Here’s a fun fact - I lived in L.A. for four years without a car.
Here’s a fun fact - I lived in L.A. for four years without a car.
Today, social media is an integral part of our lives - some say it is too integral, too impersonal; that it discourages real connection and human contact. I count myself squarely situated in the other camp: the company of people who understand that social media is a tool, and how we wield it is what makes the difference in how we connect with each other and how we provide support to those who need it most.
"'Control' Alternating with 'Delete'," an article by Renee Ghert-Zand in the current issue of Hadassah Magazine (not yet available online but embedded below) makes the case for social media and more, exploring how 20s and 30s are dealing with loss. I'm honored to be included on three fronts - one, to have the privilege of sharing approaches that helped me even slightly during a difficult time; two, to share space with people (including the incredible Rebecca Soffer and Gabi Birkner of Modern Loss, and Times of Israel & Kveller's Sarah Tuttle-Singer, who has penned a few really heart-rending pieces on loss) who are doing really remarkable things with their grief in memory and tribute to those they've lost; and three, to be included in a demographic that I left a few years ago. (Although technically, I was still in my 30s when I lost my mother.)
This post was supposed to be about that article. It was supposed to have been filed under "Shameless Self-Promotion." But while I was writing this post, news broke that the three Israeli teens, who had been kidnapped 18 days ago, had been found murdered in a field. As news trickled in, we learned more details about when and how they likely died, and people started posting their feelings on Facebook and Twitter.
Last week I did an ELI Talks on Air - a conversation with See3's Lisa Colton about my writing and connections to community - covering a flashback to my Jewish Week singles days, how I feel about clicking "publish," and what kinds of grief communities have been helpful to me (shoutouts to Modern Loss & The Dinner Party around 17 minutes in). Plus a preview of the content for my book-in-progress, "Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After." (And yes, I cry a little. But that's ok. Because I also invented a new Google Glass style product.)
Other highlights from the conversation (full video embedded below):
Thanks to ELI Talks for hosting me - tune into elitalks.org weekly for live conversations with interesting people, and check out their produced TED-style talks at elitalks.org or on their YouTube channel.
As everyone in the free world knows by now, Mick Jagger and the rest of the scraggly, scrawny superheroes of rock-and-roll have been touring Israel, taking photos at the Wall and - Mick in partick - showing off Hebrew study by interspersing their betwixt-songs banter with salutations and crowd-pleasing Hebrew phrases. (You can read all about it in Times of Israel.)
But what you may not know is that beyond the 12 phrases shared in TOI, Mick had a whole host of Hebrew phrases up his sleeves for use, should the occasion arise. In an My Urban Kvetch exclusive interview (so exclusive that the interview only happened in my brain), Mick shared an additional list of phrases that he's hoping to use at the Stones' upcoming concert to be held in Kikar Tzion (right near where the Kent sign used to be, you remember):
Three years after losing my mother, I'm beginning to gain some perspective.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still devastated at my mother's absence and irritated by the onslaught of media messaging. And while I appreciate the sentiment, Skype telling me to call my mom on Mother's Day is a bit much - unless they actually can connect us, in which case, a resounding "yes" and "my bad for calling you out."
But halfway through Mother's Day here on the West Coast, I'm encouraged by the variety of posts I'm seeing - primarily on Facebook, but in other media outlets as well (see some interesting links below) - that indicate love for mothers past and present, hopes for future maternal roles, and the acknowledgement that although this holiday is an invented Hallmark one, its presence can be one that inspires some and hurts others.
Especially that last circumstance is something I'm seeing explored more and more, and although I don't envy the hurt that provoked the shift (because I do have my own), the fact that more of us are speaking out about this day as complicated (for some, suddenly so) is a good thing. It creates empathy among us all, increases appreciation and encourages us to reach out to those who make an impact regardless of whether they're biologically mothers or not.
As some of you may know, I have published two Mother's Day pieces - "Dealing with the Mother's Day Motherlode Now That Our Mothers Are Gone" last year, focusing on the media onslaught, and this year's "Marking Mother's Day When Mother is Gone" in the NY Jewish Week, which (if the Facebook Like counter is a reliable measure) has been read hundreds of times since it appeared on Wednesday. I've been blessed with really great feedback on these pieces, and have been very gratified to see this subject covered so well by other people who are putting their lives back together again after loss, and putting words to the process to share publicly. I wanted to use this space to share four pieces - not written by me - that I found moving, helpful and resonant over the last few days.
I've seen Star Wars more times than I can count (because I stopped counting around time #47); I know a good portion of Episodes 4, 5 & 6 by heart, and prefer to forget about most of 1, 2 & 3. But my favorite part was always Mos Eisley Spaceport ("you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany - we must be cautious...") and its creature-diverse cantina. Big drama goes down at the cantina - altercations that result in an arm on the floor (more on this later) and a dead Greedo; smugglers make business deals; and we get a glimpse of fan favorite Hammerhead. And of course, best cantina music of all time. Iconic.
And so, in honor of Star Wars Day - May the 4th Be with You All (get it?) - it's about time that the cantina had its day in the Tatooine suns. So before I run back to Toschi to pick up more power converters, I'm pleased to share this collection of some of my favorite cantina-related video clips (some of them new for this year).
College Humor takes you inside the auditions for the new Mos Eisley band - featuring some familiar faces.
Kid Snippets has children retell the Mos Eisley scenes with adults acting out and lipsyncing the kids' audio. Ponda
Speaking of the aforementioned arm on the floor, here's Robot Chicken's version of what happened to Ponda Baba (Walrus Man) that day.
Anyone who's been on a Virgin America flight lately may have caught snippets of Nerdist's Course of the Force event. Here's their awkward display of Cantina Karaoke, featuring cameos from Jason Schwartzman, Patton Oswalt and of course, Billy Dee Williams.
"Sid Caesar invented sketch," said comedy legend Carl Reiner in an interview with Phil Rosenthal (creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond") at the opening night of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival on May 1, which was in honor of Reiner and in memory of Caesar, who died in February. "Sid performed it in such a way that it was never the same after."
As the evening stretched on, the 92-year-old Reiner used his memories of time served on "Your Show of Shows," "The Dick Van Dyck Show" and others to bring the crowd to laughter and applause. Of course, we were there to laugh, and had been warmed up considerably by the film that preceded the conversation: "Ten From 'Your Show of Shows'," a 1973 compilation film by Max Liebman of ten sketches from the show's 1950-1954 run. Although the sketches were first performed 60 years ago, the actors' commitments to character and relationship made the bits are relatable today as they were when first they aired.
Ten seems like a good round number. A one and a zero to please the mathematicians. Passover's plagues. Sinai's commandments. So I understand why "Ten From 'Your Show of Shows'" focused on the number 10.
In that spirit, here are 10 things I learned from Carl Reiner at tonight's event:
I've been flying Virgin America domestically for a while; I love the inflight experience, from the order-at-your-seat refreshments to personal entertainment screens. The flight attendants seem capable and friendly (and took care of me most recently when I got sick on a flight). Virgin America has also always had a bit of a sense of humor when it comes to safety videos.
VA's previous animated video was jaggedly drawn, a bit jarring and edgy, chill and sarcastic, featuring a bullfighter who didn't know how to use a seatbelt and a nun who was traveling with more devices than you might think a woman of the cloth might acquire. And then a few months ago, a new video dawned on Virgin America - flashy, with choreography and different styles of music to drive the safety messages home, with karaoke-style subtitles to encourage people to sing along (and hopefully remember the instructions in a way that didn't induce the panic that comes with realizing that those safety instructions are supposed to guide us in the event of a catastrophic air event, but I digress, and yes, I do have airplane anxiety, why do you ask?).
Tonight I just viewed a new safety video that must have been created to compete with (or perhaps, "pay homage to") the Virgin America style. The unlikely airline challenger? El Al, Israel airways, with a video with a kitschy, near-nonsensical vibe, that doesn't even attempt to rhyme and is so weird that I can't believe this is the first time I'm seeing it. (Video embeds and more discussion after the jump.)
Back in New York, people had been encouraging me to do comedy for years. But as far as I knew "doing comedy" meant either a) moving out to LA, pitching agents and studios on ideas, only to have your heart trampled on, or b) doing standup at an open-mic or "bringer" night at a comedy club after midnight, only to have your heart trampled on. And then someone suggested I try improv classes - where there are no scripts, and - kind of like "the Tree" in Empire Strikes Back - the tools you bring in with you (thought, intelligence, sense of humor, and the rules of improv - more on that below) are the only ones you have (or need).
While I wouldn't quite say that I "do comedy" (although I did move out to LA, so maybe part of me thrives on the possibility of heart-trampling), improv has changed (or in some cases validated) the way I think about things. I'm often able to detect improv training in performers on and offstage, and even watching TV, I see some sitcoms reflect improvisation training more than others. There was a lot about improv that I enjoyed - the energy of the spontaneous, the ability to find things that were funny because they were true. But chiefly, I enjoyed the teamwork, finding "the game" of the scene and playing it through, helping others on stage who were struggling by giving them something they could work with, and using my quirky (yet-I-hope-delightful) brainworks to play things truthfully while building something together. Standup is solitary and lonely; improv is group energy, a family.
There's a classic joke about the oleh chadash, the new immigrant to Israel, who sees that wherever he goes, people are parking on the sidewalk. One day, he's driving around and looking for parking. Nothing. Not a single legal space free, but people are still parking on the sidewalks. He sees a policeman and asks, "Excuse me, officer, is it legal for me to park on the sidewalks?"
"Absolutely not!" the policeman says sternly. "It's absolutely illegal and unsafe!"
"So why is everyone else parked there?"
"THEY didn't ask."
Leave it to Israelis to carry forward this classic parking humor joke into the Tumblr era. In "Dear Officer: Love Notes to Parking Cops," journalist Daniel Estrin is posting photos of interesting, moderately convincing and humorous notes from Israeli drivers to traffic cops pre-emptively begging that they not be given parking tickets. This means that they parked in a space that they knew wasn't legal, and instead of finding a legal space or paying the meter to park there, they decided their best or most just option was to leave a note in the window, explaining the car's presence with classic excuses like "our family is sitting shiva" (fair), "I'm picking up my kid from kindergarten" (okay, but so are most people, especially in Jerusalem), and "I'm performing a bris" (who hasn't been there?).
It's chutzpah. But it's also an "only in Israel moment" - the parking cop isn't really seen as mishtarah, the police that you might fear, but as a guy who's doing something annoying by giving out parking tickets, and why should you get one? You don't deserve it! You're doing something important. Like for instance, attending a local soccer match.
I live in Los Angeles. Driving and parking is all most people do here. I've seen busted meters with plastic bags over their "heads," burned-out shells of cars, cars held together with twine, and people living out of their cars. But pre-emptive notes to parking enforcement? Not in my neighborhood. (Although the Valley, which has a higher density of Israeli natives than some parts of Jerusalem, might be an exception - for all I know, this has been going on for years.)
So next time you're driving around, looking for spaces, and wondering if you can actually park there, why take a chance by asking? Leave a note, just in case. (And make it entertaining, because it will probably end up on Tumblr.)
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about food and the role it plays in our lives? My friend, filmmaker Joseph Levy, previously famous to me for being a producer of the amazing short George Lucas in Love, does, and the result is a film that is beautiful in message and medium (and music).
Spinnning Plates (available at Amazon via this link) is the story of three very different restaurants in three different communities - all prize the taste of good, well-prepared food, and make their menus with passion and love. For them food isn't just nutrition, it's personal, and Joseph has captured this, as well as their personal and professional struggles in a compelling and deliciously shot documentary.
Welcome to My Urban Kvetch, a place for me to vent about the issues that clutter my brain as I live my so-called-freelance life in the Big City. I'm all about looking at my experience through the lens of humor, whenever it's possible. […]And though I've resisted long enough, I'm joining the blog generation. My hopes? That this space will provide me with a forum for fleshing out ideas, kicking around premises and developing essays that will ultimately yield publishable fruit. And making it public? Hoping to be discovered, of course...by a fan base or by editors who will make my dreams of a positive checkbook balance a reality.
-First blog post at MyUrbanKvetch.blogspot.com, February 2, 2004
As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. In those early years, I didn’t really expect to have an audience, so I named the blog after a popular NYC home delivery service, and just wrote until the piece felt finished, never mind the length or the sharpness of my arguments. Some posts were shorter bursts of commentary, and others more introspective. But as I became aware that other people were reading, I started to edit more carefully – less of a brain download and more of a curated analysis. To go a little meta, this is a curated analysis of some of those already curated posts; a retrospective of sorts – not 100% chronological, but representative of journeys in styles, words and ideas over a decade.
At first, since I was a freelancer who was living on a budget in one of the most expensive cities in the world, a lot of posts focused on my apartment and my Upper West Side life. "Today I am a Toilet" (February 2004) recounted a rite of passage in the life of every nice single Jewish girl: that time when you have to lift a commode. (Come on, you know we’ve all been there…) August 2006's "Match Point" told another relatable tale, as our heroine, in search of chocolate, swallows something else entirely. (The original title of that post was “Dare to Be Stupid.”) In July 2007, her bathroom was the site of another unusual scene, transforming into "Upper West Side Rainforest."
As I began to travel more, I began to realize that I really didn't like flying. Superstition emerged, and I committed to saying "The Traveler's Prayer" (April 2005) whenever I traveled - however, I seemed unable to memorize it and always seemed to forget to bring it with me. So I came up with an interim solution, to which I return every time I forget to bring my handy "Tefilat Haderech card" with me. Among my more memorable travel adventures was the time that the Snowpocalypse stranded me at JFK overnight awaiting a flight to London for Limmud. , but people also remember fondly my fight with Delta, or most recently and as-yet unblogged, my losing my passport at Heathrow and somehow managing to travel back to LA without it.
Although it's hard to believe, both for me and for those who know me, there was a time when I was not a blogger. The me of this time was a struggling freelance writer, desperate to find venues who would publish her, even though she had rarely been published before. The me of this time also had a friend who recommended that, as I developed my reading audience, I might want to create a blog to give an online home to the pieces I couldn't sell as a freelancer. I initially thought she was crazy - why would I give away content when I was trying to make a living by selling it?
But as I explored this emerging world of blogging, I began to see the value, and stepped in tentatively, reading lots, posting occasionally, then less tentatively, reading, participating in conversations and posting regularly. The tools developed, from early Blogger that still required us to tweak the HTML by including tags like <b> to indicate a boldface type, to WYSIWYG interfaces that enabled us to easily embed video and photo content. The audience expanded, and conversations proliferated. My participation in this world transformed my career and my life; I'm literally thousands of miles from where I started, all in the space of a decade.
This blog turns 10 years old on Sunday. If any of you are longtime or regular readers and remember a specific post, topic or category that resonated with you, please let me know: myurbankvetch at gmail. I'm preparing a retrospective post, and may pick some of my own favorites, but thought I'd see if any of you remembered a post of particular impact.
As always, I am so grateful for your attention and thank you so much for reading, lurking, commenting and sharing.
In Winter 2006-7, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman brought an international group of young Jewish leaders to the Galilee to help “repair” what the Second Lebanon War had destroyed. Because we lacked painting experience, we imparted way more personality than artistry – illustrating bomb shelter walls with images we believed to be calming, inspiring or uplifting. Fish in an ocean. Flowers and animals frolicking in a sunny field. And my friend Dave Burnett, who had joined us from Australia, drew a hospital with a helipad on the roof – he second-guessed it, saying that maybe that wasn’t a calming image. But we decided it was good – it was an image that said, “help is coming.”
As we worked, we listened to the one radio station with reception, and sang along with what we knew, Hebrew, English or Spanish. But with all our backgrounds so different, there was only one song that we all seemed to know from its opening chords. Its minimal musicality encroached on near-atonality, with lyrics that looped in waves of surface simplicity. And the chorus seemed to vibrate with our collective voices:
[...]And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you
But I don't know how
You're gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You're my wonderwall
Penned and sung by Oasis, a literal band of brothers known for sometimes-violent rivalry, 1995’s “Wonderwall” is instantly identifiable from its opening chords. According to Wikipedia, "Wonderwall" is one of the most covered songs of all time, with versions ranging in musical style from death metal and acoustic to dance and swing. In a recent episode of “Girls,” when Lena Dunham started singing the song in the bathtub, her lonely voice echoing against bathroom tile and bouncing off bathwater, I was not at all surprised.
We were there because of a war, on a trip meant to bring support to Israelis who were under fire. We were supposed to infuse the region with hope. This song always makes me think of that time, and of Dave, and the jubilation with which he sang it. But really, Dave did everything jubilantly, living out loud and with a whole heart, until he died in January 2008, of injuries sustained during a fall while he was vacationing in Petra, Jordan. He was 23.
There is always a temptation to idealize those who leave us too soon, remembering their attributes as more perfect than they actually were. But anyone who knew him can attest that Dave was an outgoing, endlessly enthusiastic, vibrant personality – pure energy contained only barely, and all too briefly, by a human form. Dave saw every person as an entire world of possibility, strength, personality and fun. He was the life force personified – for his friends and family, left behind, the loss was (and continues to be) incomprehensible.
On January 2, 2013, Ha'aretz published a piece I'd written about how the community can support those who grieve (if there is a paywall on this link or any of the ones below, please contact me and I'll send you a PDF). It might have seemed a strange way to begin a year, a year whose start is supposed to inspire optimism; but I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect, post-New Year's revelry, to those in the community who need our support, but who may not know how to ask for it. The piece was received very well - I still get people asking for copies of it - and seemed to answer many questions held by the "grief-adjacent" - people who were not primarily affected by a particular loss but who wanted to help friends or family members who were. But this post also set the stage for other Ha'aretz pieces, reaching a wide audience of people on a number of subjects about how the Jewish community could improve the services it was offering.
In a piece about what is expected of Jewish leadership in the digital age, I suggested that today's Jewish leaders learn to mobilize the power of online media, both in terms of distributing their message and in terms of responding to constituents' questions and challenges. After attending a series of conferences, Jewish and non-, traditional and innovative, I shared some ideas about how conferences can become more "disruptive," improving their format toward making a greater impact. After the Jewishly themed media went crazy about the results of the Pew Internet Study, my largely tongue-in-cheek piece about how to craft your own response to the Pew Report was widely circulated.
The year ended with a story I never wanted to write about - but after thousands sent emotional support to Phyllis and Michael Sommer during the tragically-terminal illness of their son Sam, I was desperate to show my support - this story of a community reaching out in comfort was a piece I could produce, a something I could do when there was really nothing to do.
After the piece was published, I got quite a few comments and letters - someone asked me if I had obtained permisison from the family before writing about them - a good question that I had been thinking about but ultimately decided not to bother them with. There's a perception that the Sommer family is now public domain, but the realm of their grief is private, and I didn't want to intrude. I hoped that pieces like mine would be perceived as a virtual version of the embrace I wished I could render in person. When I posted the piece on Facebook, Phyllis left a "heart," so I have to believe she understood and approved.
Social media was a big part of this story, with blogging at the core of the connection between the Sommer family and the rest of the world. I knew what blogging could do, how it could bring people together and create relationships from words typed and published in the ether of the internet. I knew it because it had been happening to me every day over the last decade; as I shared my thoughts and observations, I was unconsciously laying the groundwork for an international network of connected individuals, reaching more people than I had possibly hoped to and receiving comments, feedback, criticisms and praise from all over the world.
On February 2, 2014, I will celebrate the tenth anniversary of my stumbling into blogging. While I look forward to the new opportunities that are already beginning to bubble up with promise for 2014, I also plan to look back at what blogging has brought me, both personally and professionally, over the last decade.
Here's to a new year with more happy stories than sad ones, and to connecting with our friends, colleagues and wider networks, creating a larger community of stories and individuals who provide support for each other, whether virtually or in person. And thank you all for reading.