Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Portrait offers a gift of gratitude



Register columnist

Everyone in my family has Grandma Sara's paintings in their home.

Nobody questions whether they're good (they are), or whether we want them (we do). We just all have them.

Now, at least.

When Grandma Sara opened her impassable warehouse of a studio to her grandchildren, the bulk of us were in our 20s. My sister and cousin Shira, however, were still in grade school. We all got to choose our favorites and talk to Grandma Sara about what inspired them. Sis and Shira got nothing.

But on Sis' trip to Israel in January, one of our uncles changed that. The youngest Saars were each going to get paintings, whether or not the paintings were good (they were) or the girls wanted them (they did).

Grandma Sara lost her family to the Nazis in Holland. In Israel, her ex-husband, my grandfather, died of polio. Two more husbands went after that. You wouldn't know by talking to her that she'd seen dark days. She took great joy in life, mastering seven languages, swimming daily, enjoying the nature of the kibbutz. And, of course, painting.

It was in her art that Grandma Sara expressed her ambivalence toward mankind, her fears and heartache. Even when my father died, it wasn't until I saw the last painting she made of him that I really felt her suffering.

It was 1998, and something in a letter she wrote drew Hubby and me to Israel. I had written her a number of questions, and she replied that she didn't have the strength to write all the answers. She'd tell me in person the next time I visited, "if I am still here."

Though her art often deals with death - wisps of people vanishing into heavy sadness, this was the first time she'd ever expressly written to me about her own mortality. I didn't take it lightly.

We went and met a frail woman I hardly recognized. She looked old. She smelled old. It had been only three years since my father's funeral, but she had aged five times that. She took us to her room in what I realize now was a hospice. Like every Saar home, this room was decorated with a Grandma Sara painting. Just one.

It was a painting of my father, looking youthful and bemused, amid a womblike backdrop of color. The base of the painting was thickly textured, almost thorny, as if she were acknowledging Dad's struggles, while around and above him, glimmering waves seemed to beckon him to something better.

Grandma Sara explained that she took the inspiration from my eulogy. I didn't know what to say.

After her death the following year, I had hoped my dad's twin sister would send me the painting. She didn't.

Sis didn't want any more paintings. She hadn't yet landed her new job, didn't have a place of her own and wasn't sure what she was going to do with all the canvases she had been given. But my cousin Yuval insisted on wading into his parents' attic and pulling out more for her.

"He said, 'Wait, there's one last painting,'" Sis recounted to me later. "I didn't even want to see it, but then he pulled it out and it was this picture of Dad."

Before she could, I described it.

"Yeah," she said. "That's it. How did you know?"

It took me a while to get over it, the idea that the painting I wanted all these years was going to be handed over to my sister instead of to me. "Don't be jealous," I told myself. "He was her dad, too."

You know how this ends, don't you? How things come back to you when they're yours?

Before heading for Northern California to start her new job last month, Sis showed up at my place. It was raining. Hard. She came to pick up my old dining-room table. She surprised me with the painting.

"It belongs with you," she said.

I felt like I did the first time I saw it: stunned. Reunited. I didn't know what to say back then. But now I do. It's so simple; I should have said it to my grandmother before I ever thought it could be mine.

I should have said it to my father more, before his image was committed to canvas. I should say it more often to more people.

After all these years of not knowing what to say, I said it. To my grandmother. To my dad. To Sis.

"Thank you."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I Like Cooking - Someone Else's



Register columnist

I thought the items on the bride's registry were a little weird. A garlic peeler? Pasta rakes? Lisa must not have thought this through. I mean, when would she ever use a springform pan?

"Who uses kitchen scales?" I asked myself, as I shrank from the cookware to buy her bath towels. "Who needs two sizes of pie pans? Who even bakes pies?"

Apparently everyone. As Lisa opened her presents at her bridal shower recently, I looked for a kindred spirit with whom I could share my most sophomoric feelings about melon ballers. Instead I got a schooling in just how far I have not come, baby. That, and some recipes.

When Lisa opened a gift containing, among other things, a pastry brush, I leaned over all conspiratorial-like and whispered to the woman next to me, "What's a pastry brush?"

I had hoped this would be an invitation to a neat little volley of banter. Instead, she answered, "It's what you use to brush eggs onto the dough when you bake. Like when you're working with phyllo dough."

"This one is silicone so it won't shed bristles," another woman chimed in. "You know how pastry brushes sometimes shed."

The first woman nodded sagely, as if to say, "Yes, yes of course."

Shedding pastry brushes. Who hasn't contended with her fair share of those?"

At some point when I wasn't looking, the women of my generation learned to cook. They learned how to iron and they learned what rosewater is used for. They know the difference between coarse graters and ribbon graters, and they own both.

They all grew into these domestic goddesses, while I gained no useful life skills whatsoever. I feel like I did when I was 5 and my 7-year-old neighbor tricked me into thinking I was playing hide and seek with him and his friends. I hid, all right. For hours. The rest of the kids, meanwhile, were inside watching TV, eating snacks and having a grand ol' laugh.

Did all my girlfriends go out on one big shopping trip together to buy vegetable mandolines? And, if so, why did they leave me outside, counting to 10?

Leslie and Brill assured me there was no conspiracy. Both have moms who cook really, really well - but wouldn't let them near their kitchens growing up. Cooking is a way to emulate the mothers they so admire.

"My mother is quite an inspiration," Leslie said. "Growing up, she insisted on all of us sitting down every night for dinner. And she took pride in making us real dinner every time - main dish, vegetables, starch. This, I think, made a deep impression on my mind. Dinner is special, therefore food is special. By cooking myself, I can re-create that specialness myself, in my own home."

I guess I could say not cookingis my way of emulating Mom. Precious little was special about food in my household - in fact, after my dad died, the oven was used solely as a place to store flats of Costco muffins.

If I was ever going to learn how to use a zester, Mom wasn't going to be the one to teach me. Dad cooked, but not well. I mean, hethought he cooked well. And since Mom didn't want to cook and I managed to not starve to death as a child, who was going to tell him otherwise?

I thought it was enough to have surpassed my parents' culinary skills.

Sure, Hubby does most of the cooking, and when I do cook, it's usually to make us feel full, as opposed to feel good. But it's mostly organic and it's usually edible.

I had figured that was the cup by which all my friends measured their culinary aptitude: "Is it edible?" So finding out that they're making reduction sauces and swapping paté recipes had me feeling completely diminished as a woman.

It didn't help that Leslie hypothesized that my not cooking freed me up to learn how to do something else. "Back in the day, women were expected to know how to cook because they couldn't work outside the house, and what else were they going to do?" she said. "Now, cooking is like any other useful skill: fixing cars, hanging wallpaper - as long as one of you knows how to do it, you're better off."

Great. Not only can I not cook, I also have no idea how to hang wallpaper, fix a car or even operate the 50,000 remote controls required to turn on my television. I feel muchbetter now, thanks.

I'd been feeling so impotent that I took it upon myself to cook our entire Passover Seder last week. Chicken, charoset, potato kugel, matzo balls - all from scratch, schmaltz and everything.

All week, Hubby would ask, "Are you sure you don't want me to make something? Like the chicken? I could make the chicken."

No. I need to do this. I need to know that I can do this.

After a bumpy start (Oh! I forgot to buy the onions. Wait! I was supposed to peel the apples before chopping them), I got dinner going.

The results weren't bad, and it felt great to cook an entire holiday meal myself.

Still, I don't see myself rolling around naked in Willams-Sonoma catalogs any time soon. Cooking is rewarding. It's necessary. But it's just not in my DNA.

Besides, now that I know I can cook, my not cooking has become a choice, not a failing. So I don't begrudge the women of my generation their pasta rakes and pastry brushes, even if I don't quite get why they need them. And when a bride-to-be unwraps a horizontal peeler or stainless steel cream whipper, I'll just have to keep my dirty jokes to myself.

After all, if my girlfriends want to be gourmet chef/domestic goddesses, I want to make sure I'm invited over for dinner.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The 80s Have Me All Worn Out



Register columnist

I don't get to read magazines much anymore, so can someone please fill me in: Are we in the throes of a nationwide '80s party, or are women walking around in their older sisters' underwear for some other reason?

Women - otherwise sane and normal women - are wearing lace-trimmed bicycle shorts. Bicycle shorts! Somewhere in Milan, a demonic designer is rolling in a pile of euros and cocaine and laughing, laughing, laughing. Hide your cameras; you don't want a record of what you're wearing right now.

I saw a mannequin in a "Flashdance" sweat shirt. You remember "Flashdance" sweat shirts? Those ripped-at-the-neckline deals worn baggy over spandex leggings? It's a look that says, "I'm here to give you an hour-long blow job. Or scrub your toilet. Whichever you'd prefer."

It demeaned the mannequin to wear such rags, and yet there were women lining up on a recent Saturday to buy their own.

Yvette, Mary Beth and I were baffled. We went shopping because we thought shopping would be fun. That's what shopping normally is: fun.

But when mannequins greet you wearing (no joke) black-and-white striped leotards over polka-dot leggings, fun chokes to death on its own bile and leaves you wondering whom to blame.

We can start with fashion designers. Do you realize how powerful these people are? No dictator in the world could force flocks of women to dress like Polish peasants every seven years. But designers do. And now these nefarious plotters are sewing their 20-year-old dish towels together and making fools of us all.

Mary Beth was speechless before a window display. Leggings, leggings and more leggings.

We contemplated abandoning our trip and heading to the newsstand. At least we could take our minds off the horrors of shopping by reading about world affairs. But we soldiered on.

Store after store offered sartorial sacrilege. Frilly trimmed cut-off shorts and ruched T-shirts. Sweaters with glitter - actual glitter - glued all over them. Oversized shirts and spandex pants. Every store looked like the wardrobe department from "Square Pegs."

What is going on?

Shouldn't the hoi polloi have some say in what we wear? We get to elect our president - OK, bad example. We get to choose our next top model. We vote on our national idol. Can't we collectively stand up and say, "Hey! I don't wanna wear a 5-inch-thick, studded leather belt over a floor-length T-shirt?"

A few days after my girls-out shopping trip, I went back to some of the same stores to see if I could gain perspective on this current fashion nightmare. Here's what I came up with: The first time designers dressed us like the cast of "Les Miserables," conservatives were in power, the nation was in crisis and the deficit hit the $1 trillion mark. Whether we knew it or not, we were walking around in rags as a political statement.

The fashion world is merely cutting anger on the bias once again, tailoring a protest to say, "You don't want your citizens to dress like they're in 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome'? Be wiser with our resources."

You might be saying to yourself, "Leggings as civil disobedience? Has Mayrav lost her mind?"


But the day you go rolling into the office wearing mile-high shoulder pads under your boyfriend's paisley dress shirt, you'd better come up with a better reason why.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

You Call <i>This</i> Coaching?



Register columnist

Every once in a while, I'm reminded that most of the world isn't Jewish.

Around Christmas, naturally. During a sporting event. But the latest vivid reminder of my minority status has truly boggled my mind: the increasing popularity of so-called life coaches.

As with bagels and gastrointestinal distress, the rest of the world is just a few steps behind the Jews on this one. For, while life coaching is just taking off with CEOs and actors, my people have enjoyed the work of life coaches for years. Except we don't pay our coaches. Or want their input. And we call them "Mom."

My own mother "coaches" me all the time: You should buy a house, you should sell your house, you should have a baby, you should have another baby, you should go back to work and let me take care of the baby, you never should have sold your house, selling your house was a very smart move, when am I going to have another grandchild?

Why people would pay someone to kvetch them to death, I don't know. But according to a recent New York Times article about life coaching, I owe Mom upward of $40,000 a month for her incessant ... her, um, help.

This, I guess, is just part of the increasing coolification of Judaism: Madonna practicing Kabbalah, non-Jews celebrating faux bar mitzvahs, my friend Chris always saying "oy." It's a trend, frankly, I don't care for.

I've said it before: Jews aren't cool. Our food isn't very good, and we have sinus infections, like, all the time. Emulate someone else. Like the Swedes. They have meatballs and functional furniture.

This latest appropriation of Jewish culture is particularly troubling to me because people don't realize what they've unleashed. There are now "credentialed" life coaches, which means schools have been set up to train people how to becomenagging Jewish mothers. To these schools I say, "Stop!"

Don't do that. Seriously. It's a bad idea.

If my mom realizes that she's been marketed and sold, she'll think her constant barrage of "suggestions" is part of a valued societal trend.

And I'll be doomed.

So, really, will everyone else. It's only a matter of time before life-coach casualties start walking around with hangdog looks of self-doubt. Before supermarkets are filled with indecisive customers, standing in the aisles paralyzed by their learned helplessness. It won't be long before once-normal people find they're avoiding calling their life coaches for a few days and then feel guilty about it. When people complain about their life coaches to their therapists, we'll know the trend has gone too far.

But we shouldn't wait for that day to come. We should put an end to it now. It's too late for my people - 5,000 years of history cannot be undone.

But for the rest of you, there's is hope. So, I beseech you people - you life coaches and life coachees - stop. You can have your Larry David and your chicken soup. But leave the ordering around to the professionals - not the handsomely paid coaches, but the Jewish mothers whose jobs they're doing.

If you really don't think you can survive another day without someone telling you what to do, wire me money, and I'll talk your ear off. I'm a Jewish mother, too.