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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Am Broken, I'm the Glue


I didn’t know what I was going to say to my kids this morning. Each of them is at a different point of comprehension: The election didn’t turn out the way we wanted. That guy who was being mean to girls won the election. 

Women can do anything they want to, but there’s not going to be a woman president quite yet.

I prayed in English this morning. I mostly know what the Hebrew words mean, but my brain needed something simpler, more easily digestible, something I could believe in without asking myself How could this happen? and Do so many people really think this way? and Why is there so much hate in the world? The verses came fast and hard. We are but dust. Not for our sake, but for Your compassion. The rule of man over the animals is nothing, for all is but a fleeting breath.

By the time I finished the sun had risen, it was morning for real. I started with the 6-year-old. She wouldn’t budge, she was dead to the world, and I didn’t have the heart to make her — I’d woken at 5, lay in bed for an hour, unable to summon the courage to move. The Shulchan Aruch says you have to start the day like a lion, ready to pounce on whatever comes, but today I’d felt like prey, not predator. I would let her sleep a little longer, spend another 5 minutes in a place where a woman might still be president and not someone who assaulted them.

The 8-year-old was more responsive. She leaped up, brushed her hair from her eyes, and said, “Today is Vampire Day.”

Oh, good. I didn’t have to tell her, she already knew.

Umm… “What do you mean?”

“My friends and I are dressing up as vampires, so I need a brooch. Can you find me a brooch?”

A, I do not have any brooches lying around.  B, I actually have no idea what a brooch is and, though it might expand my knowledge, I’m not sure a simple Google image search is gonna produce the desired object in a usable form. C, do vampires wear brooches?

D, is this the first morning of a world controlled by an orange sycophant?

We agreed on an ensemble (her uniform, but presented in a slightly vampier way — collar turned up, maybe?). Somewhere along the way, I mentioned to her, Hillary lost the election.

“Oh.” Disappointment and confusion flickered alternately across her face. “So that means Trump is going to be president?”

Im yirtze Hashem.” If G-d wills it. He could die soon, I thought to myself. He’s old, who knows what he’s been through. Or the revolution could happen. Or he could do something monumentally stupid and the Electoral College could step in, vote in Paul Ryan as an emergency candidate, do something, anything, to save us from ourselves.

“What’s the Electoral College?”

The ditches I dig myself into.

“So when we vote for president, we’re not actually voting for the president.  We’re picking someone else — say, we’re voting for Ani,” I plucked a doll at random, “and in a few weeks Ani is going to go and vote for president for real.”

“Papa, but why?”

“So that if someone really dangerous or evil gets elected, there’s still someone to stop them before they really get elected…but, uh, that doesn’t really ever happen…”

She was looking at me the same way she did when I tried to explain animal reproduction.

A moment of deliberation. Then: “Papa, you’re so silly,” and a grin breaks out.

Not for our righteousness, O L-rd. Not for anything we’ve done, but because of Your generosity and compassion.

So she didn’t completely understand, but that’s about on par with the rest of America. A few minutes later, I go downstairs to wake up the other kids and break it to them. The six-year-old screws up her face, crosses her eyes, sticks out her tongue into a popsicle shake and jams her finger up her nose. “Well, THAT doesn’t make any sense,” she says.

Two minutes later, we are locked in a wrestling match, with her on my stomach and the 2-year-old cheerily perched on my face.

There’s no happy ending to this post. The next four years might suck, and they might suck bad. Or they might not — for all the jejune awareness of how politics really work, you can’t tell another country you’re building a wall and now they have to pay for it; that didn’t even work in kindergarten when Tim Shaw stole my snack and so I figured I would be able to just take his. The president really isn’t that powerful, and in recent history the people who actually hold our nuclear codes have a lot more sense than the people who ostensibly have the power to launch them.

When I broke up with my first girlfriend, I remember how full the world seemed of her. Everywhere I looked and everything I thought about related back to her — the toys in my room we’d played with, the apple juice boxes we’d smuggled to each other. (It was first grade.) (Mostly-true story: She moved away in first grade, but we wrote each other letters for a little bit; to the best of my knowledge, she became a covert operative for the CIA.)

But the more time I spent away from her — the more of my life became filled with not-her things — the easier it was on my tender little heart.

Last night, as the results were pouring in, my wife was out for her first night out since the baby was born. I was left at home with an infant who does not inherit my predilection for bottles — and, for good measure, a beat-up old Saab outside whose alarm went off whenever another car passed by. Yes, bad news was hurling at me like tomatoes toward Fozzie Bear on a good night. But it was all relative. The infant in my arms, who knew nothing of political pain, bellowed at the top of her lungs for milk. And then she had it. And then she was asleep.

Right now we are bellowing. Right now it feels like the whole world — especially if you are at an office job with Internet access, especially if your only way of staying in touch with your friends is them posting memos about the end of the world.

But, as the ancient rabbis said (well, it was on Buffy), we’ve faced the end of the world once or twice before. We’ve pulled through.

It sucks to tell your kids. It sucks to tell yourself. But we’re going to pull through again.


photo: “I think I’ll start a new life” by Noukka Signe

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What We Prayed For This Rosh Hashanah


We prayed for more money. We prayed for a new job, a better job. We prayed not to get fired from this job, because we were sure this was the best job we would ever be offered and things would never be this good again. We prayed to get fired, because we’d been saving up things we hated in a list in our heads, and we wanted so badly to just walk out but we knew we couldn’t, we prayed for G-d to step in, we prayed for someone else to take care of it, because we couldn’t. We prayed for the strength to stick it out at this job, because we hated it but we needed a paycheck or because we didn’t need the paycheck but we needed something to do all day or because we didn’t need either of those things, we just were afraid of the alternative, of endless TV watching and not having an excuse why we didn’t write that novel we’d always dreamed about writing.

We prayed for a new pet. A small one, preferably. A kitten or a fish, maybe a ferret. Something that wouldn’t take up too much space. Something that wouldn’t need too much love. We were busy. We were rarely at home. We were at home too much. We were at home just the right amount of time, and we wanted someone to spend it with, someone to make us not so alone. Maybe a dog. Maybe a big dog. Maybe a dog that would jump on us every time we walked into a room, so warm-blooded that just standing next to him was like hugging him, so big it would jump on us and knock us down. Or maybe something smaller, more manageable, something that wouldn’t demand a whole set of new prayers. Mice were too much like furry insects. Rabbits, maybe, but didn’t they have babies like nobody’s business? We could put it in the hands of G-d. But G-d helps those who help themselves, and one pet sounded like quite enough for us.

We prayed for Trump to lose. We prayed for Trump to win. We prayed for Trump, and his soul. We prayed for someone else to enter the race. We prayed no one worse would enter the race. We prayed the entire race would be forfeit, the entire country would collectively throw our arms in the air and walk away. We prayed that he would work out, that he was the lesser of two evils, that he would fill all of our dreams and not turn out to be what we’d secretly feared all along. We prayed the same thing about us, because, secretly or openly, deep down or on the most shallow and kneejerk of levels, what we thought about him was what we thought about ourselves.

We prayed that G-d would watch over us. We prayed that G-d would notice us. We prayed that we would slip under G-d’s radar and G-d wouldn’t notice any of the bad things we’d done this year, any of the ways we’d screwed up, any of the good things we’d forgotten to do. We prayed we would’t be regarded as bad neighbors, negligent friends or spoiled children, though we knew in our hearts that was exactly what we were. We prayed G-d would remember the good deeds we barely remembered doing, the stray smiles of support across the classroom and workspace and bedroom, the not-speaking-out-but-not-shutting-up, the envelopes of charity we filled out but forgot to mail, the apologies we’d only made in our heads. Keep us alive another year, we prayed, and we will make them, and we will mail them. That was what we were, too.

We prayed for an end to violence. We prayed for violence in our names against those people we hated, those people we thought should not be here. We prayed for violence only in faraway places, only against faraway people, people we couldn’t imagine really existed. We prayed for violence, but only a specific kind of violence. Violence that would defend us. Violence that would keep us safe. We prayed for violence all over the world, a violence that would end in terrible explosions that wiped everyone out, because only then could we stop being afraid.

We prayed for all sorts of things. We knew prayer wasn’t supposed to ask G-d for things. We knew prayer was supposed to thank G-d for the things we already had. And we have so many things already, we know that too. But we couldn’t help asking for just one more.

We prayed for change. We prayed for things to stay the same. We prayed that G-d do whatever G-d wanted to with us, because we couldn’t handle the choices, we couldn’t even handle praying for things to go one way or the other. We are your dice, we whispered, roll us however You want us to turn up. We hoped You would listen. We hoped we wouldn’t be faced with making our own decisions.

We prayed for certainty. We prayed for sureness. We prayed for a lack of certainty, because we knew that once we were absolutely sure about doing something, then we’d have to do it. We slammed our hands into our hearts and hit lightly. We hit hard, deep enough to draw blood, deep enough to bruise, which was like drawing blood but under the skin, without the mess. We kept it to ourselves. We shouted it out to the world. We shared it with the world.


This is very loosely based on Julie Otsuka’s tiny novel The Buddha in the Attic, which is totally worth checking out.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Touch Press Games Apparently Just Released 30 of My Video Games, Which Is Cool But Emotionally Confusing

You know those video games I worked on for 4 years? The company, Amplify, was jettisoned by News Corp. Steve Jobs' widow bought it. They turned into a new company called Touch Press, and they are finally releasing the first games today on the App Store.

Via EdSurge:
During its heyday, Amplify touted its orange tablets as the tool that would transform digital learning experiences in school. Yet the company’s most impressive offering may have been its games. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company invested more than $25 million to partner with talented developers who built 30 learning games covering math, science and English Language Arts.

Unless you were a reporter or play tester, however, it was hard to get your hands on them. Only one title was available in the consumer market. The rest required a school license sold by Amplify.

The fate of the games seemed in limbo in Sept. 2015 after News Corporation sold Amplify. But now they have found a new home. Today, Amplify announced that it is merging its games division—the team and its assets—with StoryToys, an Irish developer of children’s learning apps, into a new company: Touch Press.
It's weird. I haven't touched them in years, let alone played them or worked on them. I'm not sure what condition they're in or what other games they're going to release, or when -- hey, I didn't even know they were out until someone in the office forwarded me a forward from another forward.

But I'm glad. I'm really glad. Like one of my coworkers said, "This is like seeing your kid graduate high school after his mother took away your visitation rights for the last decade."

But, hey. Now they're on their own. And I can finally stand back and kvell.

[go here to play them - free, I think!]

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Orthodox Writers, Meet Your Role Model

 Fifty-two pages in, or a little less than halfway through his newest book, Sailor and Fiddler, which is not an autobiography — or at least, the author concedes, is “the closest to an autobiography I’m ever going to write” — Herman Wouk lets loose a plot twist in a most unexpected way:

[My wife] Sarah and I had encountered suburban Jewish eyebrows raised in amusement at learning we kept kosher. With New York’s Broadway and literary Jewish insiders we had clearly “made it,” but our ways disconcerted them as well. They saw us and socialized with us at Sardi’s, yet we declined their friendly dinner invitations. We were weird mavericks, no question. Christians like [screenwriter] Calder Willingham took us for granted; it was only Jews who found us odd.

Hold on a second.

Let me tell you about Herman Wouk. Once upon a time, he was one of the most famous authors in the world. His book The Caine Mutiny, a military drama that was loosely based on his experience in the Navy during World War II, reigned the bestseller list for over a year.

His work was adapted into plays, films, Broadway musicalsherman wouk-time, and one of the most-watched TV miniseries ever. He’s been friends with actors, presidents, and even Richard Feynman, the Nobel-winning father of quantum physics, whom he wrote a book about. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, a magazine not usually known for featuring authors of any sort, at a time when Time was the most influential magazine in the country. The cornerstone of his career — as he calls it in this book, his “main task” — was a two-volume, 2,000-page WWII epic, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, which traced World War II from the earliest stages of European unrest to America’s first jump into full-fledged battle.

You might have seen it in a used bookstore, one of the dustier ones that does more turnover in old paperbacks than the new, chick-lit bestsellers. Your grandparents probably owned a copy of War and Remembrance, at least — the serious-looking heavyweight book with the stark and serious cover whose spine was long enough for the title to be written across, not up and down.

The truth is, I never read any of those books. I first learned about Wouk in college, when I was first becoming Orthodox. He was an older guy who went to the same synagogue as me, the only Orthodox synagogue in Washington DC — I’d just started going there, since I’d just started being Orthodox. One day my friend Aaron said to me, “You see that guy? He writes books just like you, only he’s published,” and then, of course, I felt immediately threatened. A rival! I needed to check out his books. If he was Orthodox, there was no way he could be a good writer.

The shocking part was, I liked him. I liked him a lot. I grabbed the first books I could find, inadvertently bypassing The Caine Mutiny and the War books in favor, first, of a lightly comic farce called Don’t Stop the CarnivalIt was about a New York businessman who buys a Caribbean hotel — a simple set-up, followed by hilarity ensuing, and a surprisingly compelling plot about cultural misunderstandings that somehow didn’t come off as racist at all, and a story full of tension and uneasiness where you were in love with every single character. (Little did I know at the time, or else my old-timey teenager self would have been absolutely repulsed, but Carnival was adapted into a big-budget Broadway musical, with accompanying album, by Jimmy Buffett.)

The book wasn’t about Jewish stuff, although the main characters were unquestionably Jewish. It seemed like every place they ate food in a non-kosher restaurant was deliberately choreographed, every time someone went for a swim on Saturday afternoon my alarm bells rang. It was nothing unusual for me and my newly-observant, newly-paranoid brain, but it was like, at the same time, I could feel Wouk’s brain being paranoid too as he choreographed these scenes. He broke the rules — well, his characters did, anyway — but he was being deliberate about it. He was no more violating Shabbos than a chess player loses a game because he offers up a pawn in service of a greater gambit.

Next I read The City Boy, a coming-of-age story about New York before it got cleaned up. There too, I looked for traces of Judaism, and found Herbie eating corned beef from corner delis and sneaking into ten-cent movies on Saturday afternoon. The whole thing — especially for me, a who’d always been either rule-abiding or afraid to be a bad kid, read like an alternate history, a wish fulfillment of the bad kid I’d always wanted to be, running around the neighborhood and ruling it — and maybe, I thought, that was the way Wouk intended it.

I was becoming Orthodox, like I said, but still on very unstable ground. I was living on a couch in a house with two girls and a non-kosher kitchen, eating what I could. One of my roommates, a New England Methodist, came to me one night and confessed that she was dating one of my friends — one of my new friends, my Orthodox friends. “How do I learn about your religion?” she said.

I referred her to Wouk’s book This Is My God. It’s his Jewish anthem, originally an explanation of his beliefs to his non-Orthodox nephew upon his bar mitzvah, but expanded — and honestly, calling it that is belittling it beyond belief (pun intended). It’s a refined, clear, concise explanation of Torah Judaism, written for someone who’s never heard anything about Judaism, but explained so richly that anyone in the lifestyle would have no problem reading it; they might even, dare I suggest, enjoy it — it’s as close to a rational explanation of something fundamentally irrational as can exist, so clear and beautiful that it makes everything make sense. Punch line: the book lasted longer than the boyfriend.

Sailor and Fiddler, that non-autobiography I was telling you about, reads like liner notes, that part of the album that tells you about the inspiration of the songs and funny anecdotes from the recording studio. But honestly, all my favorite parts were the parts that talked about the books of his I hadn’t read. There was The Caine Mutiny, which sprung from his experiences fighting in WWII (linger on that for a moment: he was a Jewish soldier fighting Germany during the Holocaust); the War books; and Marjorie Morningstar, a five-hundred-plus page interior drama about a young woman who runs from New York society life to become a Hollywood actress.

The movie version of Marjorie starred Natalie Wood, fresh off her headlining performance in Rebel Without a Cause (she also played Maria in West Side Story). Marjorie was a cautionary tale in many ways, a girl who shunned her Jewish heritage, dabbled in miscegenation and, uh, immodest activities. Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet, makes a convincing argument for Marjorie‘s enduring popularity, despite the pragmatic conservatism of its underlying themes: “Like a literary golem,” she writes, “Marjorie seems to have upstaged her creator, seducing readers in a way Wouk likely never intended.”

But is that really upstaging Wouk? Isn’t the author’s goal to imagine the characters, to set events in motion and nudge the snowball down the hill, then stand back as it builds into an avalanche? In Sailor, Wouk comes off as a consummate entertainer: an artist, for sure, but more than anything a canny showman, someone who knows how to tell a story with just the right amount of adventure, humor and bawdiness to keep us coming back, and keep us wanting more.

I mean, for goodness’ sake, he was asked to write for Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential Inaugural Address. The story, in Sailor, is less than a paragraph long. But it’s crazy. And it’s good. He ate in John Lennon’s dining room after “promises of tuna salad on new plates,”* and then he skips right to moving out of NYC to Washington. This is a guy who’s spent more time writing stories than most of us have living them. He knows how to make each word count.

thecityboyPerhaps the ingredient he’s most generous with is wisdom: for despite Herbie’s fumbles in The City Boy, and Norman Paperman’s foolish hotel investment in Don’t Stop the Carnival, there’s always a little wink and a nudge to the reader, a shared grin as if he’s saying, I went through this, I made these mistakes, and I might have screwed up but I got a good story out of it.

And he did. Wouk is far too much of a gentleman to address this in his writings, but his own skirting between Jewish law and writing and society life has got to be riveting. Like Norman in Carnival, he bought a lavish house in the Caribbean, and moved there for 5 years with his young sons; and I, with young kids of my own, buried in New York and wishing for a way out, have to ask, how the hell did he pull it off? The food? The schooling? The chutzpah?

And yet it’s awesome how different all these books are. Marjorie is about New York and L.A. society; Youngblood Hawke is a riff on down-home Southern wisdom; Inside, Outside is about a Russian-Jewishherman-wouk_custom-953cb37b4dd0dc45b6a03a8b52e14adf5427b8dc-s900-c85 family who moves to America, assimilates, and winds up in an influential position in the White House. More than anything else, Wouk just knows a good story.

Wouk published Sailor and Fiddler on the occasion of his 100th birthday, vowing that it would be his final book and that now, ensconced comfortably in the California desert, he will put the pen down and get some rest. That might make life a little less joyous for the rest of us.

But not really. For those of you like me, who are late to the party, there’s an entire career to catch up on. And for those of us who are juggling with the dilemma of our belief and our storytelling ability, how they fit together and whether they fit together at all, well, don’t stop juggling. Here’s a guy who made a whole career out of figuring it out.

* — That’s a paraphrase; the book’s stuck in a room with my sleeping newborn. Sorry, journalistic integrity.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Don’t Be Anonymous


The bravest thing I ever did was writing my name.

Since Hevria started accepting guest posts (a whole year ago!), we’ve gotten some amazing, wonderful, heartbreaking stories from people outside the usual stable of Hevria writers. There was the piece about the illictness of working at a secular library. The piece about modesty and an intimate photoshoot. We’ve played a part in major national news stories and even broken some of those stories. We’re getting more submissions every day — thank G-d, there are artists out there, a whole bunch of them, and they’re creating stuff and it’s brilliant and they are sharing it with us.

And a lot of those submissions are anonymous.

For the most part, we actively discourage writers from being anonymous. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary, but we think that creative writing — any type of creative expression — shouldn’t be something that anyone has to be ashamed of.

We’ve published anonymous pieces before. Sometimes it’s necessary for the piece — we’ve published pieces by victims of abuse and people who are in religious relationships while trying to figure out their sexual identity.

These pieces are the exception to the rule.

Elad and I, and all the writers and readers and lurkers and encouragers, have worked for two years to make Hevria a safe space for writing, and for writers.

If you’re afraid people will think your poetry is dumb. If you’re afraid that writing a story about rebellion will make people question your own religiousness, or if you’re scared to write about a character being depressed or manic or kooky because people will think that character is you — don’t be afraid.

People might, at first. But you’re a writer. Your power is your words. If you put some thoughts into their heads, you can put others inside those heads, too.

Repeat after me: Writing shouldn’t be something you should have to apologize for. Your past isn’t something to be ashamed of — it’s your past, and it’s what made you into the person you are today.

For my own part, I’ve written some sketchy things. Hell, I have a whole memoir about trying to become religious, sometimes failing, sometimes learning lessons in what can only be described as the hard way. The last time I ate in a non-kosher restaurant. A girl I kissed before I was married. It’s all out there. If you search my name — on Bing, on Google, in the Library of Congress — this is some of the stuff you’re going to come up with.

Then I started shidduch dating. Talking to matchmakers, the unofficial, person-who-knows-everyone kind, the kind who are rife in frum communities, trying to figure out who my One True Love might be, because they might know better than me.

At one point I hit rock bottom. My ideal, married-to-a-nice-wise-mystical-woman self of the future, and my down-and-dirty poetry-slingin’ self of today had grown so far apart that they didn’t even recognize each other.

And when I mentioned this present-day self to the People Who Knew Better, to my friends and rabbis, they said: Ignore it. Don’t put it out there. If the people you could date ever find out about that side of you, if they know the things you say and the things you’ve done, they won’t want to marry you. They’ll run.

And when I was feeling near my lowest, and trying my hardest just to be a guy in a button-down shirt and slacks, and feeling broken down and ugly on the inside, I got into a conversation with a rabbi who said the most magical dating advice I’d ever gotten.

You don’t want to marry someone who loves you in spite of your weirdness. 

(He might not have said “weirdness.” But that’s what he meant.)

You want to marry someone who loves you because of that weirdness.

Write what you’re afraid to write. Share it. Write about what you’re ashamed of, and write about what you fear, and write each and every one of your dreams. Don’t get consumed by the one thing, the dangerous thing, the thing that you don’t want people hearing about. Because the more things you put out there, the more different pieces and different thoughts and different yous you put into the world, the more you write, the more you won’t be a one-hit wonder — you’ll become a writer or singer or dancer or filmmaker with many different stories or songs or poems or films, not just one thing for people to judge you on.

And maybe the wrong thing will rise to the top? It’s always a possibility. But right underneath it will be three dozen other things, three dozen right things.

We’ve published anonymous submissions. We will continue to, of course — we’ll embrace the writing and the writers, and we’ll continue to provide a safe, supportive community for everyone who wants to come.

But we also want to help you believe in yourself. And in your good name. Your real name.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Behind the Scenes at Noshland

I wrote a new short story on Hevria -- well, okay, half a short story -- but I have the whole thing in my head, and I'm, like, 98% sure that I'm going to post the other half in 2 weeks. Or next week, if Elad lets me.

And I'm kind of overbrimming with behind-the-scenes stuff to tell you about it.

Last Night at Noshland

BY   JULY 5, 2016  STORY
Zvi needs to leave Crown Heights behind, and he is leaving it behind, but every step he takes brings him a new wash of sadness, the nostalgia sinking deeper into his brain and skin and his nose, even though he hasn’t even left yet.

And Now, the Commentary Track.

  • The genesis of the story: I love one-night (or one-day) stories, like American Graffiti and Superbad and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I like giving my stories time limits in general, like how Goldbergs had to end at the end of the summer and this memoir I'm working on goes from Halloween to Thanksgiving. That gives me a ruler to pace everything. Having a single night is even better. It's like a puzzle where every single thing that happens has to fit.
  • Yes, the name of the shop in the story is based on the dear, wonderful Nosh World, zichrono l'vrocho (the characters and even the store itself are as complete fabrications as anything can be), but another major influence in the title and the story is the book Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan. It's about a Red Lobster that's shutting down, and there's a snowstorm coming, and workers keep not showing up for their shift, and it's really sad and beautiful -- and specifically, the way it was taught to me by my professor Alexi Zentner, who has a new book out this week that I'm not sure I'm allowed to say is really by him.
  • I'm doing this sort of as a challenge to myself: both to finish something, and to put it in front of people. I've been in kind of a sad place lately. My last novel is in limbo and the new one I'm writing is taking forever, and I keep starting stories and then not finishing them. So I'm trying to vanquish my writing anxiety with performance anxiety. I've put up the first half! Now I have to finish the damn thing.
  • I just also want there to be more fiction on Hevria! And more stories about Hasidim that aren't about how pathetic we are or people running away or what a horrible place the community is. Not that this is exactly a happy story (nothing I'm gonna write right now is going to be that), but I really do like Zvi, the main character, and I hope other people will too.
  • I was working on the last part of the story this morning and I realized with a shock of horror, there's almost no chocolate. Sure, I mention ice cream once or twice, but it is in no way true-to-life to write about a snack shop in Crown Heights and exclude chocolate. There's a paragraph in the second part about a girl who buys a bag of tortilla chips, and it would make way more sense for her character to be eating chocolate, but it makes way more sense for me as a person to think of someone eating nachos:

    And she buys a 50-cent pack of chips, of Golden Fluff tortilla strips, a brand whose name has always puzzled him (no gold? no fluff?) but whose taste is undeniably solid, that perfect balance of spicy and tangy and sweet, that he once read the Japanese call umami, a harmony of flavor, the perfect culinary addiction of which he was the purveyor. He loved the boldness of Tsivia Singer’s pre-party indulgence, and the vision of her walking down the street with the umami tang on her breath, neither of which he would ever taste.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Gobblings: The Movie (sort of)

stole a story from the Baal Shem Tov. Well, I sort of stole it. The part about it being in space, the aliens, the toy robots, the overprotective parents, and the saving the universe without the universe knowing about you saving it -- those parts I may or may not have made up myself.

(Except for the overprotective parents. That part's based on real life.)

Anyway: Here's a movie where I talk about The Gobblings and writing and how the rest of the world tells stories to put kids to bed, and we tell stories to wake ourselves up. Thanks to Daniel and David for filming it, and JAKEtv for making it real, and the wondrous people at Hevria for letting me be egotistical for a change.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Girl Can Become the King

I showed my daughters this morning's newspaper, and it was incredible to watch their faces light up. The oldest read the headline out loud -- Clinton Seals Triumph With California Victory -- and then she squealed, like really squealed, not the I-got-a-new-toy squeal but the I-did-my-multiplication-table-perfectly-for-the-first-time squeal, the squeal that says, holy shit, something in the world has fundamentally changed.

When we talked about who to vote for, I was pretty harsh that the girls weren't allowed to choose Hillary because she was a girl, and that we need to find out as much as we can about everyone, and we want to choose the best people, no matter who they are. (We followed through with this down to some last-minute Googling of superdelegates in the voting booth.) Everyone has good points and bad points, and I really don't like how Bernie probably wouldn't be very cooperative with anyone who wasn't on the same page as him, and I don't like that Hillary seems like a big-balls career politician with no guiding conscience.

But on the level of pure, simple, and direct showing my three daughters that girls can do anything, having a woman on the front page of the paper, claiming the nomination, conceivably becoming the leader of our country, it was an awesome fucking moment. I've been telling them since they were born that they can do anything. There's a lot of stuff that's still in the way, but it just came one step closer to true.

Pic: One more text from Hilary

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why I Write about Peeing

Hey, it's my latest piece at Hevria! I was complaining about our personal posts being too depressing these days, or maybe just mine, and Elad said that I should write something happier. We happened to be drinking at the time. The sun might or might not have been up, I'm not telling. What happened next was this blog post. I guess it really is possible to find inspiration anywhere.

Pee Break

Sometimes you just need to get out.
There’s that moment at the bar where the debate is getting a little too intense and I’m getting a little too evasive, and it hits. The realization that I haven’t peed in two hours. Yes, I am sitting with one of my best friends in the world, and yes, we are yelling at each other at the top of our voices, but the moment I stand up, something changes — I have a bit more of my personal space to myself, I am seeing the room from a different vantage point, and the world seems like a little bit of a different place.
“Excuse me,” I say, in a completely different voice from the one I’ve just been using, and using words, like excuse me, that I never thought I’d speak again. And then: “I’ll be right back.”
And when I slip away, the world slips away from me.
Sometimes it’s just so good to go to the bathroom. Not the act itself, but the act of leaving behind the world and making yourself alone. I’ve been operating on a constant emotional peak over the past few weeks, and I keep telling people, “I feel drained.” Those three words have never seemed so inappropriate: Whenever I feel an emotional overload, what I really should be saying instead is, “I need to drain.” There’s a Hasidic concept called hisbodedus where you leave your surroundings, leave your world and run to the nearest forest and scream as loud as you can, at the top of your lungs. Peeing might be the urban version of that.

(read the rest)

Pee Break

 Sometimes you just need to get out.

There’s that moment at the bar where the debate is getting a little too intense and I’m getting a little too evasive, and it hits. The realization that I haven’t peed in two hours. Yes, I am sitting with one of my best friends in the world, and yes, we are yelling at each other at the top of our voices, but the moment I stand up, something changes — I have a bit more of my personal space to myself, I am seeing the room from a different vantage point, and the world seems like a little bit of a different place.

“Excuse me,” I say, in a completely different voice from the one I’ve just been using, and using words, like excuse me, that I never thought I’d speak again. And then: “I’ll be right back.”

And when I slip away, the world slips away from me.

Sometimes it’s just so good to go to the bathroom. Not the act itself, but the act of leaving behind the world and making yourself alone. I’ve been operating on a constant emotional peak over the past few weeks, and I keep telling people, “I feel drained.” Those three words have never seemed so inappropriate: Whenever I feel an emotional overload, what I really should be saying instead is, “I need to drain.” There’s a Hasidic concept called hisbodedus where you leave your surroundings, leave your world and run to the nearest forest and scream as loud as you can, at the top of your lungs. Peeing might be the urban version of that.

run away into a forest

I’m not talking about the actual act — or, at any rate, not the actual act of what you do while you’re in the bathroom. No, I’m talking about the journey itself, the process of getting up and leaving wherever you are and interrupting the normal and mundane rhythm of your life in order to just pish.

It’s not a revolutionary idea. No, it is. I once worked in a place where nobody spoke to each other, we were all in the same big room, at our own desks, each of our heads glued to our respective computer monitors. Nobody even left for lunch.

I would take the longest bathroom breaks. Luxurious, ostentatious ones. Just the walk from my desk (right at the head of the office, the furthest of all from the restroom door) would take a good two to three minutes. I stretched my legs, feeling each tendon loosen, feeling my butt balloon from its hours of squashedness, feeling the newfound if momentary freedom of all my limbs moving. I tossed my arms forward and back, that exaggeratedly comical 19th-century walking that you only see in Monty Python sketches. I would drop something on the way, a coin or a piece of paper, take my time picking it up — kneeling down rather than just stooping over, because I had this vague notion of it being healthier, or it being, you know, like exercise. A very minor form of exercise, I was well aware, and almost nothing when you consider that for almost the entire remainder of the day I was sitting at my desk, chair too high and keyboard too low, basically committing a slow form of suicide by laziness, whatever the opposite of yoga is.

This is nothing compared to actual restroom time. I have thought many times of acting like I needed to go to the bathroom at work — doing the walk, the flush, the running of the water tap in the sink, maybe even washing my hands for real, and my face for good measure, just because water in movies always symbolizes a new life and, hell, at 3:00 in the afternoon of a work day I can definitely use a new life, even if it’s basically the same as the old one.

Just, here’s the trick: I wouldn’t go to the bathroom.

I’d just stay there. Hang out for a minute, or two, or ten. Maybe check my email on my phone — no, don’t do that, because that’s basically the same as sitting at your desk. No: just enjoy the damn silence. I used to work in a neighborhood called DUMBO, by the East River and among a bunch of old factories, and there were tons of areas there where you could hide, write stories, make out, even take a nap if you wanted. Now I work in Manhattan, and what we have are bathrooms. It really is the city’s consolation-prize equivalent of a forest: if you want to be alone, this is what you’ve got.

When I was just getting started with being a parent and Mayim Bialik was a little ahead of me being a parent, she said that one of the hardest things about being a parent was that she couldn’t even get away with going to the bathroom. In the moment, I didn’t really understand. Can’t you just leave your kids for 30 seconds? Even easier: if they’re really that young, can’t you just bring them into the bathroom with you or leave the door open and have them crawl around or drool right outside for a few minutes? It’s only now that I truly realize what she was talking about: it wasn’t the shitting, it was the separating.

I once had a girlfriend who would never go to the bathroom when I was at her place. She said she thought it was indecent, that she didn’t want me to see her that way.

“But you walk around naked all the time!” I exclaimed.

She thought about this for a moment and then acknowledged that, yes, that was true.

“So what is it that you don’t want me to see?” I asked her, and in that moment the answer opened itself up in my head: It was that rawness, that fundamental grossness that we are all repulsed by yet that we all share, that raw and stinky moment of knowing — and admitting — that each other, and that we ourselves, are human.

Because I can talk about bathrooms as a place of escape all I want, but the truth is, it’s there for a very specific purpose. We place a holy scroll on every doorpost of our house except on the bathroom door. When excessively polite people talk about shitting, they call it voiding. One of my favorite Jewish prayers is the prayer for going to the bathroom (not going but, you know, going):

…You formed us with wisdom
and created within us
many openings and many voids.

And isn’t that all we are, in the end? A series of openings and a series of hollows, the things that fill us up and the things that will never fulfill us, the times that we are busy and full and productive and the times we need to just get away.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dancing by Myself

When I wrote my latest Hevria post, I was feeling kind of fatalistic. The kids were not sleeping and I was watching Avengers: Age of Ultron. I'd just talked to a bunch of friends who went to the much-newer, and much-better-reviewed Civil War. That's probably why I was feeling so depressed. Anyway, most people told me it was depressing. Although I think it's kind of funny? Maybe you can figure it out.

Dancing in Traffic

BY   MAY 10, 2016  ESSAY
This morning I caused a traffic jam. Walked in front of a car on my lazy Brooklyn street, didn’t realize there was a car behind that, and another one. Six or seven total. Our street is narrow, with traffic further hidden by an islet of trees in the middle. I was taking my time walking. I hate crossing at the light. I’m very resentful that way. Most times I try not to take up space but when I do, I really do. I was walking, trying not to use any gas, any money, anything. Blocking all those cars, even for thirty seconds, just think how much fossil fuel I burned.
I’ve been taking up too much space. Money, air, people’s energy. I don’t actually make money at work. My job is all about potential, finding things that might still be worth money in ten years. They still pay me for it, for now, trusting that I’m doing something of value, even though none of us will probably ever find out. Will I still be around in ten years? At the job? On this Earth?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Teen Self-Referential Drama, Plus Or Minus a Few Years

I wrote another installment of my San Francisco-to-New York travelogue. I keep thinking, like, maybe my entire career is simply rewriting every Judy Blume book in chronological order, as memoir. Except that, in my version, the 13-year-old girl is played by an overgrown boy with an overgrown beard.

In This Huge Universe, The Only Things That Matter Are G-d And Girls

That first day on the road we drove to Los Angeles, then past it. There were no monuments to communicate to us that we’d entered or left L.A., no skyscrapers or theaters, no ocean in sight. I’d spent the better part of a year traveling down there, writing my novel about a teenage Orthodox girl who got her own television show. It was half wish fulfillment, half daring myself to try to achieve that nightmare. Every few weeks for a year I left San Francisco and bounced back and forth along the California coast on a Greyhound bus, staying for a few days or a week, soaking up enough inspiration to get me through the next 50 pages.
On this trip — the same unending fields out the window of Elyse’s SUV, the same pasture halfway with hundreds and hundreds of cows stuffed against each other, mooing sadly and uselessly — it was an entirely different feeling, the last time I’d make this bizarre pilgrimage.
We passed the cows, and Elyse’s dog Joey howled at them in primal confusion, startled by the moving background, disturbed that these nearby animals were rushing by fast while standing completely still and that they were simultaneously unafraid of his braying. It was only natural for him to chase cows, and for cows to tremble at his presence. The very fact of the road trip was lost on him. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this was the way he’d always lived, his mind only in the moment, never regretting the past or dwelling in left-behind places, always dealing with what was in front of him. Maybe we were the beginners, and he was to be our rebbe.

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