Saturday, June 28, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Folding Clothes and Washing Dishes

I am a lover of simple domestic life, and two of its common chores are favorites of mine: folding clothes and washing dishes. Interestingly, I am not particularly good at either one of them. I regularly discover—or more embarrassingly, someone else discovers—smudges on glasses and bits of dried food on plates that I am supposed to have cleaned. When I am folding, oddly shaped clothes, undergarments, and smaller items often resist my efforts to flatten them.

Over the years, I have known two women who were very skilled folders. In their hands, piles of t-shirts looked like neatly stacked playing cards, and laundry that was naturally inclined toward chaos and entropy was soon molded into cloth monuments to order and efficiency. One of these women taught me how to fold one of the the laundry worker’s biggest problems: the fitted sheet. I stand in genuine admiration of people who show such masterful command over clean laundry. I have tried, but I am unable to match their skills.

Particularly in light of my meager abilities, it is curious that I like these activities as much as I do. I can think of several reasons. First, they are domestic chores. Daily chores. Small parts of the business of making a home. When you live—or, at least, eat—with others, these chores also represent service to another, which can be very gratifying. In addition, dish washing and folding have something in common. They both involve dipping your hands into something warm and clean: dry—and often warm—clothes from the dryer and wet, sudsy water in the sink. These are very pleasant sensations for me. Finally, both these chores are most often done alone, which allows the worker to recede into his or her own thoughts while engaged in a mantra-like, repetitive task. If there is a window at the sink, the dish washer’s contemplations are accompanied by scenery.

My habit of daydreaming while washing and folding is undoubtedly part of the explanation of my poor performance. If I gave greater attention to the job at hand, I might produce cleaner dishes and more neatly folded clothes. True enough. But I am not likely to change. Daydreaming is a large part of the appeal, and I am unwilling to give it up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kakutani, Canin, Judaism, & Me

Ethan Canin is a wonderful writer. Along with Alice Munro and Tobias Wolf, I think he is one of the great short story experts working today. The Emperor of Air is a dazzling collection to which I often return, and the story “Where We Are Now” is one of my favorites of all time. Some of the longer stories of The Palace Thief are also breathtaking.

Canin has a new novel out, and Michiko Kakutani reviewed it in the NY Times today. As usual, Kakutani pulls no punches. Although she praises Canin’s many talents, she again criticizes his skills as a novelist. This is Canin’s consistent fate. His short pieces are gems, but his novels receive relatively cool reviews. In this case, Kakutani points to unskilled plotting and “tired tropes” about social class and paternalism.

But as I read the review I found myself searching for something else. I found myself asking, “Yes, yes, but how Jewish is this book?” When I first started reading Ethan Canin, I was probably unaware of his Jewishness. This is not surprising because Canin describes himself as an atheist and seems to have deliberately avoided the Jewish literature category. This quote is from an interview in the Atlantic:

I've been conscious of not being a Jewish-American writer or a Young Urban Male writer. In a way I wish I were, because it seems easier. I grew up all over the country, moving from town to town when I was a kid, so I never felt a very strong sense of place. My parents were Brooklyn and Queens Jews -- and I was a child in Ohio. I didn't live in a ghetto and yet I had ghetto history in every word my parents said. I remember the first time I set foot in New York: I was twenty years old, and the first time I heard a New Yorker open her mouth I thought, Oh my God I'm home. I realized I'd never been truly comfortable with the outside world before I got to New York. I still think New York is the friendliest city in the country.

Of course the irony here is that I am not Jewish. Indeed, I am not, in any conventional sense, religious at all. But the love of a Jewish woman has made Jewish things important to me. I have learned the pleasures of shabbat; I have worn a kippah; I have learned to bake challah; and I am becoming familiar with the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. I have always had a sense of affinity for the Jewish people, based on their minority status and their long history of oppression, and as an academic, I came to appreciate the traditions of study and debate. Although I remain a goy, I have several Jewish friends who say I am now more Jewish than they are, and I smile when they say it.

So I find myself in the funny circumstance of being a non-Jew and a fan of Ethan Canin who wishes Canin’s writing were more Jewish. I find myself wishing that a man of his enormous talents would display his Jewishness a bit more. And, oddly enough, I see nothing contradictory in this. Perhaps I am more Jewish than I think.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Adventures in Television Land: Osama bin Laden and Me

My experience as a television personality is quite limited. I have appeared as an expert on various cable television documentaries about superstition, and I had brief talking head stints on a book show on CBC Newsworld (described to me as “Canada’s CNN”) and a CNN International news program that was beamed to Europe and beyond but not seen in the United States.

However, my experience with television has been sufficient to expose me to one of this fast-paced medium’s particular disappointments: being bumped. Yesterday it happened again in the classic manner. At around 11:00 AM I received a call asking me to be on a local newscast to comment on the current epidemic of personal debt. A film crew would come to the college to tape me at 3:30 in the afternoon for air later that evening. It was a very sunny day, humid and in the 90s, and at the moment I got the call I was headed to a lunch date in a pair of shorts and a ragged polo shirt. I quickly grabbed a dress shirt and a pair of khakis to change into later and jumped in the car. As luck would have it, I got a call just as my lunch was ending: a large fire had broken out in a condominium complex somewhere in the state of Connecticut. The reporter was very sorry but her film crew had been diverted to this breaking news story. If it bleeds it leads. I felt a little like one of those Tonight Show guests who was last in line and never made it to the couch.

But my most heartbreaking bump experience was at the expense of what would have been my greatest media achievement. In October of 2000, the thirteenth day of the month fell on a Friday. This was three years after my book on the psychology of superstition was published, and the paperback edition had just been released. I got a call from CBS inviting me to appear on The Early Show on Friday the 13th as a live guest in the New York studio. Arrangements were made. CBS booked a hotel room for me for the night before, and a limousine was scheduled to take me to the studios, where I would meet Bryant Gumbel (recently recruited from NBC), Jane Clayson, Mark McEwen, and the rest of the gang. It was all very exciting.

When Thursday the 12th arrived, I planned to leave for New York relatively early in the day. It is a three-hour trip, and I hoped I would have time for some meandering and a nice dinner in the city. But an hour before I was to leave, the phone rang. The USS Cole, a destroyer harbored in Yemen had been bombed, killing 17 crew members and injuring 39 others. The CBS people were very sorry but the following day would be devoted to coverage of the Cole. I was disappointed at being bumped—my segment was never rescheduled—but I understood completely. This is the nature of the news media. They were doing their job, and periodically we should acknowledge how important a job it is.

Looking back, the USS Cole bombing was an even more momentous event than we realized at the time. It was later discovered the suicide mission was conducted by al-Qaeda, the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden, and it would be less than a year before Osama bin Laden next attacked the United States—in a much more disastrous fashion.