Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I used to argue with my mother when she tried to shove my Jewish heritage down my throat. She said "You're Jewish and there's nothing you can do to change that."

I said "I can be whatever I want to be. I don't believe in the Jewish religion. I don't want to live in Israel. I don't do any Jewish stuff. You can't tell me who I am. I'm whoever I want to be."

She said "That's not what the Nazis would think. They'd shove you in the oven with the rest of us."

I said "So you want to give the Nazis the power to define who I am? You think I should agree with them?" Truly, she needed to work on her sales pitch for the advantages of being a Jew.

I understand my Jewish identity a lot better now that I have a Christian identity to compare it to. For example, I only realized once I was well into attending church that my style of group worship was distinctly Jewish. Judaism is sort of about what you believe, but the group aspects of it are more about what you do. Dietary restrictions, lighting candles every Friday, and an endless number of other physical rituals. Last night I got together with my family for a Passover ceder. We don't always get along, but every year we sit around a table, read the Passover story aloud, eat matzah and other symbolic foods, and sing traditional songs in Hebrew. That's how we bond.

I wasn't prepared for the Christian focus on having correct beliefs. There are probably Jewish groups out there that care more than my family about believing certain things, but in my experience what you believe personally is not anyone's business and is a separate matter from one's Jewish identity. For example, I'm pretty sure that my father's mother is an atheist, and she doesn't keep kosher, but she's made it clear that she can never forgive me for being baptized. She doesn't care what I believe. I talk to her about how it's all about the primacy of love, and she waves me off with a flick of her hand. That's not important. I participated in a symbolic ritual with the other team, thereby aligning myself with the enemy, in her eyes.

You have to understand that for many Jews who lived through the time of the Holocaust, whether or not they were in Europe, the lines are very blurry between non-Jews, Christians, and Nazis. All goyim are equally suspected of anti-semitism. She hasn't said it in so many words, but it's almost like getting baptized was the equivalent of getting a swastika tattooed on my arm, from her point of view. I didn't anticipate that she would interpret it that way, and I'm sorry now that she feels so betrayed. I'm not sure what I would have done if I knew that she would be so traumatized.

Then there's Jewish Guilt. I grew up with so much of it that I didn't even notice it was there. It was like taking air for granted. I thought that because my family wasn't constantly laying clear, explicit guilt trips on each other, that we were exempt from the Jewish Guilt stereotype.

But now I see that my mother's side of my family lives and breathes guilt. It's the fabric of our relationships. Guilt is the currency of what my mother's family calls love. Which isn't really love, or at least is a very tainted version of it. A toxic, crazy-making, strangulating attachment. Which does contain affection, maybe 50% of the time. It works like this:

Relative A is feeling insecure about her place in the family. She wants to prove that she's important and cared for. How does she get attention and prove her worth? By generating guilt in the other family members. The more guilt she can elicit, the more status she feels that she has obtained. Although she'll never be satisfied, and she is never truly convinced of the "love", because she knows she's just manipulating people to obtain a desired outcome. There's no room for sincere, heartfelt, spontaneous love in that equation.

(I say "she" because that side of my family consists mainly of women.)

How does Relative A try to stir up guilt? There are various accepted strategies. 1) She can point to the various obligations that the family has jointly determined are the standard for proper behaviour, such as hosting family gatherings, spending time talking on the phone with one another, and gift-giving. If another family member has not fulfilled their obligations, or needs to be reminded of their obligations before fulfilling them grudgingly, this is prime guilt-generating fuel.

2) Pity, sympathy, and guilt are merged concepts in my mother's family. The female members compete to be the most miserable in order to win attention and make the others feel guilty for not supporting them enough. However, because it is a competition, the players all try to downplay each others' problems so that they can come out on top. And because it's a passive-aggressive playing field, no one can openly come out and say "that's nothing - you should hear what problems I have!" They have to be sneaky about it. It gets very complicated.

I'm realizing now that I've lived and breathed guilt like fish breathe water for most of my life. Which is kind of horrifying, but at least I've figured it out so that I can start to make some different choices.

How it was: I felt guilty for existing when I was a kid, because my mom made it clear that I was a burden to her. I felt guilty when I couldn't make my parents happy, because in my family it's not each person's responsibility to create their own happiness. We're all responsible for each other so that we can all blame each other for being miserable and feed the guilt cycle. I felt guilty when I was happy, because how could I be happy when other people who I was responsible for weren't happy?

In other words, I felt guilty all the time. If there was nothing immediate to feel guilty about, I'd feel guilty for not feeling guilty, because how irresponsible is that?

I'm not sure exactly what the alchemy was that allowed me to finally snap out of it, but it's pretty awesome to be able to just take one step back from all the madness and see my whole world change.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Breakup Blues

I've been thinking about it on and off for months. But it's finally time to do the deed. I'm breaking up with my church.

It's a huge weight off my shoulders, now that I've made the decision. But it's also tough to let go. The church was a safe place that became a dead end. I won't miss the majority of the people there, but there were a few that were really special to me. Yes it's possible that we could stay in touch, but I kind of doubt that's going to happen. We were all so busy that even after being friends for two years we only found time to see each other at church events. You know how it is. People always say that they'll stay in touch, but it rarely happens.

It took me close to two years to get up the nerve to walk into a church in the first place. I had all sorts of baggage holding me back. I had always identified as a Jewish agnostic. Finding Christian faith due to a miraculously answered prayer unexpectedly plunged me into an identity crisis. I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of what people would think of me. I walked into that church, and when the pastor's wife kindly welcomed me, I burst into tears.

The first year was like being in religious kindergarten. Everything was new and fascinating. I studied the Bible, which was not at all what I expected it to be. I attended services. I got to know the congregation and made friends. Ken and I were baptized.

During the second year, I started to feel more at home at the church. I started volunteering in the nursery, and sang with my friends' musical group. I knew lots of peoples' names by then. Ken and I got married at that church, and our "church family" came to witness our vows. Good times, all.

I had some niggling concerns, which I wrote about on this blog. I'm too lazy to go look up all the posts and link to them, but if you want to see them just look up anything labelled "church" and "spirituality". Anyway, these little things started to add up.

I could not take the Bible as literally as the church as a whole did. I couldn't accept certain things without asking questions. One time I attended a Bible study, and was seriously scolded for criticizing the teaching. I never went back again. There was also the matter of homosexuality. I will never be convinced that loving, committed relationships are wrong, regardless of the gender identities of the people involved.

There were also style differences. You might remember the time that my music group got in trouble after leading a service because we were "almost dancing!" Exuberance was frowned upon by the majority of the congregation. I don't get that at all. How can true worship be anything but unrestrained?

And finally there was just a sense I had of being judged all the time. The people at church were well-intentioned, but everyone was always checking themselves and others against a strict yardstick for attendance, behaviour, dress, choice of words, choice of music, etc. I was always worried about what to wear to church. I didn't make the jokes that popped into my head. I realized at a certain point that things were never going to get any more comfortable.

It's like a relationship. When you make a new friend, for a while you're on your best behaviour. Then you start to relax a little, but you're still on your guard. Eventually, you get to the point when both of you just relax and you realize you don't have to try anymore. You can just be. You can hang out sometimes and not talk, because there's nothing to prove. You can rest and recharge from the friendship.

This church is never going to be relaxing. There's always an undercurrent of fear and reservation running underneath all the good intentions. It's draining to have to try so hard there. I try hard at work all week. Sometimes I have to try hard, really hard, with my family. If I'm taking time for my spiritual nourishment, it has to be able to support me when I need it.

I realized that I would never be able to just be myself at church. I'd always have to try. And on top of everything else in my life, it's just too much. So I'm letting it go.

There may be some other church out there, in this big city, where I might fit in. Someplace liberal and honest, where it's OK to think critically.

But for right now, I'm enjoying taking some Sundays for myself. I started reading spiritual books again, and I find I'm getting a lot more out of private contemplation and prayer than I was by trying to stay awake through the boring, repetitive sermons at church.

I am grateful to my church and the people in it for all that they offered to me: a warm welcome, learning, and a unique experience of community. I will never forget my church. Partly because I got married there. Partly because I still have to walk past it on my way to work every morning! But it's time to move on to my next phase. I'm pretty sure that's what God wants for me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Turkey calls and fabric swatches

I haven't been around much lately. I know that you guys will understand, because you're good friends like that. It's not that I've been too busy to blog, in terms of minutes of available free time per day. It's just that my brain is so maxed out by all my work projects that I don't have any think-juice left by the end of the day. All I want to do is passively absorb a couple of hours' worth of entertainment, and then pass out.

I am making an effort to maintain some balance in my life. Last weekend Ken and I went to the Sportsman's Show at the Toronto Convention Centre. Two huge buildings were both filled with outdoor enthusiasts. One was all about hunting, and the other was for fishing. Ken is into target sports, both shooting and archery, so we spent most of our time in the hunting hall. He check out all the new rifles and cross-bows. I perused the bumper-sticker booth. Some of my favourites: "Keep honking. I'm reloading." And: "My other ride is your wife." Classy!

We both enjoyed the many booths demonstrating various types of calls. Turkey calls were the most popular. They were pretty low-tech, such as a 3"-diameter slate circle with a wooden stick to rub across it. But they all had really macho, flex-your-abs names like "THE ERADICATOR: A KILLING MACHINE!" and "THE TRIFECTA".

I was tempted to buy a squirrel barker, in order to summon an army of squirrels to me at will, but then I wondered of what use an army of squirrels would be, and abandonned the idea.

As for the work stuff, it's coming along. As we approach our move date, we have no choice but to make progress. It's Move Or Die.

Yesterday I went for my first walk-through of our new space. Most of the walls are up. It's very odd walking through a real, 3-D space that exists in my head only as a floor plan printed on 8.5" x 11" paper. I stepped inside the walls of my new office for the first time. It's only a drywall cube right now, but I greeted it and promised it that we'd have lots of good times together.

Yesterday I also took part in a 3 hour meeting to pick fabrics and finishes for our furniture order. Our colours have names like Portobello, Sandalwood, Bark, Cork, and Camel. It should all be very neutral and soothing to the eye. Then I went home and dreamed about furniture and fabric samples all night.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I'm reading a novel about a 12-year-old girl. (Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill. It's one of the best books I've ever read.)

This book is reminding me of what it was like to be 12: young enough to play with toys, but old enough to want a boyfriend. Not that I had the slightest hope of having a boyfriend at that age.

When I was 12, I was a scrawny, shy, stringy-haired, four-eyed nerd. I attended a junior high school in an affluent neighbourhood. Most of the kids lived in mansions and wore only designer clothes. My step-dad had just been fleeced by a con artist, so my mother bought my clothes at Honest Ed's, which is basically a giant dollar store. There was no way that I could fit in.

I got teased every single day. The other kids hated me for being awkward and vulnerable. I represented everything they were most afraid of in themselves. I got straight A+ grades in everything except gym class. They called me "brown-noser" and sneered contemptuously.

It was the 1984-85 school year. I wanted to wear better clothes, so that the other kids would like me. I got my hands on a neon pink, bat-wing-sleeved, oversize sweatshirt. If anyone else had worn it, it would have been totally cool. When I wore it to school, the kids shielded their eyes, pretending to be blinded by the bright colour. I was so uncool that I destroyed everything good about that shirt just by wearing it.

My best friend was another scrawny nerd. They called her "bone-rack" and stole her glasses.

I had been bullied in my grade school, by a few kids, but things got ten times worse in junior high. Almost everyone hated me at my new school. Kids would laugh at me or yell at me in front of the teachers, but the teachers never even seemed to notice.

I missed a lot of school because I started getting terrible stomach aches every weekday morning.

I don't miss being 12.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pants on the Ground

I work for a family business. Sometimes that's a fantastic bonus, and sometimes it's just too much. Ken works for the same business, in a freelance capacity, from a home office. So when things are crazy at work it means:

I work all day. Then I go home, and talk about work with Ken. Then I walk around my home, and there are constant visual reminders of work from Ken's files and equipment lying around. The phone rings. It's my step-dad. First he talks to me about work. Then he talks to Ken about work. Our home is small enough that even though Ken takes the call in the other room, I can still hear every word he's saying (about work) while I'm in the other room trying to watch TV or fold the laundry in peace.

On special occasions I get together with my family, and talk about work with my uncle.

Lately, things at work have been totally off the hook. I've been bellyaching here for weeks about my work stress, and this week is exactly the same. My overall state of mind can be encapsulated by one word:


I won't bore you with the details. God knows, I have certainly talked enough about work lately (see above). So I'll tell you about something else. All you regular readers know that Ken is a prince who consistently spoils me rotten. Well, I finally got a chance to do something for him.

However hard I've worked lately, he's worked harder. More hours, more responsibility, tighter deadlines. His attache case broke, his clipboard broke, and he hasn't had time to replace them. He's eating so little due to stress and lack of time that he's shed enormous amounts of weight, but he hasn't had time to buy any new clothes. Last weekend his belt was on the last notch, and he was headed directly for a Pants On the Ground situation.

He's not working seven full days per week, but when he does have downtime, he's down. The man is on the couch, in a daze, catching his breath.

I decided to go shopping, to help him out.

Replacing the attache case and clipboard was easy. Then I headed into Old Navy to purchase some pants. That was significantly more complicated. Women's clothing manufacturers generally make pants in one length, (long), and expect you to hem them yourself. Or take them to a tailor. Old Navy's mens' pants come in a variety of waist sizes and a variety of inseam lengths. This creates a whole matrix of size options on a two-dimensional grid.

Because the available sizes can't be arranged in a linear fashion, finding a size is like finding a needle in a haystack. The clerks who stock the shelves can't seem to decide whether they're piling the pants by waist size or inseam. It's kind of random. Either that or the customers have been rearranging the display all week.

I dug through stacks of pants looking for sizes until I was sweating. Then I thought I might have better luck on the lower, less frequently-accessed shelves, so I got down on my knees, with my own super-low skinny jeans threatening to give me a case of plumber's butt, and used both hands to burrow through the piles.

I finally came up for air with two pairs of pants one size smaller and two pairs two sizes smaller than Ken's too-big pants. The colours were based entirely on size availability. (Black and beige - what other men's pants colours are there anyway? I can't think of any.)

I cashed out. I was sweaty, tired, and carrying a lot of bags by then. Yes, I'm small and pathetic. Yes, four pairs of pants and an attache case plus my coat and handbag was a lot to be carrying. But I persevered. I still needed to find a belt.

The belt quest was epic. I went from store to store, checking out belts and asking for help with sizing. Either there was nothing in Ken's size, or the belts were all the end-of-winter clearance super-ugly models (for example, white snakeskin), or they had giant buckles shaped like trucks or hundred-dollar bills, or they cost $150 before tax.

I walked through the whole mall before I finally got to The Bay and located a decent belt for $25. By then I was dehydrated, cranky, and my arms were aching. I stood in line at the cash for what seemed like forever, balancing my shopping bags, while some dude fussed over a return. Then, finally, I paid for the damn belt and got out of there.

I dragged my bags all the way home: a subway ride, and then a 20-minute walk. But it was all worthwhile. It made Ken happy. It also made me happy. He's been wearing his new pants, which look much more flattering than his old ones, which were so big on him they were starting to look like clown pants. He's been using his new bag and clipboard. And it was about time I got a chance to do something for him, for a change.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sewing Skills

In the past two days I have lost two buttons, one from each of my two spring-weather coats. (These also double as fall-weather coats, incidentally. Does anyone out there actually have separate fall and spring coats? I'd like to know.)

The good news is, I found both buttons and sewed them back onto my coats.

I'm moderately good at sewing. I can repair rips, fix buttons, and do minor alterations, like hemming. I have never owned a sewing machine, so whatever I do, I do it by hand.

For complicated jobs, I go to Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Lee has a little dry cleaning business in a store that's about 3 feet wide and 20 feet deep. In the back she has a tiny dressing room and a sewing machine. Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, you'll find her busy at the sewing machine. The woman has some mad skills. I have seen her creating evening gowns and woolen winter coats from bolts of cloth and her own patterns.

Mrs. Lee always seems to be cheerful. She hums along with classical music on the radio. I have never seen her looking sick, grouchy, or tired. I have never even seen her take a break. She's always puttering away industriously, busy with pins and a measuring tape.

I've seen less of Mrs. Lee this season, all because of skinny jeans. Well, because of skinny pants in general. All the new pants I've gotten since last fall have been of the skinny variety, so there's no real need to hem them. They can easily be cuffed, or, as is fashionable, I simply allow the extra fabric to ruche around my ankles. There's no danger of tripping on long pantlegs, or treading on the hem and making it dirty.

I hope the skinny pants trend doesn't cut too much into Mrs. Lee's business.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tech Mess

On Saturday February 20th, I supervised a major computer upgrade at work. Two technicians, ten hours, many frustrations, and at the end of the day it still wasn't all done to spec. There just wasn't enough time. But it was a good try, and I was satisfied that everyone would be able to get their work done on Monday, with a few minor inconveniences.

Come Monday, as expected, there were issues. I called in to work at 6:15 am to help my early shift person get logged in, and checked in every half hour from then on, until I got there in person at 8:30. From that point, I did not sit down. It was run here, run there, what's my new password, I can't print, where's my e-mail, etc. and so forth. No problem. That's what I was expecting. Give it a couple of days; everyone gets used to the new system; and things will simmer down.

Tuesday wasn't much better than Monday. Wednesday, I thought, is the day we'll turn the corner.

Wednesday wasn't better. In fact, Wednesday was worse. The users were starting to adjust to the new way of working, but the technical problems kept stacking up. Printers that I had personally tested after the upgrades stopped working. I would spend half an hour on the phone with remote tech support getting a printer working, and the next day it would be kaputsky again.

So not cool.

We are not a paperless office. We are a paper-plus office. Almost everyone has at least one printer at their desk; two if they need a label printer. I spent all day Wednesday dealing with printer issues.

By Thursday I started giving up on the new system. I rolled a couple of users back to the old system, just so that they could print. As the day progressed, I rolled back more and more people. We paid umpteen thousands of dollars for four brand-spanking-new servers, for what? Some upgrade. More of a downgrade, methinks.

By Friday I'd pretty much thrown in the towel. I don't have the time to spend 7 hours every day playing helpdesk. Our entire workplace is relocating in approximately 8 weeks. I have to make decisions on moving quotes, telephony system quotes, office furnishings for a dozen rooms in my department, etc. Most of these require a decision with six weeks' lead time to our move date, which means I have only two weeks to have all my meetings and make all my major decisions.

I came in on Saturday to catch up on some work, including itemizing a list of a dozen technical problems that people had asked for help with on Friday that I hadn't had time to address. I forwarded this to the owner of our tech consultant company, along with a frazzled plea for help.

On Monday I was reassured that help was on the way. Oh me of little faith. I'd believe it when I see it.

On Tuesday my tech guy came on site with his boss. By then there were over 20 problems on my list. They put their heads together in the server room. Then they met with me, pen and paper in hand, and made lots of little diagrammatic notes to themselves that I didn't understand. Then we called our specialized software provider on speakerphone.

We had consulted the software provider prior to the upgrades. At that time, they said everything should be fine. But on this call, they changed their tune. Apparently their software doesn't work with our printer system. Apparently. Apparently we would need to buy multi-thousands of dollars' worth of print servers and switches and install them around the entire organization in order for our new system to work.


I swilled that idea around in my head, hating it. At least now we knew were we stood. But we did not stand in a good place. I worried about this place all afternoon.

Finally, my brilliant tech guy's brilliant boss came up with a brilliant solution. It's a little piece of software that he wrote just for us. If it works, and we're testing it now on six PC's, then we don't have to buy a ton of additional equipment just to be able to function. So far so good. Please cross your fingers that this solution goes the distance. We should be able to roll it out to everyone by the end of the week.