Category Archives: Appearances

To freshmen, I am ancient: proof


Earlier this week, I screened the 1927 film, Old San Francisco for my seminar.  In class this morning, I asked my students if they recognized any of the actors. My students figured out (likely by way of imdb) that the Swedish actor, Warner Oland, playing evil Chinese Chris Buckwell, was the same actor who played the rigidly Orthodox cantor in The Jazz Singer, which came out a month later (we watched that film, too). But no one recognized Dolores Costello, who plays the beautiful and chaste Dolores Vasquez, set up by the film as the rightful proprietress of Californian lands, by virtue of being descended from Spanish Conquistadors (the film brilliantly elides San Francisco’s history as part of Mexico, casting Dolores as a pureblood European, and a contrast to the other sketchy ethnic types who try to take possession of her rancho and the rest of the city–only to be crushed by the 1906 earthquake).

dolores_costelloOK, I didn’t actually expect them to recognize her (even if she was the Goddess of the Silent Screen), but I wanted to see if anyone noticed a family resemblance to another actress.

I gave them a few facts about Dolores Costello: “She was the daughter of actors.”

“She was married to an actor.”

“She was the mother of an actor.”

“She was the grandmother of an actress — who is still acting today. Can anyone guess who that actress today is?”


Then: “She’s about my age. And she was a child actress. I am willing to bet everyone has seen, if not some of her recent romantic comedies, one of the films she did as a kid. It was a very famous movie. I saw it as a kid when it was out in the theater, but it’s a classic. You would have seen it.”

One student confirmed: “She was a kid when you were a kid?”

Me: “Yes.”

Silence while they all thought and thought (and held their googling fingers back).

I didn’t break the silence. I waited. And finally, the student who clarified the actress’s contemporaneity with me, piped up with a knowing response:

Shirley Temple!


. . . the ’30s star who died this past month, at the age of 85.

Giant sigh. If you know the number of a good plastic surgeon, it seems I need it. Send it my way!


Man Training


“You’re going for man-training lessons,” I told LL. “It’s like a bar mitzvah, only without the Jewish stuff.”

I chose my words carefully. I didn’t say etiquette class. I didn’t say ballroom dancing lessons. I didn’t say It’s this lovely WASPy institution or reform school. I thought there was no way the lately-defiant eight year old would go if I gave him a single detail about the program I had signed him up for. It was enough that he knew it was neither hockey nor soccer.

And just as I was mum on the name and the activities of the course (How to Make Small Talk, How to Answer the Phone, How to Use Your Silverware . . .), I kept quiet about the dress requirements:


Blazer or suit

Dress trousers (gray flannel or pressed khaki) — please, no cargo or casual pants

Dark socks

Properly buttoned dress shirt


Dress loafers

(On the lady-training side of things, parents were buying dresses, patent-leather Mary Janes, and the sartorial star: white gloves.). I just said, “Oh, can you try these on? I want to see if they fit. How about this shirt? Hey, I want to learn how to put on a tie. Can you come here for a second?”

“He’ll hate it,” said my husband.

“He’ll hate you,” said my neighbor.

“He’ll never go,” said my friend.

But you know what I say to the naysayers? Suck it!

He went:

The carefully attired third graders being herded into etiquette class

The carefully groomed and gracefully attired third graders entering etiquette class

He slouched:

Apparently the course should have started with How to Sit Up Straight.

Apparently the course should have started with How to Sit Up Straight.

He danced:

Gentlemen, find your ladies . . .

Gentlemen, find your ladies . . .

And then he came out to report to his brothers that it was . . .



Admittedly, the geniuses at the program end the class by having the boys give the girls candy, and vice versa.

Poor Cool J. “It’s no fair!” he declared jealously. “I want some–. I mean, I want to learn ballroom dancing and wear a tie!!!”

All in good time, my little one. All in good time!

After the Quota System


A couple of years ago, fresh off the long drive to my new princely town, I wrote about its remarkable WASPiness (here and here). But now I barely notice it, and I have even come to realize that among the professors and post-docs in The Scientist’s department–whose names are along the lines of Itai, Amichai, Shai, Oren, Shulamit, Michal, Shachar, Jonathan Goldberg, David Bloomenfeld, and Brice–it’s possible there are a few people like me (and that poor Brice is understandably confused when he shows up on Yom Kippur, which he might think is an ordinary Tuesday, and his lone voice echoes down the empty hallways. “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there . . . ?”).

If this town and the university at its centre still don’t quite advertise themselves as hotbeds of Yiddishkeit, that doesn’t mean my neighbors aren’t in a Klezmer band (they are) or that Baby MoFo can’t attend a local (non-Chabad) summer camp that will be conducted entirely in Hebrew next month (he is).

But it’s fun to see this princely town as I first saw it–to see it through the eyes of one first seeing. This afternoon, a beautiful, sunny day, the boys were off from school, and I took respite with an iced coffee and a chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (née Nathan Weinstein), a novella about an advice columnist with a Christ Complex (think the Bintel Brief in the hands of the other folks). A few minutes after perching on a bench outside the Starbucks with my cold drink, I saw, out of my peripheral vision, an elderly woman with thinning, carefully set white hair, polished nails shaped into old-fashioned ovals, and sturdy but not dowdy black patent leather shoes, sit down beside me. She watched me intently, clearly waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn’t (How often does one score a break from one’s kids to do nothing but sit and read and drink an iced coffee and enjoy the sound of silence and the sun on one’s face??). So she gave up waiting, and she cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. I marked my passage in the book–the protagonist is attempting to escape his despair through a pastoral fantasy and arrives in a rural world where the deer run wild: “The man said that there was still plenty of deer at the pond because no yids ever went there. He said it wasn’t the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.”

I look up.

“I’m just visiting here, and I was wondering–Are you a student here?”

I smile. “No,” I say, “I teach here.”

“Really?” Flattering though it might have been from someone a bit younger, the comment made me realize that when you’re in your 90s, college age and 30s seem equally and unattainably distant — kind of the way millions and billions of dollars seem equally and unattainably distant to this Poor Princess.

But it turns out there was something else she meant by “Really?”

She continues: “They let you in here?”

Me? A woman? A dark-skinned person? A Canadian?

She pushes further. “They welcomed you?”

“Yes,” I say hesitantly.

“With open arms?”

“I think so . . .”

“And are there others?” She gestures at my pendant.

modcloth 2

“Are there?”

“Yes,” I say. “There are others.”

“And what do you teach?”

I tell her.

“Do you teach them about us–your know, our stuff?” she asks.

“I do,” I say. “Do you know The Jazz Singer?”

“With Al Jolson?” She laughs with amazement. I wonder if she knew him. She lowers her voice. “And the goyim–they like it?”

“I think so,” I say.

“I don’t believe it,” she says.

“Believe it,” I respond. And we say our goodbyes, and I saunter off.

And when I get home, I remind LL that I am signing him up for ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons at Barclays. It’s a revered institution where children who use their chopsticks as swords and have other defects of manners (or circumcised bits) can learn to be proper, poised, socially sophisticated WASPlike little gentlemen and ladies. After all, we’re in a princely town. Barclays is by invitation only, but I might have an in– I hear there’s a Jew on the board.

Badass Brain Protection


I once owned a pair of Doc Martens, and they were seriously bitchin . . . except that they were lilac. My high school bedroom boasted a white eyelet canopy and bubblegum-colored walls . . . pasted over with pictures of Kurt Cobain. I love me a little girliness, but only when it’s got some badass, too. So to harden the pastel sweetness of my terribly feminine cream-colored Bianchi Cortina bike with its pretty pink basket, I picked up this helmet:


Baby MoFo’s cute keppy with my hardcore helmet

Strangely, I now give off the wrong impression when I walk into class with it. . . which might not be the worst thing.

Eying my head candy, a student asked one day: “Hey, do you snowboard?”

Me: “Nah . . . this is just for my bike.”

Another day, another student asked: “Hey, do you have a vespa?”

Me: “I wish!”

And today, a third: “Oh, wow. Do you drive a motorcycle?”

Me: “Goodness, no! I mean . . . just a little pink vespa.”

Student: “Cool!”

Poor Princess Meets Frankenstorm


At 4:21, I’m getting on an airplane to Go west, Young woman! —Not that I’m really young, but I’m about to behave as though I am. After all, here’s what I’m going to do when I arrive in Scottsdale, Arizona, where today’s high is 87 degrees and–what else?–sunny:

I’m going to meet with 7 other fantastic mamas from far-flung cities.

We’re going to go on an artwalk. We’ll eat. We’ll drink. Maybe dance?

Tomorrow, we’re going to get up early and go on a canyoneering trip. What’s that? Well, let me tell you: We get driven in 4x4s across the desert. We then hike and scramble; we rappel down waterfalls; we swim across crystal clear springs. We do some other stuff. It’s all insanely awesome and beautiful.

Check out the pictures.

Then, when we’re good and tired, we go home, quick shower, quick-quick beautification–

PP and Salsa Shaker — Jewish Mamas’ Annual — 2011

and then off to dinner at Cowboy Ciao where some of us will indulge in duckfat ice cream (and some of us will definitely not!). Where then? The night is young, and all that is calling our names in the next couple of days is the pool, long runs, perhaps a hike,  some shopping, lunches with aguas frescas, dinners with lots of alcohol, and who knows–maybe we’ll have to hit the V Spot again, as we did on one of our previous Jewish Mamas’ Annual Scottsdale Trip–

2010 –where we all learn the word “vagazzle” — but none of us were daring enough to try it. (Tatazzling seemed a safer bet).

Now there’s a business model I bet you didn’t think of!

Or maybe find a post-Halloween Halloween party–

The trip will end with me meeting some very old friends for a much-needed catching up. And I will return to my family happy, refreshed, and full of love.

It’s the perfect Fall Break and the perfect Girls’ Weekend. Which is why it’s the THIRD annual.

Except — poor, poor, poor Princess.

That’s not what is happening today. I can sing “I’m leaving on a jet plane” all I want (FYI–it’s Chantal Kreviazuk I’m channeling, not John Denver), but I am not leaving on a jet plane today, thanks to this baby–

Instead, I am huddled in my house where the temperature is not 87 or 77 or 67. It’s 53F.

I’m under 4 blankets with four other people and we’re all hacking away like a bunch of consumptives sleeping together in a freezing Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the 20th century.

From Jacob Riis’s time — not so different?

We have no heat, no electricity, no home phone service, no cell service, and no internet. When we’re not under the blankets, we’re smushed together in my office–surrounded by offices where people are trying to actually work–and fighting over the screens (oh internet, I miss you so!). And when we get good and hungry, we’ll wait in line with the rest of the town to get into the one restaurant that’s running. It’s all good.

I really really really want to leave on a jet plane today, but with roads blocked or jammed, and transit not running, there’s no way of getting to the airport and getting the fuck outta here. Poor, poor Princess.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman . . . and damn is that process expensive!


Here’s a picture of me and my sister, Nancy Botwin. You might notice we look nothing alike:

Shvester 2012
NB on the left, PP on the right

There are reasons biological (random dispersion of genes) and reasons behavioral. To wit: In the morning, I brush my teeth, take a shower, run a brush through my hair, throw on whatever clothes are lying on my floor or near the front of my closet, stick my helmet on my head (no “style” to ruin!), and take off to work (or the local, organic coffee shop) on my bike.

Nancy has never left the house with wet hair. After showering, she blow dries her hair for an hour, with a diffuser, and mousse, and whatever other special ingredients go into the mix. She brushes her teeth at least twice. She flosses. She puts on her makeup. She tries on a few outfits. And then she steps into her “sports car” (which is really not sporty at all, but it’s not a mini-van, and can’t fit all 4 of her kids, so to her is a sports car) and drives to work (or the mall).

Admittedly, in the picture above, I’m about as groomed as I get. Nonetheless, my hair, even here, is a bit greasy (I worked out in the morning and then sprayed on a little dry shampoo–which is nothing like real shampoo–to cover up my sweat), and the fake eyelashes I stuck to my lids quickly, without reading the instructions, are in the process of coming off.

My sister like to tell me that I’m the lowest maintenance woman she’s ever met. She regularly calls me a hippy.

And yet —

This “hippy” spends a pretty penny on waxing, threading, highlighting, pedis, and a few other such woman-becoming procedures because apparently even an academic, feminist, hippy can fall into the trap of buying into that whole feminine mystique thing.

Also, I’m afraid I would terrify people if I walked around in my natural state (as might NB):

Shvester 1989. A true “before” photo.
PP, a sloth, NB

The Congenial Academy


“Whatever you do, do not be nice to anyone. No favors. No help. No collaboration.

If you want to get ahead, only think of yourself.”

The speaker at the panel was not, as you might imagine, Gordon Gekko. The conference was not on Wall Street. The theme was not–quite–“greed is good.” This was, instead, a roundtable at a conference on ethnic American literature, and the speaker was a distinguished professor of English. The room was packed, more than any other panel I attended at the conference, as finishing graduate students looking for jobs, tenure-track faculty hoping for T&P (tenure and promotion), and even tenured associate professors hoping to become full professors listened and asked question after question. The title of the panel was “How not to Perish.”

I’m pretty sure my friends who are not academics think we’re all a bunch of hippies, the men too lazy too shave, the women too feminist to shave, everyone sitting around, wedged between books upon books, some piled in corners, some stuffed into milk crates or Ikea furniture. All are frizzy haired and bejeweled in some kind of “native” chunky jewelery purchased at a conference in Africa or India or South America or New Mexico, all busy thinking of ways to satisfy their Marxist, or better yet, lefty pinko dreams (I take these adjectives directly from my the lips of a family member), all completely disconnected from the “real” cutthroat, demanding world, evident, of course, in their not grooming (my sister, Nancy Botwin, tells me I’m the lowest maintenance person she’s ever met). We fight a lot, one imagines–against oppressive regimes, bankers, Republicans. That kind of thing.

The failures to wax, thread, shave, visit the hair salon, or apply lipstick aside, academics don’t strike me as dreamy idealists who spend all day writing petitions that no one will ever read. I wish, frankly, that were the case. Instead, I cannot help but note that this advice given by Distinguished Professor is the norm in academia. You think Wall Street is cutthroat? I can one-up you, Wall Street. Minus, of course, your fancy salary (but don’t worry–I am writing a petition against yours, you lowdown capitalist pig! I’m going to circulate it to all the class theorists I know!). How many times have I heard DP’s words from the mouths of advisors and colleagues? World peace, yes, but departmental peace? The word on the academic street is this: Screw all you all. I will get to the top (tenure, promotion, that book contract) by stomping on your head (of frizzy undyed hair) with my kick-ass steel-bottomed Birkenstocks.

Ah, what a world.

Now wish me luck on the job market ’12!