A Tale of Fish

I was en route from Izmir to Istanbul on father’s day this year, and upon my return to NY made up for it by planning a family fishing trip. Captain Dave in Sheep’s Head Bay, Brooklyn made it all rather painless, and on July 5 we celebrated my dad by catching fish – many fluke and one sea bass to be precise.

Back track to Istanbul for a second, where I lived as a kid from ages 7 to 9.5. Bridge between East & West with fish-laden waterways, Istanbul harbors many a fisherman. Back in the day, we used to stroll along the Bosphorus, checking out the locals’ catches…my baby brother would point and declare excitedly bish! bish! My first time back in 18 years, and the Stanbulis are still out in full force, casting their rods off the Galata Saray bridge. Of course, I had to go on a treasure hunt in search of my old neighborhood and apartment…Kortel Korusu, just above Bebek, which is the new cool.

With family, fish and boats on the brain, a father’s day fishing expedition was in order.

Although my younger brother and dad own fishing rods, I had never even held one (I don’t think). No worries, though, a few incidental catches and high-pitched screeches later (hooked fish are feisty, flappety buggers), and we were just about set for dinner the next day! Fishing aside, the breeze was heaven – what better way to alleviate the embrace (death grip?) of the city’s stagnant air? The birds frolicked, beer was drunk and the views of the orange sun setting beside the cityscape were stunning. Who ever said fishing was boring?!

My father (the chef) turned our catch into a veritable feast on Tuesday evening. And so ends the tale of these fish.


Just the maid

My boyfriend comes from a country where it is still ok to refer to your cleaning lady or housekeeper as your maid. When he talks about the elderly woman who cleans his apartment once a month, he refers to her as ‘my maid.’ The possessive derogatory, however commonplace and non-connotative elsewhere, grates on the PC ear – of which there are aplenty in New York, one of which happens (at least in this context) to be mine.

It is not desirable to be a maid, nor an old maid, nor a barmaid. Being a maiden (typically in distress) is ok, but that’s the stuff of fairytales. Being a bridesmaid, on the other hand, bucks the trend. Here’s a maid you want to be, an honorable role, a maid of honor – at least in theory. I’ve heard horror stories of demanding brides who treat their ‘maids’ like, well, maids.

Due to serve in the bridesmaid capacity for the first time this fall, I’m not exactly certain what the gig holds in store, but I’m pretty excited. And so far so good. The dress is elegant, likely slimming, cocoa-colored taffeta – some fuss but not too much. I have not worn a full-length formal dress since I was a 3-year-old flower girl at my uncle’s wedding, so this is one maid who’s going to feel like cinderella. From a ‘paradox of choice’ perspective, I liked being told which dress, which color. Makes a bridal dress warehouse extravaganza a hell of a lot less overwhelming!

Sizing and ordering, though, were a touch complicated. Apparently bridal/bridesmaid dress sizes run 2+ sizes larger than regular dress sizes. The wedding industry’s in cahoots with Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. You get measured and next thing you know the entire bridal party’s on Atkins. So while Gap and Abercrombie practice size deflation (encourages purchases because you feel super skinny), in a sliver of the clothing industry where you have less (and by less I mean no) choice about what to buy, double digits are to be expected. Size 18 and up, and you’re officially a diva.

Also – measurements are more complex than you’d think. I’m not sure how by taking my own measurements (measuring tape, handy online guide plus dress-specific chart, smart girl) I came up with a dress size two sizes larger than the one the retailer assigned me. Either way, the whole measurement process got me thinking about dimensions and shapes and how Barbie would fall over if she were a life-size woman.

Some say ‘ideal’ is bust and hips the same, and waist 10 inches smaller than that…so 36″-26″-36″ for example, but only about 10% of women have this sort of enviable hourglass figure. The rest of us are bananas, apples and pears. A rather boring array of fruit…

Bananas are straight up and down and apples are boobs- and waist-heavy, but pears have a fighting chance…there’s another measure of ideal that says if you take your waist and divide it by your hips, and you get .7 (Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Venus de Milo) then you’re a beaut…at least according to Western men…

The place at which I ordered my beautifully pear-proportioned bridesmaid dress had mixed reviews online. Before we signed up for the in-store program (slightly more expensive than the online no-frills one, but less hassle and no personal accountability for screw ups like incorrectly measuring oneself), my friend asked the sales assistant about the reviews. She looked at us, shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, you know how people in this industry are…”

Fair enough. Not me though – I’m just the maid.

Just study what you like

Six years out of college and I finally paid monetary homage to my alma mater a couple weeks ago. Not a significant amount – a token really – because they were collecting contributions for a scholarship fund to be named after a dean who had approved a rather special scholarship for me and is now battling cancer.

My school asks for money all the time; the percentage of alumni who donate actually helps a school in its U.S. News and World Report ranking. Or at least that was the case when I was on the other side – still in school and working at the Alumni Relations House for $7.5o/hour and free Papa John’s pizza. At the start of each three-hour phone shift, we were told that if we could convince someone to contribute even just a dollar to the Annual Fund, that was a win. Getting someone with no donating history to give a buck was in some ways a greater triumph than happening upon the $100 from the alum who had donated that figure annually, reliably, for the past quarter century. Either way – the reward for a pledge (a relative rarity) was a candy bar. As for the job, some alums were curt, others apologetic, few were generous and most were simply not at home.

I have never contributed to the Annual Fund. Not even the courtesy dollar, which ultimately contributes as much to me as to the school. You’d think that having worked the phones at the alum house, calling people a year out who were still repaying student loans as well as those already living on their pensions, I would have saved them the hassle and sent in something. It’s one of the strategies behind employing student callers: the 25% of the student body that at one point or another during four years gets an easy on-campus job with decent pay and dinner thrown into the mix will give at least that dollar.

I didn’t. Why? At first because of post-college poverty. But even then, I could have spared a buck. Perhaps afterward because of the incessant solicitation. Not just by phone but by mail as well. How can they possibly raise more than they spend this way?

Underlying my hesitance to be generous, however, is a certain dismay with how my education panned out. By all apparent standards, I have nothing to bemoan. I was the recipient of scholarship money, I was active on campus, I took really interesting classes and had – once I got savvy about choosing them – great professors. The year I graduated, my school ranked top ten in the country, and I have no doubt its caliber helped me get my first real job.

The problem?

A career center session on ‘choosing your major’ first semester sophomore year. We had to declare by second semester, and I was at a loss. The loosey goosey liberal U.S. education is all well and good if you’ve got your heart set on being a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, but what if you just don’t know? You’ve got a sense of what you enjoy but no clear picture of how that translates into the job market, or how to go about preparing educationally for the jobs that may be related to what you enjoy.

At this particular major-choosing session, we were told, “Don’t overthink choosing your major. Nine times out of ten it has no bearing on what you’ll end up doing after your graduate, so just pick something you enjoy.”

Call me naive, but I did. As did many others, both at my school and schools across the country. And we – privileged to have had liberal, renaissance educations with lots of wiggle room for electives – graduated sans the marketable skills and pre-professional grooming/counseling to [a] get the right job and [b] know what that job was.

The ‘just study what you like’ approach is great for academics. You go on to do a masters, and a PhD and then – unless you’re one of the most brilliant – proceed to teach and do research at whatever university will hire you, wherever it may be. But if you’re not on that track, where does it leave you?

There are plenty companies hiring bright young graduates with good grades for entry level roles in a slew of industries. It’s good to be able to prove prior interest in a given industry through a battery of related internships, though it’s not always necessary. But what if you do one of those jobs, maybe even a couple jobs in that industry, and decide it’s not the place for you?

Then you’re a career-changer, or — in this economy — simply screwed.

There has to be a better balance to ‘studying what you like’ and figuring out how that’s going to translate into a job you like after you graduate (that pays decently). We spend heaps on our tertiary schooling in the U.S. – surely part of that should go to practical application? Expand my mind these four years, but prepare me to continue doing so while making a living thereafter.

Of course, some would have things remain just the way they are. Education for the sake of itself, only. You can figure out the rest later, with the critical thinking skills you gained analyzing Lars Von Trier’s films and the epic works of James Joyce.

Anyhow, having gotten to the bottom of my reluctance to give, I realize this little bone I have to pick with my university is really just an issue with liberal education at large. And at the end of the day, is just as much my fault as that of the system. I didn’t, couldn’t figure out what (if anything) I wanted to do professionally. I was thankful for the ‘study what you like’ advice, happy to be shielded from life-altering decisions for a little longer. I didn’t ‘think critically’ about the implications of being a comparative literature major, I didn’t demand to know what I would pay later for the instant gratification of simply studying what I liked.

Christmas arrows

Back in the day – when I used to travel a lot – I liked to book flights departing on Christmas. Doing so typically meant cheaper tickets, avoiding the pre- and post-Christmas rush, and complimentary in-flight champagne (thank you British Airways).  Of course, if you happen to celebrate Christmas, this deal’s probably not for you.

Christmas 2009 may have just put a sock in my ‘Fly on Christmas, it’s the Best!’ campaign.

The 289 folks on Delta/Northwest flight 253 likely agree. On December 25, 2009, they went from being regular people travelling on Christmas to being survivors. Had the aspiring suicide bomber Umar Abdulmutallab been successful in his mission, their plane would have exploded over the Atlantic, lock stock and barrel.

Abdulmutallab was reportedly working for Al Qaeda. I wonder why they chose Christmas? Greater chance of lax security? check. Greater publicity because everyone’s at home with the TV on in the background? check. Better targeting because Jews (like me) like to fly on Christmas? check…but it’s not like Muslims refrain from flying on the 25th…half a check.

I find terrorist attacks, averted or otherwise, unfathomable. I can’t believe it happened. Not here. Not there. Admittedly, there is the initial element of post-9/11-era numbness. Repetition numbs. This is not a new idea. Andy Warhol commented on numbness to violence and tragedy by showing image after image of the same car wreck. Lars Von Trier tries to penetrate contemporary numbness by dreaming up unthinkable scenarios and making raw documentary-style films about human interaction that are quite painful to watch. That is his point and purpose, to make his viewers feel deeply, have visceral gut reactions, despite the fact that we are in the era of non-feeling, the era in which we have seen it all and nothing has the power to shock.

That it is possible to feel unfeeling in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack is in itself surprising, worrying, horrifying. But horror and the inability to fathom follow quickly, hand in hand, as soon as I start to think in any real way about what has just happened/has been narrowly escaped.  Once I engage in a genuine effort to fathom, and realise I cannot, cannot put myself in the shoes of the perpetrators, the victims, the victims’ immediate families, cannot grasp the magnitude of what man has done to man, I am truly taken aback.

How is it possible not to be able to fathom something that happens all the time? Because I deem it to be inhuman? But obviously in some sense it is very human. A very human aberration. Because it is happening (or almost happening) all the time. Happening to the point that it numbs. According to the report the White House released reviewing the Christmas day incident, attacks just like it are being averted by the U.S. intelligence community all the time. These attempts, the American public will never be privy to. The intelligence analyst who didn’t catch young Abdulmutallab, has caught umpteen others, and saved hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. How many times have I almost died in a terrorist attack? How many times have I been saved?

We’re living in a war zone. But from this perspective it feels oddly like a fairy-tale, a distant story, because everyone and everything still goes on. Flies, movies, birthdays, parties, gifts, dinners, drinks, dates, work, family. It seems war has always been present, and now is no exception. And the U.S. – safe though it may feel most of the time – is really just another bullseye. And our airplanes the arrows.

Dreaming the Holocaust

There’s nothing like Holocaust dreams to ensure uneasy slumber. I know a recent graduate who wrote her senior thesis on art by Holocaust survivors. She interviewed several. Like most seniors, she was extremely relieved when she turned in the paper, but mostly because its completion promised an end to the Holocaust nightmares it had brought on — frequent, vivid and horrific.

One recent restless night, I was at a train station in the middle of blackened Europe, with my family, hiding out. The platforms on either side of the tracks were lined with storage rooms, about 8′ x 8′, and my family was in one of them. It was cold. My father was elsewhere, trying to get information that would keep us safe. The Nazis were expected any moment – including Hitler himself – they were going to inspect the rooms one by one. The door was locked. The inspectors hadn’t arrived yet, but in my dream, I envisioned the knob rattling from the outside and a gruff decision being made to return to our door at the end of the rounds. I also envisioned guns raised, prepped to pepper the wooden door with bullets sure to kill everything and everyone inside. Coal-darkened, shivering, anxious, I decided to leave the cell in search of my father…

That’s all I remember, but I continued to drift in and out of sleep, dropping and picking up the thread of the story, whose remainder escapes me.

The only dream I can remember from childhood was a Holocaust-related nightmare. In my small attic room with pink-heart wallpaper and pink wall-to-wall carpeting, I woke up terrorized.

My recent dream was characterized more by nagging anxiety than by terror (perhaps because I was aware it was just a dream), but in the morning, I couldn’t for the life of me think what had brought it on. I’d watched Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few weeks prior, obviously the source of some of the dream’s imagery, but had there been a more recent trigger?

Back at work the next day, I continued working on a post for an international law blog that I’d started the previous evening. Aha. An Appeals Court in the U.S. rules that it does not have jurisdiction in a lawsuit brought against the Vatican Bank by Holocaust survivors. One trigger, which reminded me of others:

The previous day, a friend spoke about her Netflix-generated recommendation list, and how it had been permanently affected by a trip to Germany a while back, before which she had sought a quick history lesson from a range of WWII films.

I had also read in the New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town section a blurb on the failure to find an adequate name for the first decade of the 21st century. One quickly-discarded suggestion was ‘the era of 9/11.’ As typically happens when I read or hear mention of 9/11, an image of two planes striking two towers and flames and people jumping to their deaths flashes through my mind. Quickly followed by the thought of all the people who lost people, and all the people suffering from 9/11-related medical conditions. Then comes a very genuine disbelief: I can’t believe it actually happened. I can’t believe it actually happened here, during my lifetime. And another, which follows seamlessly: I can’t believe the Holocaust actually happened. Only 65 years ago. All this happens very quickly. And then it’s my stop and I get off the subway, and I haven’t finished reading the page-long article in the Talk of the Town, and I stop thinking about 9/11 and the Holocaust, but I guess my brain doesn’t.

So Inglourious Basterds aside, within the span of a normal average run-of-the-mill day, I’d thought about the Holocaust on three separate occasions, without even realizing consciously at the end of the day, that I’d thought about it at all. Maybe ‘Never Forget’ is implicit – you may forget, but your brain won’t.

But if dreams are what the PBS Nova documentary I recently watched say they are, during non-REM sleep, they’re an attempt to problem solve in one’s present/current waking life, and during REM sleep, they’re an attempt to problem solve in fictitious scenarios that you anticipate having to deal with in the future. Obviously the dreams need not be representational, but is another Holocaust really such a stretch? (Think 9/11, Iran, Al Qaeda). Was I practicing for what the future may bring?

A few words on Inglourious Basterds. I think all the Jews watching that film thought: 1. A Jew would never have made this movie. 2. But if feels kinda good to watch it.

I’ll add: 3. How do I get my Holocaust dreams to feel like that? 4. I bet some ridiculously ignorant people left that movie thinking that’s how it all went down.

My inner child

I recently attended a wedding in Colombia and had my hair blown straight for the occasion. In broken Spanish, I managed to express that I wanted the ends to curve inward, but my successful communication of this request was met by disbelieving eyes and a certain frown.

But that will make you look too serious – that’s how old women get their hair done! protested the hairdresser.

But I am a serious person, I countered. Check out my glasses…(They scream librarian).

All the more reason for the hair to curve outward. It’s young and fun, the hairdresser said with decisive finality.

I shrugged my shoulders ok — I didn’t really mind either way. But I did start wondering about my seriousness.

When I was 23 and brand new to my first serious job, everyone had me pegged at 28, 29, 30. Which I suppose has its benefits if you’re trying to give the impression that you know what you’re doing! But I began to wonder if the 5+ years had to do with the onset of premature wrinkling. I was assured not. It’s just that you’re so serious and mature. Ugh for fun. But great for work.

Now that I’m much closer to 28 than 23, and have re-embraced roller coasters, dancing in the gush of a burst fire hydrant at 4am and trying scary things like horseback riding for the first time without much guidance (I was thrown off but have not been deterred from getting back on)…no one’s telling me I look like 21,22,23 😦

My mother tells me I was a serious child. Very responsible, thoughtful, informative, exacting. But she also tells me I had a happy go lucky joie de vivre. The two descriptions don’t seem to go hand in hand, which works out ok, as I’m a gemini and expected to have opposing personality traits.

On this front, I haven’t changed much. Infinitely serious person. With a very playful streak. But if anything, I’ve become less serious and exacting with time, age, infinite wisdom. Does that mean my inner child’s the serious one?!

I see bed bugs…


I guess the folks over at the mattress cover company didn’t think the subway ads were sufficient:

Walking west on 23rd, 12/12/2009