All Posts Tagged ‘family

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Use cases

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I read a lot of tech news to keep up with work. One of the things people in tech who want to sound hip always talk about is “use cases.” What’s the use case of the 10-inch tablet-phone?”  People who want to make important business calls from the bathroom while reading the news.   “What’s the use case of the iPhone 5c?” People who want a phone that’s cheap and colorful and makes a good paperweight.  ”What’s the use case of  Twitter?” People trying to be funny but just coming across as jerks.

Companies do use cases to figure out which technologies work best for what kinds of purposes, but I am betting you a million dollars companies will never be able to figure out my parents.

Since I force-gifted my mom an iPad for her birthday last year (“It’s too expensive! I don’t need it! Why are you giving me this thing! It’s too complicated! Oh wait…do you have WiFi in your house? I need to sync my iPad…just a minute, I think I forgot my iPad and I can’t leave the house without it”), she has been becoming progressively more technical.

She’s been reading Kindle books (that I buy and force-gift her through the Kindle lending library,) listening to Russian radio through TuneIn, and generally doing crazy things like using Yelp.

On the other hand, If there’s anyone the NSA won’t be able to find, it’s my dad, because, although he is extremely smart and has repaired non-working televisions from start to finish, he is too lazy to internet. “Google me up some information,” he’ll tell my mom from the couch.He has checked his email probably once in the last six months (“too much work to log in. Just tell me over the phone.”)

“Google it yourself,” she’ll say, not looking up from Flipboard, and he’ll sigh and wonder why he married her.   Even though he’s lazy, he still needs all the latest information about Mashina Vremeni, so he’ll get up and find the laptop.

Things have been progressing in this manner for a couple of months, with the iPad really fueling some new use cases for them. For example, last week, my mom called me on Skype from vacation in Costa Rica to tell me that A) This was the most awesome hotel she’s ever been in and B) I needed to call my grandfather.

My dad, while refusing to learn how to use the iPad has, on the other hand, been lovingly accessorizing it, like a pet. “This is a good case,” he said, lovingly showing me the leather stand-up folio he purchased. “It will protect it. I also got Bluetooth speakers.”

“But what are you going to use them for, Dad? Have you used the iPad at all? Downloaded any guitar apps like I told you to?”

“No, and I don’t intend to. But I want to see if I can connect to HDMI.”

One of my dad’s burgeoning fantasies has been to hook up the iPad to TV  so they can watch movies off their WiFi.

I’ve never heard of the iPad-movie use case before, and this problem gets more interesting with the fact that, although I bought them an iPad with 3G capability, they refuse to pay the monthly fee for it, partly because it seems expensive to them, and partly out of principle, because paying for things is for suckers and Americans.

Between the laziness, the payment workarounds,  and the technology splurges, things finally came to a head a couple weeks ago, when they decided to get smart phones.

“We’re getting smartphones,” my mom told me via Skype.

“We’ll see,” I said. I have been hopeful that they’ll convert to 21st century for the past five years so I can finally send my dad texts in Russian and email my mom stupid articles people are posting online so we can judge them in real-time.  That’s MY use case for my parents.

But they’d been talking hazily about smartphones since 2011. The only thing stopping them, really, is that you have to pay for them.

“We’re really going to do it. Even I’ve decided it’s time,” my mom said. “Maybe the iPhone? Or the LG?”

“Really,” I perked up. She was talking specific models. This was serious.

“Yeah, we need a phone that’s compatible,” my dad yelled in the background of the chat.

“Compatible with what,” I asked.

“The iPad,” he said.

“Why would it need to be compatible with the iPad?”

“I want to hook up the phone to the iPad and watch movies on it for free.”

“Let me get this straight. You won’t get 3G access on the iPad, but you’re willing to get a cell phone, connect it somehow to the iPad, and pay for the streaming data anyway, because you think it’s more free than just paying for the iPad?”

“Yes.”

Companies, take note to design your use cases around my parents. And Verizon or AT&T, watch out. You have two new super users coming on board. (Maybe.)

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The river of our past is drying up

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Mr. B and I have been sick for the past three thousand years, so we decided to take it easy last weekend and watch some movies. One of these was HaDira, The Flat, an Israeli documentary shot by Arnon Goldfinger, as he and his family clean out his grandmother’s apartment after her death.

Arnon finds out that his grandparents traveled with a high-ranking Nazi official and his wife to Palestine in 1936 to report on it for an important Nazi newspaper.  Arnon’s grandparents made aliyah to Israel, but continued to correspond with the von Mildsteins even during and after the war. Arnon’s grandmother kept all these papers and documents going back to the 1910s, which makes for a beautiful movie. Arnon goes to Germany to talk to his own relatives and to the descendants of the von Mildsteins to figure out what happened. How did his parents’ private beliefs as Zionists complement the fact that they were friends with high-ranking Nazi officials?

It’s a really interesting film on a number of levels.

First, there is Arnon’s mother, the first post-Holocaust generation, who wasn’t told anything, and didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m not interested,” she says when Arnon presents her with photographs, newspaper clippings, and jewelry. “I don’t want to know,” she says, when Arnon shows her letters that their relatives had written from internment camps in Riga, Latvia, although her voice breaks as she reads the German.

Then, there is the rest of Arnon’s family, who are just interested in looting the apartment for keepsakes from the 30s. None of the rest of his family, even the ones in their 40s and 50s, know anything about his grandparents or great-grandparents, or about the layers of precious historical material in the apartment, the main reason Goldfinger decided to make the movie.

As his mother and aunt are throwing away hundreds of letters and breaking down furniture, Arnon is trying to find out why his grandparents corresponded with Nazis through the things they kept. He not only digs through the chaos to find notes that were actually relevant, but also talks to elderly German Jews in Israel, flies to Germany to talk to Von Mildstein’s relatives, and meets with his third cousin to get notes she made while she visited with his grandma (because she missed “hearing German.”)

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The whole situation is chaos. There are family trees drawn on paper, hundreds of scraps of information. You feel panicked, as if, at any moment, the memories holding their family together will fly away, eroded by the sands of time.

But the panic is not at Goldfinger’s family; with the documentary, he’s covered. The panic is because your family is going through the same thing.

I think most families, except for the most meticulous scrapbookers and archivists, are bad at passing down history. History lives with the old people of the family, and often, we are too busy or embarrassed to ask them what’s going on, and we have even less patience to write it down.

My family is no exception. On my father’s side, we have some documentation in Russia, but hundreds of pictures from even before the revolution where we don’t know anyone. “Our family was maybe Cossacks, maybe officers. We’re not sure.” The family archivist was Aunt Masha, and no one thought to write down her encyclopedic memory.

My aunt, my father’s sister, still keeps everything and knows more than most people in our family, but it’s all yellowing in Soviet-era drawers.  When I was 18 and went to Russia, I met Aunt Masha, who served as a radio service woman in the Baltics during World War II, helping shoot down Nazi planes, and I absorbed as much of my family as I could into my skin.  There was a video that was made.  Pictures were taken. But so much slipped through the cracks. Who were my people on my dad’s side? My family memory only stretches back as far as my grandfather, who died before I ever knew him.

The questions that I’m sure Aaron wanted to ask his grandmother echoed in my head. Why did you join the Soviet army as a woman? How did you feel? How did you feel when you first fell in love? What was being a mother like? 

My mother’s side is a family of writers. My grandfather is a writer, my great-aunt is a writer, and the gene has fortunately passed on to me.  So we have more information there. We have family trees. We have written accounts from my grandfather. When I was eight, our class homework was to do a videotape with a  family relative and ask questions. I still have the tape I made with my grandfather, and every time I go to his apartment, I try to record at least a little bit of video on my phone.

But all of these bits of memory are swirling around in different spaces. Our Soviet photos are aging, yellowing in cellophane albums.  Our home videos from when I was small are still on tape. My pictures are in Google’s forked hooves, but who knows when their servers will turn off?

Again, the most important questions go unanswered. When I was just beginning to research my novel, I asked my grandfather, how did you know not to believe in communism? What was it that made you change your mind? How did you know it was propaganda. And he said that it was when he read about the Cuban missile crisis for the first time, and the Soviet press reported that there were only several missiles and that it was the Americans’ fault and that it was no big deal, but several weeks later reported what a major situation it was. The cognitive dissonance of that report broke something in his brain, and he began to be suspicious ever since.  I asked him how he felt when Stalin died, and he said he was glad he had a day off (he was serving in the Red Army at the time).  I would have never found that out if it hadn’t been for my book. How many other questions am I not asking while I am still fortunate to have him?

We’re in the age of great technology, the capacity to grab as much of present and history as our disk space will allow, to map-reduce all of it into bits and bytes of relationships,  but still, we are scribbling down important family details that tell us who we are as people on scrap paper and hoping we’ll get to it later, and we’re not data-mining the most important resource of all: the thoughts and feelings of our family members.

Sure, we hear the opinions of our families. Our beliefs are formed by what our parents tell us. But we are too scared and too shy to ask them: what were your hopes and dreams? What were your disappointments?  Why did you decide to bring me into this world?  If only our parents blogged, right?

Scarier than any of this is that our families are growing ever-smaller and ever-more insular, so even the knowledge we do have is disappearing between links in the chain.    We are having less kids, and those children are having less relatives. Mr. B and I are only children; our children will not have any aunts and uncles. We have one cousin each. Whole swaths of relatives don’t talk to each other because of something that happened once 20 years ago.  Of course, this is all anecdotal.

But I connected deeply with The Flat, particularly the part where Aaron’s mother states that she simply doesn’t want to know, is not afraid to ask the questions, but doesn’t even care, because this phenomenon has happened to me recently.

In the 1930s, several members of my mother’s family decided they wanted to make aliyah to what was then still Palestine, through a Russian-Jewish organization. They saw where the Soviet Union was headed, and they didn’t want any part of it. These were people of my great-grandfather’s generation. Somehow, my family managed to stay in contact with them, even through the lean Iron Curtain years. My mother recalls how they sent her and my aunt dresses from Israel as presents. These dresses were considered so exotic and so well-made that they went through my whole family: my aunt, my mother, and two other cousins wore these dresses for years before they were finally retired to household rags.

This immigration impacted my grandfather so much that he decided, in the 1970s, when no one dared breathe a word about Israel, to write a novelized account of it. That book was the first (but not last, unfortunately for you, dear reader) thing our family self-published. It’s written on thick heavy-grade Soviet paper, typed up. It is in my parents’ house right now.

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Our family kept in touch with these relatives, even through the 1990s, through the immigration, through everything, and the completely-Israeli children of these relatives,  now also in their 70s, made their way to America a couple months ago (the husband is an agronomist, and he lived as a shaliach, an Israeli government representative, in America in the 1970s), and paid all of our family in Philadelphia a visit.

We gathered together, in the house of a relative’s of my mother: people of my parents’ generation, people of my generation (me and Mr. B), and people the same age as these relatives, in their 70s, to get together, share stories about who knew whom, and keep family ties alive.

When Mr. B and I arrived for the gathering, there were already a group of the older Russian relatives standing and talking in Russian exclusively to each other, and several people my parents’ age warmly greeting the Israeli couple and trying to keep up the conversation in English. They were also hosting the Israelis for the week.

“Shalom lachem, bruchim habayim l’artzot abrit,” I said when I entered, “Hi, welcome to the states,” and their faces relaxed. “You speak Hebrew,” they said in perfect English.

At dinner, none of the much-older relatives even spoke to the Israelis while I sat and sopped up every piece of information I could. Whose brother had been in the Sinai Campaign. How many grandchildren they had, what those grandchildren did in the Israeli army, who had been an agronomist.

This is not new.  It’s not realistic to expect people who immigrated in their 40s and 50s to speak English, and it’s not realistic to expect people in America to speak Hebrew. In the documentary Goldfinger notes that his grandmother never ever learned Hebrew, because she always felt German. The older generations will always feel strongly Jewish, but never express it in any other way except to shout loudly at the dinner table that they love Israel. But they didn’t even make an effort, and that’s what makes me sad. Whole branches of families are lost when continents shift, and no one cares to reach across the divide.

For me, I couldn’t stop being amazed that I was tied to these people, that I had anything to do with them, even on a tiny, molecular level, these people who had lived through the founding of Israel, these people who were so completely different, all because someone in the Soviet Union had decided to take their life in their hands. For me it was nothing less than amazing.

After dinner, they brought out a carefully-written a family tree. The archivist in my family, who also has put amazing care and time into documenting our family, also produced a family tree, and they started vigorously comparing, who came from what, when, and where. It was amazing to me to see that other people cared just as much as me about legacy and grabbing the pieces of information as they floated through the whirlwind of time. I saw my parents on the family tree, and the branch for me, and the branch tying me to Mr. B, with our birth years neatly inscribed under our names with a dash, and I became very emotional. Here were our lives, packed down to their barest essentials. What would we leave as a legacy on paper?

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I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect, however, because the Israelis then got down to business: the pictures they’d talked about at dinner. I saw a blonde girl in an Israeli olive-green uniform, smiling. That could have been me, I thought. I’m an entire world away from her, and yet, we somehow have something in common.  Who was this girl, and why?

The younger generations don’t care, either, but for different reasons. We speak perfect English and not-so-bad Hebrew sometimes, but we are Facebooking and Amazon-buying and overworking our way through the shallow stream of  life without dipping our toes into the rich, loamy soil at the bottom of the river of history. We don’t stop to ask why and how.  I hope what I just wrote is a generalization and I’m wrong.  I’d like to be proven wrong, because it’s important.

But, I’m biased. And I’m terrible at documenting our family. I can’t even remember my grandmother’s maiden name on my dad’s side sometimes. And sometimes it terrifies me, that I will open my mouth up to tell my kids something important and far-reaching, and out will fly mothballs. But, I’m writing a novel about history, and I step into history every day. It feels like I’m stepping into a wide, flowing river that connects me with humanity, but also a bit like I’m getting swept away. And when I encounter bits of my family history that I can incorporate, it feels like I have a raft to hold on to in the current.

It has always been this way. The world changes in new ways, families change and grow, bend and flex. The older generations complain about the younger ones, the younger ones lose the thread. But the world is spinning so quickly that we no longer know where we come from. We float through the world, rootless, doing things the way we see fit, without any traditions or values as anchors, never rejoining any bodies of water greater than ourselves.

But sometimes, we get a glimpse of what our family is and was, and what they fought for and what they struggled with, and we feel strengthened, that we are not alone in the world, that we have at least some template to follow, that we are the future the past of our family has hoped for. And this knowledge, these small grains of information, are what keep us moving through our small lives with purpose, from the beginning year, through the dash, to the end.

 

 

 

 

 

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The state of the Jewnion

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If you come to my home, it will be hard to tell that Jews habitate within. Sure, there is the kiddush cup from our wedding, sitting on a side shelf, or a menorah in the library, or the mezuzah tucked away in our front door. Our ketubah is lying around somewhere upstairs.  There is a vintage travel poster urging you to “Come Visit Palestine!” with a picture of Jaffa sprawled out near the sea. Hebrew letter Jewish? Or just hipster?

We’re just normal suburban Americans (right).

We are not extremely outwardly Jewish in our daily lives, if being Jewish means going to services, knowing anything about prayers, or not eating shellfish. And, according to a new poll by the  Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, because of us, the Jewish people of America are screwed.

The poll found that,

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

The poll has just described the entire Northeast Philadelphia Russian population, and probably half of Israel. And yet, I’ve never met more a Jew more fervent than my atheist grandfather.

Of course, religious Jews are up in arms and Jewish organizations that rely on telling Jews that there are no more Jews are FRANTICALLY UPSET,

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

But I’m angry, too. Are you saying that just because I don’t go to Friday night services, that you won’t count me as one of your people? I guess even crying at Prince of Egypt doesn’t count?

American Jewry has always had a stupid relationship with what it means to be Jewish that starts and ends by measuring how many times someone goes to a synagogue, which is like counting how many foodies there are by how many 4-star restaurants they go to. Maybe they’re eating at hole-in-the wall places you don’t know. Maybe they’re cooking at home.

That shit is hard to measure, but the Jewish community can’t be bothered to measure it, because that would mean actually thinking instead of panicking and trying to raise money from rich Jews who are also concerned about the Situation.

  • How many times you’ve been called a kike because you had an obviously  Jewish first name or last name in Russia
  • How many times you or family have been denied immigration to Israel by the Soviet government
  • How many restaurants you’ve gone to to find the perfect falafel
  • How many websites you’ve visited to find out when Hanukkah is this year
  • How many times you’ve teared up through Anne Frank
  • How much time you’ve spent thinking about Jews in the 1930s for your novel
  • The amount of time you spend on Yediot Ahronot and thinking about Israel
  • The ping of happiness when you see an international foods grocery section that has both matzah and Bissli.

None of these are measured in the survey, and yet all of them are my reality as a non-religious Jew who is as Jewish as you can be without knowing the difference between mincha and bracha.

Try these on for size, Pews and Jews, shut up,  and don’t come back until you start making sense again.

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A form of modern magic

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I am writing this post from my deathbed.

Ok, not my deathbed, but I’m definitely sick and in sweatpants. I haven’t been able to sleep the past couple nights, I have crazy congestion, and on top of that, I still have work, work training, night classes, weekend classes, the novel, and trying not to get fat again.  Oh, and did I mention we are almost out of fruit in the house and we need to call the plumber to investigate a dubious leak in our basement?

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Love and Time

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Like every Internet-literate female American homeowner under the age of 45, I read Young House Love.  This blog is made by two very cheerful married  people who do almost all of their home repairs together as a couple. Surprisingly, they have not murdered each other with an Allen wrench.   Although the husband’s parents chip in from time to time to take care of their young daughter while they paint and have helped them build a deck, their main message is that if you have just two people, you can accomplish anything together.

Ever since we moved into our house, I’ve been trying to follow that idea.  Ironically, although we moved to Philadelphia to be closer to family, we see less of them than we did when we were living in DC. Combined with the fact that we’re both from post-Soviet families built on the premise of only children to save money and space in one-room apartments, we’ve been trying to do it all by ourselves together because we also really hate bothering and inconveniencing people.  Working, studying, cooking, cleaning, interior designing, writing, editing, lawncare, life.

Accomplishing  common goals with Mr. B is one of my biggest joys in life.  For example, here’s a picture of Mr. B being sentenced to two days of taping and painting while I take pictures.

 

But no man, or family of a man and a woman who needs to change everything in her house, is an island, or should be.  Young House Love is cute, but they don’t talk enough about how important it is to have family helping you all the time. Because they’re American, and they value freedom and independence. Which is what I’ve been trying to do for the past year is not asking for help, but it has been slowly destroying me.  Families are meant to be together and do things together.  Even though we’ve been doing it all ourselves, we’ve been going insane from overwork and isolation.

So I axed the fancy museum plans for this weekend, got over my American feeling that if you’re asking for help, you’re inconveniencing other people or being a burden, and and asked my parents to come help us around the house as my birthday present. Our yard was a mess.  There was a lamp that I wanted to hang that Mr. B and I didn’t know how to do. Our fridge was disgusting. Our screen door was broken. We had a boob light infestation.  You know the ones I’m talking about:

 

And then there were the Trees.

The trees are this thing that Mr. B loathes with a passion. Unfortunately they are my favorite thing in life.  We’d painted our bedroom green last year and sometime this year I decided it would be a good idea to turn it into a Russian forest, because I love the idea of a Russian forest but I actually hate being outdoors.

So I ordered a bunch of birch trees (the national tree of Russia) decals from Etsy, thinking it would be an easy project I could do in an hour or so. Don’t they look hipster-charming in the picture?   They turned out to be too tall and required too much effort, so for three months, they were sitting on the floor in the attic, mournfully waiting to be used.

I used to think that people who said the best gift was time were lame or cheap.  Because who would really prefer a popsicle stick piece of art that took three hours to make as opposed to, say, a Louis Vuitton purse (by the way, this exists.) that took two seconds to order online.

But this weekend proved me completely wrong.

As soon as my parents came, not even stopping for a drink or a bathroom break after their two-hour drive, they got to work.  My dad put up the lamp to replace the ugly one we had as Mr. B finally had time to take care of the lawn.

 

My mom made us soup, cleaned our refrigerator, and right after that, she helped me put up the trees.

They look beautiful.

They are better than any present I could have gotten because my mom helped me put them up.

 

Here’s the room when we started, last  year.

We also have amazing and thoughtful friends, who came after we were done with all this stuff to give me hours of their time for my birthday, and we sat late into the night, laughing, and drinking, and singing along to the guitar.

 

It was a great birthday, and I’m finally learning how to be a functional human being, just in time for my mid-20s.