Friday, May 28, 2010

Suffering Sufrage

Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for Attorney General of California, fudges in the application of the Three Strikes Law because he thinks it’s too harsh and says he interprets the spirit rather than adhering to the letter. While opposed to arbitrary 20-plus year sentences, Cooley does however favor the death penalty. With the exception of Mike Schmier, a cool dude from Berkeley who isn’t able to garner enough support to be eligible to debate, none of the Democratic candidates for Attorney General give any indication on their campaign websites as to a position on Three Strikes. Nor do any of the candidates take a stance against the death penalty even though the California Democratic Party added the abolition of capital punishment to this year’s platform. Schmier, apparently isn’t beholden to labor unions or law and order zealots and he states plainly that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, ditto the Three Strikes Law. He supports the legalization of marijuana too. He hasn’t got a chance. Due to wishy washy websites, I email other Democratic candidates Ted W. Lieu, Rocky Delgadillo, Chris Kelly, Kamala Harris, and Pedro Nava requesting a clarification with regard to the candidate’s position on Three Strikes and the death penalty.

As I write this the only response I’ve received is from Democratic candidate Chris Kelly:
Death Penalty: I support the death penalty because there are certain crimes so heinous that perpetrators should be put to death. I think the death penalty should be used rarely. But I think it must be part of our criminal justice system
“Three Strikes: I support the three strikes law, because it reflects the common sense that people who have committed two serious or violent felonies should go off to prison for the rest of their lives if they commit another crime. There should be discretion for prosecutors in terms of how they charge that third strike—and I want to protect that.
I want to keep the three strikes system the way that it is.

The way it is, is that there are over four thousand inmates serving 20 year plus sentences in crowded beyond double capacity California prisons for crimes with the magnitude of shop lifting video tapes or pocketing a few dollars from a charity box on a liquor store counter. To put this in better perspective, Claudia Cabrera and her husband Josue Luna were sentenced this week. Ms. Cabrera’s driver’s license had been suspended due to a DUI. Apparently inebriated after attending a party, with her seven month old baby in the backseat, Cabrera ran a red light near USC and killed Adrianna Bachman, age 18. Marcus Garfinkle, Adrianna’s companion, was struck and propelled through the windshield. He was dragged 400 feet until Josue Luna was able to dislodge him and dump his body on the ground. Cabrera and Luna fled the scene. 19 year old Garfinkle survived his multiple injuries including two crushed legs, although he continues to suffer severe pain.

Cabrera and Luna visited a carwash, had the windshield replaced and were attempting to have the vehicle towed to Mexico when they were arrested. Claudia Cabrera was sentenced to 8 years in prison and her husband Josue Luna will serve 7 years. Leonardo Andrade, already convicted of three counts of burglary, petty theft and transporting marijuana, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison under the Three Strikes Law for stealing five videotapes. Gary Ewing, a repeat felon whose prior convictions include burglary and robbery, is serving 25-to-life for shoplifting three golf clubs. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld both sentences in 2003, in a 5-4 vote.

For years I have voted based on a combination of endorsements made by the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly. If the Times and the Weekly differed, I’d check with the League of Women Voters or toss a coin. I realize that a number of the social justice issues I care about could be affected by the result of this election and so I check out what the candidates have to say about themselves, study the propositions and consider a variety of endorsements. The Democratic primary ballot is of average size for a California Primary, and there are a number of candidates running unopposed. Because of my profession I think my skills at accessing information on the Internet might be slightly better honed than those of the average voter. After spending the better part of a day searching for information and reading about various candidates for Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Insurance Commissioner and then five different state measures and the controversial L.A. Unified School parcel tax measure, I remain undecided for the most part. I wonder how much time other voters put into informing their decisions.

Spending skyrockets with every election and now the Republican primary campaigns have become an obscene battle of bucks. A couple of super rich Internet tycoons are throwing a lot of their own cash around and intimating that they will enter office unencumbered by political debt. The state Democratic Party sponsored a great video, which seems to have disappeared from the net, that enumerated the equivalent in teacher salaries, medical services, and food-banks that the $80 million Meg Whitman has shoveled into her campaign would cover. According to my own crude calculations and my subjective feeling that a good newly credentialed teacher is worth about 70k a year, Whitman’s gift towards immortalizing herself would cover a year of payroll for approximately 1142 teachers. Our current governor promised independence from special interests too but the system is so impossibly mired that he was hobbled anyway. I doubt that Whitman’s administration will be as free wheelin’ as she envisions no matter how much money she spends. Opponent Steve Poizner is rapidly gaining on Meg, having thus far thrown in 24.4 million of his own funds to sell himself to the electorate, an awful lot of beans and rice for the food bank.

I make my choices as carefully as I can but until we have completely publicly funded elections and pull the reigns tight on lobbyists and PACs there bodes to be inadequate progress on issues that are important to me. The corrections officers union, CCPOA, publishes a list of endorsements, as do most labor groups. This is a very powerful lobby, the members of which benefit financially from teeming prisons. There are some individual corrections officers who advocate for prisoners and value rehabilitation over punishment but the truth is unions exist in this day and age to financially enrich themselves and their membership. Teacher’s unions give lip service to professional improvement and there is no doubt that there are a lot of extremely gifted teachers who work themselves half to death and truly change lives. The union nevertheless is also obligated to advocate for incompetent and even dangerous teachers too.

In 1945 36% of employed Americans were union members. Now the percentage is about 12.3, the manufacturing trades having taken the biggest hit. For most occupations, union membership is well below 20%, the exceptions being education, protective service and government although the proliferation of non-union charter schools will inevitably erode the percentage of unionized teachers. We boycotted grapes for years and I’ve never crossed a picket line. The unions protected workers from a multitude of evils and still the very first image that I free associate with “union” is the photo of the shrouded bodies of victims of the Triangle Factory fire lined up on the sidewalk. I do wonder though if now stricter and more comprehensive government labor statutes don’t render much of the function of the labor union irrelevant. Unless I’m missing something, the expense of running a union, like campaign spending, might be used to serve the community at large, rather than just a selective group of union members or special interests. Nevertheless, labor unions won’t fade away in my lifetime but perhaps at some point their political clout will be diminished.

Proposition 15 on the California Primary Ballot proposes a sort of pilot program for publicly funded elections, starting with a publicly funded election for Secretary of State. This measure proposes that candidates can opt out of public financing with parity but if the measure passes perhaps failure to participate will be perceived as lousy sportsmanship. This is a tiny step towards ending political beholdeness but perhaps it marks the very beginning of the end of legally sanctioned dirty politics.

I hope some day to live in a country where all elections are publicly financed and big business and other special interest groups diminish their stronghold on government. Watching the circus that’s our pending primary it’s easy to lose faith particularly when issues that particularly chap my hide like Three Strikes and the Death Penalty don’t seem destined for significant traction.

I suspect there’s a connection to the U.S. having a higher percentage of its population incarcerated than any country in the world (even China) with the radical cuts to mental heath services in the 1970s. Like many, I haven’t gotten around to finishing the final version of 2010 healthcare law tome but I was happy to find that it addresses mental health services, hopefully comprehensively enough so that early intervention will prevent some mentally ill citizens from becoming involved with the criminal justice system:
Many individuals with mental illnesses will now have access to health insurance that covers mental health and substance abuse services on a par with the coverage of medical and surgical care. Several other provisions in this law will also help people with mental illnesses, such as prevention programs, improvements to Medicare’s drug benefit, a new insurance plan for long-term community care, reauthorization of the children’s state health insurance program (SCHIP) along with other changes.

My first born will be eligible to vote in the November election. My political proclivities are irrelevant to him but I like to think that the ideas of some of the smart kids in his social networks will help expand his field of vision and raise his consciousness. Social networking is a blessing for grassroots political and social movements. Kids reaching adulthood over the next few years are screwed in many ways, but at least the mass communication facilitated by sites like Facebook makes it possible for them not to endure their disenchantment in hopeless isolation.

It is Memorial Day weekend. When I was a kid uniformed veterans stood outside the Quigley’s dime store selling poppies as inspired by WWI veteran John McCrae’s 1915 poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Himself takes a moment each year to remember his uncle and namesake who perished in the Pacific during WWII but I usually just sleep late and watch TV. I learned early on about WWII and examined my father’s pay-card from Lockheed and my mother’s ration books when I was snooping around. WWII was and still is uncomplicated as the heroes and the enemies are clearly delineated. Watching the Vietnam war play out during the dinner hour was different as with this war and every war the U.S. has engaged in ever since, the distinction between ally and enemy is blurred. Our soldiers are no less patriotic but because our objectives are so much more amorphous, they are also dupes.

I intercept a piece of mail addressed to the 17 year old. “SCHOLARSHIP OPPORTUNITIES” is stamped in a huge font on the front of the envelope. I turn it over to discover it had been sent on behalf of the National Guard. Himself teaches a lot of veterans who after their service take advantage of these scholarship opportunities. Sadly, many are so physically and/or emotionally devastated by having fought, and having fought for such ambiguous purposes, that college tuition comes at a usurious rate.

News of the Gulf oil spill will give news of military battles in the Mideast a short shrift over the long holiday weekend. I doubt if I’ll see any veterans selling poppies but I hope to take a few moments to remember those who have shed blood in defense of my country. I pray to honor those who have sacrificed by teaching my sons to cherish peace and justice and to vote and maintain a lot of old-fashioned American optimism.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Choosing Choseness

I haven’t been in a synagogue since Spud’s Bar Mitzvah back in January which is also the last occasion for which I contorted myself into stockings and high heels. There was a time when we were regular minyan-makers and I looked forward to the weekly 3+ hour Sabbath service, pantyhose and all. I was moved to become caught up in the Sisyphean task of working for the survival of a synagogue in a neighborhood gone largely Jew-free. After a couple years of wrestling with the complications of governance, administration and large personalities, the temple morphed from a refuge into another source of anxiety and aggravation. I resigned my office a number of years ago, but the peace I used to feel when I attended every Shabbat still eludes me although for reasons more complicated than mere board-of-directors burn out.

It is the holiday of Shavuot which commemorates the anniversary of Moses presenting the Torah to the Israelites at Sinai. An article in this week’s Forward quips that Shavuot is “The Zeppo Marx” of Jewish holidays. The holy day honoring the acceptance of a list of rules and regs getting a short shrift might have to do with our American enthusiasm for individualism. Shavuot is actually more of a big deal than most U.S. Jews give it credit for and the only holiday anticipated with a sort of nativity calendar. The counting of the Omer (days), in anticipation of the gift of the Torah, begins at Passover and culminates seven weeks later at Shavuot. Orthodox men do not shave during this period. Perhaps the holiday might gain increased popularity if instead of facial hair we marked the time to Shavuot with wee numbered cardboard doors that open onto candy. Usually the mantle of the Torah is accepted by 12 year old girls or 13 year old boys in Bat/Bar Mitzvah (genderless plural “B’nai Mitzvot”). The Shavuot commemoration of the Jews choosing choseness is an opportunity for many congregations to celebrate the rite with adult B’nai Mitzvot.

We are invited to the Shavuot Bat Mitzvah of an old friend at Wilshire Blvd. Temple, the oldest synagogue in L.A., in operation since 1862. The current building, with its enormous Byzantine style dome, was dedicated in 1929. The long reigning Rabbi Edgar Magnin “the Rabbi to the Stars,” served the temple for 69 years. Magnin was often compared by people my parents' age to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in office so long one just assumed he’d always be there. We never belonged to a temple and had a Christmas tree and ham but I don’t remember ever not knowing I Magnin, Joseph Magnin and Rabbi Magnin.

Bible themed murals by Hugo Ballin, who Himself identified correctly as also having created the paintings at the Griffith Observatory, grace the huge sanctuary at Wilshire Blvd. I will add that while my beloved, in a brief glance can recognize the hand of a pretty obscure 1920’s muralist, after over twenty years of my patient tutelage, he is still unable to distinguish a dessert plate from a saucer. The Wilshire Blvd, murals are revolutionary for their groundbreaking depiction of human figures in synagogue art. Ballin had worked as an art director on films and the temple’s mural, flaunting long held taboos regarding the representation of graven images, was commissioned by the Warner brothers. It is remarkable that the Polish émigré brothers Wonskolaser were able to accomplish this and reminds us of how powerful the Hollywood moguls really were, their influence certainly not limited to the sphere of popular culture.

The temple I regularly do not attend is of the Conservative persuasion although the first temple we joined was Reform. I speak no Hebrew but the translated portions in the Conservative prayer book often feel too “post-Holocaust,” sort of pugnacious, and superior and not so subtly exclusionary of non-Jews. The siddur at Reform Wilshire Blvd. feels perhaps too “post-post-Holocaust” , playing down the vengeful God and the choseness thing and instead addressing personal relationships with God. The “God’s my BFFL” approach to scripture and the guitar seem to have played well at many Christian mega-churches, which for the struggling Wilshire Blvd. Temple, a ginormous edifice in a part of town long bereft of Jews, might actually be a good economic model.

Nine adults stand on the bimah, having studied Hebrew and Torah, to read and chant. One of the adult B’nai mitzvot candidates is Betty Cohen, who at 89 is the same age as my mother. She addresses the congregation and begins by stating that she was born in Holland in 1920. Himself and I exchange a glance and we squirm. This is not going to go well.

Betty refers to notes a couple of times but she knows the story by heart and recites it dutifully and almost mechanically. She lives on the outskirts of Amsterdam and is engaged to be married in 1940 when the Nazis enter and occupy Holland. Things have already been problematic for Jews in Amsterdam but are less so outside of the big city. However, at the onset of the German occupation, all Jews are required to move to the Jewish sector of Amsterdam where they are subject to regular Nazi roundups.

Betty, her family and others, 19 in all, hide in two rooms until they are discovered by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz in a cattle car. Betty is tattooed and her head shaven. Separated from all of her relatives, she is selected for medical experimentation under the aegis of Dr. Mengele. She states that she at least had food and a bed, perhaps and ironically, her salvation. After the camp is liberated she makes her way, mainly via motor scooter, back to her hometown in the Netherlands and learns that except for her fiancé and a nephew, her family has perished.

After the war she ends up in Los Angeles with her finance, now husband. She has been a member of the Wilshire Blvd. congregation for over 50 years and states that the temple took her family in when they were unable to pay the dues required at other synagogues. While I find it hard to believe that any temple would refuse membership to a Holocaust survivor due to lack of funds, it is clear that Betty and her family were indeed warmly welcomed by the congregation. Betty survived the Holocaust but perhaps her Faustian bargain has been her mandate to recount this experience for the rest of her life. Despite the onus of living and then telling for the rest of her days, the story, Betty is called to the Torah.

Soon the last of the living voices of the survivors will cease to be. Betty has told a story that has probably engendered more atheism than any event in modern history for over fifty years now, again and again, and she believes in God. At age 89 she has mastered Hebrew in order to read from the Torah and step onto the bimah and publicly accept the mixed blessing of choseness. Betty Cohen speaks and I realize that for all of my ambivalence and temple turn off, being Jewish is as salient an ingredient to my essence as being mother and wife is.

I have seldom heard women’s voices chanting Torah and hearing the feminine voices of the new B’nai Mitzvot at Wilshire Blvd. is particularly poignant. Women in Reform and Conservative congregations are usually welcome on the bimah but this is not the case in the preponderance of Orthodox temples and it is sad that this prohibition deprives worshippers of hearing Torah verses sung in the voice of wives and mothers and daughters and sisters.

I have marveled here a number of times at the radical changes in the status of women that have evolved over the last thirty years. Perhaps as society goes, so will go religion, albeit at a much more modest pace. Within the Orthodox community, notions regarding the status of women are gradually and in tiny increments, changing. There are several congregations in the U.S. and Israel that now encourage women to read Torah from the bimah. Also, there are several educational programs which confer on Orthodox woman a status not explicitly referred to as “rabbi” but at least a distinct role in ritual life that many believe will begin to enlarge toward full parity and eventually the title of rabbi. I suggest these changes to the Orthodox attitudes about the roles of women have roots in discourse emanating from outside of the religious community. This speaks for the need to try to keep the most observant among us engaged in secular dialogue.

Himself and I have been going round and round about French measures to ban the burqa and other “conspicuous” religious attire. He suggests that I am in favor of women being able to choose to don the burqa because it is an optimal garment for use on the occasions when one feels bloated. I won’t get into the big question of faith vs. feminism as I think that within fundamentalist denominations of all religions there are women who find adherence to doctrinaire religious practice liberating and others for whom it means a life of degrading subjugation. I do believe that encouraging the devout to partake of secular institutions and participate in secular life nurtures tolerance and diminishes the likelihood of isolation from and hostility for the world outside. The banning of religious garments will only further disenfranchise fundamentalists and cultivate volatile animosity.

My personal experience of Judaism has been encouraging with regard to the equal status of women and I even expect that Orthodox women will ultimately hold equal status as leaders and rabbis. What pushes me away from organized worship is the lack of focus on Tikkun Olam, the “healing of the world.” I believe it is possible for Jews to heed the lessons of the Holocaust and still be citizens of the world, although others think this philosophy is tantamount to suicide, as in a piece entitled “How Liberal Jews are Enabling the Second Holocaust” written by Phillip Klein, which appeared at

“…As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves…”

I wonder what I’d call myself and how I’d see myself if there had been no Holocaust. To think that I would feel less connected to being a Jew if there had been no Shoah is utterly logical but it is a bitter pill to attribute my identification to the Nazis. The Holocaust is writ indelibly on every Jewish soul and I do not profess to know the right or wrong way to bear this onus. Does having been singled out for systematic extermination mitigate our obligation to work to heal the world? Do six million deaths mandate us to narrow our scope and live only to defend and protect the Jewish people? The obligation to strive for mercy and justice and the healing of the whole world is resonant for me and I think, perhaps naively, that nurturing respect and understanding among all the peoples of the world is the best insurance against future atrocities. But I grew up eating ham in the valley. I don’t know if Betty Cohen, whose daughter joins her in Bat Mitzvah and whose grandchildren embrace her this Shavuot, 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, prays first for the Jews or for all mankind including those who pray themselves for the demise of the Jewish people. Do 65 years having elapsed, beg an amended response?

The siddur at the Reform Wilshire Blvd. Temple is supplemented with modern poetry, including free verse and even an ee cummings style poem with lots of lowercase “i”s. In the end pages, devoted to specific holidays, the Yom Hashoah portion, (Holocaust Remembrance Day) has passages written by children who perished in concentration camps. There is also a poem by Primo Levi.

You who live secure

In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed,
when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
Translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann

Levi, like Betty Cohen a survivor of Auschwitz, reworks the core prayer of the Jewish people into an admonishment to engrave the Holocaust onto our hearts and teach it to our children. His own memories of the Shoah drove him to take his own life. Sixty five years having passed does not minimize our obligation to respond but the dictates of appropriate reaction have blurred as we struggle to insure and define “never again.”

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, May 14, 2010

Scribbles and Paddywhack at, moniker gleaned from the two most popular girl’s names in the U.S., is an Internet dating site that caters to married people in search of extracurricular relationships. Himself mentions this service several months ago, and I stop cooking his dinner, ostensibly to complete some work, and check out the site. To penetrate anything other than a description of their services and policies regarding discretion runs $150.00 which far exceeds my budget allocation for the satisfaction of prurient curiosity.

A commercial on Comedy Central, featuring a curvaceous thirty something blond in the sack with a stunningly studly black guy catches my attention, being one of the steamiest spots I’ve ever seen. Cut to, act complete, the parties smug and satisfied and the roll down “They’re Married.” Followed by, in smaller type, “But not to each other,” and finally full screen, ASHLEYMADISON.COM. I am unable to find the spot on the web but this is what I remember after having seen it only once. I did find another AshleyMadison commercial on YouTube which takes a different approach. A man lies awake in bed. Next to him an adipose woman in a hairnet snores, mouth agape. The man rises to the voiceover, “Everyone can forgive himself a bad one night stand.” The man passes a wedding photo of himself and his snoring helpmate and the v/o continues, “But not one that lasts for the rest of your life,” fade to ASHLEYMADISON.COM.

The hot commercial piques my curiosity again and I return to the site to see what’s new since the inception of a national advertising campaign. There is now, I am delighted to find, a free trial membership. This requires the creation of a handle and a slogan. I have no intention of communicating with any other user of the site but nevertheless, being a perfectionist, this slows me down. My first choice “Scribbler” is already taken. I am finally bequeathed Scribbles2010. I wonder if the other ascribers to Scribbling and its variations are also subliminally messaging, “I am a writer and I am here for professional research purposes only, not hanky-panky.” I dash off the catchphrase “The way to my heart is through my mind,” which I am mortified to have actually written but mostly I am embarrassed and annoyed with myself for having wasted so much time coming up with Scribbles2010.

I am granted admission and log into the site. A “panic button” features prominently. An exclamation mark icon switches the screen to a dummy home renovation site. I don’t know if it’s a personal bandwidth issue but I was not able to exit AshleyMadison and switch to the fake home rennovatoin site as swiftly as my employees seem to be able to escape Solitaire when they hear my footsteps approach.

After signing up for my complimentary 30 day membership I am instructed to complete my profile. The first section contains a checklist of “intimate desires” and selections include experimenting with tantric sex, erotic tickling and blindfolding. The second section allows me to check off the qualities of my “perfect match” and include attributes like body piercing, having a secret lovenest and good personal hygiene. Finally, I am able to select what I’m looking for from a long list of activities like candlelight dinners, cottage country (huh?), skinny dipping and even board games although Monopoly seems an odd precursor to sex, but, to each his own.

I browse for local guys between the ages of 45-60 and there are many pages of eager adulterers. I quickly scan the photos and lose interest when I don’t spot anyone I know. Having only seen the hot commercial and not the snoring loser wife one at the time, I expect an element of European sophistication but after my first cursory perusal this remains elusive.

Some of my would-be playmates have innocuous handles like LatinLover or Discreetfun4u although there are a lot worked around the number 69. It is a big coincidence that such a disproportion of members is born under the Cancer sign of the zodiac. And who can compete with panache like Luvsuckingpussy or Passion4DDtits? Most of the men indicate that they are attached, although some state that they are single. Many of the married men use a recognizable photo to accompany their profiles. Others are shown in masks, underwater, from the waist down in underpants with bulge that’s surprisingly minuscule given the proliferation of Photoshop and my favorite, a face merely obliterated by a few strokes of a Sharpie.

I scan a few profiles to ascertain personal likes and dislikes and sexual preferences. Giving and receiving oral gratification and sex toys are popular, as is strip poker which actually sounds sort of quaint. The only effort at rationalization I see comes from a 54 year old Glendale resident who adds to his profile that he has a good marriage but his wife is older and has lost interest in sex.

I am burning to see what the chickside of Ashleymadison looks like so I insist that Himself take advantage of the free trial offer. We stretch out on the bed hip to hip with our laptops. I troll for men. We are Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne exploring a topic of mutual interest that will inspire for us both pages of gorgeous prose. I suggest the handle PhilAnder for Himself but it has been taken already. He tries Paddywhack but some other Irish PhilAnderer has scooped that one up too. He ends up with Paddywhack369, per the recommendation of the Ashleymadison bot. He doesn’t even snicker at the 69 and I don’t know if it’s not fun for him because I’m sitting next to him or for the same reason it’s not fun for me.

I show him some of the guys I’m checking out and half heartedly, he starts looking for chicks. I notice that the weight and age parameters he sets would exclude me by both ten pounds and years. He seems bored and eager to abandon AshleyMadison after about thirty seconds. He gives me his password and license to cruise for chicks myself to my heart’s content. I log on as Paddywhack369 and look for women between 45 and 60 within 20 miles of home. I assume there will be more men listed then women. There are, but only by maybe 20%. There are however about twice as many single women listed as single men.

There are a selection of Internet dating sites and some of them have great reputations. I know a number of couples who met by dint of J-Date, eHarmony and and I presume most everyone has come across or heard of a couple who connected initially via Internet. Given that there are sites that cater specifically to single people, it is curious that such a large number of single women frequent a site that explicitly courts married men. Maybe some of these women are beaten down and desperately lonely, having had lousy luck with single men and perhaps there are actually single women who prefer a more casual, no strings relationship.

There are a number of women listed who indicate that they are married, but while the married men are more inclined to express that “anything goes” married women often indicate that a cyber relationship would be their limit of involvement. While a number of the men’s pictures are chest close-ups and the baby carrot bulge in the BVDs, most of the women’s photos, except for a couple bustline and one jeanned derriere, are prim and chaste. Sometimes there’s an icon in place of a photograph that indicates a discretion issue and these icons appear much more frequently in the women’s section than in the men’s. There are many more recognizable (although disappointingly not by me) photographs of married men than of married women however it appears that women have little compunction about stating their sexual proclivities, “spanking” “role playing” “lightly kinky” and yes, even “strip poker” which I guess, like Twister or Slip ‘n Slide, evokes nostalgia.

I suspect that female members of Ashley Madison who do have more sexually suggestive photos posted might have signed on to the site for professional purposes and that cash on the barrelhead will be a prerequisite for an encounter. Perhaps some of the guys I check out are actually gigolos but based on the accompanying photos I presume they subsist mainly on day jobs.

My free membership on AshleyMadison limits my communications with eligible non-bachelors although it is possible to initiate contact on a collect basis. Available services are priced on a point basis. It costs five points to send an initial mail message. Real time chatroom sessions are 30 minutes for 30 points or 60 minutes for the bargain rate of 50 points. AshleyMadison members may also bestow virtual gifts on their admirers. A cherry with the stem tied in a knot and a martini with two olives may be sent free of charge. For five points one can purchase the gift of a key which allows the recipient access photos that are not posted publicly.

There are three levels of membership at AshleyMadison. The Money Back Affair Guarantee package is $249.00 and includes 1000 points. Also if you follow the terms and initiate a certain number of contacts, if you don’t get laid within 3 months, you get a refund. Other packages, the $149.00 Elite with 500 credits or the $49.00 Introductory with 100 points, offer no guarantees.

I email my beloved asking if he would be more amused by Ashleymadison if we hadn’t been side by side on our conjugal bed during his perusal and get no response. Later at home I ask him directly if he wants to check out the site more. He tries to sound indifferent and mutters but I notice he is blushing so I ask him again, “Do you want to?” and he waffles and says it’s sort of like visiting a car showroom when you know you’re not in a position to buy.

Ashleymadison is not European or sophisticated but it is not even fun and when I finish writing about it I really will feel like I’ve taken one for the team and will be relieved not to sign on ever again. I don’t know if that’s a chick thing or a me thing, as there are apparently a lot of women on AshleyMadison who seek just sex, some actually eschewing intimacy. If I’d happened on a photo of a handsome stranger with an eloquently written profile it would have caught my eye but I wouldn’t pursue contact. The tacky ass site itself affects me like saltpeter but even if it were classy and erudite, for moi no casual encounter bodes as satisfying as what’s been built over twenty years of growing intimacy.

I do think that Americans are particularly uptight about this fidelity thing. Each marriage is different and some are not bound by vows of monogamy. There used to be a lot of discussion about open marriage but I think a lot of the backlash of the 1960’s make love freely not war thing is an extra uptight Puritanism. Maybe the posture of “spouse betrayed and humiliated” is a learned one and if the media didn’t have such a voracious appetite for dredging up the extramarital goings-on of the rich and famous, it would be less of a big deal for mere mortals. There are many couples who’ve discovered that after years of marriage that one partner’s level of desire is out of sync with the other’s and while a discreet website acknowledging this can’t exactly be considered a bulwark of humanitarianism, perhaps it lands in neutral territory.

I think about whether my beloved would buy the new car if he could, although based on the available ladies at AshleyMadison he’d be shopping on the Kia lot. He showers me with love and I think I have exceeded his expectations of a romantic partner, as he has mine but I wonder if he might find some satisfaction in what Erica Jong, who he has never to my knowledge read, called the “zipless fuck.” According to the popular media, married men seem to get caught in flagrante far more frequently than married women do. Maybe women are smarter about not getting caught but I think in general casual sex is more satisfying to men than it is to women. This is not to say that men are not moved by deep, intimate, romantic relationships but maybe it’s apples and oranges. Knowing this, I still strong arm my husband to log on to AshleyMadison and troll for chicks. Maybe it’s hubris but I just can’t imagine there’s anyone he’d like as much as he likes me.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Snide and Prejudiced

I fled the valley and 90% Jewish Grant High School and summers at Camp JCA in 1974. I was thrust into a world of options. Since then I find that I have never been attracted to a Jewish man unless the Judaism was conferred in adulthood and since has morphed into a sort of weird misanthropic Buddhism. I laugh at Jon Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) but I feel embarrassed when he goes into a high pitched shrieking mode that nudges me a bit further into the abyss of self loathing. I detect this same whiney worked up Jewish guy thing in Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Garry Shandling, Richard Lewis and Adam Sandler. When any of them reach a certain decibel range, the neon on the marquee flashes “That’s Why I Don’t Like Jewish Men” and then I feel like an asshole.

A person of other than the Jewish persuasion does not have the liberty to make generalizations with regard to shrill pitch about roughly half of the living descendents of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Anyway, based on the number of gentile girls who’ve apparently infiltrated J-Date, the gentiles don’t seem inclined to this particular prejudice against the Jewish male. The Eurasian daughter of a friend bristles at attending a college with a high Asian enrollment and this seems curious to me until I realize that instead of doing the embrace of community thing, in a big shout out to self-loathing, I myself would probably go for the least Jewy option.

I’d be intimidated attending a preponderantly Asian institution myself because based on the percentage of Asian students attending prestigious universities it is natural to assume that due to a combination of cultural and social values, Asians often turn out smart. The assumption of smart is conferred on my people too but oddly, while I am intimidated by smart people of other cultures, I do not have the same issues with smart Jews, even the millions who are smarter than I, except if they whine. I do admit to experiencing a satisfying snide pleasure when I encounter staggeringly stupid Asians and/or Jews.

A writer of the non-Jewish persuasion could never get away with attributing shrill whininess to Jewish men and I would be the first to 911 the Anti Defamation League if one dared to. Jews do all sorts of weird shit like swinging live chickens in the air but can only be safely disparaged by their own or in private non-Jewish company. I’m ok with this and sharing genetic code with the chicken swingers, I pretty much keep my nose out of the weird stuff that happens under the aegises of other religions. While I can diss my own landsman with impunity, political correctness dictates that Jews are pretty much off the table as fodder for satire or baser derision. It is confounding to me though that Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals (except Black Evangelicals-I guess Black trumps speaking in tongues) are completely fair game.

I spend a day in the northern part of our state, where you can’t get Splenda for your coffee, all of the religious institutions profess agnosticism, and there is a greater attention to political correctness. I am invited by a colleague to take a private tour of the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California which has shaken up my definition of museum and scores huge points for the Bay Area in the historical North/South California cultural rivalry.

The museum is closed the Tuesday after the weekend grand reopening, having been shuttered for eight months. This my first experience of a museum as a place of work, as employees are busy with tweaks after an enormously successful and crowded debut weekend. The museums of my childhood were pretty much faded dioramas and lots of pottery you couldn’t touch. Here, there is so much stuff that begs manhandling, that the opening weekend proved a bit rough on certain more delicate articles. A few polite “Please Don’t Touch” signs are being placed strategically. We move from the exhibit room abruptly to a cluttered office and it is jarring but I feel privileged to note that the genius behind the door was conceived at these very desks and easels.

I am excited by the salubrious effects that immediate access to information will have on my kids’ intellectual development. When I was curious about something that wasn’t included in the Encyclopedia Britannica or annual Book of the Year, my only recourse was to visit the library. Now we find out what we want to know with a keystroke. The museum designers have capitalized on the digital revolution and most exhibits have a complimentary multimedia component.

We are fond of ephemera. Our fridge is cluttered with oddball pamphlets and snapshots of families we don’t know that we find in library books. I have family Scrabble score sheets from the 1940s. I am always excited to find someone’s hand scrawled list lodged in my shopping cart. These days I email marketing lists to myself and retrieve them via Blackberry. My paper trail diminishes with every hard drive memory upgrade. Curators and designers at the Oakland Museum obviously share our affection and wistful nostalgia for paper artifacts, and crate labels, and lists and letters have been digitized and cleverly incorporated, usually via touch screen, to enhance three dimensional exhibits and add a human and cultural dimension to events of history. I could happily spend many more hours exploring sections depicting various eras or themes in the history wing and the galleries are spacious with ample seating to encourage comfortably hanging around.

Controversial subjects are not shirked or watered down nor is there a ginormous lambaste of white male culture. Instead of a wuss out or pandering, shameless boosterism, the history wing is focused on the divergent experiences of “coming to California” and effectively captures the experience of this for various groups and different eras and the state’s shifting tectonic plates of culture and time.

We enter a dark gallery. Ancient songs in a native dialect play softly. In the otherwise pitch-black room, two lone spotlights illuminate one glass case containing an elaborately etched silver conquistador helmet and second containing an enormous brilliant headdress of beads and feathers. Less is infinitely more in one of the most moving and eloquent museum displays I’ve ever seen.

One of the artifacts of the 1960s is a gallery with walls crammed with old family portraits in a mishmash of frames from the era. It was like suddenly being in every house I’d ever been in as a child and I think this would speak just as strongly to kids for whom photographs taken on film are an anachronism. The only other element in this gallery of portraits is a big 1960s t.v console. On screen is a loop of archival nuclear explosion footage. Maybe I’m too long in the stock footage trenches where the iconic nuclear blast image is repeatedly cheapened, as a metaphor for sexual intercourse or hopeless mishap, in situation comedies. My first reaction to the mushroom cloud is that it’s facile although I can’t really think of any other imagery that would better nail the era so it’s probably just a bit of jaundiced archivist in play.

The natural sciences section of the museum will open next year but evidence already suggests how this will dovetail into the other two sections devoted to art and history. The history portion incorporates elements from the museum’s holdings of art. For example, there is a gallery devoted to the photographs of Dorothea Lange (most of which were bequeathed to the museum) but Lange’s photographs also appear in the history section, documenting Japanese relocation, depression breadlines in San Francisco and immigrant workers at a California shipyard and it is exciting that art and history are represented in such cooperation and unison.

One of those Caltrans signs with the silhouette of a family poised to run across a highway to warn drivers about possible “pedestrians” is familiar, but seen out of its familiar context, unsettling. It is pointed out that these signs are unfamiliar to many Northern Californians. I did not see every section of the history collection and I was on overload from all that there was to drink in. There are no maps or plans for the refurbished museum online yet to verify that this is the case, but I do not remember seeing any item or artwork in the museum representing a Jewish influence. Since the Gold Rush, there has been a consistent Jewish presence in the Bay Area but perhaps this population is less distinctive, Northern Cal Jews being businessmen who had little impact on the creation of culture. Young Jewish men who would never lose their thick accents and greenhorn dreams created Hollywood down in the South. While the museum makes a nod to Tinseltown, one of the 20th Century world’s’ largest and most influential purveyors of culture, the result seems denuded of Jewish content.

I have accused Jewish men of high pitched stridency and Northern California of sanctimonious political correctness. Perhaps I will be chastened by a list of ultra butch Jewish men who sound like James Earl Jones but certainly, the Oakland Museum has very much mitigated the dearth of artificial sweetener available in Northern California. The museum effectively arouses ethnic pride but also kindles an empathy and sense of commonality that will play to the universal audience.

A myth persisted for years that babies are blind to skin color but actually they can usually distinguish different racial groups before reaching the age of six months. We are told that we too should be color blind with regard to other races but the impossibility of this foments fear, discomfort and hostility. So much of our interaction with other members of our species is based on comparing and contrasting another person’s characteristics to our own. It’s all about me and the ways in which you are the same as me, and the ways in which you are different. When I see a person for the first time I immediately register our differences and similarities. When I meet a black person the difference in skin color from mine is the first quality that imprints.

Having grown up among San Fernando Valley Jews, I made a friend in college who was born of a very wealthy family from the Deep South and whose daddy always insisted on tipping the help at the country club ‘round Christmas time even though it was against the rules. I had never known a Southerner and had only seen the first reel of Gone With the Wind. I listened to her on the phone with her relatives and heard a mildness, deference and gentility that was new and astonishing me to me. I filed this observation under “Southern” and it has served me well in a number of relationships since then.

I notice when individuals conform to my pre-held stereotypes and I also take note when they don’t. You would be an idiot to arrive on time for a Jewish or Hispanic function but unless you’re early for a Protestant one, you’re an asshole. If you bum a cigarette off of a black person, chances are it will be menthol. Of course it’s not always going to play out like that but a sensitivity to the increased likelihood doesn’t to me smack of racism. I don’t know what’s been gained by white merely pretending that black people aren’t black. Usually blind is blind.

It might not be palpable yet, but I think that a black president will eventually lead us shift the dialogue from race to class. We have made enormous strides in the area of civil rights and I like to believe that this at least demonstrates the inevitability that one day refusing gay and lesbian people the rite of marriage will seem as weird and medieval as Jim Crow. The conversation about race is still relevant but less so if separated from the attendant consideration of our nation’s inadequate social net and how the poor of all races suffer with inferior healthcare and education. Mental health services are parsimoniously rationed but nearly 10% of the population of the U.S. is or has been incarcerated and/or on probation or parole. It is true that black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate that the rest of the population and the solution to this involves challenging racism but also some other pretty pernicious evils.

I began here by refusing to sleep with any of a long list of Jewish comedians, most of whom have made enormous contributions to our culture and would be indifferent about my sexual rejection anyway, most having ended up aligned with shiksa goddesses. I think many people have a love/hate relationship with their own culture, often confused or exacerbated by family and other issues. I am proud of the rich contribution made by Jewish comedians. I still get off on hearing about the Mossad raid on Entebbe. And how ‘bout that Sandy Koufax? Bernie Madoff and the shenanigans at the Iowa kosher meat plants make me berserk and ashamed. On the rare occasions when we do attend services it seems too often that the Hebrew God of the liturgy is vengeful and I just can’t get down with being “chosen.” We assemble the family every Friday for Shabbat with a challah but usually beer instead of the fruit of the vine. My parents and sister were alive when Jews were being gassed at Auschwitz but I censure Jews who cling to what Hannah Arendt calls the “eternal holocaust.”

Richard Bernstein, "Ultimate Journey" (2001, p. 247), speaks as a skeptical secular: "This is a constant with me, the tribal connection. I don't know what else to call my attachment to Judaism, which is not based on religious observance so much as it is on a kind of moral aesthetic, an unwillingness to be disloyal." Later that page, he adds how his attachment to Judaism is his "fundamental loyalty" to a girl whose photo he saw in a book of Holocaust victims, and those like her. "My feeling is it would be unbearably light, insouciant, spiritually shallow, to give up on my Judaism just at the moment when being a Jew entails no danger, not even any important exclusion, no decisive inconvenience."

Bernstein is right. It requires nothing of me to be a Jew. I look forward to Shabbat with the family but the religious component transpires in fewer than thirty seconds and we really just exploit a tiny shard of the Jewish framework to sanctify our family time. I am different because there was a Holocaust but I strive for my Judaism not to revolve around this. It is this Holocaust that probably spares Judaism, unlike Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity from mockery and ridicule. Even if we are chosen I don’t think that this is the kind of choseness that God really had in mind.
Shabbat Shalom