Sunday, March 28, 2010

Are you a stupid smart person?

As I’ve mentioned, there have been all kinds of self discoveries in the past few years. Skills and qualities that were buried, in shadow, or simply just non-existent before I set out on my own. Obviously, there’s the writing and other passions that have been unearthed which are manifesting themselves in fruit bearing, even intelligent seeming, endeavors.

And then there is the discovery of the exact opposite. Apparently, I am one of those people you might call “the dumbest smart person you’ve ever met.” I’ve been known to do some of the most ridiculous things, and then, like a dog that cannot be trained, I do them again. And again. I’m guilty of committing more clueless crimes than the ones I confess to below, but I'd like for you to continue reading future posts.

After reading this, please let me know, are you guilty of overt stupidity displays too? The kind that make you scratch your head and say to yourself (or to a stranger next to you who will label you crazy instead), “Wow, am I really that dumb?”

1) The other day I walked my dog to the dog park and couldn’t figure out why my jeans were so loose. I hadn’t lost that much weight, yet they were slipping down my hips. Did I bother to look down? Nope. That’s what a smart person would do. It turned out that not only was my fly open, but the zipper was too. Yes, I walked all the way to the dogpark like that.
2) I have to do a mental exercise before knowing the difference between right and left. Lifting an arm helps (my right, because I’m a rightie and this comes naturally) just to make sure.
3) When doors are clearly labeled “pull,” I push. Over and over, and then I get angry at the door. Just because I’m pushy doesn’t mean I’m right.
4) My new apartment came with a new dishwasher. I was so excited to use it that I broke it, came home to suds and water everywhere. But the super checked it and couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. Turned out I had put dish liquid in, rather than dishwasher detergent.
5) I frequently write anecdotes or blog ideas on my Blackberry, and then email them to myself. When my Blackberry dings eight seconds later, I get excited that I have a new message and wonder who it’s from.
6) I’ve broken my foot, sprained my ankle, sprained my foot, torn my whatchamacallit under my knee cap, pulled my back, and when people ask me how I did it, I tell them the truth: that I have no idea. I’m not even smart enough to come up with a cool excuse.
7) I once wore a dress inside out to work, but at least that piece of clothing was zipped up. How did I manage to zip it without realizing it was on backwards? How should I know?
8) I’ve been stumped by elevators that have doors on both sides, and have been caught waiting patiently for the wrong one to open. These are usually elevators I’ve ridden multiple times.
9) I’ve been to the grocery store to do some major shopping when I have a heavy computer bag in one hand, my dog tied up under a canopy outside, when it’s just started to rain. And it’s past delivery time. I realize this when I check out, not before.
10) I chastise myself for constantly losing my big yellow tape measure (this happened today, prompting this blog), only to find it in the fruit drawer, nestled amongst lemons and apples.

You might not be surprised to hear that I wear two different socks most of the time (hence mom’s purchase of that gorgeous pair), that I’ve taken business trips without packing any underwear or my glasses (which generally leads to things like #10), and that I’ve passed all of these traits onto my dog, poor thing. At six years of age (42 in human years), she still walks into glass doors, runs left when a ball is thrown right, and greets people by inhaling their crotches instead of shaking their hands. Maybe it’s because she’s a lefty. Or perhaps, she’s just mindful not to show me up. What a sweetie.

By the way, for those of you who put your big commercial productions in my hands, please do not panic. These kinds of foolish shenanigans do not endanger others. This is shit I do to myself.

Can you top that? I’m all ears. Listening, I can do.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

And all along, I've been married to my novel...


So far this blog has been about my relationships: with my parents, sisters, young cubs, and with myself. But I haven’t written about the biggest relationship I've been in over the past three years, my novel. 

When I first decided to write “The Virgin Wife” (oddly, the title came to me before the story did) it wasn’t what you’d call a decision. It was just a feeling, like an imperative. Something I had to do. I didn’t set out to write it because I wished I could write a novel and look cool doing it, or because it would be easy (hell no), or a saleable idea that could make me famous.  Nor was it a spiteful act against people by whom I felt wronged (we are all guilty of that, understandably so). I wasn’t given a say in the matter. In a way, the book decided for me.  I was about to try to explain what I mean, but why bother when we have Virginia Woolf, who said: “I believe the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf which words can’t cross.”

My novel is somewhat autobiographical (please contain your surprise), and the desire to tell my story in order to confront and make peace with my past, was a key driver, albeit a subconscious one.  I credit the teacher I had in my first writing workshop, when I still lived in LA, when the story was just a seed, buried six feet under, for inspiring me to take the leap. I believed, like most people do, that what I had been through was not all that interesting or exciting, and why would people care? She said, “You are the expert on your life in a way that no one else is. Only you intimately know the landscape of your experience and the people in your life, your family, your spouse, yourself, and that perspective is unique.” Weird how that was all it took, but yet I went home and wrote the first five pages of my novel that night. Ironically, they are no longer in the book. But writing them crystallized the essence and tone of the book onto the page, and into being.

I moved back to NY shortly after, and spent the next three years working on it. No no, that doesn’t mean I sat at my desk every day for three years. By work on it, I mean it worked on me. It felt as if some kind of eradicable bug or beast had abruptly taken residence in my psyche and could not be placated.  It poked at me, chattered in my ear when I was trying to sleep, made me doubt myself and caused me to be depressed for days and weeks without providing me with a legitimate reason. It performed summersaults and triathlons in the arena that was my head to get my attention while I was trying to be present at work, or out with friends, making me feel and seem like a restless freak.  The only times the book beast was satisfied was when I paid attention to it and took it for a walk around my laptop.  For a few hours, we were in harmony, a happy couple, buzzing together in a kind of meditative bliss.  But then I’d close the laptop and try to go do something else, and the f*cker would resume its tantrum throwing all over again. 

I’m tempted to walk you through the rest of the timeline, tell you a bit more about this beast, my child in a way, and our journey together leading up to where I am today. I could break it down for you into some kind of equation, in the following manner: Shitty pages and false starts = six months. First draft = one year. Second draft = another year. Waiting for feedback = I lost count. But then I realized, that I’m terrible at math. And secondly, in light of the exciting news I got yesterday, the past feels remote. I’m not going to go backwards. I should not go backwards.

I sent my novel out to agents five week ago, after a triumphant cross over an illusive finish line, a perpetually moving target, and waited. In agony. How could I not? You don’t’ plant a seed, research special fertilizer, stand over it and water it, and then finally see it grow, and then not give a shit about its well being. But then miraculously, while I was waiting, the beast finally gave up, shut up, and went to sleep. It was in a coma. Waiting to be called back into action. For this I was grateful. A reprieve, time to live my life, focus on other things (things you have been reading about, because I was freed up to write this blog). But all along, I was waiting. Now I understand why I pulled my back, why my knees and wrists hurt. It's from all that finger and toe crossing. What kind of superstition is that, appropriate only for Olympic gymnasts?

Then I started to receive some passes. Which sent me down a spiral of despair (duh) and questions such as ‘Will this ever see the light of day? Will all of that soul pouring onto the page and agonizing duels with the beast, ever pay off?’

I had to fly to LA for 36 hours for work. LA is where I used to live, in what I call my “previous life,” where my novel is set. I’ve been here a bunch since then, and this time, when I landed, I felt a release from that life. Nostalgia had been put to rest alongside the beast.

And then, with my phone dying, in my hotel room, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. Without getting into it, because the details don’t matter, it was from a literary agent who finished my book. She liked it.  She got it. She believed in it.

There are too many intersecting feelings and thoughts about that moment and the hours that followed, all overwhelming and emotional. I don’t have the capacity to explain them here, nor do I feel like trying to put those feelings into words. I guess finally, I want to take a break from that.

Pacing on the thick hotel carpet, then sitting, then pacing again, unsure what to do with myself, of course I called my mother, and my friends. My amazing friends. Especially my girlfriend who is a writer too, the special kind who despite her own successes and doubts, doesn’t have a catty cell in her and is the one who referred me to this agent in the first place. I don’t know many women like that, because they are rare. This isn’t cynicism, it’s called gratitude.

Amidst all the excitement, there was a reoccurring theme, called change. There is a great phrase in Hebrew, “Change your place, and you change your luck.” I changed my place as those of you reading this know. But I don’t think it was about changing my address. It was about its underlying motivation. About changing my attitude, my outlook, and being ready for whatever the universe was going to bring. Actually, I don’t believe in luck. Three times today I heard “all you need is a little luck and timing.” I believe that bad luck exists, and can mess you up. But good luck…it isn’t luck at all. It’s about acting and living according to what we want, from a place of truth and heart, and if we do that, then good things will flow out from there, in the form of this intangible amazing thing we call luck.

This post is a bit of a departure for me. Perhaps a little more serious. It’s late, I’m in a hotel room, and thinking back on the past day and the promise of what lies ahead. I guess this is a defining moment, casting a light on the past, and revealing that I’ve been somewhat adrift. Sometimes, we can’t view it in sharp relief until we’ve reached the next dock, the next place to drop our anchor.

Or in my wise and hilarious mothers words, when she heard my good news, she said, “Finally, finally, Baby Moses has reached the shore.”


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mom and Dad: The gift that keeps on giving (this blog).

They drove in last night, bearing gifts:
1) A sponge-holder for my kitchen sink.
2) A faux-wrought iron garden table for my kitchen from Home Goods, that looks like it should be on a tenement balcony.
Cougel: "So sweet of you Ema, but it doesn't match the decor of the rest of my place."
Dad (quietly so Mom can't hear): "If you don't like it, just leave it on the sidewalk."
Mom (waving her hand): "You'll get used to it."
3) And these socks. She must have gone to great lengths to find me the hottest pair...


Note the pink leopard-like print and heart. Maybe mom was just trying to acknowledge the feminine cougar I've become.

Also, she must feel guilty about having once blurted that she wished she did with me like Moses in the basket, and sent me down the river Nile... because she emailed me this picture of Lil' Mo and his peeps:



She wrote, "do you see Mose in basket? look how many are watching and protecting him..."  

Is that supposed to make me feel better? Watching and protecting? Those guys look like they were all naked in bed, having a ball, before the little shit turned up and spoiled the fun.  

So, here's the final stage (I pray!) in Operation Mirror. I knew that once my parents came in, they'd see that my mirror was no longer hanging where my Dad had left it, and I'd have to tell him anyway. So I broke the news to Mom earlier that day. As expected, she cried, "Heeeeeeeeee!!" which means "Holy F*kg Shit" in Jewish Mom. She agreed that Dad would be upset, and understood why I didn't tell him. But when he unloaded the kitchen table from the trunk of his car, I saw the toolbox.

Yep, he was going again. This time he brought screws. I tried, oh I tried, to convince him not to. "Dad, leave it, I'll have a professional (this was my mistake) hang it with my window shades when they arrive." Sweating (me too, just watching) half an hour later (mind you, this was Saturday night, and the last place I wanted to be) it was up! No matter that it's crooked and two inches higher than it should be, the damn thing was secure, and I wanted to get out of there. 

And then Dad says: "Wait, it's too high."   
"Noooooo! Dad, it looks fine. Really." 
Dad reaches into his toolbox: "I'll fix it." 
Desperate, I put my hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said (in Hebrew - somehow speaking in their language always seems to help my argument).  "Abba, please. Let me live with it for awhile like this. You can come back in two weeks and fix it then..." I was being manipulative, giving him an objective for his next visit, but I was desperate. Where was Mom during all this you wonder? Do I even need to tell you that, now that I have a kitchen?

I had not planned to write this post. I have other topics in the cue. And I realize that writing about my parents again is not the ideal choice to "move this story forward." If my blog was a movie, this post would end up on the cutting room floor. But it was the socks that pushed me over the edge. My parents bring me gifts, an endless supply of laughs. So why not share them with you. 


Monday, March 15, 2010

(Postscript about Dad): Just because it's broken, doesn't mean it should be fixed.


As I predicted, the day after my parents got back from Israel, they dove into helping me finish setting up my apartment with gusto. They each contributed in the ways they know how (Mom took me food shopping, and Dad took me to his second office, Home Depot). I have two large pieces of art and one heavy decorative mirror that I needed help hanging, and the more time that's passed with these items hanging out on the floor, waiting to be dealt with, the more flagrant became the fact that I didn't have a boyfriend/partner hanging out with me. Well, single daughters make dads feel useful. So I went with it. At seven o’clock last night, after a long day shopping in NJ with my parents (a seven dollar train ride is worth the savings on sales tax), my mom commandeered the kitchen unpacking groceries and rearranging dishes. Dad got out his tool box.

Two hours later, after inspecting, marking, measuring, brow furrowing and looped "ahas” (he does this when he's thinking), everything was up. The biggest piece was hung crooked, and when he asked me if it looked okay, I almost lied and said, "Great!" But instead, I told him gently that it looked just a little lopsided. He couldn’t see it at first, then... "Oh, you're right." He shook his head, "Your father's getting old." I realized, most father's help their daughters hang shit up in their dorms, or when they're in their twenties. It's not my dad's fault that I'm single in my thirties, subjecting him to heavy lifting in his sixties (with a bad back to boot). 

By the time they left, dragging out bags of useless clothes and an old microwave they bought for my last apartment, we were all exhausted. And they were jet lagged too. But my dad's face was aglow, his posture a touch straighter than it had been that morning, emanating pride and gratification for having been able to help me the way no other man could.

I fell into a deep sleep. At 5am, I was woken by a booming crash. My stomach dropped. I tiptoed out into the living room, already sensing what had happened. My gorgeous expensive mirror had fallen off the wall, taking a chunk of the wall with it, along with two big glass vases that had been on the dresser below it. My living room resembled a car crash site. I don't remember if I turned the lights on to survey the specifics. Instead, I turned on my ignore switch and went back to bed, deciding to deal with it in the morning. It crossed my mind whether having written that blog about my dad the day before had come back to bite me in the ass, but I knew there was no use in flipping out over it.

Miraculously, amidst all the shards of glass, the mirror itself (the bad luck part) wasn’t cracked, although the glass frame around it was. An hour later, I was still vacuuming up glass crumbs that had managed to scatter all the way to the kitchen. I picked up the phone to call my mom to tell her what had happened, but then I hesitated.  I was worried my dad would answer. I pictured his face falling instantly, the glow from last night vanished, and I didn’t have the heart. I decided to keep it to myself (and this blog, which my dad doesn’t read). When given the choice between breaking a mirror, and breaking my father's sense of self worth, I'd choose the former any day.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

My father is not in the mafia. I swear.

I realize that I risk sounding like Meadow Soprano, but I’d like to try to demystify some things about my father that can be easily misinterpreted. Here are the top ten:

1) He’s an immigrant who lives in New Jersey, one town over from where The Sopranos was filmed. My parents’ house has big columns in front of it, and the same interior layout as The Sopranos. But that’s just a coincidence. 
2) He wears wife-beater undershirts, leather loafers, and sometimes, suspenders. But it's because they’re comfortable.
3) He’s a big guy, with tufts of hair above his ears and nothing on top, so his thick eyebrows accentuate the deep creases between them, which makes him look serious (and a little scary). But my grandfather looked like that too. (Although no one is really sure what he did for a living, but no matter.)
4) What does my father do?  Okay, I probably should have left this one off the list, since it won't help my case, but I'd like to be honest here. He works in construction. And import export. Please don’t ask what it is exactly that he exports. Or how (no, not in the trunks of cars).  
5) He carries a big fat money clip in his pocket, and pays for lots of things in cash. Including, as legend may have it, my big fat Jewish wedding.
6) He doesn’t speak unless it’s necessary, or when using his favorite line, “Don’t bust my balls.”
7) His favorite movie is The Godfather. But isn’t it everybody’s?
8) There is nothing more important to him than his brothers, and his family. He doesn’t have any friends, because they are not to be trusted the way family is.
9) My father used to sometimes call my ex-husband “Fredo,” after Don Corleone’s mentally inferior son. And no, I don’t know where my ex has disappeared to ever since he (according to my father) “went against the family.”
10) My brother-in-law works with my father and he’s so loyal - it’s loyalty people, not fear! - that he won’t tell us details about his day to day employment.

After years of us teasing my father about the above, he finally decided to just go with it. He has a wicked sense of humor, so why not f*ck with people?

Last year, my parents’ fourteen-year-old Golden Retriever died, and my parents wanted to bury him in the backyard. My father asked my brother-in-law to bring in some workers from a house they were building (the same one they were approached to film in by none other than The Sopranos production, but my father declined. He didn’t want strangers “poking around in his business.”) So, my brother-in-law drove two Hispanic carpenters over to the house and explained (their English was poor) as best he could that they needed to dig a big hole in our backyard. After they finished, my father emerged from the house to inspect it. These men had never met my father before. He peered into the fresh grave by the woods, sufficiently sized to contain the corpse of a seventy-pound retriever, looked at the two men and then opened his arms wide. “More grande,” he said. Make it bigger.

According to my brother-in-law, the ride back with the two workers in the pick-up truck was silent. Eventually, one of the men looked at him and said, “Su padre…Cosa Nostra?”  (ie. "Sicilian Mafia")

But my dad isn’t scary to me (except when he gets pissed). Those of us lucky enough to be on the inside are privy to his true motives. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for his children, and that includes flying out with my mom to Los Angeles at a moment’s notice, to take his heartbroken daughter to a spa for a weekend when she needed it most (my mother had a coupon). When I was worried that my father might not accept the choices I had made in my life, or the detour that it had abruptly taken, he surprised me with a strong accepting silence. When I left Los Angeles and the life I had there, and moved back to New York City alone, he was waiting for me at the arrivals gate with my niece on his shoulders, welcoming me home.  He’s over sixty, and looks older than that, but he still insists on installing things into each apartment I move into, straining, with reading glasses slipping off his sweaty nose. He calls me almost every day for a one-sided conversation that lasts no more than two minutes, "just to hear my voice." 

If my father loves me for who I am, and accepts who I am becoming, then, mafia ties or not, I’m going to accept him too. Or rather, in his words, what I don’t know can’t hurt me.

*Disclaimer: Some statements in this post are exaggerated and names altered for Cougel's - and her family's - own protection.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Family vacations. It's all relative.

Is our maternal instinct, or desire to parent, really innate? Or is it a function of societal pressure and our immediate environment? I guess, what I’m wondering, is everything, including what we think we want, all relative?

In January, I was fortunate enough to go on a family trip with my parents, two sisters, and their awesome kids (five nieces and one nephew) to the island of Turks and Caicos.  Since my parents aren't getting any younger, they decided that nothing could be better than having the whole family together for a week, away from everything. I had been unable to partake in previous trips, for various reasons, but mostly because my separation from my husband had thrown me into a me-centric place, and the thought of taking time off from the new life that I was trying to build to go on a time out with my family, where everything had stayed the same, was not appealing. I get along great with my family most of the time, but getting along wasn’t a priority for me back then, moving on was. And I sensed that being around my family, where nothing ever seems to change, where progress seems organic and doesn't require a herculean effort, would be too painful for me, because it served as a nagging reminder of what I no longer had (and who I no longer was).  Not to mention that there is something about being around people whose incessant concern over your well being only makes you feel worse.  It forces a glaring spotlight onto what is wrong. And, if you’re Jewish like me, you have to answer a lot of questions (evasion is not an option). So the thought of choosing to go away with my family to an island (with no Blackberry service aka contact with my best girlfriends) on a vacation, was like choosing to jump out of a burning airplane (metaphor for bad marriage, yes) onto an island populated by wild boars. 

To my surprise, no one was offended. They understood. I seemed to have pocketed a divorce “get out of jail free card” without an expiration date (at least until I get married again).  Although this wasn’t entirely true. Sometimes my choices upset my mother. She once let it slip that she “wished she had done with me like Moses in the basket.” She was referring to the abandonment of baby Moses by his mother down the Nile River. I tried not to be offended by it. I rationalized it by saying that my mother simply “didn’t know what to do with me.” She felt bereft of the tools to help me. Come to think of it, my mom has a lot of baskets strewn about the house, filled with flowers, or blankets (no people).

But this time, I wanted to go. I had gotten closer to and more comfortable with my family. And with myself. But I didn’t decide until the last minute, a good eight months after the hotel and airfares had been booked. My parents were excited by my willingness to attend, but the problem was everything was too expensive. “You don’t want us or yourself to spend that much money on this, do you? We’ll make it up to you another way,” my mother said. I got upset. I felt uninvited. Not to mention that I wanted to go for all the right reasons. Mature ones. I wasn’t looking for some time in the sun paid for by mom and dad, like we do when we’re 16. I was yearning to spend time with my nieces who love me and give me special hairdos that take me days to untangle.

I told my mom the truth. I felt as if she had thrown me into the basket again, the picnic kind with a lid. It worked magically. I had no idea I’d inherited my parent’s talent for employing guilt to achieve the desired effect, but in this case, I was glad I did.

It was eighty degrees every day, and the resort was beautiful. Because I had arrived late, I got my own room (everyone else had adjoining ones so that they could all be together…eat together…wake up together…isn’t that what families who love each other do?) I was used to being the odd man out, so it was fine. Besides, I was hungry for some space, some alone time. This was right after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and I needed to process what it meant. Not to mention that my mother was itching to monitor my meals like she always did. So I was grateful to have my own space to retreat to.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was grieving yet another loss. A break up with a serious boyfriend, when you’re in your mid-thirties, also means confronting that you’ve postponed having a family to an unspecified date (for me it did anyway).

And there were kids everywhere. The resort we were staying at was a Jewish “Sandals” resort, full of young parents and their screaming kids. I was assuredly the only single person for miles and miles of lush beach. And the more screaming and crying I heard, the happier I was about it.  Unfortunately, my sister’s husband had to leave in the middle for a funeral, leaving her to look after her three kids (one is a baby) without his help. It was not easy, and surely not a vacation.

As the days wore on, my sadness over my situation lifted. I wondered if this trip was more than just some R&R with my family, but a sign, once again reinforcing my decisions, telling me, “Enjoy your solitude and your lack of obligations. Enjoy not having children, Cougel, because once you do, there’s no such thing as a vacation.” I felt young and free. My five-year-old niece confirmed this.  As she shoved the eighth bobby pin into my scalp, she said, “You’re not old! You’re not even married!” 

By the end of the week, tan and healed and reveling in my lack of attachments, I flew back with my mother, my sister and her three girls. The rest of my family flew separately (my family never flies on one plane). Watching my sister walk up and down the aisle with her crying baby and trying to appease the other two, while I was seated away from them in the emergency aisle (poor man’s first class) made me sympathize with her.

But I didn’t want to be her. Again it made me wonder, was it really worth it?  Did my immersion in all the things I thought I wanted, serve to dissuade me from wanting them?

At baggage claim, my sister told me that her husband had just landed too. He coordinated his return flight from the funeral so that he could land in JFK when his family did.

When we emerged from customs and the doors opened revealing the crowd of people waiting in arrivals, my brother-in-law stepped forward from the crowd, arms outstretched, his face eager.  My two nieces (seven and five) spotted him and screamed out his name, “Abba!” (“Dad” in Hebrew. Not the band. Otherwise I'd be the one screaming) and started running towards him. Then the baby, ensconced in her carriage, threw her fists up in the air and mimicked her older sisters, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”

Needless to say, watching them all embrace, the girls climbing on him, his eyes wet with tears of joy, struck me with emotional force.  They were all going home together in their car (no matter that it’s jammed with car seats and cracker crumbs).  And I was going to get into a cab, alone.

And then it dawned on me: “So this is what it’s all for.” All the screaming, the sleep and self time deprivation, didn’t matter in the end.  Because it's all worth it.