Monthly Archives: May 2011

Transience

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Avatar, an Australian colleague, asks me about the state of tenure in the US. I blather on about tenuous tenure, a topic which years of tenurelessness has made me an expert in. I cite the latest statistics I’ve seen: “In 2009, only 24.4 percent of American faculty members were tenured or tenure-track,” according to a recent New York Times book review of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a book by bitter long-time adjunct Professor X who taught introductory courses that many students failed, as the students, he says, were “in some cases barely literate” (in case you don’t plan to buy the book, I’ll jump ahead: he’s going to suggest that university might not be for everybody. This might be very good news for those of you who are debating between putting your money into 529s for your less-than-brilliant children or into future passage for your hard-working self on the Crystal Serenity for a taste of LA, Papeete, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Cape Town, and London, with a few dozen at-sea days in between).

Technically, Avatar and I are about to find ourselves among (or increasing?) that untenured/untracked 75.6%. But you won’t find me complaining. My students will be far more than literate. I will have small classes of engaged, intelligent future Nobel prize winners. I will be mentoring my future senators and perhaps a president or two on an individual basis, discussing their ideas, helping them to refine their critical thinking skills, guiding them through the thickets of theoretical texts and their own sometimes muddled prose (that might end up in The Great American Novel). So I’m definitely not complaining.

Actually, I’m ecstatic.

But I might not be in 5 years.

Because that, my friends, is around the time I’ll be looking for a new job.

That’s the way it goes. Tenure might be a failing system, but it’s the system everyone seems to be upholding; the tenured want to keep their power, and the untenured want to gain that power.

And so–

The boys debate between them the next three places we’ll live. This is a debate they have taken up between them, without a word about future relocations from The Scientist or me. They just understand this to be life: first you move, then you move, then you move again. And each time, you’re the “new guy” and everyone comes over and checks you out and maybe, if you’re lucky, one or two of them also really likes Super Mario or Toy Story and then you pretty much have everything in common there is to have in common, and you’re BFFs–at least until the next move.

“I’ll do first and second grade here,” announces LL. “Then we’ll move to Miami to be near the alligators.”

“NO!” retorts Cool J. “There are way more alligators in New York. Remember how many we counted in the sewers?”

“Oh yeah! I think it was 426!”

“I think it was infinity alligators.”

“Would you rather go to Your-ami?” (Much laughter here. Tell this joke–this Mi-ami/Your-ami bit–to children under 6, and you will be the equivalent of Jackie Mason for the alter kockers) (Did you know Jackie Mason is still alive, by the way? I have friends going to see him in Long Island this week. One of them is not even 35. But I guess alter kockers come in all ages).

“I want to go to where Dada’s from next. If we live there, we can play with all of his Lego.”

“What about The Tower of Power? I want to go back to the Tower of Power.”

“The Tower of Power! It had a red elevator and a yellow elevator!”

(they are sidetracked for a while in the discussion of the elevators)

The Tower of Power

(a long while)

The conversation resumes another day, the thread intact: “How about Miami, THEN the Tower of Power, THEN Dada’s old house?”

“OK.”

“Does Baby MoFo get a say in all this?” I ask. Baby MoFo chooses not to talk yet, but the big boys regularly report on his desires (“Mama, the baby said he wants to watch Backyardigans.” “Mama, the baby said he wants a popsicle, but don’t worry–I’ll hold it for him.””Mama, the baby said he really really really really wants a Zurg Lego, and he wants to go to Target right now to get it.”).

“I think . . . ” begins Cool J. “I think the deer place. Yeah, that’s it. He wants to live in the deer place.”

(Nara, Japan: those were some impressive deer. They certainly got intimate with Cool J:

Or maybe he just remembers what a rock star he was–a Baby Sensation.

So here’s to the tenureless dream: every five years or so, pack up your bags. Find a place to live. Grasp a new culture or language or laws. Learn the the new job, the new schools, the new kids that come to your door from here and there and everywhere. Meet the kids’ parents, meet the work colleagues, meet the neighbor that comes by with homemade empenadas and grilled plantains. And of course: collect many more Facebook friends.

Are we exemplars of a 21st-century post-modern rootless cosmopolitanism? Not a chance. LL was born in one country, The Scientist and I in another. Throw in LL’s 4 grandparents, and you’ve added 4 more countries to our family tree. Their parents, our grandparents? Add another 4 countries. That’s 11 countries accounted for in 4 generations. There’s nothing new here. We’re not modern; we’re traditional–a family of Wandering Jews descended from Wandering Jews. . .

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Dear Self

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Remember how afraid Marty is of meeting his past-self and future-self in Back to the Future? Doc Brown made it sound really bad: he could explode the universe. Or disrupt the space-time continuum. Or erase himself. Or something crazy. Perhaps the effects of such a meeting would be less dramatic in real life.

You never know.

My past-self (though likely not the universe) might have imploded if she were to realize that none of her dream-children would ever be born. After all, she spent months, if not years, very carefully crafting the names of all her future children:

Anastasia Monique Chantal

Charity Ellsbeth (alt. Charity Elisant)

Chayara Nadiva

Little girls, perhaps you live in an alternate universe somewhere, wearing pretty pink dresses and hosting tea parties, or scorning pretty pink dresses and joining the Tea Party.

Today an envelope arrived in the mail. I looked at it, turned it over in my hands a few times, and then put it on the side table. Later, The Scientist came home and said, “Hey! You got mail!” Before I could stop him, he opened it. But to his surprise, inside the envelope he found another envelope.

Which is what I expected.

The second envelope was my reprieve. My chance to say: “Don’t open it!” My chance to collect myself just a little bit more. Not that I haven’t had 13 years to collect myself.

A few minutes ago, at The Scientist’s prodding, I decided to open the inside envelope. The one I had addressed all those years ago. The one from my past-self–Past Princess.

The letter was written near the end of the last century. It was written during a “mentor meeting”–one of the meetings I had with a college teacher who had greater experience than I, and who was an inspirational figure who taught me how to teach. And, apparently, to reflect. Because this letter was my assignment. “I’ll send it to you in 5 years,” he promised. “Just put it in an envelope and use an address that you’re sure will still be valid in 5 years.” I didn’t know that it would take him 13 years to put that envelope in the mail. The family house–our famous house with a Chai (we lived at #18)–has long passed hands, and passed hands again. It has been renovated inside and out, gained an addition, and even bears a new facade, not red brick, but gray stucco. It’s there, but not there, a big stucco sign of what once was. The letter should have disappeared into the recesses of the universe in all this time, like my childhood house.

Of course, I couldn’t forget that little assignment, and so, being the pain in the butt that I am, I found that brilliant mentor on Facebook (where else does anyone find anyone?) and asked for my letter-to-self, hoping, against all odds (13 years–who knows how many moves? how small the New York apartments? how tight the storage space?), he had retained it.

He had.

So there was my letter, ready to be read, and I was holding back. The reason I was so hesitant to open this letter is because I suspected some things: that I had had great ambitions that weren’t fulfilled. That I hadn’t been nice about The Scientist. That I had been nicer about the guy I was dating–some Law Student who had a number of strange quirks. (On the first or second date, he latched on to the fact that our birthdays were 9 days apart, just as his parents’ birthdays were, but when I casually mentioned a few dates later that I had no plans to change my last name upon marrying, he flew into a blind rage and declared that HIS wife and HIS kids would bear HIS name. I’m not really sure why my last name was so relevant to him–he hadn’t so much as given me a peck on the cheek at that point [did I mention this was the 5th or so date?]. Fastforward a passage of time, and we’re on another date/post-date/past-pecks: he picks up the phone to call his dad in California while we are in the middle of engaging in an activity that was not eating dinner to ask Dad about the potential effects of certain meds on certain parts of his body [Dad was not a doctor, by the bye]. . . . The relationship didn’t last long.)

I remembered correctly. I did write about Law Student. And I am pleased to see that rather than declare my sappy, pathetic enthrallment with him, I made a brief prediction and was pretty much dead on: “As for our [Law Student], future icon of the bourgeoisie, I can only imagine he will just be the vaguest of memories . . . some lawyer out in California that I knew . . . once.” CHECK, Past Princess!

As for The Scientist, I was a little off. I claimed that he preventing me from meeting my bashert. How could I have known that he was my bashert? Even then, not dating him, barely speaking to him, I write: “I love him today and have loved him for oh so long!” And yet I didn’t know he was my bashert. How silly I was.

I mean, really silly. Because it was not that I was so ambitious then, but so wrong about how I ought to be pursuing my ambitions. I thought graduate school the holy grail. And yet, I thought, in writing my letter, that I was going to leave grad school, and this idea terrified me:

“What will I be doing 4 mos. from now nevermind 4 years? (Consulting? Studying? Teaching?). It scares me so much to leave this place despite the ‘I’m going out to the real world to make money’ bravado.”

Oh, Fear!

Oh, 24-year-old Self! You should have gone out into the world and made money!

Alas, I did not. And so I became the Poor Princess. Although, also, the happily married Poor Princess.

*                    *                *              *                *              *              *               *              *

I end with an assessment of my world, a philosophical summing up of all that is important, and a question that I think significant enough to allow my future-Self to truly reflect on Life and all that it’s worth:

“Today I’m 24. My grandmother is alone and lonely. My brother-in-law just had his 32nd birthday. My sister is 9 months pregnant. My rent is going up to $1430US next month. Kitty is 12. Daddy should be retiring soon, and Mom leaving her school. And that’s my life, I suppose.

“LOVE, ME.

“PS: Oh by the way, Dear Future Self — Do you still do those teeny bikini waxes, leaving only an itty-bitty Hitler ‘stache?”

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Bagel Anyone? The Story behind the Story

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Re: Bagel Anyone?, you might have been wondering about the title. To bagel. As in, to indicate yiddle mcfiddleness to one you suspect of same. Like when you turn to a stranger and mumble something about the chazzerai they’re serving at the diner you’re in, or conspicuously flash that chai pendant you usually hide beneath your collar. You make a comment about the real reason that Baby couldn’t date Johnny (hint: it’s not because he was a dance teacher) or the implicit ending of Keeping the Faith (spoiler: she’s converting). You switch from calling your baby “sweetie pie” to “bubbelah.” Loudly. Just as my gas station attendant turned to the guy who pulled up behind me the other day and slapped him on the back, calling him “compadre,” without knowing the man’s name or story, we too can often intuit a fellow neshama. Or so we might think. I can’t take credit for the term “to bagel.” Somewhere, in the fashion world, oddly enough, a style mountie knows the origin. Let’s hope he sees this post and gives credit where it is due.

For the record, I also can’t take credit for being Sarah. Or Pam. Or Leah. They’re purely fictitious. Characters who allow me to, in Tim O’Brien’s words, create story-truth when happening-truth doesn’t cut it.

But if you wanted to know the happening-truth that inspired my tale of bageling, here’s what really happened in the library:

I had been in this town for all of two weeks. Christmas wreaths seemed to grace every door. Many were stately, impressive, imposing. Despite being back in the New York area, I was feeling as Jewish as I had in Western Canada, where I taught The Merchant of Venice one semester and made the mistake of asking the class, before we began to look at the text, what the word “Jew” meant. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, my friends. And to make things worse, I thought I would help them re-think their responses by outing myself as a Jew, but I think all I managed to help them do was apply the series of epithets they had offered a moment earlier to their teacher. Their teacher, the Jew. Just like Shylock.

So maybe I wasn’t feeling quite that Jewish, but I was aware of the mezzuzzah in lieu of a wreath at the entrance to my home and the fact that I was sending my kids across the state when a very good public school was across the street.

I’m in the library, in the little cafe there, sitting beside two older, patrician women. One wears her soft gray hair pulled back in a chignon; the other looks as though she’s just left the salon. The first wears pearls, the second a silk scarf. They are discussing Trisha Brown, which is why I begin eavesdropping. I know nothing of modern dance (“dahnce,” I hear them say), but it happens that Chanda once dated this particular choreographer’s son. I never got to know him well, but I fell in love with his Soho loft, one of those vast spaces in a converted warehouse that his mom got, practically free, back in the 60s. He also drove a cool car.

I’m so immersed in their conversation–and my own recollections of that famous mother, the fabulous flat, and the pimped-out ride–that I don’t even notice what one of the women notices: Baby MoFo has slipped in his high chair and his head is tilted back precariously. “Watch his keppy!” she cries.

The town appears WASPy. But, claims the mother of one of my son’s two busmates from his far-off Jewish school, scratch the surface of these WASPs and you may be surprised to find a Jew lurking beneath.

Sarah Smith, Pam Brown, and the rest of you, there’s a special place in the local Presbyterian Church cemetery for you with a gravestone that, in death, as in life, can bagel. It won’t have a Star of David on it, but it will, like the handful of other gravestones in the cemetery unadorned by a cross, bear a flat top that will be laden with pebbles, picked up by your loved ones, and left there to commemorate you, as Jews have always commemorated their dead.

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Bagel Anyone?

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My new town. Here is a glimpse of a typical home in the Winter–

And here in the Spring–

The talk around town is about tennis and golf, not the Yankees. The kids play lacrosse. Families escape, in the summer, to their vacation homes on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Sarah Smith is in the library in my town with her daughter Lexi when she sees another mom walk in with a little girl who could be Lexi’s twin–same bouncy brown curls, same dolphin-framed glasses making her eyes appear too large for her head, even the same trip-along gait. Sarah strikes up a conversation with the mom, whose name, she learns, is Pam Brown.

No clue there.

“I haven’t seen you around here before. Have you lived here awhile?”

“We just moved from the City,” confesses Pam. “You?”

“We moved a few years ago. Upper West?”

“Tribeca.”

Oh.

Maybe not.

Sarah gives her new acquaintance the once over. Pam has sleek hair that no doubt once looked like her daughter’s but has been straightened into submission–Japanese straightening or Chi? Surely once also dark like her daughter’s, it is a pretty melange of caramels, coppers, and golds. She wears casually nice mom clothes–a loose cotton shirt with a boat neck, designer jeans, and ballet flats–and she has a diamond the size of a marble perched on a thick platinum band on the fourth finger of her left hand.

“Did you move here for work?” Sarah asks.

“My husband’s,” confesses Pam. “He’s a dermatologist.”

Sarah becomes more confident. “It’s really hot in here, huh? I am shvitzing like crazy.”

Pam looks at her blankly.

She tries again: “They say it’s better to drink hot drinks when you’re hot even though you’re desperate for cold ones, but I don’t know–I think it’s a bubbemeise.”

Nothing.

In walks another mom, this one with a little boy clad in Star Wars paraphernalia top to bottom. They hear the mom call the boy “Levi.” The new mom gravitates toward the other moms, looks them both up and down, introduces herself as Leah, and nods toward the door she has just entered by. “It just started shpritzing out there,” Leah declares. “I think it’s gonna pour! I wish I had thought to schlep my umbrella. I guess we’re all stuck here for a while. What treyf do they serve in the caf here?”

Pam looks at her blankly. Sarah smiles.

Another day, Sarah and Leah get their kids together with some of Lexi’s boy-cousins to play a little soccer:

And Sarah, who doesn’t have a bee problem, puts a sign up by the front door:

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Living on the 49th Parallel: Unheimlich

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On Facebook this past Friday, I declared my contempt for the royal wedding. Or rather, what it symbolized. Yes, Kate Middleton is lovely (if, poor thing, she is forever forbidden from playing Monopoly), her dress was beautiful, and all those stand-up hats were a sight to behold!–

Princess Bea and Mrs. Posh: two examples of the royal wedding’s millinery madness 

-but as I self-righteously stated, the royal wedding is “a reminder that Canada is still, hideously, a monarchy and not a republic. That one day Will, the future head of a foreign state, will be on OUR money.” A phone chat with The Great White Chef–a friend in western Canada–as well as 32 comments on Facebook–revealed that many thought I was a cynic, that I should remember that I am a subject of the Queen (how dare she subject me! I do not care to be subjected to her will or her Will, and if I am to be, at the very least I should be able to work in her country without having to obtain a visa!), and that I should be grateful for “free” healthcare (isn’t that what those hefty Canadian taxes pay for?). GWC sounded triumphant: “Now you have confirmed what I have always suspected,” she gloated, “You and The Scientist are NOT Canadian at all. You never were. You’re Americans in a witness protection program.”

Funnily, she’s not the first person to say as much. It’s not merely my anti-royalist feelings, but also my accent, my love of Target and Amazon.com and Peet’s coffee and San-Diego-style weather, my frequent trips south, maybe even my religion (one student in western Canada told me that I was like watching Seinfeld reruns; another, a rare Jew, asked me in hushed tones if I, too, were Jewish, and when I said I was, he grinned ear to ear and whispered loudly, “That’s! So! Cool!”), my boredom with Canadian fiction (so much poetic language, so little action), my utter lack of interest in the North (one of our friends wrote a book and films documentaries about the extreme high Arctic; GWC and her husband, St. Paddy, spent 10 years living in Inuvik, in the northern Northwest Territories, where the sun sets for a month at a time . . . Wouldn’t it be funny if you were an observant Jew and accidentally got stuck there on a Friday in mid-December? Your Shabbos would be over some time in mid-January! Hope there’s an eruv! Hope you remembered to turn on the bathroom light!), my unfamiliarity with such words as “parkade,” “toque,” and “parka” (the latter two not quite unheard of so much as not used in my daily life!), my fear of the temperature dropping to -40 and hanging out there for days on end (-40 for 40!), that seem to mark me as “unCanadian.”

But how do I fare here? I am certainly not American. Admittedly, I am rarely accused of being a foreigner, but once I out myself, suddenly people magically hear an accent (“I knew I heard you say ‘aboot’!” What–I’m a Newfie?). They want to discuss how bad universal healthcare really is (“You have to wait, like, 100 years to see a new doctor there, right?” To which I confess: “I’ve heard of such things, but it’s hard to say.” In Canada, LL got nursemaid’s elbow, and we called up our favorite pediatrician and darling doctor-friend, the Flying Dutchman, who was at our house minutes later to fix it. The Scientist exhausted himself packing up our house, and our sweet doctor-friend, Mrs. 1950s, took him over to see our other doctor-friend at the ER, Dr. Jolly Green Giant. Ankle–twisted or broken? The Scientist scanned his x-ray over to a radiologist doctor-friend, Dr. Snarky, and got his answer in seconds. Moles? Already checked out by three dermatologist doctor-friends–none are cancerous, thank goodness!). Everything I say that is what they say is adorably wannabe-American (on the dance floor of the Orient Express, Jerusalem, 1993, bopping to “It’s Raining Men.” Poor Princess: “Wicked!!” Boston Boy: “Wicked!!!!!” BB: “Wait a minute–” –stops dancing–“Did you just say ‘wicked’?” PP: “Yeah! This song is wicked!” BB: “But only WE say ‘wicked.'” PP–stops dancing–“We say it too.” BB: “No way! You must have heard one of us say it.” PP: “No.” BB: “For sure! You did. That’s so cute! You’re like an American!”). And everything that I say that is not what they say is adorably Canadian, even if it’s not (Me: “Wow, there’s a huge lineup outside the CVS. You would think they’re giving away drugs today.” Boston Girl: “That’s so cute. We in AMERICA don’t say ‘lineup’ to describe a ‘line.’ We use ‘lineup’ to talk about what happens when you’re trying to pick out a criminal from a group of guys–that’s what we call a lineup. A CVS doesn’t have a lineup! Teehee!”)(“It’s not ‘Lego’ for the plural–it’s ‘Legos!’ Canadians are so funny.” Actually, Lego, a Danish, not American company, does not pluralize itself. They pluralize the bricks. As in ‘Lego bricks.’ For the record.).

With a zip code but a complete incomprehension of American healthcare (“THIS IS NOT A BILL. ER visit cost: $1,056. Your insurance paid: $223. You owe: $0.” Huh??), the more typically liberal biases of and voting rights in Canada but a disdain for the Canadian passport (why is there a unicorn on the front of my passport–am I from a fairy kingdom?, and why does The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada have to request “in the name of Her Majesty the Queen,” that “the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”?), I am neither here nor there, not quite this and not quite that. I am “unheimlich” (unhomely, the literal definition, rather than “uncanny”)–a creature both familiar and foreign to my North American peers . . . kind of like this hokey unicorn:

Canada’s coat of arms: What’s hokier–the lion holding up a maple leaf or the unicorn?

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