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Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting Down to Business

I got an email from my mother regarding my post last week about being the bad cop in the father-daughter relationship:

Loved your article in Kvell.  I think it takes being a parent to be able to somewhat understand what your parents went through.  Just remember the time the blink of an eye they grow up sooo quickly!!!  Enjoy and cherish every moment with them.  Much love, Mom
As much as I wince, there are a lot of things that move too fast. I watch our baby rolling around and crawling (yeah, that's right! at 4 months, suckas!) and I'm reminded of all the things our older daughter doesn't do anymore -- things I'd once loved and relied on and depended on her doing forever. How she used to scratch at my paisley and try to stand up while holding onto my payos. How she'd try to suckle on my nose.

But the truth is, there's a lot of shit that they do that I'm never going to forget...and most of that stuff has to do with poop.

My wife and I never went in for that "whose turn is it" routine. For one thing, when our first child was an infant we were both alternately knocked out from sleep deprivation (her from feeding, me from coaxing the baby to sleep and then not being able to sleep myself)--so we resigned ourselves to the simple rule that, whoever could stand without falling, they would have to change the nappy. Now that I have (ahem) a full-time job, we've sort of evolved: My wife does the nighttime stuff, and I wake up with the kids, handing over the torch when I have to catch the subway. It's efficient, but it's also sort of awful: This tag-team parenting pretty much assures us that all four of us are never awake, functioning, and just hanging out at any time during the week.

And, in that tag-off, more often than not, the only communication we have goes along the lines of:
  • how big a particular cucky* was,
  • what color (or colors) it most closely resembled,
  • how bad it smelt,
  • and the exact amount of time spent cooing or tickling or teasing (or letting her suck my nose) it took to forget about the trauma and remember that we had just created a bundle of gooey goodness.
When I became Orthodox, one of the weirdest inclusions I had to make in my life was the blessing that you say after going to the bathroom. Yes, that's right: Suddenly I was confronted with the idea that not only do I say a blessing on every food that goes into my body, I'm also supposed to bless whatever comes out. I don't think I ever understood it until I started changing nappies.

In the wake of my anxiety disorder, I would pretty much vomit at will. When I had to turn in a new draft of my book. When my parents called. When the bus was five minutes late. Whenever something happened that was out of my control, my body would react by losing control as well. And now I'm holding this creature who's just learning her way around her body, figuring out how to move her fingers one by one and to put herself to sleep without crying and how to, well, piss and shit. In a weird, raw way, it is a miracle. The blessing is one of the longer ones, way longer than "Thank you God for making bread." If one of our openings should close, or if one of our organs which is closed should open, it would be impossible to stand before You. It's the barest fact of our existence: the only reason humanity exists in the first place is by the most tenuous combination of neutrons interacting with each other, holding all our cells together in a human-shaped shape. Keeping together the parts that are supposed to stay together. Excreting out the rest.

As I mop my kid's tushy, cleaning off the parts of her food that don't get assimilated into her body, I know that her body took care of the important part. Somehow, it knows how to separate the important stuff, vitamins and proteins and stuff, from this gunk. I'm just doing the grunt work.

But I'm okay with that.
* -- Our word for shit. I still haven't determined whether it's Yiddish or Australian; all I know is that we grew up calling it a B.M.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Books, Super Cheap, and a Bunch of Other Stuff

A couple of random thoughts, too long to tweet about but short enough to shoot a couple of bullets through. Some of them are kind of literary, but you'll be fine. Just Google them if you don't know, because they are all worth Googling:

  •  Tonight in New York, the legendary CAConrad is reading at St. Mark's Church, and it's free, and (as of 9:53 a.m.) I'm actually going to go, but I don't have anyone to go with. His new book The Book of Frank has an introduction at the end that's written by Eileen Myles, the most famous poet of ever, and it's $16 with free shipping here.
  • Armistead Maupin has a new Tales of the City book out, and it's about Mary Ann, who I always thought was my least favorite character, but the giddiness I am getting in my stomach from having just found out about it might prove otherwise.
  • I'm on the editorial staff of Kveller, a new magazine that's not about Jewish parenting (but is about the intersection of Judaism and parenting, whatever that means), and I just wrote a new blog post for them, which is called The Bad Cop. It's about dads.
  • And I'm obsessed with the writer Sayed Kashua, who wrote the series Arab Labor and wrote the book Let It Be Morning, both of which I read/saw this week. Here's more blog love for blogs that are not my actual blog: the book and the TV show. Unless I'm wrong (am I?), he's the only primarily-writer author who's currently writing an entire TV show by himself, except for Jonathan Ames (who I gushed about here).
  • Oh. And I just ordered 200 copies each of Never Mind the Goldbergs and Losers in the mail. Bigger announcement about this to come, but now you can order both of them, signed by me and with a free CD and other stuff thrown in, for $12 together: Click here for the luminescently special deal.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Great House - National Book Award Finalist

A day after its release, Nicole Krauss's novel Great House was named a National Book Award finalist, which is either a great bit of luck or a great bit of marketing.

It's not surprising, though. The novel -- which tells the story of a massive desk (yes, a desk) that trades owners from a middle-aged writer in the USA to a vindictive Israeli Holocaust survivor to a South American radical -- is sprawling, confusing, and beautiful. It's a book that makes you kick yourself and bite your tongue because it's so full-on and self-centered (you'll see what I mean in a second). But, at the same time, it really is great.

The book opens with a middle-aged writer, spilling over with despair, as she tells the story of a Chilean poet she loved. He left her to go back to his native country, where he was captured by the government -- he was a protestor in a country where that sort of thing was usually fatal -- and the poet was subsequently tortured and killed. Years later, a young woman shows up pretending to be his daughter, and summarily removes the desk, leaving the writer both deskless and with an incredible writer's block.

And that's the first chapter. I didn't spoil it, I promise -- you know every detail of the story from the start, except where the plot is headed from there. Where it's headed is in a number of different directions, with several disconnected stories that intersect at times but never entirely unite. It's quite beautiful, but it's like watching a movie you know is supposed to be great. You're never sure whether it's actually going to entertain you, in the end.

Whatever Great House does, it does to 100%. The book is made of two parts and eight chapters, each told by one of four narrators. This sounds confusing, but it's actually not at all -- the stories are so distinctive and remarkable, and each cuts off at just the right point, that you thirst for resolution until the latter half of the book. All four narrators basically share the same voice -- you know this voice; it's a thoughtful, carefully meandering New Yorker-style of monologue. There aren't even quotes around dialogue. Also, nothing happens. There's no character progression, not for the main characters, anyway. Each is narrating the story in one place, unmoving, with full awareness of his or her audience and position as a storyteller.

Not that I'm complaining. Even if the characters all talk the same, the voice is so compelling that it's hard to nitpick. Metaphorically or literally, she's caught all of these characters in a moment between drunkenness (painful, honest drunkenness) and standing on death's door -- those times where people are most candid, blunt, and where they can see the sum of their lives.

GH takes its name from a story at the book's very end -- a story snatched from Rich Cohen's book Israel Is Real, who snatched it in turn from the Talmud. In the end, you'll realize, Great House was in fact entertaining -- each moment of it, you're in the moment, even if it's only a single moment that lasts through each of its 30-page chapters. I still can't tell you exactly what happened in the book, but I can tell you I'm already feeling nostalgic to go back and revisit it.

but the voice is so compelling that it's hard to nitpickN

Monday, October 11, 2010

Banksy's Simpsons Intro

If you don't know about Banksy, go here, or read the brilliant book The Calder Game, which is the only children's book I know of about graffiti and art terrorism.

Anyway, Banksy just posted this intro to the Simpsons, featuring an Asian sweat shop and a unicorn. It's sad and brilliant.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kids' Night Out

By 11:30 P.M., I was almost wiped. Two hours of carrying a kid on your shoulders, and she starts to feel a lot heavier than that six-pack-sized newborn that your wife delivered only two years ago.
You’re tired. You want to go to sleep. You remember fishing her out of her cot at 7 a.m. that morning, she couldn’t possibly have weighed as heavy as she does now, and how does she manage to go this long with only having one nap? You would kill for a nap.
An hour later, she is still going strong. It’s nearly one in the morning, we’re just sitting down to dinner at the house of people we just met, I’m trying to remember their names at the same time as I’m trying not to fall asleep in the far-too-comfortable chairs in their dining room…and my daughter is having an all-out Lego war in the living room with the family’s son.
I swear: This isn’t like us. Our kids are usually in bed by 7:oo. On most nights, we are responsible people.
But then Simchat Torah hit.
Simchat Torah — literally, “Rejoicing of the Torah” — is basically created to be a kids’ holiday. Sukkot, where you construct an eight-foot-tall booth in the backyard? Not so much. On Rosh Hashanah you blow into a ram’s horn called a shofar, which my daughter hasn’t mastered — no matter how much she practices, it still sounds like a poor imitation of a fart (which, under other circumstances, would be pretty awesome). But the main part of Simchat Torah is dancing around with a Torah and eating cookies in the shape of Hebrew letters. Kids can get with that. If I wasn’t still semi-embarrassed about what our new neighbors thought of us, I’d be all over it, slam-dancing with my own plush Torah and noshing down on gimels and ayins until morning came.
When we got to synagogue, forget about joyfulness, my kids pretty much went bananas. The baby is pretty happy no matter what — give her a brightly-colored fuzzy anything and she’ll gleefully drool all over it. But our older daughter usually sits in a corner, watching everyone else. Not tonight. After getting buzzed on a piece of cake (we don’t usually let her eat cake or candy, except for one piece, on holidays, and then only at synagogue) she proceeded to hug her miniature Torah while jumping all over the place, in unison — or in lack of it — with the other kids. The festivities started at 7:30, half an hour after her usual bedtime (have I mentioned?), but we gave her a late nap at 5:00 to prepare her.
And she was prepared.
And then she kept on being prepared.
This was our first Simchat Torah in the new community. We didn’t know how it would work, whether people would stay up late or bring their kids to synagogue or leave them home or put them to sleep in the synagogue’s basement and lock the doors. After much debate, we decided to play it by ear. We were still playing it by ear several hours later when, in between dances, a friendly stranger said, “What are you doing after this?”
“After this? Probably catching an hour of sleep and waking up when the baby cries and then sleepwalking through a feeding or two; why do you ask?”
He laughed like I was joking. “Come over for dinner,” he said.
I checked my watch. Dinner? But saying nothing was like saying yes — there we were, at his house, my daughter ripping apart his living room and extra place settings being arranged on the table. ”We have to get home,” I hissed in my wife’s ear for the eighteenth time that night, eyeing the daughter in her increasing rambunction.
“It’s okay,” my wife reassured me. “It’s just one night.”
I was skeptical. Men, I think, are accustomed to rigidity — to making up rules and sticking to them. Women have some sort of inner emergency break that lets them slow down, coast around, evaluate a situation and reconfigure their programming to accommodate it. I’m talking about my wife, of course, but I’m also talking about my daughter. Just as my eyes had started moving independently and I was sure I was already dreaming, the meal came to a close, hands were shaken and numbers exchanged — I told my daughter it was time to go home to bed and, for possibly the first time ever, she replied with a cheerful “yep!”
When she was an infant, she had the worst sleep problems. She’d cry herself off schedule and only get offer. The next day, we feared a regression. There was the damage — she woke up at 11:00 instead of her usual 7:30 — but then skipped her nap and went to bed exactly at 7. The night before might have been Simchat Torah, but that night, when her head hit the pillow and she closed her eyes for 12 and a half hours exactly, was my rejoicing.

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