Judy Gruen's Blog: Mirth and Meaning
April 30, 2015
by Judy Gruen
TVs everywhere give me gas.
(This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on January 29, 2015 and is reprinted with permission.)
TV broadcasts in public places are nothing new, but in today’s wired society, they are more annoying than ever. The message they send to me is that I’m too stupid or incapable of dealing with a little downtime while I wait for the doctor, my table or my flight. Here … watch the electronic baby sitter instead.
Today, many of us are trying to relearn the ability to be “mindful” because we realize we’ve become addicted to a steady stream of input from our phones or laptops. Wherever we go, we are armed with endless downloadable distractions. We are less likely to spend time just thinking or observing, less likely to greet the person next to us in line or in a waiting room. Who needs the TV?
Redundant as the TV distraction may seem, TVs are on the march and coming to a dentist’s cubicle near you. In the last year, not only have TVs appeared in my dentist’s treatment rooms but also in the checkout lines of a local grocery store and atop pumps at a gas station. There is almost no refuge from the assault of programming you didn’t choose and that further erodes your ability to rub two brain synapses together.
Recently, I had to rush my daughter for emergency care to an oral surgeon. The elegant office was stocked with interesting, current magazines, yet the reception area TV was serving up an endless loop of the reality show “Cake Boss.” Although my daughter was bleeding and in pain, in one sense she was more fortunate than me. At least she was under sedation while I was force-fed back-to-back episodes of the show, featuring a tough-talking Jersey baker named Buddy. He runs the family bakery and must manfully deal with bellicose staff and sometimes sociopathic customers. His charm seems to be an ability to channel a Mafia don persona one minute, yet tear up over the beauty of an exquisite fondant the next.
The first episode was diverting, but I soon tired of Buddy and his confectionary crises. Reading was impossible with the TV’s background noise and distracting peripheral images. When I couldn’t tear myself away from the train-wreck sight of a crazed bridezilla who graffitied her own wedding cake in Buddy’s kitchen, even I realized (naive as I am in the ways of Hollywood) that “reality” TV must be scripted. Right?
My blood pressure rising, I told the office manager as politely as possible that if they didn’t turn off “Cake Boss,” they’d have to sedate me too. She apologized, and I hoped she’d turn it off. Instead, I saw Jamie Lee Curtis on screen, her back against the wall, looking terrified. I gave up and went outside to get some fresh air.
Shortly after my initiation to “Cake Boss,” I went to a local bakery cafe, only to see a newly installed TV there too. I expressed my disappointment to the owner. He said he had resisted for as long as possible, but impatient customers were often rude to the staff while waiting for their orders. Since the TV arrived, he said, they wait quietly.
Running a business is hard work. I sympathize with business owners who feel they have no choice but to offer up TV as a bulwark against an increasingly impatient and rude society. But won’t the people who got crabby because they couldn’t wait 10 minutes for a sandwich be the same ones to soon complain they don’t like what’s on TV? Will our nation’s rallying cry soon become, “Give me entertainment or give me death!”?
Campaigning against TVs in public may be a lost cause, but I ask office staff to turn off the TV or at least turn the volume off when I see that no one else is watching. I believe others would also welcome some quiet white space in public, whenever possible.
As for the local bakery cafe newly rigged with a TV, I no longer suggest it as a place to meet friends for lunch. And I take my croissants to go.
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March 23, 2015
by Judy Gruen
Reprinted with permission by Peter Mesnik of BeyondtheGate.
I once attended a class on Passover preparation taught by a rabbi who told his all-female audience that outside of the kitchen, the entire search for chametz, the leavened products we may not own during Passover, should take no longer than one hour, tops. Mind you, this was a rabbi speaking to women who had been going mano-a-mano with the business side of a scrubbing sponge for days. He was never seen or heard from again, undoubtedly whisked away into the Kosher Witness Protection Program.
Was the rabbi right? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever his bona fides as an expert in Jewish law, his words were sacrilege. Most traditional Jewish women I know are hard-wired to become a little neurotic about scrubbing and polishing their homes to within one matzah’s thickness of their lives until they are satisfied their homes are kosher for Passover. I agree that Passover cleaning often becomes an extreme exercise, yet I confess: I secretly enjoy this Passover clean-a-thon. Honestly, if I don’t give this place a working-over each spring, by the time Yom Kippur rolls around, I’ll strike the left side of my chest several extra times during the confessional, adding, “And for the sin of not giving away those too-tight shoes to Goodwill, and for the sin of allowing the dust bunnies in the closet to multiply like rabbits, spiking allergies in the entire family…”
Even though Passover cleaning is not meant to be a spring cleaning, I say, why not? Passover is about our liberation from slavery to freedom, and don’t professional organizers always preach about how liberating it is to whittle down our material possessions?
This year, I have shipped a dozen pair of ancient prescription glasses to the Lions Club, which recycles them for the needy nearsighted. I am gathering retired cell phones from all family members to another recycling program that will benefit our enlisted men and women. My daughter and I have donated an almost embarrassing amount of quality clothes and shoes to a group that distributes to the local needy. And when I’m not liberating myself from outdated or excess stuff, or cleaning, I’m thinking about or reading wonderful and profound essays about the true meaning of Passover.
As a kid, I never liked this holiday. I didn’t get the connection between eating hard, dry matzah and the concept of freedom. Wouldn’t freedom signify eating fluffy soft bread instead? Of sitting back and taking it easy? Well, no. What I only began to appreciate as an adult is that true freedom — and true happiness — comes from understanding who you are and what your purpose is. I also began to see that you can’t achieve those goals without accepting what my teacher and friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls “God’s blueprint for living.” That blueprint, set down in the Five Books of Moses, articulates a path for a life of morality, spirituality, meaning, possibly even transcendence. True freedom requires discipline. That’s such a foreign concept in today’s society, where following your feelings has made almost everything else subservient. Who agrees with me that the results of this have not been pretty?
I can’t begin to imagine what my ancestors endured as literal slaves in Egypt, nor the terror and barbarism that my much more recent ancestors suffered in pogroms and concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The words that we read in the Haggadah every year, that in every generation enemies rise up to try to kill us, unfortunately continue to have special resonance. Thousands of Jews are leaving France, their home for generations, and they will surely be followed by Jews who no longer feel safe in long-established communities in places such as Manchester, England, Brussels, Belgium, and a growing list of cities.
But Jews remain a people of hope and optimism. The last song we sing at the Passover seder is “Next year in Jerusalem.” We keep our vision and prayers directed toward the place that God promised us and where He took us, in a very roundabout way to be sure. We began as a ragtag group of former slaves, only to become the first nation in history whose peoplehood was defined based on a covenant with God.
So I really don’t mind all the cleaning and de-cluttering. It gives me time to remind myself about what truly matters, which is my relationship with God and the enormous gifts I have as a Jew. It gives me time to remind myself that the disciplined path to freedom sometimes starts by wading into an overstuffed closet until it splits like the Red Sea, and tossing out material and egotistical clutter until we reconnect with the essentials.
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March 4, 2015
by Judy Gruen
Newlywed wives get ready for a nugget because I am going to teach you a lesson: when men get sick, even the manliest among them morph into sissies. A husband could be a four-star general who has led brave men into battle with guns blazing, but infect that man with a 24-hour virus and he can barely muster the courage to stick out his tongue for the doctor and say “Ah!” He has been known to faint when surrendering a vein for a blood test, even when the syringe is teeny tiny.
My husband, Jeff, is also a bad patient. A very bad patient. He may not be conscious of wanting to be pampered, nor does he fear the sight of a tongue depressor. No, Jeff is a bad patient because he lives in denial that there is anything wrong with him, even when he is white as a freshly bleached sheet. My biceps are strong because I have to practically tie him down to keep him from going to work when he is feverish. But when I block the door and demand that he stay home, he gets his revenge by getting “busy” with various household tasks.
As you have now guessed, he is an unrepentant Type A. He wants to be useful, no matter the cost to his health or my sanity. This is why taking care of him is exhausting – he needs a maximum security environment to prevent him from attempting to wash dishes, check the filter in the heater, and other random acts of productivity. This sense of responsibility is part of what makes Jewish men so desirable as husbands. But when he is an impatient patient, he drives me insane.
More often than not, when he is home sick I am the one who will need a new prescription – for blood pressure or anxiety. Recently, for example, Jeff’s back “went out,” leaving no forwarding address. This forced him into a “stay-cation” of a most painful variety. Part of the problem is that Jeff has enjoyed such good health for so long he doesn’t “do” illness very well. Unlike my husband, though, when I am unwell I have no trouble slipping under the blankets and moaning softly, wondering how long it will be before anyone other than the dog notices my pathetic state and offers me tea and toast.
I wanted to take Jeff to the chiropractor for his wayward back. I have gone to this doctor so often and for so many years that he should have ordered a vanity plate for his BMW that reads, “Thx, Judy.” Naturally, my suggestion was rebuffed.
“No need to go out,” Jeff said. “I’ll be fine in no time. Can you reach that glass of water? Who put it six inches away from me?” Mind you, this was said as he was lying down on a heating pad, working with his iPad held aloft, his face a study in grimaces.
“Let’s go. Look how much pain you’re in!”
“It’s not so bad if I lay totally still,” he said. “When do I get another Ibuprofen?”
I made the mistake of leaving him unattended for about twenty minutes and then caught him in the act of trying to be industrious. He had marshaled all his manly stubbornness and was hobbling down the hall, his posture like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, clutching a box of light bulbs.
“Just where do you think you’re going with those?” I demanded.
“Front porch light went out. Didn’t you notice? Can you just bring me the ladder?”
“Hand over the light bulbs and no one gets hurt,” I said. “Now, I’ll help you to the front porch, and from there to the car. We’re going to the doctor. If you cooperate, I’ll let you get on a ladder by the end of the week, and you can even hang some pictures if you want.”
He grumbled, grimaced and griped, but he had ventured too far from the heating pad to get anywhere without my help. Over the next few days, I was worn out from trying to keep my good man out of mischief. At the first hint of mobility, he would attempt stealth missions involving the hauling of trash, watering the yard, and examining the cause of a slow-draining sink. Thankfully, even he knew better than to try to lift my mega-sized roasting pan filled with enough chicken and rice to feed the lost Ten Tribes and bring it to the table. This is a feat suitable only for professional athletes and Jewish mothers with strong biceps (like me).
I am happy to report that Jeff’s back has mostly returned, and he has gone back to work where he belongs. I have removed the ankle tracking device from his leg, and am enjoying my freedom from my stint as a nurse-warden. Now I can get back to my own work and to running this joint the way I see fit, without any meddling from my well-meaning, but sometimes maddening man.
This column originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com.
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February 2, 2015
Phyllis Cohen, 1938-2015
by Judy Gruen
She had a personality as vibrant as her flaming red hair. She was full of life, full of love, and very, very funny. She offered common sense to the sense-challenged and blunt assessments of everyone and everything. She never met a poker game she didn’t like. Her accent was pure, unadulterated Brooklyn. She said “bee-you-tee-ful” and “Oh my gawd.” Her greatest pleasure was her family. Small-time gambling was a close second. Even when watching TV with her grandkids each Thursday, she bet a dollar with the kids about who would win the final round of “Jeopardy.”
She was Aunt Phyllis, and everybody loved her. She was my aunt through marriage – the younger (and only) sister of my husband’s late mother, Laura. Aunt Phyllis was a lifelong New Yorker, and we have never left L.A., yet we managed many visits over the years. She flew out to help celebrate bar mitzvahs, once with her eldest daughter Barbara, and came to our eldest son’s wedding. Sometimes, she came just to get out of the cold. You knew that a visit with Aunt Phyllis would keep you smiling and laughing. You just felt good being around her.
The snow had started falling hard and fast as the funeral began on Monday on Long Island. The rabbi who officiated said that this was the most laughter-filled funeral he had ever attended. He correctly observed that this was not disrespectful, but in fact a tribute to Aunt Phyllis for the laughter and smiles that were her special gift to her family and friends.
Aunt Phyl fought off cancer several times. As her daughters Barbara and Allison said, she never let it stop her; she just scheduled chemo around Mahjong, visiting her grandkids, and shopping. When Allison’s husband, Bill, invited Phyllis to accompany the family on a trip to Greece a few years back, Allison was afraid the travel would be too much for her. “I took Mom to her oncologist to get his opinion,” Allison said. “He said she should absolutely go and he’d reschedule her chemo. Mom just laughed at me as she went out of the room. She was planning to go no matter what I said. We had a great time.”
Aunt Phyllis had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She laughed at the pretentions of others and just as easily laughed at her own embarrassing moments, including the time she tried to eat the earplugs at a bar mitzvah, thinking they were mints. Years ago, she had us all laughing till we had to hold our sides as she retold a story about a long-ago summer trip when her husband, Victor, struggled to dock their little boat.
“I was yelling, Viktah, the boat is starting to move! Get off the dock! And he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, Phyl!’ He had one leg on the dock and the other in the boat, and I thought he was going to split in half! Of course he ended up falling into the lake. Oh my gawd it was so funny!”
In our small family, Aunt Phyllis was the last of her generation. She was treasured not only for this special status, but because while every family has its thorny relationships and its members who tussle, argue and grate, Aunt Phyllis was one person everyone loved, indisputably. Phyllis would tell you off if she felt you needed it, without drama, emotional blackmail or resorting to a punishing decibel level. She’d let you know you had been a jerk in her plain-spoken way. You never resented her for it because you knew she was right. She was her daughter Barbara’s best friend, and Barbara wrote about their special relationship in a column that was published in a local paper.
She had the wisdom that comes with age and that is increasingly in scarce supply. She never griped about difficulties or setbacks, always looking forward, never back. Her cancer began to spread in June 2013, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We had heard that even Aunt Phyllis was a bit depressed, and we called, hoping to cheer her up. She sounded a bit down, but still steadfastly refused to worry. “What good is it going to do, right? I’m just going to live my life, trust my doctor, stay as active as I can. I don’t waste time worrying.”
That is a form of greatness.
Phyllis’ proudest role was as a grandmother to Joshua, Natalie, Faith, Rafi and Leora. She babysat weekly for more than sixteen years, played with them, read to them, watched TV with them, cooked with them, and of course, taught them how to play Casino and Rummy 500. Every game was played for money. Natalie, 13, made a special “girl power” fist bump handshake to use with Grandma, just one more thing that strengthened an already incredible bond. Every year Phyllis went on the Autism Speaks walk with Barbara and her family. Even with cancer, Phyllis walked most of the mile each year. This was one thing she could do for her grandson Rafi, and she wouldn’t be sidelined. True to form, on New Year’s Eve, just weeks before she passed away, Phyllis danced with Barbara at a New Year’s Eve party at a local Jewish community center.
Thank you, Aunt Phyl, for all the love. For showing us how to live without blame or worry. And of course, for all the laughter. We miss you.
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December 23, 2014
by Judy Gruen
Research has shown that worldwide, more than 3 billion people make New Year’s resolutions, but who really keeps them? My guess: about 16 people. Most vows to eat more fiber, hire a personal trainer and open a retirement account get dropped faster than cell reception in an elevator. Maybe we’re just aiming too high.
I say, make resolutions, but keep them reasonable. Make the kind of resolutions you will want to keep. Here are some that have worked for me:
1. Spend Less Time with Family & Friends
Over the holidays, millions of people will plan to spend more time with family and friends. At the same time, suicide prevention hot lines light up as people realize they cannot stand one more second with cousins and aunts who drive you insane with their guilt-tripping barbs, chewing with their mouths open, or tippling too much from the Jim Beam. If you are like 99 percent of the world’s population with “problem” relatives, vowing to spend less time with them ought to be a snap and reduce your blood pressure.
2. Become a Power Napper
These days, any 2nd grader can spew a long list of benefits of exercise. It takes a sophisticated mind to grasp the remarkable perks of a daily snooze. Why jog to lower blood pressure when you can get the same effect from a daily snoozle? Regular naps are linked to better mood, more focused thinking, and a fail-safe way to skip out of boring department meetings at 2 p.m. Besides, you can’t snack on a glazed donut when you nap (trust me, I’ve tried it) so napping also helps you lose weight. Why not make this the year you stop the charade of joining the gym and just buy an ergonomically correct pillow for the office instead?
3. Toss Your Bathroom Scale
Weight Watchers meetings throughout the world will be stampeded in January with repentant pudgy-wudgies standing in line to be weighed by a thin person. You, however, will be ahead of the game by not weighing yourself ever! In today’s high tech world, you can hardly even find a scale that doesn’t also give you aggravation by speaking your weight to you, in addition to announcing your body mass index and the day’s price of cattle futures. Look, if your clothes are getting too tight, you’ve gained weight. Isn’t that simple enough?
4. Add Some Guilt to Your Life
This tip is not as fun as the others, but guilt is a highly underrated emotion. Especially in today’s selfie-obsessed culture, the worldwide guilt shortage is even more acute than climate change. Experts predict that by 2025, Los Angeles may be submerged under 75 feet of egotism and breathtaking swellheadedness. If you cut people off in traffic, were snippy with a customer service rep who was powerless to help you, or made a snide remark to your spouse or best friend, you should feel a little guilty! I think a little more judiciously apportioned guilt would go a long way to a more civilized society. And if you have an overabundance of guilt but know someone whose arrogant behavior shows he or she is sorely lacking, go ahead and share. It’ll do you both good.
5. Resist the Temptation to Get Organized
January is National Get Organized Month, but if you succumb to this annual lure, you are likely to be visited by a professional organizer wielding threatening weapons such as color-coded file folders, drawer dividers, and, in severe cases, paper shredders. I once had an organizer make me clean my desk, but the sight was so unnerving I couldn’t think straight. Being disorganized makes you relatable to normal people. As I always claim, I’m not messy. I’m a genius.
6. Spend More Money
You’ve got all year to get a handle on your finances. January is the time when that intoxicating word, “Clearance,” is dangled provocatively everywhere you shop. Avoiding a good sale isn’t only bad money management, it’s bad for the economy.
7. Read More Celebrity Gossip
The lives of most celebrities are extravagantly shallow, silly, manic-depressive, drugged, and frequently illegal. All the more reason to bone up on their misadventures and be grateful that God didn’t make you a celebrity, too.
8. Don’t Travel to Exotic Destinations
Even before the Ebola crisis, I never went anywhere that required shots. Who needs the stress? If you have a wanderlust, go someplace safe, such as the Kern River Valley Turkey Vulture Festival or the Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Anyone can find thrills in Machu Pichu; but it takes authentic joie de vivre and imagination to find excitement looking at turkey vultures or at a festival celebrating fungus.
Remember, the key to sticking with any New Year’s resolutions is to keep your goals reasonable and to stay motivated. Here’s to success in 2015!
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December 10, 2014
‘Tis the season for adding books to your wish list. Here are ten of my absolute favorite modern fiction works. While none of these are very new, all are worth reading and savoring. I hope to follow up with other lists over time with other top 10 lists in other genres as well, including classic literature, non-fiction, and humor.
I have linked my full reviews to these books to my posts on Goodreads.com. Happy reading!
1. Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier—Who is the woman who posed for Vermeer’s famous painting, “Girl with the Pearl Earring”? In this outstanding novel, the author imagines it is a 16-year-old servant in the Vermeer household named Griet. Hired to clean, cook, shop and help take care of the Vermeer’s ever-expanding family, Griet captures the notice of the master of the house, Vermeer himself, and thus begins the unfolding drama. Beautifully imagined.
2. The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve—The late-night knock on the door instantly alerts Kathryn Lyons to the terrible news: her pilot husband has been killed in a plane accident. From there, the reader follows Kathryn through her grief and eventual discovery of her husband’s secret life, and raises the question: how well can we ever know anybody, even a spouse? I also enjoyed Shreve’s novel “Resistance” a great deal.
3. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk—Marjorie Morgenstern is 19 years old, a beautiful daughter of Jewish immigrants who have steadily climbed into a comfortable upper-middle class life in Manhattan. When Marjorie meets and falls in love with the director of a summer stock production at a retreat in the Catskills, she loses her naiveté, her innocence, and her heart. Wouk’s brilliant character portraits include not only Marjorie and Noel Airman, but Marjorie’s parents, her best friend Marsha, and her Uncle Samson-Aaron, with a big heart and a big appetite that will lead him to trouble. An unforgettable book.
4. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—This novel explores the tension between artistic expression and the Orthodox Jewish world that would set limits on that expression. Asher Lev is born into a rabbinic dynasty and is expected to step up to his role, but his soul is that of an artist, and his calling cannot be denied. You don’t have to be Jewish to be able to appreciate the universal aspects of the story.
5. Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn—A novel about memory and how best to preserve it over time, spun around a semi-thriller involving the protagonist, Josie Ashkenazi, a young, brilliant and successful tech wizard who is abducted while on a consulting mission at the Library of Alexandria. A second theme involves the 12th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimondies, who wrote the original “The Guide for the Perplexed,” a hallmark work of Jewish philosophy.
6.Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri —This is a short story collection about the lives and relationships among Indian emigres and often, their adjustment to a new life, such as a young married couple (in an arranged marriage) who move to America as newlyweds for the husband’s university job. Lahiri’s writing is elegant and uncluttered but evocative. I liked this collection far more than the author’s highly praised novel, “The Namesake.”
7.The Help by Kathryn Stockett—This book set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi grabbed me on the first page and never let go. It’s about the disconnect between the lives of white privileged women and the black “help” they rarely see as fully human. When Skeeter, a white woman who sees the injustice, tries to get some of the maids to speak out, trouble ensues. Really a wonderful read.
8.Excellent Women by Barbara Pym—A comedy set in post World War II England, the book centers around Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter and “spinster,” one of the “excellent women” of the title who is expected to live a life of good works supporting others whose married lives are fuller than her own. This writer is not as well known as she should be.
9.Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner—This is a beautifully written book, a story about enduring friendships, enduring marriages, and the ways that friends and spouses grow through life’s often difficult journey to become more than what they were at the start.
10. 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith—I love McCall Smith’s gentle humor and wry observations about human nature. His books are light reads, but sometimes, that’s just the ticket for reading entertainment. The characters are finely drawn, including the narcissistic Bruce, intelligent-yet-confused-about-her-options Pat, wise Domenica, and scene-stealing Bertie, the 6-year-old who just wants to be a regular boy but whose feminist mother forces him to endure yoga, psychotherapy, wear pink trousers and otherwise make him her gender-neutral sociology project.
What would make YOUR top 10 fiction list? Let me know by writing to me at jg at judygruen.com.
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December 2, 2014
(Photo credit: imgur.com)
by Judy Gruen
A few days after our daughter left for a far away college, I called my friend Esther. I was still teary-eyed from our new status as empty-nesters, as our daughter is the youngest of our four kids. Now it was just my husband, me and the dog, whose cuteness barely compensated for the shedding. (I mean the dog, not my husband.)
“Esther,” I moaned, “we’re all alone now!” Who better to unload my sorrows on than Esther? After all, she had eight kids, all grown, and scads of grandkids.
“Enjoy it while you can,” she said with a wry smile. “Besides, they come back.” It sounded more like a warning than a promise.
Esther was clairvoyant. Jeff and I were happy empty-nesters. We played music that we liked, danced in the living room with no fear that a kid would barge in and roll his or her eyes, and bought new furniture that was not kid-friendly, including a previously unthinkable beige couch and a glass topped coffee table with slightly sharp edges. I didn’t know where my kids were late at night in other cities or when they staggered home. Ignorance is bliss.
But then Esther proved correct again: They started coming back. First was our youngest son, who decided to help Jeff in the family business, which proved a godsend. I set a third place at the table.
Then our daughter returned from two years in Israel and reestablished residency in her room and the comfort of being reunited with the seventy-five pair of shoes she had not taken to seminary. An ambitious and creative cook, she helped me prepare terrific Shabbat meals and taught me to dress better. Now we set dinner for four.
I was sure this would cap it. Our two oldest sons had lived on the East Coast for several years; the eldest was married and the father of a toddler. While my daughter-in-law also hailed from Los Angeles and all four grandparents pined for our married children to return to L.A., living in Baltimore cost a lot less than living in L.A., so their return seemed unlikely.
But the married kids started to miss their parents, whom they began to view as eager babysitters who wouldn’t charge. A bitterly cold winter also took its toll. My son found a job in LA. When they announced their return, we were thrilled.
I offered to scout out apartments, especially since they were expecting baby number two shortly after their return. I figured they’d want to settle in as soon as possible. So imagine my surprise when my son sent an email blast to everyone in the family that said, “We’ve decided we are moving back in with my parents until we find an apartment that we like.”
I read that line twice. Not only were they returning to sunny L.A., they were moving back to my son’s room, even though he was bringing his family of three and 7/9ths. Instinctively, I moved the abrasive cleansers from under the kitchen sink and washed some plastic toys that I had saved from when my kids were little.
“Why don’t you seem happier?” Jeff asked me as we added the second leaf to the dining table. “Isn’t this the news we were dreaming of?”
“Of course!” I said, feeling shame-faced. “But after they get here, you’ll still go to work each day. Your life won’t change much. I, on the other hand, will have to take a writing sabbatical and while helping take care of our granddaughter and soon, an infant! It’s a paradigm shift. Do you know if we still have those baby-proof cabinet locks?”
Before we knew it, our house was decorated in Fisher Price and Little Tikes. The dog had to scoot around the high chair to get to his bowl, when he wasn’t hiding under the bed from our granddaughter’s efforts to “make nice.” Everyone began to wear shoes in the house lest they step on the Cheerios our granddaughter enjoyed sprinkling like Pixie Dust everywhere. My daughter-in-law was very helpful but she was understandably tired. Our lives were no longer quiet. They were loud, messy, chaotic, funny and exhausting.
One afternoon I decided to take a shower. Our 21-month-old granddaughter, a budding locksmith, was just tall enough to finesse the door knobs and busted into my private bathroom. There she stood, not quite two and a half feet tall, with our old beagle as an accomplice. Both were staring at me. Both were retrieved post-haste by an authorized adult member of the house.
As the mess and the toddler-induced chaos grew, our other kids began to whisper: “When are they moving out?”
I shrugged and smiled. I decided the world could easily wait for my next book as I pulled my granddaughter around the block in the red wagon I bought for her, and later, snuggled in bed with her for an afternoon nap. I hoped my MacBook would survive the torment it received from her pounding the keyboard mercilessly if I so much as turned my head away for a nanosecond. I began to regret the beige couches, especially because I learned that blue pen will never completely wash out, despite the most careful cleaning of the fabric. It was impossible to put almost every useful implement up on high shelves for this exceptionally curious child.
Eventually, the married kids found an apartment, only six blocks away. Day by day I watched as they moved their things out and fought down an unexpected feeling of panic. When they left to spend their first night under their own roof, I cried. What chutzpah, to wreak such joyful pandemonium in my life and then just leave?
“But we’re having chicken fajitas tonight!” I said in wild desperation as they buckled my granddaughter into her car seat. I had gotten used to having the next generation under our roof. Even though they were no only six blocks away and not 3,000 miles away, it seemed far.
After they drove away, I looked around their room. They left a lot of stuff behind. It was such a nice afternoon I decided to stroll over there to make sure they didn’t need the PJs with the owl theme or the package of diaper wipes. And also to tell them I had a vegetable lasagna in the oven, plenty for all of us. Why should my daughter-in-law have to cook on moving day?
By golly, they’ll wonder how they ever got along without me.
(This article originally appeared on Aish.com,)
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November 20, 2014
by Judy Gruen
We who live in sunny, star-studded Los Angeles are often envied by people who live in less glamorous, climactically inhospitable places, such as Embarrass, Minnesota. But to those who live in Embarrass, Minnesota I say: Don’t envy us till you’ve walked a mile for parking in our Birkenstocks. We have plenty of problems of our own.
In addition to there being no parking left in Los Angeles, we have a surfeit of actors whose unnatural good looks are rough on our self-esteem.
But our most severe is problem is vegans. This town is swarming with them, and they are especially annoying at holiday time, when normal people are daydreaming about moist Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixins’. Just yesterday, I was companionably bagging groceries at my neighborhood Trader Joe’s with the cashier, Blaze. “Looking forward to a satisfying Turkey dinner on Thanksgiving?” I asked.
“I don’t eat turkey,” Blaze said, boldly meeting my eye.
“Vegan,” he corrected me, carefully balancing a carton of eggs into the bag. Eggs that he, personally, would not touch on moral grounds.
As soon as he uttered the V-word, I knew everything I needed to know about Blaze. I knew he was wearing canvas shoes and carried a wallet made of nylon or hemp. He voted for Obama and had recurring nightmares about our city suddenly being submerged by the Pacific Ocean due to climate change. He had a poster of white polar bears in a “bear hug” in his apartment, clueless that these cute-looking beasts would eat him for breakfast if they could. He considered himself a citizen of the world, and actually believed Yoko Ono was musically gifted. He brushed his teeth with a cruelty-free toothbrush before getting into bed at night and curling up with a book about the dangers of biofuels. I’d only met the guy two minutes before and he already bored me.
Although he gamely tried to hide it, Blaze must have viewed me with contempt. Since his diet was really a political manifesto for the cruelty-free, bio-sustainability lifestyle, what choice did he have? He knew that I planned to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and that I had had a dietary rap sheet filled with chicken, beef, fish, and eggs, and that I had no remorse for such carnivorous behavior. I hadn’t even bothered to buy the cage-free eggs.
In the spirit of promoting mutual understanding, I asked Blaze what he planned to eat on Thanksgiving. Suddenly he brightened, and spouted off like a waiter describing the evening’s specials. He listed delicacies as sprouted tortilla wraps with avocado, including soy “chicken,” gluten “steaks,” seitan “burgers,” bean spelt oat spread and other ersatz foods that required scare quotes around them. I tried to fake fascination and awe.
“Do you feel healthier being vegan?” I felt obligated to ask. Another mistake.
“It was a good start, but I’m probably going raw soon,” he said earnestly. “Living in this polluted air, you’ve got to detoxify,” he said, giving a little shudder. I nodded in assent, as if I too couldn’t wait to give the heave-ho to every type of food in the universe except for Tebetan goji berries and dehydrated cashews.
“Well, I hope you have strong teeth!” I said, thankful that we had reached the last bag. I had exhausted my curiosity about Blaze’s dietary future and was in no mood to segue to a discussion on globalization and free trade. But I had to hand it to the guy: He seemed pretty energetic for a man who hadn’t eaten a steak since 2004. I held my head high as I headed out the door and declined his offer to help me with my cart to my gas guzzling minivan.
There’s no way I’ll ever go vegan, but I can at least try to love vegans by talking to them and trying to pretend I think their gastronomic agenda is sound. So to all of you who dream of the good life in California, don’t say you haven’t been warned. Not only will you have no place to park, but vegans like Blaze are everywhere, waiting to bag your groceries as they thinly disguise their contempt for your carnivorous Thanksgiving cravings.
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November 9, 2014
by Judy Gruen
“Who bought all this stuff?” my son asked in astonishment the other night. The question was not a brazen act of chutzpah. Half the living room was piled with heavy white bags, emblazoned with the logo of Google Shopping Express. Now my guilt was compounded. Not only had I buckled under the lure of another e-tailing enterprise, but during my maiden online shopping expedition, I accidentally ordered duplicates of lots of bulky things. At least I won’t run out of paper plates, facial tissue or laundry detergent till 2017.
I had watched with a mixture of envy and self-righteousness as my neighbors began to get their groceries delivered to their door steps in recent months. Our street, normally rather quiet, had become a consumer superhighway. Move over, U.S. Postal Service, UPS and Fed Ex – home grocery deliveries were horning in. Friendly drivers pulled up in colorful vans by Amazon Fresh and Google Shopping Express several times a week with everything from mayo and cereal to industrial-sized bottles of grape juice.
“You ought to do it, Judy,” my neighbor urged. “Delivery is free during the first three months! Why, when I realized I was out of pickle relish, they delivered that alone, for free!”
But I resisted. Was nothing sacred anymore? Home grocery delivery services are not new, but I had already caved in and regularly buy books, office supplies and clothing. With free shipping to and fro, what’s the harm? Who needs to drive all over town in heavy traffic spewing carbon emissions, looking for parking, and then in the store, looking for that rarest of species, a semi-intelligent salesperson not engrossed in a texting session at the register? Besides, the two main players in the grocery delivery service around here are Amazon Fresh and Google Shopping Express. Their parent corporations were already on a seemingly unstoppable quest for worldwide commercial domination. I drew the line at grocery shopping.
Anyway, I like going shopping. In my opinion, nothing beats the grocery store as a source of exercise, news, entertainment, and even opportunities for self-improvement. I mean, how many calories will you burn tapping away at your online shopping cart? I also run into friends I don’t often see at synagogue or anywhere else, for that matter. Recently, on aisle 11, where I wrestled with the decision to try a new kind of pre-measured cube of dishwashing soap that promised not to leave spots, I ran into Marci, who told me that her synagogue was getting a new rabbi all the way from Melbourne. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to whom she confessed this still-secret information.
I also am frequently amused watching husbands shopping. They are a riot. They are studying the lists their wives gave them like they’re cramming for final exams. Every time they put something in the cart, they call their wives.
“I got four of these long white things. Are those parsnips? What did you mean by ‘big’? There only seems to be one size.” Or, “I don’t see gluten-free Oatios. Is it okay to get gluten-free Rice-E-Os instead?” I tell you, these guys look paranoid. I think online shopping might be a good idea for them.
Shopping in person is also good for my self-esteem. Total strangers often come up to me and assume I have encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s contents. It’s true: I do. This is what happens after you have walked 10,000 miles of its aisles over the last 20-plus years. I am asked things such as, “If you were a box of raisins, where would you be?” And I know the answer! I am especially happy to help troubled husbands, wondering if the box of pasta they are considering will meet their wives’ expectations, since their wives stopped answering their phones five calls ago. I give these husbands my calm assurance that their choices in pasta are sound. I also give them my cell number in case their wives disapprove and they require some psychological support later on. You know, I ought to go in business doing this.
At check-out, I also get to practice the value of being patient. Just my luck, when I wheel into the line to pay I am often right behind a very elderly person who still does not use credit cards, or even checks. She is accompanied by a saintly aide who helps her unearth every coupon at the bottom of her voluminous handbag (doubles as carry-on luggage) and is determined to pay for the entire shopping trip with dimes, nickels, quarters, and pennies. She questions the reason for the store not giving her double coupons, though those were phased out two years ago. I want to scream, but I wait till I get back in the car to let it all out.
Finally, it would be the height of ingratitude to ditch the store, especially after they just remodeled (again) and installed a kosher take-out section and a kosher bakery. (But honestly, I cannot recommend the potato salad.)
So what made me buckle? I’ll answer my own question. I got tired of running out of things, and having to run back to the store an embarrassing number of times a week. My local store also doesn’t have the best prices for everything, and doesn’t even have everything. It takes a lot of time to plan and hunt and gather to keep a household well stocked. Also, I contracted a case of post-traumatic shopping disorder after our recent spate of Jewish holidays, and realized that no matter how much I bought, another holiday was around the corner and I still needed more stuff. So I waved the white flag, established my online account and ordered like a woman possessed. I felt triumphant after placing my first order: I had just gained at least six hours! Now I had to make them count.
Of course, online shopping has its dangers. An online shopping cart never overflows, never warns you that you’ve bought enough. You better bet that Amazon and Google are well aware of this. And an online shopping cart doesn’t give you any news, or stroke your ego by assuming your superior knowledge of all things grocery-ish. And my fingers are getting repetitive stress syndrome from all this clicking online. This is a risk I cannot take.
Darn it. It’s lunchtime – how am I out of tuna? Please excuse me; I’m heading out to the market.
(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com.)
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October 30, 2014
One of the dumbest things I ever did was to satirize a friend’s political point of view on Facebook. Yeah, I really did that. I hadn’t identified her by name of course —I’m that that dumb—but she knew I was talking about her and let me know how upset she was. I felt lower than a slug. I was shaken and apologized. Thankfully she ultimately forgave me. You betcha I haven’t made the same blunder again.
With a high-stakes mid-term election around the corner, it’s hard not to talk about our political passions—the candidates and issues we believe in and especially those we detest. Um, weren’t we supposed to have transcended those “red state/blue state” divisions among us by now? As if! Today we seem almost hopelessly divided along political fault lines. Name calling, hyperventilating, and heart palpitations are not uncommon.
I have strong opinions too, but stopped sharing them even at via bumper stickers after I became the target of road rage a few campaigns ago. My bumper sticker supported a presidential candidate in bold letters. This unnerved the driver behind me, who tailgated while screaming at me and making hostile gestures. I pulled over, hoping she would disappear, but instead she pulled up beside me and unleashed her limited inventory of verbal and finger invectives. After she finally sped off I was able to read her own bumper sticker. It said, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.”
Most of us think we’re pretty smart, and therefore, we think other smart people will see things our way. Some will; others vehemently won’t. I’ve had readers of my columns email me political jokes that ridiculed my point of view, assuming I would find my political ideas as laughable as they did. I respond to them gently. After all, why alienate a potential buyer of my books? My friend Dave is one of the sole conservatives in the office where he works. Because he wants to keep his job, he just nods politely when his boss freely disparages conservatives. Why do people talk politics in the office anyway, unless you’re are working at someone’s campaign headquarters?
Now we seem so fired up about our views that sometimes we will dump friendships over a political division. When my friend Mona told her friend that she was not interested in supporting a certain political cause because she disagreed with it, her friend expressed her shock: “I thought you were smart! I misjudged you completely!” Another friendship was also blunted unceremoniously via text message by a man who discovered that his friend supported the “wrong” party, making any further social connections impossible. Something is really wrong with that – unless the “other point of view” is truly hateful.
Nowadays even dating web sites are geared for people of either liberal or conservative viewpoints. I can understand this, but then again, maybe it’s a mistake to instantly write people off based on being a Republican or Democrat. When I first met my husband and discovered he had voted for Ronald Reagan, I was aghast: “There goes another potential romance! How could he have voted for that slick-haired B-movie actor? How could I show my face to my liberal friends if I continued to date him?” I asked myself.
But an honest, kind, handsome, funny man is hard to find. Over time and over many “discussions” I discovered we actually agreed on core principles. We disagreed on the means, not the ends. I learned that “conservative” didn’t mean “greedy ogre.” Since then, I know better: greedy ogres can be found in every corner, and no political party has a monopoly there.
So what’s a country to do? I wish I had the answer, so for now I’ll just recall a famous slogan issued by Great Britain during World War II, meant to bolster public morale. It’s a good slogan as election fever spikes ever higher: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Maybe it would make a good bumper sticker.
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