Accountability


As usual, it started out with questions.

“Where do you work? What do you do? Have you been on any trips lately?”

I was all for talking about myself, what I do, where I’ve been, where I’m going. But then it got personal.

“Are you renting? How much do you pay per month?”

Real estate is a touchy subject. But it’s one that anyone in any major city discusses. I used to feel guilty about renting a place, what with everyone and their mother owning property, but now with the subprime mortgage rates and the housing market crash, I feel smugly superior that I didn’t fall prey to the greed. Yes, I rent! Isn’t that great?

And then it got really personal.

“And are you still single?”

It was that one word that really got to me. Still Single. Still. As if I hadn’t accomplished anything in the last year. As if I hadn’t published articles, essays — been on NPR, for God’s sake! — influenced people with my writing. As if I hadn’t started teaching at a university, traveled around the world, lost 10 pounds, learned how to surf, counseled countless friends and family members through countless crises. It all had been erased to nothing — nothing! — with that one question: “Are you still single?”

OK, so what if it was my accountant who was doing the asking?

For the last six years I’ve been doing my taxes with this seemingly sweet older lady. She is tall, white-haired and stooped over, with blue eyes that might be described as kindly if you’ve never sat down with her for a tax interview. If you had, you might say her eyes were steely blue and her demeanor hawkish. The woman, God help her, will ferret out any and every possible deduction known to mankind. Especially if you’re an artist, which many of her clients are. Why, then every activity you do, from reading newspapers to traveling, to meeting with people to anything that might have a direct influence on your art is fair game.

(But, Mr. I.R.S., if you’re reading this, she and her firm are totally and completely legal. Case in point, many of my seemingly “social” interactions are part of my writing. Most of them are, since I write about myself.)

But deductions are not the point. The point is that when she asks me if I’m still single — she has to ask me, it’s part of her job — it chafes. It brings up a lot of issues for me. Am I still single? Am I in the same job as last year? The same house? The very same life? What have I done with the last 12 months of my life that we can tell the I.R.S.?

I imagine my accountant saying, “They’re going to audit you because everything in your life sounds suspiciously similar to last year and beyond!”

Mind you, she asks, “Are you still single?” in the same tone she asks, “Are you still driving a Volkswagen?” and “Are you still subscribing to The New York Times? And The New York Review of Books? (I let the latter lapse because it was just too dense, and there’s no one in L.A. bars to discuss it with.)

But as I answer, “Yes, still single. Same job. Same car, same house,” in my mind I picture others who file with her from year to year, making dozens of changes and updates to their files: Change of name (married), change of residence (bought a house), change of mortgage (paid in full), sale of stocks (to pay for house), number of dependents (one, two, three).

Look, it’s not necessarily any cheaper to file as a married person than as a single person.

But we’re not talking about money here (Mr. I.R.S., I definitely am talking about lots of money from you!). We’re talking more than financial accountability. We’re talking life accountability.

I know in Judaism we review our year on Rosh Hashanah, and we tally up our good deeds and bad deeds before Yom Kippur. For our superficial — or more worldly — deeds, we use the Gregorian New Year to make resolutions. On our birthdays, we take stock, using the number of years as a measuring stick.

But on all those occasions it’s possible to fudge a bit. To make things look better than they are (“OK, so I wasn’t such a bad Jew this year — even though this is my first time in synagogue, I did give tzedakah to every homeless person who asked …”). In the run-up to April 15, though, it’s hard to lie. (Actually, it’s criminal.) It’s all laid out there in front of you in stacks of paper that you’ve finally separated, organized, catalogued and filed.

Still writing. Still renting. Still driving a VW. And yes, still, ahem, single.

It’s all naked and exposed before my accountant. But that’s what frustrates me so. There is so much beyond those cut-and-dried numbers. There’s poetry behind the columns. “Romeo and Juliet” can’t be summed up as, “Both Capulet and Montague family have one less dependent this year.”

And neither can my life. I may not be married yet, but I’ve met dozens of wonderful people — men and women — this year. I’ve deepened my relationships to dozens I’ve already known, been to fabulous places and, most importantly, learned so many new life lessons: on how to love, how to be loved, whom to love, whom to leave and to whom to give a second chance.

And these things can’t be measured on paper. No matter who — my accountant, my parents, my relatives, my so-called friends — is asking.

Good Jew, Bad Jew


He was the kind of guy you would take home to your mother.
He was Harvard educated, well-mannered, spent time with the elderly and
held an executive position at a major network. He had
traveled the world, written a few books and was shopping for a home. And
naturally, he was Jewish. This was the pitch I got from the mutual friend that
was going to set the two of us up on my first blind date ever.

Recently single, I was ready to jump back into the dating
pool, or at least dangle my feet in. These last months were relatively
self-indulgent and selfish — which is typical for the romantically frustrated:
I decided to give it a shot. Anyhow, I figured it would be “good practice” just
in case this dating thing was more difficult than I remembered.

David was pleasant on the phone, and I was pleased when he
offered to take me to dinner, as opposed to that wimpy “coffee date” narishkeit
(foolishness) that was sweeping the city (like you need a jolt of caffeine on
top of first-date jitters). So I dusted off my first-date dress and gulped down
a glass of wine before he rang the bell.

Over a leisurely dinner we talked about our insane
relatives, traveling to Vegas and the recent Jewish holidays. He told me how
surprised and honored he was when he was called to carry the Torah during Yom
Kippur services. I was duly impressed — and kind of embarrassed when he asked,
“Where did you attend services?”

“Um, well last year I went to the Beverly Hilton.”

“What did you do this year?”

I flashed back to that day. I’d skipped services and sat
around on the couch doing a television marathon. My Jewish friends were all off
atoning, and the non-Jews were at work, and it seemed like especially bad form
to ask them for a lunch date. I was stuck in limbo, alone. If that was not
pathetic enough, throughout the day I would find myself suddenly in front of
the cupboard munching on a handful of Cheerios, not even knowing how I got
there.

“I didn’t quite get my act together this year,” I muttered,
sheepishly.

My date looked at me with sudden understanding. He realized
at that moment; he was out with a “Bad Jew.”

There are certain levels of “Jewishness” — and I am not
talking about Reform vs. Orthodox. Among all of us, there are millions of ways
that Judaism can influence and affect our lifestyles. And when you are a young
Jew dating another young Jew, you really never know what you are going to get.
Clearly, this guy was a real mensch — I had never heard of anyone so young
asked to carry the Torah. And I was the shmuck. He had probably never heard of
anyone snacking on the day of atonement. I quickly looked at down at my plate
to make sure I wasn’t eating veal parmesan.

I wanted to explain that I hadn’t always been a “Bad Jew,”
and for a while there, I was really much better. But it was hard to tell
someone all of this on a first date, so I just let it go. But the truth of the
matter is, that during my previous relationship, I was more involved in Judaism
than I had been in my entire life. And when the relationship ended, so did the
services, the Shabbat dinners and the other religious traditions we had
participated in together. All of that went adrift along with so many other
things lost in what I referred to as “the divorce.” I lost family, I lost
friends and, although I did not lose any religious faith, I certainly lost
practicing the traditions.

The book of Genesis states, “Lo tov heyot adam levado” —
it’s not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), and maybe it was referring to
the practice of Judaism. Making Shabbat dinner, going to synagogue, celebrating
the holidays — they’re not impossible to do alone, but they’re much, much
easier to do when you have a partner in crime. And after you lose that partner?
It’s easier to do marathon television.

As for my date with the mensch — there were a million ways
this guy and I could have been incompatible — for all I know he could be a
vegan, dog-allergic, right-winger that snores heavily. Or he could have been
dreamy. I never found out because we did not see each other again.

Months later, I am still left wondering how “good” of a
Jewish girlfriend I could make someday. Do we really judge each other on as
“good” or “bad” Jews when we are dating? What if I continue to neglect the
seriousness of my religious heritage — as I have been doing most of my young
dating life? Or, what if I sign myself up for more classes, did some studying,
joined a group?

Certainly, we date to find our match. We date to find love.
We date to find companionship. But we also date to find the one we will spend
the rest of our days with. Someone who we could share a life with, build a
family with and carry on to keep our family traditions alive.

And perhaps the question we should ask is not how good a Jew
one is, but how good would they like to be?


Lilla Zuckerman is the author of “Tangle in Tijuana” (Fireside, May 2003), the first book in the “Miss Adventures” series. She can be reached at lillazuck@aol.com.

Bored Games


Do you ever bore yourself?

I do. I am boring myself right now. I mean, I’m bored of my toast with spray-on I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter every morning of every day. I’m bored of the clothes hanging in my closet, the bath mat in the bathroom, the same books in a basket on my nightstand night after night.

I’m bored of the way I get out of my car: pull on the emergency break, grab my purse from the passenger seat, open the door, press the automatic locks, get out. Slam. In that order every time. I’m bored of staring at the imperfect ivory trim on the walls of my office, noticing the same splotchy defects.

It’s beyond just being sick of my surroundings, the same row of lipsticks on my dresser, the same crumpled receipts in my wallet. Even my own thoughts are getting to be redundant. The alarm goes off in the morning and in pretty much the same order, thoughts go marching through my head like obedient soldiers: What am I doing with my life? Who cares, just get up and do something. Make a schedule. Make the bed. Make some toast. Sound off, one, two.

I’m not in a rut. To be in something implies that one can readily get out. I think I am a rut.

As I write this, I’m even tired of my own writing, the way I string words together, the way I’m always looking for a big picture, the way the same adjectives pop into my head. Time and again, the same set of events transpires. I don’t want to write something, I convince myself it doesn’t matter how boring I think I am, I hack something out, notice it’s not too bad, never want to do it again. Every work opportunity brings on an identical anxiety spiral — I can’t do it, I have to do it, I guess I did it.

The look of my silhouette as I catch it in the reflection of a storefront window is painfully dull. Seen it a million times. If just one time the freckles on my face would rearrange themselves, maybe I wouldn’t be so tired of my face, the one I’ve been hauling around with me all these years. There’s nothing wrong with it; I’d just like to order another flavor from the face menu some days, just a change of pace.

I try to get out, but even my destinations are tedious. I buy my groceries either from Ralphs or Pavilions. I frequent the same four coffee shops, depending on the day. I almost always get gas at the station down the street, across from where I always take my dry cleaning, say hello to the woman behind the sewing machine, lose my ticket by the time I return.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you now that for the first time since I was 16 years old, I have no boyfriend. It’s been seven weeks, shattering my previous personal best of four days with no love interest. I’m not sure, but this may have something to do with my boredom. How do people hang out with themselves all the time, no omnipresent outside force to break things up, no one else’s personality in the loop?

When I was a kid, I would spend summers with my grandparents who in one day would take me to a museum, a movie matinee and the beach. I’d get home, plop down on the couch and sigh, "I’m bored."

This drove them crazy. They were old and tired and it was time to yell at McNeil and Lehrer.

"Why don’t you read a book," they’d suggest, like Jewish grandparents are trained to. I would.

Even back then, I knew that to sit still and do absolutely nothing would be to let some kind of loneliness land on me. I knew life was like sun tanning in Chico, if you lay still for too long, the buzzards will think you’re a carcass and swoop down on you. You’ve got to keep moving.

I keep moving, but I’m doing it alone and I can’t take myself in such large doses. Everything I do, I’m the one doing it. People keep telling me how healthy it is that I’m taking time off from having a boyfriend, how I have to learn to "enjoy my own company." If you haven’t heard it, this is the party line and I’m taking everyone’s word for it because the hard line is usually the most rewarding. If boring myself is the worst that happens, so be it.

Ever since Peggy Lee died two months ago I keep hearing her ask, "Is that all there is?" Well, is it? Do you stop getting sick of yourself, or is this all there is?

SJM Seeks Perfect Woman


Joanne, my relationship advisor, insists that the source of my problem is that I don’t know what I want. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” she said. I brought Jo in after reading that Lizzie Grubman and Gary Condit have hired “crisis managers” to help them through their times of need. My particular crisis is a little less immediate — I just need someone to love — but I always say: When in doubt, call in a pro.

Joanne said that I was too fickle, but I take exception to that characterization. Fickle, according to my Webster’s dictionary, means: changeable, especially regarding affections or attachments; inconstant, capricious. Anyone who knows me would disagree. I am as constant as the stars above, and the older I get, the more fixed, rigid, and utterly without caprice I become. I may vary the object of my affections from time to time, but I myself, remain remarkably unyielding. If anything, I ought to be more fickle.

In some ways, it’s easier to identify the things you don’t like in a person, and use those traits to whittle down the list of prospects to a manageable number. It may not be an exact method, but I tend to take the approach that you can disqualify a candidate for the things you simply cannot abide. Any one of these things individually could be forgiven, but if a woman has two or more in any combination, let’s just shake hands and call it a day.

So, what do I want? Hmmm….Let’s see….I think it’s very important that she speak English with reasonable fluency. I seem to be casting as wide a net as possible, while excluding most of the world at the same time. For simplicity’s sake, she has to live in an adjacent area code — geographical desirability further narrowing the search.

No extremes. No drunks, gluttons, religious fundamentalists or vegans need apply. She shall not be indigent, flatulent or otherwise unusually odoriferous. She may not smoke during daylight hours. She may have pets, but no more than two. The same goes for children and ex-husbands.

She can’t work as a prostitute or terrorist, or be involved with cock fighting. She should not currently be married. She cannot be a convicted and/or escaped felon, or a Nazi sympathizer. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s important to maintain exacting standards like these to weed out the riff-raff.

Certain things are matters of taste. She must not listen primarily to rap, country, heavy metal or Streisand, nor may she like Steven Seagal movies. She can’t wear caftans or drive a truck. She may not have more than one small tattoo (placed somewhere discreet), nor any piercings in the middle of her head. Toe ring = good; nose ring = bad.

A woman can’t be any of the “Seinfeld” things: low-talker, close-talker, high-talker, a nudist, or a “Yada Yada.” She can’t have man-hands, eat her peas one at a time, or have ever dated Newman.

In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” confirmed bachelor Benedick considers the charms of fair Lady Beatrice: “Till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.”

I couldn’t agree more, Bill, but she can’t be a redhead, whether it pleases God or not.

There’s a bad old joke that says the perfect woman is a mute nymphomaniac who owns a pizza joint and a liquor store. While that may be too much to hope for, it is important to know what you do want in a partner.

I’m afraid that anything else I might say here could lead some to call me a shallow, controlling elitist. And so what? I’m sorry, but she can’t be much taller than I am. Does that make me a heightist? I wouldn’t mind having these people in my neighborhood, I just don’t want to put any of them in a position to kill me in my sleep.

The math says that it’s next to impossible to get two people together who don’t have at least one thing driving the other crazy. No one can honestly say “None of the above” on the Things One Cannot Abide Test. So, it turns out that after all the searching, the most attractive person to you is actually the one you find least objectionable.


J.D. Smith is @ www.lifesentence.net.

And Guest


To all the people who’ve invited me to events with those two fateful words, “And Guest,” I apologize.
I’m sorry you have to look through your wedding or shower or Bar Mitzvah photos and say, “Who’s that?” when looking at my date.

“What was his name?” said my aunt, squinting at the uncomfortable-looking guy standing next to me in a wedding photo.

It’s a familiar question for me. In my defense, I’d like to say that at the time, it always seems that Mr. And Guest is The One, soon to be a permanent fixture in my life and in my family. Is it my fault I’m either exceedingly optimistic or hopelessly misguided?

It’s not like I’ve intended to burden the world with my endless stream of McBoyfriends. I didn’t mean to squeeze that extra platter of mass-produced salmon out of you. I never wanted to give you another mouth to feed, one you don’t know or care to know.

It’s just that it’s no fun going solo. Case in point: a recent wedding in Catalina. Sure, there were a couple possibilities in the And Guest pool, but none seemed close enough to bring. I couldn’t handle the guilt, the photo review session, the “Who was that guy?”

I spent the weekend alone, a lone star in a galaxy of couples. All that beauty — the postcard blue ocean, the sailboats — seemed to mock me all weekend long.

“Look at me,” said the sunset. “I’m beautiful, you’re not. Otherwise, you’d have an And Guest, you loser. Goodbye.”

I woke up one morning that weekend with an early-morning inner vortex of need, that stomach-twisting, I-need-my-mother-or-a-good-cup-of-coffee feeling. I went and sat on the sidewalk with my cell phone and called home.

“Just bring a date next time,” my mom said. Right. How obvious.

But those magic words “And Guest” have begun to disappear from my invitations. Throwing a big party is expensive, and who wants to foot the bill for someone’s disposable guest? I totally understand. According to Internet-based etiquette specialists The Wedding Women, unless you’re married, engaged or living with a boyfriend, it’s not wrong or rude to make you go it alone.

“Sure, everyone has a better time when they’re invited with a date, but many couples limit the number of guests by inviting cohabitating partners only,” they advise.

Let’s face it, budgetary constraints aside, those wild card “And Guests” can add color to any affair. Sometimes they’re weird computer programmers, scantily clad new girlfriends or other gossip-worthy types that give everyone something to talk about. And Guests can really break up the monotony of socializing with the usual suspects, even if they are only begrudgingly welcome.

I have to be clear about one thing; it’s not so bad to be single. I embrace it. I choose it. I’m not complaining. For now, that’s just the way it is for many of us 20-somethings who are taking our time before cohabitating or marrying.

Still, think of us when you’re debating whether or not to invite with guest. Picture us driving to Calabasas, Ventura or some other hinterland all alone. Imagine us clutching a hard little dinner roll and scanning the room with a look of calm and confidence artificially etched on our faces. Picture us dancing with your 6-year-old nephew, because it’s that or trade “how do you know the groom” stories with an accountant and his wife from Ohio.

Ultimately, it’s just as rude to thrust some unwanted guest on a party-giver as it is to dispense with the feelings of us single guests. Trust us, I say. Give us the option of And Guest or And Escort and let us use our discretion to decide what would be appropriate. Sometimes, we’ll mess up. Trust me, we’ll feel guilty about it. Mostly, though, we’ll be able to enjoy your celebration more with someone in our corner.

Again, my apologies to anyone I’ve imposed upon. But the more I think about it, the less bad I feel. I think my favorite etiquette advice was from an article in Town & Country magazine. “While changing times have raised new questions about propriety, the very questions that will help you answer them — thoughtful-ness, sensitivity, maturity — are the same ones upon which strong marriages are built.” The article continues: “In the end, good old-fashioned manners, and kind hearts, can be the most reliable compass for navigating all questions of etiquette.”

Isn’t that well put? I thought so.

Self-Help for Singles


“This is an amazing book,” said my friend Lynn, solemnly handing me my birthday present, a paperback she handled as though it were the Holy Grail. “But rip off the cover right away.”

When I looked down at my gift, I had the sudden urge to douse my hand in hydrogen peroxide. And then, of course, my fingerprints would need to be removed so that no evidence of my owning said book could ever come to light. The cover sported more pastel than a saleslady at Lane Bryant; there was a wash of banana yellow, a splash of minty hospital corridor green.

Cutting across the cover was a long rose with a simple gold ring around its stem. I stood still with a fake smile plastered on my face as I read the hideously desperate sounding title, “Getting to ‘I Do.'” Subtitle: “The Secret to Doing Relationships Right!”

This book, according to Lynn, had been passed around among her friends and had reportedly resulted in more than one engagement. Many in her circle had even gone to see the author, Dr. Patricia Allen, for a dose of her no-nonsense wisdom on catching a man. I tucked the book into my purse like contraband and drove home very, very carefully. Ratty underwear would not be nearly as embarrassing as dying in a car wreck with this little gem on my person.

“You must nourish a man’s self-esteem. Women who cannot allow themselves to feel ‘little’ next to their man are often afraid to be vulnerable and intimate. They believe they must feel ‘equal to’ or, worse, ‘better than’ their man,” Allen writes.

Wouldn’t the 1950s be proud. Did this thing make the Ralph Cramden memorial reading list, or what?

The feminist in me was a little horrified, but I couldn’t stop reading, which was surprising, since the last self-help book I bought was a little piece entitled “Let’s Get Off Our Butts and Do It!” which I never got off my butt and read. There was also “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” which scared me off with its vexing “Pain to Power” chart.

No such problems with this book. I was riveted.

“Does this sound like you?” Allen writes. “You’re alone, successful and the clock is ticking. … You have dated men who seem right in the beginning, but then it falls apart…usually within the first year.”

Well, that kind of sounds like me. And buried under a lot of antiquated logic about how women are “feelers” and men “thinkers,” were some concepts that smacked of reason. For one thing, she has a strict no-sex-until-commitment policy, which I strongly support.

My favorite chapter was called “Oxytocin, the Love Hormone,” which describes how oxytocin, a sexually stimulated hormone, triggers a bonding response in women akin to physical addiction. It’s not love. It’s just a potent chemical that makes you think the guy you woke up with is the love of your life. Good to know.

The allure of this book, and dozens of others like it, is that it appeals to the human need to see patterns. There is only one man! This is how he behaves! Follow the rules, and you can predict his behavior!

Like a horoscope, it’s tempting to project these grand notions onto our lives, especially because some of them have the breathtaking, page-turning, ring of truth.

Would a man be caught dead reading one of these books? No, according to author J.D. Smith, a 39-year-old from Los Angeles who recently published “Life Sentence: The Guy’s Survival Guide to Getting Engaged and Married.” No pastel, no admonitions to “love yourself;” just a humorous look at what his “comrades in arms” have in store after tying the knot.

There’s the usual stuff: Your wife won’t let you hang out with your friends; your in-laws will drive you nuts; women like to shop as opposed to watching sports; certain sexual practices will trickle off noticeably. He serves up obvious information but with a cleverness and brutal honesty that men might find more appealing than roses and flowery prose.

As in Allen’s book, Smith delivers some poignant insights and comes out on the side of matrimony. Marriage, he concludes, is a good thing, if for no other reason than “you’ll always have a New Year’s date.”

His real brilliance comes in the chapter “Meet Your Wife,” in which he advises men: “Always put your wife on a pedestal. You don’t even notice her pimples. If you do, don’t flinch.”

This is great advice even if it does lump all women into that one fictive “wife.” Still, I wondered if any self-respecting man would buy this tongue-in-cheek but still relationship-oriented book.

I showed “Life Sentence” to my single friend Gary. He eyed it, flipped through it and at no point treated it like a rabid ferret to be dropped with haste.

“Would you pay 10 bucks for this thing?” I asked.

Not taking his eyes off the chapter entitled, “The Bachelor Party,” he said, “I’d pay $20.”


Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.