Category Archives: Fiction

The Better Story

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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.”

Hmmm.

“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.

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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Fiction: “Inside the Life of a Harlequin Heroine” by Poor Princess (Part I)

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“So, what’s it like?”

“Like anything else. It’s a job. We all have to work for a living, don’t we?”

“But, it must be so glamorous! So exciting!”

“Most of the time it’s pretty dull, actually. What can I say? There are occasional perks. Travel, for one. A reputation that precedes you, making you feel like you’re hot shit. But . . . I don’t know. Mostly boring stuff. Warm, fuzzy, family shit with humdrum work crap on the side—vanilla ice cream and hot apple pie. And . . . . well, I guess you could say there’s a little bit of whipped cream on top, you know what I’m saying? You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t! Do tell.”

“Oh, if I have to spell it out . . . A morsel of masturbation material, that’s all. Just enough to make a girl feel creamy.”

Andover, Massachusetts has been transformed into a winter wonderland. It is early. Dawn has broken but Concord Lane is silent, with only the hushed whispers of long-dead ghosts who once wandered here, perhaps after tossing their tea into the harbor or putting the latest witch on trial. Leila is the first one outside, and she pulls her mother by the hand into the crystalline paradise. The two smile at each other and appear as mirror-images. Both sport long thick dark tresses, Mediterranean skin, and soft pink lips turned up at the corners; they differ only by their 20-year age difference and the color of their eyes. Where her mother has two coffee beans for eyes, warm, soothing, and full of love and comfort, young Leila has inherited her father’s two bright, shiny Irish emeralds that catch the light and reveal a hint of impishness in her.

Right now there is something impish in the eyes of both mother and daughter. “Race you!” calls out Leila’s mother, and begins to run, without letting go of her daughter’s hand.  The two dark figures run, hand in hand, up the hill of white that is now their front yard. They fall onto their sides simultaneously and roll down the hill, shouting and laughing and breaking the cold New England silence.

“Mother, I’m freezing!” shouts Leila at the bottom, trying to catch her breath between convulsive giggles. She pulls long strands of black hair out of her eyes, searching for the source of that echoing laugh that meets her own. “Mother? Mother!” She begins to dig in the sparkling white mound before her. “Mother! Mother! Mother! Where are you?” Mother!” Her voice becomes imperious. “Mother, come out of that snow bank right now!” Snow begins to fall, rapidly picking up pace and heading, it seems, directly into Leila’s widespread green eyes. “Mother!” she yells, nervous now. “I hear you, Mother! I hear you!”

But Leila could not see her mother. As the snow fell thicker and harder, Leila struggled and at last slipped into the cold white void, still hearing her mother’s soft, kind laugh ringing in her ears.

And then she awoke. Shivering. Crying.

Why had her mother left her?

I don’t really have these nightmares, and my mother is actually alive, a sturdy-shoed flat-jowled woman who has never been satisfied with her life. But the female literary role models dictate a dead mother—the cute ones like Annie and Anne of Green Gables, the nymphette Lolita, the strong-headed Belle of the Ball, Scarlett, and every last lady of fairytaleland.  So “Leila” will have a dead mother, and a dramatic story to go with it.

I am not a nurse, a nanny, or a model, but there is pressure for me to play one. Here is a little of my true tale: Born Marie-Thérèse Charron, I am the granddaughter of Woonsocket, Southbridge, and Lowell millworkers, immigrants from Trois Rivières, Saint-Ours and Chicoutimi, and residents of local Petits Canadas. French-speaking devout Catholics that they were, these blue-collar Quebecois believers raised rebellious sons and daughters who dreamed of an America they didn’t quite live in. Grace Metalious exposed the hypocrisy of their small town lives, and Jack Kerouac channeled his Canuck alienation into a dark, ethnic figure who had to share his road story with an all-American Gene Autry-like modern cowboy. But these rebels settled down and began to breed, too, more devoted to the bottle than the parish, and what more can I say? Little Marie-Thérèse lived a pretty normal life; I can’t complain much. Birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, new clothes for the first day of school, the afterschool job at Hollywood Video. A father who went on week-long binges and threw plates in anger, and once put his fist through the drywall in the hallway. A brother who got a girl pregnant at fifteen and took off, who knows where. He stays out of the story. A brother who was what people called “simple”; he swept up hair at an old-fashioned barbershop, and collected it in clear plastic bags, daily labeled, nobody knew why.  A brother who got high so often he became a weed connoisseur, grower of Jack Herer, White Widow Bio, BubbleGum, Purple Haze; he would one day compete at the Cannabis Cup Competition in Amsterdam with his special breed, Black Velvet. A mother who never approved of her daughter’s choices. Boys with bad acne, back-alley blowjobs, a 12-year-old K car. It was an American life.

On her twenty-second birthday, a radiant Leila Kelly clutched a Harvard degree in her right hand. As her father called out, “One, two . . .,” she quickly smoothed her long dark hair—her mother’s hair—tussled by the cap-toss, and grabbed her two older brothers to be by her side in the picture. It was important that they share this day with her. Neither had gone to college—it hadn’t been an option when they were growing up. After their mother’s death, the Kelly family had suffered greatly. When Leila was four, their family left their pretty colonial neighborhood in Andover for a dark corner of industrial blue-collar Lowell. John Kelly left his law practice to become a factory worker. “I needed to be doing something with my hands,” he told Leila when she was older. “I just didn’t want to think anymore. I wanted something brainless; I wanted something I could throw myself into, so that I wouldn’t have to think of your mother. Of my Maryam. My Persian Princess.” When Patrick and Gerald finished high school—and John certainly made sure his two sons did that much—they both joined their father for long days of hard labor in the factory—and long nights of hard drinking in O’Reilley’s. But no one would let Leila suffer the same fate. “You’re the Persian princess, now,” Patrick explained one day, “for all of us.” And as such, all the money that didn’t go to the foul-smelling whiskey that Leila so despised was deposited into an ever-growing account intended for one purpose only: Leila’s college tuition.

Leila knew the day she marched in Harvard Yard should be the happiest day of her life, but she couldn’t help having mixed feelings. Glancing at her two brothers—both white-skinned carrot-tops like their father—she felt love and gratefulness. They had sacrificed so much for her. But she also felt sadness. Why had it been necessary to “sacrifice” so much for her?  Leila often wondered. Patrick and Gerald were older than Leila and had suffered the loss of their mother much harder. Had they, too, felt the need to pour their sadness into their work? Her brothers had been full of potential. Patrick had been a straight-A student throughout his school years and had earned a full scholarship to Boston College. A scholarship he had turned down. And Gerald could play the trumpet like no one but Louis Armstrong could. He couldn’t tell a music note from a Japanese character, but put his instrument in his mouth and the glories and wonders of New Orleans jazz floated out like magic. The trumpet converted the woes of the world into wonders. All his anger and all his anguish went into that trumpet, and the result was sheer heaven.

And then there was Father. There was no one in the world Leila wanted to please more than John. Headstrong and stubborn, yet loving and tender, John was Leila’s hero.  Despite his propensity for drink brought on by the death of his loved one, he was a man of values, and he was sure to pass on those values to his most precious possession: his daughter.  John taught Leila to work hard, to do good in the world, and to cherish her family. And he taught her something else, not through words, but through his life—that for every person, there is a partner, a soulmate, a “one true love.” It was for this reason that John had never married again. It was for this reason that he had given up his life of law and luxury when his wife died. For at that moment, his life died.


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