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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Star Wars, Again

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“What are Star Wars, Mommy?”

I was worried about seeing the new movie. I dragged my heels, afraid to be stuck in a movie theater, flooded with alienation and disappointment. The prequels were traumatizing, I guess. All of the hype and commercialization leading up to The Force Awakens has overwhelmed me, and I was worried that the old stars would just be there for cameos, and everything would be unfamiliar and boring and patched together.

Thank God I was wrong.

No spoilers, in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie, but I loved it.

When I was seven years old, my school bus passed a movie marquee every day where they counted down the days to the premier of Return of The Jedi. I don’t remember if I’d seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back by then, or just heard so much about them that I was caught up in the excitement.

We went to see Return of the Jedi on a Saturday night, and the first thing I saw was Jabba the Hut, and I was horrified. Maybe I was already tired, but after a few minutes of watching Jabba the Hut stick his tongue out, pull on Princess Leia’s chain and shake his snotty belly, I fell asleep as an act of self-protection. I didn’t even get to see the ewoks!

I made up for it later, though, and saw each movie too many times to count. I loved the ewoks. It’s not so much that I loved the idea of a race of militant fluffy creatures with high pitched voices, speaking a language I did not understand. I loved that they were the perfect combination of teddy bears and puppy dogs. I would travel to the planet of the ewoks in my mind and spend hours there.

As a kid, I did not identify “The Force” with religion, even though Obi Won Kenobi (Obey One?) was clearly a religious figure. The force, to me, was the unspoken energy in the world, all of the bits and pieces of connections and information and energy that no one talked about or acknowledged. The force was all of the things I knew but could not articulate and the air was thick with it. I could feel it. It was the ESP-like knowledge I had about people but couldn’t explain. I would notice a facial expression, or a tone of voice, or remember disparate pieces of information, and in some part of my brain all of that came together and I knew things no one had told me. All the time.

I didn’t think of it as something I could harness and use, for good or for evil. I thought of it more as the threads that kept me attached to other people, so I wouldn’t feel all alone in the world.

Obi Won represented a grownup who would teach me and protect me and be kind and reliable. He was not Yoda, who was always speaking in riddles and making me feel stupid and not good enough, and he was not Darth Vader or Jabba the Hut, using their adult power against me.

By the way, I did not appreciate the redrawing of Jabba the Hut, in George Lucas’s re-edit of the original films, where you could see the lost scene of Jabba walking with Han Solo. It was just wrong that he could walk, that he was thin enough to pass through a doorway. No. Jabba was a giant slug in a dark cave, the most disgusting, hedonistic, immoral creature ever witnessed. He was there to contrast with the clean, precise evil of Darth Vader. He was the Id run wild: killing, eating, taking whatever he wanted without conscience. He was never on a diet.

This Christmas Eve, friends of ours gave Cricket and Butterfly Star Wars toys, one of which I did not recognize (the new droid), and the other was a storm trooper. The storm troopers never really had much impact on me, except that when SUVs became popular, every time I saw a huge white SUV towering over me, I thought of the evil empire. The girls are ready to see the new movie, and all of the movies that came before.

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Butterfly thinks her storm trooper makes a nice pillow.

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Cricket won’t let the new droid out of her sight.

Butterfly is like an ewok, in looks and in personality. She is childlike, and stubborn, and full of love and loyalty. And she thinks Chewbacca is a tall drink of water. And Cricket would like to have a light saber and a droid of her own.

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“I’m an ewok?”

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The force is strong with this one.

I ate all of my popcorn before the movie even started, because we got there early thinking there’d be a line on Christmas day. But I didn’t need the popcorn to distract me during the movie. I know that Mark Hamill was the least successful of the three lead actors in the first three movies, but he was the one who stuck with me. He was the heart of everything, and if he hadn’t been believable, none of it would have worked. Luke was me, and I was riveted to my seat waiting to see him, and now I can’t wait for the next movie!

Maybe I’m too old for the training, but I want to be a Jedi. I wanted to be a Jedi way back when too, but now it actually feels possible.

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Christmas Movies

 

I have been gobbling down Christmas movies for the past few weeks. Partly because my regular TV shows are on hiatus, but also because the world is so upsetting and dark lately that a little true-love-wins-out is necessary.

I’m exhausted. I can’t quite tell if it’s about the political noise, or the news, or the end of my first semester in social work graduate school, or the endless disappointment of getting my writing rejected that’s wiping me out. I just feel like my motivation tank is getting close to zero, and these movies are keeping me from scraping the bottom.

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Exhausted puppies.

Sugar helps too. I did my own Chanukah Cookie Jamboree, but I only got to four types of cookies before I ran out of space in the freezer. There were the triple chocolate cookies, chocolate chip with Macadamia nuts, almond thumbprints with lemon curd filling, and fruitcake cookies (surprisingly yummy!). I gave away a lot of cookies, but there were enough left over to help smooth out some of the anxiety.

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Cricket likes to bake.

I didn’t realize that taking one graduate class at a time, online, would wear me out so completely. I thought I’d have energy left over to get my own writing done, but I’ve just barely been able to keep up with the blog this semester, let alone work on the other ten projects piled on my night table.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the school work, for the most part. I like the feeling that I’m really starting to understand something about this country I live in, and how social policy actually works, and more often doesn’t work. I feel more grounded because of the reading I’ve done on social justice. I feel like I understand the news better, and understand more of the history that shapes today’s issues.

But instead of feeling inspired and energized, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. And then I eat a cookie and watch one of these Christmas movies, which are more about love and family and magic and hope than they are about religion, and I feel a tiny bit better.

Mayim Bialik (a more Jewish girl you could not find) was in a Christmas movie this year. They explained away her very Jewish looks by making her mother Jewish and her father Christian, so she went to Hebrew school but the family still celebrates Christmas every year. Her movie was one of my favorites, because there was only a little bit of magic, in the form of a Santa Clause-esque man who helped her find her plane ticket and nudged her in the right direction. She wasn’t the perfect, blond, success story, she was just an interesting, hardworking, grumpy woman with bad taste in men. And she got a happy ending. Falling in love didn’t land her a great job, or a good friend, or a loving family, because she already had those things. Falling in love only brought her love.

I’ve watched almost all of the Christmas movies, no matter how silly, and there seem to be more than ever this year, with different channels competing to flood the air waves with hard luck stories and plucky heroines. I try not to get too angry about how easily the undiscovered writer/artist/musician finds success before Christmas, and it helps that a lot of these movies are made in Canada and have lots of Canadian accents to cut through the bitterness.

My favorite message in these movies is to slow down and open your eyes to what you already have. Listen to the music. Play in the snow. Laugh with a friend. That’s where the meaning of life has been hiding all along. It’s simplistic, yes, but it’s still true. When I wake up to Cricket’s doggy breath in my face, or watch Butterfly bring her kibble into the living room so she won’t have to eat alone, I feel so much better. These are the moments that save me.

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Cricket’s doggy breath. Can you smell it?

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“Hey Mommy, I have doggy breath too!”

Though I wouldn’t mind if Santa, or the Jewish equivalent, would perform some magic for me this winter and nudge me in the right direction to find a publisher; validation that a lifetime of work really can pay off would be a nice way to start the New Year. And more cookies.

Miss Lichtman

 

Miss Lichtman’s hair was dark blond and curly in a way that her wig would never be. She’d have to settle for a coarse, honey colored sheitel that fooled nobody, so for now, in her last days as a single woman, she was vain about her curls. I imagined her standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the Brooklyn apartment she shared with two other orthodox Jewish girls. She’d spend hours wrapping the curls around her ring finger, just to feel the hair as much as she could before she had to shave most of it off.

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Miss Lichtman looked sort of like Cricket’s old friend Coco, but, you know, human.

I envied those curls. My hair was stick straight, bangs rubbing between my eyelashes. I wanted to be thin like her too, no hips. Everyone liked her, even the cool girls, even the girls who were Born Frum, born into religious families, unlike me. Miss Lichtman played basketball with the senior girls and giggled with the sophomores after class. I was too young to giggle with her, at twelve.

She was twenty-four years old and had gone on too many shidduch dates before deciding on the right man to marry. How else explain being 24 – so old! – and unmarried and still teaching Jewish Law to teenage girls.

I sat in the back of her class and listened to the list of rules I was supposed to live by, the rules she seemed to take in stride as if it were not humiliating to have to shave your head and wear a wig, as if it were not intolerable that boys had to do no such thing. And then I was crying. I cried quite a lot at home, but usually not in school, and definitely not at my desk where people could see me.

But Miss Lichtman could see me. She stood in front of the blackboard in her modest blouse that covered her elbows and collarbone, and her knee length skirt that cinched at the waist, and she raised her eyebrows and finger waved me outside. I followed, with my head down, and leaned into the brick wall while she stared at me.

I probably told her that I was having trouble with my best friend, who wasn’t talking to me that week. I could have safely told her that I hated school, and didn’t fit in with the other girls, and didn’t like most of my teachers, except for her, of course, which would have made her roll her eyes. But I couldn’t tell her the truth. She stayed with me for most of her next class, offering me her phone number and asking if I’d like to visit her brother’s house for Shabbos. She knew something was wrong and she stared through the back of my throat as if she could see the words piling up there.

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Butterfly has lots of words piled up in there too.

And then she cuffed my shoulder and told me to go back to class, and pushed her curious sophomores back into their classroom down the hall, and disappeared with them.

Our school provided a bus to take all of the interested girls to go to her wedding. It was awful to see my teacher all in white and looking terrified and not like herself. It wasn’t an arranged marriage or something she was being forced into, and most likely it was exactly the life she wanted for herself, but I was devastated. And then she disappeared altogether. From school. From New York. To Israel and her life and her husband and her own children.

Cricket has certain people who imprinted on her from her puppy year, especially a neighbor she hadn’t seen for years, who happened to be on the boardwalk at the beach one day. Cricket recognized her from thirty feet away and tried to break my hand pulling at the leash to get to her, long before I ever saw or recognized her in the distance, or remembered her name.

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“Hi!”

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“Hi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I took each of my teachers so personally that their limitations and flaws broke my heart, or enraged me, but even their smallest kindnesses stayed with me for years.

If I saw Miss Lichtman today, she’d be in her fifties, and wearing a wig, with who knows how many children, and maybe grandchildren too by now, but I’d still recognize her voice, or the rhythm of her speech, I think. I hope.

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“Do you remember me?”

Olive, the Morkie

 

At Cricket’s last vet visit in October, there was a dog standing on the welcome desk barking a greeting. She was small, but mighty, with silky grey and tan hair and a willingness to be petted by almost anyone. I talked to Boopy, the African Grey Parrot who had always acted as greeter in the past, but my eyes kept going back to the dog on the desk.

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“Hey, keep your eyes on the parrot. I’m still cute!”

Cricket was in a panic. She peed on the floor and refused to sit still on the scale and she did not want any dry dog treats (as usual). The dog on the desk was put on the floor and given free rein to walk wherever she pleased, and Cricket was horrified when the little dog decided to walk into one of the examining rooms of her own free will!

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“We’re going to the vet?!!!!!!!”

Eventually it was Cricket’s turn to see the doctor and when we walked into the pristine examining room, Cricket tried to hide behind my legs. I picked her up and she climbed behind my neck like a monkey. The doctor came in and I removed Cricket from my neck, very carefully, and placed her on the stainless steel table. I expected him to take some blood and give some shots; I did not expect him to gasp and shake his head and tell me that Cricket needed to have the hair pulled out of her ears. He was not pleased with me, or Cricket’s groomer, for being so lax about such an essential hygiene issue.

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Cricket thinks this is comfortable for me.

A vet tech had to come in to hold Cricket down, because I was no help, and as Cricket started to squirm on the table, the little dog came in to the exam room and walked over to my feet and sat down. I squatted to pet her and she seemed to say, I see that you are anxious, I am an anxiety dog, pet me.

Cricket peed on the exam table, and cried pitifully as the vet ripped hair out of her ears with a rounded, bent, tweezer-like device. The little dog stayed with me, and leaned against my leg. She seemed to think I was taking the whole thing as badly as Cricket, and she was probably right. I kept petting the little dog and talking to Cricket and working very hard not to slap the vet’s hands away from my baby’s ears.

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This is what Cricket looked like on the exam table.

Once the trauma was over, and Cricket was back in my arms, I got the little dog’s C.V. from the vet. She was a Maltese Yorkie mix (a “Morkie”), and her name was Olive. The vet brought her to the office sometimes to help keep the humans calm.

 

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This is not Olive, but it captures her expression. (not my picture)

Cricket’s vet is tall and awkward, and not especially warm. He’s so good at his job, in part, because he can block out the anxiety of the dog on the table and do what needs to be done to make them healthy. It’s not a lack of compassion, though every once in a while, I get the sense that his compassion for humans is limited. He looks like someone who would have black labs or German shepherds and take them hiking in the woods, but there’s Olive, the sweet, little, silky-haired girl with the bedside manner. And she’s his dog.

He seemed surprised by the idea that once or twice, at least, he’d had to retrieve Olive from the parking lot when someone “accidentally” tried to take her home with them. But I was surprised that it didn’t happen more often. I had a visceral response to Olive – maybe because we’d been through a traumatic experience together (Cricket’s cries were truly harrowing), or because she is a born comfort dog. Or maybe it’s me, because I have this dog magnet embedded in my belly and I have to fight hard against taking every dog home with me, but Olive made the magnet supercharged. And I felt the tug, and the loss, for days afterwards.

My Rabbi still has not gotten a dog. I made a blanket for his potential dog, thinking, if I knit it she will come. His daughters even threatened to choose a dog for him and just bring her home. He has his reasons for not wanting another dog yet, or ever. I just don’t know what those reasons are.

The thing is, despite everything that I love about my synagogue, there’s too much of me that doesn’t feel safe, or welcome, when I’m there. And I feel totally accepted by dogs. They don’t care how many times my writing has been rejected. They don’t care if I make funny faces or don’t wear fancy clothes. Dogs care that I show interest in who they are, and listen to them, and give them scratchies and honor their unique energies. I do the same with humans, but humans have more conflicted reactions to being seen as they are. Dogs appreciate when you read their body language and respond to them as individuals, rather than just being the same polite, charming, whatever you try to be with everyone else.

Cricket and Butterfly are too much like me to be community dogs. They need to be in their own safe place with their familiar people in order to let down their guards. But Olive the Morkie was different. She sent out calming vibes to the room, even when she was barking.

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Cricket and Butterfly are home puppies.

If Olive were the synagogue dog, she would walk through the rows of people, listening for an erratic heartbeat, or feeling for a tremble in someone’s legs, and she would try to heal what she could. She’d run up to the bima to check in with her Dad, or stand still and listen to the cantor, or cozy up to the piano when the magic noise came out, but she would be there, and that would make me feel like I belonged.