The Family Photographer

When we were in Yellowstone last summer, my son was the family photographer. It was for just a day, when we visited Mammoth Springs, a complex of hot springs that formed terraces of travertine that look like brown, orange, and green ice. There are countless photos of me and my  husband, on bridges, on stairs, in front of multi-colored waterways. He snapped a photo of me that was so flattering, I use it as my headshot for work.barbirusa_faces

My son seemed so honored with the job of family photographer that on a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo, I allowed him to use my phone to photograph our adventures there. I handed it to him as we stood over an area that housed the babirusa. The babirusa are pig-like animals that have strange tusks or canine teeth that grow right out through the skin in their snout and curve back toward their forehead, a feature that’s won them the moniker of “a wild pig with a dental problem.” My son was calling them warthogs and spent the first 20 minutes at the zoo saying, “I want to see the warthogs. Let’s go see the warthogs.”

The animals were housed in a large area covered with wood chips and saw dust and surrounded by walls of rock that created different sections like rooms in a house. The viewing area was on Treetop Way, which, as the name sounds, was about 15 feet above the ground. My son hadn’t even taken one photo when I heard, “Mom! Your phone!” And I looked down one story into the babirusa pit and saw my iPhone lying on the ground. Apparently, a large male babirusa saw it, too, because soon he was walking over to it and sniffing it. A layer of dust formed on the screen.IMG_5181

“I knew it,” I said. “God, I’m so stupid. I knew that was going to happen.”

I was about to say it a few more times, but I looked over at my son, who looked like he felt so badly about what he had done that he was starting to sink into a deep depressed state.

“My fault, dude,” I said. “I shouldn’t have given you the phone.”

My way of making him feel better was to assume culpability. It worked. Either that or he was just glad to hear my tone change.

Just then, my cousin, who had accompanied us to the zoo, arrived at the babirusa pit with her son, Sammy.

“Guess where my phone is?” I said.

“No,” she said and looked over the edge of the pit.

“Wait here while I go get someone from the zoo,” I said.

I ran down the spiral road, past the aviary, near the monkeys, not far from the penguins. I grabbed the nearest zoo employee I could find, a woman who wore a large tag that said, “San Diego Zoo Volunteer.” She called someone who could actually do something about my phone. Soon, Sarah arrived in an official brown zoo uniform. She told us she would have to go down into the pen and lure the male babirusa into a separate section before she could get the phone, as it had fallen not far from female babirusa and babies.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“With food,” she said.

We watched from above as she entered thIMG_5161e pen with some food and dropped it on the ground. The whole family followed her, all of them walking right by my phone. One sniffed it. Another came so close, I thought it was going to step on it, or worse, urinate on it, but it did not.

When all of the animals were cordoned off in a separate area, she went into the section of the pen where my phone had dropped and retrieved it. As she handed it back to me, I said, “This must happen all the time, right?”

“People drop things down there sometimes, yes,” she said.

“But I mean a lot of people must drop their phones, right?”

“We sometimes get phones,” she said.

“Like, how often?”

“I don’t know, maybe a couple of times a year,” she said.

“A couple of times a year?” I said. “That’s not much.”

It made my poor decision making seem all the dumber.

Not wanting my son to feel badly about what he had done, I turned to him and said, “It happens all the time.” But he had already set his sights on finding the jaguar and leopard and a tiger-colored animal called a Serval, which looks like a large cat but scarier.

“Look, Mom, an Ibis!” my son said.

Clearly, whatever bad feeling he’d had about the phone debacle had already floated off like a dandelion seed. I took his lead and let him lead me out of the dark cave, where I tend to linger too long.

“Well, waddaya know,” I said.


The Whole 30

I started the Whole 30 diet almost a month ago to lose the little pouch I’ve been growing under my navel ever since I turned 48. I don’t even want to wear t-shirts anymore for fear someone will ask me when I’m due. The Whole 30 diet doesn’t call itself a paleo diet, but when I finally went to the paleo restaurant by my house, I felt like I was coming home. Burgers with duck fat, sweet potatoes with duck fat and truffle oil, steak and eggs…with duck fat – all of which were allowed on my diet. Even the owner of the restaurant had done the Whole 30 diet, though he was a little underwhelmed.

“Yeah, I did the Whole 30. It didn’t do shit for me,” he said.

At other restaurants, it’s been a challenge to find things on the menu that I could eat. On the Whole 30, flour, sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, and sadly, alcohol, are prohibited. But the hard part hasn’t been refraining from eating those foods. It’s that I’m being forced to express my needs, to complete strangers, something to which I’m not accustomed. Every time my husband and I have gone out over the last month, I’ve had to ask the waitress a barrage of questions, many of which will send her back to the kitchen: “Is the fish pan fried or grilled?” “Is the steak topped with butter?” “Does the dressing have sugar?” I’m comfortable with one or two questions, but my strict diet usually requires me to ask four or five, and after awhile, I start to feel like a nuisance. It’s genetic. When my father was dying of cancer, he was less consumed with his imminent death than with feeling like a burden to his family.

My nature is to feel like I shouldn’t be privy to some of the basic things to which a person is entitled. As a reporter at a press conference, I don’t feel comfortable asking questions because I don’t want to waste people’s time with my ignorance. At conferences, I sit in the first row so if I want to speak, I forget there are other people in the room. During a recent home renovation, I didn’t want to go to the tile story anymore because the salesman would talk and talk, and I didn’t feel right telling him I had to go. I was late one day picking my son up from school and nearly missed the first part of a Seder this year on account of his endless prattling and my inability to stop it.

We went out to dinner for my brother-in-law’s birthday last weekend at a fancy restaurant on the Delaware River, with white tablecloths, wide pine plank floors and a menu included mignonette sauce and truffle oil. The waitress couldn’t be more than helpful, but I was once again in the uncomfortable position of having to state my dietary needs – this time, in front of my husband’s whole family. I’d already ordered the seared foie gras mousse for an appetizer but what was stumped on my choice of entrée. Did the duck dish contain butter? It did. The mashed potatoes? Yes. How about the chicken? Butter. Soon, the waitress brought over the owner, a skinny older woman with thinning straight hair and piercing eyes, the kind of woman I might meet at a party and complain to my husband afterward that she’d been mean to me in our conversation.

“Your best bet is the salmon,” she said. While she didn’t really want to play the, “Why don’t you try..” game with me like the waitress had, she was still in the business of making sure I had something to eat.

She then dispensed with my appetizer like smacking a piece of candy out of the hand of a fat girl.

“The foie gras has dairy,” she said. “If you ever see mousse on a menu, think dairy. It’s probably made with cream. How about a salad?”

“Well, my husband and I are splitting appetizers, and he’s already getting a salad.”

“How about the chowder?” she said.

“Is it good?”

“No, it’s bad. That’s why I put it on the menu,” she said.

I smiled, a little embarrassed. I guess it was a silly thing to ask the owner of a restaurant – though when people let you know of your indiscretion with a baseball bat when a tweezer would have sufficed, it doesn’t engender empathy.

“And the chowder is not made with cream?”

It was hard to imagine a “chowder” without cream.

“No,” she said.  “It’s fish, vegetables and broth.”

“Okay, then, I’ll try it.” I just wanted the conversation to be over.

Soon, the waitress brought out the soup, and she was right. It was delicious: lots of fish, vegetables, and a nice creamy broth. So creamy, in fact, I couldn’t believe it had no dairy.

“Are you sure this has no cream?” I asked the waitress.

“I’m sure,” she said and then paused. “One second.” And with that, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Moments later, she and the owner were back in a panic, sirens were blaring. “The soup has cream!” the waitress blurted out as I was taking my sixth spoonful.

The owner looked at the waitress and said, “Did you say ‘no dairy’ on the ticket?!”

I looked at the owner because I knew she was the one who moments earlier had suggested I order it, knowing full well I couldn’t eat dairy.

“It didn’t used to have dairy. The chef—“

“The chef just changed it,” the owner said.

In the last 10 minutes? But they looked so alarmed, I quickly said, “I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s a voluntary choice. I’m just on a special diet.”

Suddenly, the blaring sirens stopped, and the owner said, “Oh, ” and walked away. It was like a whole city had been erected overnight for my benefit, with tents, bonfires, a school, a hospital and a tent for discussing military strategy by flashlight, and in a second, the whole thing was disassembled and gone.

The waitress lingered to help me choose an alternative appetizer, though I could see her heart wasn’t in it. I said I was fine without.

I felt silly for having made everyone work so hard to the point of panicking that they’d made a life threatening error when in fact I was simply on a diet – so silly in fact that didn’t even see the waitress walk right by my husband – with whom I was splitting my appetizer – and hand the chowder to my husband’s brother, who in seeing all the fuss raised his hand quickly and said, “I’ll take it!”

As the meal went on, I didn’t even say anything when my fish came with quinoa, a grain I couldn’t eat, and when the waitress offered me plain berries for dessert and then didn’t bring them. I felt I’d made enough of a pest of myself for one evening. But like all programs meant to help you kick an addiction, I’m taking it one day at a time and know that if I keep on this path, I’ll one day be able to express my needs without guilt or hesitation. Oh, and I may lose some weight in the process.

The Nashville Zoo

Our third day in Nashville, we went to the zoo. We took an Uber there for just $12, and I was once again thrilled for having discovered this car service on our trip. I could take 15 more trips at that rate, and I’d still be better off than having rented a car.


My son and I wound our way through the zoo, petting kangaroo, marveling at the bright salmon color of the flamingos, and brushing goats. There was a frog jumping up and down so persistently right in front of the glass case, I could swear he was asking us to help him get out. In a section called, “Expedition Peru: Trek of the Andean Bear,” there was a glass room from which you could watch the bears, and on the ledge, there was a rubber ball you could hold up against the glass and pretend to throw it, and one of the bears would walk up to the glass and try to take it from you. Freaky, really, that the only thing between you and a ferocious black bear – and something the bear really, really wanted — was a piece of glass.IMG_4014


We spent four or five hours at the zoo, long enough to have lunch, a snack, a whole bottle of water and then get parched again. As our time there was coming to a close, I saw I had just 16% left on my cell phone battery,  and I knew I wanted more than that so I could call Uber and have enough battery to await their return call when they’d arrived.


I tried to charge my phone at an outlet I saw near the turtle area. I plugged in my phone and then covered it with my knapsack, but the outlet was just outside the tortoise pen. I sat on one of the benches that surrounded the area as these beautiful reptiles kept circling, pressing up against my legs like a dog every time they moved under my bench. Their shells were strikingly hard and smooth, and the dark grey points, each surrounded by a series of beige and light grey concentric circles, looked like precious gems. As I watched their majesty, all I could think of was my knapsack and cell phone, charging on a pole outside the turtle pit. I was so preoccupied with my belongings, thinking someone would see my knapsack unattended and alert zoo personnel, who would come and seize it along with my cell phone, that I could barely enjoy the reptiles. It reminded me of a bit in a show I saw by the performance artist Spalding Gray, where he discussed how during the filming of “The Killing Fields,” in Phuket, Thailand, the actors went for a swim in the most beautiful, warm, blue-green water he’d ever seen. And as he lay floating in paradise, all he could think of was his wallet on his beach towel, and he envisioned it from above: a man lying afloat, in a blue green sea, with arrows coming out of his head and falling onto the wallet on the beach, another arrow coming out of his head and falling onto his wallet on the beach.IMG_4021


After about 10 minutes, we left the turtle area, and I grabbed my phone. To my disappointment, the charge bar said just 18%. Further down the road was a large playground, with tree houses to climb and large nets on which to hang. As my son traversed the landings and ladders, I orbited the playground looking for electrical outlets like a coke addict hopelessly looking under beds and tables for an unused vial.


Soon, the playground was shut down as the zoo was about to close. We marched toward the exit, and my son stopped at what was probably the last stuffed animal stand in the park and asked me to buy him yet another stuffie that he will love like a brother, for 10 minutes, before it’s relegated to being a dog toy. As he perused the cheaper $5 section of the stuffed animal kingdom, I asked the worker manning the booth if there was an outlet nearby. He pointed to one on the ground near a light post. I felt relief, like finding water in a desert. As I tried to jam my charger plug into it, he said, “I’m not sure if it works.”


I kneeled on the ground staring at the charge bar on the phone for a minute or two, but it didn’t budge. The outlet was a GFI plug so I started playing with the test/reset buttons in the middle of the it, thinking I was a big man because I know how to navigate complicated electronics But once I started pressing the buttons, I couldn’t tell which was the ‘test’ button and which was the ‘reset,’ button. One makes the outlet work. One does not. Since I didn’t have my readers with me, I couldn’t see which was the ‘reset’ button and which was the ‘test’ button so I just kept pressing both until I resigned myself to the fact that the outlet was broken. I paid for my son’s stuffie, and we left.IMG_3983


As we neared the exit of the zoo, I saw a proper, indoor gift shop. It was like the last exit before the toll bridge. My cell phone battery was down to 11%. I decided to call Uber now and leave the phone charging in the warm confines of a gift shop while my son and I waited for the car to arrive, so we’d have a nice plucky battery when the driver called to tell us he was waiting.  The Uber app said our driver was 11 minutes away.


“Do you have an outlet?” I asked a woman behind the counter.


She pointed to an outlet in the floor, under a metal flap. I left the phone there while I ran to the bathroom. When I returned, my son had made a mental list of all the things he wanted. No, no, and no, I told him. Just then, the phone rang. It was the Uber driver. I grabbed the phone from the floor outlet, and the driver said he was waiting for us at the Askewgi Building.


“The what?” I asked. “We’re at the zoo.”


“The zoo?!?” he said. “The pin didn’t drop there.”


I didn’t know anything about this pin dropping nonsense.


“Well, we’re at the zoo. Can you get us?” I asked.


“I’m really far from there,” he said.


“I’ll call another driver,” I said and hung up.IMG_3979


I requested a new driver and as soon as one seemed to pick up the request, I called him.


“I’m at the zoo. I’m in the giraffe lot. I don’t care what your pins say. That’s where we are. The zoo. Can you get us? And if you can’t reach us when you get here, it’s because my phone has died. Just know, we are waiting for you in the giraffe lot,” I said.


“I’ll be a few minutes. I’m a little ways a way,” he said. “It’ll be a white car.”


My son kept trying to tell me something as the man spoke. I finally said, “Shshsh! I’m talking!”


When I hung up, he said, “There are two giraffe lots.”


“No there’s not. The sign is right here, and there’s one more on the other side of this lot,” I said. “One lot. Two signs.”


“There’s another giraffe lot over there,” he said.


“No, there’s not. That doesn’t make sense,” I said, feeling like there are some things adults understand, by logic. You don’t have to see a sign to know you’re right.


My son and I sat in the lot, watching the last of the cars exiting the zoo. There were seven cars left in the whole parking lot, presumably employees. I counted as each one left. Now six. Now five. Four. A motorcycle and a golf cart drove in. After a few minutes, the motorcycle drove back out.


It was 6:15 p.m. The sky was still light, but darkness was less than an hour away.  I knew we couldn’t stand in a dark parking lot with no cell phone. If the driver didn’t arrive in 20 minutes, I was going to head to the main road and just start walking. Surely, I’d find a taxi or an outlet before we reached the city line.


After about 15 minutes, we spotted a white car entering the parking lot, about a quarter of a mile away.


“That’s him,” I told my son. “That’s him.”


I started waiving my arms. I feared for a moment how idiotic I would have looked if it weren’t him, but who else was it going to be? And surely, people stranded on a desert island waving at a distant boat out at sea don’t ever fear embarrassment for waving at the wrong boat.


As the driver got closer, he spotted me and drove over. As we got in the car, he said, “I was heading over there.” He pointed to a lot in the distance. “It said giraffe lot.”


My son looked at me.


We closed the car door, and as our driver exited the zoo parking lot and turned on to the main road back to Nashville, I could see the tall buildings of the city in the distance. I leaned back in the seat of the Uber and listened to my son chat away with the driver, and was glad for a few minutes to have someone else take charge.


Walk the Line

When I was 10, I would read Teen Beat magazine and stare at the photos of David Cassidy and Robby Benson. One issue had a two page spread of Elvis Presley’s sweaty face. The photo was blown up so large, you could see his pores. I didn’t know who he was other than this man corrupting the pages of my magazine. I would intentionally turn to the page so I could look at his sweaty pores and shriek. I thought of that as I took my son through the Johnny Cash museum. Not even I liked Johnny Cash until I saw the movie “Walk the Line,” 13 years ago, and my crush wasn’t so much on him but on Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who played him. It’s only now at age 54 that I’ve come to appreciate Johnny Cash’s look, his sound, his baritone voice, his lyrics, his machismo.

My son was largely uninterested in the museum, though he enjoyed playing with an iPad that had cover versions of Cash songs by various artists. You could click on the artist and hear a snippet of the song. My son clicked on an artist and began saying repeatedly, in a very loud voice – he couldn’t hear how loud he was talking because he was wearing earphones — “I like this guy! I like this guy, mommy! I like this guy!” It was Snoop Dogg singing “I Walk the Line.”IMG_3866

My son also liked a movie that showed Johnny Cash’s film and television roles. In one black and white film, called “Five Minutes to Live,” Cash took the wife of a bank manager hostage so he could get ransom money, and when police arrive, he grabs her young boy, played by Ron Howard, runs outside and a cop begins shooting at him. A bullet appears to hit the boy, and an angry Cash rises up and tries to confront the cop but is then shot a few times. He stumbles to the ground, blood leaking out of his mouth, and dies.

“I liked when he was a bad guy,” my son said after we left.

We went to the museum after walking down Nashville’s honky tonk Broadway, a Bourbon Street-style promenade of live music, drunken tourists and bachelorette parties. Tucked in the middle of the bars was a store that sold Western boots. My son wanted a cowboy ‘costume,’ so I bought him a pair of black metal tipped boots with white stitching up the side, a belt with a big metallic buckle that said, ‘Rodeo Champion,” and a straw cowboy hat with a brim that he bent up and down so many times by the end of the day that it looked droopy.

When we got back to the hotel, we went to the Health and Fitness center. Under the guise of “showing my son the weight room,” I thought I could get in a quick jog on the treadmill. Working out is always hard when just one parent is on duty, but I’d recently read a story in The New York Times about a quickie workout where if you promise to run your very fastest for three 20-second spurts, you can get away with running for just 10 minutes. I got in a whole workout before my son could pinch his fingers in a weight machine.

We went to dinner at the restaurant under the hotel, a steak place in a beautiful wood-paneled room. I’d made a reservation for two, and they looked askance when I showed up for dinner with a seven-year-old companion. I had a martini, my son, a Shirley Temple with lots of crushed ice, and we ate fried tomatoes, macaroni and cheese and ribeye steak, though the steak was rippled with gristle and hard bits, and I kept surreptitiously removing them from my mouth and leaving them on my plate until I’d created a small mound. My son was the picture of civility for much of the meal, but by the end, tanked up on ginger ale, he kept getting out of his seat and running over to my side of the table, making sucking sounds with his straw, and playing with the crushed ice in his drink like it was a slushy. When the waiter came to collect our plates, my son said, “My mom likes to suck the juice out of the steak and leave it on her plate,” as he pointed to the pile of half-chewed discarded remnants.IMG_3881

The next day, we went on a tour bus around the city. It was a hop-on-hop-off circuit, though one only need do that kind of tour once to see the downside: once you hop off, you can wait up to half an hour for the next bus. We did hop off in The Gulch, an up and coming neighborhood where land is vacant one minute and has a 20-story condo glass condo on it the next. Three tour guides told us that 80 to 100 new people move to Nashville a day, and that Peter Frampton and Daryl Hall or John Oates – it was one or the other – had moved into the Gulch.

We hopped off in The Gulch because we’d heard there was a great view of the city from the roof bar of the trendy Thompson Hotel. While there, we had an Oreo ice cream sandwich and some high-end kettle corn and returned to the bus stop. After waiting about 25 minutes, my son had to pee. I didn’t want to leave the bus stop because I knew as soon as I did, the bus would come. I took a quick look around us, at the shops, restaurants and condos in the up and coming Gulch and wondered what would be the least terrible thing on which to urinate. There were now about 10 people waiting nearby for the same bus. The least offensive spot to pee was the parking garage behind us. The bus stop was at the top of the ramp. I told my son to walk down the ramp just until it curved, so he would be out of sight. And I would remain at the top of the ramp to stop cars from driving in. He walked down the ramp about five feet and urinated on the wall, well within view of our fellow bus passengers. It reminded me of a time when he was three, and we’d gone to a neighborhood playground outside of which a cop had parked to set up a speed trap. As the officer sat in her car, my son informed me that he had to go to the bathroom. I scanned the park and saw an unfortunate paradox: the farther from the cop I could send him to urinate, the closer he got to all the houses that surrounded the playground. I thought better to pee in front of people than police, so I sent him to the far end of the park by a tree. I stood between him and the cop, hoping to block him, and when I turned around, I saw him crouched under the tree, defecating. I ran over, diaper wipes in hand, scooped up the poop in one hand, my son in the other, and fled.IMG_3909

For dinner, we had BBQ. I ordered Texas brisket, St. Louis Ribs, and some pulled pork. I opted not to eat the corn bread in deference to my diet, though when I sent my husband a photo of our dinner, his only remark was, “Wow! That’s a lot of food!” Good thing I worked out for 10 minutes.

After dinner, we walked along the strip and would stop outside each bar to listen to a few minutes of live music. Yesterday, I couldn’t get a drink because I had forgotten my ID (I couldn’t even feel flattered as the bartender kept saying, “It’s Tennessee State Law. I need to check everyone”). Now, I couldn’t get a drink because at night, the bars don’t allow children. But in the middle of the live music venues was a karaoke bar. I love to sing (“Duke of Earl” is my song of choice), so I dragged my son into the bar. There was no bouncer to stop us. I bought a beer, and put my name on the list of singers. Of all my renditions of “Duke of Earl” over the years, that night was the worst. The key was too low, so I sang high – and not high enough. It was awful. I walked out embarrassed.IMG_3953

As we walked back to the hotel, my son said, “You were great!”

I bought him some rock candy.

Welcome to Nashville

When your seat is in Row 6, and you’re not in first class, question the size of the airplane. Ours was small, about 20 rows of seats, a single seat on one side of the aisle, and then two seats on the other. That’s all right for a 15-minute ride to Nantucket, but a two-hour plane ride? Sounds like a long time to keep a small plane in the air. I wasn’t going to tell my son I was scared. I didn’t want to make him fearful. Turns out I didn’t have to. The young man sitting next to us in the airport waiting area did it for me.

“Is that really our plane? That small one?” the man said, pointing a trembling finger out the window.

I nodded, trying not to commiserate. But the man then needed help figuring out when to get up for boarding, where to leave his carry-on bag, and how to put the tag on his suitcase, making it easier for me to see his anxiety was excessive and perhaps I didn’t need to think that just because a plane is small , it will fall out of the sky.

rideshareThe flight attendant was coiffed but weathered, as they often are, and she had a slight Southern accent, which appealed to me. Apparently, my accent appealed to her, too. When she caught me with my seat belt off – I told her I needed to get something in the overhead bin – she said, “Well, now you owe me a glass of wine.” Trying to get into the Southern spirit, I said, “Wine! I’ll get you bourbon!” Halfway through the flight, she slipped a napkin into my hand in which was hidden a miniature bottle of Jack Daniels.

When we arrived in Nashville, we followed signs to Ground Transportation. I didn’t want to rent a car. I didn’t think we needed it, and I like public transportation. Once outside the terminal, I headed toward signs that said, “Ride Sharing,” figuring we could share a cab ride into town to defray the cost.

“Are you going downtown,” I asked a young woman waiting by the curb.

“I’m going to a friend’s house. Download Uber,” she said. She grabbed my phone, pulled up the app for me from the App Store and ran off to get the car waiting for her.

I figured I’d download it later. For now, I wanted to share a ride into town. I asked a woman approaching the ride share area if she was going downtown.

“I don’t know,” she said and rattled off some destination I hadn’t heard of.

A third woman scurried off before I could inquire.

I looked at my son. I’ve done enough traveling to know there’s always an adjustment period when you arrive in a new city. When my husband and I traveled around Europe, we would get into an argument every time we arrived in a new place, from the stress of finding somewhere to sleep and eat. My strongest memory of Berlin is walking a few steps ahead of him, my heavy backpack on my back, turning around and screaming something at him at the top of my lungs, giving him the finger and then stomping off. At this moment, I was with my seven-year-old son, who was looking at me for direction.

It was quickly becoming clear that “Ride Sharing” wasn’t a place to share a ride. It was a spot one waits for car services like Uber and Lyfts, services that as a 50-something suburbanite with a car, I have not had to use. Now, I wanted to finish downloading the app, but cell service was too spotty. I’d heard there was a shuttle that ran a circuit by all the downtown hotels and asked a police officer where I might find it, but it didn’t seem to exist. He walked me over to an information booth. All the while, my son followed close behind, trailing his wheeled suitcase like a dog on a leash.

The man in the information booth got me a WiFi connection and downloaded the app. I felt like an octogenarian who writes emails in ALL CAPS. He set me up with the app, a car came, my son and I got in, and we set off for the hotel, with me now firmly planted in the 21st century.IMG_3818

The hotel was beautiful. The lobby had 20-foot ceilings with stained glass panels, marble columns, brass railings, little palm trees in planters and a fireplace that was lit. A dozen hotel employees were scurrying about preparing the room for the Easter brunch the next morning – rolling up the rug, setting up the tables with silver chafing dishes and wood bunnies holding placards that said, “Happy Easter.”

Our room was equally opulent: Louis XIV-looking furniture, a sitting area with puffy chairs and an ottoman, a marble bathroom with a tub and shower. I saw a TV remote and channel guide on the sink and looked around for the television but saw none. I figured someone left the remote in the bathroom. Turns out the screen was in the mirror.

We dressed for dinner, which was a Seder at the home of a fellow writer whom I’d never met but had seen online for years in my various writer association forums. I looked her up when I knew we were going to Nashville. I called an Uber – I was now a pro — and as the car drove farther and farther from the downtown, I hoped I’d written the address down properly.IMG_3822

As I rang the bell, I saw two buckets of red water on the porch, and I feared it was for dying Easter eggs and that we were at the wrong house, but I later learned it represented the Red Sea parting, and we were supposed to walk between the two tubs.

The Seder table was set in front of a bank of large windows overlooking the Cumberland River. The Grand Ole Opry House was just on the other side. Soon, the guests arrived, and we began the service, with Jews from Boise, Idaho; San Antonio, Texas; and Long Island, all of whom now lived in Nashville. The book from which we all read, the Haggadah, was actually written by a woman I knew from New Jersey. As we went around the table reading the passages of the Seder I’ve known since childhood — the wise son, the simple son, the four questions, and Dayenu — the traffic across the river outside of the Grand Ole Opry began to build until it was just a line of headlights that weren’t moving. And it made me think that no matter where you are in the world, from the cliffs of California to the beaches on the Atlantic, one will find Jews – and traffic.


*reprinting a piece I wrote for The Washington Post

The main things I remember from Hebrew school are running circles around our classroom as our Polish teacher, Mrs. Bialogorski, yelled, “Rootzi, rootzi, rootzi” – the Hebrew command for “Run!” – and watching Holocaust movies. It seems part of a Jewish education is to hear tales of persecution. One of the first two-syllable words I learned was “pogrom.”

So I wasn’t surprised when I found a children’s book about the mistreatment of Jews, and it’s not unusual that it’s become one of my favorite books to read to my son. The book is about the Golem, a mythical giant created from clay to vanquish the people of Prague, who believed the Jews were mixing the blood of Christian children with flour and water to make their matzoh. The Jews were already confined to a ghetto when the matzoh rumor began to swirl. When an angry mob tried to bust through the gates of the ghetto with a battering ram, the Golem saved the day.

We had the book with us at dinner when I received a text from a mother in my son’s first-grade class. My son had told her daughter that there is no Santa and that it is the parents who buy the gifts. She asked that I speak to my son about it.

“It’s not right for him to share this,” she wrote.

It wasn’t the first admonishment we’d received this holiday season. A day earlier, we were waiting in line at a candy cane hunt when Santa went by on a firetruck. “Another fake Santa,” my son said as he passed by.

“Can you not say that?” said a friend’s husband, who is usually mild-mannered. “My son still believes.”

My son does not. While my husband is Christian, we’re raising my son Jewish. We buy a tree every year, and my son comes barreling down the stairs Christmas morning to find a pile of brightly wrapped presents, but Santa is almost an afterthought in our house, like buying a tape measure at the cash register, simply because it’s there.

“We don’t have an elf. We don’t do the milk and cookies thing,” I was telling a friend.

“Yes, we do,” said my husband, who was standing nearby.

“No, we don’t,” I said.

Hence my son’s confusion. It doesn’t help that this year, he’s seen Santa in a little hut in the Finger Lakes, a shopping mall upstate and on a firetruck in the Jersey Shore. Even I was having a hard time reconciling how this man could be so many places at once and yet still be prepared for Christmas up North.

A family friend, who was having a holiday party that included a visit from Santa, said she didn’t want my son coming to her party if he was going to ruin the magic for the other children there. I knew my son and I had to have a talk. I needed to make him believe in Santa – before we were ostracized from everyone we know.

I searched the Internet for ideas on how to explain Santa to your child. One article was titled “A Lovely, Non-Traumatizing Way to Break the News About Santa.” Another said, “There’s a brilliant, heartfelt way to tell your kids the truth about Santa.” I didn’t need instructions on how to tell my son the truth about Santa. I needed articles on how to lie to him about it.

I decided to approach it directly.

“Buddy, you have to stop calling these Santas fake,” I said.

“But they are fake,” he said. “Where’s their sleigh? Where’s their reindeer?”

“Look, parents want their kids to think he’s real.”

“So parents want their kids to believe something that’s not true?” he said.

I didn’t know what to say. He was right. “Okay, even if Santa’s fake …” I said.

“I knew it!” He’d used the oldest trick in the book: State something as fact when you’re really just trying to confirm it.

“I didn’t say that,” I said. “Maybe the ones down here are just reminders of the Santa up there, like the baby Jesus they might have in a church isn’t the real Jesus, but it’s to remind people …”

I trailed off. I wasn’t even making sense to myself.

“You can’t stop what I believe,” he interrupted.

“No, but I can try to stop you from saying it,” I said.

The truth was, while I understood the concerns of my Christian friends – not wanting their kids to grow up too fast, keeping the magic and all that – I couldn’t help but feel like my son and I were being viewed as pariahs who were ruining everyone’s Christmas. An angry mob would soon gather outside our door.

I knew I couldn’t stop my son from undermining Santa. He’s 6. If it’s in his head, it’s out his mouth. I tried to convince him there really was a Santa, but I wasn’t comfortable lying.

“It’s not a big deal,” my husband said. “You say the same thing you said about the Easter Bunny, and how the eggs appear, or the leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day and why you sprinkle pixie dust.”

“Easter Bunny? I never said there was an Easter Bunny,” I said.

“What about the tooth fairy?” he asked.

He had me. I had no problem lying about a tooth fairy. It made me wonder, did I resent Santa, this Christian icon who had managed to slip into my Jewish home, like a draft under the door? Or maybe I resented that Santa went to all the other children’s homes when I was a kid but never came to ours. My son may have sensed that.

I put the issue to my friend, Doris, one of the wisest people I know. If my life’s conversations were written in a notebook, those with Doris would be underlined and highlighted.

“He’s so young to be giving up the magic of Santa,” she said, with genuine sadness. “It’s fun to believe.”

I thought about when my father died in 2001 and how, when I went down to my parents’ home in Florida four months later, I lay awake one night and saw lights appear on the ceiling out of nowhere. They danced up and down like moonlight reflecting on the waves, and as I watched, I knew it was my father making his presence known. It defied logic. It never happened again. But it reminded me of the enormity of things, of all the things we don’t yet understand, possibilities of which we can’t even conceive.

If that’s part of the magic of Santa, I guess I can make room in my Jewish household for that.

Alice B. Toklas

My husband, Bruce, likes to bring his dry cleaning to the little Laundromat in our town. It’s part principle, part nostalgia, because if logic dictated, he’d have left that dry cleaner long ago. They’re not cheap, they don’t do a very good job, and they take a really long time to bring his shirts out when he picks them up.

I sometimes accompany him to the laundromat.  It’s a sign of age, when errands become outings. We’ll take a stroll after dinner, look at our neighbors’ houses, remark on the size of the moon, and talk about the day’s events. But it’s always the same once we get to the laundromat: Bruce walks up to cashier and gives them his ticket while I walk over to the piles of dog-eared magazines that line the shelf behind the washers. I usually grab a magazine, sit down on one of the benches, and watch the made-for-t.v.-drama that’s always on the television there.

The last time we went, I was pregnant with my son. As I sat down on the bench, a man doing his laundry walked over to me and said, “Hi. How you doing?”

Before I could answer, he told me his name and started telling me about himself and why he was there, and how he’d been on the beach that afternoon and had a beef with some guys on the sand. He seemed aggrieved.

“I’m one of the good guys. You know? I’m good people. You gotta have respect for that. I’m good people. You want a brownie?” he said, offering me a plastic bowl filled with brownies cut up into bite size pieces.

Rat Poison?

“Oh, um, well, no, thanks,” I said.

“I’m old school. You know what I mean? Old school. Like I’d be wearing a Fedora and smoking a cigarette—“

“And carrying a bowl of brownies,” I said.

“Yeah. Brownies,” he said, unamused. “I’d have some pastry.”

He looked over at Bruce, who was talking to the woman at the cash register.

“Is that your husband?” the  man asked. “You’re a hottie. You know that?” And then shouting over to Bruce, the man said, “Your wife’s a hottie.”

“Smokin’ hot,” Bruce said.

“You want a brownie?” he said to Bruce.

“No, thanks, man,” Bruce said.

“We just had dinner, and—“ I said.

“I’ll bet you had a lot of guys bothering you on the beach this summer,” he said.

“Uh, sure. Well, not really. Maybe I will have one of those brownies,” I said, trying to divert the conversation to anything else.

“They’re home-made. I don’t buy stuff made by a corporation. I don’t buy from those big companies. This is home-made. The real deal,” he said.

“Did you make them?” I asked, looking over to see how Bruce was progressing.

“My girl made them,” he said. “My girl. She’s young.”

“Well, she makes good brownies,” I said, biting into it.

“She’s young, but at least she does something right,” he said.

“Well, that’s good,” I said. What a galoot, I thought.

“She doesn’t want to be monogamous,” he said. “I can’t change her. That’s the way she is. You can’t force someone to change. You have to let them grow on their own. I can’t make her be monogamous if she’s not.”

When I turned around, Bruce was standing behind me holding two boxes of starched shirts.

“Your wife here was just telling me how you can’t change a person,” the man said.

I just looked at the guy.

“Okay, well, we have to go now. Nice meeting you,” I said.

As Bruce and I walked home, and I recounted some of the conversation I’d had with the man, I suddenly realized I’d taken food from someone I didn’t know, someone whose stability was in question, and it was brownies. What if there was pot in them? What would that do to the baby in my belly? What if it wasn’t pot but something worse? PCP? Amphetamines? Rat Poison? It sounded like the young girl who made the brownies wasn’t too keen on her boyfriend. What if she was trying to poison him? Maybe he suspected that  and was testing the brownies out on other people first.

By the time I got home, my heart was racing. I was beginning to feel woozy. If I wasn’t dead by morning, I’d at least learned some valuable lessons, ones that I’d pass on to my new child:

Don’t wear make up to the dry cleaner. And if you do, pretend you don’t speak English.

If a conversation is moving in an uncomfortable direction, don’t try to change it by grabbing food of an unknown origin.

And above all, parents should never take food from a stranger.