Ida Wyman, Newsboy with Checked Shirt, Los Angeles, 1950.
Twenty years ago, Neil Postman and Steve Powers wrote a book called How to Watch TV News that was assigned summer reading for my 11th grade economics/politics class. Ms. Beaver was one of the most important teachers I had, 50% of it stemming from the fact that she made us read this book and call bullshit on mainstream news.
For my birthday this year, Mr. B gave me a gift certificate to a massage at a Fancy Spa because he knew that I’d been stressed out. He knew this because he’s been married to me for almost four years now and there is not really a time when I’m not stressed.
I was really excited, because a massage is one of those things that you would never buy for yourself, but that you will gladly enjoy if someone else does. I am starting classes today, so I really needed a massage. But, I have a spotty history with both relaxing and the service industry. Also, during lunch last week when I told my friend I was getting a massage, he said, “Oh. I had one a couple of weeks ago. It was kind of weird. They tell you to take off your clothes. It felt a little like amateur porn, to be honest.” Opposing feelings battled inside of me for the better half of two weeks before I finally sucked it up and made an appointment for this Saturday.
Thanks to the fact that I’ve worked my ass off this past year, Mr. B and I were able to enjoy a Phillies game for free at the ninth row last week. Don’t ask me who they played, because I have no idea what any of the teams are, I just understand how baseball works.
The closest Jews get to playing sports.
Things are really close in the ninth row. Like, you can see the pitches close enough to understand if they’re balls or strikes. It was pretty awesome. The weather wasn’t the best,but it was summer, and it was a baseball game, and life was good. In the ninth row, they have something called the Diamond Club, which is basically this institution that says the recesssion never happened.
In the Diamond Club, everyone is really nice to you and even brings food to your seat. If you need anything, attendants are always standing right there. So you can eat and drink as you watch these men trying to fight their way through hundreds of pitches. It was a little like being at the Circus Maximus. It was awesome.
Unfortunately, dear reader, as you probably realize by now, I am not an individual who can enjoy things as they are meant to be enjoyed.
First, there’s something about baseball that’s highly philosophical, as I’ve written before. Baseball is one of those sports that’s distinctly American with a capital A, that gives you a unique flavor of what America really means. Hundreds of people have writtenabout itmore accurately than me. The last article probably describes it the best: the feeling of being a hard-working American, of summer, of glamour and big money.
When Perez is about to sneeze, he pulls a tissue from a Marlins-branded box. When he has a drink, he’s careful to use a St. Louis Cardinals coaster. He scrawls something on a Yankees notepad, rips off the piece of paper, and tosses it at a reporter. It reads, “Leugim Barroso.” That’s the name of a recent Cuban defector now in the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league system. “Another client,” he says with a shrug.
This is Carlos Perez’s big-league American dream. Only 14 years after escaping Cuba and ten years after applying for a $10-per-hour job with the town of Hialeah Gardens, he has carved out what appears to be a lucrative niche.
As Miami’s most visible representative for Cuban ballplayers, he regularly appears in the sports pages with talented young defectors such as slugging third baseman and outfielder Adonis García and highly touted pitcher Onelki García. He lives with his wife Liseth in a three-bedroom house near Sweetwater that he bought for $465,000 in 2005. He’s a Bentley-driving, freedom-loving exile Arliss, making a living in the muddy confluence of sports, global politics, and American law.
As I was thinking about baseball and the American dream, my thoughts also started to gravitate, as they tend to do nowadays, downward to Russia.
“Hey,” I said to Mr. B, who barely took his eyes off the pitcher (Mr. B’s dream career when he was growing up was to be a pitcher, but unfortunately that dream did not come true, and now he is resigned to brogramming.)
“What,” he said, half-listening.
“There are a lot of people here tonight.”
“Like, it’s a packed stadium.”
“Isn’t it a scary thought that these people are all expressing the same emotions?”
“What do you mean,” said Mr. B warily. He could tell where this was going.
“Like, if all these people were brainwashed into believing the same thing, would anyone stand up against them? They couldn’t. Not against 40,000+ people. Like, what if all these people were at a Stalin rally? It’s plausible enough. We’re all wearing red.”
Mr. B, the world’s longest-suffering husband, rolled his eyes.
“No one’s going to start a revolution here. Now be quiet and let me enjoy the game.”
I was quiet, but my mind wasn’t. I was imagining a scenario like that one song in Stilyagi:
The crowd effect is really scary. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately while writing my book. And walking to work. And eating yogurt. And, at baseball games in July. If you’re caught up in the crowd effect, how do you know? What if we’re all caught up in it now? And how do you make it stop? What if you stand to lose everything? What turns a stadium from a peacetime pace to watch games into chaos?
Mr. B ate his popcorn, oblivious to the dark forces gathering in my mind.
That’s the thing though about writers and Russians. It only takes us a minute in our mind to go from baseball to the Taliban blowing people’s brains out.
But, growing up, everything immigrant that my parents did was horrifyingly embarrassing.
They packed lunch for me not in Ziploc bags, but in the plastic bags you get from the grocery store. They didn’t pack Mac n Cheese, and they would NEVER let me buy Lunchables, but there was Russian food. How do you show up to lunch when you have a kelbasa sandwich with Russian rye bread and all your friends have BP and J?
I didn’ t realize that there were special bags you can buy to use for trash until I went to college because we always used the plastic store grocery bags.
When the weather turned to October, I had to start wearing tights under my pants and a hat at all times. My dad and I would have screaming matches about this because I was so ashamed. No cool girls wore pantyhose under their jeans. Halloween was pretty much this for me every year.
We never had snacks in our house, so when my friends came over we were offered raisins. Sometimes my mom would make kompot, which was even more embarrassing because we didn’t have any fruit juice but all my friends would be like, what is this and why is there stuff floating in it? When I had sleepovers at my house, my mom wouldn’t let us sleep on the floor because that was “weird”, and of course, you’ll freeze your uterus that way. So we all had to sleep in fold-out beds.
My friends would tell me that they went out for brunch on weekends, which was crazy to me. How would your parents let you eat breakfast outside of the house? And going out to eat any earlier in the week than a Thursday? And sometimes TWICE A WEEK?
We had hardwood floors in our house before it was the in thing to do in interior decorating, and none of my friends did. When you come to our house, you had to wear tapochki, which I could never explain to Americans. During the winter, it was always a balmy 66 Farenheit at home, and during the summer, the sensation was not unlike being slowly roasted alive in a weak wattage microwave. Even our comforters were different.
“When you have your own house, you can make your own rules,” my mom would yell at me when I told her we were weird and she should do American things like order pizza for delivery and buy air fresheners and turn up the temperature to a liveable 69 F.
Now I have my own house. Life is good. I do whatever the hell I want. I have a special yuppie trash can and bags for the trash can that I buy on Amazon. I have liquid soap. I have air fresheners (a waste of money), special fancy American coffee (a waste of money), and Apple products (an enormous waste of money.) I eat lunch out every day because I’m way too lazy to pack my own. Sometimes Mr. B and I go out on Wednesdays, because, why not (WHAT.) We are too lazy to cancel HBO.
But I also buy the generic Bran Flakes, not Total. I fight with Mr. B over the fact that he refuses to buy the cheap one-ply toilet paper. We have 10 different pairs of tapochki for guests. If I ever feel like I miss my parents, I make some mushroom soup. And the heat in my house is set to 67 F.
That’s what this book is about. About immigration. And generations. And how we first reject our parents, then we understand and respect them, then we become them.
About how our parents lived through impossibly hard stuff so we wouldn’t have to, and when we learn about their lives, we wonder how they continue to be optimistic about humanity. It’s about digging into family history to try to understand why we are the way we are. It’s about a daughter’s relationship with her father after her mother dies and how a 35-year-old post-breast-enhancement surgery Ukranian mail-order bride comes into his life , but also about how she learns to communicate with her sister again. It’s poignant without being sappy or sentimental or Oprah’s bullshit. It’s also about microwaving apples, Soviet tractors, British social workers, boob jobs, sisters with Gucci bags, second-hand Rolls Royces, and, you know, just life. How messy life is.
It is extremely funny in a black humor kind of way, and also extremely relatable, because not everyone has immigrated, but everyone has family. A lot of the bickering, the arguments, and the feelings I recognized from my own life. The complications, the favoritism, the trying to understand our parents and our families. It’s all in there. Everyone at Goodreads thinks that both the characters and plot are implausible, but I have to strongly disagree. Because I am eating a bowl of generic bran flakes as we speak.
The fact that everyone is optimistic here. Sometimes in an indignant way. Like you tell someone, “There’s no way we can get that done,” and they’ll tell you, “Why not?” and it’ll be in an incredulous way. Usually here, if you have grit and determination, you can do anything you set your mind to. Or, you’ll fail, but at least you’ll try instead of being resigned about it. Anyone can make it here.
Champagne mimosas for brunch. Whoever invented brunch is a genius. Whoever invented champagne is even more of a genius. Champagne is my beverage of choice, because I am an American and I value freedom. I don’t even care if Champagne is French and my favorite brand is Italian. Here, we drink Freedom Fizz.
Efficiency. What is efficient in America? Everything. Drive-throughs. Parking spots for expecting moms. Automatic checkout at the grocery stores. 1-hour drycleaning. Returning stuff without receipts. Christmas in July.
Innovation. High-tech. San Francisco. iPads. The fact that Big Ben Tweets. It makes me so proud that we’ve compressed the invention of hundreds of years of technology into about 10 so that I can read BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG right now.
Things I hate about America:
The fact that American optimism, love of brunch, efficiency, and innovation has led to this:
It’s PANCAKES WRAPPED AROUND TURKEY SAUSAGE. ON A STICK. SUPPOSEDLY. DO YOU THINK IT’S REAL? IT’S AN ATROCITY.