Friday, August 23, 2019

Rick Stolorow's Guide to What Is Jewish

Richard Norman Stolorow.

Fellow prep school student.  Roommate at the University of Michigan, freshman and senior year. 1964 and 1967. Yes, many moons ago.

Taught me so many things.  We were a team.  The two ridiculous brothers.  Going to parties at U of M.  Smoking dope.  Inhale.  Cough.  Pass that joint.  Whew.

Competitive.  Both won awards at U of M for writing.  We would be writers.  Maybe.  We both had domineering fathers. 

Jewishness.  Learned most everything from Rick. Went to his house one weekend when I was a teenager at prep school.  His family, very Jewish, culturally.  At dinner. Talk:

“Let’s do the ‘What’s Jewish’ thing,” Rick said.  “I’m in control.”  He knitted his fingers together and spread them out. “So,” Rick said, picking up a salt shaker, “what about salt?”
            “Salt is Jewish,” Mr. Stolorow, his father, said.  He wore huge glasses that went far beyond his eyes.
            “Pepper is Christian.”
            “Ok, what about water?” Rick asked.
            “Water is Christian,” Mr. Stolorow decreed. “Ice is Jewish.”  He came up with answers immediately, as if they were obvious. He was the Supreme Court of what was Jewish.  
I blinked in wonder.  Growing up Christian in a small Virginia town, I knew nothing of this.
“Potatoes?” Rick asked.
            “Mashed potatoes...” Mr. Stolorow paused and reflected, “can be either Jewish or Christian.  Baked potatoes are Christian.”
            “What about boats?” Rick asked.
            “Sailboats are Christian,” Mr. Stolorow said.  “Powerboats are Jewish.  Everyone knows that.”
            “Boiled chicken is Jewish.  Fried chicken is Christian.  But chicken in general is Jewish.”
            Mr. Stolorow looked at Rick as if a three-star chef had just been asked to flip a burger.
            “What about card games?  Poker?”
            “Poker is definitely Christian.  Gin rummy is Jewish.”
            I listened, slowly ate my food in amazement.
            “Speaking of gin,” Rick said, “what about—gin?”
            “Gin is Jewish.," Mr. Stolorow said. "Scotch is Christian.  Though that may be changing.”
            “Christian.  Catholic, even.”
            “Budweiser is Christian.  Stroh’s is…” he named the local beer, “both Jewish and Christian.  But,” he raised a finger in refinement, “Jews are not great beer lovers.”
            “Mailboxes are Christian.  Mail slots are Jewish.”
            I wanted to contribute. 
            “What about dogs?” I asked abruptly.
            Everyone turned and looked at me.  For a split second I wasn’t sure if I’d committed a grave mistake.  I’d entered a world uninvited.
            Mr. Stolorow eyed me.  Was I making fun of him?  He paused.  I held my breath.  Then he spoke.
            “Poodles are Christian," he said.  Then he looked down at their own dog and his drooling, gummy maw.  "Boxers," he decreed, "are Jewish."

Rick Stolorow, top row, second from left. Only photo I can find.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Darkness Invisible

When someone says they're "depressed," they can be referring to a one-day dispiritedness.  Or even something lighter:  "I'm depressed the Giants lost."  Or: "It's so depressing it's raining."

Or, more seriously: "He's depressed his wife left him."

But at its worst, at its most profound, depression is crushing.  A weight that can only barely be borne. I think "depression" should have one meaning, and one meaning only, like death. There is no "death lite."  "Depression" should be reserved for that one black night that never turns into day. I think it's because of the enormous range of meaning for the word that some non-sufferers don't see chronic depression as that dire. (You're depressed? You'll get over it.")  It is dire. This dismissiveness is what often makes depressed people ashamed to speak of it.  Once again, that great, oily manipulatorshame.

People have tried through the years to describe what it's like to be profoundly depressed.  Most famously, William Styron in Darkness Visible.  It's a small book full of despair, and he writes truthfully when he says, "the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne." Styron also writes about the word "depression" being unsatisfactory for what the malady brings to the soul.

But as with all fine writing, there is a kind of paradox to it. Styron's writing is so fluid, so able, so lucid that, somewhere, I'm thinking: this is too beautiful, too lyrical, to represent that utter bleakness.

I think if I were to try to capture what it's like to be profoundly depressedand I declare that I cannotI might write about it monosyllabically, or as close to that as I could get.

Weight.  Dark.  Hopeless.  Tears.  Gone.

I was profoundly depressed in my forties.  My willpower vanished.  All sense of routine was gone.  Responsibility meant nothing.  Everything in myself I relied on deserted me.  Nothing could penetrate this darkness.  It was an emotional black hole where all light was sucked into itself.  Movement was impossible.  Suicide seemed reasonable.  Even desirable.

You have to think: for someone who loves life so much, what could turn them so against it?

Something you don't stand a chance against.

Use the word judiciously.  But if you are depressed, profoundly depressed, speak it.  Let yourself be heard.  And if someone tells you they're deeply depressed, listen to them.  For me, at least, it was only through the help of others, and of one woman in particular I confided in, that I emerged, finally, into daylight.  

But, like the ocean, I respect depression's might and ability to drown.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Road Trip with Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama and I took a 1700-mile road trip together recently. I don’t know about her, but I enjoyed every minute of it. She did most of the talking during the trip. All of it, actually. The conversation, if you can call it that, stretched over 15 states, from Louisiana to Maine, and took a total of 26 hours. All of it took place in my small car, a 2010 Ford Focus. You might think that in that tight space, over vast stretches on the Interstate, I might get tired of listening to Michelle Obama talk. But, no, I didn’t. She’s really a good companion. I didn’t know much about her before our road trip together. Other than, you know, what we all know about her. But on this trip, she really let her hair down. The stories she told! Who knew? I mean, when she gets started…! I said very little the entire trip. Once in a while, I’d laugh or smile or nod my head. Basically, it was all her.

I’m talking, of course, about listening to the audio version of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

I could’ve chosen something “deeper” — say, The Brothers Karamazov — which I also have on audio but haven’t yet listened to. Or something that made me laugh out loud, like a David Sedaris book. I’ve listened to his audio books many times while on the road, and, I can tell you, they make the miles fly by. But I chose Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Why? Well, the reviews were excellent — “refined and forthright, gracefully written,” The New York Times declared in what is indisputably a rave. Not to mention the sales. Over 10,000,000, and counting. Recently, Timothy Egan added his praise in the Times, calling Michelle Obama “a luminous, observant, self-aware writer.”

But this was only partially why I chose Becoming to listen to for nearly the entire 26-hour car trip. I was curious. I wanted to know more about the person who had been First Lady for eight years — our first, and only, black First Lady, whose presence became so familiar to so many of us on an almost daily basis. Who is she, really? What did she really think about those unprecedented eight years and about being married to Barack Obama? Now that she’s not under the constant, all-seeing eye of the press, what would she say when given the chance? A lot, I was hoping.

Michelle Obama reads the entire book herself. I haven’t actually read the book, but I can’t think of a better way of experiencing Becoming than through Michelle Obama’s voice. There is something uniquely intimate and child-like about listening to an audio book on a long drive. It’s not radio, so the voice isn’t aggressive, pushy, loud. It’s someone telling you a story. It harkens back to sitting in a parent’s lap and being read to. Or, as an adult, to reading to your own child. Is there a simpler, lovelier connection? Is there a more wonderous way to pass the time than being told a story? And, yes, I believe that fact that Michelle Obama is a mother, makes that harkening back even more powerful. There was a certain sense of feeling protected, even loved, listening to her tell me her story.

When I started the audio book, the first thing I noticed, of course, was that voice. How integral it had been to our lives! Not as much as her husband’s — but close. And what a pleasing voice it is. It’s nearly impossible to describe a voice, and it may be not be necessary here, since we know Michelle Obama’s voice so well. But I can tell you it’s a voice that stands up well to listening to for vast stretches of time. Listening, I was reminded how important a voice is. I don’t mean the words. I mean the voice itself. A voice is as distinct as a fingerprint, and much more accessible and influential. It conveys much about the person. In many ways, it is the person.

So there we were, the two of us. I had Michelle Obama’s confident, vulnerable voice floating around me, for miles and miles, as exit signs and then state lines flowed by. She was there, keeping me company, as I drove from New Orleans where I live, through Mississippi and Alabama and into Georgia. She made me smile and shake my head as I drove through South Carolina, to Charleston, to spend a few days at a friend’s house. Her energy and earnestness kept me alert and content as I drove north through North Carolina, Virginia and, eventually to New York City, where I paused a few days to see my daughter. And she joined me, refreshed and lively, even as I was not, for the final leg through Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and into my destination, Maine. Unlike me, she never got tired.

You know the voice. It’s been supplanted in our consciousness by another voice — not by the President’s wife’s voice, because we never hear that voice — but by the President’s bullying voice, which is like a breached dam, drowning everything. And, of course, Michelle Obama no longer has the wide-ranging forum she once had, so we don’t hear it that often anymore. It was good to have it back in my ear and head.

I had first impressions, of course. I liked the unadorned, practical, straightforward timbre in Michelle Obama’s voice. But what struck me after those hundred pages, and what continued to strike me, was the ordinariness of her story — until, of course, it wasn’t. There is nothing extraordinary about what she wanted from life and what her parents wanted for her and for her brother. Her parents worked hard to provide for their children so they could be raised without want and get a decent education. There is nothing especially extraordinary in her background. It’s easy to put yourself in lock-step beside Michelle Obama as she walks you through her life. Well, until her husband’s career explodes.

I don’t know what Michelle Obama feels is her biggest accomplishment, or what she is most proud of, but if the intensity of feeling that comes through in her voice is any measure, I would say it’s being a mother. The pure fullness of emotion that you hear in her voice is strongest and deepest, to my mind, when she speaks about giving birth, especially to her first daughter, Malia, and the love and responsibility she felt, and I’m sure feels, as the mother of her girls. This is something you can’t fully understand through one-dimensional words on the page, no matter how well-written they are. Intonation, inflection, nuance — they are there in her voice.

Single words and phrases are subtly or not-so-subtly emphasized and heightened, given their own hue. There is the absolute delight you feel when, over several chapters, she describes her almost helpless attraction to the smiling, super-confident, relaxed good man who would eventually become her husband. Try as she might — and she did try, because, at one point, she was his supervisor at her law firm — she could not resist him. As we listen to her getting to know this man who has a delightful swagger to him, and that smile we know so well, we learn why. She loves Barack Obama’s big heart, his ideals, his goodness. You hear the inevitability in the wry tone of her voice, a kind of “Oh, well, why bother to fight this” tone that made me smile.

When her husband decides he wants to become a politician, Michelle Obama’s greatest worry is what this will do to her family. We know, of course, this is not an unfounded concern. One of the shocks of the book that we share with her is the shock Michelle Obama’s feels once her private life becomes a public one. Nothing can prepare a person for this, and you can sense the bewilderment and the helplessness in her voice, the ineffectual protest, as this ravenous scrutiny from the voters and their hungry surrogates, the press, intrudes. She can’t protect her children, herself, or her husband from comments and accusations she never even had to consider before Barack Obama became a state senator, then a US Senator, and then President. This is the voice of a mother and wife trying to protect the people she loves, and she just can’t, at least not as she would have wanted. There is a sense of failure here, of even a mother’s fierceness being unable to shield her daughters and husband from danger, and who wouldn’t feel that? You do not doubt her sincerity. You hear it.

You can hear it clearly in the anxiety she has after her husband is elected President and she and her husband have to choose a school for her children. How will they contend with the special treatment they’re given, with the new celebrity and uniqueness? Their mother is well aware they didn’t ask for this.

Michelle Obama asked her mother to live with them in the White House. Reluctantly, her mother agreed. It’s fun to listen to her wryly describe her mother’s staunch determination to come and go from the White House, as she pleased, to meet friends for lunch and shop where she wanted to shop. When people came up to her and said she looked like Michelle Obama’s mother, her reply was, “I hear that all the time.”

I learned as much about Michelle Obama from her voice as she read her story as I did from listening to the words themselves she wrote. I’m sure I’ll never meet her. But that doesn’t matter. We hung out together for 1700 miles, just the two of us. We had a great time. It was enlightening and a lot of fun. I was sad to see her go when I pulled up to my final destination in Maine. I’d go with her on a road trip anytime, anywhere. Thanks, Michelle Obama, for coming with me.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Hateful Things

The 11th century Japanese writer Sei Sh┼Źnagon wrote something called "Hateful Things" in which she listed things that, well, she hated.  For example, "One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room."

On a more contemporary note, the great John Waters, in his book, Crackpot, has a chapter titled, "Hatchet Piece: 101 Things I Hate."  One is, "Obnoxious mimes who think they're poignant." John, I agree. The other 100 things he hates are just as satisfying.

Yes, I know about 19th century writer William Hazlitt's essay, "On the Pleasure of Hating." But it's boring.

This has prompted me to create my own brief list of hateful things.  I recommend you try it for psychic cleansing.  I'm not going to include the obvious, like our orange-maned prez, because what's unique and idiosyncratic about that?  So, without further, etc.

I hate:

The way waiters and waitresses approach your table every three minutes and ask, "Are you enjoying your meal?"

When people drop the "g" at the end of a word in order to appear folksy.  Sarah Palin does it every fifteen seconds.  As in "We're savin' America."  And, sorry to say, so does Michelle Obama.

The way when you're in a group there's always one person who makes decision-making laborious and time-consuming.

The way vegetarians can be arrogant.  They somehow think their refusal to eat meat is angelic.  They come to your house for dinner and expect you've prepared a special meal for them.

When people put their drinks on books.

Here's an obscure one for kicks.  I hate the way New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin refers to Alice Waters, the California restauranteur, as, simply, "Alice," as if we knew her personally.  

How people, often salespeople, take your name as you've given it to them and call you by a nickname you never use.  As in, me: "I'm Richard."  Salesperson: "Great to meet you, Dick."

People who make you run for the door they've opened for themselves when you're about forty feet behind them carrying stuff.


People who throw paper towels in public urinals and sinks.

People who cut in line, especially the ones who do it as if they didn't.

People who are consistently late for meetings, dinners, anything, who act as if it's desirable to be late.

When someone you loan a book to doesn't return it.

The way men use a handshake to demonstrate how strong they are by crushing your hand.

People who can't laugh at themselves.  They take offense if you tease them about something they did or said, looking sour or huffy.

The way people talk on their cellphones in parks--or anyplace in nature. Actually, there's so much to hate about cellphones, I probably need to write an entire post about that.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-five. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you create dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported recently on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children? What of those young people who, despite the times, want children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The open-hearted, naive, child-like beauty of Sherwood Anderson

Garrison Keillor, when asked what book he felt was overrated, said, "'Winesburg, Ohio' by Sherwood Anderson."  He elaborated, saying the book "is pretty dreadful, and it inspired a whole lot of bad books about sensitive adolescent males needing to flee the philistines of their hometowns."

Well, Garrison, disagree with you there.  Not to mention there are moments when your Wobegon tales sound an awful lot like they take place in Winesburg.  Never mind.  Another story.

This story: Winesburg, Ohio inspired, and still inspires, because it's the truth. For those who haven't read it, it's a series of linked stories--was he the first to do that?--about a small, provincial Ohio town and its denizens.  Published in 1919.  One character, stand-in for SA, George Willard, appears in all the stories, sometimes fully, sometimes cameo.

The prose is basic, simple, direct, honest.

Sidebar.  Anderson helped both Hemingway and Faulkner considerably.   He gave EH letters of introduction (to Gertrude Stein, for one) when H went to Europe as a very young man.  He got Faulkner's first book published.  Later, both turned on Anderson.  Jerks.  At least Faulkner apologized later.

Back to the book.  There's one haunting story that should be anthologized everywhere.  "Adventure." It's about a woman, Alice Hindman, who, when she was sixteen sleeps with a young man named Ned Currie.  She falls hard. Ned has larger ideas than the small town of Winesburg can contain.  He moves to Cleveland, vowing to send for Alice.  He never does.  She, though, never gives up, and, slowly and agonizingly surely, enters a fantasy world of her own making in which Ned will send for her any day.  Her behavior becomes strange. The story culminates in her stripping down and walking naked out into the rain in her small town.  She shockingly realizes what she's done, runs back inside, takes to her bed, and....the story ends this way:

“When she got into bed she buried her face in the pillow and wept brokenheartedly. ‘What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,’ she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

I know people like Alice.  I may be Alice some day.  Difficult to read.  True.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I was living in New York City. 1999. I wanted a dog for myself, but I also wanted one for my six year-old daughter, as well. I wanted her to live with a dog, to see how wonderful they can be, feel comfortable around dogs and to learn from them.

I got him from a small shelter. They told me Chester had been beaten by his former owner, a brute who lived in the South Bronx. When I first met Chester, he shivered and slunk. He lowered his head deferentially. His tail was as far between his legs as it would go. I'd never seen a dog so afraid.

I took him home. He sat in a corner. I told him about my daughter. I told him how beautiful and sweet she was, and how much he would like her and how much she would like him. I told him that we would both love him and that he would feel safe. He seemed to listen. When my daughter saw Chester for the first time, she was in heaven. It wasn't long before Chester lost his shyness and, as dogs miraculously can do, triumphed over his wounds. And that's how he entered our lives. He became Chester, the dog he was meant to be. He was as sweet as sweet can be, and everyone who met him, adored him. I tried to learn from his ability to forget the past. He was better at it that I was. But he was always there, with his dog smile and floppy ears, ready to tutor me.

And, yes, my daughter did learn to love dogs, one of the gifts Chester and I gave her that I am most proud of.  Because what creature gives more without taking than a dog?  What animal so readily and intimately teaches you more about the natural world?  And as a companion, someone who knows you and waits eagerly to greet you, who consoles you and never complains--you cannot ask for more.  I can still see my young daughter and I playing catch inside my apartment with a rubber ball.  Chester leaping high high high trying to snatch the ball out of the air as it arced above him.  Never tiring, almost getting it with that eager mouth until we finally took pity and threw the ball low enough for him to grab it.  Is there any fun as simple and exhilarating as that?

I had him for ten years.  You tell yourself, he won't age in that disproportionate way dogs do, but of course he did.  He grew old. It seemed impossible to me that this exuberant, playful dog would ever age. But he did.  And one day, a day seared in my heart, when he was too sick to enjoy life any more, I took him to the vet and came home without him.

It's been years.  I'm still trying to learn from him.