Monday, July 4, 2016

Tikkun Olam, or My Life in the Theatre

Delivered at B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 2008 
By Carrie L. Kaufman 
I have spent the better part of my adult life in dark rooms. Occasionally in the spotlight. But mostly sitting, watching …sometimes trying not to fall asleep. And usually taking notes.

I’m a journalist by trade, and birth, but I have lived a life in the theatre. 

I got into theatre because I wanted to change the world. And it seemed like being in those dark rooms, being on those stages, telling stories, was a better way to do that than working in some stuffy corporate office. And it’s not just because I vowed never to take a job that required me to wear nylons.

Though that cannot be underestimated as a motivating factor.

Theatre has changed the world. It continues to. In small, personal ways, and in large, sweeping ways. It’s transformative, and evolutionary.

For me there are five basic tenets to doing theatre. There are others that come and go, but this is the foundation that every actor builds on.

The first is to always be in the moment. This may sound cliché. Where else would you be? But if you’re on stage, you can’t be thinking about your aunt Mildred who’s in the hospital, you can’t be thinking of the fight you just had with your spouse, you can’t be thinking about your next line, or what’s going to happen later in the scene. You shouldn’t even be THINKING. You just have to be. Present. On stage. And then the next day, you can be present with aunt Mildred.

The corollary to this, and the second tenet, is to always be emotionally available. The work of acting is not done on stage, it’s done inside. Actors spend years looking at themselves, dismantling emotional blocks (sometimes too much), so they can react, with honesty, to whatever is happening in the moment. Actors are the most honest people I know.

The third tenet of acting is to listen. Acting is a misnomer. 90 percent of it is listening. 10 percent re-acting. And when you put them together, it turns out to be incredibly giving; a sort of uber-communication.

The fourth tenet of acting, and theatre in general, is to take risks. We speak of performances in terms of choices. The bolder the choice, the more risks an actor takes, usually the better the performance. This is not easy. Think about speaking in front of, say, a couple of hundred people. Now, imagine having to remember your most painful memory in front of those hundreds of people. Not telling them. Just opening yourself up, showing them the emotion, the vulnerability.

It’s pretty risky.

But this is what supposedly comic actors John Candy and Robin Williams did; this is what Amy Schumer  and countless others still do. They showed us this depth of vulnerability, while taking unbelievable risks to make us laugh.

This is why theatre is an ensemble craft. It’s about working together and supporting each other and making it safe to take those risks.

The fifth, and I think the most important tenet in theatre comes from Improv. It’s the theory of “Yes…and…” You come into a scene and you have to agree with the given circumstances of the scene AND THEN say or do something to move it forward. So, you walk on stage and your scene partner says, “Hey Charlie, was that you I saw up in a tree last night?” First, you have to agree that your name is Charlie. Then you have to agree that you were hanging from a tree. So you say, “Yes…I was looking for my daughter. She snuck out last night—with you.”

Suddenly, you have a scene. If you said “no” then nothing would happen, and nobody wants to sit and watch nothing happen.

If you think about it, working to always be in the moment, always be emotionally available, always listening, always taking risks and supporting others in their risk-taking, and especially, always walking in to situations, finding agreement and then contributing something to move things forward…is a prescription for making the world a better place.

During the Holocaust, in almost every concentration camp, prisoners performed music or theatre together. Some of them were commanded to, for the entertainment of the Germans. But there was not a concentration camp that I could find that did not have some sort of legacy of theatre or music by prisoners for prisoners. They did this at enormous risk, both emotionally and physically. Did that theatre change the world? For them, we can only assume it changed it for that moment, gave them a reason to keep going. For me, standing here right now, it’s pretty moving.

The playwright Vaclav Havel was sent to prison in the late 1960s, for writing plays. Plays. Plays about losing one’s identity in a totalitarian state; about how language can be misused to obscure meaning and progress. His scripts were banned, but people still performed them, in living rooms all over Communist Europe. His ideas had such an influence that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, people looked to him to lead Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and he was elected the Czech Republic’s first president.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as South Pacific transformed the world. I think South Pacific transformed the world a lot, actually. People walked out in the middle of the show on opening night. Because five years after the end of World War II, five years after we let Japanese Americans out of prison camps in our country, Oscar Hammerstein had the temerity to tell audiences that “you have to be taught to hate and fear.”

Did this make people rush out into the street and demand civil rights for all? Of course not. But the play was so wildly popular that the message became part of the Collective Unconscious for the generation who did grow up to demand civil rights for all.

“It has to be drummed in your dear, little ear.”

It’s not lost of me that most of these people were Jewish.

You know, about seven or eight years ago now, Steppenwolf put out a press release about a fund they were administering to cultivate more Jewish playwrights, more Jewish voices in theatre. I responded with a tongue in cheek editorial that called for a fund to encourage more white men to enter politics.
Rodgers and Hammerstsein. Arthur Miller. Clifford Odets. Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern. The Gershwins. Stephen Sondheim. Leonard Bernstein. Kurt Weill. Neil Simon. David Mamet. Harold Pinter. Mel Brooks.

This is just a smattering.

The people who started Hollywood: Samuel Goldwyn. Louis B. Mayer. The Warner brothers.
The acting teachers who taught that first generation of actors how to “be” on stage. Stella Adler. Lee Strasberg. Uta Hagen. Sanford Meisner.

They all had one thing in common. They were all really proud of Sandy Koufax.

So, on this day I ask—actually, I’m so relentlessly introspective I tend to check in with these questions pretty regularly...

Have I been present, truly present, in every moment of my life?
Have I been emotionally available? Have I been honest, or have I blocked things out?
Have I listened? Really listened? Not just with my ears?
Have I risked? And supported others in their risk taking?

And, most importantly, have I met people or walked into situations, affirmed them, and then added something to move things forward?

Because that is the essence of Tikkun Olam. That is the essence of being a theatre person. That is the essence, I think, of being a Jew.

You know, when I started living a life in theatre, I walked away from Judaism. It was almost as if I was trading religions. But in the couple of years that I’ve been re-exploring my Jewish identity, I’ve come to realize that I never walked away at all.

So…Shana Tova. And in the coming year I wish you all…a life in the theatre.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jourdan and the Penguin Necklace

The Project

This is the moment Jourdan stole my heart.

It was the first time I had volunteered in my daughters’ fifth grade class. We had just arrived in Las Vegas about six weeks before. I wasn’t working. And I wanted to make sure the Dixelaney had a smooth transition.

The teacher, who liked to have parents there to help, but didn’t always have stuff for them to do, asked me to help this boy put together his research project on world explorers. I was a little perplexed at first. This project had been due two weeks prior, just before Thanksgiving.

It was kind of a complicated affair, with lots of moving pieces. There was the essay on the chosen explorer, a piece of creative writing, the obligatory map showing the explorer’s routes, a coat of arms, a timeline and various games and puzzles designed, I suppose, to entrench the unit’s terms in the kids’ brains. This was all to be put into a 3-pin folder, in a certain order, with a homemade paper globe hanging from the folder’s edge.

Jourdan was very serious, and very flustered. All of the parts of the rubric were finished, they just needed to be put in the folder. But this was not something he could easily do. It was all so cumbersome to him, and he seemed embarrassed that it didn’t come easier. I thought his earnestness was adorable, and that feeling is what helped me refrain when I saw him pick up a second batch of papers and punch them without lining them up with the first batch. This is something only an editor turned parent can understand. You tell yourself to breathe. It is not the end of the world that the holes won’t line up and the papers will stick out the sides and the top and bottom. Kids have to make their own mistakes.

I checked off the table of contents, chatting amiably with him about his explorer, and whether he liked the project. His little fingers fumbled each paper through the folder’s pins, then added another. When he was done... we realized he had not included the page I was holding, the page that needed to be first. All the papers had to come out and be repinned with fingers that were not used to working on such fine skills.

But this is the glory of mistakes: they give you room to be human with each other. Since I was clearly culpable, Jourdan relaxed a bit, and seemed to let go of his self-consciousness. Our conversation turned to the silly mistakes we make, and how stupid we feel when we do them. Then he started asking me questions about the Dixelaney, and how and why we had moved here. I answered them straight-forwardly, feeling an odd ease, because at that point I hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that I had uprooted my children from the only home they had ever known and taken them back to the city I swore I had left forever. We were making chitchat, and my conversation partner was an earnest 10-year-old boy.

I’m not sure what led to his revelation, but we were talking about the girls and suddenly he said, “I like Dixon.” At first, I thought this was a comment on Delaney, as in “I like Dixon, but not Delaney.” I nodded and said Dixon was pretty cool. No, he said, suddenly becoming discomfited again, “I like like Dixon.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s sweet.”

“Do you think she likes me?”

My daughters tell me everything, and I had never heard of this kid before. I was certain from our interaction that this is not someone Dixon would like like. But I kinda wished he was, because at that moment I thought he was the sweetest boy in the world.

“I don’t know. You should ask her.”

“Don’t tell her I said anything,” he said, now overcome by embarrassment.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”


The Necklace

“Mom, you won’t believe what happened.”

I had met the girls, as usual after school, at the short wall overlooking the playground. It was a Friday, a beautiful Vegas day in January, with a piercing sun hanging low in the sky, and temperatures that felt like spring in Chicago. The kids around us were in a jubilant mood. Delaney was silent, and sad. Dixon was in a huff, full of excitement and chagrin. She was, as their other mother often says, scandalized.

“We were in class practicing for our 5th grade flash mob, and everybody was up jumping around and Delaney had to take off her penguin necklace because it was hitting her in the face, and when we were done the necklace was missing. Everybody started looking for it. Mrs. Lively said that whoever took it better confess, because she knew who it was and he would be in big trouble if he walked out of the room. Nobody said anything. Then the bell rang and we walked out of the room and Mrs. Lively called Jourdan back in. She was really mad. They had a long talk afterward.”

Delaney’s necklace was a crystal penguin, with a wire wrapped around it, hanging from a black, cloth chain. We had purchased it at an art fair in Flossmoor. It was a big deal. I was in between one job that had paid me a whopping $30,000 a year, and was the definition of a hostile work environment, and about to move into another job that was going to pay me a big ole $32,000, and that I hoped would foster a more respectful, artistic atmosphere. (On that, I was completely wrong, but that’s another story.) I was feeling optimistic. These weren’t the most expensive necklaces, but they were something – when we were dealing with a whole lot of nothing. Delaney got a penguin. Dixon got a bear.

But in class that day Jourdan had, apparently, taken the wire off of Delaney’s penguin and stuffed it in his pocket.

My heart sank.

The next day, after much flurry from the 5th grade teachers and the vice-principal, Jourdan gave the pieces of the necklace – broken wire, penguin, cloth chain – back to Delaney. He also included a piece of crystal of his own. To make amends. To give up something he loved.

Delaney could barely look at any of it. It made her sick. Even after the vice-principal took the necklace back and Jourdan’s parents got it fixed, Delaney didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s meaning had changed. She hasn’t worn it since.


The Field Trip

We were going to see Nancy Drew at the high school down the street from my parent’s house, where we were living. I got on the bus and sat with Dixon. At some point, I noticed Jourdan, sitting alone, forlorn, stealing furtive glances at other kids who were talking and laughing.

It reminded me of a time on the bus when I was in 4th grade. Vegas was less built up then, and many of our stops were in front of houses standing alone in the desert. One morning, leaning against the window in my seat, I saw Jason standing there alone. His long face (John Kerry has always reminded me of him) seemed sad and angry. No, not angry. More like resigned. Perhaps somewhere in between. It occurred to me at that moment that Jason didn’t have the easy life that I had. I didn’t know much about him, or his parents, but the picture of him slumping at the bus stop, eyes inverted into something I couldn’t fully see, has never left me.

One day, I was home from college and the TV news was on. They reported that two people driving recklessly on a motorcycle were killed. When they said Jason’s full name, I looked up. “Didn’t you know someone in school by that name?” my mom asked. I nodded, feeling at that moment, the cool of the glass on my forehead as the bus pulled up to Jason’s house some 10 years before.

And now I was looking at the same face in this kid who liked liked one of my daughters and stole the necklace of the other, and who desperately wanted someone to talk to him.

Outside the school, as we were waiting to get in, he tried engaging in conversations. Kids literally turned their backs on him.

My heart was breaking.

The show was good, the kids were excited, and I brought up the rear to make sure no one was left behind. The first empty seat I saw on the crowded bus was next to Jourdan. I took it. He took one look at me and turned toward the window.

“I’m gonna make you talk to me,” I said.

He looked up at me. I smiled.

“You seem pretty unhappy.”

He shrugged.

“No one seems to want to talk to you.”

“They’re all mad at me.”

“What for.”

Those black eyes looked up at me with surprise and hurt, as if he sensed I was trying to trick him.

“Ah, yes, the necklace.”

There was silence.

“I don’t know what made you take the necklace. But we all realized when you gave it back, and gave Delaney your crystal, that you really felt bad about taking it. Dixon gave you your crystal back, right?”

He nodded.

“You know, people make mistakes, Jourdan. And then they get forgiveness.”

This wasn’t actually the truth. Dixon had forgiven him because I had asked her to. Delaney couldn’t. But Jourdan didn’t need to know that.

With those words, the torrent came.

“I don’t know what made me take it. I really wish I hadn’t. I feel horrible. I think Delaney’s a great girl. I would never do anything to hurt her. And now nobody will talk to me. It’s like I’m invisible. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. But nobody knows me. Nobody knows the real me. If they saw me boxing, they’d like me, ‘cause I’m good at boxing. I’m good at a lot of things. I’m a nice kid. But they don’t know that because nobody ever talks to me. Except Dixon.”

That’s why he liked liked her. She was nice to him. Dixon is nice.

He went on for a long time. And I talked to him for a long time about how he was in a tough place, and that maybe being open about it and saying, “Hey, I screwed up, I’m sorry, please forgive me,” might get him somewhere. At the very least, I said, he should apologize to Delaney.

He talked a bit about his mom, whom he said thought everything was OK and didn’t listen to him when he told her how horrible things were at school. We talked about fitting in. I didn’t confess that I never fit in when I was his age. This wasn’t about me. Or if it was, he didn’t need to know that.

We talked the entire way back to school. And as we pulled into the parking lot, he looked up and thanked me for listening to him. I told him I enjoyed it, then I hightailed it over to Delaney and told her if Jourdan apologizes, be gracious. She snarled at me, but I knew the message got through.

A couple of days later, I made the girls a deal. They could quit a program I had forced them to do, but that didn’t turn out they way we had thought. In exchange, they had to be nice to Jourdan. There was uproar, from both of them.

“This is where you get to learn the art of forgiveness. If you lead the way, people will follow and they’ll be nice to him, too. Just try.”

I think Dixon tried more than Delaney. And I got reports that Jourdan was a bit more accepted. But Dixon told me that her being nice to him just made him like her more, and that kind of creeped her out, so while she was still going to be nice, she wasn’t going to be his friend. I told her fair enough.

I worry for this boy. Is he one of the people who is going to get so angry, he’s going to surpass using his fists and bring a gun to school? Or is he just going to be self-destructive, speeding at 110 miles an hour on a motorcycle on a winding road? Or – the possibility does tantalize – will he figure it out, know that he has a place in this world, and that he can leave his adolescence behind?

The next few years are going to be tough for him, as he heads into jr. high school. And I’m not sure I like the idea of Dixon being part of his fantasies. I want to help this kid, but I’m not sure there’s anything more I can do. But maybe his bus memory will be better than my bus memory. Maybe he’ll remember someone reaching out to him when he was sad and angry, rather than just looking at him, feeling unable to act.

And maybe he will see the glory of his mistake. Perhaps taking the necklace might be the start of a long, deep lesson that will help him to grow into a better man.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Full House and the Discovery of Gay TV

My kids have discovered 1990s TV. Their summer of 2014 can easily be described as the summer of “Friends” and the summer of “Full House.” I’ve been watching them watching these sitcoms with some interest and trepidation. Because, after all, these shows are 15-26 years old, and the basic assumptions about the world were quite different even that short time ago.

I’ve been preparing myself for conversations with my kids about the portrayal of gender roles and sexism. And homophobic jokes. My daughters, though, have learned in their 11 ½ years that their mom can ruin anything they’re watching by pointing out the underlying assumptions. Now, they barely let me in the room when these shows are on – especially “Friends.”

My guess on the latter is that they don’t quite understand everything that’s going on. I just walked by during the scene in which Ross discovers his red sweater – the MacGuffin that reveals him to be the father of Rachel’s baby. I asked the girls what the sweater meant, and why Monica, Phoebe and Joey reacted as they did. The girls looked at each other, and then at me, and said, “We honestly don’t know.” They missed the MacGuffin. They know how babies are born, but missed the subtle line that someone had stayed overnight about a month before and had left the sweater. I was relieved at this. But a bit disappointed that they had missed such an obvious piece of symbolism. I mean, aren’t they supposed to be studying this in Common Core?

“Full House” tonight was another story. Bob Saget’s character, Danny, had been dating... I don’t know who, because I confess I had never watched the show when it was originally on, and had no interest in going back and watching the episode again. But it was late in the series, sometime in ’94 or ’95, and Danny, the father of the girls in the show, who had rarely dated anybody the first few seasons, finally got a love interest. In this episode, he discovered that his girlfriend was seven months older than him. This bothered him.

In the scene I caught, set in the kitchen, Danny was struggling, in his nice guy way, with his feelings of emasculation at dating an older woman. He said he had grown up with the idea that men were supposed to be older and taller and stronger than women. The joke in the scene was that he was absent-mindedly trying to open a jar of spaghetti sauce as he said his lines, then slammed the jar on the table to emphasize his impotence. And, of course, his girlfriend, soothed him verbally while absent-mindedly picking up the jar and twisting it open. Then she had to put the jar down, and go to him, pleadingly, assuring him that nothing was different, that she’s always been seven months older than him and nothing had changed between them.

At that moment I spoke, which was probably not the smartest thing in the world, as my daughters then became aware of my presence, and intuited the dangerous didactic situation they had just found themselves in. Shit. We’ve been ambushed. Mom’s going to talk to us about the “serious stuff” in this scene. And we were innocently sitting here!

“Mom! Don’t say anything.”

I walked away.

When they were younger, what I talked about mostly was how badly the shows they watched were written. But it was mostly Disney. Kind of easy pickings. I also have pointed out shows and movies I thought were written well. “Wizards of Waverly Place” was kind of a stupid show, but the writers ended up doing a good job of adhering to the given circumstances of the world in which they created. Creating a world, and then breaking your own rules – not on purpose – is a huge writing pet peeve of mine. I told that to my children. Perhaps before they knew what the word “peeve” meant. But I knew they’d understand.

I also am a big fan of the movie “Lemonade Mouth.” It is – as I tell the Dixelaney every time we watch it – the first kids’ movie in which the girls don’t compromise themselves to please the boys. There’s actually a line in which one of the main characters, having learned something already on the journey the story has taken her on, says to her ex-boyfriend that she’ll consider being friends if he respects her and her music, if he puts her first. He’s desperate, and promises her that he’s learned his lesson. This is not used to set up a joke, or an evil plot twist. The girls in this movie are strong and smart and talented. They drive the plot. This pleases me so much, I’m more than willing to overlook the fact that they can just pick up instruments and knock out a well-rehearsed piece when they had never even met each other before that scene. Implausibility is another thing that drives me crazy in writing. But hell, we watched “Glee.”

Here’s the thing about what my kids are watching now: they’re actually good shows. I had known this about “Friends,” which I had watched a bit in the ‘90s. It’s very well-written, and the ensemble acting is pretty wonderful. (Did you know that before the second season, the entire cast negotiated with the network together, and David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston actually took a pay cut so all six of them could make the same salary?) The thing I worry about with “Friends,” are all the sexual innuendos. But as long as someone isn’t kissing, my girls seem to be OK with it right now.

“Full House” – now that’s the surprise. It is beloved among people who were young from 1988 to 1995 – a favorite memory of childhood. I’d never been fully aware of the show until this summer. It truly only entered my consciousness around 2009, when my kids started watching the Olsen twin movies. Thank god for IMDB.

But as I surreptitiously watch it standing behind my children, I have come to realize that this show did a great deal to move along the idea of gender equality, and to set us up for the explosion of gay characters to come in the mid-late ’90s.

“Full House” is a show about three men raising kids. Two of the men are brothers-in-law – sharing the memory of a dead sister and wife. The third is the widower’s best friend.

What I find fascinating about this is that only the brother-in-law (John Stamos’ character) spends any time dating women. In most of the series he has a steady girlfriend. The other two rarely date. According to the series rundown on IMDB, Danny only starts dating seriously in season five. Stamos’ character is the wild card, the crazy uncle who usually does the wrong thing, while Danny and Joey are the steady parental figures, worried about cleaning and cooking and teaching the kids good lessons. Yes, Joey’s kind of a dope – the “dumb blond” character. And yes, there are a lot of opportunities for cheap laughs as one of them comes out of the kitchen wearing an apron, or doing some sort of chore normally ascribed to the wife. But, seeing this late 20th century show through the lens of the early 21st century, I find a portrayal of the normality of a family of men raising children. “Full House” was the 1990s answer to the 1980s sitcom, “Kate and Allie.” Networks could show same sex couples raising kids, as long as they didn’t acknowledge that they were same sex couples raising kids. And a whole generation of people grew up not quite realizing what they were seeing.

I don’t know how much the Dixelaney consciously understand what they’re seeing. At this point, though, I’m very much aware that they don’t want me to interpret. Perhaps it’s time to step back and shut up. They’re smart. And they’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas in their 11½  years that will need time to gel. So far, neither of them have given the slightest indication that they are putting themselves away in order to fit in and be liked. So far, all of their friends have been pretty strong. The next few years are going to be treacherous, but our storyline dictates that it’s time to start letting them learn more without me. These are the given circumstances of our world. I do take solace, though, in the fact that every time they turn on one of their favorite shows, they hear the words, “I’ll be there for you.”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

OCD and the Girl at Starbucks

The woman in line in front of me at Starbucks was intriguing, though it wasn’t in a pleasant way. She was stocky, with blond hair and a square, pockmarked face. She could have been 30. She could have been 50. She had an air of sanctimony, a knowledge that she was so much smarter than everybody else. What I found interesting, and a bit distressing, is that she seemed to lean in too close to the barista behind the counter. It seemed too intimate. Strangely, it felt as if she was invading my space, even though I was about five feet behind her. Then she practically threw her refill cup at the girl, and I thought, “How rude.”

After the kid (’cause I am of an age where I refer to people in their 20s as kids) came back with her coffee and rang her up, I noticed two things one right after another. First, the barista was either shaking something in her hand or had put it up to her mouth. Then the woman said, “Oh you’re the one who—“ I didn’t hear the last part. But it made the kid behind he counter very nervous. I looked at her and realized that this kid couldn’t stop fidgeting, couldn’t stop moving. She gave a nervous laugh and said to the woman, a little too loudly, “I’m sorry, I have a problem.”

I wanted to slap the customer.

When I was in college, my mother told me she thought I had Turrets. I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, undoubtedly fidgeting, and undoubtedly making some sort of noise coming from deep in my throat.

I looked at her. “No, mom, I just annoy you.”

It very well could be that I have some mild form of Turrets. Or some sort of OCD. I have quirks. If I touch something with one hand, often I have to also touch it with the other. This applies a lot to air. If I happen to exhale onto one hand or arm, then I have to blow on the other. Just to make it equal.

I believe in equality.

I no longer have problems walking down the street. I can’t actually remember what I did, but it had to do with rhythm. If I got out of rhythm, I would have to shuffle back in to the timing. I’m sure at times I looked totally spastic.

And I do have vocal quirks. But is that because of OCD? Or is it because of chronic sinusitis and asthma? I somehow doubt I would have to clear my throat so much if there wasn’t anything in it. Just sayin’.

I see some of these quirks in my daughter, too. She has recognized that she wipes her face a lot with her hands, then she licks her fingers. It’s rhythmic. She doesn’t realize she’s doing it. I think her other mom pointed it out to her, though, this summer in Florida. She came home with some lotion that my ex had given her to put on her face, which then stopped her from licking her hands. She begged me for more lotion. This is something she wanted to get control of.

Personally, I don’t care. She’s beautiful and funny and smart. And who the hell doesn’t have quirks?

I realize that this could be a problem if you let those quirks stop you, if not blowing on your right hand after you’ve accidentally exhaled onto your left makes you feel off kilter, and all you can think about is that the world won’t be right until you blow on your right hand. Then, of course, you do and you realize you blew too hard, so you have to even it up.

You can see how this can stop people for hours.

Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I have been able to put mind over matter. Or mind over mind. Or mind over neurosis. My friend Jenny went with me to the grocery store this past Rosh Hashana. She is one of the few people I have confided to that I need to go out the same door I came in. Not always, but in some buildings or houses – hers being one of them. On the way home, as we rounded the bend to her house, she noted that I not only had gone out of the parking lot a different way from which I had entered, but I had also taken a different route back to her house. She was impressed. I laughed and let her in on the fact that as I made the right in the parking lot instead of a left, I realized what I had done and dismissed it.

Honor thy OCD. Then push it the fuck out of the way.

As the girl at Starbucks waited on me, I realized that she was, indeed, unable to be still. She kinda looked like she was bucking and weaving in a boxing match. She took my name, though, and put in my order. She could have OCD. She could be in drug recovery and having methadone jitters. She also had a really great smile and she made me smile with her cheerful attitude. Her body radiated energy – barely harnessed energy that was bursting to get out.

As I was waiting for my drink, the rude lady was sitting at the counter, saying something to the other barista’s about being blunt. She had no nuance. No sense that anyone would need nuance. And she was proud of herself.

The fidgety barista was busy at the other end of the counter, smiling cheerfully. Perhaps I was projecting, but I could feel her hurt. I could feel the sting this woman had inflicted upon her. I knew how brave she was being.

So, I went to my car, and pulled out my notebook and a pencil.

“Please know that you never have to apologize. You are interesting and energetic and that customer was way out of line. You’re not the one with the problem, she is. She’s RUDE.”

As I walked back in, the kid had just finished with another customer and walked into the back room. I waited for her, and when she came out I hailed her and gave her the note, telling her that I was behind the woman who was rude to her and I thought she needed to hear another perspective. She read the note as I stood there awkwardly (I had thought I could hand it to her while she was working and she would read it in private). She then offered her hand and said, “Thank you. I’m Ashley.” I’m Carrie, I answered as I shook her hand. “Wow, Carrie. You just made my day.”

We live in a world with so many expectations, so many “norms” that people are supposed to live up to. I find these norms boring, homogenized. The interesting parts can be found in the quirks. And I firmly believe that the measure of who we are is in how we treat people. I don’t care if Ashley was twisting her left arm around her right cheek to scratch her nose and blink her eyes five times – she was a lot kinder than the customer at the counter will ever be.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Training Bras - Train us for what, exactly?

A few weeks ago, as we were going to bed, my daughters asked me if they should get training bras. They said that their friend pointed out that you can see the outline of their breasts through their shirts, and that they needed to wear a bra. I asked them what they thought of that. They said it made them feel self-conscious.

And so it starts.

I won’t pretend that this exchange didn’t make me angry. I wanted to bat the little bugger who told them that, to ask her what it was she found so objectionable about the budding breasts of a couple of 10-year-olds. Of course, I couldn’t do that, so I asked my 10-year-olds what they thought she found so objectionable.

They didn’t know. Then, suddenly sensing a didactic moment coming on, they tried to slough it off.

“Mom,” said Delaney, “It’s not a big deal.”

Delaney needs to get better at warding off didactic mom moments.

“Y...eah it is,” I drawled, eliciting eye rolls from my children, who wanted nothing more than to cuddle me before they fell asleep.

These are the moments that I wish I was more subtle. The moments when I wish I had learned the art of communicating in a sly and underhanded way – you know, like women are supposed to do. I have always communicated straight on. Like a man. Which is why I scare people. Including, apparently, my daughters.

So, lacking subtlety, I reached for the sledge hammer.

“When you grow breasts, it means you’re starting puberty. And there’s something about girls starting puberty, and coming into their own sexuality, that scares people. And so we try to tell girls that they should be ashamed of themselves. That they should put on a bra or lose weight or not stand out too much.”

OK, I don’t know if I said it as well as that. I’m a much better writer after the fact than I am a speaker in the moment. But I did use the word sexuality. Which did make them cover their faces under their blankets. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that.

But I went on.

“If you want training bras, I would be happy to buy them. But I don’t think you need a bra until your breasts are big enough to need to be held in place. When it hurts when you run, you know you need a bra. When they get big enough that you know you can eventually do damage to your breasts or your back and that you need support, you know you need a bra. You don’t need a bra because someone can see the outline of your buds and is uncomfortable with that.

“You are not responsible for anybody else’s comfort level with your body.”

At this point, Delaney started talking about books.

Here’s the thing, I have very large breasts, and I have always hated them. I’ve analyzed this a lot over the years. Part of it is that I grew up in the Twiggy era, when the model of beauty was an negative A cup. Part of it is that I found bras to be the most uncomfortable piece of clothing ever invented. I wanted to just put on my t-shirt and go. But most of it, I think, was the reaction of people around me to the changes in my body. At 10 or 11, I still wanted to run around in fields and play football with the boys at recess. Suddenly, these THINGS started growing and I had to wear this strangling apparatus, while simultaneously coming under tremendous pressure to rein myself in. No more playing in fields. No more wearing boys t-shirts. I was too blunt. I had to be more subtle. Like a girl.

Of course, right after this exchange with my daughters, I felt torn. In trying to advocate for them being comfortable with their own bodies, I think I may have made them feel like they can’t wear a bra or mom will get mad. I don’t want them to have to suffer the comments and stares of other kids because they think I might think less of them for conforming. So I bought them bras. And now they hate to wear them because they’re uncomfortable. And I’ve decided at this point to let them sort through that without my didacticism or my own experience.

Monday, March 25, 2013

High Court to Hear Two Historic Gay Marriage Cases

Tuesday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 27 are the days that gay marriage supporters have been waiting for, when the Supreme Court takes on the issue of marriage equality in two separate cases. Read the full story on my other blog, Kaufman On America.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snow: The endless quest

One of the fondest memories I have is of sledding for the first time with my father, at the age of three or four, on some hill in St. Louis which was probably very small, but which seemed enormous and scary to me. Sitting in my dad’s lap, dressed well against the cold, we rushed down the mountain again and again.

And then we left. Headed west to the desert where the snow falls an inch or two for a few hours every 13 or 14 years. I was not to see snow until I started skiing, as a 12-year-old, heading down real mountains. But by then the fear and caution that accompanies adolescence had crept in. I didn’t want to fall, didn’t want to make a fool of myself. When I skied with my dad (who was also learning himself, in his mid-30s), the abandonment of fun was replaced by a desire to make him proud of me, which hindered my concentration, which made me fall. It was exhilaration mixed with frustration.

My encounter with snow had changed. It had become a skill I needed to master rather than a letting go to the rush.

My quest for snow and cold swept me further east, first to Boston to go to school, then Chicago. I remember one lovely night when I ended up walking from Boston Harbor to Brookline and my rent-controlled apartment in a slowly falling shake of a storm that would yield about 10 inches over a long period of time, the city getting darker and strangely lighter at the same time. I walked along Commonwealth Avenue, pretending I was in a past century, where gas lamps illuminated the glow of the snow and a guy with mutton chops and a top hat would come whisking by me at any minute. What he might say to me, this hunched over dyke in jeans and Gore-Tex, never occurred to me. In my fantasy, I was just another bloke like him.

Chicago has been a disappointment in the snow department. I remember some big storms, and it seemed to snow regularly in the years I first moved here. But I might have been too busy to notice. Plus, it’s flat. Going skiing is an effort. My partner was unequivocally not interested, and I couldn’t justify the expense or step out and go alone. But damn, those discount flyers for Jackson Hole from 15 years ago still sit on my bookcase.

I took my kids sledding when they were three. They hated it. Dixon humored me and kept going down because I was excited. Delaney, who has had issues with motion since she was a baby, simply refused. And now, when it does snow, my hours are filled with shoveling and salting and making sure everything is taken care of and everyone is dressed properly and (if we can convince Delaney) the sleds are packed as we head to the little hill by our house. I am now the caretaker, trying to give my kids the opportunities for exhilaration that I missed in the desert. Opportunities that they seem highly ambivalent about.

In the south suburbs of Chicago, we don’t get as much snow as those people north and west of us. Last year it barely snowed at all. Our sleds stayed put. This year December went by and I’m not even sure it got down to freezing. January had a few cold days, punctuated with even more in the 40s. We tried, mid-February, to eke out a sledding run from the two inches of snow we had gotten. The grass on the hill shown through, like a man in white face paint badly in need of a shave. It was pathetic. But it was all we had.

Finally, a few storms in a row at the end of February piled the snow up a few inches. And then last week, on March 5, eight inches fell and I was outside for most of it. My 10-year-old and I made a snowman, and she taught me how to roll the snow rather than pack it. But our fun was punctuated by me trying to snow blow, which I had to do twice as the snow was coming down that hard. It was pleasure and work, though the work in the snow was pretty pleasureful. Our snowman had a carrot nose and a cantaloupe mouth. Dixon got two of her best buttons for eyes. I found an old favorite hat. And we took some knit gloves that we don’t use anymore and fitted them on stick arms. We spent hours outside, romping in the snow, looking for the proper sticks, rolling, shoveling. Laughing. Then we took a picture.

Because in the end, posterity is all we have.

A week later it is 47 degrees and raining. I just picked up my hat, unhanded the gloves from the sticks, and washed the buttons and put them back in the sewing box. There are clumps of snow dotting my yard, like frozen dumplings on a bed of kale. Spring is here, or coming – either way, there is no more snow for this year. I find my self counting down the months till December, when I can hope again for a snowstorm and cold weather, proof that global warming hasn’t taken hold. My entire life has been a dream of snow. Why I never moved to Denver or Vermont I’ll never know. Perhaps I’ve been trying to recreate that memory of flying down the hill with my dad. Perhaps I will never fully succeed. But dammit, I’m looking at those Jackson Hole flyers and wondering if they will still be good in a year.