23 August 2009

The Depersonalization of Deli

[NB: I'm happy to report that this piece appeared on NPR.org the week of 10/21/09!] In the summer of 1981, I spent my days behind a red neon lox in the window of a kosher Jewish delicatessen 10 miles outside of midtown Manhattan. My job description included short-order cook, cashier, and in a pinch, Russian dressing-maker. Probably the best parts of that job were my cohorts, a crew of butchers, kosher deli owners, and waitresses who made the place into a screenplay that should be sitting in my drawer. Donald, the head butcher, more than a little resembled Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and brought the house down each Friday afternoon, just before shabbos, when he stood in the doorway wielding his largest butcher’s knife over his head, shrieking, “Honey, I’m home!”

Even by 1981 standards, the deli was very old school, mostly catering to the alter kockers who had made urban Clifton, NJ, their home for the past 4 or 5 decades, after moving from Brooklyn to the suburbs to raise families. Morris, one of the owners, had emigrated from Poland in the 1950s and still bore a number from Auschwitz on his forearm. He said very little to 18-year-old me except, “Heideleh! Make Russian!” Which was my cue to hit the back room with the ketchup, relish, mayo and a long spoon. His partner, Nathan, another Ashkenazi, from the Ukraine, was far chattier, putting his arm around my shoulder and offering me nibbles of whatever was good that day: the kasha, the whitefish salad, the sable. By the end of the summer, he had so familiarized himself with my palate that he knew exactly what to give me as a going-away present: a ½ pound of fresh sturgeon.

Every shift, I would cook hot dogs and liver steaks, each to custom order, while listening to the customers alternately telling us jokes or kvetching about their day. The blue-haired ladies made a beeline toward Donald, who sliced their meats and flirted with them shamelessly. A few minutes later, out they strode with 3 pounds of fresh coldcuts and a tub of macaroni salad tucked under their arm, blushing, primping their hair a bit, and smiling. Their husbands, meanwhile, had stopped to hock strawberry blonde “Lyn the Shiksa,” who gave them big goyische smiles and, every once in a while, a free bar of halvah to her favorites. When business was slow, Donald and his assistant, Ronnie, would toss slabs of meat back and forth between them, or threaten to order a pepperoni pizza, making the owners come running, waving their fists in the air.

Fast forward to August 2009. I now live in suburban CA, just 2,943 miles from midtown Manhattan (and on some days, you can feel every one of them). My friend asks me to pick her up a sandwich at the Vons supermarket. I go up to a guy making sandwiches, but am greeted with a deafening silence. One of the other customers advises me that orders must be placed at a computer terminal near the front door. I stand in front of the black terminal, a selection of sandwich photos before my eyes. There is no Donald, no Morris, no Nathan—just a flat screen bearing flat sandwiches. To be fair to the machine, I am given a hundred options for my sandwich: lettuce or no, tomato or no, toasted bread or no. And since my friend has been quite specific, I get to scroll down through several screens, carefully selecting the substitutions and omissions she’s requested. The screen blankly assents to whatever I choose to add or subtract, without opining, as Donald would have, “What?! No pickle? I don’t know, Mrs. Feinberg—are you sure you’re a Jew?”

Finally, I submit my order into the aethers and stroll over to the counter, where 3 young men are struggling to read a ticket and assemble one roast beef on rye. This Morris would have never abided. “Whatsa matter with you? Gimme that, I’ll make it!” the 67-year-old would have demanded. The Vons’ sandwich boys’ anxiety becomes my anxiety, and I become overwhelmed and text my friend. “There are 3 guys on your sandwich,” I say. “Well, by all means, get them off! We don’t want that!” she replies.

Then I glance around and everyone else is on their BlackBerrys, too. Whatever just happened to waiting patiently and kibitzing? I think. In Clifton, NJ, by now, grandsons would have been asked after, grandbabies’ photos would have been whipped out, Obama’s healthcare plan would have been hotly debated, and someone’s bubbe would have been trying to fix up the cute young waitress with her Schatze. Here at the Vons, the Japanese woman to my right is buried in a text message, the guy next to me has his iPod turned up so loud I can hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers' every bassline, and the mother with her 2 kids in a stroller is yapping loudly on a cell phone. We are having a war to see who can be the least present—and we are all winning.

I glance over the counter to try and grasp how this whole operation is run—where my order comes in and how it translates into a turkey sandwich on ciabatta. I see one long stream of tape issuing from another machine. A supervisor who is trying to read it to them and translate the computer jargon. And 3 guys scratching their ballcaps, who look like they would be ever so much happier if a pushy gal from just outside NYC got in their faces and said, “Hey! Turkey on a roll, no bacon, and put mayo on it, not ranch. You got that? No ranch! And hurry up, I gotta get outta here, my friend’s waiting, can you kick it out?” And I would have been just the girl to do it.

16 August 2009

Communication: 1973 Versus 2009

Last night I watched Ang Lee’s film The Ice Storm for at least the fifth time. It had been awhile since I’d last seen it, and with every viewing, I’m struck by just how loaded with dead-on metaphor Rick Moody’s story is, and just how ably Lee (who was growing up in Taiwan when the film was set and from whom we cannot expect such prescience around the subtleties of American culture) has rendered it on screen. For anyone who has not seen it, The Ice Storm tells is the story of 2 neighboring families living in a tony Connecticut suburb circa 1973. This was an era in which the lid had been blown off the pot of simmering 1950s and 60s repression, marriage therapy had made it to the suburbs, and all that had previously been politely stored underground was now fizzing to the surface. This could appear quite a feat of op art to its denizens, whose M.O. had been the down low. And who would most stand in the line of fire of all this too-little, too-late awareness? The children, of course.

Looking back at this era from the vantage point of 36 years, of 3 1/2 decades of technology, psychological sophistication, the birth of the Internet, and the rise of New Media, it is striking how much these characters’ world view differs from our current time of “too much information.” If it’s a TMI world today, 1973 suburbia was definitely a world of TLI: too little information. In this landscape, couples barely communicated with one another for years on end. In one scene, a father comes home from a business trip, and after a rather bizarre conversation with his 14-year-old son, asks his wife, “Is Mikey OK? He seems a little out of it…” To which his wife responds, “Mikey’s been out of it since birth.”

Young Mikey is actually quite likely schizophrenic, or at least schizotypal. The notion that his parents would not have had a conversation about his behavior until after his 14th birthday is just one example of how these couples, and families, are so very disconnected. These days, there would have been teacher and school conferences, psychologists’ reports, extensive information available on the Internet, books, support groups, listservs, medications, playgroups, etc. It would be highly unlikely in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the NY metro area that such a child would slip through the cracks as merely “out of it.”

And, as Moody graphically relates, the cost of such unconsciousness can be high. The boy is ultimately killed by a jolt from a telephone wire that comes crashing down during a severe ice storm. It is, of course, a metaphor for the toll exacted by the psychic ice storm of denial that surrounded him.

Yet, for all of their communication challenges, the 1970s did have a completely different, entirely more interpersonally related feeling to them. You could venture into a public place and actually have a random conversation with a stranger, as no one was preoccupied with his or her electronic device. Parents actually spoke with their children on the playground, instead of pushing them to go play so they could fidget with their Blackberrys. People spent time interacting with each other, not in the anonymizing field of cyberspace. There was simply a lot more “face time,” time when one could gaze into the eyes of another human being, which is a key ingredient of forming attachments and maintaining psychological health.

But as enjoyable as it is to wax nostalgic for the precomputer age, it is almost painful to go back and watch this chapter in The Ice Storm. It is Thanksgiving weekend, 1973. The Watergate trials have been airing all summer, Nixon has just delivered his “I am not a crook” speech, crafting a highly debatable prelude to his impeachment 7 months later. TV broadcasts are the primary means these characters have for learning about what is happening in Washington. And just one of them, a 14-year-old girl, is bright and engaged enough to even be watching; the rest have shut it out as “too much.”

Otherwise, it is a quiet world indeed. No one has yet jacked in to the matrix. There are no computers. No cell phones. No Blackberries. No texting. No emails. No blogs. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Google. And believe it or not, the son off at prep doesn’t even have a landline.

And no one is talking—certainly not about anything meaningful. In one hilarious scene, a father attempts to have a “heart-to-heart talk” to discuss sex with his 16-year-old son. He sputters through it, spouting a series of nonsequiturs and meaningless statements that do nothing but make his son squirm. Clearly these people have never talked about anything deeper than the weather. And they wonder why their kids are having problems. (Though I do have to shake his hand for even trying. Back in 1973, my own father's verbal tools of "communication" comprised 4 key phrases: "Get me the screwdriver, NOW!" "Shut the hell up," "Tell your mother to get down here," and "Stop eating--you're too fat already." The nonverbal ones were worse.)

Flash forward 36 years to our oh-so-evolved, wired-to-the-gills universe, in which research and communication tools beyond our wildest imaginings occupy huge chunks of our homes and schedules. We seem to chatter with each other night and day, with IMing, Facebook comments, Twitter notes, incessant emails, text messages, and a constant barrage of items that seem to require instant responses. Certainly the Internet has opened our eyes to so many world events, connected us with so many people who share similar interests, brought us incredible research tools and access to people all over the globe. It is, obviously, one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever invented, hands down.

However, is all the New Media actually improving our communication—or is it simply a pendulum swing in the opposite direction? Do we feel closer to humanity because we have emailed 20 people today than if we had sat down with 10 neighbors and shared a meal? Are we better able to communicate our thoughts to our partners because we have time and space to write them down, or do we alienate them because they can’t see our faces, hear our tone of voice, and watch our gestures as we speak? Do I feel more loved because 120 people have agreed to be my Facebook friends than I used to when I sat around with 15 of my buddies from college and talked over pizza? I’m not sure I do…

I think there’s a lot of quantity out there—and a lot of confusion between quantity with quality. It’s a longer topic about the whole digital age that I plan to address in the next entry. A smokescreen that can make us believe we’re getting something—but then why do we still feel like we’ve been handed a cheap shortcut? Maybe because we have.

I think it’s ultimately wonderful to possess tools and equally important to use them well—to stay connected with people in the traditional ways: through face-to-face contact whenever possible, through voice over just the written word, and through lengthier exchanges over simply a text, e-card, or other abbreviated form that we busy people try to pass off as significant, from-the-heart communication. We are still creatures that crave the tangible world. We like to touch and feel and smell and hear and engage our senses. We like to feel love--and it’s mighty hard to feel that in any depth through a computer screen. And we are fascinated by watching the human face, with all its expressions giving meaning to the words, which have been proven only 7% of a factor in overall communication. A sobering statistic, that, especially for us writers. But in the big picture, talk is cheap, and words can only say so much, despite what we in our text-heavy society may imagine.

Tonight I was reading an article on Salon.com about a woman's "addiction" to Twitter, and the letters that followed were, as usual, simply fascinating. One letter writer, whose handle was rainbirdreader, wrote, "In my 20 year career, I've seen a huge rise in the number of kids who need speech therapy and are slow to talk in recent years because their electronic toy toting parents ARE NOT TALKING TO THEM! Dull as it may be, part of parenting a young child is to talk them through their day, using our parent language to describe the people and places around them so they can eventually learn to recognize vocabulary words and start reading. The brain experts are now saying that oral vocabulary, either through conversation or stories, actually GROW KIDS BRAINS. The television doesn't register on the human brain the same way the human voice does, apparently, and kids are particularly tuned into their mother's voice...big surprise. So if you are the life of the party, start taking your children on adventures and using all the vocabulary in your vast arsenal to help them learn about their world. Believe me, you don't get that time back. I can tell by age three who has been read to and talked to by their parents because there is a light in a kids eye when they are engaged, absorbed and verbal that nothing can ever replace. Those early conversations about groceries, parks, playgrounds, cleaning, cooking, etc. are the foundation for the all the learning yet to come and teach kids HOW TO HAVE A CONVERSATION."

08 August 2009

One Last Hike with Maggie

Maggie had both a very strong will and a very strong preference for sensual pleasure. She was very much a Taurus and very much a Hedonist. I could tell you she was the perfect dog, and that would be the absolute truth. I could tell you she was perfectly behaved, but that would be an outright lie. Once, in her salad (and a side of spaghetti) days, we were out playing ball in a Santa Fe city park. In her genes flowed enough retriever that she would generally bring the ball back to me consistently without much prodding. On this particular evening, I threw it long, and turned my back to check out something behind me. A minute later, I saw her running toward me with something bearing no resemblance to a dog ball in her mouth. It was triangular in shape, orange with yellow goo running off it. It was, most assuredly, a slice of pizza. “Maggie!” I shrieked. “Where did you get that?” I ran toward her to spot a young couple picnicking with a pizza box on the ground several yards behind her. And though they seemed much calmer than me, I approached with a degree of mortification, trying to appear contrite on a little brown dog’s behalf.

“Oh my God, I am REALLY sorry,…” I said to the young woman. She just laughed and waved her hand dismissively.

“Oh, no worries at all--she’s welcome to it. She is sooooo cute! My dog is in Colorado and I miss her so much. I’m so happy to see her! Would she like some more?”

Thus, the effect those big jowls and worried little eyebrows could have…cheating women out of their dinners with nary a complaint. The rake. If she could have grinned and flashed a cape, I’m sure she would have. Zorro the Pizza Thief. Catch me if you can!

It is hard for me to take in that her sometimes-bold, often low-key, always full-of-heart spirit no longer treads the earth, that a whole month has gone by and she has moved on, out to wherever perfect sweet spirits go to disseminate their love to beings who so need it. I could tell you that she was so very evolved that she may well have reincarnated as a human. But sometimes I think the State of Dog is a notch above that, so patient, giving, accepting, and unconditionally loving that humans are way outclassed.

This afternoon I decided I needed to get out into nature—and what better way to say goodbye to her than to bring her spirit along with me for one last hike together?

Maggie was my constant hiking companion, and for a smaller dog, could go and go at high altitude without ever tiring. New Mexico is littered with hiking trails, and at one point in my life, we hit a trail practically every day. That was also the era in which I owned a red Mazda Miata sports car, and Maggie fit comfortably in the co-pilot’s seat, her soft, tawny ears flapping in the breeze as we drove up the mountainside with the top down. I was tempted to buy her a scarf and goggles for such occasions, as I know she could have pulled off the look with great panache. Instead she settled for a steady stream of drivers at lights, glancing over, spotting her, and bursting into huge grins at her utter cuteness.

Today I felt her happily jump into the passenger’s side of my Celica and take her place next to me, watching the traffic flying by, her mouth open, panting with excitement. This was gonna be THE BEST hike! As we pulled into the parking lot for the trailhead, she began turning around and stomping in her seat, ready to be let out right that second. When the door opened, she tore into the woods, then stopped beneath a particularly fragrant tree to roll and roll, until her body was coated in dirt and pine needles. The trail meandered beside a small creek, and Maggie would run a few feet to wet her paws and take a quick drink, then charge back and lead the way.

Me? I was lagging considerably behind. Walking slowly and lethargically. Schlepping, if you will. Why’d you bring that big thing on your back? she asked me. I don’t know, I said. I guess I thought I needed it. Heaviness. Weight. She flitted quickly past me and on to something far more appealing: a lizard darting through the brush. My thoughts turned to all the problems I had had this past week—arguments with friends, people who weren’t doing what I thought they should, humans whose actions I found stupid and insensitive, a panoply of anger, powerlessness, frustration, and disappointment. I became distracted to such a great extent that I completely lost track of the fact: I was in the woods on a glorious summer afternoon. I looked up and noted the greenery around me, watched a dragonfly flit by, saw some brilliant red leaves putting on a show in the bushes. And just ahead of me, Maggie, throwing her entire body into a deep, deep sniff of the base of an oak tree, every muscle in her body shaking, wide awake with the thrill of that penetrating scent.

We walked a bit further--her quickly, me sluggishly. The scenery here was uninspiring. A bunch of withered oaks and sycamores. Why wasn’t there more water flowing in the creek beds? The hills looked all yellow. What, was there a drought or something? Shit, I could’ve stayed in NM if I wanted to look at something dead like this… And damn, it’s hot—couldn’t they have routed this trail through some shade? Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts—I sure had a cornucopia of them. Meanwhile, Maggie was up ahead, where I could sense that a lot of Not Thinking was going on.

Suddenly, clods of earth began flying through the air in one long stream. As I approached, I could see her nose burrowing into a hole in the ground. “Maggie!” I reprimanded, having seen this behavior at least 1,000 times before and knowing where it would lead. “Stop it!” She emerged with her entire honker coated in dirt flecks, panting, and then began to dig in earnest. In New Mexico, land of a million prairie dogs, this behavior could have gone on for days. I tugged on her collar and forcibly removed her from the crime scene. Even so, she was grinning ear to ear, as if she’d just eaten steak tartare with a side of salmon.

The trail wound on beside the mostly-dry creek bed, and finally I decided that I’d tolerated enough of this half-assed nature and deserved a reward: lunch. I looked up to see several cairns marking a flat alcove that also held the remnants of an old chimney. Cairns are little rock piles set up by the wee fairie folke, and generally imply that some sort of magickal something has happened on the spot. I figured it would probably be a good place to sit peacefully for a while. Now, Maggie may have been a huge fan of the sights and sounds native to the woods, but she also was quite attuned to the sight and sound of a deli wrapper being unraveled and the smell of a roast beef sandwich wafting through the air. I shared with her some of the lunchmeat and a few treats I’d brought along to supplement. She was now 100% convinced that this little forest was the single best place on the face of the Earth, bar none, and was panting and smiling and rolling her sausage body over and over in the dirt to prove it.

Even though I have utter contempt for people who bring electronic devices into the woods, I whipped out my Blackberry and decided that since an hour had passed, I was entitled to check my messages. But they were not really the messages I’d been hoping for, and left me with a sense of loneliness. My friends were out having better times than I was, hiking worthier trails, expending their time more wisely, doing things I could have been doing if I weren’t hanging out on this loser of a trail in a dried-up canyon that had seen its day, just like the rest of California. (And hey, BY THE WAY, what happened to the waterfalls mentioned in the guidebook, anyway??)

I fed Maggie the rest of my sandwich and she bolted back onto the trail, ready for the next adventure. We walked about 5 minutes and I realized I had a rock in my shoe that would turn into a blister if I didn’t slough off my big heavy pack and extricate it. Maggie had run ahead toward a short spur that led toward the water. I followed. As we walked further in, I sat down on a huge slab, laid down my pack and removed my shoe. As I was shaking loose the rock, I glanced up to see a beautiful little inlet with a large, heart-shaped rock at the center of it.
Even I had to admit that this was a rather impressive sight, even in the state of California—and in San Luis Obispo—can you believe it? What little nerd grind of a Cal Poly engineer allowed this to happen? A dash of mysticism here in the home of Disbelief and Rational Thought? Shocking! Surely they didn’t know it existed or they would have drilled it for oil or blood or something.

Maggie looked up at me. Why is your face all scrunched up and why are you talking to yourself out here in the middle of nowhere? Take a load off! And with that, she dove from the creek bank into the water, flipping and splashing and doggie-paddling around. And then I discarded my other shoe and plunged my toes in the water, too. It felt cold but not unbearable. Five beautiful monarch butterflies fluttered by in a blue and cloudless sky. Cattails on the banks nodded in the breeze. Just below me, someone had placed burgundy rose petals, as if in offering to the heart rock. Maggie paddled back and shook her wet head, drenching my torso. Each drop fell against my hot skin, cooling the burn of the noonday sun. Brimming with contentment, my dog then proceeded to plunk her thoroughly soaked, 40-pound body on top of my lap, leaning back into me with the full force of her sopping wet body. I put my arms around her and squeezed her against me like a sponge.

So this was joy.