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The Chanukah Gift

I loved presents as a child. “What are you getting me for Chanukah?” I would start asking in September. “Chocolate covered ants,” my parents would sometimes say. Mostly they responded, “Chopped liver.” “Ew,” I cried, “that’s disgusting.” For years this went on and even though they always gave me the same answer, I never stopped asking.

Every late November or early December, depending on when Chanukah came that year, I crept into my parents closet and carefully pulled back the wrapping paper to see what was inside. Then I meticulously replaced the folded edges of blue paper with tape so my parents wouldn’t know I had sneaked a peek. But they did know. They never left my “big” gift in the hiding place where I previewed the other presents. That’s the deal with Chanukah for those out there who think we Jewish kids had it better off with eight days of presents: we only got one blow-your-little-kid-mind gift and seven days worth of socks, hair bows, stickers, etc. (at least that’s how it worked in my family). The big gift was always given the first night of Chanukah and my little kid imagination would run wild with anticipation of what it could be. A pony? A miniature motorized jeep? Emerald jewelry? A puppy or kitty or bunny or hamster? (I didn’t care as long as it had fur.) Or could it be the newest Nintendo system that didn’t require one to exhale into the back of the game cartridges to get them working again?

On the first night of Chanukah when I was eleven, I anxiously awaited the something awesome my parents would give me. We sat down to dinner and my mom handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper with Chanukah Gelt taped to the top. (Gelt is a traditional Chanukah candy consisting of chocolate discs wrapped in gold foil to look like coins. According to Wikipedia, it’s a long-standing tradition for Jewish parents to give their children money to distribute to teachers, but of course then the kids wanted in on the cash. By the twentieth century, American chocolatiers created chocolate gelt to fit the tradition.) I ripped off the wrapping paper in two crazy-kid-hand-swipes to reveal a felt jewelry box with gold metal trim. Ooh, the fancy kind of box, I thought. I opened it and started sobbing – big, heavy, ugly, tears. My face was red and angry. Inside the box was chopped liver. “Oh stop crying, Pauler. Don’t be so sensitive,” my mom said. “Just look underneath already.”

“I’m not touching that,” I screeched. My father lifted the raw piece of meat and there sat a beautiful necklace: my name in cursive with microscopic chips of diamonds inlayed in gold.

Two years later, my much older brothers were in town for Chanukah and we gathered in the living room that no one ever used to open our presents as a family. My gift pile sat closest to the fireplace that no one ever used because we lived in Florida where the idea of even having a fireplace was absurd. There it was, the gift I’d been wishing for for years. A kitty litter box wrapped in a bow, they’d even included the pooper-scooper. “Where is it?” I was on my feet, clutching the litter box to my chest and dancing around the room. “Where’s it hiding? Can I see it now?”

“If you take really good care of the litter box, next year we’ll get you the cat to go with it,” my mom said, laughing. Out rolled the big, heavy, ugly, tears. “You are the worst parents,” I screamed.

“We’re kidding,” my mom said. “I didn’t think you’d get so upset.”

“We’ll go pick up the kitten after we finish opening presents,” my dad said. That night, we drove to a stranger’s house and I got the last kitten left in the litter, the one that ran like hell whenever anyone came near it, the one that no one else wanted. Even if it had been hairless, I would have taken it for fear my parents would change their mind. Misty the cat was the least friendly animal I have ever known, but that’s beside the point.

The point is not that my parents were cruel for bamboozling their adolescent daughter, quite the contrary. These mind games taught me to have a sense of humor, to laugh at the things that really aren’t that bad and to toughen up. I am grateful now for their hazing because I am left with only memories and these are the only two Chanukah moments I do remember. I look forward to the day when I have children and can play the same obnoxious tricks on them.

Happy Holidays! I’m one of twenty-three writers participating in a Holiday Blog Tour put together by the marvelous Icess Fernandez. Next up on the tour: Caridad Pinero.

Death is Laughable

It’s been many months since I last wrote on Jewtah. I have a good excuse – my Mom died. And while you might now be readjusting your eyes to the subject line, give me this page to explain. I am writing a novel about my mom. She was funny. Then she died. So, now I cannot write a book about my dead mother that isn’t funny. I am in grad school for creative writing as most of you know. If you are just joining us – welcome! If you are a longtime listener, thanks for tuning in again and sorry to have been gone for so long. So to recap: mom funny, writing book about mom, mom dies, starting therapy, creating therapy for myself through the writing, being more honest than ever = death is laughable (at times). Most of us don’t think that death is something to joke about, but some of us (like me) don’t know what else to do. It’s easier to laugh than cry these days.

My graduate advisor just sent me a response to my latest creative work. He appears to be the kind of guy that wouldn’t know how to be compassionate with my feelings, but I’d say he’s the best guy to have in my corner. He adeptly moves between sympathizing with my loss while maintaining a critical eye on the work, giving me keen insight to become a better writer. I found one thing he said in particular to be spot on: “Can we get away with saying that writing about your recently deceased mother is…fun?”

Yes, yes we can. Which is weird, but true. It’s also heartbreaking. Because the person who would appreciate the poking-fun-at-death the most is, you guessed it, my mother. She could flippantly laugh at the worst of moments in her life, but the truth is, she was keenly aware of the pain behind the laughter. She was an empathizer to the max. If one of her children or friends or distant relatives or the person featured on the cover of People Magazine was having a hard time, she would feel their pain. But when it came to her own sorrow, she would laugh, laugh, laugh. Now that she is gone, I realize how much we are the same in that regard. It’s scary when we begin to know we are our parents, when for so long, we tried to separate ourselves, and yet, now knowing I am just-like-her and not being able to tell her we are so alike, is painful in itself.

So, here I am: I have lost my best friend in the whole wide world, laughing is easier than crying, therapy is good, sleeping is difficult and writing has become a magical connection to my inner thoughts. And writing about my dead mother is at times laughable and fun.

Thanks for listening today. Tune in next time when we explore the insane things people say to you while you are grieving (that’s a warning people, leave it be).

The title of this blog is in reference to a song that plays continuously on TV in conjunction with the World Expo. Have you heard of the World Expo? It’s an updated version of the World’s Fair and it’s happening in Shanghai for the next few months and there are enough monogrammed handles in the subway, posters on the wall of buildings and songs on TV to remind you, if you were here.

We spent a month teaching in Shanghai last year and I swore I would never return. I couldn’t handle the spitting, the babies peeing everywhere, the constant staring. Then the university offered us free flights, and to pay us to teach and suddenly we couldn’t turn down an opportunity to travel again. So we agreed! I brought all of my negative feelings with me and when first arriving here, I broke down and wanted to go home. This is not me. I sleep in mountain villages with no electricity, I take overnight buses that curve around hairpin turns a thousand feet over a valley, I bike through traffic in Laos and Vietnam. I do things that most people wouldn’t want to. And suddenly, I couldn’t get past our tiny, dark hotel room with two single beds (but they moved us two days later). So I wrote a cryptic short story and I put all of my negative emotions into it in a humorous way and I felt better. I needed to look at it with humor glasses on, and once I did, I could finally accept the oddities. I now find the spitting hilarious and egg them on whenever I hear the low guttural throat procession begin. I smile at children when they stare and often their parents smile back. I like the slow pace of the people, how they take their time sharing a meal with family and friends, or how they cross the street slowly, unfolding each footstep carefully. It’s a big city with a small feel if you choose the right places to hang out. Everyday is opposite day and once you know you’ll get the opposite of what you expect, it’s easy to accept.

We had a three day stopover in Tokyo on our way to Shanghai. I heart Tokyo. It’s everything a city should be and more. The food is out of this world, the shopping is almost too much and it’s clean, the people are super polite, the subway efficient, and the weather pleasant. We had a blast exploring the city and eating the best sushi I’ve ever had. Most of the restaurants don’t have English but you soon learn how to point and figure it out. Most Japanese speak some English, you just have to ask. The only downfall is that most stores carry a one-size-fits-all and I’m almost twice their size so couldn’t buy much. We met a great guy our last night that owns a delish restaurant called Jewel of India in Roppongi. We stayed at the restaurant until 1 a.m. talking and drinking beer. Thanks Sid!

I have mostly been holed up in our Shanghai hotel room working away at my last packet for school. And here it is: I finished my first semester of grad school in creative writing and I feel amazing! And what’s better is I have so many ideas and want to keep writing. And I can’t wait to start my next book, which is To Kill A Mockingbird. Yup, that’s right, never read it. I was a bad student in the days when this was probably a requirement.

Back to Shanghai. I wanted to make a list of some of the weird/funny things from this trip:

  1. It is easier to cross the street to our guesthouse in the middle of the road then at the crosswalk (it’s three lanes going each direction).
  2. Most restrooms have toilet paper this year.
  3. One of our cab drivers knew a few English words. He said, “Okay, thank you, you’re welcome, bye bye, welcome to shanghai” all at once as we exited the cab. He is the first cab driver we have heard speak any English in this city.
  4. We have learned more words in Chinese than any other language besides maybe Spanish. A few of these new words are: beer, baby (endearing to your sweetheart), check, green tea, dog, Shanghai University and fuckin’ great! On a similar note, I speak great Chinese sign language.
  5. This was heard second hand, but a cat was outside our guesthouse and a man took the cat and put it into a bag, like something that would hold fertilizer. The cat was screaming from inside the bag. Another man came up to the man with the cat-bag and paid him money to release the cat and he did. The man who paid the money even stuck around to make sure the other man didn’t catch the cat again.
  6. Ben and I drank snake blood and snake gallbladder. I wouldn’t say it tastes like chicken.
  7. We went to a nightclub and they stopped the dance music to put on a S&M show. The girls wore black skimpy leather and had whips. The guy wore a full face mask with a ball-gag. (I said, “that’s weird” to my student from last year who was with us and she said, “that’s very Shanghai!”
  8. I watched a man pee right outside our guesthouse, facing the road. I saw a little girl pee in the middle of the sidewalk and a little boy take a poo outside a popular tourist area where there are several bathrooms (with toilet paper!).
  9. I prefer chopsticks to a fork and knife.
  10. Turtle is quite chewy. It was served in a soup with snake. I guest turtles and snakes get along after death.

If you are in the market to visit Shanghai, please eat at Guyi (Hunan; the ribs are incredible!), Haiku (sushi; better western rolls than I’ve ever had in the U.S.) and Masala Art (Indian; great curry and good atmosphere).The food is fabulous in Shanghai and there is always a cute cafe to linger at with a book. They never shoo you away. The shopping is plentiful and I’m off to get my fill today!

And I’ll admit it, we might come back next year! I’m a little sad that we’re leaving on Saturday. However, we are going to an island in Malaysia called the Perhentians, then to Borneo for a two week adventure with Craig.

Please leave your comments! And happy life!

Jew-Z in Da House

Bummed that I didn’t make my own parody video of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. It’s was going to be about Utah and the chorus would go, “In Utah, these mountains will make you go crazy…”

But here are a two Jewish-themed (well, one is Boca Raton, which is basically the same) parodies that are too hilarious not to share:

and:

Didn’t know Jews could rap? My artist name is P-Titty, formerly known as Poop Doggy Dog. What’s yours? Leave it in the comment box.

The other night while watching “Up in the Air” I wondered if people who are laid off are going after their dreams. Because I am. I overlook that I’m a part of that statistic. I haven’t forgotten I was laid off, but mostly I’m so happy that being laid off now feels like the company did me a huge favor. After the sourness of the ego waned and pride dissipated, I feel great to be a person going after my “real” dream. So, watching this movie I thought, am I alone? Will we see a resurgence of the arts in 10 years because people are returning to their long-forgotten creative roots? When I was young, I would lie in bed and write in my notebook (which I still have) and create poetry that sounds beyond the scope of a 15 or 16 year-old. But I never thought – hey, I’ll be a writer when I grow up. However, as an adult when playing the game “Would You Rather” and being asked if I’d rather be a famous rock star or a famous novelist, the latter always won out. On the same subject, I’d rather have my bottom half be a horse than have scales all over my body.

When I was young, I dreamed of competing on Star Search. I can dance and could do flips back in the day (okay, I tried a few yesterday on the grass but my 30 year-old body wasn’t so into it) and although I had these abilities, I never felt that I could really follow a dream of being a dancer or even teaching dance. I have a fascination with interior design and clothing design, but again these careers felt out of reach. And I’m thinking I’m not alone. So, with all of us who have been laid off in the last few years, how many of us are now going after the dream? After I pondered this resurgence for love of what we do, I did a little research. Nope, not alone. ABC World News reported on reinventing yourself after layoff. I also found a documentary called Lemonade with a slogan that says, “It’s not a pink slip. It’s a blank page.”

I haven’t been writing much on my blog because I’m swamped with work — school work. I am reading the most wonderfully diverse, literary books and I am writing in a way that I didn’t know I was capable. I’m exploring my mind, pushing further, being asked by my advisor “to descend into the unknown.” This is the hardest job I’ve ever had and I’m not the best at it, but it feels worthwhile and I want to learn, and be better and try my hardest. Creativity is a wonderful thing and was lost to me for so many years. So if you’re facing a lay-off or know someone who is, ask them what they really want to do in life. You might be surprised by the answer.

And in a few years, let’s see if this creative resurgence has turned into feeling again like the four-letter word — work. I hope not! P.S. We leave in two weeks and four days for our two-month long trip to Asia. I will be posting more of our adventures this summer!

School is Cool

“I will never go back to school.” – Paula A.

“I am not a ‘school person.'” – Paula A.

“School is not where I do my best.” – Paula A.

I said these things not too long ago, just as recently as 2008. Never is a word I used often about school. I was raised by hard-working parents, but both came from families that lacked educational ambition. My grandparents finished high school only and my parents each completed less than a year or so in college, neither finishing a degree. This is not necessarily wrong, but it shaped how I felt about higher education. I was taught to find a career in which I could make money and support myself, which are excellent life lessons, but there was no emphasis on continuing education for the sake of learning. I am fortunate to have joined a family in which education is a priority. My husband Ben’s grandparents both survived the Holocaust separately, meeting each other in Illinois following their release from concentration and work camps. They made education a priority, realizing that no one can ever take that from you. Each earned their PhD in chemistry, worked at Dupont, and Ben’s grandmother even invented some common household products. They passed on this love for education and higher learning to their children (two doctors and a lawyer) and grandchildren (my husband Ben is working on his PhD). This family issued the support and love of education I needed to believe in myself.

I start my Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing in February. So in the meantime, I enrolled at the University of Utah as a non-matriculated student, which means I am graded with my peers, but the credits don’t go towards anything. This was a way to get back into the swing of things since it has been eight years since I left college and said I was NEVER going back to school. I found out that I LOVE school. Saying never gets you nowhere. I learned more in four months of school than I have since I started my communications career. I gained knowledge and fostered creativity that make me proud of who I am and what I am working on. I adored my classmates, the curriculum and especially my professors. And best of all, I realized that I am a good student when I enjoy the curriculum. I earned two As and an A-, the highest grades I’ve had in college.

Don’t let “never” be your road block. I am a fortunate person with so many people who believe in me, but what I needed most was to believe in myself. And remember how I said I was never going back to China? Well, there’s a 99 percent chance we’ll be back there in May. Ben will teach classes again and possibly work on a research project for an eco-tourist island off of Shanghai, while I’ll work remotely on my graduate school work.

Lastly, please pick up a copy of Park City Magazine’s winter issue. My article on Park City Iron Man is on page 28 of the second section. Thanks again to Kristen for allowing me the opportunity and publishing my first piece. Thanks to Park City Iron Man for the interview, friendship and incredible craftsmanship. Our dining room table shines in our new home!

Happy New Year! Make a resolution to say no to never!!

Back to the Future

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One year ago today, Ben and I were exhausted. It was the day after our wedding and I remember waking up extremely hungover, and trudging my way to our farewell brunch. One year later, I look back on this to be the best year of my life. The Phillies won the World Series (an Altschuler favorite), Obama became our president, I lost my job, I was accepted into graduate school, I officially embarked on a career in writing, I traveled to five countries in Asia over the span of 10 weeks, and most importantly I married my favorite person in the world (click here to see us featured in Utah Bride and Groom magazine). This last year has included major blips in my master plan, but they have turned out to be the best surprises to happen to me yet.Claire in cyclo

I have slacked on my updates of Asia, but I should tell you about our final days in Vietnam. We met up with our Park City friends who have been living and working in Ho Chi Minh City for the past 15 months. They graciously toured us around the city,  showing us the life of an X-Pat, dining at the best restaurants, going for drinks at the chicest bars, shopping at the “real” boutiques and where to land the best bargain. The most exciting part of visiting HCMC (or Saigon as they call the city in ‘Nam) was the cyclo tour.

Make sure to agree upon a price and a few destinations before you head off on your chauffeured cyclo. If you have fears of traffic, this ride is not for you. But if you can brave it, your driver will take you to the grittiest, most interesting parts of Saigon, the real HCMC. We spent almost two hours weaving through the gridlock streets, narrowly escaping the sideswipe of a passing bus. And then it rained, poured, and they wrapped up the cart in rubber sheets, the only hole at eye level. I still managed to get drenched.

We left Vietnam (our favorite SE Asian country) for Siem Reap, Cambodia, a destination we almost skipped, but thankfully we were convinced otherwise by the Four Guys. When we arrived, our $16 a night hotel (Golden Temple Villas) offered a free pick up from the airport. Our Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for us and just when we left the airport, it started to rain, then harder, then the streets flooded and I could only imagine our little motorbike carriage tipping over into the pools of rain. Somehow that didn’t happen, which was a miracle for sure. I guess when everyone told us that it was the rainy season in Asia, they weren’t kidding!

On our first day to see Ankor Wat, a collection of 40 temples spread across 100 km of lush green planes, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver to navigate us to the furthest temple, about 35 km from town. It was nearly deserted and we felt like pioneers discovering ancient ruins for the first time. I have not acquired the vocabulary to describe the majestic quality of Ankor Wat, that is what graduate school will help me to accomplish. I can only tell you that I have seen the Coliseum in Rome and the Great Wall in China and this far surpassed my amazement in what can be accomplished without modern tools and forklifts and cranes. My favorite temple was featured in “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie, and I know why they chose it for the movie setting. The temple was exquisite but the mountainous trees weaving through the stone like over-sized thread were the centerpiece of the dramatics. If you venture to Ankor Wat, I would also suggest renting bicycles, which we did the second day. We biked to the closer temples, which was a fun, easy ride, but the true excitement came from the children waving from nearby villages, and racing Cambodian teenagers on our bicycles and meeting monks and stopping to watch the wild monkeys jump from the trees into the stream below.Meeting monks

Next post (promise it will be sooner than later) is about Thailand. And more to come about teaching in China!