Sunday, August 30, 2015

Old Lady Power

Having recently had another birthday, I have been contemplating the advantages to growing old. One of my favorite things about officially being an old lady is that I can get away with asking questions, giving advice, and pointing out truths that I would never have dreamed of saying out loud a few years back, particularly to young people. For instance, when a childhood friend of my son turned up at my son’s wedding with a drop-dead gorgeous woman on his arm, I asked him (in front of her) if this woman was a date or a girlfriend. (Why not? I wanted to know.) He replied that she was sort of a “date-girlfriend” and she flashed an extremely pleased (celebrity-caliber) smile.

Last week I went to hear my younger son DJ as the warm-up act for a band (that includes several of his friends) visiting from Portland. I have known these homegrown guys in the band since they were about four years old. They sounded great, by-the-way. I went to the show early to say hello to the guys and to visit with my son. One of the guys in the band, I’ll call him Brad, came over to me as soon as I arrived and gave me a warm hug. We talked for a few minutes before I asked him, “Brad, are you smoking? I smell tobacco on your clothes.” He replied that yes he did smoke cigarettes. “You have to quit,” I said. “That’s a terrible thing to do to your body and your health. Quit now because it gets harder to quit the longer you smoke.” Brad claimed he knows all that and then he said he needs to get more motivated to quit. “Here’s your motivation,” I told Brad, feeling like I was working with Marlon Brando on using the Stanislavsky Method of acting (“your motivation in this scene, Marlon, is that you have no patience for that simpering, condescending Blanche Dubois”). “Think of all those beautiful women with long legs, thick ponytails, and big tits who will not sleep with you because you smoke. Let those tits be your motivation, Brad. Think:  ‘cigarettes or tits?’ That should do it.” Old ladies get to say this stuff.

On a recent visit to Berkeley, I was walking down the street when I came upon a man tangled up in the web of some type of complicated baby-carrier (back in the day we called it a “snugli”) while precariously balancing a fretting baby in one hand. I stopped walking and said, “You look like you could use some help. What do you want me to do?” I thought for a moment he might start crying. Instead he thanked me and asked me to please take the baby, which I did. I rocked her in my arms for a moment and she settled down and drifted into blissful sleep. “Do you have children?” he asked me. “They’re all grown up,” I told him. He was lying on the ground and pretty much trussed up in the baby-carrier like a goat ready to be placed on a spit for roasting. He had put himself in a dangerous situation because I certainly could have run off with his baby and she would have been about to enter kindergarten by the time her father disentangled himself from that baby-carrier and came after me. Fortunately for him, I have no interest in acquiring a free baby, even if she glowed with a luminous rose and golden aura like a fairytale princess (which she did; she was a beautiful baby, about two months old). “Did that contraption come with an instruction manual?” I asked him. Then, assuming my best old lady authoritative tone, I talked the hog-tied father out of his predicament, suggesting which strap to put over his right shoulder and how to get his legs out of the lower part of the harness, and basically explaining to him where the baby fits into one of those things. “That’s an extremely intricate device,” I finally said. “You should get a simpler one to use when you’re on your own and need to maneuver without two or three other people (preferably piano movers), a winch, a dolly, and a pulley.” We successfully managed to get him free of his bondage and into the baby-carrier correctly, with all the straps clicked shut. Then he took the baby-girl from me and put her into the contraption where she immediately began to fret again. I could probably have carried her more comfortably slung in my handbag. I bid the dad adieu. “Don’t try to go to the bathroom until you get home with her,” I recommended. He looked terrified. “Be a man. Hold it,” I commanded.

When I see a woman in the grocery story berating a wailing child, my white hair gives me permission to say to her, “It’s tough being a mom, isn’t it?” She agrees. “But you know you could try harder,” I say. The child stops carrying on and stares at me with large round eyes while the mom blushes furiously. “Get some rest,” I tell her, “you’ll be a better mommy when you aren’t tired and stressed. Get a babysitter and take some time to yourself. Get a massage.” She nods, close to tears. Could have gone another way. She could have decked me for giving unwanted parenting advice. That’s a touchy subject. But I’m an old lady so don’t sass me.

At the gym, when a musclebound tattooed hunk of a man comes over to show me how to use the biceps curl machine, I know he isn’t giving me workout tips because he’s coming on to me. He’s just being a nice guy. How much simpler life is this way. I can get away with wearing cheap blue and pink sunglasses, I can get a senior discount on senior day at Kohl’s (15% off on Wednesdays), I can tell people about something I read in AARP Magazine, and I have the ability to impress people simply by informing them that I don’t take any medications or that my father is still alive and well.

As an old lady, I can tell young men that they need to pull their pants up and wear a belt, compliment young women on their appearance (hair, boots, accessories, smile), and inform the person in line behind me at the grocery store that white bread is toxic and they should take it back and buy whole grain instead. I can force strangers at parties to look at pictures of my son’s wedding. I can correct misbehaving children I don’t know when they act up in public. I can be smug over the fact that I put three children through college. When asked to call out what we are thankful for in synagogue, I can say “my new low-flush toilets.” I can tell the man in the hardware store that he has no business giving his children Oreos at ten in the morning (and he will regret it in about 15 minutes when they get grisly on the sugar rush). I can excuse myself from boring parties early and say I have to go to bed. I can refuse to watch violent movies even if they won the Academy Award for best picture. I can take seaweed snacks to potluck dinners. I can wear leggings to formal events (nylons are for the birds). I can wear a dress to the gym. I don’t have to justify my changing allegiances to different football teams based on who is playing on them which season. (My children make fun of me for this and fail to understand my logic or remember which teams I have cheered for consistently, but phoo to them, I am old, I enjoy football as I wish.) I even have a secret super power – when I smile at people as if I know the secret of life and it’s good news then they always smile back.

I probably look older than I actually am because of my white hair, but in old lady currency that gives me extra clout, which I will take (no hair dye for me). So watch out because I’m a crazy strong, crazy wise old lady and I’m workin’ it.

This is me at a 49ers game during the last season at Candlestick. 
I root for all the Cali teams and I don't care who makes fun of me for it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the Middle of the Night

I wish that I could have back all the hours I have spent thinking foolish, mundane, transient, and inconsequential thoughts in the middle of the night so that I can reinvest them in something more productive, like, say, eating ice cream. I have an overactive mind. My mind is akin to a dog at the beach. I have to constantly reign it in. The good thing is that I have made inroads in recent years in banishing worrying from my internal landscape; really, I have. I don’t worry as much as I once did.

Back in the day, I worried at night about money, my husband’s health, and what crazy thing my adult children would do that would cost me money (e.g., drop the cell phone into a vat of boiling spaghetti while doing an imitation of Julia Child, knock the laptop off the desk while demonstrating a snowboarding move and shatter the screen, trip over all those dirty clothes on the floor and fall sideways into a mirror that never got mounted on the wall breaking the glass and slashing the ankle thus incurring a massive ER bill). During the years when I struggled to keep my worries at bay during the night, I would lie awake thinking about stuff like the cost of organic blueberries, what to wear to my daughter’s college graduation (and whether or not this warranted the purchase of new shoes), climate change, debt from putting the children through college, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, flab on my upper arms, my fear that young people will stop reading books, computer viruses, environmental toxins in food, how long it would take the paramedics to arrive if my husband had a stroke, the pervasive rise of stupidity, finding a comfortable nightgown, nuclear holocaust, will I get enough work to support my family?, will my novels ever get published?, whether the cat is vomiting on my sofa while I’m sleeping, and do I really exist? If I don’t exist, then do I need to pay off by debt? Fortunately I have developed mental exercises to banish these kinds of thoughts from my mind most of the time (and I learned about some great anti-stress nutraceuticals when going to Nutrition College). Lately I am way better about not worrying. Instead my brain seems to be invaded by useless ridiculous thoughts in the middle of the night.

So I still lie awake with thoughts racing. This does not happen every night, but it happens too often and the thoughts that keep me awake are usually a waste of time. When I have a lot of work on my plate or many things to accomplish the next day, I sometimes lie awake doing the work or accomplishing the things in my head. I finish them in my mind, fall asleep, wake up, and get to do them all over again. Déjà vu on steroids. These efforts are not as much fun the second time around. If only I could solve great questions of quantum physics, figure out how to achieve world peace, or conceive of the great American novel in my head at 3 AM (and remember it all when I wake up). Or at the very least, if I clean the bathrooms and close the garden beds for the winter in my mind in the middle of the night, if only the bathrooms would be clean and the garden beds closed when I wake in the morning.

I have wasted irretrievable chunks of time moving furniture around in my head in the middle of the night. Whenever we have sold a house, bought a house, and moved, I have spent hours imagining where I will put all my stuff in a new house. Most of the time, I imagine where I will put all my stuff in a house that I never actually buy. When we had our house on the market last year, my realtor warned me that we would have more difficulty selling it because we still live in it. She said that people have trouble imagining how they will live in a house when it’s not entirely empty (or at least staged with a minimal selection of tasteful furniture, designer pasta in glass jars, striped throw pillows, and porcelain Siamese cats). Seriously? People have such paltry imaginations that they can’t imagine their stuff in a house with stuff already in it? I moved all my stuff into other people’s houses nightly for months. I simply threw their stuff in a big dumpster in my mind and co-opted their space. I ripped out shrubbery, installed new bathroom fixtures, made the house wheelchair accessible, moved walls, added a potting shed, tore out carpeting and replaced it with wood floors, changed the lightbulbs to fluorescents, and cooked, served, and ate food I had grown in a new garden planted in the backyard (instead of the lawn) to my friends; and all in just one night’s work. Plus I kept there adorable terrier and renamed her Zora.

I have spent too many deep night hours agonizing over whether to pick a quarterback or a running back first in the Fantasy Football Draft, whether or not to stain my newly stripped kitchen chairs before putting a protective finish on them, whether to switch to a new hair stylist, whether to plant my tomatoes in April or May, whether to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude, whether to pay off my credit card or set more money aside in my savings account, whether to take my car through the car wash or just wash it myself, whether to throw out my old pink house dress or to sew up the holes in it again and keep wearing it because it’s so comfortable, what to wear to the beach, whether to make an artichoke frittata or an asparagus frittata, what to write about on my blog, whether to switch to a different brand of dishwashing soap, and whether or not it’s too late in the night to take a Benadryl. Life is challenging. These are important questions, right? Wrong. Argh. Go to sleep already.

This is not an allegory about making every moment of your life count. It is not a word of advice about being present in the living moment. This is about taming the mental beast. I want to be able to tell myself, at 3 AM, that I have bigger fish to fry. It does not matter if I can’t remember the name of my second-grade teacher who kept the snake in the classroom and told me I would be a terrific nurse when I grew up. Which I would not. I would be a terrible nurse. But what was the name of that teacher? It doesn’t matter. This is not information that informs my life in any way. Argh. Go to sleep already.

I don’t mind lying awake at night thinking about something of consequence. If I start writing fiction in my head, I can give myself permission to stay awake for hours. If I start writing a nasty letter to the newspaper about the guy who cut in line in front of me at the grocery store in my head, I want to get that out of my head. “Not worth a moment’s thought,” as they say. I want to choose what thoughts I will dwell on and what thoughts I will discard. I need to take my brain to obedience school. This is why I don’t meditate. If I ever actually manage to clear my mind of all thoughts then I fall asleep. I am incapable of reciting a single mantra-word repeatedly in my head for even one minute. Mischievous other words dart in and out at their whim. Puns happen. Limericks even. And we all know that limericks are a gateway to hardcore legitimate literary forms.  

While I am able to tame my unruly thoughts and focus them on a job at hand more successfully in the light of day, I seem to lack this capacity in the middle of the night. I seem to be doomed to wasting hours in the night imagining the National Book Award acceptance speech that I will never make and thinking up names for my pet parrot if I had one. Argh. Go to sleep already.

 What would you call this parrot? No, wait until 3 AM to think about it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Staying at the Bates Motel

In June, Ron and I drove down to SoCal to spend a long weekend with our children. We booked a room at an inn for our stay, unwittingly falling for the false online advertising of the proprietor of said inn. I have tried to restrain myself from recounting this experience because I don’t like to spread negative energy and I have nothing positive to say about this supposed inn. But the latest event related to our stay, which occurred yesterday, prompted me to change my mind. You remember the Bates Motel, right? From the Hitchcock film Psycho? Our family refers to the sorry excuse for an inn that snared us in its evil web of lies and broken furniture as the Bates Motel.

When preparing for our vacation, I spent a couple of hours on the internet vetting accommodations and selected a name-brand hotel near my son and daughter-in-law’s apartment. But when I told my son where we planned to stay, he said I could get a motel on the beach for the same price and he sent me a series of links to other accommodations. Without researching these others (who has the time for all this?), and not realizing that he had not researched them either but had merely pulled some links from the web and tossed them into an email as examples, I blithely called the proprietor of the first one on the list. There’s a sucker born every minute.

The Bates Motel was advertised on the internet as “a little Shangri-La.” Photographs depicted lovely tropical flowers growing on the property, the beach at sunset, palm trees against a deep blue SoCal sky, exotic birds, pineapples dancing on lily pads, and faerie sprites with daisies in their flowing hair juggling ripe orange mangoes. On the phone, I focused on practicalities and asked the proprietor for a nonsmoking room with a king-size bed and a refrigerator. He promised me he could provide all this. Promised. There should be a special level of hell for proprietors of shabby hotels who promise hard-working vacationing mothers a decent hotel room and then fail to follow through. This was my long-anticipated vacation he was messing with. I work hard. I deserve to have a decent vacation.

Our glorious vacation began with the tedious drive down-state through the parched, drought-stricken valley. We listened to great music, ate a great picnic lunch at a rest stop, napped, read, and caught up with our youngest child who rode with us. We arrived in SoCal late in the evening and ate dinner with our children at a Japanese restaurant by the harbor. So far so good. Then we drove to our little Shangri-La by the ocean, dreaming of dancing pineapples. We arrived after ten o’clock that night, tired from our long day of travel. When I entered the office to check in, I knew immediately that I was in trouble. In situations like this, there should be a clown or a mime or someone who darts in front of a person holding a sign that says, “Run away. Now. Don’t look back.” Where was my angel mime on that fateful night?

The office was grimy and cluttered with papers, mismatched flip-flops, stuffed animals buried in dust, boxes, crumpled towels, and an assortment of many other stray objects, some unidentifiable. The proprietor was seated in front of an ancient computer with a keyboard so worn and dirty that the letters were no longer visible on the keys. He did not use the computer to process my check-in. In fact, I wondered if the computer actually worked or if it was just for show. He logged my information into a ledger by hand with a pencil. Then he wrote out a check-in tag, had me sign it, and filed it in a shoebox. I knew as I handed him my credit card (against my better judgment) that I should have turned and fled, but I was exhausted and didn’t know how quickly (if at all) I could find another place to spend the night. (YMCA? Train station?) Plus my angel mime was not present. After he charged my credit card, he handed me a cash register receipt that listed only the total cost, which was more than what he had quoted me over the phone. I asked about the cost and he declared it was what he had told me and he looked at me as if I was brain-dead, which I may well have been (I have no other excuse). I had allowed him to charge my card so I was hopelessly committed.

We proceeded to our little Shangri-La romantic getaway room, which had a ridiculously optimistic sign above the door that said seaside heaven. (The website actually referred to the establishment as a romantic getaway. Perhaps meaning you could get away from romance at this place.) We received only one room key (clearly the stingy proprietor would not think of paying to have more than one key made per room). It was an actual key, not a key card, and it took a little work to get it to open the door, which was not plumb and needed to be lifted to open and lifted as well as jammed into place to close. We had to carry our luggage some distance from the nearest parking space in the parking lot behind the rooms. The lot was littered with potholes, which I tried desperately not to step in because I didn’t want a sprained ankle.

In front of our room there was a glass patio table broken in half straight down the middle and one wobbly plastic chair. Two tipsy men smoking cigarettes and drinking Bud Light from cans staggered past my nonsmoking room, giggling. “Hey,” I called to them, “do you know if there’s Wi-Fi at this place?” They laughed uproariously and one of them told me, “Good luck with that.” I soon discovered that even though our room was ostensibly nonsmoking, there were other patrons running back and forth between rooms and smoking up a storm. The smoke was leaking into our room from around the unplumbed door and windows. As my eyes began to swell up, I searched for the phone in our room to call the front desk to complain. I would search in vain. No phone.

There was, miraculously, an actual bed in the room, so I decided to go to bed and deal with our predicament in the morning. Before doing so, I attempted to transfer our perishable food from our travel cooler to the refrigerator. There was, indeed, a refrigerator in the room. It was the size of a Kleenex box and the microscopic freezer compartment was frozen shut. At least we could fit Ron’s insulin into it. We would have to either take everything else to my son’s house the next day or binge-eat at breakfast. As I crawled into the bed, I realized that it was not a king-size bed. It barely qualified as a full-size double bed. (It was bolted to the wall for fear we might steal it.) The blankets were as thin as a veil on a Persian belly-dancer, which was not a problem since the room was hotter than a sauna. Ron found an ancient air conditioner crammed into a window high up on the wall behind the very-very-mini-mini-fridge. I couldn’t reach the air conditioner, but Ron could and he turned it on. I suppose I could have reached the air conditioner if I stood on a chair, but there was only one chair in the room and each leg on it was a different length. (What if Ron and I wanted to both sit at the table and have a cup of coffee in the morning? Did the proprietor imagine we would simply share the only chair?)

When Ron fired up the air conditioner, it sounded like a helicopter landing in our room. It did not drop back to a low hum, but kept sounding like a helicopter landing all night long. Unbelievably, the deafening din of the air conditioner did not manage to drown out the noise coming from Highway 1, which ran directly in front of the Bates Motel, a mere few yards from our misshapen door. Trucks barreled past all night long. Had the Shangri-La part of the vacation begun yet? I desperately wanted the pineapples and mangoes.

The next morning, in the harsh light of day, I discovered other interesting features of our room. It not only did not have a phone, it also did not have drinking glasses, a radio or clock, an iron and ironing board, or a hair dryer (not that either of us would use a hair dryer, but they should have had one). There was also no closet. Next to the miniscule fridge and just below the cacophonous helio-sonic air conditioner, we found a rod mounted on the wall sporting a handful of bent metal hangers such as those provided for free by a dry cleaners. Dresser? Definitely not. There wasn’t even the proverbial bible to assist me in praying for a glass or another chair should I have chosen to do so. No smarmy paintings on the walls. Nothing. Fortunately the bedding appeared to be clean, but it was worn and frayed, as were the towels. I actually took my life in my hands and went to the office, found the smug proprietor, and asked him for an extra towel. He asked me how many people were staying in my room! Unbelievable. I have never been cross-examined by a hotel for asking for another towel. Perhaps he would have liked me to take a lie-detector test to assure him I had no angel mimes, pet snakes, or distant cousins staying in my room with me?

Oh, and did I mention that the room was not carpeted. The floor was linoleum. Plus there was a large metal pit in the middle of the room; it was surrounded by the bathroom on one side, the area with the air conditioner and fridge on another, and protruding into the sleeping area. It had a huge metal hood above it, such as might be seen over an industrial stove at a Benihana Restaurant. The contraption looked like it might work for roasting a pig on a spit. I eventually discovered it was the heater. I’m grateful I didn’t fall into the heater pit because if I had I would probably still be at the Bates Motel. It seemed to be a wood-burning device, but there was no wood or fireplace tools on the premises. If the chair was not plastic, perhaps we could have burned it.  

What a disaster; and there did not appear to be a way to set our vacation back on track. I was deeply disturbed that the proprietor had duped me into staying at his little shop of horrors. My daughter-in-law saved the day. She offered us the guest room at her parents’ house for the remainder of our vacation. Her parents graciously welcomed us into their home on short notice and took excellent care of us. When these new accommodations had been arranged, I returned to our room at the Bates Motel and packed everything up as quickly as a tornado racing through the premises and tossed it in our car. I went to the office and informed the proprietor of this illustrious establishment that I was leaving. I asked about a refund. He didn’t have the word in his vocabulary. He gave me an amused smile and waved ta-ta. I behaved myself and did not yell at him, “What part of Shangri-La do you not understand?”

Well, as they say, “he who laughs last laughs best.” When I returned home from a wonderful visit with my children and a perfect stay with my son’s in-laws in their beautiful home, I called my credit card company and asked them how to dispute a charge on the card. They explained the procedure, which I followed to the letter. They reversed the charge on the card for the nights we did not stay at the Bates Motel, giving me a credit and refusing to pay the proprietor. But I was told that if the proprietor of the Bates Motel countered my dispute, the charge might be put through again. Two months went by and I heard nothing, so I thought he had not bothered to engage in the process. Then, yesterday, I received a letter from my credit card company. They requested proof that I had paid for the nights I had not stayed at the Bates Motel and informed me that the proprietor had disputed my dispute. They enclosed the evidence the proprietor had provided to them. The evidence consisted of one of his handwritten check-in tickets; however, the name on the ticket was Cheryl Chamberlain from Seattle, Washington. She drove a 2013 Mazda. He had provided the credit card company with evidence of another disgruntled patron’s payment and stay! I mailed the credit card company proof of my payment for the room as well as a letter explaining that I am not Cheryl Chamberlain and I do not live in Washington and I do not drive a Mazda. I’m obviously not the only patron of the Bates Motel to dispute a charge. We’ll see how that goes.

I never did check out the continental breakfast they advertised. I suspect it was a cauldron brimming with smoke hanging over a firepit in which guests could dip ladles and scoop out a hot concoction with eyeballs and frog legs floating in it. Sorry; my imagination runs away with me. I don’t plan to book a room anywhere else advertised as a little Shangri-La any time soon. Lesson learned. Beware false advertising on the internet.

Still image of the Bates Motel from Hitchcock's "Psycho."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Gym Membership

I joined a gym. That may sound simple and straightforward, but it is not. For one thing, it required prior research. I visited the gym twice to look around before speaking to the gym manager. I checked out what women wear to the gym. I’m not sure I want to be seen in public in standard gymwear. I also do not know exactly what standard gymwear is. But I have a vague understanding of standard gymwear and I do not own any of it. I contemplated working out at the gym in a muumuu dress. But the fear of having my muumuu hem get stuck in a piece of exercise equipment ended that contemplation. Imagine if Isadora Duncan had been a fitness fanatic and had died by having her scarf catch in the rowing machine (for those of you who don’t know, dancer Isadora died when her silk scarf caught in the open-spoked wheel of a car and broke her neck). What to wear to the gym is one of those mind-boggling chicken-and-the-egg problems. You have to work out for a few months to look good in gymwear. But then what do you wear to work out until you look good in gymwear? Definitely not something that can flap its way into a machine, get tangled, and break my neck.

I decided that I will wear leggings and a babydoll top to the gym. That done, I approached the gym manager, Nina, to ask a few questions before making a firm commitment. Nina gave me a tour of the facility. Nina’s enthusiasm exceeded that of a golden retriever on a tennis court filled with bouncy balls. She could have pursued a successful career as a prize-stroker. Clearly fond of the shiny gym equipment, she fondled the machines lovingly while explaining to me which part of my body would be stretched, kneaded, pummeled, aggravated, strengthened, pursued, bended, folded, mutilated, and emusculated (spellchecker wants to change that word to emasculated but I won’t allow it) by which machine. I asked Nina which machine would improve my abdominal muscles. She led me to a vinyl bench. “You lie down on your back on this and you do sit-ups,” she explained. That sounded a lot like something I could do on the floor of my bedroom without paying for the privilege of putting on my well-plotted gym outfit and doing sit-ups in public. The vinyl sit-up bench has handles hovering over it, so I’m guessing there must be some kind of enhanced sit-up I can do on it. Maybe, if the handles are automated, I can do a mechanical sit-up. Or maybe the bench will do the sit-ups for me and I won’t have to do anything at all. Nice.

Nina informed me that if I joined the gym I would get a free one-hour session with a personal trainer who would show me how to use the equipment that corresponds to the body part that I want to work on toning, defining, firming, flattening, and emusculating. She had me at personal trainer—that’s when I knew I would join. When I emailed my daughter later to tell her I had a date with a personal trainer, she replied with horror, “MOM, it’s not a date, it’s a sesh.” Oops. My daughter prevented me from making a terrible faux-pas by, say, posting on Facebook that I had a date with a personal trainer; which might lead people to think I am getting a divorce so I can run off to Aruba with a guy in turquoise spandex. Nothing is further from the truth. It’s just a sesh, folks. I’m having a midlife sesh. (With Cindy, who I don’t think is a guy.)

The contemporary gym experience includes a surprising level of digital technology. The treadmills, electric bicycles, and ski machines light up like an arcade and have screens that allow you to watch TV programs and videos of scenery flying by to simulate an outdoor experience. It could be amusing to run scenery of tropical beaches whizzing by while on the ski machine. The workout machines also have lots of pretty lights in all different colors in case you want to develop epilepsy or blindness. I tried out a strength-training machine that works the legs and arms. It had more numbers beeping and changing on the readouts than you would find on an AP Calculus exam. If I knew how to interpret them, the numbers would tell me my heart rate, life expectancy, IQ, number of red blood cells in my body, blood pressure, checking account balance, how many blueberries to put in my breakfast yogurt, dermatologist’s phone number, shoe size, car odometer reading, and approximate calories in the image of a slice of carrot cake that keeps popping into my head lately.

When Nina told me that I could attend a weekly High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class at no extra cost with my membership, I asked where to sign. I have been wanting to learn more about HIIT. Never mind that the room in which the HIIT class was taught resembled a torture chamber, with straps hanging from the ceiling, metal weights as big as my car lined up on racks, ropes, mirrors, whips, chains, a cardboard cutout of a dominatrix, and a hologram of a large scary dog wearing a spiked collar and baring its teeth. The room also had adorable exercise balls in every size and color. Pretty. I think I could lift the exercise balls and that would give me a nice stretch.

So I joined the gym. My first set of exercises consisted of filling out the membership forms. I enjoyed this quite a bit since Nina wanted to tell me about her garden and did so in great detail while I completed the forms. Since I am an avid gardener, I was genuinely interested in Nina’s monologue. I was tempted to hire her to tell me about her garden while I was using the equipment. She was so upbeat and perky that I finally poked her arm to see if she was a hologram. She wasn’t. She is simply a woman with a backyard full of salad. I already eat salad for lunch every day, but I might start eating salad for breakfast too to see if it can make me as perky-happy as Nina. By-the-way, she has a marvelous ponytale.

One of the things I like the most about my new gym is the purple plastic “key” I now have on my keychain. If I wave the purple key thingy in front of the keypad on the door to the gym, it will open to me at any time of the night or day. So if I am possessed by a mad urge to watch a workout video at three in the morning, I can run over to the gym and do it. At that hour, I could probably use the rowing machine in my nightgown because no one else would be there. I could sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while rowing in my nightgown. That’s a concept. I wonder if the key will also open my bottle of mouthwash with the childproof top that’s also relatively adult-proof as well. (Must go wave the magic purple key around in the bathroom to find out.) 

Why do I feel the need to join a gym? I’m a fairly active person with no significant health conditions. I don’t take any medications, I walk every morning, and I spend a lot of money on incredibly healthy food. I’m within the expected weight range for my height and age. So why the gym? My daughter, who goes to the gym religiously almost daily and looks terrific, has been on my case for a couple of years about strength training. And she’s right. I need to build more muscle mass and strengthen my “core.” I’m not sure what my core is, or where exactly in my body it is, but I know I need to strengthen it. I figure if I tell the personal trainer that I want a stronger core, she’ll lead me to a machine (maybe something called a corer?) that will reach deep into my soul and make my core impervious to any compromising element. That’s why I joined the gym. I want a super-good core. Then everyone will say about me that I’m super-good to the core.

This contraption looks pretty scary. If I entered it I’m not sure I’d ever find my way out.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Woodstock: A Jewish Party

Woodstock. A watershed moment in American history. I wonder how many people realize that Woodstock was created by Jews. It was invented by Jews Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, and bankrolled by Jews John P. Roberts (denture adhesive heir) and Joel Rosenman. The event took place on the farm of Max Yasgur, also Jewish. Yasgur’s farm was in the heart of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills (about a dozen miles from Grossinger’s, the quintessential Jewish summer resort). This makes perfect sense to me. Who else but Jews would imagine, fund, host, and put on an event where people starve, are forced to crawl through the mud, trek long distances on foot to arrive where they have nowhere to sleep in a sheltered location, dance, sing, chant, transcend reality, fall in love, have a life-changing spiritual experience, change the course of history, and scare their moms half to death?

The 46th anniversary of Woodstock arrives in a couple of weeks. I have often pondered what it was about Woodstock that made it so significant. It was an epiphany to the counter-culture and progressives of my generation. The community that was created at Woodstock was bigger than the music festival itself. The power in the sheer numbers coexisting peacefully over the course of the festival as well as the preceding days when they flowed into the area was deeply moving. It was a city of gentle, generous, caring people. It demonstrated what that kind of community could be like. As Wavy Gravy said, “We must be in heaven.” It also illustrated how enormous the counterculture was. If we had felt isolated before, we felt less alone after Woodstock. Freedom was what it was all about when I was young, and so it was enormously fitting that Richie Havens opened the concert singing about freedom. I think the biggest message that came from Woodstock was that young people could change the world. Youth could change the existing social order and create a new culture. In the new culture, people made peace not war. In the new culture people were more important than profit. The American obsession with productivity was questioned because the new higher value was quality of life. In the new culture, conventions were no longer bulletproof. They were questioned and replaced if perceived to be wrong. Woodstock was a symbol for hope in the future and for belief in transformation on a personal, cultural, national, and global level. So it rained, oy. Always a little tsuris to remind us that life happens every which way and we need to appreciate the goodness and sweetness to help us through the mud and disaster. How much more Jewish can you get?

Max Yasgur was not a radical. He was a Republican who supported the Vietnam War. At the same time, he passionately opposed racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance or prejudice of any kind. He believed that people had the right to live freely in their personal beliefs and cultures, and that this was the cornerstone of our democratic America. He was opposed to discrimination against hippies, “others,” radicals, the counterculture, and he walked the talk. He ran one of the biggest dairy farms in upstate New York. Few Jews lived in Western Sullivan County, where Yasgur’s farm was located, and historically there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the area, even though it was part of the Borscht Belt (where many Jews went for a summer vacation, but did not live year-round). In his memoir about his experience of Woodstock, Eliot Tiber (born Eliyahu Teichberg), whose Jewish family owned the Monaco Hotel near the Woodstock site, relates that in the weeks leading up to the concert, townie vandals spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic racial epithets, taunts, and insults on the sides of buildings on the hotel property nightly. Every morning, Tiber’s father went out with a can of paint to blot out these horrifying words before his wife (who had fled the pogroms of Russia by walking across Europe) could see them. Tiber documented his involvement in Woodstock in his book Taking Woodstock, which Ang Lee made into a movie. The title refers to Tiber’s closing words of his book in which he explains that Woodstock changed his life and that he always takes Woodstock with him in his heart. He was responsible for calling Michael Lang to suggest that the concert be moved to Bethel when Wallkill barred them (and he provided the permit for the concert that was needed). Tiber, by-the-way, attended Yeshiva in Brooklyn as a child.

Interestingly, the big resorts in the Borscht Belt originated in a back-to-the-land movement staged by immigrant Jews in the early 1900s. Many immigrant Jewish families moved to the Borscht Belt to start family farms, and to make ends meet they took in boarders. One thing led to another and the big Jewish resorts were born. In a lovely synergy of history, many of those who attended Woodstock in the Borscht Belt would make their lives on back-to-the-land farms.

The locals held the Jews responsible for bringing the hordes of hippies to the area and they were unhappy about it on a grand scale. Well, yeah, the Jews did bring hordes of hippies to Woodstock. No one knows how to throw a party like Jews. Tiber says the locals actually told him they feared that the hippies would rob them and have sex with their cattle. But the cattle remained chaste and the townies were not robbed.

Those darned Jewish kids from Brooklyn (Lang, Tiber, and Kornfeld all grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn). Kornfeld, although not religious, was known to introduce himself on occasion as “Avraham ben Yisroel Kornfeld, a Kohain.” The Kohains were the high priests in ancient Israel before the destruction of the holy temples. So the descendent of a high priest from the holy temple in Jerusalem was instrumental in creating the Woodstock experience. Naturally.

In the end, the promoters of Woodstock lost a heap of money on the concert because of the enormous number of people who descended on the site and the need to ensure their safety. If the originally anticipated number had turned out (50,000), the promoters would have made a tidy profit; however, as more and more people flowed into the area, decisions had to be made and they were made on the side of humanitarian efforts, not profit. The fences came down (after 100,000 tickets had been sold). The concert was declared a free concert (with an estimated 500,000 people attending). Perhaps this decision by the promoters was the single most significant factor in making this iconic event what it became. The good energy they created by making it a free concert, and the positive spirit of the concert that resulted still stands as a symbol for the kind of inclusive community that can be built on love, peace, respect, and all those altruistic attributes of which humans are capable. The promoters covered the costs for bringing in food and other necessities, for cleaning up Yasgur’s farm afterward, and for paying many musicians up front (instead of later) to perform.

The role that music plays in effecting social and political change was never the same after Woodstock. Music has always had this role, and Woodstock sealed the deal. But it was more than that. Woodstock gave us faith in the future of humanity. If Woodstock could happen in the world then people might manage to change in good and positive ways and preserve the planet and not take advantage of others and learn about one another’s cultures and stop killing each other and all the rest. Kornfeld would surely agree with Tiber that he takes Woodstock with him through life in his heart. Kornfeld has said that Woodstock was a vehicle for engaging in the fundamental Jewish concept of repairing the world (tikkun olam). Certainly three days of peace and music and nothing but peace and music for half a million people could make a dent in that effort. Happy 46th birthday Woodstock. Even though I was too young to attend, I take Woodstock in my heart too.

There are millions of iconic photos of Woodstock I could choose from to accompany this post, 
but I chose instead a photo of Max Yasgur. What a remarkable human being, eh?