Saturday, November 24, 2007

'Tis the Season to be Spendy

Now that Thanksgiving is over, and Black Friday led retailers into the black by 8% over last year, the real shopping season has begun. Being Jewish, I watch from the sidelines as the national rush to find by December 25th the perfect gift for sisters who live across the country and grandmothers who have everything commences. And I am both amused...and appalled.

In my Thanksgiving newspaper, fattened even more than the two turkeys I served by advertising supplements, appeared a full-color booklet from Bed Bath and Beyond. This is the store that eschews commas in its name and offers
practical items like towels and bed linens and curtain rods. But not for Christmas. This is definitely the season for "beyond."

For just $39.99 you can purchase a Marble Coaster Kit that allows you to "customize coasters with your own photos." You get four white ceramic tiles, a liquid and a foam brush (worth, oh, 2 cents). You cut your photo to fit the tile, brush on the liquid (glue, I'd bet) and...VOILA! You've paid $40 for four tiles with your photos glued on them! Something everybody needs.

Just below it I see the "Golf Bag Bar Set," just $29.99. Looks like a metal golf bag. Inside sits a metal shaker, the knob on which has little circle indents like a golf ball. The corkscrew has a metal flag on it--like the hole! Four little metal stirrers are shaped like clubs, and you even get four Olive Picks shaped like tees! An amazing must-have 11-piece set for all the inebriated golfers on your list!

On the same page is the $29.99 Globe Dispenser. This is a clear glass world globe set at an angle in a silver metal globe stand. Where Antarctica should be is a spigot for dispensing your favorite beverage. Useful for those holiday
parties: "Hey Mable, time to refill the globe! The punch is down to Australia!" It appears you need a funnel, however, to infuse your world with imbibables.

Have you noticed your cupboard getting cluttered with single-function kitchen appliances? Why not add to the pile your very own "As Seen on TV" Vacu Seal? For just $29.99, those who don't trust ziplocks or sliders can crimp closed plastic bags of leftovers. Of course, like a computer printer, the money's in the consumables--replacements are $4.99 for five one-gallon bags. Somebody's got to pay for all those infomercials.

Marketed for the little princess on your list who collects Pez dispensers, there's the Pez Princess Collector's 8-piece set for $19.99, eight candy holders with all the Disney princesses from Snow White to Ariel, complete with candy. But you know this "limited edition" is really for savvy ebay vendors, and that none of these boxes is destined to be opened, ever.

The exercise nut can receive "Leg Magic," a pogo-stick with a wide stance that "tightens and tones with a simple gliding motion" for just $129.99. Do you think Bed Bath and Beyond shows a flabby person on it?

Here's something if you're really stumped: The "exclusive" Wooden Tea Box. One hundred forty-four assorted tea bags in a black lacquer box with a clear top. Fifty dollars.

More: a blow-up bath pillow for $20, a bamboo tray that fits across the bathtub to hold your novel and a stemmed wine glass (!) for $40, pieces of reed you stick in a bottle of perfume, $20, a foot massager for $40, and the 20Q hand-held game that "tries to guess what you are thinking," $20. If it actually works, it's worth a lot more.

Perhaps my favorite, however, is in the true spirit of the first "As seen on TV" sensation, which was of course, Popeil's Pocket Fisherman (below). That was a telescoping fishing pole that compacted to the size of a ruler, the first direct market product, and a huge smash. Now we have the "Coleman Fishpen" which
has taken Popeil down a notch--in fact, several, to the size of a PEN. You have to carry the reel with line, three hooks, bobber, 3 line weights and practice casting weight that come in the kit separately, I'm sure. They couldn't possibly all fit in that pen. Just $19.99.

What do I make of all this? It's true that Americans have far more than we need. Who remembers when Christmas gifts were sox and underwear, because it was a treat to have new ones? Who remembers when a birthday gift was a new pair of shoes? We are so blessed to live here, where abundance can be taken for granted.

I also feel for those who have to come up with clever gifts for many people. Uncle Jack likes golf, so why NOT get him the olive spears shaped like tees? A dad wishes he had time to fish with his son...and so buys two Fishpens with the message that even if they never actually whip them out of their pockets at some river, he loves his son enough to. It's tough coming up with something material to express something spiritual, such as "I'm grateful for your business," or "I appreciate our friendship," or even "You're my sister and I acknowledge that link between us."

All these frou-frous are just symbols, but perhaps important ones. Because through this materialism we do communicate our connections. We even had an example of this in the Torah portion this week as Jacob sent his brother Eisav flocks of animals, each separated by herders and some space. He was trying to convey that despite stealing Eisav's blessing from their father, he recognized that his older brother deserved honor and respect, shown by his elaborate gift. It's also a Jewish principle to give gifts to those you dislike, in order to improve your feelings toward them. There is no greater gift than parenthood, and no love like that of a parent for his child.

So in a sense, the more gifts given, the more harmony is created. Perhaps it doesn't matter if you give a globe beverage dispenser or a food-bag sealer--the giving ingratiates your recipient to you, and that makes life for all of us more rewarding. That might be why this month of shopping and wrapping feels so festive. Maybe my disdain for lavish spending on what I consider to be junk items is misplaced, and instead, in this season of generosity, I should join the happy retailers--and their customers--in celebration.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

We are Thankful, not Mourning, on this Uniquely American Day

The Seattle Board of Education sent a memo to its staff last week urging they not treat Thanksgiving as a happy holiday, because some students consider it "a day of mourning." This is true. Native American students, the note cautioned, are reminded that day how their ancestors' generosity was "betrayed."

The memo was signed by
Caprice D. Hollins, Psy.D., Director of Equity, Race & Learning
Support, plus two members of Huchoosedah Indian Education, a federally-funded American Indian support arm of the School District. Huchoosedah Indian Education has six full-time staff to promote the well-being of 800 native American and Islander students (2% of 45,300 total). The staff clearly has too much federally-funded time on its twelve hands.

What is this deconstructing of Thanksgiving????

Thanksgiving is Jewish. I want to set that straight. We call it the mitzvah of "ha karat ha tov," recognizing the good that is done for you. An illustration of it is that Moses did not personally start the plague that turned the Nile to blood, due to his gratitude that the river kept him alive when he was set adrift as an infant in a floating raft. The example may seem a bit extreme, but the fact we even tell that story shows how much gratitude is part of Jewish tradition.

I wanted to clarify the Jewishness of Thansgiving because I was told about an incident last Shabbat where a rabbi, when making his announcements in morning services, said something like, "There will be no class on Thursday. Some people are taking the day off, though I frankly
don't understand why."

If he was making a joke, he said it in such a way that listeners believed he was serious. The person who told me about this was a bit upset, because a local pastor had chosen that day to visit the synagogue for the first time, just to be neighborly. The pastor, who lives nearby, is a friend,and honors and reaches out to community Jews. He heard the rabbi's remark about Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is important not only for ha karat ha tov, but because it is a uniquely American holiday that expresses the essence of our culture as
God-fearing. We are thankful to God, not to the Indians. We remember that the first white settlers were able to join with the inhabitants of the land in humble gratitude. A nation that pauses to gather family to thank God and celebrate our bounty and blessings is one set on a straightened path every year. (Jews enjoy this kind of re-focusing every Sabbath as well.)

Thanksgiving is a national group-hug. It joins Americans across religions, across thousands of miles, and across generations. Unlike Halloween with its pagan origins, deathly symbols and crass commercialism, little about Thanksgiving itself is negative, unless you consider its potential for gluttony. The Seattle School District is rightly the subject of snickering derision. In contrast to every other public holiday, on Thanksgiving, as we watch parades and make stuffing and set the table and hear the doorbell and the laughter of those we love-- we look inward, and upward, to realize the parts of life that truly matter, and contemplate their very generous source. Happy Thanksgiving...from one very grateful lady.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Joy of Talking to Yourself

Do yo
u ever talk to yourself? Out loud? I've been doing it more and more. I don't know if I should be embarrassed or not. But since I'm alone during the day now, with kids out of town or at school, and faced with this project to do, I've taken up the luxury of listening to my own voice.

Only when I have something to say, of course. If I'm in a rush and I'm reaching for the cinnamon in the food cupboard and tip over the hot sauce, or I'm late to the
gym and putting up my hair and the rubber band breaks, or I'm taking dishes out of the dishwasher and one of the cups flipped over during the wash and I grab it unknowingly and the water goes splashing out all over get it, those "if anything can go wrong it will go wrong" moments--then I say out loud to myself, "Of COURSE! That HAD to happen! That's the RULE!" Sometimes I add, "God, you must be giggling!" because I do believe He has a sense of humor.

How about today, expecting a gaggle of women plus a rabbi in my home in five minutes, and I was buck naked coming out of the shower after the gym, rushing to grab my undies and shimmy into my skirt and sweater when--of COURSE! The telephone rings! I have thirty seconds to look pulled-together and graciously welcome my guests, and yet, and YET, I pick up the phone and the friend on the other end starts off with, "I know you're busy right now, but..." She had no IDEA how I was rushing! There's nothing like a rabbi ringing your doorbell with you buck
naked to convince you that God has a sense of humor!

Ahh, but He wasn't quite that mischievous. I managed to get decent before my august teacher arrived. So I told myself aloud, into the mirror, "I may not look GREAT, but at least I'm dressed!" And of course I agreed. Wholeheartedly.

And of course I talk to myself when I'm driving. "Hurry up! Move your little tush!" I say to the two-miles-per-hour car in my path. And at the famous four-way stop sign on the two-lane "main drag" of our friendly little community, I talk to all three of my sign-sharers. "You go!" I say aloud, aligning and flicking my four fingers in a go-ahead gesture above my steering wheel. I look at the smiling lady in her SUV to my left, and, by golly, I see her lips move and her hand mimics mine, "No, YOU go!" Well, if she's THAT nice, I must insist! And so we sit there at the stop sign waving, "conversing" and reading lips. I think our residents enjoy that intersection because there, talking to oneself is possibly sane.

Sometimes when I'm shopping in the supermarket, I find myself commenting on the products. "No, I won't pay two dollars, when it was 10 for $10 last week!" I announce, looking at my favorite house-brand salad dressing. Or, in the veggies, squeezing an avocado ever-so-gently--"Eeew! This one's toooo ripe!" My fellow shoppers look up to see who I'm talking to--deep embarrassment until I manage to mutter "Bluetooth." Whew.

When I'm at home alone, however, I can safely wax eloquent. When reading the New York Times (Style Section or front page), I hear a familiar voice commenting on the articles. "Hilary sure looks bad in THAT photo," I declare, nodding in
approval. Nobody wants her to look TOO good. And bad reporting certainly deserves notice: "There it is AGAIN! That stupid idea that Israel was founded as a result of the Holocaust! They should KNOW better!" Rightly chastised, I can now continue reading Part I.

Sometimes I can be quite constructive. After a too-leisurely lunch break, I snip, "Back to work!" But then my conniving side kicks in and answers, "Well, I better put these dishes in the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen first."

And of course, I'm my own best critic. "Look what you did!" I exclaim when I mend the back of the sock to the hole I was darning on the front. Or, when procrastinating by cleaning up my terminally-messy daughter's room, I admonish, "Why are you spending your time DOING this? You KNOW she's just going to keep throwing her clothes on the floor!" A beat. Then a response, "Duh. You know you don't want to go back to work!" I'm such an astute conversationalist.

It's just so much fun sharing life with someone who knows me so well. If you were here, you'd hear me telling myself to finish this blog RIGHT NOW because I've done pitifully little writing on my book today.

I bet you never talk to yourself, right? If you do, leave me a comment and tell me what you say (or if you think I'm crazy). In the meantime, I'll keep right on making observations about the world to the only person I know who won't talk back.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Useful Anti-Tech advice from a Comic Book Hero

I knew somebody would do it, and it had to be a good-looking heterosexual young guy with a Princeton education.

Once again, I've been procrastinating by (not only writing this blog) but entering the Parallel Universe of the New York Times Style Section. This may be my downfall, but it's also my great amusement. Today, the lead story was about Timothy Ferriss, 30, who has been resonating with techies everywhere with his book The 4- Hour Workweek. As the article by Alex Williams notes, the Ferriss grabber is his insistence that in a tenth of the usual week, (a twentieth of the workweek for normal workaholics) you can rake in big bucks as an entrepreneur and use the rest of your time to--as he does--jaunt around the world pursuing
exotic experiences and achievements like competitive Chinese kickboxing, world-championship cage fighting, and hurling in Ireland.

How does the magical Mister Ferriss accomplish all this? By going low-tech. Nix instant-messaging, outsource email, forget texting, dump news-collecting and eschew your digital photos and iPod. Shut down your Flickr, Twitter, You Tube and Facebook accounts. Delegate everything except, well, going to the bathroom.

As I was reading the article, which does read a bit like a superhero comic book, I truly questioned whether this was for real. Those old enough to remember the TV show "The Monkees" know it's possible to set up an irresistible success scenario, and then go recruit somebody to fill the roles. Timothy Ferriss is the kind of near-caricature who conquers the oppressors to live free and save the world. Heaven knows, everyone with a Blackberry understands its compulsion, and while unable to completely buck the machines cold-turkey, secretly longs for the days when "reachable" meant having an answering machine on your (corded) telephone. Well, maybe not. Most tech addicts weren't born then.

I finally conceded that this guy could be real when I (I'll admit it) watched a video on his website of his performance in the international tango competition in Buenos Aires. This could have been faked. But there was this blond guy, serious-faced as any tango master must be, swooping his leg in fashionable semi-circles on a dance floor populated with other somber-lipped couples with numbers pinned on their backs. The allure isn't the tango, exactly, but the idea of the tango; the notion that you can grab life's worthwhile and exciting offerings just for the reaching. Break free of your shackles and chains! Now jump on a jet and cavort at Carnival in Rio! Track wilderbeasts in Kenya! Go to
Pamploma and cheer the running of the bulls!

Perhaps Mr. Ferriss presents us the running of the bull. One can only escape responsibility if one has few conventional ties--like a spouse with a place-bound job, children who go to school, a religious community with needs, or elderly parents to care for. These very well might be more significant and fulfilling pursuits than the accomplishments Mr. Ferriss enjoys as a "professional polymath." And most people have less spectacular success in their money-earning; Mr. Ferriss claims his vitamin supplement business now runs via the self-sufficiency of underlings, and "kicks off a high five-figure personal income every month," freeing him to gallavant to Scotland, Sardinia, Vienna and Bratislava (over the past two months alone).

Still, there's a useful lesson here: You don't need all the gadgets and gizmos. You don't need to be available (except to the kids and elderly parents) 24/7. If you want to communicate, you can pick up the telephone. If you want to jet to Rio, then schedule it. Every day is a possibility, and on the day Timothy Ferris taped a pilot for an adventure TV show in Japan, you probably sat at home reading the Sunday Style section. And as for me, better to be writing my book than reading about some guy whose greatest pride, evidently, is what he can do...for himself.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Fuel of Inspiration

I am busily working, writing about everybody's favorite topic: slavery. In benevolent sympathy, my dear friend bestowed on me a most useful and appreciated gift...some excellent chocolate. She read my previous post, on how I keep almonds and chocolate chips on my desk for fortification--and decided to upgrade my stash. In what can only be called a most thoughtful expression of support, she brought over some Chocolove 65% cocoa rich dark chocolate. On the inside of the wrapper is a Christina Rossetti love poem. But you need go no farther than your first bite to feel the affection...this is really good stuff. Kosher. Yummy. Eat it. Thank you, Nika!!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Best Friends Forever

Some friendships just keep going. Those are the ones you treasure--with the girlfriend who shared ninth grade, and endured the laughable honors teacher; who went to the same college with you, and then settled down to raise her family on your same street.

I have a friend like that. We went to Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. We went on to UCLA, though we weren't terribly close during those years. In fact, though she was living within three miles of me, we really didn't reconnect until we found ourselves in the same close-knit Jewish community, she with a newborn, me about to wed. Turned out she raised her five kids just one door away. My son was born just a year after her youngest child, a daughter--on the same day.

It's truly a blessing to have a long-term friendship that transcends just about everything. Though I moved to the Northwest a decade ago, we still speak every week, and we sign our emails "BFF." Despite the fact that our children keep growing--even out of the house to college--we two feel like we're still in Hami High.

Well, unfortunately, my dear friend recently endured one of life's traumas. Her cousin, our age, just died of cancer. It's one thing when a classmate gets in an auto accident when you're young--it's a shock, but it's a fluke. When your parents die, even if they're elderly, you suffer, because they're supposed to be your protection from the world; they're the source of your security. My friend and I endured those passages together.

Now, losing her cousin is getting just a little too real, too close. News of my friend's loss came at the same time I heard that my across-the-street neighbor, a young father, was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Memories of my earliest days with my friend are obscured in shadow. Kids then didn't have digital cameras or cell-phones that took images in megapixels. The only photos we had were from important occasions or holidays, when our dads took a roll of 24 or 36 shots that were expensive to develop. I had a camera with a little film cassette that you dropped in the back, but I didn't think to use it most of the time. Who had money for such things?

Now, however, we email each other visual updates of our kids, and when she comes up to visit, I snap moments onto my 2-gig card with abandon. Having photos actually makes images permanent, and brings me back into the original scene. Most every memory makes me smile. As my BFF goes through this tough transition, I feel for her--but look forward to weaving lots more happy times into this colorful life tapestry we share.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Clocks "Falling Back" and the Search for Bright Light

Did you remember to spring forward, and now, this weekend, fall back? Even though we get an "extra" hour of sleep--or work, or weekend--I really dislike this end to daylight savings time. I love the sun, and its warmth, and its brightness--after all, I even named my blog "searching for bright light." Living in the Northwest, we have greater extremes of light than most of the US, and FAR greater extremes than I grew up with in Los Angeles. But even there, I recall being thrilled and delighted as the summer solstice approached, and the light lingered until 8:30 pm. Here, in the Seattle area, the summer solstice brings light until 10 pm, and the sun comes up by 5.

And of course, winter brings the reverse. We wake up in the darkness starting in early October. Even after daylight savings time leaves, with that "extra" hour in the morning, it's not light till 8 am. But of course our famous cloud cover often means it's never truly light at all. And then, by 4:45, it's dark again.

Lots of people buy "light boxes" to stave off "seasonal affective disorder," which is depression caused by lack of light. I bought one myself, though it's stayed in the closet many years because I just don't have time to sit there in front of it. The light box perches on my table and emits really strong, bright light in the sun spectrum. I purchased it from a place called "the Indoor Sun Shoppe," renowned for its uber-
selection of mood-enhancing light boxes. (I call it the Indoor Sun Shop-ee because of that silly spelling).

When God made the world, He said "V'yhee ohr," Let there be light. Not, "let there be rotations of the earth around the sun, creating night and day," though that did happen later. No, the creation of light is something special, something symbolically spiritual. "I see the light!" means, "I understand!" We require light
to see, for our eyes to work. The pop song goes, "I can see clearly now, the rain has gone...gone are the dark clouds that had me blind...It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshine-y day!" In other words, light=happy and good and insightful, while dark=ominous, sad, blind, stymied.

In Scandinavia, Lucia Day celebrates the return of lengthening days after the winter solstice, and once the days reach their peak, the Midsommer Festival revels in the brightness through the night. The universal association of winter with death, and spring with rebirth is a direct result of darkness and light, cold and warmth.

We love Chanuka, the festival of light, because it illuminates the darkness not only with candlelight but with the strength of Jews who fought the Hellenistic assimilation that threatened our connection with God.

So I really must fight the negativity that comes with turning back the clocks. I'll just doff my thermal underwear and several layers and put on my jammies early, cozy by the fire...ok, I'll sit right here by my computer, space heater inches away, drinking hot chocolate (with chocolate chips and almonds, of course) and focus on gratitude for every day I'm healthy, every moment my family's safe, every opportunity I have to express myself, accomplish important tasks and live in this great land. The good news is that even in the darkest time of year, neighbors are putting up colorful lights and singing songs and welcoming friends. We're all certainly too blessed to complain about such a small thing as having to reset our clocks.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ding dong..."Trickertreet!"

It's now November, and Halloween has passed without so much as a pumpkin seed sliming up my kitchen counter. I truly miss having little kids who get thrilled picking out a costume and carrying their orange felt bags to the neighbors' doors. They shout a single code word, "trickertreet!" that means "It's Halloween and when I say this you smile and give me CANDY!"

There's something wonderful watching your kids go to neighbors' doors with expectation and see the delighted residents asking about the costumes and waving and saying hi again after a year of busy lives. And at the end of the night, seeing the kids dump out their loot and sort the ones they like from the not-so-good ones (or the nonkosher ones, in our case) and hoarding and savoring their sweets.
My husband says this happy ritual teaches kids to be beggers and expect something for nothing--or worse, to present a threat and get rewarded! I don't know any kids who became beggers or muggers from trick-or-treating--sorry.
Is Halloween Jewish? Of course not, but neither is it Druidic or Celtic or Satanic. What we have in the United States every October 31 is a non-religious holiday that is uniquely American. We have every public school elementary teacher in the country decorating her classroom with jolly pumpkins and arched-spine black cats, and skeletons. Are these things scary to little kids? Not at all.

And when the big day arrives, there's the parade of costumes, all marching through the school as parents on the sidelines click snapshots, grinning and laughing and cooing and having a marvelous, and memorable time. Yes, occasionally mean teenagers pull vandalistic pranks, and stores sell far too many risque outfits in size small. But the reckless drunks would do just the same if the party were called for another reason, or not at all. The kids, meanwhile, get to be Princesses (the number one costume) or Spiderman (#2) or pirates (#3) and watch Dad carve spikey teeth into an overgrown orange squash.

So how did I spend Halloween? Sulking that I wasn't walking with my kids in the neighborhood, where I heard squeals and laughter echoing from the street. When the doorbell rang, I rushed with my platter of m&ms, Three Musketeers, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats to open the door to that chorus of "trickertreet!" and ask each child, "and what are YOU?" It's hard to grow out of being a kid, when those memories of years past are too vivid and heartwarming to forget.