Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on an Intense Day

If I had to rate my Wednesday on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 9. We buried David's grandmother yesterday. She strongly influenced me, and I wrote about my deep feelings for her here. She died at the end of October, but because she was having a funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and the men and women dying in our current wars get first priority (rightly), this was the soonest Grandma could be buried. My in-laws were staying with us; they are perfect house guests, but having any house guests comes with challenges, so the week was already not normal for us. Tuesday night was Grandma's wake at a funeral home. The closed coffin was in the room with us, and it was mostly like a party without any food or drinks. People laughed and caught up with relatives they haven't seen in a while. A few people told mostly-funny stories about Grandma.

Since I didn't react emotionally to the coffin in the funeral home on Tuesday, I was surprised by the cry that welled up in my throat on Wednesday morning, when we arrived at the church for her funeral mass, and I saw her coffin draped in the American flag, lying in the back of the hearse. The cry left my throat by the time her pallbearers, her grandsons, had carried the coffin into the rear of the sanctuary, where the priest covered the casket in a cloth the same color and with the same pattern as the ones on his vestments.

Grandma was a devout Catholic (she was even a member of the perpetual adoration society), so I was glad that she had a service that reflected her beliefs. However, it was a little surreal on many levels: first, the fact that with the exception of one Grandma's sons (and his wife), the rest of the family are ex-Catholics. There were not very many people taking communion at this mass. But what really made it surreal was how antithetical the tone/content of the mass was when compared with Judaic beliefs and philosophies about death. There was a lot of liturgy talking about what a happy day it was, and much to my shock, included a lot of hallel (!!!), in English, of course. Hallel is a Jewish prayer composed of Psalms 113-118 that is said on joyous occasions like Jewish holy days, or Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, when we welcome the new moon. Hearing it said at a funeral was the spiritual equivalent of having a bucket of ice water tossed on you. It really highlighted the difference in religious philosophy between Christianity and Judaism: Judaism thinks that death sucks and finds no joy in it whatsoever. This is one of the reasons that it is in poor taste to send flowers to Jewish mourners. That said, I think the mass was a fitting way to say goodbye to Grandma, and it certainly would have met her approval. All of her granddaughters who were in town for the funeral participated in the church service, and my mother-in-law delivered a lovely eulogy.

It was perfect weather for a funeral: cold and rainy. The rain turned to hail during the short ceremony at Arlington. Attending a military funeral is intense in its own right; I can't imagine someone not being moved by it. I started to cry, again, when I saw the horse-drawn limbers and caissons -- I should've taken David's advice to bring two handkerchiefs instead of my one, which was soaked half-way through the mass. The firing of rifles, playing of taps, and folding of the flag covering the casket -- all by other sailors who performed perfectly and in unity even as they were pelted, hard, with hail, was profound, but not as profound as the relief of Grandma finally being buried next to Grandpa, and her son, Michael. One of David's cousins handed out roses, which we all laid on the coffin as we touched it and whispered hurried goodbyes; they were hurried because Arlington officials want you away from the grave as soon as possible. As soon as the service is over, they ask you to return to your vehicles. I really liked that option of going up to the casket, and it's one I've never had at a Jewish funeral. As a Jew, it feels deeply wrong to me to leave a casket above ground; people at a Jewish funeral all pitch in and shove dirt on the coffin. It felt weird to me at Grandpa's funeral to walk away from his casket, and it felt weird to me yesterday. As soon as the family cleared out, Arlington's crew was there to lower the casket and fill in the grave.

It was touching to see Grandma's kids, grandchildren, and great grandchildren support each other and celebrate her complicated, but authentic life: a life really devoted to service of God, her family, and her country, probably in that order. After the funeral, we gathered at David's cousins' house, which felt satisfying, but soon we had to brave the storm to go home. A 22 minute drive took us two hours, but thank God, we made it home safely. To say that the day was emotionally draining was an understatement: we all had headaches and sore eyes from crying all day, and by 9:30 p.m. I felt like I had run a marathon.

Today has been all about rest and revitalization. My massage therapist and I mutually agreed to cancel my appointment today. I showered, prayed, meditated, did my physical therapy exercises, roasted a chicken and brussel sprouts for dinner, took Kacy on a short walk, did one load of laundry, took very few phone calls (although I chatted with my sister for almost one hour), and watched "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on my Netflix instant que. Oh, and now I'm blogging. And that's it! I needed to have a self-care day to decompress from the tensions of the week. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which might be the subject of my next blog post.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shomeret Duty

Last night was my first time acting as shomeret at the mikvah since I fell seriously ill in early 2007. A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath composed of tap and rain water mixed together. It is used at various transition points, such as after a woman's menstrual period, before marriage, and as the final step in conversion to Judaism. A shomeret is a woman who witnesses another woman's immersion to make sure she is completely covered by the water and has correctly prepared her body pre-immersion. Some mikvaot [plural of "mikvah"] have paid shomrot [plural of "shomeret"], but the one at my synagogue is completely staffed by volunteers. Participation is critical, because an immersion usually isn't valid unless it is witnessed.

I was struck last night by how gratifying this service is. Women using the mikvah may be vulnerable; some of them are desperate to conceive, and others may be using the mikvah for the first time after a miscarriage. I'd argue that anyone using the mikvah is a little vulnerable, since you're naked in front of a peer for a short period of time. There can be a lot of emotion caught up in mikvah use as well; I believe there is a conspiracy of fantasy among Orthodox Jews when it comes to discussing taharat hamishpacha (the laws of family purity, which govern when you can be physically intimate with your partner). There are many books talking about the "gift" of taharat hamishpacha to your marriage, usually all along the same lines: your marriage will be revitalized by the regular cycle of abstaining from sex. When you are finally able to make love again, it'll feel like the first time, and other bullshit along those lines. I'd love to write a real-life manual for Orthodox women, which would include the following:

*You are most likely to be amorous during the time that you're forbidden from having sex
*You will resent the assumption that you will have sex on your set mikvah night. Furthermore, since you can only go after dark, you will be too tired to have sex after a long day at work followed by preparing for immersion and actually running the errand itself.
*Going to the mikvah will usually not be the ultra-spiritual experience promised in books on taharat hamishpacha.

I think this would be a self-published book, as I don't see Feldheim Publishers picking it up. I don't mean to be negative; my feelings about using the mikvah have waxed and waned over 14 years of use, and there are some really beautiful things about it. I just resent the rose-colored glasses that color traditional forums that discuss this topic.

Anyway, back to shomeret duty. For the reasons mentioned above and many others, I feel like the quality of a woman's mikvah experience can be the difference between her choosing to follow this mitzvah [commandment] or not, or the difference between her finding it tolerable or not, and I think the quality of her shomeret has a lot to do with that. Last night, I felt like by being pleasant, hopefully soothing, and respectful of women's privacy to the degree that I could be, I made a difference in the quality of their experience. I think being a shomeret carries a lot of privilege with it: at the very least, you make a routine errand pleasant; at the most, perhaps you give positive energy to someone who hopes to conceive that month.  I was grateful to be able to be of service in this capacity.

Ironically, one of the women who immersed last night said, "Weren't you one of the people who started this mikvah?" I said I was the president at the time it opened. She went on to effusively thank me for my work and say how much she enjoys using this mikvah. That really touched my heart, especially because she identified herself as non-Orthodox. To me, that is really a mark of success for what the D.C. mikvah has accomplished: if people from outside the immediate religious community feel comfortable there, we must be doing something right. 

In an odd twist on this, my ability to give service in this capacity is dramatically tied to my recovery from food addiction. There are minimum observance requirements for shomrot stipulated in Jewish legal texts, and one of the most basic is that the shomeret keeps kosher, which means adhering to Jewish dietary laws. Most of the members of my synagogue keep kosher kitchens at home, but don't fully keep kosher, meaning they eat food prepared in non-kosher establishments (I try not to have judgments about this, until otherwise-smart people go to great lengths to convince themselves that their fish is not being handled by the tongs that are toasting the BLT next to it. Or that their vegetarian pizza cooking in the 600 degree oven is segregated from the pepperoni and sausage pie one tray away. As someone who worked in food service, I can tell you this is laughable). Because most of my synagogue members don't strictly keep kosher, we have trouble finding qualified shomrot in our community.

When our mikvah opened in July 2005, I was still leading an outwardly Orthodox lifestyle, but bingeing almost daily on non-kosher food. I came to a crossroads: was it more important to spend a lot of money at Burger King and feel guilty all the time about my hypocrisy, or could I actually make something in my life more important than food? Because that's what I'd have to do if I wanted to give much-needed service to the mikvah. I chose to put the needs of my community above my own desires, which happened to be soul-killing, and that dovetailed nicely with recovering from my food addiction. I make no promises about not eating in non-kosher restaurants "forever," but for today, I'm sticking with that choice, and I'm glad I made it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My "Laugh Out Loud" Playlist

Today has been really crummy. Nothing bad has happened; the problems are of my mind's own making, mostly stemming from my (unfair) comparison of myself to a friend.  I write a list every night of things that I'm grateful for, and tonight's top honor goes to my "laugh out loud" playlist on my iPod. I can't not laugh when I listen to it. Here's what made it on, with brief comments. Please leave other song candidates for this playlist as comments.

1. "Thank God for Jack Daniels" by the Sex Slaves. Winning lyric: "Thank you lord for Jack Daniels, thank you lord for saving me/the only thing that keeps me from the devil/is another glass of that good ole Tennessee ... the only thing that's better than Jack Daniels, is drinking my Jack Daniels for free."

2. "Fever For the Flava" by Hot Action Cop. I laugh at the mere thought of this song, an ode to cunnilingus. I can't decide what's funnier: that a band actually wrote this, or that my husband heard it played on a radio station in Florida. I guess the only funny lyric I'm comfortable quoting is, "Here we go, yo, here's the scenario: gonna strip you down like a car in the barrio."

3. "Totally F**ked" by the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakenings. I guess the opening line says it best: "There's a moment you know, you're f**cked/not an inch more room to self-destruct."

4. "Schadenfreude" by the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q. This whole song is a riot, with examples of schadenfreude abounding, including "Watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken/or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in." But my favorite example of schadenfreude has always been, "Being on an elevator when somebody yells, 'hold the door!"/No! 'F**k you, lady, that's what stairs are for!'" I've been on both sides of that elevator door.

5. "Betty and Me" by Jonathan Coulton. Lest you think that I'm only amused by sex and vulgarity, here is a clean song that makes me laugh! This is just a clever little ditty.

6. "Flakes" by Frank Zappa. Kudos for me being sophisticated enough at age 13 to get the brilliance of this song! Years of homeownership have only affirmed its wisdom: "Flakes flakes! They can't fix your brakes/You ask em, 'where's my motor?'/'Well, it was eaten by snakes'/You can stab n' shoot n' spit/but they won't be fixin' it."

7. "I Won't Be Home for Christmas" by Blink 182. Scrooge at its best! "It's Christmas time again/it's time to be nice to the people you can't stand all year/I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer."

8. "Merry F**cking Christmas" from Comedy Central's "South Park." What's up with the Jewish girl having two Christmas-related songs on her playlist? After a string of other ridiculous insults to other faiths that don't celebrate Christmas, Mr. Garrison says, "Hey there Mr. Shintoist, merry f**king Christmas, God is gonna kick your ass, you infidelic pagan scum." Even typing that makes me laugh.

9. "Ikea" by Jonathan Coulton. Sheer genius! "Long ago in days of yore/It all began with a god named Thor/There were Vikings and boats/And some plans for a furniture store/It's not a bodega, it's not a mall/And they sell things for apartments smaller than mine/As if there were apartments smaller than mine." Ikea totally deserves a song.

10. "If You Were Gay" by the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q. Nicky trying to lure Rod out of the deep closet he's in is just funny.

11. And on that note, "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada," also from Avenue Q. Watching Rod dig deeper into that already deep closet makes me laugh.

12. "Ebay" by Weird Al Yankovic. This song is to Ebay what "Ikea" is to, well, Ikea! A parody of the Back Street Boys' "I Want it That Way," Weird Al nails it:

"Wanna buy (a PacMan Fever lunch box)/Wanna buy (a case of vintage tube socks)/Wanna buy (a Kleenex used by Dr. Dre/Found it on Ebay."

13. "The Internet is for Porn" also from Avenue Q. Kate exclaims, "Normal people don't sit at home and look at porn on the Internet!" Trekkie Monster replies, "Oh?? You have NO idea! Ready normal people..." I think it's a testament to this song's social relevance that my mother quoted it at me yesterday when I told her we learned to fix a toilet by watching how-to videos on YouTube. Her response? "See, the Internet is not just for porn!"

14. and 15. "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love). "More genius from Avenue Q, but what do you expect from writers who thank "Lithium" in their CD liner notes? "Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes/Look around and you will find/No one's really color blind/Maybe it's a fact/We all should face/Everyone makes judgments/Based on race." My mom actually uses this song in her presentations about diversity. She doesn't use "You can be..." that I know of!

Ok, there are a few more Jonathan Coulton songs on my playlist, but my arms are sore and there's a little dog who needs walking, so later!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Elvis's Birthday Fight Club

If the rest of 2011's weekends are as good as the first two, I'm a very lucky girl indeed. Last night, David, two friends, and I went to Elvis's Birthday Fight Club. Yesterday would've been Elvis Presley's 76th birthday, and some geniuses got the idea that nothing would better celebrate the King's birth (no, not that King! That was Dec. 25) than fighting and "hot ta-tas," as the evening's hostess explained.

They had two shows planned, both of which quickly sold out, but we were lucky enough to get tickets for a hastily-added show. We went out in the freezing cold to get these, then had to go back home for a while before heading out again. We waited 20 minutes in the freezing cold to get in, and it was totally worth it. We were treated to an hour of fake boxing, complete with punch and whammy sound effects. They pitted Abe Lincoln v. The Washington Monument. Abe was kicking some ass, but when he stopped to catch his breath, the Monument opened a panel on his front, pulled out a gun, and shot President Lincoln! His dying words were, "Every time I go to the theater!"

We also enjoyed a round between Sarah "Mama Grizzly" Palin and a really fugly "she-male," which is their term, not mine. I'm still trying to get the image out of my mind, but you can see his/her backside in my photo stream. Another winning bout matched Colonel Sanders against a giant chicken! It looked like the Colonel was going to be victorious over a chicken yet again, until he stopped and said, "In my day, we used to keep the white and dark meat separate ...," which was met with a resounding cry of boos from the audience. At that point, the chicken put the KFC bucket over the Colonel's head, tied the Karate Kid-style headband around his chickeny brow, and did the famous crow karate kick made famous by Ralph Macchio in the final scene of the competition in "The Karate Kid." This was complete with that cheesy song, "you're the best around, nothing's gonna ever keep you down," just one example of the care that went into selecting great music for this. Another example was the two burlesque dancers mock-fighting to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The picture above is from the fight between Mr. Roboto and The Washington Monument. It was comforting to hear the mega geeks behind us loudly singing the chorus to Styx's "Mr. Roboto." Mr. Roboto later was defeated by the chicken after she laid eggs and pelted the robot with them, thus ruining his delicate electronics.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Ok, sounds like a good fight club, but what about the hot ta-tas promised?" Don't worry, we were treated to excellent burlesque between the rounds by Reverend Valentine and L'il Dutch. I've seen L'il Dutch dance before and I've enjoyed her both times. Her best number was a striptease done to "Viva Las Vegas." She had fuzzy dice attached to the back of her thong, and her pasties were roulette wheels. She had a cute poker chip hat as an accessory. Rev. Valentine did a good striptease to "Jailhouse Rock," complete with a ball and chain attached to her ankle. My friend Shoshana and I found it oddly comforting that L'il Dutch, though beautiful, has a little meat on her bones, and it cracks me up that she says on her Web site that she is a lifetime member of Weight Watchers.

The only thing that could've made this night better (besides doing fake blow in the bathroom with my fake Elvis TCB (Taking Care of Business in a flash) cash) would've been kicking ass at Elvis trivia. Oh yeah, I did that! The hostess asked if anyone knew a lot about Elvis and all four of my companions started loudly pointing and saying, "Oh, she does! Pick her!" I was completely unprepared for this, and thus was wearing brown Uggs with a heather gray cashmere sweater. Oh well! It was me vs. a punk daring to call himself "Elvis Aron." Announcer "Elvis" stood between fake Elvis and me, and we fake-punched his arms with boxing gloves to ring in to answer a question. We battled it out over Elvis-related trivia in front of an audience of 100-120 people. I beat the punk solidly, and received a trophy: a banana-shaped dish in honor of Elvis' love of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. By the way, you haven't lived if you haven't eaten one; you laugh and judge it now, but make one, and you'll be an instant convert. Must be cooked in lard or butter for the full effect (that includes you, vegans), best summed up as "cardiac bypass on a plate."

I went into last night feeling pretty crummy from a cold-virus thingy, and I've undoubtedly prolonged my illness from the late night, hooting and hollering, and being so jazzed I couldn't fall asleep until 12:30 a.m. It was completely worth it, and it made me grateful to live in the city where we could access something so fun at the drop of a hat. In a strange way, events like that also solidify David's and my partnership with each other, because how many couples share that bawdy, gross, adolescent sense of humor? How many women are like, "Hey, honey, want to see burlesque and a fight club Saturday night?" Bonding over this type of shared humor is fun, and usually ends up with David giving me some kind of warm-fuzzy complement like, "The fact that we're doing this is just one more reason that you're the perfect woman for me." Aww... everyone wins!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Long Weekend Of Good Art

I heard about the band Gogol Bordello for the first time on NPR's On Point radio show, my favorite podcast. Host Tom Ashbrook was interviewing GB's singer, Eugene Hutz, and asked him to describe the world-famous GB concerts. Hutz's response: "It's like a great, cosmic orgasm." I knew I had to hear this band. The group is best described as gypsy punk, but they are a group of eight people from all over the world, and their collective cultural heritages seem to come out in the music. Besides their great sound, what really captivates me about GB is their catchy, yet profound, lyrics. This first struck me when I heard "Zina-Marina," a catchy-as-hell little ditty that happens to be about ... sex trafficking. Hutz told Ashbrook that the song was inspired by a trip back to his native country, Ukraine, when he noticed that all the beautiful women were gone. He asked someone about it, who said that they are recruited as overseas "models" and are sold into sex trafficking.

In a similar vain of catchy, but pointed, songwriting, Hutz sings in "Break the Spell," a song about prejudice against the Roma, "You love our music, but you hate our guts. I know you still want me to ride the back of the bus." Ouch!

A great GB classic is "American Wedding,"(video link here), which manages to capture the boring nature of most American weddings. This is where attending mostly Orthodox Jewish weddings has spoiled me: they make most other American weddings, including other Jewish-but-not-Orthodox weddings, seem lovely but ... boring (no offense meant if you had one!) Thus, "American Wedding" cracks me up.

Anyway, back to their show: it was as close to a cosmic orgasm as I could imagine -- I have never seen a band more masterfully work their crowd. The fans, and GB, were loving it, and they played a good mix of old favorites and lots of stuff from the new album. It was a great time, and even though my feet were killing me from standing for 4.5 hours (the club is standing-room only), it was really worth it. In the coolest move ever, after the encore, one of the band members announced that they would meet fans at the after party at the bar across the street from the club! How cool! If I had the stamina, I would've gone.

Kudos to the 9:30 Club for having free Wi-Fi so I could play my Scrabble games against David and my sister in between the acts. One of those opening acts, Man Man, was the most hilarious performances I have ever seen. These guys, whom David points out have not one, but two, xylophones, had their faces painted and all started off wearing white shorts that look ridiculous on grown men. The singer ended up wearing a bunch of different outfits, including a flasher-style trench coat, and a beaded ladies' tunic. Man Man's act was so bizarre and funny to me, I literally had tears of laughter streaming down my face. As for their music, I can't improve upon David's description: "Imagine if Frank Zappa hired Devo to play klezmer music, and added Tony Clifton as a frontman."

Our second great arts experience of New Year's weekend was seeing the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Candide. It had gotten rave reviews from media in D.C., but it really upped the ante to see it when my mom -- who lives in Memphis, TN, -- said she had heard it was incredible. In a moment of serendipity, the day after that conversation with my mom, I got a Goldstar notice that they had $30 tickets for Candide over the weekend. I never read "Candide," so I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed the show. The subject matter at hand is whether the doctrine of Optimism -- whether everything that happens is for the best and furthers God's plan -- is viable or true (Voltaire's answer, and mine, is a resonant "no.") Interestingly, I have a devout Mormon friend who believes this, that everything that happens is part of God's plan. This has come up with her in several discussions, and I always have a universes colliding moment, because that is so not my worldview, or that of my faith. Anyway, back to the play: it managed to be amusing, cheeky, provocative, and entertaining for a full three hours. The acting, music, and sets were really awesome, and I felt privileged to have seen it. I was pleased that the male and female leads were both in the Broadway show "Rock of Ages," which of course you knew about since you read my blog post about when I met Dee Snider.

We had a tiring weekend, since both the concert and musical meant that we couldn't go to bed until past 12:30 a.m., but we really enjoyed ourselves and got to experience two very different kinds of great art.

One of the things that occurred to me when we saw the play was how awesome Washington theater has gotten in the past decade. I don't recall D.C. being a great theater town when I moved here in 1994; the Kennedy Center was the most prolific professional theater around. Now there are tons of great theater companies doing all kinds of quality theater, and what limits my theater going is money, not lack of desirable options. There is such a variety and glut of good choices, David and I have resisted subscribing to any one theater, preferring to not be locked into one company and being able to pick and choose. My dream would be some kind of collective theater subscription, where a bunch of theaters pooled subscriptions and I could pay for a package of shows at different places.