Category Archives: travel

Upstate

“You’re not excited to see where you were born?  I’m more excited than you are!” my husband told me as we packed for a weekend trip to upstate New York last weekend.

“I have no opinion about that,” I said, like Fat Charlie the Archangel from a Paul Simon song my dad loved.

The house where I was born is still the same, only smaller.  Low.  Flat.  White siding.  Rust-red shutters.  Everything gets smaller, the older we get.  If “home” can be defined by longing, then there was no longing–and no home– here.  That house, with the long hallways made for “piggy ball” and chasing little brothers, with the strange Victorian newsprint wallpaper in the bathroom, with the basement that smelled like basements everywhere. The basement slightly terrified me because you could see through the stairs and there was a paper Halloween witch on one of the closet doors, but once I got downstairs, I would feel reassured by the sounds of my dad’s typewriter. Whether they changed the interior or not, this house itself does not feel like home.  At one time, it was all I knew.  At one time, it was “ours.”  Now, it doesn’t even feel like the memory of  home.

 

house where i was born (so to speak)

the house where i was born (so to speak)

We left upstate New York for Virginia when I was eight.  In comparison, moving to Wisconsin at thirteen was a much harder adjustment.  I have happy memories of New York, but they are childhood’s memories: watching and later acting out The Wizard of Oz with friends, learning to swim in the town pool, sharpening sticks in the backyard, which was really one big backyard that stretched the whole block and felt wild and vast.

The town also looks the same.  In the forgiving light of the evening, with softly intense sunlight sneaking down at angles after a sudden downpour, the town looks quaint and adorable.  In the right light, even the outskirts, the dead-fish factories, the dilapidated barns, the pick-up truck cab that’s now a planter in someone’s front yard, all look rather charming.  The woods, the corn, the rolling hills have a Thoreau appeal.  In a romantic mood, you can still imagine forests and Iroquois hunters dominating the Mohawk Valley, much like Cooper and Irving did (with all their “noble savage” nostalgia).  But romance only goes so far.  I know how much the children-of-the-corn fields viscerally perturbed my father, how the black country roads at night starred in my mother’s anxiety dreams, how many times I said “I’m bored” during the long summers.  I liked it there as a kid, not because of some Norman Rockwell ideal of leaving your backdoor open, kids running loose and catching lightning bugs, and neighbors looking out for each other, but because my parents and their friends consciously created entertainment and community and culture for us.  In the summers, the parents took turns teaching us to swim or sew or play baseball, according to their talents.  My dad drove us to parks and old forts and the movies, making our Subaru gallop up and down winding country roads–blasting Bruce Springsteen on the radio of course– in lieu of a roller coaster.

It would seem my inherent distrust of winter— born of my respect for its inevitability– applies to memory as well.  I’m not a very stalwart nomad. I never learned to shed an old land like an old season.  There can be no homelessness without nostalgia.  But as a homeless nostalgic, I try to make sure I’m at least being nostalgic about the right home.  And home, I’ve come to find, is so much more time than it is place.

I envy people like my husband, for whom, “home” is a specific pale blue-and-yellow house with a metal door and white lace curtains that billow in the breeze in the city up a hot, slanting hill.  He grew up there; his people are still there; this was the home he left when he moved to France to seek his fortune.  He is greeted like a prodigal celebrity when he returns to his neighborhood, shaking hands with every neighbor on the block.  I almost can’t understand what he means when he talks about missing home or being homesick.  It’s so unified. So succinct.  To miss your mother is the same as missing your old bed, as missing the laundry flapping on the terrace while you kick a soccer ball with your sister, as missing childhood. Or if not the same, at least they’re very close.

What I miss about upstate New York were the Friday night dinners with other families in our “Play Group,” and the creative thrill of building a stick fort or inventing a new game with other kids.  I miss the immersiveness of playing dress-up as a child. I miss my love-hate relationship with the texture of our old saggy couch that gave me carpet burns.  I miss how my dad used to refer to himself as a poet back then, even if it sometimes sat strangely on his tongue.

I’m not sure what my husband learned about me from seeing the house I was born in. On our last trip to Algeria, I think he started to understand the phrase “you can’t go home again,” because he recognizes how much living in America has changed him.  But that cement house–that street–that city will always be his one-and-only boyhood home. My mom, who came with us, didn’t seem to be nostalgic about the old house or that time “in the slightest.”  We had a great weekend. We saw old friends, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I marveled at how much smaller our friend’s house appeared to me, after 25 years, my mom replied: “It’s always been a small house.”

Other houses I’ve lived in– and some that I have only visited– have felt more like home, and the impossibility of returning to other places, other times twists the knife of homesickness much more than this little white ranch house in upstate New York.  Now this house is just a security question: “What’s the address of your childhood home?”  As if such a thing could ever be so clear-cut!  When I answer it, I always have to remember which “home” I designated, and I always curse the inventors of such questions, who obviously grew up as privileged, sheltered people who never got to move and never felt like nomads.

 

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Jon Stewart, Meet Me At Camera Three

Like many fans and critics, I’ve been preemptively nostalgic about the impending end of Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show. When Jon announced his retirement, I was astonished and moved. From my adolescence until now, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was a constant, a salvo, an adult version of a bed-time story. Particularly in the Bush years, but equally today, it has been an oasis of sanity in an ever-darkening geopolitical climate and an ever-sensationalized media landscape.

For someone who came of voting age just eleven months after 9/11 and who came into the workforce during the Great Recession, it has been reassuring to hear a voice of truth and humor cutting through the bullshit and the darkness and telling me: “You’re not alone. There is still sanity somewhere. As long as we all know this is fucked up, and we acknowledge it, all is not lost.”  I’ve lived in red states, blue states, purple states, and blaze orange cheesehead states. I’ve lived in a socialist country, a former Capital of the Confederacy, the Big Apple, and the People’s Republic of Madison. Jon Stewart kept me centered through it all and reminded me that I was not alone as a Jew, a progressive, a skeptic, an educator, a nerd, a lover of nuance, and an aficionado of dick jokes.

I started watching The Daily Show with my dad in 1998, when we got cable and Comedy Central for the first time. My father, the funniest and smartest man I’ve ever known personally, was channel surfing for some late-night stand-up and instead found a young comedian in a big suit with a Carlinesque wit. The Daily Show became an instant household habit, overtaking The Tonight Show, the nightly news, and even SNL’s Weekend Update in our esteem. The madcap antics of the Stephens (Carell and Colbert) and the other correspondents during the hanging chads of Indecision 2000 had us hooked. I remember thinking John McCain was cool because he was willing to joke around with Jon and Stephen Colbert at the New Hampshire primary (McCain, what happened?!). My dad was a Catholic atheist, and my mom a Jewish agnostic, so my family especially enjoyed Colbert’s “This Week in God” segments and Lewis Black’s rants about the “War on Christmas.” I identified with little things like when Jon asked Israel or Iran tomeet me at camera three” for a personal appeal/take-down or remarked during an interview: “I’m Jewish, and my wife’s Catholic. We’re raising our children to be sad.”

In college, especially during the War in Iraq and Indecision 2004, my classmates and I crowded around the TV in the dorm lounge to watch Jon every night. We would usually talk politics and joke around afterwards, ignoring Crank Yankers or whatever bullshit Colin Quinn show filled the 11:30 slot in the years before The Colbert Report. During Spring Break in 2004, my roommate and I introduced her parents to The Daily Show, and both her liberal mom and conservative dad became regular viewers of what they called “the Funny News.”

When I moved to France after college in 2006, discovering Daily Show episodes at Comedy Central online felt like a small miracle (streaming was still pretty new then). Jon Stewart was my cure for homesickness, where I turned to find out what was really going on back home. It was worth all the buffering and watching the same Chevy commercial ad nauseum to hear Jon joke about the man who apologized to Dick Cheney for being shot in the face by Dick Cheney, or try fruitlessly to convince Bill O’Reilly that a stuffed teddy bear he’d offered him was definitely without a doubt NOT a panda bear, or hone his spot-on George W. Bush chortle.

Several of my French colleagues eagerly professed to me their love of Jon Stewart, as if confirming their proud membership in a secret, international club. For them, if I was a Jon-Stewart-style-American, then I must be OK. I must be a rational, thoughtful, balanced, healthily skeptical, 21st century American– not like the gun-toting consumer of Freedom Fries, the Mormon sister-wives, the Amish school-shooter, or the cowboy president featured so heavily in French news media at the time. These were the darkest days of the War in Iraq, when I preferred to hear George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on the French news because at least their overconfident, misleading, folksy, swaggering speeches about “smoking out evil-doers” sounded more sophisticated dubbed in French.

My personal life was unsettled as well. I’d just started my first job out of college, teaching middle school English with no training whatsoever. I was living on my own in a foreign country, renting a tiny apartment from an eccentric, racist landlady. She certainly was shocked when I began dating an Algerian Muslim grad student!  We were falling in love, but I agonized over our long-term prospects and compatibility. Was I concerned because he was Muslim and I was Jewish? Because his family lived in Algeria and mine in Wisconsin? Because my French wasn’t yet good enough to win arguments against him? Nope. I wasn’t worried about any of that. The existential fear that tormented my young heart was: “What if he can’t understand Jon Stewart? Our relationship is doomed!!!”

American satire was so important in my family, to my sense of self and of humor, that The Daily Show became a litmus test for my friends and lovers. Liking Jon Stewart was a sign that someone shared my American values: absolute free speech, informed skepticism, talking truth to power, standing up for the rights of women, minorities, LGBT folks, and the “little guy”–yet not above making Arby’s diarrhea jokes, covering “cooter racing,” or shooting a segment from the point of view of Ed Helms’ balls. I couldn’t imagine spending my life with someone who couldn’t watch Jon Stewart and laugh with me every night before bed.

Cultural differences aside, we got married in 2010 and moved to New York. And there came a day in 2011 when my husband laughed out loud at The Daily Show without me having to translate a joke into French or explain some cultural eccentricity first. I believe it was Jon’s impression of Senator Mitch McConnell as the Looney Toons Turtle. Pretty soon, my husband was eagerly awaiting Jon’s coverage of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Wisconsin State Capital protests, Hurricane Sandy, and Aasif Mandvi’s hilarious reports on race and religion in America. When Jon Stewart took time off to make Rosewater and appeared on Bassem Youssef’s Egyptian Daily Show, Al-Bernameg, it was my husband’s turn to translate for me.

This past February, my husband was studying for his U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization exam. Quizzing him from the study guide, I asked: “Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?” He replied without missing a beat: “Orange Face! John Boehner! And the majority leader of the Senate is McConnell, the Turtle-Man.” There really is no better American civics education, nor a better test of American cultural fluency, than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I no longer worry about our compatibility as a couple, culturally or comedically.

So in lieu of sweeping commentary about the end of an era or this wider cultural moment, let me just end with a personal thank you from an anonymous fan.

Jon Stewart, please meet me at camera three:

Thank you, Jon, for being part of my political and comic education dating back to the first presidential campaign I closely followed, Indecision 2000, for making my father laugh so hard every night he spit out his toothpaste, and for showing my Algerian husband the true meaning of free speech in a free society. Even when our leaders abused power or failed to live up to our ideals, you were there to pull back the veil on the hypocrisy, the propaganda, and the chronic tools of oppression used by regimes the world over.  Just by bearing witness and poking fun, you remind me and my husband that America’s strength lies in the voices of its people and in the ability of sane, rational people to see each other’s humanity. Other jesters may come and go, but none will hold court like you, Jon Stewart.

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95% American

After weeks of studying and photocopying documents, my husband has passed his U.S. Citizenship test.  The six paltry questions the USCIS agent asked him (compared to the 100 he’s been studying from a booklet and a fabulous online tutorial from the Smithsonian) were a breeze:

What is the supreme law of the land?

What is the capital of your state?

What is an amendment?

Who did the United States fight during World War II?

To what do you show loyalty when you say the Pledge of Allegiance?

In fact, the only interview question that threw him for a loop was a procedural one: “Are you planning to change your name?” Flustered, he responded very soberly: “Not at this time.”  I asked him after the interview if that meant he might change his name in the future. He just rolled his eyes at me. We assume this question is asked of everyone but aimed at immigrant women who might take their American husband’s last name but have not yet done so officially, or at people who feel that being American requires a new name. So much for Ellis Island.

After the interview, at the US Immigration Services building in lower Manhattan, we walked around through the sun and snow and passed a crew filming scenes for Law & Order SVU (which in my house is always called Law & Order SUV). We even caught a glimpse of the star, Mariska Hargitay, sitting on a director’s-style chair while an assistant covered her in a thick down jacket like a blanket. (For the record, she seemed shorter in person but seemed chipper despite the cold and the early hour).  In addition to the citizenship test, I feel like we’ve passed some kind of New York rite-of-passage. Live here long enough and eventually you will see people filming Law & Order.

From there, we turned the corner to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided on a patriotic whim to walk across it. At first, we aimed just for the first arch, which actually takes a bit of time to reach.  I’d made it to this point several times as a tourist or with tourist friends, but today my husband looked at me and said: “Let’s walk the whole way. What do you say? We can take the subway back from Brooklyn.”

The sun was peaking delicately through soft clouds, hitting the Freedom Tower and S.’s favorite spiral skyscraper just so. A layer of soft, fresh snow decorated the clay-brown metal suspensions of the bridge but the wooden pedestrian walkway had been conveniently cleared of snow.  We were stopped twice on our trip across the bridge to take photos of tourists: on the Manhattan side, a Spanish-speaking couple. On the Brooklyn side, a group of French-speaking friends.  Neither S. nor I spoke French to them. I could tell they were French mostly from the buttons on their digital camera and words they exchanged amongst themselves as they got into their poses.  We smiled and whispered to ourselves as we left them “Ils sont français!”

Halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty comes into view, just past Governor’s Island. She’s small but distinct from there, dwarfed by the skyline of Lower Manhattan and the paraphernalia of shipping and docks.  But S. looked at her with a half-smile as if greeting a friend. One of the questions he studied but that was not asked was “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” Correct answers included: New York, New York Harbor, and (much to our dismay) New Jersey. As corny as many of the civics questions were and as unsettling as any direct interaction with government bureaucracy and codified values can make me feel, we both felt like the Statue was welcoming my husband.

“That’s for you,” I whispered. “She’s welcoming you like all the immigrants. Like my great-grandparents.”

I offered the only line of Emma Lazarus’s inscription that I can remember:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

My husband smiled and hugged me tight through our winter coats. “Wow,” he said, “That means something.”

I could tell that it did, but what I love about that moment and S.’s comment is that it was understated. It didn’t feel forced or cliché or like we were trying too hard to make a symbol out of it. We simply walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and looked at the Statue of Liberty because we could and it was there. How lucky we are to live in New York and be able to do that!  It was one of those moments where you feel New York lifting you up and holding you in her arms, suspended like a cradle, above the East River.  For the first time, I felt like that Bridge and that Harbor belonged to us.

We made it to Brooklyn, and then, in true New York fashion, were waylaid by subway delays on the 4-5-6 trains due to a mysterious “police investigation” on 77th Street. We missed our commuter train but got burgers and shakes at Shake Shack– short lines in the middle of a weekday are the perfect chance to see what all the fuss is about (apparently it’s about the shakes– the burgers and fries were fine but unremarkable).  Despite this all-American meal, S. reflected that he still wasn’t quite American yet because he has to wait for the official letter from USCIS with the appointment for his Oath of Citizenship, which should be in 4 to 6 weeks.

“So you’re only half-American,” I joked.

“No, I think I’m 95% American now,” he said with conviction. We’ve come a long way since I began this blog 5 years ago and my husband described himself as 60% American.

I wonder what my Dad would have said about this news. I know he would’ve been excited, proud, and sarcastic, but I wish that he’d been alive to help quiz S. on American history and civics…and to teach him the “truth” behind our beloved founding myths.  In so many ways, my Dad set the stage already, pushing S. towards his vision of America from the start.  In 2009, when our fiancé visa was being processed and the prospect of immigration was imminent but not yet concrete, my father sent my then-fiancé a children’s book about Paul Bunyan and a very beautiful letter. We reread that letter together last night, and now that his English has become fluent and he has gotten used to my jokes and Dad’s metaphors, the letter affected my husband very deeply. I’m sure the boost from 60% to 95% in the last 5 years had as much to do with my father as with me.

From that letter, here is my Dad’s reflection on what America means:

“America is so young that we do not have proper ‘myths.’ Myths take centuries of telling and believing to become the story of what a people are. They turn the incredible into the landscape of ideas that people live with all the time. They are all about the time before time, or the beginning before we began.

We have many little lies–‘white lies’ is what we say in English–that we Americans call ‘history.’ Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and ‘making friends’ with the Indians; Pocahontas falling in love with Captain John Smith and saving him from being put to death; George Washington as a boy chopping down a cherry tree (like Eve in the Garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit), and then saying to his father, ‘I cannot tell a lie–I chopped down this tree.’ They are weaker than myths, but our school children learn them to begin their idea of America.

And we have big lies–‘whoopers!’–that Americans call Tall Tales. These are also stories for the nursery or school-room and are told somewhere just beyond the moon of fairy tales. They never happened, but they have a time and a place that still exist. Their heroes are ‘bigger than life’. In fact they are almost bigger than language, and it takes enormous lies to lift them from the ground and carry them across the country.

I hoped this little book might explain the idea of Paul Bunyan, who I thought might give you a broader idea of the American sense of size. We like to think Grand Canyons are created when we drag our axe behind us.”

Even nomads need their founding myths. This letter is a blessing and now an artifact of one of ours.

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Cacahouètes et Kir Cassis

The bar by the université
redundantly dubbed “Bar de la Fac”
had no style,
served cheap martinis,
was almost always empty
except for us and Benoît
who dried glasses and assured us
he was nothing like
his namesake, the new Pope.

Benoît poured happy-hour wine
sweet kir flavored by
the indiscriminance of youth:
pêche, mûre, framboise,
and my favorite, cassis noir.
We barely knew it at the time
but Normandy was adulthood’s apéritif,
a little taste of bittersweet-to-come.

We drank our 2 euro apéro
and grew thirsty from the salty peanuts
that Benoît rattled into dishes
shaped like crooked ashtrays.
I smoked my one-and-only cigarette
because a boy I liked rolled it for me.
It didn’t taste like Greta Garbo.

Once or twice we played babyfoot,
the foosball table slanting like the hill
upon which the bar squatted,
but mostly we pontificated
under faded posters for Guinness
and Martini & Rossi, too young
to be vintage, too old to be new.

We watched the trams turn
that treacherous corner
from the Fac to centre-ville
in the rain, in the ice, in the sun.
Kir cassis pour tout les jours
Kir cassis pour tout les temps.

We threw a party there to celebrate
the end of parties, the end of our long printemps.
That was the last time we saw Benoît.
We learned he had a 9-year-old son
and owned Bar de la Fac with his brother,
a fantôme before that night.

I told the boy I liked him,
for the first time, for the last time.
And he just said “je sais”
like a French Han Solo.
But when he spoke he looked me in the eye,
and so it didn’t matter if he liked me back.
It was new, like the kir and the tramway,
thirsty like the cacahouètes,
a precursor to a meal that never came
and to every meal after.

8.4.14

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The Fiction Project: The Old French Cemetery

2013 was a pretty dry spell for me.  A very busy year in my professional life at the library, I seemed to suffer from writers block for my personal endeavors.

An aside:  I was at a party a couple months ago with a bunch of Blues dancers, and I met a couple who are freelance writers and bloggers.  The woman was upbeat and philosophical about what it means to work for yourself and how writing-for-a-living has the potential to turn writing into a chore– it becomes less freeing and enjoyable on occasion than writing-for-yourself.  Her boyfriend/significant other, who was admittedly recovering from a sinus infection or a cold, claimed without reservation that writer’s block does not exist.  “If you claim to have writer’s block, then you’re not a professional writer,” he declared.  After this proclamation, I dared not share my personal sense of being blocked– or the wince of pain that I felt at the derisive way he said “not a professional writer.”  Thankfully his girlfriend defended those of us with writer’s block.  It came down to whether you had a deadline and an assigned topic.  Even with those two things, being “blocked” might be just a sense that you were merely “going through the motions” or lacking an angle, not necessarily the inability to write any letters on a page.

So, whether this dry spell for me shows that I am “not a professional” or shows that my identity as a librarian is subsuming my truer, deeper, more wholistic self, I will leave that self-examination for another day.  In the meantime, and perhaps in evidence that I have not be as “dry” as I fear, I would like to share this project I submitted in November 2013 to the SketchBook Project for their first Fiction library.

The SketchBook Project is a traveling analog and digital library of little brown-covered sketchbooks submitted by people from all over the country, of all ages and ilks.  Their bookmobile stopped by my library last Spring, in fact.  I first heard about it from my brother who submitted a sketchbook filled with drawings in ink, pencil, and pastel.  I signed up for a “library card” and their listserv at their bookmobile last Spring and  that’s how I found out about the Fiction project.  I tried to channel Lynda Barry and think about being a child, making my own book, telling my own story without that “asshole at the bar” leaning over my shoulder to say “this sucks; this is a waste of time.”

It worked. Inspired by my husband’s 8-year-old cousin in Algeria and a real French colonial cemetery we visited in his hometown, I wrote a story about a  a little girl whose family lives on and tends a graveyard.  Enjoy.

Link to my fiction project book: http://www.sketchbookproject.com/library/14215

bookplate my brother made me.

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Gazelle

            The moon is floating between the sky blue afternoon and the milky, indigo night which rises from below, over the ocean, over the clouds.

            On the opposite side of the jetliner, a pink and orange diffusion of the sun is streaking through the oval windows.  Their side—my fellow travelers’—is the sun and Westward promise.  My side is the moon; the Orient awaits full of mystery and clarity.

            The deep blue rises slowly as if night takes over from the depths of the Atlantic. The moon, large and white as a holiday bulb, sinks downward into the dark.  Is it possible we have climbed high enough to be on the same level as the moon?  High enough to outrun darkness just a little longer so that the moon falls instead of rises?

             Sitting next to me under a red felt blanket, my traveling companion, my husband, says that since he was little, in the moon’s face he has always seen a gazelle.  The leaping arch of hooves and the glorious powerful shadow of antlers as the gazelle throws its head back into what I might call the right eye of the Man in the Moon.

            I look and I see it: the gazelle in the moon.  It is jumping over a sand-fire or a watering hole.  It is leading me, like a pearl suspended on the twilight horizon, to Africa.

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Dallas

Come with me to the Grassy Knoll
where the dust of the dead
blows in the sun, a grainy breeze.

They still fly proud the Texas flag
and sell tragedy because selling
is how Americans grieve.

People say “no” to the homeless man
hawking “The JFK Journal.”
Tourists and Texans say no.

A little girl in a shirt that spells “HOPE”
in red glitter is speaking Spanish, taking
pictures with her mother’s cellphone.

They all come to look at the Grassy Knoll.
The trees are small and green but the grass
is as soft as prairie hay after a stampede

with patches worn smooth like the hide
of an old steer.  It’s so small.  It was
so fast.  It’s all so long ago…

Main Street becomes Interstate 30,
runs right through it, through
Kennedy Memorial Plaza.

All roads converge there;
the past narrows in on us
under the tunnel with three arches.

The past narrows down to a tunnel.
The roads of history, evil, and good
entwined like an Indian’s braid.

They came here with me to the Grassy Knoll,
not to see the memorial pool,
not to see the plaza or the past,
but to see what we all might have been.

1.22.12

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