Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrapping My Brain around Christmas

A few days ago, I took a quiz on Twenty multiple-choice questions to answer, and the site tells you what religion aligns most closely with your beliefs. My result: 100% Reform Judaism, which is exactly what I am.

So why do I have a nine-foot Christmas tree in my living room? Why have I spent the last few days looking for non-existent parking spaces in shopping malls? Why is Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” blasting away on the CD player?

Partly because my father, a self-identified “cultural Jew,” didn’t believe in organized religion for himself or his children. No Hebrew lessons or religious education for me.

Partly because twenty-nine years ago I married a Presbyterian-born atheist, with whom I cobbled together a unique holiday experience for our two children: a Christmas tree and a menorah, a reading of the Chanukah story on the first night, no outside lights, no Santa. (The proscription of Santa was particularly effective, causing my then-six-year-old daughter to ask me tearfully one March, “Am I allowed to believe in leprechauns?”)

The atheist and I are no longer married, and our children are adults. Sometimes I feel bad that I didn’t insist on educating them in some sort of religious tradition. My son is glad I didn’t; my daughter, who is still pissed off about the leprechauns, is fashioning her own system of beliefs.

Sometimes I feel very conflicted about the way in which I have made room in my life for Christmas. I love the tree and the presents, the shopping and baking, and especially the music. But inside, I always feel a little like an outsider, a pretender. (And I always feel guilty in temples because I don’t understand the language or know the rituals. There’s this gnawing sense of anxiety and shame. It’s like those dreams where you’re in high school and you realize you haven’t studied for finals.  You keep thinking, Why don't I KNOW this?)

Several years ago, Robert and I went to a Christmas Eve service at the Berkeley Unitarian Church. The minister gave a sermon about the birth of Jesus: how it was really a story about being frightened and alone, and how miracles can happen when everything seems hopeless. It was a wonderful, inclusive take on Christmas. It spoke to something deep inside me: the need to believe that we are not alone in our suffering.

The menorah still sits on my mantel, surrounded by garlands and stars. I rarely light it anymore, but it is my way of reminding myself of who I am.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Little Miss Perfect

Yesterday, while working out, I found myself watching a TV show called “Little Miss Perfect.” It is a reality show, each episode of which features a look at the lives of two contestants in a little-girl beauty pageant. It was riveting in an I-can’t-believe-I-live-on-the-same-planet-with-these-people kind of way.

The pageant is held in different cities throughout the south and seems to attract participants whose families live in little southern towns. It is overseen (and hosted) by a man named Michael Galanes who judges the competition and sings a dreadful song to the five finalists while gazing deeply into their eyes. (“Little Miss Perfect Pageant, where all your dreams come true/ the Little Miss Perfect Pageant, where the special one is you! / The secret of tomorrow is to live your dream today,/ your memories and your friendships will always feel this way!/ There are perfect colored rainbows on the other side,/ hop on your magic carpet and take a wild ride!/ If you think it, want it, dream it, today’s the start,/ just feel it in your heart.”) Michael and his fellow judges are shown discussing each contestant’s relative merits in three categories (“Beauty,”
“Interview,” and something called “Wow Wear,” which, as far as I can tell, is when the little girl gets dressed up in a costume and exhibits talent, usually dancing, but sometimes, if the kid is under six, waving and winking.) Michael’s critiques can be ruthless, but he has evidently found his milieu. (His bio begins, “Once upon a time, there was a little boy born and raised in the mountains of Vermont, but he knew his calling was the sparkly stage, somewhere, somehow….”)

The girls themselves look normal enough in their everyday lives. Most of them talk about how much they like getting dressed up, wearing makeup, winning big trophies, and being the center of attention. They complain about practicing and cry when they are being readied for competition. Their incarnations as beauty contestants are startling: big, teased hair, heavy makeup, sprayed-on tans, body-hugging costumes. You just can’t look away.

The real stars of the series, though, are the mothers. They are almost always fat. Some of them are ex-child-beauty-queens themselves. They oversee their daughters’ careers with military precision, arranging for coaches, driving to dance lessons, assessing smiles and twirls and coquettish over-the-shoulder glances with dispassionate calm (“Amber just isn’t graceful at all!”) They are supremely unembarrassed about what they are doing. They talk about the (not inconsiderable) amounts of money they spend on this lifestyle as though it is proof of what good mothers they are.

It is easy to be snide here, to laugh at people who look as though they live in houses with broken-down cars on the lawn, to take perverse pleasure in seeing seven-year-olds coiffed like country-music stars break down in tears when someone else wins the trophy. But I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that these families aren’t really so different from families I have known. In my neck of the woods, people don’t enter their daughters in beauty pageants. They drive them to theater auditions and soccer meets and chess club championships. They are still defining themselves by their children’s accomplishments. It really isn’t all that different.

Another thought: Ultimately, this show is about what lots of people in this country still value in women. It’s massively discouraging to think that when all is said and done, the “perfect” girl is the one with the best makeup, the most complicated hairstyle, the cutest hip swivel. Really? Is that really what we’re still about?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More about friendship

Had lunch with my friend Jim last week.

He was my high school English teacher. He is thirty years older than I. His birthday is either today or tomorrow. (I always forget.)

He was my teacher for three years in high school. We did not start off well. He likes to remind me that he thought I was pretty horrible until our class read “The Importance of Being Earnest” and I took the part of Lady Bracknell. (“Prism!”)

Somehow, we became fast friends. He took me to Wilkes Bashford, where I drank Campari while he tried on suits. (Yes, I was still in high school. It was the seventies. Things were different.) I cut P.E. so that I could hang out in the English office with him during his free period. Sometimes he would write the gym teacher (another of his close friends) a note: “Dear Miss Bertolosso, Please excuse Gina from P.E. today. She has a paper to finish.” (After giving me a withering stare, Miss Bertolosso would silently turn away. I think she was secretly glad I would not be in her class, in which, to put it mildly, I did not excel.) We would sit at his desk and gossip.

Lest there be any wondering: This was a platonic friendship pure and simple. Always. Neither of us had the slightest interest in the other sexually.

I went across the country to college, but Jim and I remained close. During the summers when I was home, I worked in a store he owned and “housesat” at his apartment when he went out of town. (He recently reminded me that I watered a plastic houseplant for three weeks without realizing what I was doing.) We wrote letters, talked on the phone. He came to my father’s funeral, after which we went outside and smoked cigarettes with my much-older and –adored cousin, also Jim. Inside, I was dying, but the Jims made me feel as though I would survive, that the world would still be there when I could manage to enjoy it again.

He traveled across the country to attend my wedding. He arranged for my husband and me to rent an apartment next door to his when I returned to Berkeley for graduate school. As his neighbor, I went to countless dinner parties at his house, where we snuck away to the kitchen and gossiped about the other guests. We forged a new tradition: I hung out with him on Thanksgiving morning while he cooked. We would drink Negronis and laugh ourselves sick.

He loved my children. He loves most children, but he especially loved mine. When my daughter was born, he made me seven gourmet meals, to be unfrozen on successive days. I cried when we ate the last one.

Now he lives in Connecticut, but he visits California once or twice a year. We always manage to get together for lunch or dinner at least once. We don’t drink the way we used to (and God knows we no longer smoke), but we still gossip. There is always a sense of the utter magic of it: how the two of us came together when it seemed as though we shouldn’t.

“This friendship—we’ve been good friends a long time,” he said in the car as I dropped him off last week. It was uncharacteristically sentimental of him to say so.

It is a wonderful mystery, as maybe all friendships are.