Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Whose Hands?
What Golden Tate, M.D. Jennings, and the Replacement Refs can teach us about the New Year

I'd like begin by expressing my sincere gratitude for the support and positive feedback that I've received in response to my last post. Looking back at the past month, my experience that day was more formative than I initially realized -- and I think much of what I've made of the ordeal is informed by your reactions. While I do not actively think much about the ride, I find myself more independent than before and somewhat emboldened in the decisions that I make.

It is an auspicious time for me to be making bold choices. The Jewish High Holidays are a period of self-reflection and repentance. The hours spent in synagogue are supplemented by rituals, both talismanic and palpable, designed to bring about a truly happy and sweet new year. In many ways, the roster of ritual activities can be compared to the Passover Seder table. The Haggadah directs us to look at the Matza (unleavened bread), Maror (bitter herbs), and roasted shankbone as vehicles enabling us to relive the exodus from Egypt. We dip a leafy green in salt water to represent both the emergence of Spring and to taste the tears that were a natural outcome of slavery. There is a custom among some Jews to walk around the table and "whip" one another with onions as a reminder that we were freed from the "lash" of oppression. Nearly the entire evening is spent playacting as a means of tangibly appreciating the transition from bondage to freedom. Something similar can be said of the High Holiday period. Dipping apples in honey, eating pomegranate seeds, and displaying a fish head on the holiday table are sensory activities engendering our desire for a successful year ahead. Casting bits of bread into a body of water and transferring our transgressions onto live chickens, or coins for the squeamish, are ceremonial acts that go beyond the tangible and incorporate the ethereal nature of the Days of Awe.

The tangible and intangible rituals that constitute the season are excellent expressions of the dual nature of the High Holidays -- and Judaism in general. When I perform Tashlich, the aforementioned casting away of bread meant to represent my sins, I use one bit of bread as a token of the sins I've committed against my fellow man and one bit for those transgressions against God. On the Day of Atonement, we must be absolved of both. If we look to the liturgy, we see that our fate results as much from our actions as it does not. We ask that God favor our good deeds over our bad, but we also ask not to be judged by our deeds at all. During the holy Kol Nidrei prayer, and the Hatarat Nedarim (annulment of vows) that often precedes it, we proclaim our actions in the previous year to be meaningless. We ask that God not take us at our word and that we become a blank slate impervious to indictment. We ask God to remember, and in turn remind ourselves, that our origin is dust and our destiny the same. We place ourselves at His mercy -- not instruments of our own fate, but children reliant on the support of a benevolent parent. Weary travelers in need of a kindly guide to light the way.

As I embark on the new year, I am both heartened and frightened by this binary reality. My journey in France cemented my understanding that while only so much is in our own hands, our decisions do change things -- even if only in our own minds. If, in our actions, we determine to make this year a sweet one (for ourselves and those around us), we may just taste the sweetness ourselves. Just as the bread of affliction allows us to taste a morsel of slavery, our challah with honey ushers us closer to the year we might have if we sweeten our days with kindness and laughter and the closeness of family and friends. And, who knows, our own acts of kindness might be the serendipitous moments that make someone else realize that try as we might, and we should, some outcomes are far beyond our grasp.

Wishing you and yours a safe, meaningful, and successful fast, a Gmar v'Chatima Tova, and a truly happy and sweet new year.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In the words of Blanche DuBois...

I thought that my two overnight train rides in six-person cabins populated by strangers would be the most adventurous and uncomfortable transportation aspects of my trip abroad. Silly me. As I write this, sitting in my airplane seat awaiting a flight that I pray will go smoothly, I still haven't processed the past three hours and the variety of emotions they have stirred within me.

Some background:

When I arrived in Paris this morning, I stored my luggage in a locker at Gare d'Lyon so that I would not need to shlep it around for the day. This necessitated that, after my "I'm leaving Paris, I really need to buy something NOW" induced shopping trip, I return to Gare d'Lyon before heading to Charles De Gaulle Airport. From Gare d'Lyon I took an RER A train one stop to Chatelet -- where I was to switch to the RER B train that goes to De Gaulle. With little fanfare, I made my way to Chatelet for my RER transfer. As I reached the B platform, I saw that a very full CDG-bound train was already waiting. Knowing that I had a large suitcase, a lengthy ride, and that the next train was only a few minutes away, I decided to wait -- hoping that I could procure a seat on the next one. I regretted this decision almost immediately. The next two trains to arrive were not CDG-bound and the platform was beginning to fill up again. The next CDG train would be just as crowded and I'd wasted 10 minutes for nothing. Once again, silly me.

Well, I finally made it on to a crowded RER B and was even offered a seat after one stop by a lovely girl who noticed that I had my hands full. All seemed fine -- despite some strange rattling noises that the girl in front of me did not approve of. Then, out of nowhere, the train began to jump, as as if it had driven over a large jumble of tree branches. My fellow passengers and I stared at each other, but no one said a word. Seconds later, the car filled with the smell of burning rubber. Many people, myself included, began to cough -- and a mild panic began to take hold. About a minute later, after trying, and failing, to open some windows, the train ground to a halt. About a minute after that, we heard it power down completely. This being an airport-bound train, many of us consulted our watches, wondering when -- or if -- the ride would resume. Then, an announcement.

A female railroad employee, clearly in shock and crying, mumbled a few sentences. Not speaking French, I began to seek out translation -- but saw only disbelief in the eyes around me. Finally, through gestures and bits of polyglot dialogue, I got it. Someone had jumped in front of the train.

Holy sh*t.

Suddenly missing my flight didn't seem so important. But, my moment of perspective was fleeting and I soon began to, once again, worry about myself. I had about 12 Euros in change in my possession, no working phone, and a minimal French vocabulary. I thought I had been so smart in spending down my Euros. I didn't want to have too many left over -- especially given that currency's current state. It didn't really matter though. For the time being, the train wasn't moving and neither was I. A nice man let me use his phone to try to call my airline, but I was on a holding loop when I heard a whir and an audible gasp. Some young men had pried open the doors of the train and people were beginning to jump out.

I was more than wary of this plan.

The people who had jumped out of the coach were climbing a fence about 50 feet from the train tracks and walking away -- to where, I had no idea.
Just then, the still-crying conductor returned to the PA system and made another announcement. From the gasps of the passengers, I knew it was not good news. Apparently there were two victims. Two people who had jumped in front of a moving train.


It was then that I saw some firefighters walk by our train car. Their presence sparked several people to make their way off the train. This required a pretty sizeable jump onto a rocky hill and a wall climb after which someone would throw you your belongings. Apparently, the firemen had communicated that we would likely be waiting 3-4 hours before the train could start up again.

Hearing this, a French girl sitting near me, about my age and also heading to CDG, said she was going to go. She'd walk into the next town and try to find herself a cab. I suppose it made sense, considering that staying put meant that she was sure to miss her plane. Another girl tried to convince me to do the same. I looked at the wall I'd need to scale, thought for a moment, and said I couldn't. She reminded me that I was going to miss my plane. I concurred, but explained that I don't speak French and that I was nervous to head into a strange town in the hopes I might somehow find a ride to the airport. Time was already tight and I preferred missing my plane to ending up alone in the dark in a French village. At least if I stayed put, I'd eventually get back to Paris -- I hoped.

But as the minutes ticked away -- and more and more people began to jump from the train, even small children -- I questioned my decision. So many people were airport-bound. And, a group of men, in a feat of strength, managed to knock down the fence so that scaling a wall was no longer necessary in order to get away from the train tracks. I decided to go for it. I was probably going to miss my flight anyhow, I might as well try.

I cautiously lowered myself to the floor of the train and contemplated my jump. The ground below was slanted and covered in rocks. I gritted my teeth and succumbed to gravity. Though wobbly, my landing was painless and I managed not to fall -- though my heart and the laughter of the men at the door of the train told me it was close. The men, who had taken on the role of gatekeepers, passed me my belongings -- including a very heavy suitcase -- and I made my way to the spot where the fence had been breached.
Around the bend, I encountered my former seatmate. She had called and was waiting for a cab, but was sorry to tell me it was going to be full. She explained that most people were walking to the next train station where they were hoping there would be cabs available.

I followed the crowd, answering "Je ne comprende pas" every time a fellow traveler tried to communicate. At one point, I considered joining a young couple who had flagged down a woman in a minivan they were hoping would drive them to the airport. They were unsuccessful in their mission and I trucked on. I honestly had no idea where I was going, but I followed the other intrepid travelers with rolling suitcases and walked parallel to the tracks through a sparsely populated residential area where people stared at us in our motley parade. In the distance, I saw another train. I hoped this meant the station was near and that I'd find access to a taxi. Preferably one which would accept my 12 Euros, 40-something American dollars, or a credit card as payment.

I continued to follow the others on an increasingly windy path, through parking lots and playgrounds, when I finally saw what seemed to be a busy intersection -- and a bus. A bus! I began to run, or hobble -- with my over-stuffed suitcase, hoping that the railroad had sent a shuttle to take all of us weary travelers to CDG. It was not to be. It was a regular bus, at a regular bus stop, and none of its routes included the airport.

Disappointed, I noticed the growing crowd at an unattended taxi stand to my left. There were no taxis, but there was a sign, and that was something.
Surveying the crowd, I heard heavily accented English being spoken between two middle-aged gentlemen.

"Do you speak English?," I inquired.
"Yes," the younger of the two men replied.
"Are you going to the airport?"

Again, his reply was yes and I asked if I could join them. They said sure, noting, that with the older man's son, our group would be four. I explained that I could only pay with dollars. The younger man hurriedly told me not to worry and that he would pay my share. I thanked him profusely and we began to seek out taxis.

A few passed by, but already had passengers. A group next to us flagged one down and put two members of their group in that cab's remaining seats. After several minutes, the older man's son flagged down a minivan taxi that had an old man in the front passenger seat. The opportunistic driver said he would take us after dropping his passenger off nearby and at the price of 30 Euro per person. My benefactors agreed and we piled in. The driver told us it would be a 15-20 minute journey to CDG. After bidding the old man "Au revoir," literally, we were off. After a serious lobbying effort, I convinced the men to take 30 dollars from me and continued to thank them for their help. I am absolutely certain that they only took my money because of how absurdly ripped off we were being by the taxi driver and the realization that he had actually deprived them of all their cash.

I knew I was going to Terminal 2, but beyond that I was clueless. There were no signs letting me know which airline parks where. The younger man was going to 2B and the father-son pairing needed Terminal 1. Our driver stopped first at 2B. The man and I ran out, grabbed our bags, and wished our new companions a hearty good luck. The man dashed off and I tried to figure things out.

Seeing no signs of clarification, I stopped a CDG employee and asked her for my airline. She and friend were heading to a cigarette break, but she told me she'd show me to the Info Desk because she wasn't sure. I told her my story and we began to run because she, like me, was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it to my plane.
The woman at Information told me to go, quickly, across to 2A and hope that check-in wasn't completed.

My new CDG employee friend (I can't spell or pronounce her name) insisted on running with me since I didn't know the way and even insisted that I let her pull my rolling bag.

Upon our breathless arrival at the XL Airways area, she explained the situation and a staffer let me past the rope line.
However, upon reaching the counter, I was told that check-in was closed and that I'd need to go lobby the airline to let me on the flight. Seeing this, the staffer who had let me past the ropes intervened and I was allowed to get my boarding pass and even check my bag.

Very luckily, I faced no lines at security or Passport Control and my gate was located directly behind the x-ray machines.

I walked onto the plane just as the boarding period was nearing its end.
Now sitting in my seat, almost 2 hours after takeoff (the amount of time I've been writing this), I have a moment to think about someone other than myself.

Why did two people jump in front of a commuter train? Their motive, I'm sure, was not to have me miss my flight. What had gone so wrong in their lives that they thought death was the answer? How are their families? How is that conductor? Her shock and sadness were palpable. She will never be the same.

What possessed that lovely airport employee to run with me (and my suitcase!) through the tunnels of CDG? I tried to express my gratitude, but as she kissed me goodbye (both cheeks, very French), the other staffer dragged me away. I told her I wouldn't forget her, and, the next time I see someone in need of a helping hand, I pray that I won't.

Kindness and sadness emerge in the strangest of places. Character is your reaction wherever you find them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to get to Handsome

Greetings from Creative Writing class...

Today's assignment: Write a scene conveying the notion that Bill is handsome -- without actually saying that Bill is handsome.

I only had five minutes to work on this, so it's not quite polished. But, I'm setting it free into the blogosphere anyway and giving you free reign to critique. Be ruthless.

His new cubicle was just like the old. Grey pre-fab walls and an HP desktop. This job might not be the fresh start he'd hoped for.
"You should put up pictures of your wife and kids," Kim, the receptionist piped in as she showed him to his workspace.
"Oh, I'm not married," Bill said.
"I'm sorry. That was presumptuous of me. . . . I'll be at my desk if you need anything."
Just then, Margaret from Accounting passed by.
"You know, Bill, a bunch of us grab drinks on Thursday nights after the department meeting. You should come -- and bring your girlfriend."
"Thanks, Margaret. I'll be there. But just me. No girlfriend these days."
And that's when Claire and Sandra made their way down the hall...

(Did I get there?)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Girl, Interrupted.

[Insert apology for not having written in ages and ages here.]

Today, I started a creative writing class called "Brief Encounters." The class is taught by a very nice Columbia MFA student and focuses on short pieces known as Flash Fiction. As an introduction, the instructor told us about a challenge that was once posed to Ernest Hemingway. An adversary bet that Hemingway couldn't tell a story in six words. The toreador's response: For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. Her point in sharing this anecdote was simple -- stories come alive in the reader's imagination. A writer's job is to open the door.
We read three stories: "The School" by Donald Barthelme, "The Cage" by Heinrich Böll, and "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid. Barthelme led a trip into the absurd, Boll to hell, and Kincaid explored the unfathomable depths of a mother's love for her daughter.

As an exercise, my classmates and I were asked to rewrite Kincaid's piece from the maternal perspective. The text of "Girl" can be found here. Please see my response below. I'd appreciate any comments that you have. (Oh, and many thanks for all the support and love in response to my Metropolitan Diary submission. It really was a dream come true!)

Response to Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"

I'm scared that if I tell her, I'll scare her. So I won't.
I'll teach her how to do the laundry. How to wash her hair. Bake a bundt cake. I'll yell when she stays out past her curfew with that boy who won't ever be good enough. Who won't ever love her like I love her. I'll walk into her room without knocking and criticize her outfits and how she bites her nails. I'll make sure she knows that red just isn't her color and that Floyd from the football team only wants one thing. I'll take away the car keys and make her clean the bathroom and call Cindy's mom because Cindy's being mean. I'll cheer at graduation while others clap politely and stay too long at Parents' Day. I'll chaperone her field trip and not let her go to parties -- even when she tells me "Everyone's gonna be there." I'll ruin her life a thousand times over and take her to buy lip gloss.
And hope that one day she figures it out.

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Grandfather's Granddaughter: A Jewish-American Tale

This coming month marks the one year anniversary of the passing of my grandfather, George Steiner, of blessed memory. I have been thinking about my grandfather a lot lately -- with the upcoming unveiling of his gravestone, the end of my father's aveilut (year of mourning), and Passover Yizkor all recent familial topics of conversation. But, tonight, with the historic news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, thoughts of my Poopa (the silly name I coined as an infant unable to pronounce "Grandpa") cannot escape my mind.

When I think about my grandfather, and his passing in particular, a number of questions arise with my memories. I think about what it means for me to no longer have any living grandparents. Has my childhood lapsed? Have I lost a vital connection to my past? (As many of you know, I am a genealogy nerd -- having spent several summers working at the Center for Jewish History's Genealogy Institute. My capstone project as a CJH Fellow was a documentary timeline of my grandfather's life.) But these questions, vital as they are, are not what dominate my thinking about my grandfather tonight. Rather, it is America, the nation and its actions, that led me to think of him tonight -- and that is a critical part of my thinking about him always.

Before he was my grandfather, George was a son, a husband, a father, a soldier, and a friend. And he excelled at each role in which he was cast. To digress for a moment, I'll add a word about him as a husband -- of the most devoted order, for nearly 52 years.

In addition to being wonderfully kind and caring, my grandmother, Gloria Steiner, z"l, was an amputee, having lost her leg to bone cancer while a young mother in her 30s. Even now, eleven years after her death, it is strange for me to write that -- as I never once thought of my grandmother as disabled. The reasons for that stem mainly from her grace, courage, and, in the days before modern prostheses, unfailing determination to do everything that an able-bodied person could. They also stem from my grandfather. More than her supporter, he was her champion -- both allowing and encouraging her to do all the things she wanted to do. I could try and list his daily devotions to her, but there is no way to fully paint a picture for you of the kind of dedicated husband he really was.

The trait of dedication -- of devotion, of doing what is right -- is one that my grandfather honed in the United States Armed Forces. Born in Nitra, Czechoslovkia, George immigrated to the United States with his parents, Joseph and Matilda, in 1923 -- when he was barely 2 years old. Raised in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, he was a Boy Scout par excellence and grew into a tried and true American boy. Upon graduation from high school in 1939, George voluntarily enlisted in the US Army and was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. Just as his active duty was scheduled to end, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and George embarked on an additional 4 years of service. Together with the Army Corps of Engineers, my grandfather built bridges and saw combat throughout France and Germany. Though he never shared this fact with his children or grandchildren, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor after running into mortar fire to retrieve a wounded member of his company and, with another soldier, carry him several miles to the nearest army hospital. (We only learned of this story, and the medal, upon finding the well hidden paperwork while sorting through my grandparents' apartment after my grandmother's death.) These days, when we often rush to share our accomplishments with the world through text messages, Facebook, or, sometimes, a blog, it is all the more astonishing to learn that others have kept their most meaningful accomplishments secret.

While my grandfather did share some stories of the antisemitism he experienced in the military, I don't know if, during his six years of service -- especially those spent fighting in Europe, he knew that his grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles, and 27 of his 28 first cousins were being led to their deaths by the Nazis. There is certainly no way he could have known that, after the war, there would be no record of Jewish survivors from the town of Nitra.

It is this interplay between his patriotism and his Jewishness that has rooted my grandfather in my thoughts tonight. Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I grew up in a home, and in a community, that is steadfast in its dedication to Holocaust education. As a grandchild of survivors (my mother's parents met as refugees in Siberia), I am proud to carry the banner of Zachor -- Remember, Never Forget. Today, as thousands crowd the streets of Lower Manhattan waving flags to the choruses of U-S-A, U-S-A, I remember the victims of Bin Laden's terror along with the six million who perished merely because they were Jews. As I remember, I am saddened by the fact that, 66 years after the liberation of the concentration camps, baseless hatred still exists in this world and I am heartened by the tremendous step the United States has taken today to eradicate that hatred. And, while I am filled with pride and patriotism, I still face the same questions that confront me each Yom HaShoah, each time I think about my grandfather. How can I be better? More grateful? More active? For as long as I can remember, I've grappled for answers. And, for as long as I can remember, I've fallen short. Today, as my American and Jewish identities merge in a way that they have not before, in a way that my grandfather might have found familiar, I redouble my efforts to honor the past and impact the future -- to fulfill my potential as my grandfather's granddaughter, to merit the privilege, American Jew.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Late Addition to The Short List

Finally, a judge who actually makes me want to clerk.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Short List

New year. New format. New nonsense.

1. Let's discuss President Obama's truly awful airplane-without-an-engine analogy during the State of the Union address. Did anyone else love the irony of that whole section going over like a lead balloon? (What's that? I'm a dork? I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the hordes of people clamoring to win the future.)

2. As many of you know, I have been re-watching my all-time favorite TV show - The West Wing. It is amazing the things that are different the second time around. Namely, while still madly in love with Josh Lyman (I'm still torn as to whether or not I want to be him or marry him), I find myself becoming increasingly smitten with Sam Seaborn. Obviously, Rob Lowe is unfailingly gorgeous. But, it's more than that. Sam is smart, idealistic, sensitive, and ... he writes like a dream. Swoon.

[For those of you who do watch WW, I have a question. In Posse Comitatus, how, on his journey between 45th Street and the FBI field office - which by my best estimation is either in the Federal Office Building on Varick Street or the one on 125th, does Simon Donovan end up in a bodega on 98th and Broadway? Considering the events that transpire in said bodega, it's a legitimate question. I'm not opposed to the UWS getting a shoutout, I'm just curious.]

3. I'm well aware that the above question demonstrates my freakish over-thinking of inconsequential issues. You needn't point it out.

4. The Super Bowl media frenzy is in full swing. This year's hot topics: Ben Roethlisberger's behavior, Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, and Ben Roethlisberger's new found appreciation for success. Apparently, in the NFL, being suspected of rape is the gift that keeps on giving...

5. Paul Bettany regrets his giving up the lead role in "The King's Speech". Is it okay that I don't?