This American Life’s Shalom Auslander and Elie Wiesel: It’s All in the Timing

Writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2. On Monday, July 4, I heard writer Shalom Auslander using Wiesel in jokey Holocaust-related material in a podcast segment called “Paradise Lost” on This American Life. The episode had the theme of “Got You Pegged,” about snap judgments gone awry. This American Life summarizes Auslander’s segment like this:

Shalom Auslander goes on vacation with his family, and suspects the beloved, chatty old man in the room next door is an imposter—and sets out to prove it. This and other stories about the pitfalls of making snap judgments about others.

The timing seemed peculiar, to say the least. I realized this was a podcast and it might have been scheduled well before the airing, which was on July 1, according to the home page of This American Life. Especially on a holiday weekend, the archive would be a good place to find material.

Still. wry Holocaust observations two days after Wiesel died surprised me.

In the spirit of the podcast’s theme of avoiding snap judgments, I checked This American Life’s website and found that the episode originally aired on August 22, 2008. The confluence of material and demise was simply one of those crazy, unintended trapdoors that the universe occasionally sets in front of me.

What did the formerly Orthodox Auslander say, anyway, that snagged my astounded attention?

He relates a family trip to a Caribbean island for vacation. The elderly, chatty man in the next villa casually mentioned that his wife and parents were killed in the Holocaust, mostly at Auschwitz. The extended quote from the show gives the rich flavor of Auslander’s darkly Jewish ruminations. He said,

I should have been compassionate, I know. I should have taken pad and pen and committed his story to paper for future generations. Instead, I seethed. Twenty minutes of genocide stories later, I went into our villa, closed the door sharply behind me and stood in the center of the room with my hands on my hips.

I threw my hands into the air.

Auschwitz, I said.

Pardon? (said his wife).

Auschwitz.

What are you talking about, she asked . . .

He’s a survivor, hon, a Holocaust survivor.

I don’t have anything against Holocaust survivors. Some of my best friends are Holocaust survivors. OK, that’s not actually true, but I don’t have anything against them. But if I want to relax and forget about life for a while, maybe hit a bar and get a drink, I’m not going to call Elie Wiesel. “Hey, Elie, how’s it going? I had a tough day, want to come over and we’ll watch Schindler’s List? Bring beer!”

In typical circumstances, the Wiesel reference would have flown by me, a rebellious knock against Wiesel’s somber image. But coming 48 hours after his death, the passage left me queasy. At first I thought I had Auslander pegged as somebody willing to score literary points off a death, but my fact check showed he did nothing of the sort. Anyway, the rebroadcast had been on July 1–the day before Wiesel died. Reality had simply arranged itself to make a line in a long-ago recording reverberate like a crashing gong.

On the other hand, a link from Auslander’s website to a list of his This American Life essays has “Got You Pegged” at the very top. Perhaps Paradise Lost holds a special place in his heart or in listener popularity. I may even listen to his other presentations to hear what else Auslander has to say. I can tell by looking at his credits that our paths have crossed in some ways.

 

 

The Law of Attraction on Metro-North

About once a month somebody starts a conversation with me on the train. I don’t go looking for these exchanges, but I must emit electromechanical impulses that pull the lonely talkers toward me. Call it the Law of Attraction on the Harlem Line. I never completely ignore the talkers since I’m curious about where the conversations will go. While some get a polite murmur or two as I keep my nose in a book, I avidly engage others when I sense a common ground. Sometimes I’ll even start the conversation if the person is reading a book I’ve enjoyed or is wearing some obviously orange-and-black Princeton attire. Usually I do more listening than talking, knowing that, one way or another, I’ll exit the train an hour after it leaves Grand Central Terminal.

Two talkers grabbed me in the past week, both times on the way home from New York. The first time, I was sitting in facing seats, with two visiting tourists laden with bags across from me. I sat down after they moved some bags. Then a man got on at 125th Street and offered to move the remaining bags to sit down. The women didn’t understand English and couldn’t tell what he wanted.

“Ok, I’ll go stand out in the vestibule,” he said with a belligerent edge in his voice. Finally they saw the point and he moved the bags to an overhead rack. I was deep into reading the book “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” and put out now conversational vibes. I did notice the man didn’t have a backpack or briefcase, just a cell phone and a tablet. He made some calls, either to family members or business related. We sat knee to knee but I studiously avoided interacting with him.

The train moved along and he started talking about how lousy the train system was. “The German and the Japanese, after the war, got the latest technology. We’re still using train technology from the 1840s,” he groused.

“I think the Germans and the Japanese paid a pretty high price to get that technology,” I said.

“If we had the $7 trillion we spent in the Middle East we could rebuild the infrastructure.” He sounded like a man on the edge, needing only one comment cross-ways from his world view to push him in a direction I didn’t want to see. I gave fewer and fewer details to questions about my family or work.

Then he began griping about real estate prices, how he had lost a lot of the value of the home he bought in Westchester. I said I wasn’t aware of that since I didn’t own any real estate. I really began to back away when he said people weren’t moving to communities in our area because the public schools were becoming, shall we say, more diverse, and guys like him had to send their kids to private schools even as their property values tanked.

He finally got the point I was trying to avoid him. “I’m sorry, you’re reading,” he said. I relaxed for a stop, then he started in again. I feared he was getting off at the same station I was, but he left a few stops before, to my relief.

Saturday night, I was coming home after seeing the play “A View From the Bridge” by Arthur Miller. My favorite newstand at Grand Central happened to have the Jewish Press,the voice of Orthodox and black-hat Brooklyn, and I buy the paper when I can find it; the newstand veers in and out of stocking it. I snapped up a copy and settled in to browse the paper, which is now far thicker than the venerable Village Voice, another publication I’ve read since I moved to New York in 1980.

I’ll admit I liked to display the Jewish Press to see if anybody notices it. Not only am I one of the rare souls on the train reading a print publication, but I was reading one a little different from, say, the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker. For some people, the Jewish Press may be a provocative as American Rifleman.

Sure enough, before the train left Grand Central, an elderly woman across the aisle asked me where I got the paper. I said my favorite newstand happened to have it, so I bought it.

“Is is Orthodox leaning?” she asked.

I pondered my answer. “It IS Orthodox, and moves out from there,” I said. “You’re not going to find any Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist tendencies in the Jewish Press.”

I said I have subscribed to the Forward newspaper since it began publishing an English edition in 1991, and she was interested in also subscribing, but didn’t know who to contact. She lacked a computer and didn’t know how to proceed. I looked up the subscription number on my phone and jotted it down on the Press’ front page — and told her I’d give her the Press when she was leaving the train.

The talk went in a political direction. First she asked what I thought about the death of Justice Scalia, and I told her the vicious comments about his passing saddened me. She felt his positions went against Jewish values and she had no problem with his death. For the election, she was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter. I wondered how she would react if I declared, “Hillary doesn’t belong in the White House, she belongs in the Big House!” but that would have been unfairly provocative and cruel. As with the earlier conversation, I simply let her talk.

“Do you like Bibi?” she asked, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He’s the right man for the time,” I said, and we moved into Israeli politics, where her views surprised me. Besides liking Netanyahu, she also was a huge fan of Ariel Sharon. I would have never suspected. Then again, she had lived in Israel and had experienced the country first-hand.

We talked more about family issues, dating, and she asked about my Significant Other, knitting and listening to a podcast beside me. We exchanged business cards in case topics of mutual interest arose, She asked me to keep an eye out for a not-tall cultured single man who was looking for a similar New York Times-reading woman. I made a pitch for my dating book, so we both used our chat as a sales opportunity.

Her stop came and she left, Jewish Press in hand. I’m glad we engaged.  I’m looking forward to the next encounter that the Law of Attraction throws at me.

 

A Story of Sevens

When it comes to time cycles, the Torah had some unnervingly accurate things to say. Just in Genesis, we find the seven days of creation, the seven years that Jacob worked for Rachel (getting Leah, and then working again for Rachel), the seven cows and the seven ears of corn in the dreams that Joseph interpreted. The stories take a personal meaning because they helped me view my own life over the last 35 years as a series of seven-year cycles. Or, more accurately, I’ve lived through major life changes come around every seven years. I’m sure deeper thinkers have more to say on the Judaic significance of these cycles, like this guy.

The seven-year cycles began in 1980. In the most fateful decision of my life, I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton University. I was starting a job at Forbes magazine as a reporter-researcher and needed a place to live. A Forbes editor had just left a share situation in a brownstone on State Street so I moved in. My hometown of Mission, Texas receded into my personal history as Brooklyn and a high-pressure job in publishing set my future. As soon as I moved, I began a quest for a Jewish experience that I had lacked in my life. My quest took me through every mainstream branch of Judaism, with stops at the Village Temple, the Flatbush minyan, Lincoln Square Synagogue and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, before I finally settled on the Kane Street Synagogue.

1987: After three fun but poorly paid years as a freelance writer, I join Video Store Magazine. As the same time, the glorious summer of 1987, I start dating my own Rachel, whom I would marry two years later in the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. After months of diligently studying Russian at the American-Soviet Friendship Society I embark on an epic tour of the USSR with two college friends, with stops in Moscow, Tblisi, Sochi (yes, the Olympic Sochi, which I’ll always think of as a seaside resort) and Leningrad. Life is extraordinarily good.

1994: I’m still at Video Store, and that summer my wife and I become the parents of Samuel, with the Hebrew name of Reuven Yisroel. A bris on the eighth day welcomes him into the covenant. I’m a work-at-home dad — not so easy to do as I imagined. What did I expect? A year later, Video Store lays me off from what became my last job in journalism. Good-bye reporting, hello (eventually) corporate communications!

2001: Seven years later and everything falls apart rapidly. I’m laid off a writer/editor job by a consulting firm as the economy tanks, then 9/11 happens six weeks later and 45 miles away from my home in Connecticut. Sam is at a Jewish day school iwhen I learn of the attacks, and I recoil with fear at the thought at his school could be an unprotected target. Then my marriage finally reaches its end. Life reaches a nadir of personal and professional bleakness.By early 2002 I have a job as a proposal writer for an accounting firm, and by October I move out of the house as the divorce process picks up speed.

2008: By the time the next cycle turns, the wreckage of 2001 had been gradually repaired. In 2008,after five years of thrashing around in the online dating world, I meet Naomi, a graphic designer, and we start building a relationship that looks very promising, built on a sturdy foundation of indie music and film and ice cream. I weather the financial crisis that hits in September in my new job doing proposals at another accounting firm.

2015: A new cycle, a new place. After seven years as a couple, I moved in with Naomi. I’m in a new town in a new state — or rather, I returned to New York after 24 years in Connecticut. In a nifty bit of cyclical magic, I celebrated my 35th Princeton reunion in May, gong back to the launching pad from which I started my adult life in 1980. Sam is doing a senior college project in Kyoto, Japan and will return in early October. I’m now visiting shuls in my new area to find one that works for my partner and me. I’m at a Modern Orthodox shul for the High Holidays, a place with services remarkably similar to Beit Chaverim, the Modern Orthodox shul I attended in Westport. We’re checking out a range of places, with no denominational restrictions. Indeed,  The year 2015 will no doubt find me settled into a new shul with a liturgy that now sounds very familiar to me.

2022: To be continued.

Next on the Discard Pile: The Rolodex of Memories

First I replaced the LG dumbphone with the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, then I stopped renewing my annual purchase of monthly Day-Timer inserts and now . . . I’m ditching the Rolodex.

Unlike the other techno tools, I haven’t used my Rolodex in years. I had a circular one once, but the current one is flat. After a recent move, I’m trying to simplify my life and a Rolodex brimming with cards for people from decades past at companies that no longer exist looks like a prime candidate for Goodwill. Jotted in my jiggly handwriting and free from any email addresses, URLs and Twitter handles, the cards record a pre-digital life that must be impossible for young people to imagine. Those were the days you memorized phone numbers and carried them in your head, not your pocket.

Still, I linger before sending it off, mostly because the names evoke times and places, both personal and professional.

Most of the cards date from 1987 to 1995, when I was the east coast editor of Video Store Magazine. The cards give contacts at movie studios, retailers and trade associations involved with entertainment and consumer electronics. Some cards of note:

  • CompUSA
  • Bizarre Video Productions
  • Mark Harrad, the very savvy PR manager for the anti-piracy program of the Motion Picture Association of America. He would arrange for members of the press to attend FBI raids on places making or selling illegal videos; I was an observer at a Brooklyn raid, an edge experience.
  • Sega
  • Kay Bee Toys
  • Montgomery Ward
  • New York Public Library telephone reference
  • Artist Mark Kostabi, who did a book of his paintings called “Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed;” I did a story about the book and he gave me a copy, which I still have
  • Tandy Corp.
  • Atari Computer Corp.(written on the back of a Rolodex card that bore the name and phone number of a fellow Princetonian I dated once, more details to come)

Video Store laid me off 20 years ago this month, ending my career in business journalism, so those cards lost any value, but I hung on to them anyway.

Rolodex

Other cards stir memories of personal connections:

  • The phone number for the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; I fantasized about studying Russian there and becoming a kremlinologist or East Bloc-hopping journalist in the twilight of the USSR. But I stayed in journalism and fate took me in a very different suburban direction.
  • Project Dorot, a group matching volunteers with the Jewish elderly, where I was a friendly visitor from 1980 to 1994, teamed with a German immigrant named Rena Frank.
  • A woman named Shira, who I had one date with and then we both moved on to other things and she made a very good life for herself.
  • A woman named Shula (a/k/a Sheila when I met her at a singles event in 1981). We had a date on my 25th birthday and a photo shows us both looking spiffy. She’s wearing a beret like Faye Dunaway wore in “Bonnie and Clyde.” She urged me to eat organic foods and was into algae products.
  • That fellow Princetonian who I dated once or twice, who has the same 212 phone number, over 30 years later. Good for you!
  • Women with the confusingly universal Jewish name combination of Laura/Laurie/Lori/Lauri/Lauren Friedman/Freeman/Friedman/Friedmann/Freidman. I could never remember which was which, although one walked out on a first date we had to see Shakespeare in Central Park. She had to get ready to go to the Hamptons the next day and she saw I was “really enjoying the play,” so she up and left during the intermission. I scratched her off my dating list, but I kept the phone number, or was that the number for Lori/Lorie/Laurie/Laura/Lauren in Brooklyn who liked to get stoned? I’ll never know. Trying to find one Laurie Friedman in New York is like trying to find one Maria Garcia in Texas — the proverbial needle in the haystack of similar names.
  • Texas Monthly, when I dreamed of relocating to Austin in 1990 for a completely different career in journalism.

Two or three decades separate me from these people and memories. Technology moved on. The discardable contact entries in cellphones and computers store the intricate contact details for hundreds of contacts, across multiple phones and emails. I make no more scribbled updates on Rolodex cards or address books. I type updates in bloodless Arial fonts, or just hit “delete and they’re gone.

The Rolodex kept the old paper life around long after the Rolodex lost its use. I’ll save some of the cards just for old time’s sake (a sentimental weakness of mine). But something’s got to give in my endless efforts to declutter and this small tool, a rope tying me to the past that will never be relevant again, has got to go.

Still, for all I know, Shira/Shula/Laurie/Lauren still has a forgotten address book that includes some guy (wasn’t he a writer? Whatever happened to him?) who lived at 131 Amity Street in Brooklyn.

 

The Alt-Alt-History: Nelson Mandela and Lavrenti Beria

In retrospect, history is a series of what-ifs, branching out from key points from what did happen to the unknown possibilities of what never happened. Alternative history explores that. One of the great questions of recent decades—simple because it involves one man and his fate—was, “what would have happened if Nelson Mandela had survived his captivity?” His death in the early 1960s, during his confinement at the Robben Island prison, has intrigued historians. Had he survived, the consensus view is that he would have been released in the early 1970s as a goodwill gesture, after renouncing violence. Most likely, he would have survived after his release as a minor figure, respected but mostly forgotten, visited primarily by foreign college students and displaced by a new generation of activists.

Other more radical views assign a greater role to Mandela in freedom. Students of missed opportunities wonder that the easing of the Cold War through the 1950s and early 1960s might have led the South African government to release Mandela or not even imprison him, once the country was not seen as a pawn caught between the USSR and the United States. In this highly speculative scenario, productive negotiations between Soviet premier and former secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria and U.S. President Richard Nixon de-escalated tensions at flash points worldwide, especially South Africa, Viet Nam and Cuba. Nixon, known as a hardline Cold Warrior while Vice President, nevertheless saw potential in a working relationship with Beria, the sinister NKVD chief who nonetheless embraced policies of economic and (within limits) political reform immediately after Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. As President, Nixon engaged Beria in negotiations following their famous “rumpus-room debate” in Moscow in 1959, where they spent hours playing billiards in a mock-up of a typical U.S. basement-level entertainment center.

Showing realpolitik at its highest global level, Nixon and Beria worked out understandings that supported a withdrawal of Soviet forces from much of Eastern Europe (East Germany a notable exception) and economic reforms and legalization of opposition parties, coupled with U.S. agreement to not reflexively oppose national liberation movements as harbingers of communist rule. The tectonic shifts in global politics simultaneously removed Soviet financing of South African communist movements and U.S. support for apartheid policies as a bulwark against communism. Suddenly without support on both sides due to Nixon and Beria (who wanted to put finances into rebuilding the USSR), the South African government and the African National Congress would have found a rapprochement mirroring U.S.-Soviet relations. In the turn of phrase popularized by The New Yorker’s diplomatic correspondent, John F. Kennedy, “Trust but verify.”

In this line of reasoning, Mandela would have been released from prison to assume a place as an influential statesman, perhaps even president, of a post-apartheid South Africa. Would Mandela have been able to dampen the potential for violence and take the first steps toward building a multiracial society? Would the country have stood as a role model for other African nations emerging from colonial rule? Mandela might have joined Richard Nixon and Lavrenti Beria among the leaders who reshaped the 1960s following the decisive end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, we will never know what history had in store for Nelson Mandela.

The analyses of the passing of Nelson Mandela reflected on his life’s accomplishments refracted through views of his politics, economics, militancy, place in the great game of the Cold War, whether he was an anti-semite or a philo-semite, and role in moving South Africa beyond apartheid. I don’t have anything original to say about any of this. What does strike me about Mandela is the sheer improbability that lived long enough to leave prison after 27 years AND immediately resumed political life. Twenty-seven years; In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Alexandre Manette spent a mere 18 years as a prisoner in the Bastille. Mandela entered prison in his early 40s and left in his early 70s. For a U.S. frame of reference, imagine Richard Nixon retiring after his loss in the election of 1960, then returning to win the presidency against Bill Clinton in 1992; that’s a long time.

The path of one man over a great stretch of time reminds me of alt-history, a form of fiction I like that takes a change in history, often a minor event, and traces the impact of it. Prison, release and a return to life, in Dickens’ phrase, sounds far more unlikely than the alternative I sketched above. But that’s how Mandela bent history to his purposes, refusing to submit, remaining alive and leaving his own mark on the world.

Mandela’s alt-alt-history, as I think of it, leads me to think about other crinkles in time. I’ve read big ideas of alt-history, typically wars going in new directions: the South winning the Civil War, the Germans winning World War II (as in Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland) and the three volume series starting with Without Warning by John Birmingham, after a mysterious energy wave wipes out most of North America just before the 2003 Iraq War started).

One great what-if involved the change of leadership in the USSR following the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Long ailing, Stalin was preparing a pogrom against Russian Jews when he had a stroke that went untreated, with the doctors supposedly held off by his secret police chief and vice premier, Lavrenti Beria. As Stalin lay dying in his country hours, Beria was alternately obsequious and jubilant, and historians have speculated that he might have given Stalin more than a gentle shove into the next world. In any case, Beria immediately grabbed the spotlight among surviving leaders and positioned himself to become the premier. The plans for the pogrom immediately ended, as did Stalin’s plans to execute his remaining inner circle. According to Wikipedia, Beria had big ambitions:

Based on Beria’s own statements, other leaders suspected that in the wake of the uprising, he might be willing to trade the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War for massive aid from the United States, as had been received in World War II. The cost of the war still weighed heavily on the Soviet economy. Beria craved the vast financial resources that another (more sustained) relationship with the United States could provide. He had already argued for “de-Bolshevization” of Soviet foreign policy (though he still favored traditional terror methods as necessary to control domestic power). For example, Beria gave Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania serious prospects of national autonomy, possibly similarly to other Soviet satellite states in Europe.

Those plans never reached fruition. The worst among  Soviet leaders all drowning in blood, the rapist and torturer Beria and his security forces were rightly feared by Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov and others.

On 26 June 1953, Beria was arrested and held in an undisclosed location near Moscow. Accounts of Beria’s fall vary considerably. By the most likely account, Khrushchev prepared an elaborate ambush, convening a meeting of the Presidium on 26 June, where he suddenly launched a scathing attack on Beria, accusing him of being a traitor and spy in the pay of British intelligence. Beria was taken completely by surprise. He asked, “What’s going on, Nikita Sergeyevich? Why are you picking fleas in my trousers?” Molotov and others quickly spoke against Beria one after the other, followed by a motion by Khrushchev for his instant dismissal. When Beria finally realized what was happening and plaintively appealed to Malenkov to speak for him, his old friend and crony silently hung his head and refused to meet his gaze. Malenkov pressed a button on his desk as the pre-arranged signal to Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a group of armed officers in a nearby room. They burst in and arrested Beria.

Beria had plenty of time to reflect on the fruits of his past deeds and onrushing fate before his December 1953 trial. He was tried and convicted with other leaders of what was then called the MVD (previously the NKVD, later the KGB, now the FSB). He enjoyed the same degree of consideration and mercy he showed others:

Beria and all the other defendants were sentenced to death. When the death sentence was passed, Beria pleaded on his knees for mercy before collapsing to the floor and wailing and crying energetically, but to no avail: the other six defendants were executed by firing squad on 23 December 1953, the same day as the trial, while Beria was fatally shot through the forehead by General Batitsky after the latter stuffed a rag into Beria’s mouth to silence his bawling. The body of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was subsequently cremated and buried around Moscow’s forest.

If the alt-alt-history had played out, would Beria have been a sort of proto-Mikhail Gorbachev, or more so, ditching the rigidity and suspicions of Stalinism for some more tolerant approach? Would he have worked through and eased the pent-up anger that, in the late 1980s, unleashed revolutions that swept Eastern Europe? Would he have used the Red Army to suppress rebellions, as happened in 1953 in East Germany, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia? Or would the internal contradictions of communism have led to the same dead end other Soviet leaders failed to fix, because they were unfixable? Would he have been more coolly rational and informed than Khrushchev and focused on the USSR’s post-war rebuilding rather than endless global intrigues in support of communism? Nobody knows what the alt-history had in store for Lavrenti Beria.

Fortunately, we do know that the alt-alt history did indeed come true for Nelson Mandela, who emerged to life and left a world made better for his improbable survival and leadership.

The Jong Show, Lust Made Flesh

Author Erica Jong is now marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear of Flying. She has sold 27 million copies of it. She can probably be published anywhere she wants, on any topic. She’s been a media celebrity since the Nixon era and she’s working on a new book called, daringly enough, Fear of Dying (it’s not a sequel). She’s written 22 books, is 71 years old and looks and sounds great and she likes to write and talk about sex.

When I learned she would be speaking at the Westport Public Library last week, I knew I had to drop everything to get there to hear her. After all these decades of quietly, politely lusting after her, our moment of spiritual communion had arrived.

Erica Jong 111-edit

Actually, I didn’t pine for her so much as for the concept of her. Erica the lusty (those early pictures of her!), Erica the educated, Erica the Jewish — she fit into the image of women that fascinate me. I wasn’t a groupie, wasn’t a big reader of her non-Fear of Flying works, she just hovered in my imagination more so than, say, Mary Higgins Clark. And the fact that Jong and I live in adjoining towns means that we share even the same physical space–if she likes to go to the Stop & Shop in Westport, CT, that is.

After a slowww commute home from Manhattan, I raced to the library and found the meeting room jammed. I squeezed in and leaned against the back wall, camera and notebook in hand.

“It’s an amazing event that Fear of Flying is 40,” she said in a wry tone. “I wish I was 40.” The sales went far beyond any possible expectation. She aimed for sales of 3,500 given the literary nature of the book. Instead, it found an audience and now three new editions are in the works, along with the digitization of her back list and decades-long discussions about a movie version (big-name actresses like Goldie Hawn and Barbra Streisand have aged into their golden years waiting for the role to materialize).

She gave the audience, mostly middle-aged and above suburban women, a shiver of naughty delight by reading passage of Fear of Flying about the world-historical concept of the zipless fuck. She read,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

“Nowadays they call these things ‘hookups.’ Are they better for today’s girls? I don’t think so,” she mused.

Whatever Fear of Flying accomplished, it did not herald an ongoing surge of sexual delight. Forty years on, she says with dismay, she’s hearing from young women that “the sex out there is not that great,” what with men so exhausted and disoriented by computer sex that, come the opportunity to engage with a real-life woman, they just can’t perform. Yes, impotence casts its fierce and flaccid shadow across the land.

I was surprised by the amount of time Jong and the audience spent slagging 50 Shades of Grey (soon to be a major motion picture, which Fear of Flying has yet to achieve). She called it “unreadable” and repetitious, badly in need of a copy editor. Not only the writing but the characters came under her harsh commentary. The main character, the young and sullied innocent Anastasia, disappointed Jong with her eager acquisition of stuff, a long, long slide from the enlightened women of the early 1970s, when Fear of Flying raised hopes that “we were new kinds of women” and nobody would have sex for money.

(Jong’s comments echo a past theme of hers. In 2011, she edited the anthology Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, which in one online ad compared itself favorably to 50 Shades, as if the two were in some kind of psychic, feminine competition.)

Time flies, and flying (a reference in part to Jong’s literal fear of flying) will soon share space with dying in Fear of Dying. The book, 10 years in the works, is about a 60ish actress, Vanessa Wunderman, who can’t get good parts and has to deal with the ageing process, made more painful because of her beauty. Death surrounds her, even her dog, a “Jewdle,” or Jewish poodle. Still, “sex and death dance well together.”

Asked by an elderly wag who yelled from the back of the room, “Is there sex after death?”, Jong quipped, “I hope so. It’s supposed to be the ultimate sex.”

At 71, Jong knows about mortality, involving lives lived long and deeply. Her mother lived to be 101, and her father into his 90s — she noted that the day after the Westport presentation was the yahrtzeit, or Jewish anniversary, of her father’s passing.

Jong made her politics very clear through the evening. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party, even the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg — all the personifications of pure evil. Scandinavian democracies and progressive politics — all good! I wanted to ask her if she had any political views that deviated even one iota from the standard progressive thinking, but I kept quiet. I didn’t want to wreck our special time together with a dumb statement (I’m a master of that, you know) and, anyway, I didn’t want to be mauled by the suburban matrons who clearly agreed with everything Jong said. She delivered her message and answered questions with grace and energy and the polish you’d expect from a veteran of decades of readings, interviews and appearances.

I’ll check out some of her other books and see how they sound now that I’ve seen the author in the flesh. Maybe I’ll pick up some good writerly ideas.

I should be so blessed at 71 as Jong is.

The Jewish Name Game

Ace feature writer Lenore Skenazy kindly quoted me in an article in the new issue of the Forward titled, “When a Name Screams ‘I’m Jewish!‘” I finally made it into the fabled Forward, which has printed my acerbic letters on stories before, but this is the first time I cracked its editorial pages. Skenazy writes,

But then there are those who wouldn’t give up the identifying moniker for anything. “I enjoy having a Jewish last name because it much better identifies me as a Jew than does my first name,” said Van Wallach, a proposal writer at an accounting firm. His dad was crazy about racecars, so he was named for a British car from the 1950s, the Vanwall. (His brother Cooper was also named for a car.) “If I was a girl,” Wallach added, “I would have been Jaguar.”

The part of the article that amused me the most were the quotes from one woman (I won’t say which) whom I had met on Jdate in the mid-80s. We haven’t had any contact in years, but if I can dig up her email address I’ll drop her a line and say, “Hey, we’ll always be connected through Lenore’s Jewish-names article in the Forward. Small world, isn’t it?”

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/181152/when-a-name-screams-im-jewish/?p=all#ixzz2aOclvETC

The Bobby Pickles Podcast

Podcaster extraordinaire and t-shirt design maven Robert Piccirillo, a/k/a Bobby Pickles, interviewed me on the steps of the New York Public Library recently for his podcast program. This marked the first interview I’ve done in a public setting and it went well. Bobby had the questions, the technology and the knack for connecting that makes for a fun give-and-take.  Give it a listen — it’s one of the best (and unlike my last interviewers, some radio shock jocks, no Holocaust jokes!).

Who the heck is Bobby Pickles? I’ll let him explain:

Robert Piccirillo, better known by his nom de plum, Bobby Pickles, is a professional podcaster/tee shirt peddler. Pickles began his rise to prominence in 2013 when he appeared on the TLC reality series “America’s Worst Tattoos”. Bobby is Co-Founder and CEO of FAT ENZO, a brand of satirical graphic tee shirts depicting people of history, literature and pop culture, which he peddles at Union Square in New York City. He is the host of The Bobby Pickles Podcast, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes. And he has a BA in English from the University of Florida.

So give my interview a listen, check out his other programs, and if you want to be really fashion forward, buy some of his t-shirts. Support Staten Island entrepreneurship.

Tales of the Book Collector: Judaica

Here’s a recent post from the Times of Israel. As it starts:

My enthusiasm for collecting books on Jewish themes soared on a recent vacation that included a stop in downtown Kerrville, Texas. Dropping by a used bookstore, I found a volume I’d never seen before in decades of visits to stores and tag sales. This encounter with the printed word supported my long-time belief: you never know when an appealing tome might pop up, like a doggie in the window, just begging to go home with you.

The very name of the store, Wolfmueller’s Books, sounded promising, fragrant with an antique Teutonic bookiness. Old Mr. Wolfmueller probably shared the Texas Hill Country’s deep German roots. I strolled in and first perused the highlighted section of books by local favorite son, Jewish musician, author and feisty gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman—another excellent signal that something Judaic lurked therein.

The Forbidden Passages: Tales from the Editorial Spike

Journalists call it the “spike” – the decision to not publish a story for reasons of its truthfulness, incompleteness or other political sensitivity. I used the spike on thousands of words I could have included in my dating book. Even after years of polishing and considering materials, I had to decide what to include and what to delete up until the end. The book could have topped 250 pages had I opted to throw in every pearl of wisdom I’ve ever scribbled on dating topics, or topics completely unrelated to dating.

In some cases, I spiked episodes that I ultimately did not feel comfortable seeing the light of day (at least under my own name). They were just too personal, revealing more than necessary about the inner workings of intense relationships. I decided to leave in related but shorter or milder material that made a point without drawing blood. And in some cases, I think I’ll save the material for either a novel or another try at the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column. Something may be too personal for a book, but just right for Modern Love (as I’ve said at times in my life, I’m corruptible).

Still, no harm will come from a peek at what’s not there. So, here, free of most context, are snippets of what I call the Forbidden Passages — Tales from the Spike. Feel free to create your own imagined stories about them.

———————–

She had said I was a pain in the ass for never calling, just doing IM. “That’s not true!” I protested. “As soon as Helga gave me her phone number I called her.” Ingrid was stunned by this—she never knew I had actually talked to Helga. I had behaved the same with Ingrid—when a woman gives me her phone number, I call.

———————–

A 37 year-old Catholic lawyer of Lebanese background in Latin America, Judy immediately attracted passionate attention from men who loved her glamorous profile and pouting, voluptuous photograph, remarkably similar to Latin TV star Ninel Conde.

In fact, the woman in the picture was Ninel Conde. The profile was a fake, a lark invented by a friend to assemble all the stereotypical themes of a glamour-girl profile. Then the lie became a kind of truth. My friend turned to me, as co-writer, to help figure out what to do with the emotional mess that her sexy monster created.

———————–

For months I chased Sandi even as her yes/no/maybe-so ambivalence made the pursuit as futile and maddening as Captain Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick. I knew this opportunity would end badly, but my back muscles strained and my hands and heart bled as I plunged my emotional oars into the churning, blood-chilling waters of romance with Sandi. . . . Then, Sandi flipped her cruel, mighty tail one final time and smashed my pathetic little whaleboat of love, ending contact between us.

———————–

Vera says: Come to see me

Van says: That’s a long haul, a big step. Will you be in the US at any time?

Vera says: No, I prefer you come  ladies first choice

Van says: I see. Too bad about all that water in the middle.

Vera says: Bye

———————–

My favorite venues have been the Essensuality “erotic expression” salons and the monthly Wide Open Wednesday at the Museum of Sex, where performers gather in the Oral Fix Café for a rollicking, unpredictable time. I’ve had to go deep within to find my own performing style and material. From the start, I knew I had to connect to audiences with my words, not my looks; unlike some performers, I’ll never wow anybody by stripping down to my skivvies. What, I thought, could I possibly say compared to talented performers like Bikini Bondage Babe, Little Miss Orgy Organizer, Gay Phone Sex Dude and Brooklyn Transgender Birthday Gang Bang Guy?

———————–

We were in our 40s and used my classic Corvette Stingray to get away from our kids. Better late than never!

Did I say “Corvette Stingray”? I meant my “Hyundai Elantra.” But it thinks it’s a Stingray.