which prompted him to look at me like I was insane. It seemed to me that the base might be reusable, so I told him I wanted to keep it. Unfortunately, that meant someone had to actually separate it from the tree. Fortunately, it was pretty obvious that someone wasn’t going to be 5′, 100-lb me.
The Guy spent several minutes trying to dislodge the tree trunk, to no avail. Then I suggested he drag the tree in the base out to the cart and remove the base while the tree was upside down. The Guy agreed this was wise. What he’d neglected to ask – and what I’d neglected to think about – was that the base was still full of needly water. So, as the tree fell into the cart, the hallway got an unplanned bath. I felt terrible and did the first thing I could think of: I got my wet/dry Dust Buster and handed it to The Guy. The Guy looked at the size of the wet spot and then at the size of the vacuum and laughed. That seemed mean, but I tipped him nonetheless.
I felt like a very bad neighbor and, quite frankly, a moron. I had no choice but to wonder if maybe the genetic lack of handiness that afflicts my people is the very reason we do not have Hanukkah trees. There was only one place I could seek solace. I went to the plastic box in which I’d stored all the precious ornaments and pulled out the battery-operated dog house to see Snoopy dance one last time until next year.
The first summer after we left Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the rolling hills of central New Jersey – when I was three – Jan enrolled me in day camp. I assume she explained “day camp” to me beforehand, but I have no recollection of said discussion. What I do recall is this: one warm June morning, I was enjoying a tasty bowl of Apple Jacks on the chartreuse velour couch, watching a show about three boys and three gold-haired girls whose parents were newlyweds, when a short bus pulled up at our door.
“The bus is here, Traci!” Jan announced.
And this relates to me … HOW?
“Time to go to camp!”
Hahahahaha, good one Mommy! Camp! As if!
The bus honked and suddenly the reasons why I was wearing only a yellow ruffled bathing suit, blue Keds and white ankle socks became crystal clear.
Um … uh-oh.
There was no escape. I had no choice but to face the reality that Jan wanted to get rid of me while my infant sister – future eager beaver diaper-clad toddler – got to stay home aaaaaaaaaaaall day.
Frick on a high-waisted, bell-bottomed stick.
And so I spent the day at this place called camp. I drank the camp fruit punch. I ate the cheap, camp duplex cookies. I endured the insomnia at camp naptime. I swam/tried not to drown in the camp pool, which to this day seems about 20 miles deep and really dark. I was civil to the other smurf-sized campers. But I was sure as hell not spending the rest of my life in this shithole.
Thankfully, a few days later, I fell down the stairs in our bi-level apartment. I fell down one stair, to be exact. And I slid gently rather than fell, to be exact. But after this tragic accident, I couldn’t put any weight on my left ankle. I was a three-year-old gimp.
Sayonara, short bus.
I had X-rays. I had pediatricians and orthopedists inspect the injury. I had ice and an ankle wrap of some sort. I had lollipops. I took a few spins in a wheelchair. Nothing was broken or even remotely wrong – most likely because nothing had really happened. But nonetheless, I remained unable to walk.
As thrilled as I was to be done with camp, I quickly grew tired of all the visits to doctors. Why did I have to keep going? I’d obviously never regain the use of my leg… why couldn’t we all just accept that and move on? I could still get clogs from Fayva, right?
Finally, Jan and Lew agreed there was nothing more the mainstream medical establishment could do for their daughter. They had no hope and no remaining options, so they decided to go to the mall. I limped my way out to the Volvo and we got in the car. We were almost there when the car made a sharp left into what looked a lot like another doctor’s office.
“You said NO MORE DOCTORS!” I yelled with rage.
Jan and Lew looked at each other and Lew said, very nicely, “This is a special kind of doctor. All you have to do is talk to him.”
Too dumb to feel duped or realize they obviously thought I was INSANE, I headed into the “special” doctor’s office, caressed the plaid cloth wallpaper, played with a few dolls, chatted him up a bit, and then walked out using both my legs.
The kiddie shrink told my parents I was stubborn, strong-willed and fine.
Unfortunately, with old age comes problems that no shrink can cure in one 50-minute period, and Dr. Plaid Walls was not the last “special” kind of doctor I’ve spent time with. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either – panic attacks and depression are no fun, and neither is going through life angry, afraid or completely devoid of introspection. I am definitely one of those people who thinks we would all benefit from a few minutes on the couch every week.
Over the years I’ve “spent time” with an array of “special” doctors. Some needed serious help themselves. Some were totally creepy. Some were very good but stopped taking my health insurance. And one, I am entirely convinced, was actually a robot. I called him Shrink Tron and our conversations would go something like this.
Finally, a few years ago, I found a “special” doctor I actually liked. I think she’s made a big difference, and even though I’m quite sure she finds me boring, repetitive and annoying at times, she’s always seemed to be fond of me overall. But after today, I’m not so sure.
Normally she greets me at the door to her office and I go right in. Today, even though I was a few minutes late and the session before mine had easily been done for 10 minutes, her office door was closed. I could hear her on the phone, although I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I didn’t know what to do — knock to make my arrival known? Leave? Wait outside? Sit there and inadvertently overhear something confidential? Assume some patient was in crisis and that’s why I’d been booted from my usual time slot? The minutes ticked by.
Finally, I started writing her a note explaining that one of us must have gotten our dates mixed up, that I was leaving and that I’d be back next week unless I heard otherwise. Whilst I was mid-note, she opened the door and appeared shocked to see me there. She apologized profusely and told me that for some reason, she just didn’t have me in her book for today.
Most likely, that’s true and it was just an accidental scheduling error. But on the other hand, as she and her fellow special doctors are so often known to ask, is there really such a thing as an “accident?” Did she get confused about the dates, or did she subconsciously want to avoid me?
Long, long ago (the 70s), in a galaxy far, far away (New Jersey), Evan was my best friend. Together, we prepared and served gourmet plastic steaks in my Playskool kitchen. We plotted against the Eager Beaver Diaper-Clad Toddler you read about in Mmm…Pie. We picked outfits together – Danskin hopscotch-motif top and pants? Strawberry-adorned sundress and matching bloomers? We acted out suburban dramas with Fisher-Price people. Who would pick up the dry cleaning, Blue Marilyn or her good-for-nothing husband Bald Green Bob? OMFG – was that a WEEBLEwith Purple Susan at The Silver Bucket the other night?! Did her two-inch boyfriend know?! Did she know that Weebles wobbled but didn’t fall down?!
Now, based on some of the aforementioned activities, it might cross your mind that Evan was gay. I can see why you’d think that, but he wasn’t. I’ll tell you what he was, though:entirely imaginary.
That didn’t stop me from becoming completely unable to think or talk about anything else – except maybe candy. And this drove Lew absolutely crazy – in fact, it drove him to homicide. One day, going 55 mph on the Parkway, he threw Evan out of the car, never to be “seen” or heard from again. Which I’m surehad noooo lasting traumatic effect on me.
Gone was the first of my many obsessions: a series of long-term fixations that I could not control. From him I moved on to Ziggellette, a small, soft doll so named because of her resemblance to Ziggy. Hailing from the Fluff ‘n’ Stuff at the Woodbridge Mall, Ziggellette had several mangy strands of mustard-colored yarn hair, a bulbous, three-dimensional nose and the words “LOVE ME” written across her red torso. She told silly jokes, sang sillier songs, and served as my alter-ego, often expressing the things I could not bear to. I took her everywhere.
Then came the fire.
Jan, Grandma Ethel and I were sitting around the kitchen table when we began to smell smoke. In a panic, Jan attempted to rush us out of the house, but I refused to leave the premises without Ziggellette. Racing down the hall to my room, I discovered the unfortunate source of the smoke. It had been my sister’s turn to play “Hide Ziggellette,” and it appeared she’d chosen to put her in a lamp so that her oversized head hung out over the shade and her floppy derriere rested against the lit 100-watt bulb. The bulb had already burned a quarter-sized hole in Ziggellette’s nether regions, but I was sure she could still be saved. I raced back to the kitchen and threw her in the sink, where her bean-filled body let out a sad little sizzle. She was lost. Lew did come home a few days later with Ziggellette II, and I loved her like my own, but it was never quite the same. (Side note — Ziggellette II stayed with me until Philly. There, she was either mauled by an unnamed Wheaten terrier or stolen … I have my suspicions but no DNA evidence. In any case, RIP Ziggellettes I and II.)
So, on to a new obsession: Charlie’s Angels. It isn’t hard to see how I, a short, picked-on and bucktoothed suburban Jew, would develop girl crushes on these ample-bosomed, totally glamorous and kick-ass women. What wonderful role models! What a realistic show! I hoped my boobs — I mean I — grew up to be just like them.
Thankfully, they were safe from my family’s tendency to kill the things I cared about, and this particular obsession ended bloodlessly when the channel 5 syndication line-up changed.
It’s obvious that these obsessions have served as an escape for me, and/or provided me with something to focus on when there was nothing else. They give me something relatively painless in which to lose myself. I’m like a 12-year-old with a crush on that kid from Social Studies.
In some cases, it’s also pretty obvious why I choose – albeit subconsciously – a particular subject. But for the most part, I’ve never understood why this happens to me, or why one thing captivates me and another doesn’t. Why Ziggellette and not Potbelly Koala or LeMutt? Duran Duran and not The Police or U2? Pete Sampras and not Andre Agassi? And why does it suddenly overcome me for no apparent reason?
It has actually been quite some time since my mind went down the old road of obsession. And you might think that, as an engaged middle management woman on the wrong side of 35, I’d be mature enough to avoid that road going forward. You’d be wrong.
A few weeks ago, my future SIL Christine and I engaged in a book trade. I gave her Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and she gave me … wait for it … “Twilight” and its sequel, “New Moon.” I couldn’t have been surer that I had zero interest in the teen angst of a high school junior torn between a vampire and a morphing werewolf in Bumblefuck, Washington. It seems absurd even as I write those terms.
Christine had felt the same way, but assured me I would get hooked like the rest of the world. I remained skeptical.
The next thing I knew, I was up every night until 2 a.m., unable to put down the story, Googling vampire legends, figuring out where Volterra was, and deciding whether or not I was on Team Edward or Team Jacob (tough call — and I also find Carlisle strangely attractive).
Vampy McVamperstein and frick on a bloodsucking, daylight-fearing stick!
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.
I still remember eating our breaded chicken cutlets in sad silence that night.
I think it’s fair to say that when I do or say something mockable, I’m the first person to admit it. In fact, I’m often the first person to point it out. So I find it quite irksome when something I do or say is NOT mockable, yet is perceived as mockable by someone else, who does indeed mock me.
Keith and I spent the weekend in the central New Jersey willlage from which we both hail. We’d been invited by his twin brother, Craig, to go apple picking with Craig’s wife and two little boys, ages 3 and 18 months. Apple picking in the Garden State has long been one of my favorite activities for several reasons.
It’s one of the very few outdoor activities in which I can actually participate without feeling totally humiliated.
I love fall weekend outfits, even though I never seem to have the right one.
Cider and donuts
The parts of New Jersey in which one picks apples happen to be extremely beautiful and validate my perpetual defenses of my homeland
The parts of New Jersey in which one picks apples absolutely fascinate me in general. I think this is because they lie a mere 20 minutes west of where I grew up – in a generic, middle class suburb – yet truly qualify as “country.” These apple-rific towns have funny names like Peapack and Gladstone (one town) and Pluckemin. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by “Pluckemin?” Furthermore, they’re ground zero for the morbid local lore of the Kienast Quintuplets, the second set of surviving quintuplets in the U.S. They grew up in Liberty Corner, 12 miles away, and their father committed suicide in 1984 after finding himself unable to support his giant, Perganol-made family. (Read more in the New York Times)
Even furthermore, most of the creepy stories I read about in Weird New Jersey take place somewhere in Somerset or Hunterdon Counties.
Cider and donuts
So on Saturday morning, we piled into the mini-van, made a pit stop at Dunkin Donuts, and headed to Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick. Keith and I approached the basket procurement stand. I was looking specifically for Macoun apples, which both Jan and Keith’s mom had requested, and which aren’t that easy to find in the city. Thankfully, a sign explained which types of apples were currently available for picking, and Macoun was among them. I was confused, however, by the fact that each apple type had an “Upper” or “Lower” label next to it. Seeking clarification, I asked the basket hander-outer whether that referred to the part of the tree or the part of the orchard.
Basket Hander-Outer – whose relatives, I guarantee you, live in the Pine Barrens – literally doubled over with laughter.
At first I didn’t even realize she was laughing at me, as I really didn’t think I’d said anything funny.
Then she managed to gasp, in between the sniggering, “Oh my lord. You are so cute. I’m gonna put that in my quote book.”
She called over a male co-worker and repeated what I’d asked, prompting him to fall into hysterics as well.
“What is so funny that you both require medical attention?” I asked, with a hint of tone.
Keith said, very kindly, “You do know that only one kind of apple can grow on a tree, right?”
Of course I know that. Sheesh. But yet …
I attempted to explain what I thought was very intelligent reasoning.
One: I didn’t know whether the trees were labeled – Winesap, Empire, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp … If not, it seemed totally plausible that certain types of apples grew on certain parts of the trees, and that their location would help pickers identify them. If the elusive Macoun grew only on UPPER branches, let’s say, I’d know that a lower-hanging fruit, as a certain old boss of mine liked to say, was not a Macoun.
Two: Nowadays, thanks to genetic engineering, “they” can morph all kinds of fruit. Is the tangelo not a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit or pomelo? Is there no such thing as a grapple? Have you met my friend the pluot? Ergo, it also seemed plausible that a tree COULD offer more than one type of apple.
Alright. I can see why you’d think this was just my idiot savant talking. But yet …
Three: Even if it was the stupidest question in the history of questions, was it really THAT funny?
Frick on a worm-eaten, rotten-cored stick. Why are you all laughing at me?! I smaht! I really smaht!
I had no choice but to retaliate with the first potentially mockable detail I could conjure. I announced to my fellow apple pickers and Basket Hander-Outer that earlier in the week, when I’d blown a fuse drying my hair, Keith had had no clue what or where the fuse box was. I went to Home Depot to replace the antique fuses and I reinstalled them myself.
Take that, you evil mockers.
The evil mockers still found my question funnier.
“Just give me a basket,” I said before storming off to the UPPER orchard where ALL the good apple types were located.
In the end, it all worked out. We collected an array of flawless Jersey apples, apple butter, corn relish and donuts. We partook of the noonish meal at a fabulous deli called The General Store and finished the afternoon with a trip to Tarzhay which always makes everything better.
Addendum: My dear friend Loren, who is very smart and holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University, reports that she was apple picking in the Berkshires this weekend and learned …. THERE CAN IN FACT BE MORE THAN ONE APPLE TYPE PER TREE, THANKS TO GRAFTING.