The Brave One

Coming from a very modest background, I never left the country until my mid 20s.

I was scheduled for a business trip to Sweden.  I was excited.  Very, very excited.  I had parlayed three days in Stockholm into three weeks crossing the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.  I was working on Italy when my boss told me I better quit while I was ahead.

Two weeks before my departure, I broke my foot.  These things happen.  By me, they happen a lot.  Everyone assumed I would cancel my trip.  No way.

Many people told me I was brave.  To go halfway around the world, by myself, on crutches.  But it felt like an adventure.  It didn’t feel like something brave.

When my grandmother came from Europe to this country, she came third class on a boat.  She was a teenager responsible for her younger sister.  When she said goodbye to the rest of her family, it was forever.  She had little money in her pocket and little English on her tongue.

I was flying business class.  I had credit cards and traveler checks and a toll-free emergency number in my wallet.  I had email to keep in touch.  I had hotel reservations and dinner engagements.  I had Fodor’s guides.  Everyone was speaking perfect English.

Me?  I’m not the brave one in this story.  Not by a long shot.

© 2017 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

The Dryer Story

When we were kids, my mother’s surveillance was constant.  My parents never went out.  We never had babysitters.

Once — literally, just once — my mother needed to make a brief excursion and had no choice but to trust my father to watch us.

We snuck into the laundry room.  We knew we were not supposed to go in there.  But we were not supposed to do anything.  Except sit quietly looking at books that we did not yet know how to read.  But we were kids.  With a natural curiosity.

Anyway, we thought it would be a good idea to see if one of us could fit in the dryer.  I was not the largest.  I was not the smallest.  It is likely I was the boldest.  For the sure I was the dumbest.

Clothes Dryer imageSo, with great excitement, I climbed into the dryer.

It was a front-load tumbler with a large circular window.

My brother closed the door…

Space Capsule imageI felt like I was Judy Jetson riding in the space capsule!

These were the days of the Apollo moon landings.  Rocket ships were everywhere.  Including my dream of the previous night.

Actually it had been a whole rocket factory in my dream.  With “about a hundred” rockets.

My brother turned on the dryer…

It was warm and blue and the rotating drum kept lifting me up one side, but then I just kept sliding back down to the bottom.  Over and over and over.  I didn’t spin around the full 360° of the circle like the way the clothes make a complete orbit.  Something maybe to do with gravity?

People tell me this story helps them understand me better.  I have no idea what they mean.

© 2017 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Buying Black

Whenever we needed any sort of professional services, my parents always got a guy from the shul.  The attorney, the dermatologist, the tailor, the whatever.  Except when we needed a dog doctor or a wall painter or a hairdresser.  These don’t come in Jewish.

Apparently this is a thing.  And not only among the chosen people.  The newspaper advertises real estate agents specializing in the Chinese community.  Maggie Anderson’s Our Black Year chronicles her African-American family’s attempt to buy from only Black-owned businesses for an entire year.

And Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspot acknowledges a bias that takes the form of a secret preference for your own group rather than any active discrimination against other groups.

Sounds about right.  Much as I hate to admit it, I am one of those otherwise egalitarian people with a tendency to favor my own landesman.  Certainly when all the other things are equal.  And perhaps even when they are not.

When my parents needed to buy a car, naturally, they went to a dealer from the synagogue.  A man my mother did not like.  OK, she didn’t like anyone, but she really, really did not like this guy.

My mother never referred to the dealer as Mr. ———, as was custom for business relationships in those days.  She never referred to him as Bob, though she would call other acquaintances from the temple by their first name.  It was always “that momzeh gonif Bob ———”.  Like “momzeh gonif” was his title.

Certainly, there were other lots in the area, but again and again, she returned to the lying thief.  Go figure.

It is this kind of irrational communal loyalty that has led me to make all kinds of questionable purchasing decisions despite the clear and present danger.

Like a few years ago, an eatery called The Roast Shop opened a few blocks from my apartment.  Kosher, closed on Shabbes, the whole megillah.  The only such restaurant in the neighborhood and only one of two in town.

Not a delicatessen type of place, they advertised as specialists in roasted meats.  In either case, not really my style, especially when there are so many wonderful Mediterranean and vegetarian options within a few blocks walk.

Also, they received terrible reviews.  The Yelp, the Chowhound, the Urbanspoon, the whole internet seemed to agree they were just awful.  And yet I felt compelled to go there and waste some hard-earned money.

As soon as I entered the restaurant, I wanted to back myself out the door.  The tables were empty, never a good sign.  They had been open a couple months, there should be at least a few customers.

Still, I ordered a plate and I tried to eat.  I tried but I did not succeed.  It was truly one of the worst restaurant meals I had ever been served.  And I have been served at a roadhouse in rural Indiana.  I have been served on a shrimp boat in redneck Georgia.  I have been served by a hofbräuhaus in Baden-Württemberg.

Though I have never tasted shoe leather, I am sure it would be a close culinary cousin to this so-called brisket.  Pure gristle.  I could not cut it with a knife.  I could not shred it with my teeth.  I could not be certain it was actually meat.  Feh!

The side of cholent was both flavorless and uncooked and contained bits of gristle.  I have eaten black beans by the Mexican restaurant.  I have cooked garbanzo beans by my own hand.  Beans are never supposed to be hard and crunchy.

The side of mixed greens — this is California — was acceptable.  Multi-colored and slightly bitter.  A few thin rings of red onion.  Nothing special but nothing to complain.  It was the only thing I could stomach.

The meal was more than $24.  Absolutely outrageous.  And I didn’t even get a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry.

The funny thing — and the point of the story — is that I kept thinking I really should give them another chance.  Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, they went out of business before an opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, so it happened, when Bernie Sanders announced he was running for President, I was immediately drawn to his candidacy.

To be fair, my attraction was based on firm political footing.  I can’t count the number of times I have said, “I’m so liberal, I’m practically a Socialist”.  In my heart, I agreed with many of his proposals, such as Medicare for all, though I thought the rich people could very well pay for their own kids’ college educations.

Also, I was impressed that Mr. Sanders’ fundraising focused on small donations from individual citizens rather than big bundles from corporate interests.  But, let’s face it, the way he talks, a Jew from Brooklyn, it makes me to feel right at home.

Alas, the way Mr. Sanders seems to shun his Jewish heritage quickly cooled my keen.

OK, maybe the man doesn’t believe, he doesn’t practice, that’s his prerogative.  But, to refer to his parents as Polish immigrants?  They were not Poles, they were Jews.  It is not the same thing.

And when he speaks about his Jewishness, he is really describing humanism, which is not a bad thing, but it is, by definition, anti-religious.  My strong sense is that he is not being forthright about his feelings.

Even so, I wanted desperately to feel the Bern.  Hillary Clinton has her pluses and minuses, but I could muster no enthusiasm.  I would watch the debates to make my decision.

Indeed, it was those debates that finally convinced me.  It wasn’t anything that either candidate said, it was the non-verbal cues.  It was the way Mr. Sanders kept making faces and laughing and wagging his finger whenever it was Mrs. Clinton’s turn to make her schpiel.

It felt annoying.  It felt disrespectful.  It felt like something I did not want to watch for the next four or eight years.

So today, as we cast our ballots in the California primary, I am not “buying Black”.

I’m with her.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Trick or Treat

I like Halloween.  I don’t know why.  Certainly, there are no happy childhood associations, though one year my mother did get a pumpkin.

Of course, we only got to watch while she did all the carving.  She wasn’t into collaboration.

If we had been of a Jesus-related faith, I’m certain we wouldn’t have got a Christmas tree.  It’s not like there would have been any presents to put under it.

In the unlikely event we did get a tree, well, I’m sure she would’ve decorated it all by herself while we were at Hebrew School or something.

Anyway, we only got a pumpkin that one time because it got smashed.  Maybe that’s just the fate that awaits all but a few lucky pumpkins come All Hallow’s Eve.  Or maybe we would have had better luck if she wasn’t always yelling at the neighborhood kids.

But still, costumes and chocolates, what is there not to like?

So, when the time came that I was both grown up and coupled up, we moved to California, to a beautiful neighborhood in Old Palo Alto, and set up a holiday-friendly home.

That first year, I was really looking forward to the Trick or Treaters.  I had done my research and knew which candy was the most prized.  I bought five times as many pieces as we could possibly need.  And none of that cheap miniature or corn syrup crap.

When evening arrived, we waited and waited, but our doorbell did not ring.  It seemed odd.  Our lights were on.  Our decorations were up.  Maybe they start later out here, I thought, we just need to give it time.

The time did pass, but our house remained unhaunted.  We tested the doorbell and resumed our watch.  We heard children running and laughing in the street.  Were these the sounds of mere spirits and not flesh and blood boys and girls?

We went outside to investigate.  No, these princesses and pirates were real live kids.  But they were skipping past our address and flocking to the surrounding abodes.

See, ours was a very posh precinct, the neighbors included Steve Jobs and Steve Young as well as other Steves less note-worthy but equally net-worthy.  Though darling, our place stood out, in a Section 8 kind of way.  In truth, many of the nearby garages dwarfed our modest home.

This was prejudice in its purest form.  The treats from our cozy cottage were just as good as the sweets from the stately mansions.  Even better!

Books!  Covers!  What are they teaching in the schools?  People, please!

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

My Friend Moses

On the day that we commemorate the words and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I find myself remembering the first African-American who captured my admiration, our handyman Moses.

During those years that Dr. King led marches and boycotts, gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was a toddler with no social awareness beyond the small circle of my immediate family and those who visited our home.

Of all the non-family guests, I loved Moses the best.  I would run after him on the landing outside of our apartment and we would walk back together hand in hand.

Moses was the star of one of my earliest memories.  He was sitting at our kitchen table talking with my mother.  I crawled under the table and was tugging at the cuff of his pants.  My mother was horrified: “Jaclyn!  What are you doing?”  Of course, I just wanted to see if his legs were the same brown color as his hands and face.

One day Moses asked my mother to get him some cream from the drug store to treat his acne.  He told her that he wanted his skin to look nice for me.  It already did.  Although I was too young to learn about racial equality from Dr. King, I was fortunate to learn that brown skin is just as fine as white skin from my friend Moses.

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Shampoo Boarding

The CIA has finally released an account of the many and various interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists during the early years of the millennium.

This “torture” report details formerly unheard-of horrors such as “rectal rehydration” and recalls old favorites including “water boarding”.

Not to compare, but whenever I hear the phrase “water boarding”, I am reminded a most unpleasant childhood memory.

See, my mother was not a gentle person and even everyday hygiene tended toward the traumatic.  Especially when it came to my hair, which I wore flowing down my back.  I do not recall that I had any choice in the matter.

While my mother took herself to the hairdresser every week, she never brought me for a professional cut.  She would “trim” my bangs and ends, always at a precipitous slope.  After one of her “stylings”, schoolmates would invariably ask “what happened to your hair?”  So embarrassing.

But even worse were the “yankathons” I endured every morning before school and each night before bed as my mother endlessly jerked a brush though my lengthy locks.  My scalp would throb and burn and it felt like some kind of a punishment.

Captivated by the TV commercials pledging “no more tears”, I begged and begged her to buy “No More Tangles”.  Alas, the promised miracle was merely pretense; in actuality, the potion did nothing to dull my distress.  What I really needed was a topical anesthetic.

Worst of all, without question, were the days when my mother decided that my hair needed to be washed.

She would sit me in the bathtub with my back to the faucet, slide me down, and tip my head, front side up, under the running water.  At the same time the hot and forceful torrent would flood my face, the water level below would rise above my body.

Although I would squeeze my eyes and mouth shut until my head hurt and hold my breath until my chest felt to explode, this routine inevitably led to the same unhappy conclusion: shampoo in the eyes and water up the nose.  Simply terrifying.

It would be many years before I came to learn the pleasure of having someone tend to my tresses.  To this day, though, I still find soaking in a tub terribly uncomfortable.  I could shower for an hour, but I just loathe to take a bath.

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Out of My Cucurbitaceae

Though most days still remain warm and most trees still retain leaves, autumn is in full bloom, meaning gourds of every variety, both edible and decorative, are everywhere.

It makes me think about a time in the past, when the ex-man wanted to assign to me a pet name.  He didn’t go for the generic endearments like “darling” or “sweetheart” or “love”.  No, he wanted something distinctive and he decided upon “Pumpkin”, or “Pump” for short.

Pumpkin Lady imagePumpkins, as you know, are the large round orange things symbolic of the scary season.

This designation, it made some kind of sense, but also it made me to cry.

Always obsessed with the padding around my middle and lately sensitive to the rosacea tint of my skin, it was true enough that I resembled a pumpkin.  Or perhaps more accurately, a pomegranate.

Even so, I didn’t care to be reminded and discouraged the label.

Snoop Dogg photoSo his next choice was “Snoop”, presumably in reference to my large proboscis.  He’d had his own nose resculpted long before our attachment.

But now it was the 90s, the heyday of “Snoop Dogg”, a gangsta rappa known for his violent and misogynistic lyrics.  Oh yeah, and his pit bulls.  And who could forget his murder trial?  Needless to say, I protested this moniker as well.

To be fair, I was wary of nicknames.  We weren’t allowed affectionate names — or even affection — growing up.  Should a friend call and ask to speak with “Jackie”, my mother would snarl, “her name is JACLYN”.  She herself called me “Madame Schmutz”, but this was meant to humiliate, along with “Slobby Slob” and “Piggy Pig”.

Finally, the ex-man seemed to settle on “Jac” which I did like then and still like now.  My mother’s father Jacob, for whom I am named, went by Jack, as did my own father, Yankel Yussel.

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

High Anxiety

Some time ago I was visiting my brother.  It was getting late and we were watching a movie on the television, me and him and his wife Linda.

Suddenly, Steven issues a loud roar and runs out to the backyard.

Feeling somewhat alarmed but sensing no danger whatsoever…

Me to Linda:  What’s he doing?

Linda to me:  [Calmly] There’s a cricket.

Me to Linda:  A cricket?

Linda to me:  He doesn’t like crickets.

So my brother is racing around with a flashlight in one hand and a can of Raid in the other.  We hear growling and spraying and finally Steven comes inside, winded but victorious.

Now, if a lone cricket can drive my brother to a midnight manhunt and summary execution, you can just imagine how an annoying person such as myself could make him completely crazy.  A whole weekend he yelled at me, it didn’t stop.

Soon I am speaking with my sister Stephanie, and I tell her about this episode…

Stephanie to me:  [Horrified] What?!  He killed a living thing?!  For no reason?!

Now, I am concerned about my brother.  He seems terribly anxious and awfully irritable.  Maybe he is at risk for a stroke, maybe he needs some kind of help.  But my sister is concerned about the cricket.  Maybe she is a Buddhist, maybe she wouldn’t hurt a fly.

This is the mishpocha.  Meshugeh, I am telling you.  Meshugeh!

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Old Wives’ Tales

My mother was an educated person, but still she embraced many of the “old wives’ tales”.  You know, the superstitious things your mother tells you that are clearly crazy but she really believes they are true.

Even as a kid, it was obvious from my limited experience in the world that most of her commandments were nuts.

Her absolute favorite: “You’ll get sick if you go outside with a wet head.”  This couldn’t possibly be true or we would get sick every time we went to the swimming pool.

Another frequent gem:  “If you sing in the morning, you’ll cry at night.”  This had to be nonsense or we would cry every night because we sang every morning at school.

Some of her convictions turned to the bizarre.  No kidding, actual transcript from my teenage years…

Ma to me:  Jaclyn?  JACLYN!

Me to Ma:  What?

Ma to me:  Get over here.  I need you to water the plants.

So, my mother is standing right beside the plants in question, holding a pitcher of water.  There is no climbing, no lifting.  I don’t mind to do it, but it’s a little confusing why she needs help.

Me to Ma:  You want I should water the plants?

Ma to me:  I can’t.  I have my period.

Me to Ma:  You have your period.

Ma to me:  You can’t touch the plants when you have your period.  They’ll die.  Didn’t you know?

Again, my mind is thinking she has totally lost her marbles.  I mean, farm women must have to tend the crops every day of the month.

Anyway, I water the plants, and next time I get my period, you better believe I fondle every plant inside the house and several shrubs outside the house.  Nothing dies.  Or even wilts.  Meshugeh!

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

All for Leyna

Growing up, we had only one stereo.  It lived in the narrow hallway outside the bathroom.  My mother did not believe in comfort or convenience.  Or privacy.

Me and my sister would play Springsteen — vinyl, of course — and sing and dance around the family members as they entered and exited the facilities.

One day, my Gremma starts to “yi di di” and asks me to put on “Lenya”.  I was astounded.  I did not know her musical repertoire extended beyond “Uyfen Pripekeh” and “Goodnight, Irene”.

Billy Joel is très passé but every now and then I like to spin “Glass Houses”.  It makes me feel warm all over.

You go, Gremma…

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.