All I Needed Was a Hood

My last visit to Home Depot – one of many recent runs there during my project of converting an 1865 Maine barn into an apartment – turned into a sweet and odd reminder of my writing life. That writing life that often gets sidelined as soon as I have “more pressing” things to do, like move, get a kid off to college, build a home…But the sales person who helped me navigate the dizzying ventless hood options quickly revealed he was an avid journaler with a penchant for storytelling.

A man in his 50s, he was a far cry from the “Home Depot Guy” one might expect;  his tall and lean figure with thin, delicate gesticulating hands and animated and dainty facial expressions produced an energy loaded with charmingly feminine affect. His lips pursed just so every few seconds and his eyes would widen and roll while his eyebrows rose and fell or frowned to give more expression to his speech. He would lean in or sway back while elaborating about his own ventless hood fan home renovation story, that soon enough included references to his father’s voice chastising him from the grave about not installing it correctly.

He had me at how hearing his dead father’s voice commenting on his activities was such a meaningful part of his experience, or how his dad was still an influential and lively presence, despite having been gone for several years. I know what that feels like.

From talking about his own father’s opinions, expectations and disappointments, the conversation (which was mostly a monologue) quickly turned to his own experience of fatherhood, and how his own grown sons were so hard to reach, both physically and emotionally. So, he said, he journals in order to be able to one day leave them a document where they can, when they are ready, learn more about their dad’s inner life. The painful time leading up to the divorce (I suspected he had decided to come out in mid-life, since he made some indirect references to that effect, and this had caused a domino effect of challenges for both him and his family), the misunderstandings, the things unsaid, the things that can’t be undone…the love. The need to tell ones story.

I finally left Home Depot with an affordable yet sleek, stainless and Italian-designed hood, sure to make my cooking forays more pleasant and less stinky. That felt like a relief. But the part about that early morning Home Depot run that truly felt gratifying, was having spent a few minutes listening to Barry, my fellow storyteller, which in turn inspired me and reminded me of my inner calling, which in turn brought me back to my keyboard. Here. Now.

I live and love my life of “yang” – of movement and action – as much as I love and strive for more “yin” – stillness and meditation. The first is easy for me; it’s in my blood and having the shpilkes is simply part of who I am. That energy is often the catalyst for all the practical “stuff” I am so efficient at getting done. As a kid, I’d run around my Oslo neighborhood and either help people or got into trouble. I didn’t sit much. I didn’t read much. Sitting and writing – or just sitting – is not so obvious for me. But the storyteller in me reminds me to, is constantly tugging and nudging me in that direction, again and again. Sometimes it just takes a little listening to remember.

Home Depot

Alimony My Ass!

I resent the word “alimony.” Today, and for a few more years, my main income is from this “arrangement,” part of the settlement after my 23 yearlong marriage ended. Thanks to this payout over time, I am able to maintain a relatively comfortable standard of living while raising three almost adult sons and seeing them through college. It also allows me to teach as an adjunct at the nearby college and university, keeping me close to home, something I would not be able to “afford” had I not already had the bread for the butter (working as an adjunct ­– even with a Ph.D. – pays peanuts and offers zero benefits), as well as dedicate time to develop as a writer. However, I don’t think of this primary income as “alimony” or some generous handout from the ex-husband, but rather as my honestly and hard earned dividend from over two decades of solid investments.

The term alimony comes from the Latin word alimona and means “nourishment or sustenance,” and historically has had as its purpose the continued nourishment of the divorced wife, presumed to be lacking the ability to support herself. Women were, after all, the property of their husbands. Today, alimony is commonly granted the spouse that has the lesser income, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, “alimony” has the resonance of “alms,” synonyms of which are gift, handout, charity, and largesse. Hearing the word, it suggests the receiving spouse is getting some a kind bighearted offering from the ex. Sometimes, this is how I’m made to feel about it, when I hear the traditional vocabulary and gender-role ideas surrounding the complex topic of all that.

But it was when one of our teenage boys recently said to me “Pappa works hard; he supports all of us,” that I felt compelled to make a statement. If nothing else, for my boys: the next generation. Yes, their dad owns a business and that is hard work, no question about it. But a comment like that doesn’t fall easy on a writer and teacher’s ears, or heart, as if the work I do now, not to mention did while married and also running the household, is a walk in the park. Is not hard. A quarter century dedicated to creating and keeping a home, developing a business together and raising a family was the most challenging work of my life. I invested dearly in this enterprise, and I loved it. It was gratifying and exhausting. (I was raised as a latch–key kid with a career mom, so staying home with the kids while they were young felt like a privilege to me.) Pursuing an advanced degree when the kids got to middle school felt almost self-indulgent – I “worked” in the library all day –and I got to exist in my head for 8 hours a day, sometimes more, away from the chaos, unpredictability and physical labor of running our family and home. Of course, with mom gone all day, too, forces had to be hired to mind the gap.

Could we use the term “severance package” perhaps? I was, after all, C.E.O of The Lichtenstein Family Household, a rather large organization consisting of a wife (me), a husband, three children, two dogs, a ginormous house, two cars and an above average sized yard. The third floor of our house was originally built for “the help,” back in the day when someone living in this size house would typically have a cook, a nanny, a gardener, a couple of servants, and a driver. When we would ring the antiquated buzzers still wired on the walls of our home, nobody showed up. I was it. That was our family joke.

So, as much as I appreciate having my financial freedom as a result of the return of my investment, I look forward to times when the majority of my livelihood is no longer attached to a word whose stigma may be all in my head, but most likely is the result of the complex history of marriage and divorce laws, stubborn (and lazy) traditions of residual nomenclature, and the revolutionary changes in women’s roles in our modern society. As I have begun forging a professional and vocational path (writer, teacher and AirBnB host) that can sustain me when the dividend payouts come to end, I also find that I still have to remind myself that I have gotten to where I am not because I’m lucky or unlucky, but because I have worked hard, won some, lost some, and tried to embrace change.

I say let’s come up with a new term for alimony that makes the recipient feel less like a charity case and more like a free agent paying her/his bills with returns from wise and hard earned investment. Marriage is the biggest venture if there ever was one, and the lucky ones get to feel the satisfaction by having it last a lifetime; those of us with a long marriage behind us and who had to “cash in the chips” should feel gratified that the mission yielded unique results (life-experience, your children, assets – think “dividends” in the largest sense of the term) hard earned anywhere else.

A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.

My Ex’s Underwear

I’m not the only one getting caught in-between. Boxer shorts with hearts on them do too.

Let me explain.

I talk a lot about in-betweeness. What it feels like living culturally and linguistically in a perpetual state of not really quite here, nor really quite there, but also very much both here and there. It’s a little messed up, but it’s the life of an ex-pat, a convert with a bohemian soul and now a divorcee. And I’ve come to accept it like this.

Although you’d think the D-status (divorce) would bring a finalized “now you’re over here in this camp and he/they are over there in the other camp” kind of situation, it doesn’t. The fact that my ex and I share three children that we are committed to co-parent in a positive, co-operative spirit, makes the dividing lines of “me and him/them” (he is remarried) more blurred.

Today for instance, it was not my in-betweeness I was noticing, but the stuff that sometimes get caught in-between the two camps. Like underwear, t-shirts, socks and various minor parent paraphernalia.

My three strapping almost adult sons seem to make a sport out of going into each other’s drawers (I mean the dresser kind) when, at 6:30am they realize they will stop at nothing to find a clean pair of undies or socks, t-shirt or shorts. This includes their father’s drawers. (Thankfully, perhaps, it does not include mine)

So, necessarily, since the boys spend half their time at my place and the other half at their dad’s, clothes and dirty laundry end up here, there and in-between.

My laundry basket is one such place of twilight zone. I can’t tell you how many times I have found my ex’s undies there, and when I unwittingly go to sort or fold or move a load from washer to dryer, I handle his now new and shiny, heart-clad intimate wear bestowed upon him by his new bride. Oh, joy.

Of course, on their raids at 6.30am, the boys don’t pick the shredded, thread bare boxers from their dad’s drawers that I once knew. They pick the Hilfiger, Lauren, fancy-schmanzy, lovey-dovey stuff. Apparently, the boys have an agenda, too, now.

Anyway.

One of my favorite laundry discoveries was a skimpy singlet shirt more akin to the ladies’ camisole with some glittery writing on it that must have mistakenly ended up in a pile of clothes grabbed by one of the boys on the go. That’s right, there I am I’m in my new apartment, newly divorced, a block from my old home where the ex lives, folding what can only be the skimpy, glittery camisole of my ex-husbands new woman. Did I already say “oh joy”?

There’s always stuff that gets stuck in-between. That’s because life just isn’t this neatly delineated chapter book, but rather a porous, shifting and unexpected mess.

What used to bother me of this stuff caught in-between, has just become another thing to kindly sort and put in the “bring back over there” pile. And then occasionally I do think about the possibility of the itty bitty top having been left behind by one of my sons girlfriends, which would explain his choice to snag dad’s lover boy undies rather than the tidy whities. Oy. Three sons floating in-between boyhood and manhood. Now here’s an in-between to really get existential about.

Lovey Boxers

Chef: The Big Turn On – A Film Review

I admit it, I’m a not just a middle aged social media-hooker, but also a food-porn fan, so the foodie flick, Chef, totally made my day. If you have not yet partaken of this inviting orgasmic, I mean organic visual banquet, put down your spatula, click your way to Netflix’s Instant Play (where it is now available), and prepare to have a visual feast bound to arouse your senses.

If you are a foodie – or even just dig good food in all its glorious varieties – last summer’s crowd pleaser will make you grin for more reasons than the charming story of a divorced workaholic father (Jon Favreau) re-connecting with his often disappointed young son (Emjay Anthony) who misses out on quality dad-times in the classic divorce-kid reality. The appealing, feel-good plot has top ranked L.A. chef Carl Casper getting two thumbs down by the food world’s evil incarnation of Siskel and Ebert (Oliver Platt), driving Casper to quit his job for the lack of creative freedom enforced by a conservative and controlling restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman). The down and out but eager to re-invent himself chef is gifted an old food truck by an eccentric, wealthy and curious acquaintance (Robert Downey Jr.), and chef Casper, a.k.a. El Jefe, reluctantly takes his son on a road trip from Miami. Joined by his lovable and dedicated sous-chef side-kick Tony (John Leguizamo), the trio drives the gloriously restored taco-truck back to L.A. via various cities known as foodie meccas, serving up greasy, sexy Cubano sandwiches, all while creating a Twitter-frenzy in such a visually clever way on the big screen that it risks tickling and baptizing even the most reluctant social media user.

The casting of sultry Latina diva Sofia Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife is a clever way to sneak in an extra dash of visually sizzling and caliente shapes and sounds, as her curves and outfits are sprinkled throughout the movie with as equal and natural ease as are the many alluring and groovy beats of Latin rhythms (yes, I bought the sound track and am playing it as I write these words). The understated and soothing presence of Scarlett Johansson as Casper’s colleague and casual love interest, Molly, reminds us that sometimes it’s not the spiciest and most colorful dishes, but rather the comfort food that hits the spot.

When writer/director/actor Jon Favreau says his film is “like singing from the heart” he is not only referring to the “mise en scène” of his own childhood experience of bonding with the old man on road trips, because everything that has to do with food is sung from a creative and caring foodie heart in this film. Adds Favreau: “It’s about treating food with reverence,” a sentiment most obvious in the many close ups involving food handling in runs to the farmers’ market, flipping sandwiches on the griddle, or in the slow twirling of the perfect pasta aglio olio served up in the early morning hours after work. From how the greasy cheese melts on the Cubanos to the slicing, dicing, stirring and of course tasting and slurping with requisite moaning, it all basically strikes just the right chords with anyone who’s into food. I’m really not imagining the suggestive links between cooking and erotica, because Favreau’s character actually knows how to find the grill’s slippery “hot spot” for optimal performance. Some critics rant that scenes of Favreau cooking should have been trimmed, but my take is: can I have them in slow-mo replay, please?

I particularly loved how the potentially ugly monster of social media — and the ignorance of its power by the not so old parent (younger than me!) — was cleverly incorporated as a lesson the munchkin could teach his dad. The film’s clever use of Twitter shows that, when used with some entrepreneurial savvy (even by amateurs and kids), it really can make a positive difference. “You’re trending, bro” sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) says to Casper– who is sending angry tweet responses to his critic into cyberspace without having a clue about how the thing really works. Oh boy is he trending.

Since I used to buy my lunch from a food truck throughout my entire, very long graduate school career on a campus in the boonies, I don’t feel like a novice in the setting; however, I will never be able to look at a food truck the same way after Chef. With its many intimate cooking scenes from inside the food truck pantry, involving meaningful conversations about life and love — such as when Casper says to his son: “I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do, and I love it! And I wanna share this with you” — I now have a new appreciation for the stories behind each mobile cuisine and the folks inside, as we may find them lined up along boulevard stretches and on street corners.

As it turns out, the initially prickly food critic is not so bad after all; just like the sabra cactus of the Middle East, he is tough on the outside and soft on the inside. He eventually comes around and offers El Jefe a partnership deal so sweet he can’t refuse, and although the ending is a bit too fairy-tale sugary for this real life cynic, it all works because it’s the love of food that seems to bring on all this positive change in the characters’ lives. Just as Puerto Rican salsa king Pete Rodriguez reminds us with Chef’s groovy music score, making us walk away giddy from the experience bopping to the irresistible Latin beat: “I like it like that!”  — For this is the movie that makes you feel happy, hot and hungry, and with this tantalizing combo, it’s simply impossible to turn down seconds.

As Israeli chef Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka has said about the fulfilling experience of serving up awesome food: “Beyond knowing how to cook, you have to know how to eat.” Like a great meal cooked up and served with love, Chef is likely to leave you feeling good, and a tad high on serotonin. Bon appétit!

Chef

It’s All in the Name

Reading the “About Me” part of my blog, my youngest son asked, “Aren’t you going to give them your name?” He has a point.

Whats-my-name-81444320611_xlarge

I know that I like to know the name of people I engage with, especially because even if I don’t know them personally I like to envision them, and for some reason, when I know their name, it helps me somehow have an idea about them, at least in my imagination. Which is of course kind of absurd, since Bubba does not have to be a big, jolly fella, nor Hildegard necessarily a rosy cheeked blond farm frau from Germany. But let’s be real, a name helps create a connection of sorts.

The story of how we get our names, or how we choose or change them, should we so be inclined, or lucky, or both, can add a layer to the complexity (read: interesting narrative) of who we are, and allow us to imagine or understand others in a more “contextual” way. For everyone has many layers of (con)texts embedded in their identity; a multitude of fibers, threads and colors contributing to the unique fabric of their being. In the end, a name tells a story of its own. When I have a new group of students, I usually give them an assignment the first day of class to post a short paragraph about their first name on our course blog. This is actually just a trick to help me remember 38 new names and faces with greater ease, since I tend to build stories around most things and humans I encounter. And if the student doesn’t know about how or why they were given their unique name (most are bearers of fascinating small tales about how names are bestowed in their families, and happy for the opportunity to share this piece of family tidbit with their new peers), I invite them to share anything they may have on their mind, about their name. This too, can be quite telling and entertaining, and it creates a connection.

So my name is Nina Boug Lichtenstein, née Boug Kristiansen.

When I grew up I used to dislike my common first name, and fantasized about a more exotic name like Anastasia or Isabelle. There were four Ninas in my school alone and it was definitely a popular name in the 1960s Oslo. Had I known then what I know now about my first name, I might have felt differently. Some of the meanings for Nina in various cultures are: “God was gracious or God has shown favor”(Hebrew), “nice” (Persian), “beautiful eyes”(Hindi), “mother” (Swahili), “strong or mighty”(Native American), “friend” (Arabic), “flower” (Old Greek) and “fire” (Quechua – the people and culture of the Central Andes in South America). Wow. I never knew that until recently.

And I feel better already. Talk about a name with good vibes! I wonder if my parents knew these meanings for my name when they chose it for me. Had they intended these strong attributes for me, as they gave me that first “selective” piece of personal identity? I really do believe in the power of intentions…

In the middle of my identity nomenclature there is Boug (my mother’s maiden name) which I decided to keep when I got married. Boug apparently is a derivative of the French bourg meaning “town” – you may recognize a term such as “bourgmeister” which is German for the mayor of the town. If my parentage hailed from a venerable mayoral family or were just simply “townsfolk” vs. farmers I have yet to find out, but what is clear here, is that the pure blood viking-idea is not in my gene pool (not that there ever was one, or that it was important). Explorers! Travelers and boarder crossers going way back and in all ways. Yup; that’s the genetics I’m carrying. That sounds more like it.

Then there is my maiden name Kristiansen, which I have thought about taking back now that I am divorced, to honor my father who recently died. Kristiansen. I’m The Viking Jewess. I hope you see the irony here. That is Kristiansen as in “son of Kristian” or rather, “of the Christian” (as opposed to “the heathen,” I suppose) according to the Scandinavian tradition of naming. While I did not undergo gender-reassignment surgery (as it is now called) and was never anybody’s son, I did shed my initially State imposed Christian religious belonging. My father, a self-proclaimed agnostic who had withdrawn his membership from the Norwegian State Church (and who took care of the paperwork for me when I decided to do the same) was born into this very common last name, and my grandmother once told me she had wanted to change it, but found the bureaucratic paper-mill overwhelming and so resigned her dreams of a more distinctive last name.

I have now carried the last name Lichtenstein for over 25 years, and I must say it has until recently been a pleasure. I did not mind changing my last name when I married at 23, since just before exchanging vows I had made another significant commitment: to be a Jew and live a life according to Jewish traditions. Somehow, that didn’t seem to fit so well with the last name I imported from Norway. This was engraved in my experience every time I met a new Jewish person and introduced myself – hyper-sensitive as I was about my difference –  culminating on the very day of my conversion, when three stern faced orthodox rabbis sat facing me and my Christian name came up, again and again, like lashes in an inquisition. Morbid exaggeration and reversed imagery aside, it just felt so humiliating, and I somehow imagine it would have been different if my maiden name had been Hansen or Arnesen.

I came to know and love the long-winded Lichtenstein name along with my ever evolving new identity. Spelling it out in almost a melodic manner for every clerk, salesperson or professor who looked like a question mark when I said my name, I adapted quickly. And how many times have perfect strangers not loudly associated my married last name with an entire country, or tiny principality if they are savvy enough to know the difference, and how many times have I answered “No, not quite like the country” or “Yes, like the country” depending on my mood and energy. At times it felt regal, especially in Norway, where it’s pronounced in a way that on a good day can give it an aura of lost grandeur and princely mystique. Not to mention the occasional association with the artist Roy Lichtenstein here in the States. People actually would ask me if we were related. I wish.

Deconstructing Lich

Deconstructing Nina Lichtenstein

About 20 years into my marriage, the Mr. and Mrs. Lichtenstein that we were became Mr. and Dr. Lichtenstein. Joining the two other doctors in the family, my father in law, a DDS specializing in oral surgery, and a sister in law with a PH.D in anthropology, this new, tiny, appendage to my name was hard earned. Eventually came my divorce, and swiftly enter from stage left a new Mrs. Lichtenstein, and here we are.

While enjoying a hike in the woods of Norway with my three sons last summer, I again brought up the topic of me thinking about changing my last name, something they had not been too receptive to last time I tried to air the possibility, and so I had just dropped it. “But why, mamma? You are a Lichtenstein!” they seemed to exclaim in emphatic unison. Yes, I said, it’s true I’ve been a Lichtenstein since the day I married your pappa and decided to take his name for that reason, but now we are not married anymore, and there is a new Mrs. Lichtenstein. Silence. Until the oldest, about to be a freshman in college reasonably offered: “That’s a good point” and the other two mumbled their acquiescence.

As much as divorce can be about loss and things ending, it is also about new beginnings. So, rather than answering the question, “what’s my name?” I sip my coffee and ponder: “what will my name be?” Or even more deeply: “What can my story become?” Being and becoming. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze posited (as he, in turn was elaborating on Nietzsche’s philosophy), human reality is more about a constant becoming, not a static being. Being in a process, then, seems to at once welcome the idea of “I am” (“I exist” – a concept I like to admit and enjoy for now) to include the more open ended notion of “I am becoming.”

Perhaps all the empty spaces don’t have to filled in right away…

Hello Name