Category Archives: Books

The Better Story


life-of-pi-book-coverThe Scientist’s favorite book is Life of Pi. One day, shortly after we were married, I listened to the book on tape (literally tape) during my long commute to work, one that passed several entries into Manhattan and thus could be not only long but gruelingly Shantaram long. The book is about the victory of science: Pi trains the tiger through classical (or is it operant?) conditioning, allowing the two of them to cross the ocean together without either being killed. When I got home, I told my scientist-husband that he would enjoy the book. This was, of course, the same husband who had recently informed the rabbi who married us that he felt uncomfortable with the way the date was written on our ketubah–“in the year . . . since the creation of the world“–since the world had not been created 5000 and change years ago as any good scientist and rational human being recognized (to his credit, Marrying Rabbi, an Orthodox but logical rabbi–not a contradiction in terms, it seems–wholly agreed and soothed The Scientist by telling him that we Jews speak in parables).

That evening, The Scientist bought Life of Pi and stayed up through the night reading it cover to cover.

Afterwards, we discussed it. Back then, we used to hold our own, romantic, two-person book club. As a mom, I go a different route: I hang out with a bunch of other moms so we can drink wine, bitch about our husbands, and discuss how birthing multiple babies ravaged our hot bods. But I was a newlywed then.

Funnily enough, while The Scientist was interested in what or wasn’t an accurate representation of conditioning, he also loved the parable part of the story. It turns out we Jews not only speak in parables; we like reading them, too. But it wasn’t just that the tiger story was a parable. “What I appreciated was the way it came back to the beginning,” reported The Scientist. “To that ‘I was told you have a story that would make me believe in God’.” “Huh?” I say. That was how we discovered that the book-on-tape version excised the “Author’s Note,” which was in no way actually an “author’s note,” to be read as a thing outside of the story itself except in the way that Lolita‘s “Foreword” is an “author’s note” (Oh, Nabby, you tried to confuse us by telling us Haze rhymes with the heroine’s real surname and tease us by inserting your anagrammatic self, Vivian Darkbloom, while incidentally mentioning the death of Mrs. Richard F. Schiller along with the details of a bunch of minor nobodies–you sly dog, you) (And if you were wondering what my favorite book is, now you know). But anyway, after I read the book (and thus ended my brief and inglorious love affair with books on tape), I agreed. It was not just a good parable; it was a great piece of theology. Boy searches for meaning of god through Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, but ultimately Boy uses science to keep alive. Yet, this is not about the victory of science (though perhaps it’s a bit of a Gouldian tale of non-overlapping magisteria?). Boy does not lose love of god using science; instead, he decides that if given the choice between life given meaning through God and life given meaning through science, God is the better story.

(Though you might remember that both the atheist –the believer in science–and the religious man–the believer in God–are held up as believers and therefore people willing to make a leap of the imagination–“Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them — and then they leap” . . . “Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might [when dying] try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”)

Natch, it was more because of all the scary tiger stuff, and the sparkly jellyfish, the Ang Lee show-offy cinematics, that made us think the kids might enjoy the film, which recently came out on DVD. It wasn’t theology.

The truth is, we don’t really talk to our kids about God in any serious way. In fact, the only time I remember The Scientist engaging the idea is when he told LL that Nietzsche killed God. I thought about our aversion to the subject this morning as I was reading this great post at Kveller, a site that was obviously made for me (a small part of me admits that the accuracy of that statement would be much greater were the site called Kvetcher instead of Kveller, but we ought not quibble about the difference. You know what Vladi says: “the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.”). In any case, the dad in this Kveller post thinks about how he talked to his kids about God when they were younger, and then asks the kids (now teenagers), and the son says, “I think you told us we could believe whatever we wanted about God, and you would support us . . . But then again, that’s the kind of thing you would say.” Shit. That’s a nice dad. I’m such a bitch. I do more of the Hashem-is-here-Hashem-is-there-Hashem-is-always-everywhere-and-he-knows-when-you’ve-been-naughty thing. Like this invocation, shortly after Cool J announced he was going to be a rabbi. We are heading into town, and he is being reckless. I yell at him: “Be careful crossing the street! Get off your scooter! That’s not safe!”Cool J scoots gleefully across the street, hits a rock just in front of the curb, flies to the ground.”You see?” I say (even more gleefully — told you I’m a bitch). “You know why you fell?” Cool J, standing up defiantly, dusting himself off: “Why?””Because you didn’t listen to your mom. So Hashem punished you.” Cool J, dismissively: “Oh please. I fell because there was a rock in my way, not because of Hashem.” And off he scoots. “Oh yeah? And who do you think put that rock there?!” I call out–but he’s gone by the end of “oh yeah.”

So when we show the kids the movie, I am surprised at how fixated they are on the second telling of the story–what I think of as the theological part of the movie. This is the part when Pi retells the story and the hyena becomes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan his mom, and Richard Parker Pi Patel. This is the part that ends with the Canadian writer asking which story is the real one, and Pi Patel asking which the writer prefers. The boys make me replay this part twice. When it comes to Pi’s question, I pause the film. “So–which do you prefer?” I ask.

They answer in unison: “The real one!”

Now, my kids are, as Mannahatta Mamma recently called hers, “Same recipe, different soup.” So you might imagine I’m surprised by the identical answer. I tease it out a little. “What does that mean?”

“The real one,” says LL. “The one we saw. With the tiger . . . and the hyena . . . you know, the real one.”

Cool J, an all-too-smart 5 year old, looks cynically at his older brother. “Don’t be silly. He wasn’t on the boat with a tiger. That was just the story part” (and I swear he hasn’t even read Tim O’Brien’s great bit on “story-truth vs. happening-truth”). (He’s not always so smart, mind you. The other day he consoled Baby MoFo, newly toilet trained, for hitting the wall with his stream. “I stand too close to the urinal and splash myself in the face–all the time,” reported Cool J).

Cool J continues: “Of course the real story was with his mom.”


“And what do you guys think of the way we’re attracted to a good story? About how God might be a story we’re attracted to, not because the being itself is a true being, as in a being up there or out there controlling us or listening to us, but an idea that gives us comfort because it’s easier to imagine a supreme being than randomness, than nothingness? What do you think of that?”

“Mama, can you press play? I want to see what happens at the end of the movie.”

“Yeah, can you? I want to see if the tiger comes back.”

LL this morning at his Torah Ceremony, happy with his burning bush God and undisturbed by theological questions.

LL (and a pal) this morning at his Torah Ceremony, newly received chumash in hand. He is happy with his burning-bush God and wholly undisturbed by theological questions.


The Poor Princess’s Tips on How [Not] To Pack and Move


A week before the move, anxiety levels start to run high. Believe me, I know. So here are the strategies I employ:

1. Try on everything you own. It sounds like busy work, but it is far more interesting than wrapping picture frames in 5 inches of packing paper. And it’s efficient! Why move with that hideous bubble gum pink satin skirt you wore to your brother-in-law’s wedding (thanks for that color scheme, by the way . . . I really owe you one). Or the fuschia shoulder-padded lace jacket you had made? Try them on, realize you will never wear them again, and on to Goodwill they go!

Sartorial sloughing

2. Listen to every CD you own. You might find some gems in there . . . or not. Do you still like Soundgarden? Roxette? Tripping Daisies? (yes, these are/were all in my collection). Do you only like one song on each CD? Then take the time to copy that song onto your computer and for goodness sake, trash the CD (or take it to your local record exchange shop — maybe you’ll make some money!).

Disc dump

3. Is your baby still a baby? And if not, is your womb retired? Then you probably don’t need that cocoon babycot, the car seat adapter for a baby seat, or that activity mat. Bye bye baby, and farewell pedaphernalia!

Farewell Pedaphernalia!

4. It’s possible that you’ve figured out the other activities I think are important by now, like looking through each of your photo albums as you prepare to pack them (and scanning some classics to Facebook that piss off your old friends — for goodness sake, so what if we all had big eyebrows, fat faces, and bad acne when we were 16? Get over it!). This is the time to smell the proverbial roses! Those photo albums just sit there and collect dust the rest of the year. But now is their time in the sun! (or at least your hands . . . and scanner).

To not completely be cut off from said old friends, I am not going to re-post the lovely pictures I put up on FB earlier today . . .

5. OK, we’re getting there. Time to relax. I did so by going to a ghetto fair today:

The very classy mouse roller coaster

6. This will be the final tip for now. Here it is: don’t forget you need your strength when you’re packing and moving! The Scientist eyed my dinner skeptically, but I was quite pleased with my inventiveness. I made a bowl of cannellini beans with a cube of frozen basil (clearing out one pantry item and one freezer item), followed by sunnyside up eggs with kimchi (two fridge items). I drank an unloved Trader Joe’s Vienna Style Lager with it (one more fridge item!).

. . .Now, hopefully you’ve figured out how to extrapolate from the above list. Have you watched all your DVDs to make sure you’re not moving with any scratched ones? (I did). Did you skim through all your books to see if they’re worthy of your bookshelf? (I did). (Dan Brown? Really?). You get the picture.

If you’ve really gotten rid of all the things I think you’ve gotten rid of, as I have, congratulations!! You have saved yourself money in packing materials and moving time so I think you ought to reward yourself for your hard work and achievements by calling your mover right away and telling him that with your extra money, you are going to have him pack up all your stuff before the move. That’s what I’m going to do!

Good luck!


Oberservation: Dressing the part in the Land of Duddy Kravitz


Duddy Kravitz and the unfortunate Yvette. He stood for the money-grubbing Sec Jews, she for the anti-Semitic but victimized French Canadians. Missing only in this picture of Laurentian life is the Orthodox icon, who in Duddy's time and by Richler's reckoning was not a young mom or dad with a dozen kids filling the playground by Lac des Sables, but the old man whose time was almost up. In the book, the country house Jews were made up of "the short husbands with their outrageously patterned sports shirts arm in arm with purring wives too obviously full for slacks, the bawling kids with tripledecker icecream cones, the squealing teenagers, and the grandfather with his beard and black hat."

Bullet-proof stockings, silk shmatas on their heads or pared-down-for-the-summer shtreimels, clothes that are long, loose, and often quite lux, the Chasidisshe Jews here wear many layers, despite the hot, humid summer air.

Cool J and a Chabad camp

LL among the 'lidges

Mini putting with a maxi family: our boys wait patiently behind a family of 11

Not so the Sec Jews. These are the ones that got to camp with LL and Cool J. Some are Shomer Shabbos, some strictly Kosher (some less so. Says one camp mom to another: “I was going to join the kids hiking today, but I’m fasting, so it’s probably not a good idea.” Replies the other: “Oh, for Tu Be’shvat?” The first: “Not quite.”). But all are Sec, surely, beside the Bobovers and Satmars, for whom they appear not even as Jews but rather a bunch of shiksas and sheygatzes. This group is made up, primarily, of ladies polished and groomed (their men, for the most part, back in the city, earning the money for that polishing and grooming). In their athletic apparel, they appear poised, at all moments, for a jog along Lac des Sables or yoga sur la plage.

Meanwhile, the French Canadians, with cigarettes dangling from their lips and peroxided hair, hold court by the lakeside casse-croute in their string bikinis and heels, calling to their one or two children (such measly families–such a switch from Duddy’s time–now the Bobover kids dominate with their 12 or 15 or 18 children, and the Secs don’t do badly with their 3 or 5 or 6). “Loic! Aurélie!” The children, boys and girls, wear their hair long, and these same children, boys and girls, are often only clothed below the waist.

And so, in the land where people are supposed to be divided into linguistic groups–Anglophone, Francophone, Allophone–they are instead separated by their apparel: the Chasids wear a lot, the Sec Jews wear Lulus, the French wear little.


Aim Below the Mark


I’ve failed to Get! A! Job! It must be because I like books too much. I want to be curled up under my blankets with a big fat novel, or, since that doesn’t really offer money for lattés or healthcare benefits, how awesome would it be to be paid to stand in front of a group of readers and talk about Lolita as a parody of 18th-century porn (hello, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure! You are a scintillating read!) and a response to the trial of Joyce’s Ulysses?

If it’s not my love of reading, it must be my reluctance to settle for all those awful jobs out there–you know, the ones where they tell you what to do or make you come in to work every day. Really, better to just stay home and stare out the window, salivating when people stroll by my house carrying their skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam (or so I imagine the contents of those Starbucks cups to be).

So there they are: work authorization aside, my two stumbling blocks to gainful employment. And they were borne out of the same pubescent period in my life. Eighth grade.

I was 14 and ready for something, and there he was, a teacher to stir my soul: Mr. Detroit, the passionate, imposing man in a gray (or brown) flannel shirt (adorned, simply, by a silver whistle on a lanyard). He had a sonorous laugh, a deep resounding voice, and a jolly demeanor that barely masked the storms that brewed beneath. If I said someone was bothering me–me, his pet–he wouldn’t scold that pest or send him to the principal’s office. He wouldn’t threaten detention or a dunce hat. He would pick up the pest’s desk, pest still in it, and throw it through the door and into the hallway. Then he would follow. The door would slam behind him. And we would all hold our breaths as the shouts echoed through the halls and under our door into our classroom, where all of us, his students made mute and meek, would have been petrified into a museum exhibit of sorry statues: a now-docile David, and a white-lipped Venus, a hangdog Hermes, a thought-free Thinker, and a once august Caesar Augustus.

Then he would return: eyes sparkling, goofy smile. “Where were we?”

That temper killed him.

He was from Detroit. I imagine that he came to Canada, Mr. Detroit, dodging the draft sometime in the early 70s, and he met a wife, landed a job, had some kids, settled there. Became one of us, without forgetting that motor city whose madness had made him who he was. He told us how his city had burned one day in 1967. He played us Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July.”

Mr. Detroit was an English teacher, a genre known to me, but not. He was in every way unlike my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Baltimore, a teacher who favored daily lessons on language mechanics with never a thought to what that language or those mechanics could do, and whose Southern accent intoning the phrase “If all else fails, read the instructions” drove me to distraction (and to a C in English). Mr. Detroit loathed teaching grammar. Once a week, to fulfill curricular duties, he would put a sentence or two on the board and ask us to identify the subject and predicate, or the nouns and verbs. Usually his sentences were very short:

“Dog bit boy.”

“Boy bit dog.”

Then he would quickly move on to the kind of English that inspired him–and us. Every Friday, he would have us perform a scene from a Shakespeare play. I was Cordelia. And Juliet. I was Beatrice, and Portia, and Lady Macbeth. And Viola. And Katherine before she was tamed.

Those were some of the perks of being the teacher’s pet. A role I received, incidentally, purely by virtue of being the sister of Nancy Botwin, who was the kind of student who always sat in the front of the class, always did her homework, and always raised her hand for every question. The kind of student, in other words, who was as much like me as Mrs. Baltimore was like Mr. Detroit.

At the end of the year, we graduated. I handed my yearbook to Mr. Detroit, and I asked him to sign it. He did. I closed the book as I had after each person had signed it, determined to savor their words at some later date when the world of junior high was long behind me. I was a romantic even then.

After graduation, we went on to sleepaway camp, and then to high school. I thought I would go back to visit Mr. Detroit. I had every intention of it. But it was my first year of high school, and I was busy. I had new friends and new hobbies. I didn’t drive. Then I heard a rumor that he had left the school, and I didn’t know where he was. Then he was dead.

I ripped through the pages of my yearbook to find what he written, not even a year before his death, to discover his words of wisdom, or a mark of his favoritism. But all he had left me was a cliché: “Aim above the mark.”


You wouldn’t think a line like that would do much for me, but you’re wrong. It dogs me now, when I think of applying to be a barista (all those free skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam) or a librarian’s assistant. Shouldn’t I stop applying to those tenure-track jobs and Society of Fellows fellowships, stop aiming above the mark? Maybe if I aimed below, I’d actually succeed.

But no, I’m stuck with that cliché–which has a literary origin, by the way. It was derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature“: “Aim above the mark, to hit the mark.” The section goes on: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration.” Brilliant, isn’t it?

That wasn’t a lesson on Lolita, but it’ll have to do for today.