Is it feminism if you don’t know it

Categories Bookshelf, Half of Myself

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name

Consumed

Categories Comment, Half of Myself

That we’re aware of it (and by we I mean I) does not absolve us of signing away our lives. What has happened now that the childhood virtue, the long hours in rebellious books, is temptation and escape?

Which is it? A life to take and take the best of music and wisdom and sentences, or to add to the beast? Consume or create, the only options.

Who is being hurt? Are we depriving ourselves of the world or depriving the world of us? The answer is among friends. I’ll send you a letter and then publish it for all. Am I a writer or a millennial? Am I enriching myself or drowning?

The redemption is a world submerged in water, engulfed and breathing truth, knowledge and light. Says Maimonides. A frightening image in some ways, if you’re afraid of water. I wonder if we’re not already there. There is no need to wake up, except for better dreams.

We are not prepared for infinity, but it has found us.

Consume and be consumed.

The exodus story

Categories Half of Myself

If you’re reading this (don’t worry it’s not too late) you’re probably someone who has come across an exodus story in your life. It’s the story of a religious person, preferably a Hasidic Jew, that finds the world, embraces it, and leaves their community.

It makes for a great story. It’s amazingly American. The search for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice for it. It’s a great reminder for those who grew up with only freedom what it’s like to breathe it, to have it be your air.

It’s also, like all skeletal plots, overused, oversimplified, probably less dramatic and definitely less linear than described. So let me walk you through some of the tropes. Actually, it’s just one trope. It’s what I get asked most often. And that’s how my family’s taken it.

Let me explain to you why that’s not the most important part.

1) There is no dramatic excommunication. Usually, the family figures out how to adjust itself to accommodate you and vice versa. They love you and you love them and in a way it makes it tougher. You know in your heart how much you’ve disappointed them but they won’t tell it to your face, and you know how tough it is for them not to ask you when you’re getting married when they deeply believe that that’s the only way you’ll be happy.

It’s probably a lot more similar than you realize to leaving your rural conservative hometown and coming back a raging liberal New Yorker, or what happens when you’re 29 and you’ve only just settled on a career that you’re not entirely happy with, or when the little brother that looked up to you surpasses you in everything. Every family has its drama that happens completely undramatically at a kitchen table, or in the phone calls about Christmas plans, or the quick weekend home, or when your parents move out of the old house where you grew up, and what’s left is only an old couple with memories that may or may not be real.

2) Some of it is not drama at all. It’s boring shit like how do I get a college degree when I’m 23 and I’ve never heard the terms elective, major, general ed, as they relate to college degrees? How do I choose a career when I’ve never even met a journalist or a biologist? How do I pay for college if I have no skills except reading Hebrew? How do I know what size jeans I am? How do I order a drink at a bar? How do I know when a boy is flirting with me?

3) This isn’t only about community. This is about an entire worldview. If you’ve ever had your heart broken over a love you thought was real, and you truly believed you’d devote the rest of your life to, and then it falls apart and he turns out to be a jerk, you know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever trust yourself again. Try losing trust in yourself, your parents, your community, your books, your way of examining the world and interpreting and digesting it. Try telling yourself that all those things you love — the songs and the tales and that feeling when you enter the hushed women’s section during services and the men are intoning a familiar part of the prayers — are a liability. Tell yourself that you need to abandon that for now because it’s too seductive.

Later, you’ll learn to be okay with the human need for familiarity and belonging, but by then it will be too late. Because by then you won’t belong, and then the intonations and the aphorisms and the shared intellectual foundation will be shells. They’ll be a way to visit a once populated land. They’ll be museums and monuments, a way to mourn a civilization you once knew.

The 20 lost years

Categories Half of Myself

In the first 21 years of my life I watched perhaps 10 movies and zero TV shows.
In fact it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I learned what a TV show was, or that it existed.

The only one I’d heard about before was 24. I’d overheard some males talking about it – something to do with explosions and happening over the course of 24 hours.

The first show I watched I found accidentally on the internet one night in the apartment I shared with a stranger in Brooklyn. Across the street a mobile police tower blinked blue light through my window all night. The show was a reality competition on CBS where they chose a new actress for The Young and The Restless. In what would become a signature move, I watched all the episodes in one night.

I was like a vampire who had tasted blood, and nothing was going to stop me from getting more. Only I wasn’t sure how to get more.

If you haven’t been convinced yet, it’ll be hard for you to fathom the depth of my ignorance. No one in my life watched TV. CBS meant as little to me as FKG or GMO or GPO or NBC. They all meant nothing. I didn’t know what channels were, or networks or cable or prime time or daytime or The Simpsons or South Park. I still don’t know because almost all the TV I’ve ever watched has been on the internet.

Back to that summer in New York. I watched the few full episodes of Survivor and CSI: Miami available on CBS. Somehow, I ended up finding the show Cold Case on YouTube. The episodes were divided in to 10 minute segments because this was when YouTube still had the 10 minute limit.

So I watched all of those on my Dell computer in the guest bedroom of my brother’s house during a very shitty time of my life, which had almost nothing to do with the fact that by then, I was living in New Jersey.

I also knew that this was the beginning of my downfall; that whatever was prompting me to spend hours watching low-quality YouTube videos of actors unearthing dead bodies – and enjoying it – would strip me of all virtue, discipline and probably humanity.

Over the next few years, TV was my escape and my self-sabotaging tool. I stayed up through nights of binge sessions and then stumbled through the days. I watched and I watched and I watched, hoping that eventually I would grow sick of it, confused that it was something so detrimental and something so necessary to me, sure that it proved the folly of my life choices while opening me to all the worlds I was so hungry to know.

I haven’t stopped watching Netflix and I lament the wasted hours.

But at the same time it’s incredibly frustrating to me that no matter how much I try I can’t make up for those lost years. It’s not that I feel deprived, it’s just that there are so many moments where it keeps me apart. So many “What, you never watched The Wire? Gilmore Girls? Sex and the City?” moments. I’m not sure how to explain that while they were watching All American TV, I was translating Yiddish texts about the various ways keeping Shabbat reveals the hidden truth in the natural fabric of the world.

So I just shrug, or maybe launch into an autobiography.

Charmlee Wilderness Park

Categories Half of Myself

Last Sunday was the first free Sunday I’d had in a while, so I wanted to get away from my computer and todo list. I’d read about Charmlee Wilderness Park, a hike/park in the Santa Monica mountians on lamag.com and it sounded charming.

Waze said it would take me 7 fewer minutes to get there if I took the 405 to the 101 and entered the mountains from the east, but I wasn’t trading the PCH for the freeways for a difference of 7 minutes (even though I knew there was construction on the PCH).

I was a little sad about being out there alone (none of my friends were available), but it’s hard to be sad on a Sunday morning in a car on the PCH, with the windows open, the ocean on your left mountains on your right and the prospect of road, hike and views before you.

Charmlee is pretty far, past Paradise Cove and the north end of Malibu, but it’s a straightforward drive.The park is a couple miles up a mountain road and is easy to spot. At the park, there’s a parking lot, a nature center with copies of a crude trail map, and luckily for me, bathrooms. (The bathrooms are in a stone structure, but the doors are inexplicably in the back so it’s impossible to know what they are unless someone tells you.)

At the entrance to the trails there is a shaded picnic area where some people were setting up a baby shower. They told me that the expecting parents had had their reception here. Good party spot for the outdoors minded, and for those with friends willing to drive the hour to get there.
The lady at the nature center had highlighted a route for me so I followed her instructions, but I could have just guessed. There are lots of trails but the park is rather small and centered around a meadow. I doubt you could get lost if you tried. I was amazed to find a meadow in the mountains. I tried to frolic but the grass was itchy and tall and I wasn’t wearing long enough leggings.

IMAG1129

You do have to walk past the meadow to get to the western edge with the ocean views, which are breathtaking. There’s the familiar j shape of the beach, which you can see all through the Santa Monica mountains (from Temescal further south for ex.) but the park is far enough north that you can also look up the coast.

IMAG1132
The map has an area labeled ‘ruins’,’old well’, and the sinister sounding ‘black forest’. The ruins weren’t much, the well probably was originally a well, and I’m pretty sure the ‘black forest’ referred to a cluster of trees that didn’t resemble a forest or anything remotely sinister.
My favorite part was that along the trail there were these shaded spaces, full of trees that enclosed the area into a private oasis. The trees were perfect for climbing and sitting on their sturdy limbs, and you could just barely hear the traffic from the PCH. But mostly it was incredibly quiet, private and beautiful.

IMAG1126
I kept wanting to take pictures and post them to tell everyone to stop what they were doing and come up here and enjoy this peace, which of course made me be not-in-the-moment anymore and not so peaceful, but my excitement was genuine. On my way up I’d seen so many crowds at the beaches and I wondered if they knew they had this option too. Luckily there wasn’t a good enough signal to upload or share anything, which is why I’m doing this now instead.

I did hang out in a tree for a while, took pictures of the sun through the branches with my crappy phone camera. I was visible from the trail but there were so few people in the park (another perk) that it didn’t matter. I didn’t achieve nirvana and my digital-ADD mind didn’t really quiet completely, but it was a start.

The nature center lady had told me that the route she’d highlighted should take about an hour, longer if I had time to “mosey around”. I don’t think I was there for longer than an hour and a half, and I definitely moseyed. With the drive there and back (an hour each way), it could have been less than 4 hours.

On my way back I stopped at Latigo Canyon beach, a little beach that can be accessed via a staircase hidden on a road off the PCH.

I took a walk in the surf, adopted some sand, and drove home barefoot.

Upper Lower Middle Class

Categories Half of Myself

I’m upper lower middle class and on good days I lean towards the lower middle middle class. I have a roof over my head, I drink lattes, I can’t afford Apple products. On most days I can’t afford anything that isn’t necessary, which is of course subjective. My mind rebels against challenging a $4 purchase. I’m fortunate because the beach is free and I have a car with gas that can drive there. I avoid the Beverly Center, 3rd Street Promenade and pretty much every mall in Los Angeles. I refuse to shop at the 99 cent store.
I’m average, the middle, the median, medium. So is my friend whose idea of a good deal is to pay $350 for a $500 pair of Cole Haan boots. So are all my friends who go on vacations, and say “let’s get dinner”, and argue the virtues of various tablets, without doing complicated math in their heads that never adds up.

***

One day, as a girl in a bleak suburb of Detroit, I went with my mother to a music shop that sold used instruments. It was down 9 Mile, in the direction of the zoo, in a shopping center with a Fantastic Sams, a 99 cent store and numerous boutique fashion stores whose window mannequins always looked to me to be waiting for salvation. The parking lot for the shopping center had parking meters, a novelty in suburbia.

The music store was a dim place, mysterious, sacred almost, the light from the street through the display window barely effective. Bells tinkled when we walked in. A layer of dust glistened over everything in the gray-scale light from the window. We were looking for a guitar for me. My only reference was the one from WalMart that sold for $100. In that price range.

Above us, on the wall tp the left, guitars hung from the ceiling, each at an angle like they were posing for a family wedding picture, hips to the camera. My eyes roomed over the wooden curves of the guitars. There was one guitar, different from the others. I hardly remember it now – only that its wood was darker, the color of brewed coffee, a warm brown. I can see where it was on the wall, about a third of the way through the lineup, and I can see its flared curve which I would not then, but do now, associate with the lines of a woman. I pointed at it, afraid of voicing my admiration.

The owner was a small man, gray hair, a face that wasn’t afraid of aging. He wore large glasses and was in shirt sleeves. He was small, he moved quickly, spoke easily in an accent, and paused frequently. “That one?” he repeated, he pointed his finger at it. Yes. He laughed, a friendly laugh that forewarned something.

“You have good taste,” the owner said. “That guitar cost $2,000.”

I looked at the man. Another customer was running his hand over a piano. The door opened and the bells tinkled and there was classical music playing discreetly in the background that I hadn’t noticed before. I noticed it now, heard the isolated notes of a melody that wouldn’t stop moving, and I followed it.

“Thank you,” I said. Because it was polite, and also for the compliment, for making it okay that the $2,000 guitar was out of my reach because I had something better. An appreciation for beauty, and quality.

I’ve repeated that to myself many times, when there are beautiful things I can’t afford.

***

There’s a ludicrousness inherent in the range of middle class and how it has to be broken up into three – middle, upper, and lower, and then each of those divided again into threes so that in the end average actually means unique. It’s your own point on an infinite line of lower upper middle class. It means having a love-hate relationship with things and beauty, with owning and having and wishing, and a necessary worship of upward mobility.