Total Perspective Vortex
What really happened to Trillian? Theories abound, but you can see what she's really been up to on this blog. If you're looking for white mice, depressed robots, or the occasional Pan Galactic Gargleblaster you might be better served here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers/guide/.
Words are cool.
The English language is complex, stupid, illogical, confounding, brilliant, beautiful, and fascinating.
Every now and then a word presents itself that typifies all the maddeningly gorgeousness of language. They're the words that give you pause for thought. "Who came up with that word? That's an interesting string of letters." Their beauty doesn't lie in their definition (although that can play a role). It's also not in their onomatopoeia, though that, too, can play a role. Their beauty is in the way their letters combine - the visual poetry of words - and/or the way they sound when spoken. We talk a lot about music we like to hear and art we like to see, so let's all hail the unsung heroes of communication, poetry and life: Words.
Here are some I like. (Not because of their definition.)
Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Smart Girls
(A Trillian de-composition, to the tune of Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys)
Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
Don’t let them do puzzles and read lots of books
Make ‘em be strippers and dancers and such
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
They’ll never find men and they’re always alone
Even though men claim they want brains
Smart girls ain’t easy to love and they’re above playing games
And they’d rather read a book than subvert themselves
Kafka, Beethoven and foreign movies
And each night alone with her cat
And they won’t understand her and she won’t die young
She’ll probably just wither away
Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
Don’t let them do puzzles and read lots of books
Make ‘em be strippers and dancers and such
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
They’ll never find men and they’re always alone
Even though men claim they want brains
A smart girl loves creaky old libraries and lively debates
Exploring the world and art and witty reparteé
Men who don’t know her won’t like her and those who do
Sometimes won’t know how to take her
She’s rarely wrong but in desperation will play dumb
Because men hate that she’s always right
Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
Don’t let them do puzzles and read lots of books
Make ‘em be strippers and dancers and such
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be smart girls
They’ll never find men and they’re always alone
Even though men claim they want brains
Life(?) of Trillian
Friday, October 23, 2009
Being unemployed sucks. Big time. Obviously. Goes without saying. But I just thought I'd say it anyway.
I've been going through most of the usual phases and mood swings that accompany a loss of this magnitude. Confusion. Fear. A lot of fear. I fear a lot. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Disconnection from society. Loneliness. Isolation. Despair. Fear, more fear. Zero self esteem. Most of the symptoms point to depression. I have periods, days go by, where I don't leave my condo, not even to retrieve the mail. I can't work up the, I dunno what, nerve? energy? desire? to make the elevator ride down to the mailbox. I suppose it's fear, again. Afraid of what will arrive in the mail.
I get a laugh out of myself. The clichés I'm experiencing are so typical they're comedic. Not that I think I'm above experiencing the phases and moods people go through during a loss, a job loss, but it's just funny when it happens to you and you're very aware of what you're going through. "Ahhhh, okay, so this is the 'don't take a shower for days on end phase.' Huh. Wow. I didn't think I'd succumb to that one. Well. Okay then. So much for my latent need for personal hygiene. Just goes to show, it can happen to anyone. I get it, now. Check that phase off the list."
I could rally against it all - I know people, some of my unemployed friends - who fight against the ubiquitous phases and moods. They refuse to lapse into the them. They say they're refusing to be a victim. They say they are not going to be defeated by it. That's all very nice and Joan of Arcky, and I, too, have moments of defiant refusal. But they're short-lived. I suspect my friends' never give up, never surrender attitudes are not constant, either. I suspect they have the same phases and moods as any other unemployed professional but they are trying very hard to convince themselves it's all a matter of attitude so they're doing their darnedest to fight the cliché behaviors and emotions. There's a nice bit of nobility, dignity, in that and hats off to them for at least trying to fight against it, or for at least trying to mask it, trying to kid themselves and everyone else.
Ironically, or, surprisingly, depending on your view of my alcohol intake, I haven't been drinking. Much. I kind of thought I might end up being one of those unemployed people who spends their days drinking. I have long wondered if my professional responsibilities were the only thing preventing me from drinking before noon. Turns out that's not the case at all. Which is one of the good things I've learned about myself. I'm not an alcoholic! I've had a few nights out with friends which have resulted in two or three drinks and nice little numbing of the pain, but I'm not reaching for alcohol on a regular or even semi-regular basis. Here I am with the "freedom" to drink every day and/or night of the week and I'm not interested in it. Remember when you first went to college and booze was everywhere and no parents or adults who know your parents were around? That freedom of fear mixed with the ready and easy availability was, literally, intoxicating. But after the novelty wore off it wasn't a big deal. "Drunk off my ass at 3:00 on a Wednesday afternoon? Yeah. Been there, tried that, not interested."
I'm proud to announce that this week I've taken a shower and washed my hair every day. And I made the trip to the mail box every day except one. Progress!
Or, well, maybe not. Two steps forward, two steps backward.
It's Halloween-time. Which means candy time. Which means easy access to my arch nemesis. Stronger than the lure of alcohol, the deceptively innocent evil foe who has stalked me all my life is weaving its seductive spell on me.
Refined sugar. Salve my wounds, oh sweet elixir.
In times of distress is there anything more satisfying, more deceptively innocent and culturally accepted than a dinner comprised of Twizzlers with a diet Pepsi chaser?
O, sweet salvation.
Oh. Yeah. I dunno when, maybe a few weeks ago, I took up the diet Pepsi habit. Which, I know, is fueling the sugar cravings and deep satisfaction obtained from cookie dough. I don't even remember when or how I came to imbibe that first diet Pepsi. I think it was after three nights of only two hours of sleep and I "needed" caffeine to stay awake. I can't stand coffee and I didn't have any caffeinated tea, and there, in line at Walgreen's was a conveniently placed fridge with ice-cold pop. Caffeine in a refreshingly cold and bubbly form, the staple of my late teen-age diet and college-anorexic years: Diet Pepsi.
Funny how I've mused over the possibility that if I didn't watch it I could have a drinking problem, but never once considered that the drinking problem I undeniably have is diet pop.
More alluring than booze and a lot more problematic because it's socially and culturally acceptable, I kicked the diet pop habit when I kicked anorexia in the ass. Every now and then, just every now and then, I'd indulge, but I vowed to keep it under control, just one, no refills, and then get right back on track the next day.
My parents never allowed me to drink pop except for Vernor's, which, in our house was medicinal. Served cold and warm, Vernor's is my mother's go-to home remedy. It cures everything. And, honestly? She has a valid point. When your stomach is unsettled nothing calms it like Vernor's. Baby fussing after a feeding? A couple sips of Vernor's and BURRRP!!! Happy baby. So, Vernor's didn't count as pop. But every other carbonated beverage was off limits. Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, Sprite, none of it was allowed in our home. When I went to friends' houses where pop was allowed I felt too afraid to drink it. If a friend's mother offered me pop I looked upon it as being offered alcohol. I'd give a wide-eyed and proud "No thank you, ma'am," as if I'd just turned down a temptation of sin.
And then, one day, junior year of high school, I was at a Junior United Nations event (oh shut up, we all know I'm a dork) at a hotel. Some of the senior girls invited me to join them in their presentation prep group. They stopped at a pop machine and got diet Pepsis to fuel their insatiable desire to solve world issues right there at the Junior United Nations Forum, Regional Finals. A victory here would take us to the state finals and then, oh, then, dare we dream? We'd be off to nationals at the actual United Nations. (Oh shut up, we all know I'm a dork.)
I'd just been elected to represent the entire Scandinavian contingent (we didn't have enough kids interested in Junior UN to represent each country (go figure) so the smaller, less politically active countries were divided into regions). That election was a major coup. The kid who represented Scandinavia before me was ousted after being implicated in a chemistry lab scandal. Scandinavia was always represented by a senior student and my nomination and election caused quite the political stir. A junior representing Scandinavia? Why, why, it's, it's risky! It's unheard of! It could be Junior UN suicide! But there I was, rubbing shoulders with Junior UN elite: United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, China, Germany... this was huge.
Before that I represented the combined countries of Belgium and Luxembourg. (Oh shut up.) And that assignment was controversial. Not too many lower grade students got to represent any European country. But because I'd actually been to Belgium I was deemed "fit" to represent them even though I was only a sophomore. I had my eyes on Canada, but when I was feeling a little full of myself, a little drunk with power, in my wildest fantasies I imagined myself in the coveted United Kingdom representative spot. Skyrocketing to early glory repping Scandinavia in junior year put me one step closer to acting out that fantasy. (Oh shut up, we all know I'm a dork.)
The truth, I now know, was that our teacher-advisors and principal wanted to make the chemistry lab incident go away as quickly as possible. Punishment to the participants was swift and merciless. No extracurricular activities. Period. And to make a good show to the parents and school board they swiftly replaced the chemistry-lab deviants' places in student government and clubs with the most innocent, above-board, undeniably good kids they could find. Enter: Me. "And a child shall lead them..."
I didn't realize all that at the time. I just thought my history grades, interest in world affairs, unwavering zeal for the UN and Norwegian ancestry were what got me that coveted spot representing Scandinavia.
We had long night ahead of us. Our advisers gave us our study guides. We were armed with news magazines and history books. This was going to be a long night of studying and political strategizing. The senior girls loaded up on Diet Pepsi. They knew the restorative power and secrets of caffeine.
Oh yes, they were juicing.
I was a caffeine virgin.
You know where this is going.
A young girl thrown into a group of older, more aware, more savvy girls. A night spent in a hotel, away from home and watchful parental eyes. A Junior United Nations Regional Finals debate. A pop machine.
The senior girls loaded up with arms full of Diet Pepsi - two or three each.
I had long suspected a few of them were juicing. Meaghan Cartwright had always been a little chubby. She left junior year with a belly and a round face and returned senior year very, very fashionably thin. There were rumors of anorexia. Which, at our school, was a good thing. An anorexia rumor would instantly elevate a girl to heights of popularity unrivaled. If a girl was thin enough to incite anorexia rumors, the boys would want to date her and the girls would be envious. It was instant credibility, instant social clout, instant status. (I know. I know. Trust me, I know. I'm not saying I condone this. But. It existed, and sadly, still does. It is what it is. Blame the media. Blame the fashion industry.) For a member of the nerd-herd to attain that kind of status, an anorexia rumor, well, that was unprecedented.
I was still too naive and too much of a goodie-two-shoes to be impressed with the anorexia rumor. Instead I was worried about Meaghan. I liked her. She was smart and funny and was always nice to me, even though I was a grade behind her. I didn't want to believe that she had some sort of deep emotional wound or self-esteem issue that would cause her to suddenly become anorexic. I wanted her to be above caring about an unobtainable media-approved body. I wanted her to be free of body image slavery. If Meaghan could succumb to the pressure to be ridiculously thin than anyone could.
I wanted to fit in and I knew we had a long night of studying ahead of us so I was tempted by the lure of caffeinated social acceptance. But my parents didn't allow me to drink it. There must be a reason why, right? My parents' rules were always fair. If they didn't allow it there must be a darned good reason. So instead of taking my turn at the pop machine I jovially volunteered to get ice.*
When, a few hours later, I saw Meaghan scarf down an entire pizza I worried about bulimia. When it was clear she wasn't excusing herself to barf up the pizza and was, instead, voraciously digging through magazines for information on recent political issues in Italy (her country) my eyes fell on the three bottles of Diet Pepsi she drank. Diet Pepsi = lots of energy and skinny. Diet Pepsi good.
Close to midnight my energy was fading fast. I was exhausted. I felt like a stupid little kid because the other girls were still hopped up high on Junior UN Regional Finals enthusiasm and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I knew. I knew their secret. Caffeine. And lots of it.
The next morning Jesse Moran offered to make a Diet Pepsi run. I went with her - to get the ice. She had to hit two pop machines because one only had three Diet Pepsis and "we" would need a lot more than that to fuel our big day.
I was still tired. We stayed up until two in the morning and had to be ready to hit the deck at 8:30 AM. Four teen-aged girls + one bathroom = up by 6 AM.
When Jesse and I returned with the pop and ice I watched as the three girls transformed from bleary-eyed zombies with attitude to bright-eyed, sharp-minded, chirpy girls ready to take on the United Nations.
I knew I had to be alert and on my A-game for the debates that day.
So just like that, in an instant, I drank from Satan's cup.
My first reaction was a gag-reflex. That stuff was awful. Worse than the Drambuie my father let me taste. Worse than beets. It was disgusting. Vile. How could these girls so happily ingest bottle upon bottle of the stuff? I figured it was an acquired taste.
I was right. Two months later I was on a first name basis with our local 7-11 proprietor because I was using my lunch money to sneak two or three bottles a day before and after school. Yep. I skipped lunch so that I could have Diet Pepsi. All the girls did.
I think my parents knew but didn't want to admit to themselves that their daughter had a drinking problem, a habit. Surely not their daughter, not their baby, not their good girl. That Meaghan Cartwright girl, yeah, they could see that. Mrs. Cartwright was quite plump and Meaghan was headed in that direction. Mr. Cartwright was a high-energy guy who coached water polo and told off-color jokes. Meaghan seeking refuge from her mother's DNA and hope for her dad's high energy in diet pop seemed logical. But their daughter, their Trillian? No way. Not Trillian.
Not surprisingly, that's when the insomnia kicked into a higher gear. I'd never been a good sleeper but after I started the Diet Pepsi habit I was functioning, very well, thank you, on three-four hours per night. Instead of sleeping I read, I studied, I sketched, I wrote, I worried about not sleeping, I worried about my parents finding out I was drinking not only pop, but even worse, diet pop. I vowed to quit.
Each day I tried to quit, and each day I failed. I wanted it. By that time it was more than trying to fit in with a peer group. It was my cold, fizzy, caffeinated friend who was always there for me and never judged me.
I was 5'11" and a late bloomer. I had barely a hint of boob and only slight curves of hips and butt. I was all arms and legs and shoulders.
Some tall girls are willowy. Some tall girls are statuesque. I was gawky. So the fact that I was losing a little weight wasn't obvious to most people. But then Summer arrived and that meant a lot of time at the pool, at the Lake and on boats. I should have been worried about my parents noticing I'd lost weight but instead I obsessed over how I was going to procure Diet Pepsi and hide it from my parents.
On my last day of school I arrived home to a big surprise. My mother took me to celebrate with a shopping trip. For Summer clothes. I'd morphed into a thrift-store shopper with what I thought was quite a snappy environmentally responsible style consisting of my brother's old jeans, sweatshirts and concert t-shirts mixed with retro goodies I found at the Salvation Army store and vintage stores. I clung to the illusion that I was above fashion and that I didn't care what the other girls at school wore. Well. I cared. But I couldn't care. I knew my parents would never, ever shell out money for designer jeans or expensive trendy clothes that I wouldn't be caught dead in after only a few wearings because they were no longer popular at school. My way of circumnavigating the whole perilous social realm of high school fashion was to plead disdain for conformity and proclaim environmental consciousness in the form of recycled clothes. I'd like to say I was an early adapter in the whole green movement, but the sad truth is that I did it only as a way to hide the fact that I wasn't cool enough to pull off the high school clothing trends. The environmental benefits were merely a by-product of the fact that my parents were practical. And saving every penny for my college education. My mother used to say, "Do you want expensive jeans that will be out of style in a month or do you want text-books for your college classes?"
So. To be greeted with a shopping trip was a huge stinking deal. I should have been excited but I was panic stricken. Shopping? For summer clothes? Today? Now? Oh no. Oh no. Shorts. T-shirts. BATHING SUITS!!!! She's going to see me, she's going to realize I've lost weight! She's going to find out I've been skipping lunch and drinking Diet Pepsi!!!
Somehow, some way, I got through that shopping trip. I didn't let her see me in the clothes we bought. I affected the best performance as a teen-ager embarrassed to be shopping with her mother that I could. "Moth-er, puhleeeze, I can try on clothes by myself!" "Mum, can I have a little privacy? I'm not a baby anymore." "No, I'm not coming out, I hate these shorts." I felt bad. I didn't really feel that way. I liked my mother. I wasn't embarrassed by her. I trusted her taste and her opinions. I didn't like behaving like a stupid typical teen-ager. But better that than to let her discover what I'd been doing for the past few months.
After that I stopped. Cold turkey. I just stopped drinking Diet Pepsi. The first few days were difficult, but once I got that monkey off my back I felt a lot better. By the time we went on Summer vacation I was caffeine-free and my ribs and hip bones were no longer jutting out from under layers of clothes.
Whew. I felt good, empowered. Happy. Proud of myself. I did it. I did it all by myself. I got myself into it and I got myself out of it. A real mark of maturity. A test on the road to adulthood and I passed. Sure, I caved into temptation but I triumphed over it, too.
Then I went to college.
By the time first semester mid-terms hit I was on a four-a-day minimum. I had a roommate who drank more than I did. I assuaged my shame and guilt by comparing my habit to hers. Yeah, I drank more than I should, but I was nowhere near as bad as my roommate who needed, yes, needed, at least two Diet Pepsis before she could even contemplate a shower much less classes. I wasn't that bad. I was fine. I could control it. I could quit any time. I knew I could. I quit before and I could quit again.
Yadda yadda yadda, anorexia, yadda yadda yadda, a new lease on life and health, yadda yadda yadda it's been a very, very long time since I've been an habitual Diet Pepsi drinker.
I can quit any time. I've done it before and I can do it again.
I am surprised what a slippery slope it is. One day pop wasn't on my mind at all, not even on the periphery, and the next I'm on a two or three a day habit. There's obvious psychology to it. I'm in a time of serious stress. My life has been turned upside down. Nothing makes sense and every buoy I had to hang onto to keep from drowning in my life is gone. With each passing day of unemployment I sink further under water.
And for some reason, some deep, latent psychological reason, I'm seeking solace in my old friend carbonated caffeine and artificial sweetener. I suppose it's because it takes me back to a time when I was under the delusion that I fit in, that I was accepted. Sure, I fit in with the nerd herd and girls with body image issues, but I fit in. I was accepted. And right now that's what I need most: Acceptance. Well. What I need most is a job, but what I need to get a job is to be accepted. I get a lot of rejection these days. I apply to jobs and make the calls to ever-farther-flung connections of connections, anyone, anyone who might know someone who might know someone who's in need of someone like me to fill a void in their company. And so far the unanimous response is: rejection.
It's worse than dating. When men reject me it's no big deal. I'm used to it. I expect it. I don't even try anymore. But. Job rejection is different. I realize I am not what men want in a date, a mate or even a one night stand. In a sea of desirable women I'm not a viable option. I understand that. But. When it comes to the job market, I am legit. Too legit to quit. I am a viable, skilled and experienced professional. I have career cred. I should be accepted. Employers should want me. So the rejection is tough to handle.
Lapsing into a pattern of behavior that "worked" for me when I needed to be accepted. It made me feel up! and sharp! and accepted! It helped me help take my Junior United Nations team to the state finals. It helped me get through several grueling 18-credit-hour semesters of college. It helped me be thin when my body finally caught up to my height and I sprouted boobs and hips. Huge boobs and hips. It helped me work 12 -14 hour days when I was trying to prove myself as a young professional upstart. It helped me stay awake through endless after-parties and rehearsals when I was dating Rock Star. It helped me manage transatlantic time differences and no time for breakfast mornings. Crazy, chaotic and ridiculous as all that sounds, I was happy during all of it. Really happy. Even when it all crashed I didn't regret a minute of it. Still don't. So. I suppose it's natural, obvious, that I would reach out for the one constant in all of that: A cold, carbonated, caffeinated, artificially sweetened friend.
*And thus began a lifetime of trying to stay good by making myself indispensable with a diversionary task. I once spent an entire semester of college avoiding a contact high from roommate's pot smoke by making a run for pizza, Doritos, Oreos and Slurpees. Not for me, for her. She'd be hungry, soon, and I'd have snacks for her. Why did I do this? Because I wanted to avoid the contact high yet I didn't want her to think I wasn't cool, or that I cared that she smoked weed. I didn't care, but I didn't want to be confined in a small space with her while she did it. I kept my chastity in tact at a party that could have ended very, very differently. There was this older guy I liked, he was an artist (natch), in a band (natch), tall and skinny (natch), sensitive (natch), a little broody (natch), sarcastically hilarious (natch) and was in possession of soulful eyes. There was this party. He was there. There was a lot of booze. Someone might have had a little too much to drink. That someone might have found herself in a bit over her hormonal head thanks to said booze and said guy. Fortunately I wasn't too drunk to remember that I wasn't really "ready" to have sex and I certainly did not want to lose my virginity to a guy who didn't even know my name on the back porch of a frat house. But how, how does a young girl, a young drunk girl, resist the lure of an artistic, broody, sensitive, guitar-playing, sarcastic guy with soulful eyes? And keep some semblance of credibility, at least enough to possibly garner her a date with said soulful-eyed guy? Easy! By diverting attention from a little-too-passionate kiss-gone-horizontal to birth control. "I'll go get a condom!" I far too enthusiastically offered and stepped out into the cold night air. Away from the intoxication of the booze and that guy, I sobered up enough to apprise the situation and leave the scene. I wanted to salvage a possibility with the guy, so I did return, eventually. I was condomless, of course, but diverted the attention from sex to something else all artistic, broody, sensitive, guitar-playing sarcastic guys enjoy as much as sex: Drugs. My stoner roommate was also at that party. When I saw her in the crowd I asked her for pot. She, remembering my altruistic munchie runs, happily obliged. I returned to the guy on the back porch and told him I couldn't score a condom but I did score something else. He rolled a couple joints, it became obvious that I was nowhere near cool enough, mature enough or pretty enough to be anywhere near him, and that was that. But the helpful diversion method saved me from the inevitable angst that would have followed had I had sex with him. And no, even now, I don't regret it. He did go on to play in a semi-famous band - one of those bands that never quite makes it, always the opener, never the main event types of bands. No regrets. Several years later the Universe threw me karma bones. One for not giving into booze soaked hormones: Rock Star. And other one for getting munchies for my roommate: She ended up in a really fantastic career that offers her ins for incredible music and art events and she's never forgotten me, always willing to share the wealth of fun her job offers her. Consequently to this day I maintain that the diversionary make-yourself-useful approach to peer pressure is a viable and even good plan.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
So, a Presbyterian, a confused agnostic and a Hindu walk into a Bris.
I wish that was the start of an off color joke.
Yet again life imitates Seinfeldian art.
After three daughters, a miscarriage and a few unreproductive years my friends were blessed with a bouncing baby boy. The mother, my friend, spent the last four months of the pregnancy in bed per doctor's orders. The pregnancy wasn't deemed high risk, but, the kid was in a "compromising position" and so my friend was told to go home and go to bed for four months. With three young daughters to care for this was no easy task for her. I have to hand it to her husband, he really manned up and did a great job dealing with all things domestic and child-rearing during those four months. I have deeper respect and appreciation for him, now. He redeemed himself for some of his previous jerk-like behavior.
One positive aspect about my unemployment is that since I was laid-off for two of those four months I had time on my hands and could help while my friend was stuck in bed.
We've kind of drifted over the past five years. We see each other once, maybe twice a year. We communicate mainly by e-mail. She quit working after the arrival of daughter #2, they moved to the far flung suburbs and, well, we just didn't have a whole lot in common anymore. And she didn't have time for me, the single friend "all the way" in the city.
I understand. Three young children take up a lot of time and energy. I get it. And of my friends she was the least critical of me regarding my singleness. And she's never flaunted her husband's salary and the fact that she doesn't "have" to work at me. In fact she repeatedly confides that they struggle without her paycheck and that she'll have to go back to work once the kids are in school full time.
So when I found out about her bed-bound confinement I felt slightly more compassion than I would for some of my other mommy-land friends.
One of our mutual friends was on bed-rest during the last two months of her last pregnancy. She and her husband had one three-year-old child at the time. When the doctor confined her to bed for two months she went home, put the nanny on 24 hour live-in status (the nanny was already taking care of their three-year-old 8 hours/day...don't ask me why since the mother doesn't work...), hired a local chef-service to do their cooking and spent two months in bed shopping online. She already had weekly maid service. Oh, and she had her personal trainer come to the house to perform "low impact, no strain toning" on her. I think it was mainly massage. But I'm not sure what went on there and I don't want to know. Though she did look incredibly fit just a few weeks after her delivery, so, maybe there's some kind of magic low-impact bed-workout secret for wealthy mothers-to-be.
But for my recent four-months-in-bed friend there would be no nanny, no maid service, no chef service, no personal trainer for her. And since I wasn't working for the last two of her four months in bed I was able to help her and her husband. I was happy to help. I adore their girls and it was great to have something to do, some useful way to spend some of my days. And it was nice to reconnect with my friend.
Okay. So. The big day arrived and with minimal pain or effort out popped a healthy 8 pound boy. Yay.
I received an email with photos of the boy just moments after his birth. A little too much information for my taste, but you know, the miracle of birth and all that.
Two days later I received, um, I'm not sure what to call it. An invitation, of sorts, to attend the baby's brit malah. I thought this was a private, sacred ritualistic thing reserved for family and maybe one or two very, and I mean very close friends. In spite of the time I spent with them the past few months I didn't consider myself to be close enough to them to include me in this sacred rite of passage. I figured they were just being polite because of all that I did for them the past few months. (Or maybe they were hoping I'd help look after the girls during the ceremony.) And, I dunno, I thought my agnosticism/Gentile birth excluded me from attending. I'm not up on Hebrew law, but the presence of a Gentile-by-birth-turned-agnostic-turned-confused at a sacred penis cutting seems somehow, well, wrong. I figured the "right" thing to do was to just, pardon the horrible pun, blow off the bris. They didn't really want me there and I certainly didn't want to be there. Right? I mean, don't those seem like logical assumptions?
Okay, well, within a few hours of the brit malah announcement I had emails from several friends. Who also received the brit malah "invitation." Some of my friends were all, "uh-uh. No way. We're not going." "Can you believe this? That custom is just disgusting, why would anyone invite people to witness it?" A lot of the men were very vocal in their refusal to attend, "those things make me really uncomfortable" was the overwhelming response from the husbands.
So then I felt bad for my friends, the new parents. Our mutual Gentile friends were behaving very Gentile. Okay, since I'm slagging them off anyway, I'll just come right out and say what I really think: Our mutual Catholic friends were behaving very uptight and superior.
In the end the only three of us who attended were the three non-Catholic Gentile friends. A Presbyterian woman, a Hindu man, and me, a lapsed Presby-Methodist-turned-agnostic-turned-confused woman. An unlikely but well-intentioned group determined to represent the kind, non-judgmental, love-all, accept all contingent of the Gentile population. With each passing email of disdain and contempt from our friends our "Hey, we don't do this in our religion and we don't really understand it, but that doesn't mean we think it's wrong. We refuse to mock that which we do not understand," stance became more adamant. After several days of increasingly intense email debate it became clear that the three of us would attend the brit malah. There would be no blowing off the bris.
Okay. So. What does one take to a bris? My rule of gift giving thumb is: If Hallmark makes a card for it and you're attending in person a gift of some sort is required. I trotted off to the Hallmark store, the biggest in the city, to see if they carried brit malah cards.
Okay. Dis is Chicago. A very Catholic-centric city. So maybe that's why the women working there a) didn't know what a brit malah is; and b) didn't know if Hallmark makes cards for one. When I explained what a bris is to them they were a) embarrassed; b) aghast; and c) certain that Hallmark would never, ever make a card for that. They suggested either a generic "new baby boy" card or, oddly, a Christening card.
They had loads of Christening/baptism cards. A whole huge section. Probably close to 50 or more cards for welcoming a new baby into the Catholic or protestant faith. Clearly, by my rule of gift-giving thumb, a gift, and a lavish one at that, is required for a Christening/Baptism.
One of the Hallmark ladies, I presume the manager, had an eureka moment as we were pawing through the religious card section. "What about a Bar Mitzvah card?"
Seriously? I mean, really, seriously? My response was to laugh, I thought she was joking. When I looked across the aisle and saw her proudly proffering a Bar Mitzvah card I realized she wasn't kidding. The woman was Hell-bent on selling me a card and the closest thing she could find was a Bar Mitzvah card. So dammit, she was going to sell the Hell out of that card. She was not going to let a customer leave her Hallmark store empty-handed. It's a Gold Crown Hallmark store. They have a reputation and standards to uphold. No occasion, event, life episode shall be cardless. That's the Hallmark ethos, the Hallmark way.
We finally settled on a generic "blessed event" card. I wasn't entirely comfortable with it because it looked kind of Gentile, but it was the only "blessed event" card without a cross or Jesus scripture on it, and after all their effort to help me find the perfect card I felt obligated to buy something.
After I left the store, blessed event card in hand, I pondered the blessed event. It is a blessed event, I guess, right? I mean, it's a big deal and it's religious so it must be a blessed event. But. I dunno. I'm not a guy and I'm not Jewish so I can't possibly really understand the circumcision thing, but is it kind of weird to consider the cutting of foreskin a blessed event? I mean, what's blessed about it?
I realize that's a loaded question and I'm admitting a very naive and ignorant point of view, but, um, I mean, where's the blessed in that event? I know. I know. Adam. Original sin. Completion of the male. Controlling animalistic passions. I know "why" in the ritualistic sense. I'm not that naive. I have two semesters of world religion and a semester of Bible-as-literature under my academic belt. I know just enough to be filled with confusion and questions and a deep desire for acceptance and respect for other peoples' religious beliefs and customs.
But the "blessed event" card nagged at me. Somehow it just didn't seem right. And the illustration of the baby kind of looked like a girl. It was supposed to be a generic blessed event baby but the Hallmark illustrator clearly was thinking "girl blessed event" the day they sketched up that card.
With four weddings behind me this year it's very likely there will be at least one or two blessed events on my near horizon so I stored the card away. This left me with two problems: 1) no card, Hallmark apparently doesn't make a bris card or at least one sold in Chicago, so, 2) is a gift required, and if so, what?
I was thinking a generic new baby gift. Safe. Appropriate. He is a new baby. But one of my Gentile bris going companions thought that a gift for the parents is more appropriate for a bris. She looked at it from a different perspective: We're congratulating them on having a boy-child.
I hadn't thought of that angle.
What does one give to congratulate the birth of a boy-child? Season tickets to a sporting event? Power tools? A six-pack of beer?
We turned to the third bris going companion. Himself a man. But. A Hindu man. And a friend of the father of the baby in question. His take on the whole thing was even more spiritually skewed and confused than ours. He felt an offering to a God of some sort was in order, perhaps even a sacrifice. Failing that, at the very least food, lit candles, and a prayer of some significance.
He was trying to find a card, too. He took his search online. He was trying to find an appropriate prayer or poem. He came up empty. For him, all things sentimental lead to Ghandi. He found a few Ghandi quotes that were nice, generic, but nice.
Since our friends are on the secular side of Judaism we figured they'd be down with Ghandi. But we were also very aware that their families would be in attendance. And the husband, the father of the circumcisee, has parents who are very, very, very strict about their Judaism. They keep Kosher. They are not at all happy with what they deem as their son's lapse of faith.
From there the conversation took an inappropriate but humorous turn. What would be useful, a practical gift? Maybe a box of Band-aids? Gauze? Antibiotic cream? Condoms and some KY?
Among us we knew that Elijah is an important figure at the bris and so we set off to find Elijah-based prayers or scripture.
I didn't come up with much that I liked. What I realized is that there's apparently a need, a market, for bris cards, prayers, gifts, a Gentile go-to guide for what to do, what to say and what to give should they find themselves attending a bris.
I decided to buy a bottle of Kosher wine for the parents and cute little plush baseball rattle for the baby. And I would make my own card.
After a several hours and a few glasses of wine (Kosher, to get me in the spirit of the event) I still had next to nothing for the card.
"Thousands of years ago Adam made a bad decision; So today you pay for it with a circumcision. Mazel Tov. Love, Trillian."
"Today your blessed journey to manhood begins With prayers and wine and a snip of your foreskin. Mazel Tov. Love, Trillian"
"A sweet baby boy, so innocent and pure, Born into a world filled with tough decisions. Blessed is he whose choices are set and sure. Congratulations on your circumcision. Mazel Tov. Love, Trillian."
"Adam sinned with Eve and everything changed, God looked around the Garden of Eden and realized That things were not going as He arranged. So from then on every boy had to be circumcised.
Fear not, little man, it's all for the best. It might seem like a weird and cruel way for your life to begin, But life isn't easy, this is the first of many tests. Soon you'll learn the least among them is losing your foreskin. Mazel Tov. xo, Trillian."
"You won't believe me now, amidst the embarrassment and pain, But one day you'll thank your parents for the ritual brit malah. Your Gentile friends will envy the unfettered joy you gain, When you reveal the full Monty that'll make the chicks hollah. Mazel Tov. Trillian."
"Eight days old, time to learn to take it like a man, Today we snip your dick so you won't be damned. Congratulations on your circumcision. xo Trillian"
"Congratulations on your circumcision. You won't regret this painful decision. You'll learn, when you're older and desiring sin Chicks dig guys without foreskin. Mazel Tov, Trillian"
"Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Lutheran, Pagan, Mormon, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, Wicca, Hindu. So many choices but your fate is is pre-ordained, With a snip of the foreskin you're among God's chosen few.
Congratulations on your circumcision. xo Trillian"
A Haiku for the new Jew "Sharp blade on soft flesh. Tears of pain and joy rain down. The Bris is complete."
"A new baby boy with a new baby penis, Congratulations on the event of your bris. xo love Trillian."
"Congratulations on the event of your bris, You're a man now, with a circumcised penis. No longer damned, you're among God's chosen few, You without foreskin, a circumcised Jew. Mazel Tov, xo Trillian"
You get the drift. I'm going straight to Hell. And Hallmark probably isn't a viable employment option for me. Nor is a Gentile go-to guide for things Jewish.
I settled on a very generic "Congratulations on your new baby boy, may his life be filled with peace, love and happiness."
That's okay, right? All safe and good intentioned, right? I mean, that's very interfaith and worldly wish, who could argue with any of those sentiments?
Admittedly, obviously, I knew nothing about the ritual other than it's the ceremonial circumcision of a male child on his eighth day of life. I assumed it was performed by a rabbi or some official Jewish circumciser and I assumed there would be a lot of sacred Hebrew scripture reading and that would be that.
Boy did I underestimate the significance of the brit malah.
The three of us drove in from the city. We hit unexpected traffic so we were cutting it pretty close (pardon the unintended pun). We arrived at the last possible second. I didn't have a lot of time to take in the festive transformation before the ceremony began, but, the house was decorated, the living room furniture was removed and several rows of chairs were rented, several tables of food were spread throughout the living room, dining room and kitchen, bottles upon bottles of Kosher wine were on hand, and a big, fancy table/altar thing with a very heavily adorned basket was at the front of the room. There was a big fancy chair and I noticed that the large Warhol lithograph that usually occupied the wall space behind the big fancy new chair was no longer adorning the wall. I suppose a giant luridly colored graphic of the Brooklyn Bridge isn't the most appropriate backdrop for a religious ceremony, but then again...
Let me back up a minute. The Presbyterian and I spent the entire two hour trek to the suburbs wondering why they do this at the house and not at the Temple. Obviously we're very Christian-based Gentiles and we're used to our religious ceremonies taking place at a church with an altar and parking lot in place, all nice and convenient-like. When we finally arrived at our friends' house our point was punctuated by the fact that the street was lined with cars and we had to park three blocks from the house. We dressed up because we figured we were supposed to dress up so the Presbyterian and I were in heels and the Hindu was in slippery bottomed dress shoes. And it was chucking down rain. That tidy Christian church with it's convenient altar and parking lot doesn't sound like such a bad idea now, does it? And no chairs have to be rented and no furniture or wall decor has to be removed.
We finally arrived, soaked and sore-footed, deposited our bottles, plural, of wine on a table with a lot of other bottles of wine and put our cards and gifts on the gift table. We took the last three seats in the back row of rented chairs. There were programs printed and placed on the chairs. (Like a church bulletin.) It listed the parents, the older sisters, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, the, I kid you not, OB-GYN, and all the participants in the ceremony. That's when I realized this was to be an elaborate ceremony.
Within minutes of our arrival in walked an older woman carrying the new baby. This was the first most of us saw of the new baby and so we all craned our necks to see the kid. He was the star of the show, of course, but even more so than at a Christian baptism. At those ordeals people look at the baby, smile beatifically as if offering a prayer and think, "Awwww, how cute, what a sweet little baby. My, Susan isn't losing that pregnancy weight very quickly, is she? Hmmmm, I wonder if there will be cake in the fellowship hall after the service." At this event I got the feeling I wasn't the only one thinking, "Awwww, how cute, what a sweet little baby. Poor bugger, he has no clue what's about to happen to him. Should I smile beatifically? That hardly seems appropriate considering he's about to have the flesh cut off his penis...poor little guy..."
Christian upbringing made obvious in 3-2-1: All I could think about was Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and that the only thing missing was a donkey and palms for us to regale him. No, no, I am not comparing a circumcision to a crucifixion. I'm just saying, the overall tone and feeling of the entry of the kid into the room seemed a lot more anointed, a lot more auspicious than your average Christening. And I'm guessing that's because everyone there knows what's going to happen next. A painful procedure involving a penis. I mean, let's just have out with it. Where, in any other realm, would it be acceptable to proffer up a newborn's penis for mutilation while a bunch of adults watch? And then celebrate with food, wine and merriment? I mean, really, call me a naive, judgmental, ignorant Gentile, but this is just kind of weird. Remove the guy in the front of the room wearing obvious religious garb and you've got a solid case for child abuse. Seems to me if any skin is to be cut it should be done in the cold sterility and privacy of a hospital surgery room. And yet, eight days after a Jewish baby is born this is accepted and even regaled as a beautiful custom.
Christian upbringing once again repressed. Many of the guests started saying Baruch Haba. I had to look that up after I got home. Because at the event I thought they were saying Brush Abba. Which immediately sent my mind wandering, trying to think of the most appropriate ABBA song. SOS? Fernando? Super Trouper? I realized that, thankfully, I don't know many ABBA songs, and yet, oddly, why don't I know more ABBA songs? Should I know more ABBA songs, if for no other reason than comedic irony purposes? I didn't know how to say Baruch Haba and I didn't think I should attempt to fake it. God probably wouldn't like me trying to fake some sacred greeting. "Pffft, typical gentile, always trying to fit in, always trying to be polite, never wanting to offend anyone and all the while offending the very people they're trying to not offend." So I just tried to think of the words to Super Trouper and smiled as beatifically as I could.
When the woman finally made it to the table/basket/chair she handed over the baby to my friend, the baby's mother, she in turn passed the kid to what I presume were grandparents, aunts, uncles, and finally an older man, I presume a grandfather of the baby to be snipped. The baby was placed in the elaborate basket and then the basket and baby were placed in the big fancy chair.
The grandfather lifted the baby's, um, "dress" and the kid's diaper was undone. The father of the baby and the religious guy, I later learned not a rabbi but a mohel, a circumciser specialist, started saying what I assume are prayers or blessings for the baby.
At this point the middle daughter, aged 5, and also the most outspoken and active of the three daughters, was having difficulty standing still and keeping quiet. She was very excited about the festivities surrounding her new younger brother. She'd been tugging at her mother's dress and whispering to her mother. As the father and mohel were mid-blessing she asked, out loud, loud enough so that the neighbors three houses down could hear her, what all of us Gentiles were thinking, "I said, when (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) are (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) they (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) going (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) to (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) cut (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) off (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) his (dramatic pause only five-year-olds can manage) wiener?"
Okay. How the heck am I supposed to not laugh at that? When in life am I going to be sitting in a room full of strangers with a naked baby sitting in a big fancy chair and a five-year-old asking, yelling, "When are they going to cut off his wiener?" Probably never again.
The three of us Gentiles in the back row were doing everything we could to not laugh. I mean everything. Because no one, not one other person in the room, seemed to think the little girl's query was in any way humorous. We three Gentiles seemed to be the only ones who thought it was hysterical. This is probably why we're not God's chosen. This is yet another reason why I'm going straight to Hell. If I believed in Hell, that is. The good news is that if there's a Hell it's now been confirmed that I'll know at least two people there, a Presbyterian and a Hindu.
The bad news is that we'll probably spend eternity listening to ABBA.
Everyone just ignored the outburst as if it didn't happen. That's some kind of spiritual higher plane. Or maybe that's normal behavior for a five-year-old at a bris. Maybe this happens all the time. Maybe that's even part of the ceremony.
Based on my friend's (the baby mama) crimson red cheeks I don't think that's the case.
Okay, finally, it was time to cut off the baby's wiener. I mean foreskin. The guy I presume was a grandfather held the baby's legs apart. The baby either knew something fishy was going on or he just doesn't like his legs being splayed apart and his manhood exposed to a bunch of strangers. Oh yes, we could see it. The baby was elevated in that basket on the chair, even in the back row there was a very clear view of, um, it. I wanted to look away. I really did. I didn't want to see "it" and I certainly did not want to see "it" mutilated.
I mean, I've seen the grown-up result of this process and I gotta say, given the choice I prefer circumcised over uncircumcised, and given that preference I suppose the adult thing to do would be to accept that this process has to happen and I should at least be aware of what men go through to become the "sort" of men I prefer. But I dunno. That seems like way too much information.
18 years from now I could be invited to this kid's high school graduation party. I think you know where I'm going with this. I really, really, really do not want to think about this day, this event, when the kid is 18 and heading off to college.
Gotta hand it to the mahel, he was quick. Blessedly quick. I was surprised they didn't use any sort of anesthetic, maybe some of that spray numbing stuff or a lotion or even a swab of something. Nope. He just went in and snipped away. Not only that, he did it with a flourish. All that was missing was a "Voila!" at the end.
And then I learned a few things about my Hindu friend. He's squeamish. Very squeamish. And he's not circumcised. I learned these things as grabbed his crotch, let out an audible "eeeah," the color left his face, and he fell into my lap. Still holding his crotch. Mama mia.
The people sitting across the aisle of rented chairs and in front of us looked to see what the commotion was.
The dark skinned Hindu guest was whiter than the fair-skinned Scottish Gentile guest seated next to him and he was in her lap, tongue hanging out and clenching his crotch. The fair skinned Gentile girl rubbed his shoulders and patted his head while the other Gentile woman got up to find water for the fainted Hindu.
Maybe our Catholic friends were right. Maybe this is a rude and savage custom. Maybe us Gentiles have no place here. Maybe we three got it all wrong. Maybe we never should have attempted to pay respect to our friends and their customs and their new baby. Maybe we should have just sent flowers.
The ceremony continued. The baby was handed to his mother. There were a lot of what I presume were prayers or blessings but I couldn't quite make out what exactly was being said or going on, what with a Hindu passed out in my lap and a wailing baby and all. The baby cried. A lot. Wine was given to all the people up at the "altar." Including the baby.
I mean, the poor little guy, geeze, what a nightmare. There he is, fresh out of confinement in the womb, first he's cut away from his mother and now this? And worse, in front of a room full of strangers? Eight days old and the kid already learned how unfair life is. I mean, couldn't they at least give the kid a local anesthetic? What would be the harm in that?
The Presbyterian quickly returned with water. And while the baby and his family imbibed on wine and the other guests said/sang some song/poem, my friend was revived, and, with him still holding his crotch and sweat pouring down his forehead we took the opportunity to excuse ourselves to the hallway in hopes that he could get himself together and get over the apparent shock of the whole thing.
Okay. I need to explain something about the Hindu in my lap. I don't really know him very well. He's a colleague of my friend's husband. Over the years we've attended the same parties at their house and a few times a group of us had drinks after work. He lives in the city and once he gave me a ride to a barbecue at our friends' house in the suburbs. We're friendly but we're not "close."
A little more background: He was born in India and raised in London. He's lived in Chicago via New York for over 20 years. Normally there's just slight hint of a British schooled Indian native accent to his voice. As he came-to a bit more he blurted out, in the most back-alley just-off-the-plane from Bombay cockney accent I've heard since my last trip to London, "What the bloody Hell?! They just bloody cut the thing?" He said it louder than the five-year-old's query about cutting off the wiener. I couldn't see into the living room, but given the sudden palpable tenseness in the air I sensed that a lot of eye rolling and daggers were being sent our way. Still in shock he said, "Savages! These people are savages! Why do you want it cut off anyway? What is the purpose of this? It works fine with the foreskin!"
Just so we're all clear on the über comedic aspect of this, imagine Apu from the Simpsons being voiced by an English guy imitating an Indian guy. Got that aural imagery? Okay, now, imagine that voice yelling, "Savages! These people are savages! Why do you want it cut off anyway? What is the purpose of this? It works fine with the foreskin!"
While he clenches his crotch and two women administer water and cold water soaked paper towels to his forehead.
All that Ghandi enlightenment flew straight out the window. So much for his Hindu higher plane of consciousness.
I'll grant you, it was pretty, well, savage. I guess. For wont of a better term. I don't even have one and for a minute there I was "tensed" up in empathetic pain. But the bigger problem is that this was our first bris. None of us have sons so we've never faced the whole circumcision issue head on. (I swear I typed that without realizing the pun until several minutes later.)
There was no doubt in my mind at that point that our Catholic friends were right. This was no place for prudish Gentiles or squeamish, uncircumcised Hindus.
It was still pouring rain outside but we led him out to the back deck anyway. We just wanted to get him as far away from the ceremony as quickly as possible. We stood out there a long time. A very, very long time. He cursed and yelled all the while doubled over in sympathetic pain. I stole a glance inside and saw that the party had begun. I figured we could make a break for it, a polite and discreet departure.
I found my friend, the mother of the baby and motioned that we were leaving. She came over to see if we were okay. "We" were okay, ish. She felt bad for our friend. "I thought you knew what happens. I should have explained it to you," she said to the squeamish uncircumcised Hindu.
"No, I knew, I knew. I just, didn't think it would be...so...so...abrupt."
Some of the male guests came over and jocularly patted him on the back.
"First bris, eh boy?"
"Snip snip!" (Motioning of scissors.)
"We can have the mehel take care of yours for you, while he's here might as well get that little problem of yours resolved!"
One of the guys tried to offer an olive branch of understanding. "Don't your people circumcise?"
At this point the Gentile women in the crowd got a little uncomfortable. We'd already learned waaaaaaay more than we wanted to know about this guy. And now mocking and cultural understanding of penises was going to be the topic of conversation? Enough. Enough already. This whole thing was spiraling out of hand and I felt bad for my friend, the new mother. This was her son's big day and the non-Jewish attendees were distracting the attention away from her son.
So we left.
Maybe we're immature. Maybe we're unenlightened. Maybe we're just really bad people. But. That being the case that is the first and last bris I will ever attend.
Sunday, October 18, 2009 From the "why didn't I think of that?" file: