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Author Archive: "Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman"

Thanks a Bunch!

Contrary to an impression we may have left in our previous blogs, we DID spend a bit of Thanksgiving actually giving thanks, although to whom, or Whom, or what (or even What), is still under review. And, to our credit, even an entire day later, we're still giving thanks for the things for which we gave thanks on Thanksgiving.

Because we're Jewish, the first thing we're thankful for is our good health and our loved ones' good health. Modern health care, as everyone knows, is enough to make you sick, and we're grateful to be able to deal with it more on TV's "House" than in our own. We are mindful of the old Jewish proverb that goes, "Treasure your good health, for that is what makes you able to get out of bed in the morning and complain about everything else." Actually, it's not really Jewish, or a proverb. But it is old.

We're also thankful for our loved ones themselves, most of whom we actually love. This list includes our parents, Ellis's children, and our respective siblings. Beyond that, it includes everyone it should include. They know who they are ...

Let’s Talk Turkey Talking Points

Today is the day before we lose whatever control we have in our lives — or, rather, whatever control we've conned ourselves into thinking we have. It's Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. And, as we all know, once Thursday hits, there's no turning back until the exhaustion, depletion, and eerie calm of January 2nd. Yes, tomorrow starts "the holiday season," and from then on, we're in it up to our eyeballs.

We're looking down the business end of a full six weeks of shelling out money we don't have, eating what we shouldn't eat, traveling to see relatives we spend the year avoiding, feeling (or denying) guilt at over- or under-spending on gifts for people who don't or maybe do deserve less or more, and waiting for it all to be over — all while fending off the implicit and explicit messages of every tv commercial, storefront sign, and giant beaming billboard proclaiming this "the happiest time of the year."

Psychologists — and dogs, parrots, and anyone else with a rudimentary feel for human nature — know that in two days we shall commence our annual season of maximum depression and suicide. The pressure to be happy, under normal conditions a faint microwave background buzz in the American soul, asserts itself with particular force once we swing into December. We are now obliged to believe in everything we spend the rest of the year doubting — peace on earth; goodwill toward men who bear goodwill toward us; the hope that the tomatoes in the supermarket must (even though it's December) be good, because they really wouldn't charge this much for one that crunched like an apple and tasted like jicama. We are under siege from the Holiday Borg, and resistance is futile. As Tom Lehrer says in his Christmas song, "Christmas time is here, by golly/Disapproval would be folly."

So what should we do on this last, precious day? How do you celebrate, or at least exploit, the calm before the storm? Some of you, of course, are cooking like maniacs. Barbara admires you, particularly if you enjoy cooking, which she so doesn't. Our deal is, Ellis cooks, and Barbara cleans. Fortunately, he likes cooking and, to everyone's, or at least his, vast relief, she likes cleaning. However, the tragic fact is that, for the last two months, our dishwasher's been broken. (The reasonable person will ask, "Why don't you get it fixed?" It's a long story, and concerns the unnaturally narrow and short counters in our house. Just never mind.) What matters is, Barbara has banned any and all dinner parties with four or more people.

Luckily, we have, during this troubled time, managed to con some people into enjoying our company, so we don't spend every night eating dinner at home, alone, and watching reruns of Law and Order. And our luck has held for Thanksgiving. Someone has invited us over for dinner.

Which brings us back to the original question: what should we — the non-cookers, the invitees, the guests-to-be — do on the day before? The answer is simple: we should run our lines and prepare for our appearance.

Those of us lucky enough to be invited to Other People's Homes have a big responsibility, one which we fear some take too lightly. When invited to dinner, Thanksgiving or otherwise, and (it's almost too good to be true) handed food and drink at no charge, the least we can do is to be our best selves. We must be people whom other people look forward to seeing and spending time with. And if that means writing about these issues in such a way as to wind up ending a sentence with "with," so be it. As Miss Manners so lucidly put it (we're paraphrasing), the obligation of a guest is to make your presence preferable to your absence.

We must have amusing anecdotes with which to tickle the assembled throng; we must be up on all the latest news, but not too much so, lest we obnox the general gathering and strangle the entire conversation by being a big fat Smarty Pants. We must also be a good, if not fabulous, listener.

But there are different kinds of "good listening." For a juror in a murder trial, being a good listener means paying attention, remembering what you hear, and keeping your big, or even small, mouth shut. This will not do, however, at a dinner party. Being a "juridical" good listener at a convivial table where people are drinking and dining is the equivalent of being a passive, if well-behaved, passenger on a scull in a crewing race. In both circumstances, you have to pull your weight.

Sure, this may sound obvious, but sadly it's often ignored. People think they can show up at someone's house and "just be themselves." This is grotesque. The whole point of socializing is for everyone to help everyone else to not just be themselves, but to be part of a larger, smarter, more amusing whole. Otherwise, why bother?

Dinner-party good-listening, then, entails not only "listening," but "talking," about topics of general interest. Such as? Well, such as the following. Here's a little cheat sheet of topics, along with some general suggestions about how to approach them and what to say — when you're not, of course, listening.

On the Road Again, Already

Book writing, even when brainstormed by collaborators or dictated by a subject to his ghost, is essentially solitary. So is reading, once you're out of kindergarten — which, we may note with understandable pride, we are. You write your stuff alone, you send it out into the world, and the world consumes it alone. Everybody keeps their hands to themselves and there's no talking.

One of the principle pleasures of public readings, therefore, is getting to meet your audience — a benefit that can be all the more rewarding when, as in the case of our books Yiddish With Dick and Jane (YWDAJ) and Yiddish With George and Laura (YWGAL), the book you're reading is intended to make people laugh. Then the lucky/pathetic author(s) experience the added delight and horror of learning, in real time and via real people, which lines land with a concussive burst of ha-ha and which fizzle and lie there in dignified, poignant silence.

We had ample opportunity to engage our audience and gauge our work during our recent somewhat-gala East Coast Tour. Of course, these were hardly our first readings, and so we had some ...

Yiddish with Barbara and Ellis

Remember when air travel was glamorous? Remember when it was at least somewhat fun? Okay, but remember when it was tolerable? Remember when it wasn't a series of slaps in the face and kicks in the teeth? Remember when "traveling" meant "traveling" and not "waiting for traveling to end"?

I know: that's pre-9/11 thinking and pre-9/11 remembering. But having just returned from our hyper-swanky East Coast Book Tour '06, we feel we've learned a thing or two about transporting oneself across these Still United States that bear mentioning and that can be summed up in two simple words: Turn Back.

And don't pretend this doesn't apply to you or somehow isn't relevant to significant numbers of the population. Thanksgiving week is the Most Traveled Week of the Year; everyone, counter-intuitively, wants to travel long distances to be with his own or someone else's family in order to express thanks — presumably for the fact that we don't live with those people all the rest of the year. Families (as we explore in our best-selling Yiddish With Dick and Jane, and its newborn sibling, Yiddish With George and Laura) often resemble social experiments as scripted by Sophocles, translated by Pinter, and directed by George Romero. People measure the success of their lives by how much they don't resemble the conditions in which they grew up. Isn't that what is meant by the American Dream? And isn't it therefore worth it, to travel for hours, breathing brutalized air while strapped into the forcedly rigid posture of a scolded second-grader while watching, or pretending not to watch, some movie you have no intention of watching, in order to return to the scene of the crime to celebrate one's escape therefrom?

You bet it is. And that's why you, or at least someone, will be traveling this week just as we'll be getting back from our own soi-disant "East Coast Tour." May we share our impressions and offer some "notes"?

It came off, if not without a hitch (because there were many hitches), then without a hitch resulting in loss of life or property. The plan was simple: have various Jewish organizations fly us from L.A. to and around the east coast. Rent a series of cars in which to drive from city to city, from relative to relative, and stop off at assorted venues to give public readings of Dick and Jane or George and Laura. Dedicate and autograph copies of the books. Visit certain bookstores and sign "stock." Meet the faithful and cultivate new friends, or vice-versa.

We were upbeat and optimistic. We were flying into a region dense, not only with friends and relations, but with Jews. One scheduled reading would be at a Hadassah meeting, another at — get this — the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, yes, the D.C.J.C.C., ground zero of the political conflict that had obsessed us for years and resulted in our writing George and Laura in the first place. ("The country is polarized" is another way of saying, "It's a civil war in all but name.") We imagined a big auditorium with hundreds of shouting, exulting Jewish Democrats.

Financially, the trip was an exercise in voodoo economics. The thinking, to the extent that there was any, held that we'd draw sufficiently large audiences and inspire them to purchase (and to tell their friends to purchase) enough books, as to make the trip ultimately break even financially. (We were paid basically nothing for these appearances, but our hosts did cover most expenses.) Besides, we hadn't seen our parents in months and months, so what the hell. We hand-made our wised-up sophisticated-traveler sandwiches for the flight, and drove to LAX.

Everyone by now has a favorite nightmare anecdote about getting through Security at a major metropolitan airport but, for some reason, we had no problem. The flight, which threatened to leave an hour late, instead left only about 45 minutes late — a minor inconvenience. And guess who was on the flight. Fabio!

Of course, he sat in first class, where men are men and seats are designed to human scale. We sat in coach, where men are toddlers — or, at least, the two toddlers a few rows in front of us were. It was they who, obedient to their inner toddlerian imperative, cried and screamed for five hours straight. Or so it seemed. And isn't that what's important?

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