Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My blogging doppelganger

Let me in
Originally uploaded by Whatknot.
Though some people blog under their own name, many do not. The reasons are legion, and in my case not to be revealed. No, I'm not a criminal on the run from the thought-police. Though some of my reasons are purely practical, I've also found that having an alter-ego has helped to boost my ego as well.

Some people post pictures of themselves on their blogs, which is cool too, especially if they're photogenic. I am not photogenic, and refuse to believe that the typical picture of me looks anything like me at all. The camera not only doesn't love me, but seems intent on mortifying me as well.

In any case, many moons ago when I finally figured out how to post a profile "photo" to my blog, I asked my beloved, albeit blog-phobic "BG" to do a sketch I could use that would properly showcase my new blog-persona of Elvira Black.

BG, being a portrait artist, at first tried for verisimilitude. He produced a portrait of me that I hated because it looked too much like the real me. One of the banes of being a portrait artist is that when you are commissioned to do a piece, the client will sometimes be appalled at the results because it looks a little too much like them for their liking. Moreover, they may not even realize that they really do look that way. The truth, as they say, often hurts.

So I filed away BG's "realistic" picture of me, and insisted that he portray me more along the lines of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Some of you may not be familiar with this horror film hostess of yore, but she resembles a rather sexy vampire chick with long black hair and very big boobs. And so Elvira Black was born.

When it comes to writers and bloggers, I have to say that I'm usually more than content to simply imagine what they look like. Everyone wants to know what their favorite musician looks like, and I can't think of too many examples of rock stars who don't show their real, albeit glammed up faces and toned bodies to the world at large. But writers don't have to do music videos or concerts, for which most are eternally grateful. Writing is a much more solitary and cerebral (not to mention sedentary) pursuit, so adding a face to the writing is, to my mind, not only superfluous but sometimes detrimental as well.

And so it is that the more I read a "masked" writer's work, the more I imagine I know them, and I compose my own private portrait of them to match. This picture can become so entrenched that if I later see a photo of the real writer, I am sometimes gravely disappointed. Not necessarily because they're ungainly, but simply because they don't fit into the image I've created in my mind for them.

In my case, my blog doppelganger has morphed into a persona quite separate from the real me, which I'll refer to as "Ms. X." A few examples:

Elvira now has lots of friends in the blogosphere.
Ms. X has few "live" friends at present--in part because she can't seem to find too many people to her liking, and in part because she almost never leaves the apartment anymore--too busy blogging, don't you know.

Elvira has a sweet, melodious voice.
Ms. X is given to occasional screeching and kvetching, revealing her New York Jew-girl accent, especailly under duress.

Elvira has the body of a 24 year old.
Ms. X has the body of a 48 year old.

Elvira gets to speak her mind.
Ms. X has to listen to blowhards and bores speak their mind.

Elvira is vivacious and outgoing.
Ms. X is tentative and shy.

Elvira reveals intimate details about herself--up to a point.
Ms. X keeps herself to herself.

Elvira is a blatant blog and comment whore.
Ms. X, being ladylike and modest, does not promote herself, and only a few folks near and dear to her know she has a blog, or even that she is a writer.

Elvira writes for herself.
Ms. X wrote for the Man.

But come to think of it, Elvira is not really a "fake." She merely represents a different side of me--the writer's side. My brain simply works differently when I'm writing, and Elvira's brain (along with the computer) becomes one with mine. Plus which, rather than having those "what made me say that" or "I wish I'd said this instead" moments of mortification so frequent in real life, I can always edit myself so that I can (hopefully) say what I mean and mean what I say, and look good doing it.

Perhaps this is why, in the immortal words of Johnny Cash, I "haven't seen the sunshine since I don't know when." Elvira has, in a very real sense, hijacked Ms. X and consigned her to the shadows. Now Ms. X need only come out when she has to take a trip to the grocery store.

And sad though it may sound, up until recently this was just fine with me.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The last Seder

Originally uploaded by Paul Watson.
Despite the fact that I haven't attended a Seder for lo these many years, Passover remains my favorite Jewish holiday. Though my mother was Jewish and my father was Christian, neither of them were really too hip on celebrating their respective heritages, so most of what I learned about Passover and Jewish tradition came from my mother's sister, aunt Frannie. I went to live with aunt Frannie and uncle Mo when I was fifteen, after my parents died. Since they were Orthodox Jews, over the next four years and until I went away to college, I learned everything I ever wanted to know about Judaism but was afraid to ask — and then some.

Orthodox Judaism is steeped in ritual, much of which may seem odd at best and absurd at worst to outsiders, but each nuance makes sense within the tradition. For instance, the Sabbath is a very sacred day of the week, and no labor may be done on this day, which starts at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday. Since, in the olden days, starting any kind of fire for cooking or other purposes was considered labor, it is forbidden for a devout Jew to turn lights on and off or press an elevator button, since that is seen as igniting an electrical version of a "spark." This meant, paradoxically, that on the "day of rest," rather than taking the elevator up and down to shul, you had to shlep up and down the stairs.

As technology advanced, so did ways to kind of get around some of these modern dilemmas. Now my aunt's building has one "Shabbos elevator" that stops at every floor on Saturday, so one needn't press the elevator button to get upstairs. My aunt had a timer that turned the living room lights on at dusk and off at around 11 pm. To heat up food for the Friday night meal, my aunt put a metal tray on top of two burners that she put on a low flame before Shabbos (Sabbath).

Passover is one of the most sacred of Jewish holidays, but when I was younger all I knew is that it was a lot of fun. The meal was long and drawn out, and we all read from the Haggadah, which provided text in Hebrew and English so I could understand what all the chanting and singing — and the story of Passover — was all about. The tale it told was of the Exodus of the Jews from their Egyptian captors, and how G-d parted the Red Sea to let them escape. Since they had little time to prepare for this event, the bread they brought for the journey had no time to leaven, and thus matzoh is eaten for the entire holiday, which extends over eight days.

There is a Yiddish saying, "It's hard to be a Jew." Aside from the fact that Jews have been persecuted since time immemorial, the rituals involved in Passover alone give new meaning to the word "difficult." All traces of leavened bread must be removed from the home prior to Passover, which involves a very thorough version of spring-cleaning. Every crumb must be excised, and only food which is Kosher for Passover (and very expensive to boot) must be used.

Since Orthodox Jews never mix milk with meat, all homes have two sets of dishes throughout the year — one for meat and one for dairy. In addition, every Passover the regular dishes are put away and the Passover milk and meat dishes are brought down from the top of the cabinets for use during the holiday.

Before I went to live with my aunts, I was blissfully unaware of the momentous effort that was involved in Passover preparation — and what I've mentioned above is the mere tip of the iceberg. But what I do remember is seeing all my beloved aunts and uncles and cousins around the table.

Passover is also memorable for me because it marks my very first "buzz." During the Seder, three cups of sweet kosher wine are poured at various intervals during the ceremony — and one extra cup is left untouched for the Prophet Elijah. One year, when I was about twelve, rather than just taking a sip or two each time the wine was refilled, I drank my fill of all three and "passed over" from sobriety into a woozy state that I will never quite forget. But Elijah's cup was still off-limits.

Though many people see Chanukkah as a big holiday equivalent to Christmas, the truth is that it is a relatively minor affair, especially compared to Passover. Furthermore, the fact that Passover and Easter coincide so closely is very significant, for the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder. The Communion wafer and the wine so significant to Christianity are, in effect, the matzoh and wine that was shared at the final Passover meal before Jesus was sacrificed. I daresay that there are many Jews and perhaps Christians who may not make this connection, but I think it is an important one.

So this year, though I sent (my boyfriend) BG's mom a flowering bonsai for Easter, I will make a valiant effort to stay away from the giant chocolate Easter bunnies. Instead, I'll buy my favorite Passover treat — chocolate covered matzohs — and reflect on the importance of this holiday season to so many millions of Christians and Jews. In this delicious way, I'll try to keep alive the memory of both my parents and how closely connected Jews and Christians really are. The ties that bind our common heritage are good to remember this time of year — and hopefully during the rest of the year as well.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The 9/11 tapes revealed--sort of

Parallel Lines
Originally uploaded by Corporal Tunnel.
Firstly, a caveat: the info and "facts" contained therein are off the top of my head, so any inaccuracies are purely my fault--but I don't think I've botched anything. Just trying to be a responsible writer/journalist.

Five years after 9/11, some of the families of the victims of that horrific day have won a partial battle to have the audiotapes and transcripts of the exchanges between those trapped in the towers and emergency personnel released. The compromise that has been reached is that the tapes and transcripts now available to the press and pubic do not include the victim's end of the exchanges. Nevertheless, even this one-sided version is deeply disturbing. Here's two brief excerpts, courtesy of the New York Times:

"O.K. Hello. You say you've got 100 people where? . . . floor. You guys can't get to the stairway. You can't get — O.K. Is there a fire going on? There is no fire in where you are. Then it should be all right to open a window. . . . 100 people or 120 people? O.K. This is 911. . . . You had a plane hit the building and there has been another plane that hit the building. O.K.? Right at this point, open the window. If you can get a window open, open a window. You know, I'm not there. I can only go by . . . if there's a fire going on anywhere and you open the window, it's going to make the fire ignite more.
What is your emergency? O.K. one second, sir. One second. What floor are you on, sir? You're on 105th floor. Wow. Any injuries? Just hold on one second, sir. Hold on. I hear the fire alarm. They're coming. They're on their way. They're working on it. My God, this, don't worry, God is there. God is there. God is, don't worry about it. God is . . . Don't worry. They're on their way, sir. E.M.S. is there and . . . O.K. . . . E.M.S. Hold on. I'm going to connect you to E.M.S. Hold on one second, sir."

I have to confess that just cutting and pasting these two entries from the innumerable ones that were recorded that day has driven me to tears.

The families who fought to get the tapes released felt that it was crucial in order to understand how unprepared we were for this type of devestation, despite the bombing of the WTC a number of years earlier. Adding to the heartache is the controversy over the long-delayed building of a World Trade Center memorial. The current plan seems structurally unsound to some of the victim's families, since the foundation of the building will be deep underground. The families fear that we have not learned the lessons of 9/ll even after all that has happened.

I predict that eventually the full tapes will be released, including the victim's side of the calls. I don't know if I'd be able to listen to these recordings, but I feel it might indeed represent an important piece of documentation of this tragedy. It seems to me that in this and other matters of national security, our Administration has learned and heeded very little indeed.