November 22, 2019

Letters to the Editor: Hillary, Islam, and reflections on Mom’s stuff

Going Through Mom’s Stuff

I am an 88-year-old mother of two, grandmother of five and great-grandmother, recently widowed. I strongly relate to the article regarding Teresa Strasser’s mother, since I have a lot of stuff, which I love and cherish (“Can You Rest in Peace While Your Stuff Rests in a Dumpster?” Sept. 2). It breaks my heart that the only place she could find for her mother’s stuff was a dumpster! 

Surely someone who has no mother or stuff to inherit would treasure something that was loved! I sincerely hope that my family will not only cherish what I loved, but in reverence donate this mother lode of belongings to a better place. I could never have done that with my mother-in-law’s “treasures,” nor my mother’s. 

Donna Rothman

Encino

 

How happy I was to see Teresa Strasser’s name on your cover. I, too, am an avid collector, a retired dealer, and although in my 80s, I am still out there looking for stuff.

However, when I read the article, I felt so sad. I almost cried when I read about the box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill. The “shady dude” who was going to cart it all away was, in reality, earning a living by sorting it all out and either selling it to other dealers or selling it himself at a flea market. And those customers who are lucky enough to see the possibilities in giving these tchotchkes a new life are reaffirming her mother’s passion for the charm or beauty of things created by others.

Recently, I moved from a house to an apartment. The kids took some stuff and the things I still wanted were moved to my new digs. The rest was sold by a hard-working crew of estate liquidators. And I was there, watching as prospective buyers fell in love, hondled and acquired my treasures. My children know that when I die, the same estate sale people will dispose of my collections to appreciative new owners.

Evelyn Bauer

Reseda

The Hard Truth

Reading David Suissa’s column, you might imagine that respect for the truth is primarily a Hillary Clinton problem and the fact that Clinton is only somewhat “better than [Donald] Trump” is what leads Suissa’s friends to overlook her lack of truthiness (“The Problem With Hillary,” Sept. 2). Wow! Suissa says nothing about Trump’s relationship with the truth, let alone that Politifact found 76 percent of Trump’s statements to be untruthful and that The Huffington Post found that Trump uttered one falsehood every 1.16 minutes during a town hall.  

Most of my friends who support Hillary are more concerned that Trump wants to take away medical insurance from millions of Americans, that he cannot imagine why we don’t consider using nuclear weapons in regional conflicts, that he would accept Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, that he has encouraged a level of hate and racism that no other presidential candidate in recent memory has done, that he would threaten women’s reproductive rights, that Trump is a climate change denier of the first order, and that he promotes economic policies that would add $11.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Edward Friedman

Beverly Hills

 

The Republican outrage about the Clinton Foundation is itself outrageous. Republicans think giving money to politicians is free speech, not legalized bribery, and they think it’s good for America and good for democracy. Republicans brought the case of Citizens United before the Supreme Court, and they love the ruling and the results.  

When Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and other Republican billionaires give millions of dollars to gain access to politicians, Republicans have no problems with any of that. But if Hillary Clinton plays by the same rules as the Republicans, suddenly the Republicans are up in arms about money for access.

As a Democrat, I think the whole thing stinks. I hate it when Hillary takes money for access just as much as when any Republican politician takes money for access. It doesn’t really matter to me if there is no quid pro quo. And I don’t see any meaningful distinction between the money for access coming from domestic or foreign sources. Having said that, Republicans are being totally inconsistent and intellectually dishonest about Hillary. The hypocrisy of the Republicans is appalling. 

Michael Asher

Valley Village

 

Trump and the Jews

Upon reading Rob Eshman’s article “Donald Trump, the Jewish Savior” (Sept. 2), we feel it necessary to express our total disagreement with the so-called Jewish majority view. Although Mr. Trump had not been our favorite candidate in primaries, the way he is treated by the “almighty” media (including the Jewish one), which distorts every word he ever said and then uses their own interpretation of his suggestions and ideas to influence public opinion, makes us sick. 

It is sad that so many American Jews can’t see beyond the political correctness and are ready to vote for a completely corrupt, lying individual, whose so-called “achievements” are bringing harm to our country and to our staunch ally Israel. Having lived for over 40 years in the former Soviet Union (a champion of politically correct lies) before coming to the USA in 1979, we can see clearly which direction Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and the like are leading our country, and it scares us a lot.

Nina Ryskin, Geta Sukharev

via email

 

Soar Like an Eagle

I truly enjoyed the article about Yekutiel Greiff (“On the Wings of Eagles,” Sept. 2) and was privileged to attend a court of honor where he was awarded his Eagle rank with Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood. He is one of many young men who have earned the Eagle rank through local Boy Scout troops. Many local Jewish organizations have been the beneficiaries of their Eagle projects.

Now is a great time for parents and children to consider following in Yekutiel’s footsteps and learning more about Jewish values through Scouting. Those who are interested should contact scoutmaster@bhtroop360.org to learn more about local Jewish Boy Scout, Cub Scout and Girl Scout units.

Hal Schloss

Scoutmaster, Troop 360

 

A Differing View of Islam

I don’t know Jannah Jakvani, but her piece in the Sept. 2 issue displayed either astonishing ignorance of her own religion (Islam) or deliberate falsehood (“A Muslim Joins With Jews to Complete the Circle of Courage Against Hate”).

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, did not stand “for dignity of all people.” (If he had, there would have been no slaughters at his orders of the Jews of the Banu Qurayza or the Khaybar Oasis.) Nor does Islam literally mean peace, as Jakvani says — it means submission to the Islamic deity. The history of Islamic invasions, massacres, robbery, destruction, enslavement, contempt for unbelievers, and institutional degradation and unequal treatment of them in Islamic law is known to anyone who bothers to read up on the subject.

Perhaps the worst thing in this article is the writer’s attempt to equate anti-Semitism with so-called “Islamophobia,” a term invented to cover up the justified fear of jihadist attacks.

Chaim Sisman

Los Angeles

 

Jungreis Deserved Better

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, an icon of American Jewry, died on Aug. 23. I awaited your issue of Aug. 26 to see a cover story on this amazing woman who inspired both Jews and non-Jews worldwide. No mention of the highly esteemed Rebbetzin Jungreis.

Well, they’re planning something special for an upcoming issue, I thought hopefully. Something befitting the most mesmerizing speaker of my lifetime. What do I find? An impersonal obituary from the JTA on page 34 (“Esther Jungreis, Orthodox Jewish Outreach Pioneer, 80,” Sept. 2). 

The cover is devoted to Teresa Strasser’s disposing of her mother’s “stuff.” Duh? Tamara Strasser and her stuff obviously “merited”  numerous photos and nine times the space that Rebbetzin Jungreis received. I fear that something is seriously wrong with your values and priorities.

Frederica Barlaz

Los Angeles

 

Apostates, Then and Now

I wholeheartedly agree with Dennis Prager’s premises and argument presented in the article “The Left (Still) Is Not Our Friend” (Sept. 2). However, I beg to differ on the last sentence in the article, “The only difference is that there were no Jews then who supported those Christians.” As far as I know, the first claims of “Blood Libel” were made by Jewish apostates. I consider Jewish leftists and other “fellow travelers” as modern-day Jewish apostates, betrayers of their own people by spreading lies about Israel.  

Jerry Kraim

 Northridge

 

Mattering Less

Regarding your cover art on the August 19 issue, which says “Black Lives Matter: Where Do We Fit In?” The answer is we don’t. All you needed to do was see the emphasis on the coverage at the recent Olympic Games of Black gymnast Simone Biles versus the coverage received by Aly Raisman. We’re old hat.

Martin Goldstein

Woodland Hills

Can you rest in peace while your stuff rests in a dumpster?

When my mom died, I had to find a home for her panther. Not an actual endangered wild cat, a lamp.

Picture a glossy, garish panther base topped with a cherry red, tiered lampshade, exactly like the hats once worn by the members of the alternative, new wave band Devo. I had seen that lamp my whole life on her nightstand and the only thing I ever wanted to do was “Whip It.”

But after she died, I was haunted that I had left the panther in her condo in Las Vegas, to be dealt with by some shady dude our real estate agent knew, who agreed to show up with his pickup as soon as we were done taking what we wanted and remove whatever was left. Where it went after that, I’ll never know, but I’m guessing there’s a decent chance the panther spent some time at the bottom of a dumpster getting the stink eye from the ruddy-cheeked plaster of Paris orange that lived in my mom’s kitchen, cheering me up and creeping me out in equal parts. My mom knew how to put the kitsch in kitchen. 

She never met a flea market or garage sale she didn’t like. 

Did she have great taste? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder, but it is safe to assume not a single person who ever beheld my mom’s collectibles thought, “Wow. That’s a style I’d like to emulate.” Still, there’s something about her relentless dedication to her own aesthetic that you have to respect. If she couldn’t figure out how to be refined and elegant, she wasn’t even going to try. Her choices added up to a cluttered, confusing, cacophonous visual environment. If her decorating style were a song, you would have to change the station, immediately. But it was her song, and over the years, she did nothing but turn up the volume. She cranked it. And now, she’s gone. The music ended but the stuff remained. And as her daughter, and her only surviving child, it was on me to reckon with all of it when she died two months ago. 

The sorting of the stuff, for me, and I’m guessing for others in the same chipped gravy boat, is one of the most visceral experiences of loss. 

In a way, we are like that jaunty orange, those three sets of schnauzer salt and pepper shakers, that gilded frame flanked by brass peacocks: important and cherished in the context of belonging to the person who is gone. Now: value unknown

You might think, when faced with mountains of your mother’s tchotchkes, she’s gone, what does it matter if I give my baby-sitter a fishing tackle box of vintage Mexican silver bracelets, large-scale brooches, faded Bakelite cuffs? What does it really matter if her print of a hula girl ends up in a thrift store in unincorporated Clark County?

Personally, I don’t have room for much stuff, fruit-themed Chalkware folk art or otherwise. I don’t live in a world where there’s much call for speckled, pastel Bauer nesting bowls or an embroidered Ukrainian silk shirt from the old country. I’m all full up with the batting gloves and flash cards and Spider-Man costumes that likely fill the home of any mom of two young boys.  

What’s more, to me, a produce curio is a gateway knickknack, inevitably leading to harder stuff. One minute you’re propping up your sentimental smiling citrus fruit, the next, you’re climbing over seven mint green midcentury modern pitchers just to get to your Mr. Coffee. Don’t get me started on the framed photos. My mom and I had a complicated relationship, but in the end, I was the only person she wanted to see when she was dying, and, apparently, she also wanted to see plenty of me around her home, where there were images of my brother and me on just about every available square inch of wall space.

Perhaps I’m making her home sound more hoarder-like than it was. It was cramped, but tidy enough, with no discernible scent other than what I might describe as “top notes of leather handbag.” To be fair, she downsized like most of our parents will at some point, but while her living space shrank, the number of lamps and pitchers and photos never did. 

And, of course, there were the paintings.

A seascape by Nota Koslowsky.

Let me double down on doing away with objects important to dead people. In particular, I’m talking about oil paintings by my dead mom’s super dead uncle, who died before I was born.

At one point, Nota Koslowsky was a fairly well-respected artist and teacher who made extra money illustrating books, including a popular Passover haggadah published in 1944. My mother had several of his works, which she’d held onto since her married days in the San Fernando Valley, through her single mom days in San Francisco, up until the very end. Picture a young shepherd girl playing a flute, wearing a red scarf. Well, Nota did, and he painted her and she had her charms, but in the end, only his dark, woodsy forest scene made the cut. 

I had to make choices, parse all the stuff, select just a few things to keep (like the jade pendant I’m wearing as I type this), a few things to pass along to relatives and everything else to leave for the random guy and his truck. Did that mean it was right to 86 Nota’s portrait of a lighthouse? I don’t know. I have to talk myself down off a rocky seaside ledge of guilt every time I think about it. But in my haste and grief, that’s what I did.

I admit I probably did err on the side of chucking too much, too fast. But my mom had died just days before, four months to the day after my brother died of cancer at 47, and I had just had too much, too many dead relatives, too many folded letters and fading photos gathering in shoe boxes in my closet, too many overlapping stages of grief. My boys were bounding around her condo, leaving a light dusting of road-trip Bugles wherever they went, and the clock was ticking on their ability to hang out patiently while I sorted and cried. Plus, there was only so much I could fit into my minivan, or for that matter, my home, my life. 

As it happened, just before my mom died, I had read the best-selling Japanese organizing book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Cleaning and decluttering icon Marie Kondo didn’t write it for grieving daughters on cleanup duty, but some of the principles spoke to me nonetheless. 

“Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them,” she writes. “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.”

Kondo’s guiding credo is that you should physically handle each item in question and keep only those that spark joy. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past,” she explains. So maybe it follows that in handling the things left by a departed loved one, you are also processing your relationship with that person, your own grief, your own past. 

In my mom’s congested Vegas bedroom, on a tray covered with opened mail and random pens, was a clay craft I had made as a child one summer at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department day camp. I remember sitting with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, doggedly rolling out pieces of clay into little worm shapes, stacking them together in a circle, making a lid that didn’t quite fit, painting the entire thing pastel yellow and pink after they baked it, and later handing it over to my mom, who was underwhelmed, to say the least. 

“Well, maybe crafting is not your thing,” she said laughing, this drooping, sad, clay atrocity in her hand. It was a parental slight I had never forgotten, a moment encompassing my mom’s sometimes brutal honesty, her awkwardness in relating to children, her inability to read the sadness on my face, the long days she parked me at various lame city camps at dodgy urban playgrounds. When I held the bowl, I thought about how long she had kept it, how many decades, how many moves, how she had chosen to keep it up until the end, and I just cried right into that crappy little craft because she was gone, and until the very day she died I could never just let her be, imperfect as she was, and accept her anyway. I felt the paint, smooth and cool against my hands, brushed my fingers across the too-small lid resting at the bottom of the bowl. I showed it to my boys. Then I tossed it. 

Letting her things go with gratitude was right, but I still felt a pang when I thought about Nota’s lighthouse, or the Chalkware cherries that lived alongside the grinning orange, or the panther that once prowled Mom’s nightstand next to her black-and-white TV, the one we would watch together in her room at night when I was little, on the rare occasions she would let me sleep with her, when I was too scared or lonely to resist breaching her private space. She was generally pretty reserved when it came to doling out maternal warmth, stressed by her two jobs, detached, overwhelmed, but on those nights, she would sing me a lullaby she made up consisting mostly of just my name, “Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Mama loves Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.” As a mother, she cycled wildly and unpredictably between overbearing and almost criminally negligent, but letting me watch a rerun of “Taxi” at 11:30 p.m., letting me be close to her, her voice in my ear, Louie De Palma cracking wise in the background, that was a memory of her I wanted to keep, a memory that was now mine alone, mine and the panther’s. 

The sorting and tossing actually asks what is arguably one of life’s central questions, one we don’t ever want to think about until we’re holding a batik scarf, dangling it over a “maybe” pile, wondering while it hovers: Can she see me now, or is she just gone? 

This just got heavier than a box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill in Henderson. 

And that’s where an organizing book is one thing, and a spiritual guide is another. I turned to Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founder and leader of Jewish spiritual outreach program Nashuva, and author of several best-sellers about faith, God and loss, including “To Begin Again.”

“I believe that there’s another dimension and it’s not a far dimension,” the rabbi explained to me over the phone, her voice calm and measured, her words thoughtful and deliberate. “I don’t believe heaven is a faraway place; it’s like a simultaneous place that we get small glimpses of in life. The soul comes from a place of eternity, from another dimension, and it descends to this world, this material world, and it’s here for a mission — to create connections and healings — and there are daily missions and there are missions that take a lifelong period of time. But when it’s time, the soul returns to its place of eternity and the body returns to the earth.”

And the stuff that once belonged to that body and soul? 

“I just feel very strongly that the part of your mom that collected stuff is gone,” Levy reassured me.

“The part of the soul that remains is the part that’s connected to things of eternity, not temporality: beauty, divinity, oneness and love.” 

So while the part of her that cared about possessions was gone, my mother, according to Rabbi Naomi, was not. 

At that point, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she still has a box of her own mother’s sweaters in a box under her bed. Though she lost her mom several years ago now, the sweaters still carry her smell, and every now and again she takes them out to get a whiff. That’s how I feel about the few things I kept, like the jade charm. It touched her and now it’s touching me, so there’s a sensory reminder of the deeper spiritual truth: “Souls who loved us are never far away.” 

Stuff can help us mourn, but that doesn’t mean my mom is in heaven having a conniption because I subtracted her Russian nesting dolls.

Whatever and wherever her soul is, a part of her showed up on my doorstep last week. She arrived courtesy of the Neptune Society, in a cardboard box shipped for $63.01.

As to where to scatter her ashes, she left that up to me. I guess I will return them to the earth. Most likely, the earth underneath a flea market, where the vintage lace doilies are plentiful, the plaster fruit always smiles, and the ceramic creatures roam free.

Tamara Strasser


Teresa Strasser is an Emmy- and Los Angeles Press Club Award-winning writer and author of the best-selling memoir “Exploiting My Baby” (Penguin). Currently, she co-hosts “The List Weekend,” a syndicated TV show from the E.W. Scripps Co. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons.

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head

There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Opinion: Chewable Xanax and the shoe debacle

I had to look inside myself, which was kind of like looking into my high school locker: moldy half-eaten sandwich, a few loose Starburst candies, heaps of notebooks and burrito-stained gym clothes obscuring the few things of value. Sure, there’s a book of Sylvia Plath poems and a valid bus pass, but good luck finding them while avoiding that festering tuna salad from yesteryear. 

When I looked inside myself, it took a second to clear out the debris. Also, I usually forget the combination to the stupid lock.

All of this inner turmoil was catalyzed by one simple moment, just picking up my 2-year-old from day care. He went to put on his shoes and socks, struggled mightily, finally succeeded, after which he looked at me, paused for a beat and started bawling. He lunged at me for a hug and I knelt down to look him in the eye.

“I’m scared,” he said, sobbing. Me, too, dude. If I wanted to see someone overreact to one of life’s challenges, I could just look in a mirror.

My child, facing a difficult task, got through it only to melt down completely. It’s happening, I thought. This kid needs chewable Xanax.

Hoping his day care teacher didn’t notice, but knowing she had, I grabbed his coat and hustled him out of there.

Driving home, I was baffled. I mean, you would think irrational crying jags related to under-achieving would be right up my dark alley, but this one had me stumped. I knew he put on his socks and shoes after naptime every single day, but I was uncharacteristically early that day, and I happened to be there. Had I thrown off his game? Did he have performance anxiety doing this important task in front of Mom? Have I already passed along some deep, depressing cultural pressure to earn love through accomplishment?  

The day after the shoe debacle, the day care lady snagged me as I turned to exit.

“We have to talk about what happened with the shoes,” she whispered gently. I knew she was right.

According to her, the problem wasn’t in his skill level, but in his confidence. “You need to tell him that you know he can do it. He doesn’t think you believe in him. You don’t trust him, so he doesn’t trust himself.”

That’s when I looked into the rusty old locker of my soul and realized; she is right. I wanted to think it was some Montessori mumbo-jumbo, but I knew it was the truth.

When I saw his little hands struggling with the heels of his tiny socks, it looked so impossible, getting them up, closing the Velcro on his sneakers, the whole thing just looked too hard, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to jump in and help him. The truth is, I didn’t think he could do it, and he sensed that, and he got scared and wept.

“But, you won’t pass the bar,” said my mom to my brother, moments after he announced he would be applying to law school.

He passed the bar on the first try and has been a lawyer for years, but you see how this runs in my family, runs like a kid with inside-out socks.

Since the day care talking-to, I have kept a watchful eye on myself. I convince myself to believe he can hold onto the swing chains without falling, no matter how high I push him. I convince myself that I believe he can spear pieces of broccoli with his fork, or hang up his coat, or turn pages of a book.

Fear of those you love failing isn’t mean or belittling or dismissive; it’s a protective mechanism. That doesn’t make it right. If I don’t have confidence in the little things now, I could project the idea that I don’t trust him to tackle big things later. So, I guess I have to trust myself to at least fake trusting him. Locker closed.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest

Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal’s award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from “I will” to “I do.” And we’re sure they’ll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, “If we ever get married, let’s just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don’t like lots of people staring at me, I don’t like inconveniencing people because it’s ‘my special day,’ and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do.”

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine’s Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don’t love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I’m a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I’m stealing your son? I couldn’t say, “I don’t” to a communal “I do.”

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, “Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900.” Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don’t drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again — for one day — in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that’s going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, “Man, she used to be a lot thinner.”

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel’s sister, into our ceremony.

It’s not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother’s wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it’s important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel’s eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn’t talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn’s wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn’t want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that’s how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn’t totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister’s gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I’ve now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I’ll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don’t care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don’t disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He’s wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t mine, maybe it was hers.

N.Y. or L.A. — which is better for dating?

In my now perhaps exceedingly long life as a single woman, I’ve lived in both New York and Los Angeles.

When people ask me which city is better when it comes to
dating, I can only answer by citing a famous scene from the horror classic, “When a Stranger Calls.”

The babysitter is getting threatening calls in a pre-Caller ID world. The police trace the calls and inform her in one chilling sentence: “It’s coming from inside the house.”

And so it is with dating.

That one scene scared me out of seeing horror movies or babysitting for the rest of my life. On the upside, it gives me some shorthand for my philosophy on this whole topic. If you are one of those people kvetching about the atrocious singles scene here in Los Angeles or wherever you happen to live, you may want to trace the call. Could it really be that an entire city is filled with flakes, players, gold-diggers, idiots, bimbos and trolls? Is it possible that there truly isn’t one single prospective mate in your age range without a mental disorder? More likely, the call is coming from inside the house.
It isn’t the city. It’s you. Bitter, intolerant and hopeless don’t play anywhere. If they did, my 20s would have been a lot more fun. I know it can be painful to be single, and I’m not blaming the victim — I’m blaming the victim mentality.

In my experience, who you are and how you see the world have much more to do with relationship success than your zip code.
Folks will disagree with me, they will get passionate about the lack of a “walking culture” here, the surfeit of plastic people with no spiritual core. Over there, over here, everyone has strong opinions on the subject. Having been single in Los Angeles, in San Francisco (where I grew up and lived until age 23) and in New York, I tell you it makes no difference. No difference at all.

At the risk of sounding like a refugee from a self-realization seminar, if you think you won’t find a man, you won’t. If you’ve decided all of the women here are stuck-up or beaten down, that’s what you’ll find. (Of course, there is the Kentucky Exception. My brother was transferred there for work and wound up dating all six girls on JDate before he was finished unpacking. Personality matters. But so does population.)

Here’s a story. I was living in New York working on a television news show. My friend fixed me up with her brother. We went out a couple of times before he stopped calling. Obviously, I wondered what I had done wrong, or why he had apparently fallen off the Staten Island Ferry. Luckily, I didn’t have to guess, because I had good intel from the sister.

Turns out, the guy had recently put on about 30 pounds and was sensitive about his appearance. He mentioned to me, as we were sitting at dinner, that he didn’t mind his recent weight gain. He patted his belly, if I recall, in a jovial sort of way.
“Really? That doesn’t bother you?” I asked, apparently with some disdain I hardly recall.

I don’t mind a big guy, so it never dawned on me that he was offended, which, according to his sister, he most certainly was. If you want a guy to lose your number, lose your decorum and hurt his ego. Just a little something I’ve learned along the way.

Here’s my point. I was insensitive and had a big mouth, qualities I unfortunately don’t save for when I land at JFK.
A couple of weeks later, I had another blind date. He showed up, a tall man with nice manners in a camel-hair coat, and I thought: “Great, count me in.” Until the third date, when the conversational well ran bone dry and I started mentally rehearsing my news segment for the next day while counting the dots on the wallpaper of a pizzeria on the Upper East Side.

I decided to give him another chance. Turns out, he was just nervous and quiet and Southern. We ended up dating two and a half years and are still close friends to this day. Listen, I may have my faults (see above rude comment that probably sent a man careening toward a bucket of cheese fries) but I’m also pretty open-minded. I give a guy a chance. I do that wherever I live. The ups and downs in my dating career have everything to do with my assets and foibles and nothing to do with the locale.

Just to show off some range, I’m going to go from a 1979 horror film to the golden age of Spanish Jewry. According to the philosopher and poet Moses ibn Ezra, “From your opinion of others, we know the opinion of you.”

Or like my dad says, “You spot it, you got it.” The horror movie, the philosopher, my pops, they’re all saying the same thing.

This is pretty good news when you think about it. Wherever you live right now can be the best place for meeting people in the world. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. You just change the outgoing message, and wait for the phone to ring.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

The Candy Man Can


If you’ve ever tried to split a Big Hunk candy bar — the kind made out of brittle white nougat and peanuts — then you understand a typical breakup. It’s usually not
neat, like a Kit Kat, two for you, two for me, let’s go our separate ways and we’ll run into each other in three years at the Whole Foods with a good-natured hug in front of a platter of cubed cheese.

No, it’s usually more of a messy and twisted divide, with a few peanuts falling on the floor and someone always getting less than his or her fair share.
While everyone knows the “clean break” is the way to go, it’s rarely possible. Two people who were once in love are just not a Twix.

In fact, I will postulate that if you have ever succeeded in a truly clean break on the first try, you are most likely a sociopath. Not to be judgmental, but you’re not capable of real love.

To be honest, I would assume the “clean break” was an urban myth, if I hadn’t experienced one, against my will, at the cruel hand of an episodic television writer who had a lingerie model on the back burner.

He had no interest in my desperate plea to “just be friends while we figure things out.” In fact, he never wanted to speak to me again, and he never did. In fact, he once ducked out of a coffee shop after noticing me inside — with a theatrical sprint toward his BMW, years after we broke up. I would like to say I admire his sanitary approach to people-leaving, but I would like even more to point out that his mode is out of reach for all but the most disciplined or emotionally crippled among us.

Instead, the majority of us face a few agonizing days alone before launching into a despair-fueled effort to shove the pieces back together again. In my experience, there is usually the mini-reconciliation, the second break up, the third mini-reconciliation and the final coup de grace when one or both of you inevitably remembers why you broke it off in the first place.

Alternatively, if you are gifted at conning yourself, you may set up a series of spectacularly delusional relationship “experiments” to be played out before the final curtain comes down.

These experiments may include any of the following: Let’s try seeing other people, but only sleeping with each other. Let’s go back to “dating” and recapture the “honeymoon phase.” Let’s only see each other once a week. Let’s move into separate rooms of the house. Let’s take some “time off.” Let’s avoid ever mentioning: that girl from the office you cheated with, your mother who insulted me at your nephew’s bar mitzvah, the job you quit because it was “boring,” or any other topic that always leads to a blow-up. Let’s up the couples counseling to twice a day. Let’s only communicate via e-mail or sonic vibration and echolocation. Let’s come up with a cute code word for every time you do that thing that drives me nuts, maybe “Octopus.”

You know how it goes. For a couple of weeks, you’re both on your best behavior. You say “Octopus” and giggle at the relationship’s former infirmity. Those few tear — or bourbon — soaked nights of being apart are still so fresh in your memory, you will give any farkakta plan a try just to avoid being alone and truly accepting that a thing which was once viable is now on the slag heap.

I am now six weeks past a second faux break-up and mini-reconciliation and into the real Break Up. The talking, texting and doomed plans are all behind me.
It’s over, and I knew it would be, but I loved the guy, and after almost three years we were intertwined (think Nestle 100 Grand Bar), so I did the human thing and sunk my teeth into a few squares of denial and pain postponement. I don’t have a new boyfriend or any new addictions, I’m just feeling sad now like I’m supposed to, and that’s the best idea, as far as I know.

My friend Cammy says if you don’t feel ripped up after a break up, if you don’t try some idiotic plan to make it work again, you didn’t do the relationship right. If you don’t hurt, your heart wasn’t in it and that’s why you can walk away neatly with your half of the Almond Joy, leaving nary a crumb on the floor.
All these candy bar metaphors, while hopefully evocative, have made me hungry. And break ups make me hungry. So while I couldn’t manage it in “real life,” I can now pay a buck for two great tastes that taste great together. And a confection that’s easy to split.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Singles – Painted Clowns

As part of our stroll down memory lane, it seemed fitting to reprint a column by one of our most popular writers. Teresa Strasser, now a regular on prime-time television and morning radio, generated stacks of reader mail with pieces such as this one.

I’m drinking at a bar called the Dirty Horse on Hollywood Boulevard. Well, that’s not the real name, but I never got a look at the sign and that name seemed right.

It fits the place, with its plastic pitchers of beer, painted clowns on black velvet, bowls of peanuts and the fast-talking, baseball-hat-wearing guy at the end of the bar who clutches a clipboard and swears he can hook you up with tickets to a taping of “Yes, Dear.”

That’s the nature of the place, a bar — where as you can probably imagine — a half-pretty girl in a three-quarters-dark room gets served a pretty stiff drink. I’m drinking martinis for the simple reason that they work fast and I’m on a bit of a schedule. I’ve been on the road working for all but four days of the past six weeks and I’m wound up tight. I keep thinking about my perpetually overheating Taurus, the way the mechanic’s gloved hand slowly loosens the radiator cap and lets the steam out.

At some point, the line between Mickey Rourke and me blurs. I slur. I buy drinks for strangers. I spill the contents of my purse onto the floor. By the end of the night, I have no cash, none.

In the interest of making sure the cliché train doesn’t miss a single stop, I make out with my ex-boyfriend, who is my designated driver and seated on the stool next to mine. It is later reported to me that without warning, I burst into tears and had an impassioned discussion about not much in said ex’s ear.

Hold that thought.

Several months before the Dirty Horse, I was out with a guy my girlfriend dubbed Sexy Pete. Pete’s in the music industry, dresses well, appears to take his workout regime very seriously and would never let you pay for dinner. Sexy Pete has been around. Normally, I’d never go out with a guy who exudes more sex appeal than mensch appeal, but my friend talked me into it.

“Now that you’re 30, things are different. In your 30s, you don’t worry so much. You just have fun,” she explained.

Not to shock you, but it turns out Sexy Pete just “wasn’t into a relationship right now.” Still, we went out a couple times before that last date, which ended up with me back at his place, very late at night. We talked on his couch. It got late, then early. He fell asleep and I was stuck there, not knowing whether to extricate myself from Sexy Pete’s sleepy grip or stay.

I thought to myself, “I’m in the apartment of a guy who couldn’t care less about me. He barely speaks. He has no interest in a relationship, a sentiment I finally understand has no hidden meaning for men. This is about to get really sad if I don’t leave now.”

Out I went. Pete, with all the enthusiasm of a catatonic patient at a hospital square dance, muttered, “Don’t leave.”

The door was already half shut, and it closed. I was out on an unfamiliar street in last night’s boots and skirt. I spotted my car in the harsh light of early morning and the old Taurus had a brand new ticket.

This is what I call a Karma Ticket, the kind you get when you are where you shouldn’t be. It never fails. You may also be familiar with the Nobility Ticket, the kind you get when you couldn’t move your car because you were working and didn’t want to lose your flow, listening to a friend discuss her divorce or otherwise doing good in the world. You feel good when you pay these and almost want to write in the memo line of your check, “Fee for being such a good person.”

Because I’m 30, I don’t cram the Karma Ticket in the glove compartment and forget about it until it doubles. I pay it.

Now back to painted clowns.

I wake up after my evening at the Dark Horse. In my 20s, I would have had a series of concerns, sort of a self-administered shame questionnaire: Why did I do that? Should I still be dating that ex? What does it all mean? Why do I have to be such a jackass?

But now, it’s about slack. Just like my friend predicted, I don’t worry so much. I’m old enough to know what it costs to get wrapped up with a guy like Sexy Pete, which doesn’t mean I don’t get close, but it’s three dates and out. I don’t need to interpret what’s wrong with him or with me. I just move on with the mollifying impact of slack easing the way. I call the ex and we go over the highlights of the Dark Horse. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Here’s the thing, if you spend the night where you shouldn’t or get crazy on martinis once a year, there’s no need to judge yourself. When it comes down to it, a few painted clowns do not make your life a circus.

 

Unmarried Counseling

My neurosis is like a Ferrari. I can go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds.

One second, I’m nervous I may have said the wrong thing in a meeting; the next I’m convinced that the best way to deal with how horribly I’ve botched the situation is to toss myself off the Staten Island Ferry like Spalding Gray and be done with the whole mess.

Because of my superior emotional acceleration, I can’t take my mind to just any mechanic; I need someone good. And I need regularly scheduled maintenance and premium fuel. But to put the brakes on this metaphor and get to the point: I love therapy.

I’ve been to a baby-faced cognitive behavior specialist on New York’s Upper East Side (where they keep all the best therapists and where a Jew with a few problems can feel at home), a Buddhist in San Francisco got me through my early 20s without any felonies or lasting venereal diseases or suicide attempts. I’ve been to a “science of mind” practitioner in the Hollywood Hills who only takes referrals and once taught me how to buy a used car. I even went to a child psychologist when I was 8 and saw my cousin nearly drown. She was pulled out of the pool and revived, but I was traumatized. Thus began my trips to Lucy, a kindly older woman with a vaguely European accent who let me play with blocks and listened to me yammer. When it comes to head shrinking, I say, if you need it, go early and often.

Yet only now, after countless billable hours of therapy and multiple broken relationships, have I finally combined my two interests — men and mental health. Consider me officially “in couples counseling.”

That’s right, I’m not married, I’ve never been married, and yet I’m forking over $100 a week to sit on a nice woman’s worn leather couch in Tarzana and see if my relationship can be fixed.

I’ve only been twice but I’m already a fan. I’m not sure it’s going to patch up this particular relationship, but if it’s going to end, why not orchestrate a mature, gentle, thoughtful exit that doesn’t involve tossing someone’s belongings on the lawn and saying “good day.”

The truth is there are only so many perfectly good guys I can dispense with the second they bother me, annoy me, bore me, aggravate me or hurt me. I’m already on my zillionth serious relationship in life. Yeah, yeah, my parents had a scorched-earth divorce and historic custody battle, but if I want to figure out how to have some sort of “life partner,” I better get over it and figure out how to sustain the bad times without bailing. Because as it turns out, there will always be bad times, especially for me.

“You’re going to have these problems no matter what relationship you’re in,” said our new therapist, one of my best ever.

I suspected this, but she was so matter-of-fact about it, as if she were saying something as obvious as “the magazines in the waiting room are three months old.”

She also told us that when we fight, he’s a 12-year-old and I’m a 5-year-old, so it’s no wonder I feel bullied and he seems juvenile. This may shed some light on the fights we have, where he snaps at me and I cry for a couple hours, but the damage may be irreversible. When I sat next to him on the couch, I experienced the kind of rage that makes you light-headed, like you’re going to faint, or punch a wall, or roll your eyes right out of your head.

She zeroed right in on the problem, which is part of the spooky magic of therapy: “You’re confused. You don’t know how much is too much to put up with, what pain is from the past and has nothing to do with him.”

Isn’t this always the question? When is it time to go?

In my case, the answer has always been to run at the first sign of distress. I leave men, I leave jobs and I leave cities. I take my hand out of the fire before it burns, because that’s all I know. Now I have to figure out what happens if I leave it there.

“He isn’t a bad guy or I would tell you to leave and we’d have a separation discussion,” said the therapist, legs crossed, leaning back in her chair. “He just has terrible communication skills.”

After our first therapy session, we drove home feeling relieved, hopeful. Less than an hour later, we had a petty fight when he snapped at me for asking him twice whether he wanted a roll with dinner. There went the fantasy of the quick fix. Pass the butter and a whole new helping of resentment.

It’s normal for things to get worse right before they get better, according to the shrink. Of course, things also get worse right before you break up.

Teresa Strasser (www.teresastrasser.com) is an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She will be appearing at the University of Judaism as part of “The Gender Smackdown” on Sunday, Dec. 4. For information or to R.S.V.P., call (310) 476-9777, ext. 473.

 

And Mari Makes Three

Another woman has come into my relationship with my boyfriend, and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us.

A week ago, a 22-year-old Japanese foreign exchange student named Mari moved in with us for the month while she studies English in the morning and hip-hop dances in the afternoon.

She is everything you could want in a boarder. She’s polite, she came bearing gifts — a bottle of sake, two sets of lacquered chopsticks and a fan splashed with a Japanese mountain range — and she insists on washing dishes. I actually had to stop her from washing a paper bowl, that’s how sweet she is.

Mari, though she would never know it, may be saving my hobbled and frequently toxic relationship, at least for now.

Aside from being tiny, a taut wisp of a thing with streaky highlights in her bobbed hair, she is totally vulnerable. Even with her handheld electronic translating device, it’s difficult for her to communicate. She has never been to this country before, and everything from her bus pass to our currency is unfamiliar. We are all she has.

As her “home stay” parents, we are only required to provide a room, breakfast and dinner. Still, Mari, with her plastic bag full of gifts and her misspelled “Monkey Buisiness” T-shirt, is bringing out the best in us.

The night before her first day of school, my boyfriend, Brandon, spent an hour mapping out her bus route on the Internet.

“I think she’ll be OK,” he said, looking worried. “But maybe you should walk her. Don’t forget, her bus leaves at 11:46 a.m.”

The next morning, Mari made herself a bowl of cereal, washed her dishes and packed up her backpack for school. When we arrived at her bus stop on Virgil Street, the bench was littered with a pile of gnarled chicken bones. I was slightly embarrassed for my countrymen.

“Gross,” I said pointing.

“Yes, gross,” she said, but just laughed, gamely.

An urge from somewhere in the kishkas compelled me to give the girl a hug as I wished her luck in school. On my walk home, I was already planning what to make the three of us for dinner. Later that afternoon, I picked up some extra milk for her cereal.

As it happens, having a witness to your life and to your relationship can be positive. With Mari around, we can’t leave messes or get in three-hour fights about nothing or eat a tub of macaroni and cheese for dinner on the couch while watching six TiVo’ed episodes of “Lost.” Without discussing it, we have morphed into this “show” couple; part real, part what we wish we were.

We have this routine at the dinner table. Brandon teases me if I finish a beer, making a drinking motion with his hand, as if to imply that I drink too much. That’s when I say: “He is handsome, but not smart,” pointing to my head. This makes Mari laugh every time, a kind of remedial vocabulary vaudeville act. It’s the kind of faux-sparring an actual, real-life happy couple might engage in, and even though it’s forced by our joint need to entertain our guest — and even though we’ve been fighting for months since he moved out here from New York — it makes us feel happy, like a forced smile can make you feel happy.

One night, she was taking a late dance class and wasn’t scheduled to be home until after dark. I could see Brandon looking out the window, pacing. We decided to pick her up at the subway stop, waiting across the street at the Circle K. When she saw us waving to her out the car window, the look on her face was pure euphoria and gratitude.

“Thank you! Thank you!” she kept repeating all the way home.

And I don’t even mind how cheesy this sounds: money can’t buy that feeling.

Speaking of money, don’t think I’m some Mother Teresa taking in needy students to get closer to God. No, I’m just a girl with a mortgage.

Here’s the equation: spotty freelance income + many months since last fulltime television job + three-bedroom house = foreclosure. When a friend forwarded the language school’s Craig’s List posting, I thought, I’m saved.

So, as I bragged to my friends about becoming Mrs. Garrett from “The Facts of Life,” I booked not only Mari and another Japanese student for when she leaves, but also a 17-year-old French girl who arrives in October. My friends joke that maybe I shouldn’t be welcoming a parade of young women into my relationship. This concern is beyond me. I’m not the jealous type. If one of my students gets a job hosting a network show, she’ll be out on the street. But sleeping with my boyfriend? I don’t even worry about it. I may have problems with Brandon, but he’s no sleazebag.

And when it comes to playing the role of tall, handsome happy American man who can make spaghetti and who cares about your bus route, he’s pretty convincing. Even to me.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Child’s Play

Is our culture trying to scam us into having kids?

This is an epic question and I only have 850 words, so let me start close to home, with my grandma.

“Listen to me,” she said last week over the phone from Reseda. “You have to have kids. You’ll never regret it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Listen to your grandma.”

Catch any celebrity parent on a talk show and you’re likely to hear the same sentiment about the singularly life-changing effects of parenthood. When Jude Law, Eminem, Denise Richards and Esther Strasser agree on something, you have to give it consideration.

The only way to find out if this magical experience really happens, this moment of euphoric selflessness, this instant reshuffling of values and priorities, is to actually have or adopt a child of your own. There’s no other way to test the hypothesis. It’s like swallowing a new medication to see if it works for you. Let’s say it doesn’t, well, that’s one heck of a seizure you had to have to find out. Or worse.

“You can’t explain it,” parents tell me. “When it’s your own kid, you’ll understand.”

According to most parents, your own children’s cries rarely sound annoying and their poop literally doesn’t stink. In fact, their bodily fluids won’t gross you out at all and, in no time, you’ll be wiping their little noses with your bare hands and not minding one little bit.

You’ll excuse me if I need just a little more evidence. Here I am, somewhere between 29 and death, and I’ve got to figure out if it’s worth it, because if it is, I’m going to have to arrange my life accordingly; you know, decide if my mate is father material, maybe find some sort of stable employment, get air conditioning in my car.

I could be looking at years of carpools and making meals (which I don’t currently do for myself unless it involves a diet ginger ale and six pieces of toast), purchasing bottles and diapers and pajamas and “Harry Potter” books and “American Girl” dolls. With almost no proof that parenting is a positive experience, I’m expected to sign on for stomach flus, ballet recitals and protecting a vulnerable little being around every body of water, sharp surface and stranger.

There will be years of whining (assuming I’ll be a bad parent who can’t set boundaries) and tedious descriptions of what the cat is doing and what’s outside the car window. When I want to be alone, this will involve finding and paying a babysitter, who, if karma exists, will drink all of my beer and make long-distance calls. How will I even take a bath? Or go to the gym? I have to tell you, the closer I get to mating, the more freaked out I get. And I can’t get a straight answer.

In sharp contrast to the bill of goods grandma is trying to sell me, some mothers are admitting that it’s not all fuzzy blankies and painted clouds.

“Mothers Who Want to Kill Their Children,” screamed my TiVo, describing a recent episode of “Oprah.”

Actress Brooke Shields also went on “Oprah,” discussing her book about post-partum depression. I don’t know much, but I know this: If there’s a disorder dealing with hormone imbalances and resulting in wanting to drive a car into a wall, I’m going to get it. No matter what Tom Cruise says about natural healing, it’s going to take more than a few jumping jacks and some folic acid to make me all better. I’ll be the one at the Mommy and Me class staring out the window while my child is in the corner experimenting with matches.

It won’t surprise you to know that my mother wasn’t all that big on having children. It was the thing to do, so she did it, but it was never a passion of hers. I have to factor that into my ambiguity; my main maternal role model took a job driving a city school bus after I was born so she could afford a nanny to take care of me. Let that sink in. The woman preferred inhaling diesel fumes in Van Nuys to singing nursery rhymes and spoon-feeding.

My only hope that I won’t loathe parenting is the fact that I’ve raised two kitties from the pound. I know there’s no comparison at all to raising actual children, but I’m heartened by how much I adore my cats, pet their whiskers for hours and take them for shots without even resenting it.

I just wish I could trust parents. Once you have a kid, you sort of have to say you love the whole experience. Maybe nature even convinces you that you do. Maybe you get Stockholm syndrome, which is to say, you must fall for your tiny captor to survive the ordeal.

This brings me back to grandma. She seems like someone I can trust. What would she have to gain by lying to me? Oh yeah, grandchildren.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Singles – Poetry in Motion

In one night, I had dinner at an all-you-can eat salad bar in Arcadia, met my father’s first girlfriend in 25 years and weathered a nearly disastrous poetry emergency.

Sound the onomatopoetic sirens; this thing was a relationship 911. Free verse was about to cost my father the best relationship of his life. And it was my fault. What rhymes with “Zero tact”?

So there I was, sitting across the table from dad’s new girlfriend, trying to impress her, using my best table manners, eating forkfuls of canned beets on my self-consciously dainty salad and thinking to myself: “This is just weird.”

That’s when she paused, fiddled with the charms on her necklace and pushed her bangs away from her eyes.

She said, “I didn’t know what to wear. I had on a different outfit, but my kids and grandkids made me change clothes. I was really nervous to meet you.”

“Me too,” I replied, exhaling. “I’m used to introducing boyfriends to my dad, but I’ve never been on the other end. I’m so glad you’re nice!”

And it would have been quaint if that were the evening’s only awkward moment, the one we joked about later. Instead, our initial moment of bonding caused me to let down my guard. It happened slowly. First, we talked books. I recommended “The Corrections” and she suggested a short story by George Orwell. I loved her, black top, khaki pants and all.

Her most shining moment was when she joked about my dad’s “fold out” yard, the one at his mobile home.

“The yard is Astroturf,” she explained, in a just-us-girls way. “When I come over, your dad unfolds it for me. It’s like the mobile home’s red carpet.”

That she could not only accept a man whose “home” needs its tires rotated, but also make little inside jokes about it and at one point, according to my dad, even fix a leak in the mobile home’s roof, made me adore this woman. A nice lady, a high school Spanish teacher, even. I wanted to put in a good word for my dad, which is when things went sourer than yesterday’s bowl of wilting Caesar.

“Have you seen Dad’s Web site?” I asked innocently, sure she had. “I went on there the other day. How do you like having all those poems about you online? I hit the word ‘ravage’ and I was out of there.”

Stunned silence.

She fiddled with the charms again, which is when I noticed the crucifix. This is also when I observed her face flush and put it all together: schoolteacher, religious, neat ponytail, Republican. She had no idea about the poems, or the fact that the word “ravage” had been used in a sentence with her name.

“You know I’m a very private person. I told you whatever happens is between us,” she whispered, a bit panicky, glancing sidelong at my dad.

“Yeah, between you and anyone with access to the World Wide Web,” I muttered.

My dad and I burst into that explosive embarrassed kind of laugh, but we stopped short because she wasn’t laughing. She got up to splash her face with cold water. He looked at me, beads of sweat on his upper lip.

I couldn’t stop apologizing. She returned from the rest room looking damp, but composed. Within a half an hour, she was fine.

Dad and I got in the car to drive home and before we were buckled in I asked, “How bad is it? She could be logging on right now.

“It’s really bad, Teresa. There’s one poem — the ravage poem — she just can’t see.”

From the car, we dialed his Web master, a friend of mine, waking her up. When she looked up the poem, doing a search for the word “ravage,” she said simply, “You better hope I can pull it down before this lady sees it. Wow. Why did your dad post this? OK, it’s been deleted.”

We knew we had beaten her to the computer. And we started laughing again so hard I almost drove off the road. Love makes you do crazy things, makes you write volumes of pseudo-erotic poetry with forced metaphors and unfortunate rhyme schemes, makes you want to scream from the leaky rooftops, makes you want to post your drippy thoughts on the World Wide Web for no good reason at all and makes you spill your dad’s secrets over croutons and fountain drinks just trying to engage his new girlfriend, to flatter her.

As I drove, I was flooded with the feeling of how right this all was, that my dad fixes cars and posts poetry on his auto shop Web site, that neither of us have any tact, that she didn’t really care, because he has finally found someone as nice as he is. It was poetic justice.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

He’s my …

 

The term “boyfriend” is like the knee joint on someone who is morbidly obese. It is being asked to do way more than it was designed

to do. It is buckling under the pressure. Where it once could do the job, it is now carrying too much weight.

Example: My grandma had a companion with whom she would converse and play bridge after my grandpa died. They had long phone conversations, saw movies together. He accompanied grandma to certain family events. He was over 90, he used a walker, but, technically, Roy was grandma’s boyfriend.

Something about the word is just so precious. And misleading. Unless you’re safely within the confines of a sorority house or discussing someone you met in a chat room last week, that word just doesn’t work. No matter how serious or long-standing the relationship is, once you refer to him as your boyfriend, it sounds all fluffy and insignificant — and gives me the distinct sense a pillow fight is going to break out any second.

So what should you call him if “boyfriend” doesn’t seem right to you, as it never has to me?

Let me help you avoid a mistake I recently made: do not say “my friend” when referring to your romantic partner. If you refer him simply as a friend, you might as well take him for a salt scrub followed by a matinee of “Miss Congeniality 2”; that’s how emasculated he will feel. This is because, sadly, “friend” is also the word used to describe male friends with whom you have no intention of having sex, so you see the problem here. It may be satisfyingly vague and pretty much accurate, but it’s also eunuch-izing.

Moving on. Let’s get into the novelty options: there’s “my old man” and “the old ball and chain.”

I like the former, as it seems to conjure a Hell’s Angels clubhouse and leather pants. Although it’s nice to use the argot of an extra in the movie “Mask,” it can seem somewhat out of place if your “old man” drives a Camry and invests regularly in his 401(k).

“The old ball and chain” has some camp value. But like “my old man” it can be tricky using a term to refer to your partner that contains the word “old.” If he actually is old, that’s uncomfortable. If he’s much younger, in the Demi/Ashton sense, no need to bring that into relief. I’ll throw in “my main squeeze” here as another troubling novelty term. The modifier “main” suggests you have numerous other “squeezes.” Is it just me, or does that sound like “Meet Joe, he’s my main squeeze. I have so many ‘squeezes’ I have to break them down into main, secondary and auxiliary”?

Above, I used the word “partner,” which I will lump in with “companion” as totally useless if you happen to be straight, because everyone associates these expressions with same-sex couples.

Here we head into the category of sugary terms: my sweetie, my honey, my cutie pie. These make me long for the relative class of “my baby daddy.”

A nickname that is used privately is one thing, but I’m talking about the need for a public term. He can be monkey, puppy, bobo or baby in private, but when it’s time to introduce him at a party, you will need a descriptor.

“This is my little puppy pants” is just not going to do when introducing him to your boss. Here is where “my honey” nauseates anyone within earshot, “my friend” pisses him off, “my old man” is trying too hard and “my baby daddy” only works if you have kids. You are stuck with boyfriend, which will make you feel like you’re in the 1950s. Or you’re 15. Or you just wrote his name on your sweatshirt in puffy paint.

If there’s one good reason to get married, it is simply to be able to use the dignified moniker “my husband.” Even “my fiancé” has limited appeal, but husband is solid, works for all ages (except maybe under 15, like in Appalachia, when it’s creepy).

This brings me to “my man,” which has a certain twangy charm. If you can pull it off, good for you and Tammy Wynette, but it’s a bit country for most of us. There’s always “beau,” which is old-fashioned and sweet, but also cloyingly French. “Lover” barely rates a mention, because even in the 1970s it was way too ’70s.

This is where I’m left. Lucky to have the guy, but wishing I had something better to call him.

Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?”

But I notice he didn’t call his play “Ralph and Bertha.”

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com.

 

Do I Know You?

I was headed into a pizza joint for a slice when I noticed a guy whose face looked eerily familiar. I couldn’t place him but he gave me a subtle nod, frat-boy style.

Just as I snapped my head back to make sure it actually was the dude from “Average Joe,” he was craning his head back, too.

Perhaps he was thinking, “Is that the girl from the morning news?” Or maybe, “I’ve seen her on that TLC decorating show that runs more than cheap stockings at a job interview.”

Maybe he was just working out a crick in his neck, but I doubt it.

I believe, and it’s happened before, that we were two souls glimpsing each other in the invisible netherworld I call Fame Purgatory.

It’s a place crowded with high-profile criminals, reality show stars and the odd cable decorating show host. Fame Purgatory is packed these days, bustling with weekend anchors from random news networks, losing bachelorettes, rising sitcom actors from sitcoms you’ve never watched, pubescent former child stars and the siblings of Madonna.

Some of us will be truly famous one day, but most of us will slip back into obscurity. For now, we’re in a no-man’s land that oscillates between flattering and fabulously strange. It’s hard to explain but I can tell you this much, when you’re simmering in Fame Purgatory, you are no longer an “Average Joe.”

You may not be on the cover of In Touch, but as my friend Mitzi would say, you are “Googleable.”

I’ll describe it this way. If electricity is measured in watts and height is measured in inches, what is the measure of fame? I offer you, the Jon Cryer.

You might remember him as Duckie from “Pretty in Pink” with Molly Ringwald. Maybe you’ve seen him on “Two and a Half Men” (he’s the not Charlie Sheen one). You’d know his face if you saw him getting a slice, but you might think you just know him from high school.

Jon Cryer is, of course, one Jon Cryer. Paris Hilton is 72 Cryers. I’m a fraction of a Cryer, maybe one-sixth at best.

In Purgatory, there are some nice moments: the teenage girl asking for an autograph; the cop waving hello from his patrol car.

There are also the surreal: “Hello insurance company, this is Teresa Strasser and I just wondered if you could help me with something.”

Insurance phone lady: “Wait. Are you the one from that decorating show?”

“Yes. Um, how many therapy sessions do I have left this year?”

Because most people assume if you’re on TV you’re rich, bank transactions are oddly horrifying, producing a sensation I call Fame Shame, that is, the knowledge that the teller knows your savings account hasn’t broken $700 since June.

I imagine at 10 Cryers, you get a financial manager and a few pseudonyms, but I wouldn’t know.

After more than a year in purgatory, there’s still shock, as in “Me? Least likely to succeed?” There’s paranoia, recalling a description of a porno star I once stumbled upon on the Internet that read, “Think mainstream actress Teresa Strasser, only leaner.” There’s detachment, because that person they know isn’t really you, and you’re already down the street, your TV ghost lingering behind you. There’s dread, because you feel exposed and maybe disappointing and you miss watching the world go by, yourself unnoticed. Worse yet, there’s a strangling fear of enjoying this because you know it will most likely fade until one day you’re a tiny fraction of a Cryer, wishing you had milked that decorating show for all it was worth and wondering where all those free haircuts and fan letters went.

I never thought I’d be quoting Monica Lewinsky, but she once made an excellent point. For her, she said, there’s no such thing as a blind date, “Every date is a half-blind date.”

That’s not true at my current Cryerage, though the guy I’m dating did see me on TV before he met me in person. He was able to Google facts about me both true and not — yes, I won a spelling bee, and no I don’t have a wooden leg.

If you go old school, as in back to the Bible, what gave you notoriety was achievement, bringing down tablets, conquering a people, leadership. In our culture, exposure brings fame. And fame alone is no guarantee of happiness — just check the roster of most fancy rehab clinics if you don’t believe me.

I still need all 26 therapy sessions covered annually by insurance, thank you.

I still feel as insecure as ever, if not more so. I clutch the Cryers I have while wishing people wouldn’t stare at me at airports. I’m confused on a grander scale. I can find myself on Google — and I can lose myself just as easily.

Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a
feature reporter for Fox’s “Good Day Live.” She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com

Your Letters

Silverlake JCC

I always assumed that a healthy part of our donations to TheFederation went to support our local JCCs and support Jewish education(“Members Rally to Save Centers,” March 26).

Now The Federation’s commitment seems to be to building someflashy building in an area with competing programs already offered by megashulsand abandoning core known provable assets in an area with few alternatives.Without the “kid” all would be lost. Without the Silverlake JCC much of theJewish youth on the Eastside will have no exposure to Jewish culture and belost. Now is the time to negotiate so the Silverlake Independent JCC cancontinue to offer its many programs and expand in a community that has shownits support for it. I urge whoever is responsible within The Federation andJCCGLA to sit and talk with the community now instead of destroying thebuilding so a developer could build a strip mall.

Jeff Rosen, Silverlake

I am writing as a long time participant in JCC activitiesand a deeply concerned grandparent to urge you to do whatever is necessary tokeep the Silverlake Independent JCC alive as the vibrant, necessary center itis — in its present building.

I teach an undergraduate course in ethics at the UCLA Schoolof Engineering and Applied Science. One of the strong points I make is thatsometimes ethics simply trumps economics. This is one of those times. Evictingthese parents and children from their center to make up for past mistakes ofothers is an unethical and un-Jewish response.

If the Silverlake Independent JCC is closed and its schooland other worthwhile activities disbanded, which they undoubtedly will be, thiswill indeed be a black day in the history of Jewish affairs in Los Angeles. Atrue shanda.

Gershon Weltman, Sherman Oaks

Missing Mojo

Teresa Strasser missing her mojo? (“Missing: My Mojo,” March19).

Pullleeezzze! That strikes me about as sincere as RodStewart singing “Some Guys Have All The Luck.” Teresa, let me see if Iunderstand this correctly (since I have read numerous articles of yourslamenting that guys don’t call you back, you stay home alone a lot, etc).

You are great looking, sexy, smart, funny, “hip” andcharismatic. (I stopped watching “While You Were Out” once you were out.) Youare the poster child for what every single, bachelor guy out there is hoping tofind (Jews and non-Jews alike). Austin Powers I can buy losing his mojo, butyou? No way!

So come on. It is OK to write about all the guys that thinkyou are great, awesome, a goddess etc. … and would call you back!

Dan Rosman, Redondo Beach

Bush or Kerry?

I read with interest Joel Kotkin’s “Bush or Kerry?” piece(March 26). In it Kotkin alleged that Teresa Heinz Kerry had supported theTides Foundation which in turn had supported causes Kotkin alleged were “jihadists.”This assertion is flagrantly untrue and to my mind is evidence of true malicetoward Kerry. The Howard Heinz Endowment, which she chairs, gives grants to thebenefit of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Likewise, the Vira I. HeinzEndowment, where she serves as a director, gives almost all of its support tobenefit the Pittsburgh region.

To ensure that the Heinz philanthropic interest inPennsylvania was respected, Heinz and many other Pittsburgh foundationsinsisted that Tides [Center] create a separate Pennsylvania subsidiary. All ofthe Heinz money goes to this subsidiary and the funds may only be used inPennsylvania. None of the causes Mr. Kotkin cited receive any money from theTides Center of Pennsylvania, nor do they receive a nickel from the HeinzEndowments.

Kotkin is entitled to his own opinion, but not his ownfacts. Teresa Heinz Kerry’s strong support for the state of Israel is awell-known fact.

Andrew McElwaine, President Pennsylvania EnvironmentalCouncil Pittsburgh

I was appalled not so much by what Joel Kotkin said, butwhat he left out in his “Bush or Kerry?” piece (March 26). Whether or not youagree that John Kerry’s “wobbliness” on the war against terror is cause forconcern — and I don’t — Kotkin fails to give any attention Bush’s actions — orI should say, overreactions — since Sept. 11, which to me seem far morealarming.

What about this administration’s rush to war against Iraq onthe pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which all evidence nowshows were nonexistent? What about the testimony this week from Bush’s formercounter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, that Bush & Co. largely ignoredthe threat from Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks?

I too love Israel, but I don’t understand why we have tothrow all morality aside on the world stage in our eagerness to support ourgovernment’s rush to war based on a completely phony pretext — all because wethink it’s good for Israel. I’d prefer a bit of wobbling from my candidate tothe outright lies that have been put forth by this administration under theguise of fighting terrorism and avenging Sept. 11.

Ruth Stroud, Redondo Beach

That’s Nice

Women love bad boys. Nice guys finish last.

Welcome to the most damaging and far-flung myth ever to hit the dating world.

I’m sure you’ve heard it in its many forms; if you want a girl to fall for you, don’t let on that you like her, treat her badly, be aloof. Never work too hard or call too soon. Keep her waiting.

With only 800 words at my disposal, I don’t know if I can fully emphasize how misguided this notion is, but with the help of some Chocodiles, I’m going to try.

First, let’s look at the genesis of this myth. Who perpetrated such a simplistic and apocryphal set of ideas? Was there one guy — we’ll call him Guy Zero — who met some horribly wounded female soul, treated her poorly and found that she was powerless to resist him? Perhaps he played racquetball with a guy (I don’t know why I’m setting this in the ’80s) who sat next to another guy at work who told his cousin who spread it throughout some fraternity in Ohio before it festered at a convention of insurance adjusters in Reno. How did this happen? This is an airborne dating Ebola and it must be contained. As a thought virus, it’s replicating and mutating and deadly to the entire species.

That may have been melodramatic. Still, I had to make a point. Based on my own experiences, and the countless hours I’ve logged talking to girlfriends, I can tell you plainly, there’s nothing sexier than nice. Yeah, I said it. Nice works.

Let me give you an example. If a woman mentions she used to love Chocodiles and you bring her one on your first date, that’s the story she’s going to tell her friends about you. That Chocodile is why she’s going to go out with you again. With that little bit of over-processed and waxy snack food, you are buying yourself a padding of good will. When you arrive late for a date or show up to her parents’ for dinner without bringing wine she’ll think to herself, “Yeah, but he brought me Chocodiles. He’s a nice guy.”

Gentlemen, I’m letting you behind the curtain here. I’m your Willy Wonka to the Chocodile Factory that is a woman’s heart. This is how it is.

Every door you open, every time you tell her you like her shoes, every time you get her a second drink before she’s finished with her first, she’s falling in love with you. She’s filing your little notes and thoughtful gifts under “reasons not to leave him” should that file ever need to be examined. You want loyalty and gratitude and even passion? Fix her toaster, offer to take down her trash on the way out, drive her and her friends around one night, let her sit down at the movies while you buy her any candy she wants. While these may seem like meaningless chores to a man, to a woman, they are foreplay.

Why isn’t this obvious? Why is the myth that nice guys finish last so pervasive? Why has it been allowed to thrive? How can it possibly span all ages and social classes and races? I think I know why.

Here’s a scenario that is probably happening all over the world right now as you read this: A man meets a woman, he treats her well, she goes out with him a few times but decides she’s just not interested. Why? Maybe she’s not physically attracted to him, which is the most likely reason. Maybe she doesn’t like the way he snapped at the waiter. Maybe she senses he’s not ready for a commitment or too ready for one. There’s always the chance her ex-boyfriend called and wants to reunite for one last bout of passive-aggressive sparring and make-up sex. The possible reasons are endless.

The man will feel rejected, and rightfully so. He will never really know why he was dumped, but he will carry the lingering humiliation of having really tried his best, maybe buying her dinner, maybe some Chocodile equivalent. He’ll feel the way guys can’t stand to feel: vulnerable, used, emasculated, cuckolded, stupid. His only relief is in the bottle of snake oil he and his friends pass around. The one marked, “I was too nice. Women only like jerks.”

No. She stayed for the nice. She left for the real reason, because she wasn’t interested in you. I know it hurts, I’ve been left, too, but creating some fantastical theory isn’t going to make it better in the end.

I have never known a woman to drop a man because he was “too nice.” I guarantee you, do something nice tonight, not necessarily expensive or difficult, just kind, and she will be bragging about you tomorrow. How many times in life can you be a hero for the price of a Chocodile?

I hope I’ve made a difference. If you still think “nice guys finish last” ask yourself what sort of race you’re running. Maybe it’s time to forfeit and ask if that shivering girl on the sidelines would like to borrow your jacket.

Visit Teresa Strasser on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Your Letters

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Talmud says, “Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Arnold Schwarzenegger has a long record of support for the Jewish community and for Jewish causes. If anyone has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt that our tradition requires, he has (“Jews Split Over Arnold Victory,” Oct. 10).

Those rabbis and other Jewish “spokespeople” who rushed to condemn Schwarzenegger on the basis of an unverified statement from a book proposal stand revealed as more devoted to the Democratic Party than they are to Jewish ethical principles. I hope they remembered to include gross ingratitude and an evil tongue among their “Al Chet.”

Paul Morgan Fredrix, West Hollywood

Split on the Recall

Funny how flexible morality can be especially when coated by religion. Bill Boyarsky visits Pico-Robertson to gauge Jewish opinion on the recall (“Westside Jews Divided on Recall,” Oct. 3). He interviews eight students at an Orthodox high school and two others.

The former heartily support the recall while the latter two do not.

Boyarsky then concludes that Jews are “divided” on the recall.

Interesting — I didn’t realize such a powerful scientific sampling of Jewish opinion could lead a seasoned reporter to such a definite conclusion. As for the morality: It’s interesting how Gray Davis’ alleged cooking of the budget books could be so “immoral” to the Orthodox boys but somehow President Bush escapes such scrutiny.

Brian Wallace, Los Angeles

Teresa Strasser

Teresa Strasser’s article (“Got Closure?” Oct 3) might be appropriate for a Larry Flint publication, but for The Jewish Journal to feature it as the cover story for it’s Yom Kipper edition is obscene. Shame on the Journal for publishing an article that mocks, ridicules and desecrates the most important day in the Jewish calendar.

Phyllis Herskovitz , Beverly Hills

Miss Strasser, you make me wish I was Jewish. You make Judaism that appealing.

Santiago Belandres, Via e-mail

Market Yourself Into Marriage

I read with much delight, Amy Klein’s inspection of the field guide for single women (“Market Yourself Into Marriage,” Oct. 10). With all the energy in self marketing that a woman has to put out to marry anyone, it seems to me that it would be easier to utilize this marketing expertise to build a career and invest in her own life. The return on investment is better and with less risk. I have often said that it’s easier to become a CEO of a large corporation than to marry a decent man.

Carole Medway , Tarzana

Jewish Charities

In course of reviewing findings of the philanthropic watchdog, Charity Navigator, Joe Berkofsky presents information about the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah (“Jewish Charities Get Favorable Rating,” Oct. 10). While the organization’s name and goal are correctly identified, most of the rest is counterfactual.

Irwin Katsof does not live and is not based in Los Angeles. He is not the president of Aish HaTorah. Our fundraising costs are not $.23 on the dollar.

Fundraising costs are not separately broken out in our budget, but the sum total of our fundraising and administrative costs, including the cost of adjunct programs, missions, and retreats comes to $.20 on the dollar.

Rabbi Nachum Braverman, Executive Director for the The Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, Western Region

Correction

In the Sept. 30 Circuit “The IDF Meets Los Angeles,” the caption should have read: (From left) Brad Cohen, Maj. Gen. Moshe Evry Sukenik, Lenny Sands and Robert Zarnegin. The name of a speaker at the reception was Sgt. Maj. Tzahi Turman. We apologize for the errors.

In “Prisons Pay for Surge in Chaplain” (Oct. 3), the $10,000 allocation for Bibles and 12-step literature comes from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.


I read Si Frumkin’s “Why I Voted for Arnold” (Oct. 10) twice, looking in vain for a reason why he voted for Arnold. I learned that Frumkin was impressed by Schwarzenegger’s steroids-to-riches story and felt (improbably, in my view) that the governor-to-be has suffered at the hands of the media. But I saw no endorsement of his policies (or even a clue as to what they might be), nothing about his likely gubernatorial conduct and nothing about why California would be a better place with Schwarzenegger as governor rather than one of the other 134 candidates he could have voted for.

Howard Posner, Los Angeles

The critics of what Avrham Burg said in the Sept. 26 issue (“Leaders Stay Silent as Israel Collapses”), and the article several weeks before, have, I believe, missed the point.

The point here is that we can no longer point the finger outside at the Palestinians as the root of all our troubles, particularly at this time of the year. Our tradition demands that we reflect on us, not on “others,” not even God. We may wrestle with God, but in the end it’s our own self that we must do battle with — every day. That I believe is what Burg, by his writings, is asking of us.

Bruce F. Whizin, Sherman Oaks

The Nose Knows

What is it like to be one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People? I have no idea.

I can tell you what it’s like to work closely with one of these magically attractive people day in and day out, to wake up to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric discussing his muscles and come home to dozens of e-mails asking how I can possibly control myself working with such a "hottie."

As anyone who marries a supermodel can tell you, you get used to the kind of intense physical beauty that first stops you cold. It dulls over time until there are days that you don’t even notice it. Of course, there are days you do, because flat out, undeniable, in-the-eye-of-every-beholder beauty has a way of piercing through your day.

I see how other people react to this paragon, whom I’ll call Hunky Carpenter Guy. There’s generally a quick, almost imperceptible pause when he walks into a room. New people need a second just to take it in, to adjust to the fact that someone so genetically different from us has arrived. The moment passes, but I never miss it.

I was happy for him when he made People’s list, because he’s a decent person and I’m no player hater. But I am human, so I prepared myself for a few days of good old-fashioned self-doubt. I’d need a fuzzy emotional sweater for the week that issue was on the stands, and for weeks after, because it was going to get mighty cold in his beautiful shadow.

Right away, I told myself all the usual things, the things you may even be thinking to yourself right now — beauty is meaningless, it’s just a favorable recombination of DNA, it isn’t a reflection of a person’s soul or their contribution, it isn’t objective and it isn’t lasting.

These notions, while true, miss the point. The more I churned them through my head, the more convinced I became that they were nothing but a sad salve for poor losers in the genetic lottery.

I tried to clutch at whatever maturity was within my grasp but it slipped away, replaced with a wailing siren in my brain screeching "Why? Why aren’t I perfect? Why?" If you can remember how Nancy Kerrigan sounded after getting slammed in the knee, it was a lot like that. And studies show hearing Kerrigan’s voice in your head is the first sign of madness.

"Let’s face it, even at my fighting weight and on a good skin day, I’m lucky to make Cat Fancy Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful Cat Owners," I told a friend over the phone.

At this point, there was an emotional pileup that went like this: real emotional pain over something petty; guilt over feeling pain over something stupid when other people have real problems; discomfort resulting from trying to shove down feelings that aren’t on the "approved feelings" list; and, finally, excessive snacking.

I needed a way out and it was right there, plain as the Semitic nose on my face.

For the first time in my life, the idea of a rhinoplasty seemed genius. That week, the world became a world of noses. I didn’t notice the person owning it, just the nose, the nostrils and the bridge.

For someone who doesn’t even own a full-length mirror, I couldn’t stop looking at my profile. I ran my fingers over the bridge of my nose so often it bordered on a creepy tic. Is there a bump or isn’t there? Does it curve under? To me, there was no difference between those jagged, pointed noses featured in Shylock caricatures and my own. It went from nose to shnoz to major life obstacle before you could say, "Hey, look what happened to Jennifer Grey."

I recalled some postings about me on an Internet message board. One said, "Go back to the mall, JAP." Another read, "Your nose is sexy LOL." LOL? What’s so funny, dude?

The nose knows. And I knew it had to go.

No more fears about being shallow, culturally self-hating, selling out. No more worries about the political ramifications of being a Jewish girl with a nose job. My only worry would be how to save up for the procedure, where to stay during recovery, how to juggle all my new work opportunities. The second I got the idea I latched onto it, carried it with me, let it soothe me when I caught a bad angle of myself or saw an unflattering photo.

What happened next will seem too pat, too "wrap up this column with a pretty bow." But it’s the truth. I was trying on a dress with a friend and I had one of those moments of self-esteem grace. I looked beautiful to myself. I did a quick nose check and a voice from somewhere easier and more divine whispered, "It’s your nose that’s making you beautiful."

The problem with this story arc is that it reoccurs. Insecurity comes and goes with all the loyalty and unpredictability of an outdoor cat. Ugly as it may be, this is the truth for me, and to paraphrase John Keats, "Truth is beauty, beauty truth."

Keep your eye out for the latest collector’s edition, People Magazine’s 50 Most Truthful People. If I can avoid that nose job, I might just make it. Hope they allow airbrushing.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Fridays 8-10 p.m. and weekdays at 5 p.m. on TLC’s
“While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Hotel Holiness

I walk into each new hotel room, look at it suspiciously,
shake its clammy hand and gingerly put my suitcase down.

I unpack my makeup, put my mascara and lipsticks in a water
glass, hang up my coat. I see what cable channels I have, check out the room
service menu for any items that aren’t medically contraindicated. I wait for
the crashing sound of the ice machine — which is inevitably next to my room —
to shatter any sense of peace I can muster in the presence of an orange bed
spread that’s about as sanitary as the crumpled Kleenex of a tuberculosis
patient.

Such is my routine, one I’ve developed being on the road 20
days a month for almost eight months now. I like to say it’s like being a rock
star, without all the bothersome cash and chicks.

I set up my laptop on whatever desk or side table I can
find. Shirts go in one drawer, protein bars and a travel bottle of tequila go
in another, shoes go on the floor of the closet. I put a vanilla candle up on a
windowsill and set up my little CD player. For some reason, the only thing I
can listen to on the road is Eminem; I’m angry, I’m lonely, I’m alienated, it’s
me and Em against the world. I’m also employed, so I gut it out.

It’s hard to complain when you’re working in your chosen
field, but I miss my old life. I guess that’s why I try to create routine
wherever I go, whether it’s a Hilton in Charleston or an Embassy Suites in St.
Petersburg.

I’ve picked up some new habits on the road — and none that
would land me in rehab. For one thing, I’ve taken to going to any lengths to
call my dad. Almost every day on the job — I work on a home decorating show so
I’m generally in the home of a stranger in some quiet suburb — I cross the
street, find a large vehicle to hide behind and dial dad on my cell phone
crouched in the shadow of a pickup truck. We were always close, but I never
needed to talk to him so frequently until I found myself rootless.

Mom gets calls, too. Then dad gets a call because he’s the
only one who truly understands how crazy mom is. Then I get sick, a frequent
occurrence on the road for some reason, and I need my mom. So far she’s gotten
calls from two emergency rooms, one after-hours clinic and a hotel store. “Does
this pink stuff really work?” I ask her. “Mommy!” I screech, which is very
undignified at my age.

“Where are you?” she asks. “I can be at the airport in an
hour.”

I don’t need her to come but I need to know that she would.
It’s more healing than any pink stuff.

The few friends I keep in touch with have become even more
central.

And there’s another thing. There’s the God thing.

Years of writing this column and I don’t think I’ve ever
mentioned that word. I couldn’t grasp the idea of a divine power. I still
can’t. But whatever that thing is that I don’t fully understand, I’ve taken to
talking to it. You know, help me through this, help me not unravel today, help
me not yell at anyone, help me get out of (insert city) without a feeding tube,
help me be useful. Sprinkled in with the “help me” type prayer is the “thank
you,” not necessarily because of the incredible gratitude I feel for my life
but because it seems rude not to say thank you after bugging God for so much
help without even necessarily believing in him/her/it.

When you have nothing familiar, nothing to call your own, no
one you love or trust in your immediate environment, when you’re desperately
lonely, you get really holy really fast. At least I do. And I hear chaplains
are very popular in prison.

A friend of mine, who I consider far more pious and
therefore way more entitled to discuss the G-word, compared being on the road
to being a wandering Jew. When the Jews were in the desert for 40 years, they
only had their community and their God. It was a time of nation building and
religious development. Maybe I’ll have to wait 39 more years before that really
kicks in, but the metaphor is a nice one.

It’s like when you lose one sense, the others are
heightened. When you’re shuttling through a desert of suburbs, maybe your sight
gets sharper without the fog of the familiar, you see what you really have:
family, a spiritual life, things that don’t fit under the seat in front of you.
Of course, sometimes I think all I’m really getting is frequent flier miles and
exposure to every germy airport microbe, but you never know. I have yet to see
a burning bush, but I do hear hotel bedspreads are pretty flammable.   

Teresa Strasser can be seen Fridays 8-10 p.m. and weekdays at 5pm on TLC’s
“While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Am I Annoying?

I knew better. I had about as much business being there as an elderly tourist has of being on Skid Row after midnight with a map in his hand and a blank cashier’s check taped to his forehead. I was in grave danger of a psychological mugging, and I knew it.

I kept telling myself to walk away, hail an emotional cab and get out fast, but I couldn’t. The pull was too strong. I had to know.

Am I annoying?

As the host of a television show on The Learning Channel, I have been graced with my own page on a little Web site called AmIAnnoying.com. On it, thousands of celebrities are displayed, each with their own page and listing of reasons why they might or might not be annoying. Visitors can vote, a tally runs, thousands participate. It’s picking teams all over again, but nastier, more anonymous, cyberstyle.

I hadn’t heard of this site, but it seems to be very popular, a raw sore on the ugly underbelly of the Internet. The Web site wrote to inform me of my inclusion, and I told myself I’d just check out the site but not my own page.

At the time, I was about 53 percent annoying, based on 27 votes. That’s not bad, I guess — if you choose to see the glass as half annoying.

I couldn’t help noticing my tally on the site’s front page, but I knew I really shouldn’t open my own page, see what annoying qualities they had laid bare. Looking at the grotesque photo of me they’d created from pausing my show and digitally capturing the moment in time when I intersected with Bea Arthur, I knew it was time to go. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it is that my need to be liked is both paralyzing and persistent.

I should just sign off, go to CNN.com, find out what’s happening in the world, maybe e-mail a friend, I thought. Instead, I decided just to peruse the site, see just how annoying others are. I got sucked in.

The pages were sort of funny. I scrolled around. Something terrible happened on the mean streets of AmIAnnoying.com. I had the overwhelming urge to start voting.

A sinister slice of me wanted to cast my vote, a drive-by hurting, a stone thrown at Jenna Elfman or Carson Daly. The equation seemed to formulate in my head: the more annoying they are, the less annoying I am.

And I got it. I’m one of “them,” the evil “them” I’m always railing against, the people who write critical letters to the editor, the people who post incredibly insulting missives on message boards. I know how they feel, anyway.

The magic of this site is that it taps into the universal question we ask ourselves. Do people really like us? Or do they just pretend to? Is there something wrong with us? Are we broken and the world is afraid to say it to our face?

The site distills it beautifully, really. We all want to know if we’re annoying. To that end, they could start amifat.com, amistupid.com, doesmymotherreallylikemybrotherbetter.com, doesmyboyfriendreallyloveme.com. These are the types of questions we can never truly answer, but we all ponder from time to time.

I didn’t vote. Well, OK, I did place one vote for myself as “not annoying.” This may be one of the most annoying things I’ve ever done, and there are plenty.

Just as I was about to leave, I clicked on my photo. I had to. This can’t break me, I thought, inhaling deeply. I’m stronger than this. I have to thicken my skin. I have to stare my fear right in the Bea Arthur face and beat it.

There it was. Not bad really. There were a few annoying things listed, but way more reasons that I’m not annoying. It was sort of flattering, actually.

And I reminded myself that I should be grateful I have a job in my chosen field that has even deemed me worthy of this sort of humiliation. I’m at the bottom of the celebrity barrel, but I’m in there, for better or worse.

And maybe one of the worst parts is one of the best. Maybe the more I’m exposed to judgment, the less I’ll feel the sting. It’s my greatest wish in life just to be happy, to be of service to others, to laugh more than anyone else at movies and to do all of this without ever checking my vote count.

It occurred to me that to be annoying at times, self-absorbed, stupid, inconsiderate, insecure, is to be human. So the syllogism follows that if we’re all human, and to be human is to annoy, we’re all annoying.

Is that the worst thing to be? Maybe the effort to not be annoying is worse than the embracing of it.

Take the case of Sabrina, a girl I haven’t seen since I was 12. I think of her now only because she was nothing if not a bouquet of traits her peers found annoying. She was a child actress; she and her mom wore the same hairstyle — an odd configuration of one-too-many braids. Sabrina wore only red and black, donned leg warmers long after they were out of style and spoke in the overly annunciated fashion one might expect from Madonna. Adults loved her. Kids hated her.

Last time I saw her was at a school dance. She was in the zone, dancing by herself, a frighteningly uninhibited blur of red and black. For some reason that image of her stays with me, at least 92 percent annoying, but 100 percent alive.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10
p.m. on The Learning Channel’s “While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

THE 2002 SIMON ROCKOWER AWARDS

SECOND PLACE

"Chinese Box" by Gina Nahai

THIRD PLACE

"The Waiting Room" by Marlene Adler Marks

Excellence in News Reporting

SECOND PLACE

"How Cookie Crumbled" by Sheldon Teitelbaum

Excellence in Feature Writing

FIRST PLACE

"Sing a New Song" by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Excellence in Personality Profiles

SECOND PLACE

"Redefining Beauty" by Naomi Pfefferman

THIRD PLACE

"Ask the Rabbi" by Michael Aushenker

The MicroVoice Award for Excellence in Writing About Singles

"When Booty Calls" by Teresa Strasser

Excellence in Coverage of September 11, 2001

THIRD PLACE

Issue 09/14/2001

Israel Ministry of Tourism Mosaic Award for Excellence in Feature Writing About Israeli Peoplehood, Culture and Society

FIRST PLACE

"Sunday Mourning" by Rabbi Daniel Gordis

SECOND PLACE

"On the Road" by David Margolis

The Joseph Polakoff Award for Distinguished Service to Jewish Journalism

Tom Tugend

Car Shame

It happened fast, like swerving out of the way of a stray cat.

I was driving toward the valet parking kiosk of a fancy-pants department store in Beverly Hills. As I approached, I saw clusters of press and well-dressed young women gathered to attend a charity brunch. A Mercedes was coming to a slow stop.

I don’t know what made me do it; I took a sharp left, veering away from the valet kiosk and into an adjacent public lot.

In an instant, I saw how I must look with Big Blue, my electric-hued 1995 Ford Taurus. We had just taken a trip to the desert together, and only one of us had bothered to shower. The windows were grimy. Newspapers and books-on-tape cluttered the passenger seat. Gum wrappers filled the ashtray.

The trouble wasn’t purely cosmetic. You can’t wash a Taurus into an Audi.

You can’t squeegee away the middle-class vibe. What option did I have? I could practice Buddhist nonattachment and the loving self-acceptance preached to me by my groovy, leftist, Joan Baez-humming parents, or I could practice swerving away from the valet line without hurting anyone.

What happened to me? I’ll tell you. It was a sudden, violent attack of Car Shame.

A friend of mine from high school, a woman I hadn’t seen in years, invited me to the brunch, an event she organized to raise money for her foundation benefiting women’s causes. This is a social-register type person, a woman who grew up in a penthouse and seems to gather friends that are equal parts stunning thinness and enviable success.

The last time I felt Car Shame I was probably in high school, waiting for my mom to pick me up in our VW bug that had to be pushed to start. Just when you think you’ve conquered something, a rich girl from high school and the sight of dozens of feet in Jimmy Choos and a Beverly Hills department store and a slowly stopping Mercedes bring it all back. It was downhill from the valet swerve. I was "brunching" next to women whose handbags cost more than my rent. I was the only diner at my own International House of Shame.

"You should be proud of your proletariat roots," said my dad over the phone, when I told him about the unexpected onslaught of Car Shame. "Parking across the street was a shonda and a hora," he added. A shame and a disgrace, he translated.

You see my dad has just enrolled in a Yiddish class. He’s one of two students in a class he finally found up in Northern California, where he lives.

"Yiddish is the greatest. I’m dedicating my life to learning Yiddish," he explained. My dad’s a mechanic who has gone back to the local junior college to get a paralegal degree, take computer classes, and now learn Yiddish. "There’s a Yiddish saying, ‘A Jewish thief steals books.’ It’s a metaphor. Our culture is all about learning for learning’s sake. That’s one of the things that’s so magical about our culture."

"Dad," I said, returning to the topic of my shonda, "I had to walk up to the entrance. That probably looked weird."

"Duh. Anyone with any seckel (wisdom) would know you parked across the street," he pointed out.

According to my dad, I was only temporarily swept away by vanity and the need to fit in. It was only natural. "Now, back to Yiddish, my new obsession."

And so went our regular Sunday call, toggling between the beauty of Yiddish and the blemished face of my Taurus.

"Yiddish has the best expressions," he went on, quoting some, calling me shayna punim (pretty face). "I never got into Hebrew, but Yiddish has so much color, so much history. Now the only people who speak it are alter-kackers."

My mother speaks Yiddish. I had a sudden flash, a memory of my mother and grandmother in the car, speaking Yiddish so my brother and I wouldn’t understand what they were saying. We must have been jealous, because not long after that we came up with one of those bizarre sibling languages only we understood. The only word that remains is "supracodiva," a word describing the person in the family everyone hates. In our family, there was always a rotating supracodiva, so I guess it was useful vocabulary, the way Eskimos need all those words for snow.

Growing up, my mom probably felt about her Yiddish the way I felt about my Taurus, like it was embarrassing, like it made her different, like she wanted to park it across the street and walk. Meanwhile, my 58-year-old dad is sitting with the other studenten every week, just trying to chase down the piece of his culture that most resonates.

"Language is the vehicle of a culture. It expresses what’s unique," said my dad. The vehicle. And without knowing it, he drove home his point. "Talk to you next week, Terescela."

A Trivial Pursuit

You don’t plan to become a trivia writer, it just happens. The next thing you know, you’re a one-woman trivia carnival, packing up your trunk of battered almanacs and dictionaries and moving on to the next show.

"Goodbye, guys," you say, because you’re often the only female on the team. "And who stole my Bartlett’s?"

This was the case last Friday, as I wrapped up a five-week stint on my fifth game show since moving to Hollywood.

What is "career stagnation"? You are correct.

I’ve never met a trivia writer that wants to be a trivia writer. Some of us want to be screenwriters, others comedians, sitcom writers, novelists. We’re like actors who came here to play Hamlet and end up playing the bellhop in "Hotel Sodom 6." Trivia is our porno. We tell ourselves we’ll never do another one; we’ll never go back, but the lure is too much. Game shows beckon.

The money is pretty decent. And technically, we’re still in show business, working on studio lots with producers and television executives. Words we write do appear on television. We may be on the slag heap of Hollywood writers, but at least we’re making a living.

Everyone’s path is different, but here’s how I accidentally became a trivia writer. A comedian friend recommended me for a job on a comedy game show, I wrote a sample of jokes and questions and was hired. The joke-writing aspect of that job rescued it from the taint of trivia.

After that, I began getting referred to other shows, "straight" Q&A type shows. I was usually broke at the time and thought, "it’s only a month" or "it’s only four months." I was always grateful for the work, but felt a little like I was entering what my dad calls the Dr. Faustus Pawn Shop, where you sell your soul and hope they pay you enough to buy it back.

What is a typical day in the life of a trivia monkey? You get a quota, meaning you have a certain number of questions to write each day. Topics vary from the "meat and potatoes" categories of science, history and geography to the "chick" categories for which I’m usually brought in — pop culture, art, fashion — although, for a chick, I do write my fair share of sports questions. Nicknames are my bread and butter. If you see a question about "White Chocolate" or "The Mailman," it was probably mine.

In game show argot, some questions get "killed." They aren’t interesting enough, they’re too hard or too easy. A question might be deemed "too Jewish" or "too female" or even "too ethnic." An example of this was a recent big-money, multiple-choice question I wrote asking the surname of the title character in the best-seller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The answer: Schwartz. The verdict: too Jewish for network prime time.

There are speed demons who finish their quota and run off to meetings or auditions. Others practically move in, sleeping on the office couch and toiling in the trivia mines until all hours, fueled by Red Bull, Red Vines and takeout. Either way, trivia is nothing if not draining.

As in all jobs, there are those who have been institutionalized, who get defeated when a question dies, crying, "My questions are like my children." This is just sad. Still, losing perspective can mean gaining dignity. If you think about how silly the shows are, how small our part is in them, how trivial trivia can be, you will be paralyzed staring at a list of state mottos and wanting to hoist yourself out of the window of the writers’ room.

Wait. There are no windows. Game show security is so stringent these days that writers are usually sequestered in windowless rooms. All documents that aren’t used are shredded. Tensions run high, and the people at the top take it very, very seriously. See above adage about losing perspective to gain dignity.

Cheesy trivia books and "fun fact" Web sites are frowned upon. Even at our low level, we strive to think our occupation requires some modicum of creativity. Never, ever let anyone see you with Trivial Pursuit cards. That is the last refuge of trivia scoundrels.

Occasionally, while crafting a question about Rodin or "Road Rules" or Rhode Island, a debate will break out in the room. We’ll put down our quotas for the eternal question about which of us will "make it out."

I maintain the grudgingly positive attitude that I’m lucky to have a skill that pays the bills and doesn’t involve saying, "Hello, I’m Teresa. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about your long-distance plan?"

If you want to feel that you matter, that you have something to say, that your life has meaning, you can’t always find that where you work. For some things, you’ve just got to phone a friend.


Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in “The Teresa Monologues,” April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.

Red Like Me

As I write this, I look like James Coburn eating a lemon in a windstorm. Drunk. Not only does my face look red and crackly, it must be covered at all times with a Vaseline-like lotion, thick and greasy, giving me the appearance of someone who has just eaten a pork chop with no hands. And I lack Mr. Coburn’s panache.

I knew I’d be ugly for a week or so. My doctor warned me that even though I was getting the most minor of chemical peels, there would be redness, crusty skin, temporary darkening of the very discolorations and freckles I was trying to remove. In the end, I would look a little better. There was just the purgatory between blotchy and better to be endured.

Wisely, I left town right after the peel and escaped to my mom’s for a few days, to the one place no one was likely to notice a woman molting about the face. Wrong. Even in Las Vegas, my face is something to see. I’m thinking about selling two-for-one tickets.

My second day here, I ventured out to surprise my mother at the casino where she works. I waited in line and walked up to the counter of the sports book, where mom was in the middle of telling a guy he was too late to bet on the 49er game.

“Hey! This is my daughter,” she beamed, introducing me around.

That’s when I saw myself through the eyes of her co-workers. Let me paint a vivid picture. Realizing there was nothing I could do about my face, I completely let myself go. I decided to leave the deep conditioner in my hair instead of washing it out. I didn’t shave or put on makeup. I was wearing the outfit I had worn driving in, an oversized men’s shirt and old jeans. I’m pretty sure I had brushed my teeth, but I don’t want to brag.

“You want to place your very first bet? Clippers or Kings?” asked my mother’s co-worker.

“Now, I know you’re not used to dealing with this kind of cash,” I joked, pushing a five towards him. As I placed my bet on the Kings, the guy let out a hearty laugh, as did the others. Oh my god, I thought. These are sympathy laughs. That wasn’t funny.

Bring your daughter to work day had taken a sinister turn. I felt so bad for my mom, like I was embarrassing her, which I knew I really wasn’t because she’s not as shallow as I am. Still, I wondered what she would tell people the next day. “Don’t worry, my daughter isn’t really disfigured. She’s just vain.”

When mom’s shift ended, we went over to the bar with a couple free drink tickets from the sports book. “Scotch,” she ordered for me. “Something good.” Normally, “good” Scotch from the well of a casino bar is throat-burning swill. What I got was smooth, some sort of Glensomething. It was sympathy scotch and I knew it.

Mom told me about having to have something removed from her cheek once. The surgery gave her two black eyes and weeks of stares. “That’s what it’s like getting older, too,” she said. “You don’t care so much what you look like, and neither does anyone else. You’re outside of that scene. You just want to sit around and hang out and watch life. When your car breaks down, you figure out how to fix it. When a cop pulls you over, you get a ticket. Everything changes.”

Things have changed for me in just a few days. I lack confidence. I’m the same as before, but the package is too much for me to overcome. Since the casino incident, I’ve remained mostly inside. Until this thing is over, I’m not heading into a crowd without one of those Tom Cruise “Vanilla Sky” disfigurement masks. I feel like a loser somehow, and not just because the Clippers beat the Kings.

I never thought much about the word “face,” as in face the music, face your demons, face a challenge, face the facts or Einstein’s phrase, “the face of God.” Now, I can’t stop thinking about Eleanor Rigby’s face, the one she keeps in a jar by the door. I had no idea my own face was such an integral part of how I face people, how I see myself — quirky, flawed, OK from certain angles but overall, a problem child.

Maybe too much alone time equals too much philosophizing. One little peel and all of a sudden I think I’m Albert Camus.

My mom’s right, though. Things change. My face will be back in a few days, serviceable, familiar, with a few fewer freckles. But it will evolve. It will age. There will be speeding tickets. The only face that doesn’t change is the one preserved in a jar by the door, but even the Beatles don’t know who that is for.



Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Your Letters

Lenin Revisited

Contrary to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s claims (“Lenin Meet Noah,” Oct. 19), “state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will” was not invented by Lenin. In fact, the revolution he led outlawed anti-Semitism and the pogroms that permeated Russia prior to 1917.

For 1,800 years throughout Europe, Jews had either been barred from settling altogether or confined by law to ghettos — from which they could not emerge at night or Sundays — shtetls or the Pale of Settlement, denied citizenship, land ownership, and admission to most professions, trades and occupations. Jews could not leave the ghetto without wearing yellow badges. State-authorized violence against Jews was perpetrated by military forces.

In 1791, the French emancipated Jews who joined with them as their armies advanced across Europe, tearing down ghetto walls. But in 1815, the Congress of Vienna rescinded the obligation of any nation to grant rights to Jews. In Russia, oppression of Jews remained as an instrument of imposing the government’s will until Lenin.

While the Soviets suppressed all religion, they fought Nazi genocide, which grew easily from the European soil in which persecution of Jews had been cultivated for centuries.

Ralph Fertig, Los Angeles


Teresa Strasser

To Teresa Strasser, regarding your latest column (“In Praise of Geeks,” Oct. 19). Keep your hands off my husband!

Janet Fuchs, Beverly Hills


Kosher Bunny

By the time I was done reading Lauren Linett’s letter poking fun at The Jewish Journal’s attention to “Kosher Bunny” Lindsey Vuolo (Letters, Oct. 19), I thought, this proud Jewish woman’s got spunk. Then, after I kept reading and noticed that The Jewish Journal made the smart decision to actually publish her photo, I thought, Playboy needs a talent scout to keep an eye on the pages of The Jewish Journal.

Name withheld by request


A Living Wage

It is easier to focus on the living wage issue of big hotels in Santa Monica (“Santa Monica Gets a CLUE,” Sept. 28) than to look into the remuneration of the people who clean our homes. Jewish employers of domestic help would be well-advised to read a book titled “Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.” Written by Pierreta Hondagneu-Sotelo, a USC professor who is also the daughter of a Latina maid, the book discusses issues in the informal, unregulated world of Hispanic household help. Hondagneu-Sotelo observes that among themselves, domestic workers share information about types of employers to avoid. The list includes “Armenians, Iranians, Asians, Latinos, blacks and Jews, especially Israeli Jews.”

Those of us who try to right wrongs and consider ourselves fighters for the underdog should look at our own treatment of household employees and other low-wage workers. It is much easier to make a case for what someone else should be paying. When low-wage workers can get better pay and benefits cleaning our own homes and offices, the hotels may be forced to pay the living wage to attract employees.

Karen Heller Mason, Los Angeles


For The Kids

As an 11-year-old Torah-observant day school student, I would like to point out some mistakes in the “For The Kids” section (Oct. 19). In the Tower of Babel article, the people decided to build the tower because they wanted to rebel against God, not because they wanted to come closer to Him.

In the article about Noah, it said that it took Noah 120 days to build the ark. It really took 120 years. The article said, “The rabbis ask: ‘Why did it take him so long?'” The article answered that God was giving Noah a chance to talk to his neighbors. The real answer is that God was giving the people one last chance to repent.

Noah Gruen, Los Angeles


Editor’s Note: The Torah has 70 faces and the author’s version is one of the many interpretations. But the midrash indeed suggests that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark.

The Grief Counselor

In second grade, my alternative San Francisco elementary school gathered all the students together for a "share" session. It was a tiny school. We crowded into the library, where a teacher calmly announced that there had been a tragedy over the weekend.

A girl a few grades above me had lost her father in a freak accident. For some reason, I remember that this accident happened in Mexico, that the body was being shipped back. We were asked to be respectful and kind in this girl’s time of grief.

At this point, the only being I had ever lost was my tabby, Gobbles. This news, the thought of this girl never talking to her father again, how unfair it all was, just shorted out my 8-year-old mind.

I remember sitting in class saturated with sorrow for this shy girl I hardly knew and her father, a hazy image I created of a dead man stowed away as cargo on TWA. Biting my nails, feeling a clenched fist take hold of my stomach, I knew I had to take action; I had to do whatever I could to let her know how sorry I was.

And that’s where things went wrong.

My mother loved homemade cards. That’s all she ever wanted as a gift for any holiday, a card and maybe a poem. On her birthdays I usually got out the crayons and markers to draw a cake motif for the card’s cover. Valentine’s Day was a heart; Chanukah was a menorah. You get the idea. All at once, I had a solution, a way to communicate my condolences to this girl whose plight had me unglued. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I made a card. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was what to draw on the cover.

Staring at the nicked top of my wooden desk, I got an idea. I would render a tombstone with the letters "R.I.P." This I did, lovingly drawing in weeds around the base of the tombstone and perhaps a crow flying overhead. I was only 8. That was the only image in my death file.

By the grace of some power far beyond me, a teacher intercepted the card. She was kind enough not to shame me; she just swiped the card off my desk to some secret teacher place on her person, and it was never seen again.

All this is to explain why it’s been so difficult for me to write anything since Sept. 11. What if the way I express a sense of sadness and loss comes out all wrong? Experts say everyone grieves differently, but let’s face it, with this much tragedy in the air, there’s not much room for error. I’m afraid of being one huge talking crayon R.I.P. card — my heart in the right place, but my ability to project proper human behavior sorely out of tune.

I’m not an expert on anything, least of all the affairs of terrorists and their plots or the history of conflict in the Middle East. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard brilliant oratories on heroism, on restraint, on national unity. I’ve also tuned in to a trio of DJs — let’s call them Flaky, Drippy and Johnny — giving the tragedy the "morning zoo" treatment: two parts uneducated cliché-mongering, one part trumped-up gravitas. The last thing anyone needs is for me to add my own uninformed cliché chain to the slag heap.

I’ve never been much good at talking about the big things. I usually don’t feel I have the right, especially in this case, because I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, and so many people did. This leaves me only what follows.

The day after the towers came down, I saw a bus come to a stop in the middle of the street. A burly driver got out so he could move an injured pigeon from the road, cupping the bird in his big hands. A lemonade stand materialized on Larchmont Boulevard, manned by three girls not much older than I was when I drew that awful card. A crayon sign announced that they were raising money for the Red Cross.

Cars slowed down to let me cut in front of them. Merging on the freeway was graceful.

My elderly Japanese neighbor stopped by to show me her new American flag. "You don’t know what I’ve been through," she said suddenly, shaking her head and thinking back to her days in Japan during the war. I froze with the old panic of not knowing what to say. She began to cry, looking at her slippers, at my rug. I bent down to hug her in my doorway, not saying anything. I let her hug me until it was awkward, until it was her idea to let go.

Your Letters

Back to School

While we are both strong supporters of day schools, your Back to School issue failed to put day school education in the proper context.

The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey found that more than half of Jewish married couples with children in Los Angeles did not earn enough to afford the day school tuition for two children, not to mention single-parent families, who are among the least affluent of Jewish families.

Two-thirds of Jewish children in Los Angeles attend public school. Your exclusive focus on day schools did not address the educational concerns of the majority of Jewish parents in Los Angeles. In the future, you might consider informing about magnet schools and neighborhood schools where Jewish children are to be found, as well as highlighting the post-bar mitzvah options for Jewish teens such as Havurat Noar, the BJE Ulpan (and other Israel programs), the Union Hebrew High and the Los Angeles Hebrew High.

Bruce Phillips, Pini Herman Phillips & Herman Demographic Research


I am glad that Jane Ulman is proud of her children’s education, but it should be noted that it is not mandatory to spend the $8,000 to $15,000 per child per year for private Jewish education in order raise children with strong Jewish identities (“The Hidden Co$t of Jewish Education,” Aug. 24).

The day school option is not for every family. Jewish education takes place in many different places besides the private day school. The most important part of developing a strong Jewish identity for children is how Judaism is practiced and talked about in the home.

Natalie Halbert Stanger, Culver City


We would like to commend The Jewish Journal and writer Beverly Gray for the excellent portrayal of home schooling in Los Angeles (“Kitchen Classroom,” Aug. 4). Thanks for making people aware of a wonderful lifestyle choice.

In addition to the resources listed in your article, there are a variety of home school support groups, publications, conferences, Web sites, park days, play groups, as well as dozens of home school classes available on individual topics to aid homeschooling families in the Los Angeles and Valley areas.

Interested readers can contact Los Angeles’ new, specifically Jewish home school support/activity group at: LAJewishHomeschoolers@hotmail.com.

Martine Porter-Zasada, Los Angeles
Susan Silver, Los Angeles


Smith and Strasser

After reading your latest issue, I suggest you produce J.D. Smith’s columns in liquid form and market them as a cheap alternative to Ipecac. His latest contemptible piece of self-congratulatory drivel certainly had me running for the airsickness bag.

Between Smith’s pathetic ramblings and Teresa Strasser’s equally self-indulgent, interminable whining about her latest date from hell or stillborn relationship, the back section of The Jewish Journal has quickly become good for nothing more than lining the bottom of a birdcage.

Name withheld by request


Journal Kudos

A friend of mine shares The Jewish Journal with me, and I wanted to thank you for a very mature publication.

Phil Holland, Burbank


Aug. 24 Cover

Our community doesn’t have enough in the mainstream press on a daily basis that breaks our hearts? You have to put Yasser Arafat on the cover of our Journal? Shame on you. You owe all of us an apology.

Ziva Sahl, San Pedro


Correction

In the Aug. 24 Back to School article “Kitchen Classroom,” the photographs were taken by Ron Batzdorff.

Reality Doesn’t Bite

Last night, I was watching "Big Brother," a show mocked for its lack of action. Call me crazy, but to me, it’s Chekhov; it’s all about the subtext. Anyway, a contestant named Bunky was voted out of the house last week. That’s when I realized that slowly, quietly, the new breed of reality shows is causing a revolution.

Bunky’s first order of business in the house was to come out, one by one, to his fellow contestants, which he did with ease and patience. There was only one problem, and his name was Kent, the Platonic ideal of a Southern homophobe. It didn’t take long before Bunky and Kent became friends, real friends, with private jokes and a comfortable rapport. Faced with Bunky, a real person and not a stereotype, it was impossible for Kent to completely retain his idiotic views about gay people.

When Bunky was evicted, his partner of 11 years was there to greet him. The screen identified him as "Gregg, Bunky’s husband" as if this happened on television every day, no big deal.

Where’s the firestorm of hate letters and canceled sponsors and Republican housewives collecting signatures? If this is happening, it isn’t making news.

A discussion of gay people on reality shows wouldn’t be complete without Richard Hatch, the man who won America’s first "Survivor." Hatch shattered stereotypes — at least when he had his clothes on. He was tough, a competitor, deeply honest and most important, a winner. And America loves a winner.

More people saw Hatch win that million bucks than have ever been to a pride parade or even caught an episode of "Will & Grace."

Perhaps the most affecting of reality T.V.’s homosexual cast members was Pedro Zamora, who appeared on MTV’s "Real World, San Francisco," before he died of complications from AIDS. This guy was handsome, courageous, didn’t take any guff from grating roommate Puck and gave educational talks about HIV.

It wasn’t just his housemates that fell in love with Zamora, it was all those kids sitting home watching MTV, kids who may have been spared Zamora’s disease because of what they learned watching him on some silly reality show. Another season featured a lesbian cast member in a supportive, healthy relationship.

Isn’t it amazing that these cheesy, slandered game show operas have gone where sitcoms never really could? Will may be gay, but he isn’t married. I doubt he ever will be.

The reality shows bolted ahead of television movies, dramas and mainstream films in terms of tolerance.

The first time I noticed was watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" when Regis Philbin introduced a contestant’s same-sex partner sitting in the audience. This happens regularly on the show, without an audible gasp from the home viewers or protesters yelling that Philbin is hosting the funeral of family values.

While this quiet shift warms my heart, I still eagerly await that Jewish reality television contestant who will make us all proud.

The real winners on these shows may be minorities — racial, religious, sexual –who couldn’t find a decent reflection of themselves on television until it started getting real.

Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

All Dressed Up

I remember what I was wearing on just about every first date with every boyfriend I’ve ever had.

I remember what I wore on the first day of fifth grade — a hand-me-down green flowered dress with red polyester kneesocks.

I remember the pastel, flowered, zipper-at-the-ankle Guess? jeans my mom bought me at full retail because I had stopped biting my nails for two weeks.

I remember the dress I wore to my senior prom, not because it was beautiful, but because it was returned. After spending all kinds of cash on college applications and SAT prep courses, I knew my mom was tapped out. I didn’t want to ask her for more money for a prom dress because I knew she’d find a way to give it to me, and I knew she didn’t have it.

My after-school job at Lombardi’s Sporting Goods wasn’t exactly flooding my coffers with cash. I got an idea: buy a dress from Nordstrom, renowned for its liberal return policy, tuck in the tags, and take it back to the store the next day.

I bought a stretchy black dress with spaghetti straps and a satin skirt. Shoes were courtesy of my friend Tasha, half a size too big, but a perfect match. I felt clever, but I also felt ashamed. The Nordstrom saleslady to whom I returned the garment shot me a look that said, “I have to take this dress back, but you and I both know you wore it to the prom last night.”

I had forgotten about that dress until I read about Dana Green, a 29-year-old freelance public relations consultant who started a program to provide nearly new, stylish formal dresses to young women for proms, graduations and other celebrations.

The idea started with the bridesmaid’s dresses in her own closet she knew she’d never wear again. She collected dresses from friends. She stockpiled shoes and accessories.

In two years, she has given away close to 100 dresses in connection with A Place Called Home, a youth center in South Central Los Angeles.

With a black beaded shift and a sea-foam green, sleeveless bridesmaid’s dress slung over my shoulder, I headed toward A Place Called Home to meet Green, who had set up a makeshift boutique in the center’s playground.

It was “Clothes Give Away Day,” thanks to donations from Temple Israel, and mothers, kids and strollers were crowded into a line, waiting in the late afternoon heat to go through the piles of clothes. Green was standing near a rack of gowns: yellow, pink, silver, all fresh from the cleaners in plastic bags.

I added mine to the rack and dropped off a couple pairs of faux pearl earrings to go with them. “This is a city of haves and have-nots,” Green told me, squinting into the sun. “This is a great way for people to share what they have.

“The reward is to see the smiles on the girls’ faces,” she added. “What girl doesn’t know how great it feels to put on a pretty dress? It builds great self-esteem.”

I sat on a nearby bench and watched a teenage girl twirl in a pink satin, floor-length gown, her jeans and sneakers peeking out from the bottom. Her friend had on a sophisticated silver silk number. Both were beaming.

“Some girls wouldn’t even be able to go to the prom at all because they couldn’t afford a dress,” Green explained.

Ray Gallegos, executive director of A Place Called Home, took me on a tour of the center, which has 4,000 members between ages 9 and 20. There’s a music room, a tutoring center, a kitchen that serves three meals a day, arts and crafts and a busy computer lab. Even a guy like Gallegos — who told me he was both stabbed and shot during his gang days — is hip to the importance of the right dress.

“After Dana was here last, the buzz went on for days. She gave the girls a whole new picture of themselves,” he said. It wasn’t just the dresses, he added, but “seeing people from an affluent background come down here and spend time with them, help them pick out clothes.”

The at-risk youth Gallegos works with have what he calls “a brick-around-the-neck stance,” something the dresses help alleviate, if just a little.

My frocks haven’t found a home yet, but when they do, they won’t have to be returned. In fact, Green tells me that the dresses are often passed along to a cousin or friend, recycled and given new life until they wear out.

Green is hoping to expand her program, so that next spring she can set up four different “boutiques” around the city. She needs shoes, new hosiery, makeup and, of course, those dresses you know you’ll never wear again but can’t bring yourself to throw away.

Dana Green can be reached at cinderellaproject@pacbell.net.

Get a Life

Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl stops returning her friend’s phone calls. Girl’s world narrows. Girl loses boy. Girl starts calling her friends again. Girl meets another boy.

A pattern emerges.

It’s obvious, really. I just never noticed it until my boyfriend gave me the week off (he had to "figure things out"), figured he wanted me back, but just days later, went to New York on business for a week.

I turn 17 different kinds of lonely and bored. What social network I had managed to piece together between boyfriends had slowly slipped away.

I call my mom. My weepy monologue can be boiled down into this: "Lonely. Bored. Lonely. Bored. Did I mention lonely?"

"Well, you’ve got to get a life," she says. Her voice seems to echo over the phone. It is the echo of maternal truth, loud and reverberating. "You get a boyfriend and you lose your life, then you become boring and dependent. It’s something a lot of women do, and it’s a bad idea."

"But mom," sniffle, sniffle. "I go to book group."

"That’s one day a month. What about the rest of the month?" she asks. What about it?

Epiphany about getting a life in hand, I realize I have to get over my phone-a-phobia and return calls. It’s time to make coffee dates. See movies with friends, engage in social activities that don’t contain the possibility of hooking up, meeting, flirting. It’s friendship for friendship’s sake, and I’ve got to get busy. More importantly, I’ve got to keep my life when my boyfriend gets back in town.

I can’t believe I’ve joined that club of women who drop everything for a man, treat their friends and hobbies like place-keepers. Men don’t seem to do that. Most of the guys I’ve dated travel in a pack; they have friends from high school and college. They value those connections and never set them aside for long.

I place a few calls.

Lives are like plants. If you don’t water them, they wither. Unaware of the massive paradigm shift in my attitude toward friendship, people take their time calling me back. Finally I set up a Saturday coffee date. We meet early but my friend has to run. It was nice to catch up, and I feel like I’ve taken a baby step toward a life.

The rest of Saturday looms large and rainy, however. My boyfriend calls from New York. The brief conversation can be boiled down into this: "I did this, I did that, I’m living the high life with my pals, who are too numerous to name." Loud subway sound. "My train’s here. I miss you. Bye."

I stare at the phone receiver like a bad soap opera actress who’s just gotten word that her husband is having an affair with her evil twin. I sob and sob. He’s gone, but he’s coming back in four days (who’s counting?). I don’t know why I’m sobbing. I guess it’s a mixture of missing him and hating him for having fun with his friends instead of crawling into a fetal position in his hotel room with the sharp ache of needing me.

I could sit home and theorize about why women often seem to value romantic relationships over all else, whether it’s socialization or just biological wiring. I could do that, but it would be boring, lonely, boring, lonely. I head out to the mall to see a movie. I’m alone, but it’s closer to having a life than watching some bogus figure-skating competition concocted by a lotion company.

I’m a little early for the movie. About two hours early, if you must know. I loll about the crowded mall, trying on makeup at Bloomingdale’s, staring at the bunnies in the pet store, all curled up together sleeping. I see the movie.

I check my messages. A friend (okay, an ex-boyfriend, but you can’t be too choosy when getting a life) calls and wants to see "Hannibal." I’m a vegetarian, but I say yes in the interest of, you know, having a life.

After the movie, we talk for awhile. It’s so comforting to speak to someone who knows me, who has known me awhile. Giving him a friendly hug and walking away, I know what all this is for, why men and smart women retain their friendships. I feel I’ve latched onto a little shred of life and I don’t want to let it go.

The next day, another friend calls and invites me to a party. I agree to go, even though the party is the night my boyfriend returns to town. He’s disappointed I’ve made plans and wants to spend time with me after getting home, but I’m determined to diversify.

My girlfriend calls to bail out on the party. She’s says she’s tired, feeling under the weather. I’m secretly relieved. That worries me, but lives and paradigm shifts aren’t built in a day.