The never-ending story

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When given the assignment to write about the life of my grandmother, I had the option between one living and one dead, one I come in contact with almost every week and one I have never met, one who I can picture perfectly and one who has become a caricature in my mind.

I chose the one whose stories I’ve heard time and time again without ever losing interest.

IMG_0937Grandma Lisa’s wig or bedazzled baseball cap extended her diminutive-self up to 5’2 on a good day. She was pear shaped and proud–never fully clothed. She didn’t ‘color in the lines’ while applying lipstick, took the ‘all eye’ eye-shadow to new limits as she applied the florescent blue powder from her lid to her eyebrow. A big fan of cold cream, she applied it religiously so her face had a permanent slick quality to it. She wore huge square, peach colored glasses that sat high on her very prominent nose. She sang in the temple choir every Saturday because she loved to sing and went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve just to hear the songs. She had served compulsory service in the Israeli army but got out of breath walking up stairs. She spoke with a thick accent, just imagine Charo with a smidge of Israeli thrown in. (In case you are unfamiliar with Charo this link should help you out.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaWi5iWsysg)

 

We talk about Grandma Lisa often. My mom and/or dad have her accent down and the glimpse of a rhinestone encrusted anything or the sight of an AMC Pacer, or an electric carving knife will set them off on a narrative journey that captivates my brothers and I. I have chosen but a few of those moments to share…

 

Cheese Sandwiches:

This one begins with my 6 year-old father in 1stgrade and his 4 year-old sister in Kindergarten, heading to school. They walked, he in front with his metal Fabulous Thunderbirds lunch box and she behind with her own Scooby Doo version, through the busy streets of LA. The containers clanked against their short legs as they wandered in the scorching sun. My father, tiring of the walk, led them into the covered parking structure of an office building. They sat down on a curb stop and waited. My dad, not unlike most 1stgraders, did not have a strong grasp of the passage of time and he decided it must be lunchtime. So like good students, they pulled out their identical sandwiches – white Wonder Bread smeared with bright orange Cheez Whiz – and ate them. After lunch they played a bit, chasing each other between the parked cars and figured school had ended. They picked up their empty lunch boxes and found their way back to the two story apartment complex they called home. Grandma Lisa, with my dad’s youngest sister on her hip, yelled down to them from the second floor as they entered the courtyard, “So how was school?” (don’t forget to think of Charo in Israel here) Not a drip of sarcasm or anger, she had no idea when school ended. The clock on the wall read 10:05 AM.

Muhammad Ali:

In the suffocating heat of a San Fernando Valley neighborhood Grandma Lisa walks her beloved dog Butchi (Boo-chi) rocking her bikini top and terrycloth shorts pulled high above her protruding hips. She walked everyday past the beige stucco houses with terra cotta tile roofs, each one nearly identical to the one before it. She saw the same people, also somewhat indistinguishable from one another, each day. On this particular day she passed a large, fit, black man pushing a stroller. They both stopped in the sea of blandness that surrounded them. She, because she found him handsome, not as handsome as Tom Jones of course but a pretty close second. And I can only imagine, he stopped because she was, after all, Grandma Lisa. They exchanged pleasantries and commented on how nice of a “valley night” (think very hot and stagnant) it was shaping up to be. The black man after a few minutes asked somewhat proudly, “So, do you know who I am?” She replied, in the same tone, “So, do you who I am?” The man smiled, “I am Muhammad Ali.” She responded, “I am Lisa Feingold.”

Buying a Hot Tub:

My dad moved many times as a child and teenager. Once they got to the San Fernando Valley they lived in the flats in a typical California ranch house with a kidney shaped pool in the backyard. Eventually my grandfather, ‘after a big score’ – his words not mine, bought them a brand new two story house in the hills of Canoga Park. This house though bigger and newer did not have a pool.  Grandma Lisa, who spent all of her time with the children, thought a pool was a necessity. With no money to spare, my grandfather said no. They argued but he prevailed. He travelled a lot so on a particularly hot summer day while he was away she got in her car went somewhere and bought a hot tub on credit. It arrived a few days later and my mother, my father and his sisters marveled at its beauty. When my grandfather returned in his maroon Pierre Cardin velour sweat suit he was furious and in his ‘Brooklyn projects’ accent said, “Ehhh Lise we can’t afford this hot tub, we don’t need a hot tub, why would we need a hot tub.” Not getting the reaction she had hoped for, she said, “No, I will get a job, we will keep it.”c91394814b7a14a5296c163b54b9f4de So what did she do? She went to the local McDonald’s and traded in her bikini and terrycloth shorts for a polyester smock with striped sleeves and the golden M on her chest. This annoyed my grandfather even more, he didn’t want his wife working at a McDonalds so he gave in. Lisa quit her job and the hot tub remained in the backyard on the small bit of cement slab that came with the house. She possibly went in the hot tub two or three times, but my grandfather wallowed in there almost everyday.

 

Look Natalia, that’s what a baby looks like:

IMG_0935My grandma loved my eldest brother Noah from the moment he was born. It probably didn’t hurt that he belonged to her most favorite son. She loved Noah’s golden blond hair that made him look bald, and the rolls of fat that appeared when he sat down, but most of all she loved to watch him eat. She would feed him banana after banana, bottle after bottle, until more often than not he would throw up. She commented frequently on his size and his growth and his obvious intelligence, at only six months she saw something amazing in each action or lack thereof. She took every opportunity to remind Natalie (my dad’s class cutting Cheese-Whiz eating partner) who had had a girl, Shalynne (shay-lin), 11 months prior to Noah’s birth, of Noah’s superiority. Grandma Lisa (don’t forget Charo) would lecture, “Look, look, look Natalia how much he eats, how he sits, how he smiles. This is what a baby should look like. Look Natalia, look how much he eats. He eats so much and is becoming so big. This is what a baby should look like. Why does Shalynne never eat, why can’t she be like Noah.”

 

I see a lot of Grandma Lisa in my dad. I will always be grateful to her for raising him to be caring, compassionate, and sensitive. I wish I had had the chance to meet her and have some stories for myself. She made such a large impact on so many lives and even without meeting her in person I have come to know her through the experiences of others. And just as my grandma did, I hope to live my life and leave an impression forever in the minds of the people I have touched.

 

 

 

you do you, i’ll do ME

I just finished the House of Mirth and initially found the main character Miss Bart annoying and vapid. She spends money she does not have to ‘fit in’, she hangs out with people she does not enjoy. In general, she acts so others will accept her. I enjoy reading but I found her unrelatable. I tried to think of purposeful things I do to belong to a particular group and have come up empty. I try, and have always done so, to be true to myself.

As a child, I never wore light up shoes. I never had any piece of clothing with a Disney design on it. I never got a feather in my hair. I never had a Barbie. I was never a princess for Halloween instead a polar bear, a pumpkin,

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an orange wedge,

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a taco,

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a mushroom.

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I danced ballet, and surfed, and built worlds out of Playmobil with my brothers, and played Mine Craft and Legos and Nerf Wars with the boys in my grade. Nothing I did made me fit in, yet I always had friends.

As I grew older nothing changed.  I’ve shopped at Urban Outfitters exactly once. My first Instagram post was of my cat, I post now to get discounts on bikinis and surf sponsor interest.

IMG_0922 3I have four Snapchat streaks and they happened accidently. I never read The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games. I read nonfiction books about great white sharks, tuberculous in Haiti, rouge waves, slums in India, and North Korean prison camps. IMG_1162 I never got my ears pierced. I wore penny loafers on dress day in 8thgrade. I know the movie Mulan by heart. I don’t hide my freckles under a thick layer of foundation.

 

 

 

I don’t highlight my hair or apply fake tanner. I don’t spend my money on Gucci belts, rather I use it for bean, cheese, and rice burritos. IMG_1681I wear a hot pink rubber, digital watch every day that tells me the tide at my favorite break. IMG_0921 3My mom is my biggest confidant. I spend more time with my family than anyone else. IMG_0373I never went through a ‘ho’ phase. I had my first kiss because I wanted to, not because it would give me more clout. The “popular” kids Juul, the “weird” kids Juul. I do not.

Now you might be thinking, wow this girl is a weirdo, and you’re not wrong. I am weird. We are all weird on the inside, but the people that choose to embrace who they are and do what they want instead of completing the desires of others are rare.

At school I hang out with the “popular” kids. I go to parties almost every weekend because the “cool” kids want to hang out with me. I am friends with these people because I think that they are intelligent, funny, and more interesting than anyone else in my grade. I go to these parties because I want to have fun. I do what I do and hang out with the people I do because I want to and not because I have changed myself to be just like them.

I am one of the “popular” kids because I am weird, because I am different, because I never had light up shoes, because I wear a highlighter pink watch, because I surf, because my ears are in one piece, because I am me.

 

 

“Dumb Blonde”

My two older brothers had a dusting of platinum blond hair at birth. I, on the other hand, emerged from the womb with a disheveled mop of dark brown hair.

My mom likes to joke about looking in my basinet to see if my dark hair had begun to fall out, she was convinced it was just a phase. Don’t get me wrong, she loved me. She stood vigil beside my pediatric hospital bed when an army of doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me. She administered medication through a long-term IV line for months after that. She gave up all dairy and soy for over a year because of a severe allergy I had which led to a ‘failure to thrive’. She joked about the dark hair but I know it did not matter.

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At thirteen months of age I no longer ‘failed to thrive’ and lo my hair, as I can discern from photos, had begun to lighten. By three my hair fell below my shoulders in a cascade of blond straightness.

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Even now, in the heart of winter, when my hair loses the super blonde streaks caused from exposure to the sun and the ocean, my mom likes to joke that my hair is turning brown. I could not take any more offense.

There are an estimated 7.7 billion people on earth, only 2% of those people have naturally blond hair. So a true blond is a rare thing. Me, my mom, my two brothers, my grandpa, and my Viking ancestors have/had blonde hair. It is part of my identity, part of my culture.

Though proud of my blondness, I do find it difficult to identify positive blond female depictions in film and television. The blond characters usually play the part of the mean girl who loses in the end (Clueless, House Bunny, Baywatch to name but a few) or the idiot who can’t puzzle through the simplest of problems (Family Guy, Mean Girls, Glee, Three’s Company). The list of blond screw-ups is way too long for this post. Luckily I did not watch much television as a child so I grew up believing I was a bad ass.

I have had my share of encounters, good and bad, related to the color of my hair. In 10th grade I walked into the peer-tutor learning center at school, and one of my classmates asked, “Oh, what subject do you need tutoring in?” He assumed, based solely on the color of my hair, that I needed help when in fact I came to tutor others. Tourists have snapped my picture at the beach because they think I am the quintessential California girl. One of the notes I received at senior retreat, from a brown-haired classmate, apologized for not realizing how smart I was and how passionate I felt about the environment. Basically they said sorry for assuming I was an idiot. I can only think my blondness caused this as well. No one ever looks at me and thinks ‘smart’, I blame the media.

Every Halloween assembly at school makes it very clear that the student body must tread carefully and not offend any culture or ethnicity with their costume of choice – no afros, no feathered head dress, no kimono, no sombrero or serape unless these items represent your personal background. I agree with this I would not want to make light of someone’s beliefs or identity. But why do we accept the 75% of woman who dye their hair blond? I could argue that this offends my Scandinavian roots (no pun intended).

All this begs the question, why does my hair color matter to me?  It matters for a myriad of reasons. It ties me to my Nordic ancestors, it links me to the beach and the ocean, it makes me look like my brothers, and sometimes it gives me the upper hand. I can fly under the radar if I choose, because people who don’t know me don’t expect much. When I wow them with an on- point comment or get the highest grade on a test I feel special. And special, and a sister, and a daughter, and a surfer, and a friend, and a good student is what I am. All that and blond too.

 

Sign of Myself

Hmmm have I done anything to wreak havoc? Have I not conformed?

Uhh yes.

Should I write about carving my name into every fresh slab of concrete within a quarter mile radius of my house,

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or maybe about my dead of night jaunts through the neighborhood to snip succulents for decorative pumpkins,

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or about the time I showed up at my toddler swim class without my bikini top, or possibly how the sight of a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign compels me to jump over almost any fence.

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None of these are as interesting as my family’s affinity for street signs.

The year is 1981 and in the starlit Waikiki night my grandfather, a graduate professor of electrical engineering, climbs up the side of a pole barefoot with a wrench in his mouth. He climbs until he reaches the cross bar holding up two large green signs. He takes his IMG_0715.jpegwrench out of his mouth and unscrews the first bolt then the second. Coconut Ave. clatters to the ground, Diamond Head Road soon follows. He puts the wrench back in his mIMG_0714.jpegouth and climbs down the pole.  He takes these signs wraps them up and ships them to my mother in college.

As the two big green signs cross the Pacific, my dad, a student of electrical engineering, too has climbed a pole. Sporting a stud in his left ear and his white cross zip Guess jacket, he sits on the crossbar of a somewhat busy intersection and attempts to unscrew a massive green sign. Being afraid of heights and afraid of getting caught he unwinds the bolts as quickly as he can. Avenida de la Playa tumbles to the ground and he scoots down right behind it.IMG_0716.jpeg

Fast forward 33 years, those three signs and a few signs my brothers and I have picked up – End of Road Work, Do Not Enter, No Parking, 11thSt Beach, Neighborhood Watch – hang in the garage.

The day is February 11, 2016. A huge storm has just hit San Diego. Flash Floods are as common as cracks in the pavement, winds reach speeds of 60 Mph, palm fronds fly through the air like prehistoric birds before they land, and street lights, lamps and signs wobble and sway. I had attempted to remove Cofair and Marsolan from my horse shoe shaped street of less than twenty houses. I wanted to send it to my brother at college.  But technology had changed since my ancestors’ time. I tried a screw driver, a socket wrench, a monkey wrench but nothing worked. I even tried the bent piece of metal that seems to come with every purchase from Ikea. The tool I needed eluded me.

On this day in February of 2016 the anti-theft bolting technology proved no match for mother nature. With one major gust of wind the sign blew off and rested squarely in the shape of a three-dimensional ‘X’ twenty yards from my driveway. My mother and I driving home, in excited anticipation of another captivating episode of The Great British Baking Show, saw it on the slick asphalt. My mom stopped the car, gave me a look, and I stepped out of the car into the pouring rain. I, not ever planning on being an electrical engineering professor or even an electrical engineering student, grabbed the bulky slippery sign and ran home. I put it in my room and called my brothers, “Guys I got it, I got it, I got it!”IMG_0717.jpeg

Well, not everyone shared my stoke over one of the greatest heists of all time. The missing street signs generated a fair amount of buzz on the busy-body Nextdoor App. Comments included questions about who took the sign, followed by denigrating asides about the general bad character of anyone who would do such a thing. In the words of Walt Whitman, I felt, “society whip me with its displeasure.” Even months later, when the city had failed to replace the sign, people would post photos of the barren pole and begin anew with the comments on the thief’s character or lack thereof. It is important to mention, again, that there are only 20 houses on our street and the sign in question didn’t even stand at an intersection. It really served no purpose.

I was never able to separate Marsolan from Cofair, so the two remain fused together in a dusty dark part of my garage. In a sense I will remain stuck to them as well, I can’t risk blowback of making my ‘crime’ public.

Emerson and Theroux would rejoice in my decision to fight against society’s norms. The more street signs the more praise from those two.

Courage Teacher

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Early Life and Career

Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York. He lived with his two parents and eight siblings in Brooklyn and Long Island through the 1820’s and 30’s. When Whitman was twelve, he began to teach himself the printer’s trade and began reading anything he could get his hands on: Homer, Dante, even the Bible. He worked as a printer until a fire brunt down the whole printing district and ruined the industry.

At the age of Seventeen, Whitman became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Long Island and he continued to teach until he was twenty-two. He realized teaching was not the life for him and he did not enjoy it, so he decided to pursue journalism as his full-time career.

He worked for the Brooklyn Daily Eagleand created his own weekly newspaper The Long Islander. He left the two newspapers behind to become the editor of the New Orleans Crescent. In New Orleans he witnessed the horrors of slavery and when he later returned to New York he founded a “free soil” newspaper the Brooklyn Freeman.

Leaves of Grass

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Whitman published the first copy of Leaves of Grass in 1855. It consisted of twelve poems and a preface. He self published it and sent a copy to Emerson, a leading transcendentalist author, in July of 1855. The first edition was not a smashing success, instead much more of a failure. A review published in The Atlantic by Thomas Wentworth Higginson said: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” With this negative review and many more like it, Whitman decided to publish anonymous reviews praising the book. It was not until Whitman got a letter back from Emerson that things started to turn around for the book.

Emerson’s Letter

“Dear Sir,

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.

R.W. Emerson”


Whitman took this letter and published it on the back of his second edition of leaves of grass that contained thirty-three poems. This time it was much better received because people loved Emerson and trusted his judgment on books. Whitman Continued to edit and publish new versions of Leaves of Grass throughout his life.

Later Life and Career

At the start of the Civil War, Whitman worked as a freelance journalist and visited hospitals that were treating wounded soldier. In 1862, he visited his wounded brother in Washington D.C. The amount of suffering the young men in these hospitals was shocking to Whitman and so he decided to work in the hospitals and try to help the wounded. He worked in the hospitals for eleven years and found a job as the clerk for the Department of the Interior. He was later fired from that job because the Secretary of the Interior found out he was the author of Leaves of grass and took it to be a very offensive collection of poems. Whitman was never financially secure and had to take loans from prominent writers in England and the Sates. He had to give money to his widowed mother and also spent an excess amount of money on the soldiers in the hospitals.

In the 1870’s Whitman went to visit his dying mother and he suffered a stroke. He was forced to live in Camden, New Jersey with his brother until the 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass was published and he could afford to move into his own house. On March 26, 1892 Walt Whitman died in a clapboard house in Camden, New Jersey.

As we would expect, he went out with a bang and was buried in a tomb designed by none other than himself.




Bibliography

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman

How Ralph Waldo Emerson saved Walt Whitman