My Name Is Jennifer, And I’m A Nostalgic

I write to remember.

Every memory, every moment—I need them captured within words. Because once they are gone, I will miss them like a long lost friend. And if I have them tucked away, encapsulated in verbs and nouns and adjectives, then I can revisit them whenever I want. And know that they were real, once.

Some people think it’s crazy that I re-read books. In fact, for almost 10 years I read the same book over again every April and October. Of course I already knew the story, but that was the delicious part of the experience. By opening the love-worn pages of this book, I was able to feel anew the joys, sorrows and excitement of the characters. I never really had to let them go when the story ended, because they would remain perfectly intact inside the pages, even if the front and back cover had long ago been taped together.

Yes, I’m nostalgic. Probably overly so. Is that awful? For as much as I cling to the depth of my memories, I don’t hold grudges or judge based on things that happened long ago. But I can remember the exact tone of conversations, or the way my body flushed at just the slightest touch. I can close my eyes and bring to life the entire scene—fully surrounding myself in the scale of the moment,  whether I was naive and clueless or heady with the elixir of control—I can take myself all the way back and relive.

It probably started with my very first diary. Oh those frightening, scribbled pages filled with the subjective woes of a pre-teen girl. He did or didn’t like me. She was or wasn’t talking behind my back. My parents would or wouldn’t let me go over to so and so’s house after school. Really stimulating stuff. And yet, when I happen upon the bin in the dark recesses of my parents basement that contains these afflicted novels, I end up pouring over the pages of each book for hours. Cringing incessantly at the constant whining – or laughing at my follies with all the “wisdom” that semi-adulthood has provided. And with each, I’ll store more details in the corridors of my mind so that the next time I think about it, the memory will be that much clearer.

Recently, I was talking to my paternal grandmother—an exquisite woman who can empower with one word or soothe with just a touch—and she had taken a similar trip down memory lane after stumbling upon an old packet of letters. At first I said “That must have been fun!” But she paused and replied, “Well no, not really.” Because drumming up those kinds of feelings and emotions can be as painful as it is lovely. But she said that she did see some things anew after reading them this time around. Maybe slight nuances that resonated differently with her now than they did in the past. And it makes you realize how incredible it can be to hear someones voice again through even the plainest sentences and paragraphs.

I wish I could say my need for words is selfless, but unfortunately, I have reduced myself to a beggar’s level in order to get them. Written or spoken, sometimes the desire for them is an overwhelming force that has no justification.

I tried to craft my serious high school boyfriend into a poet and asked him to spill his heart to me on yellow, college-ruled paper. Granted, as an enthusiastic thespian, he wasn’t too phased by the challenge, and even took it one step further by reading his soliloquies aloud. But I soon realized that it’s never the same when forced. It’s the unexpected words that make time stand still. The ones you never saw coming, and will never, ever forget.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, friends and I gathered at a dingy old bar for our regular Sunday night drink deal. Friends of friends were in attendance that we didn’t know and everyone tried to make introductions over the din of twentysomething voices. Suddenly a girlfriend grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “See that guy over there? The one with the plaid shirt and messy hair? He just told me that you are the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.”

I was completely dumbfounded. It had to be a mistake. These were not the kinds of things random people said to, or about me, ever. And though I can’t remember his name, and never saw him again after that night, I have such gratitude for those words in that moment. They serve to remind me that anything is possible when viewed through someone elses eyes.

Fast forward a few years: I’d been living in Chicago, working retail and going back to school for design, when I decided it was time for me to get an internship and start my foray into the real world. I found an enticing ad for an intern needed at a luxury jewelry design company, and was thrilled when they called to interview me only days after my resume submission.

The interview went great and they offered me the job on the spot. When I walked out of that building and started down the busy city street, I felt such an unmeasured joy and excitement about my future. Later I called my sister to share the news, going on and on about how hard I was going to work and how I couldn’t wait to contribute to the company. And she responded, “They don’t know how lucky they just got, finding you.”

It was such an incredibly genuine compliment that filled me to the brim with love for her.  And it’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough, or was falling short…that at one time, someone told me I was an asset, and I learned to believe it and work hard to prove it true.

Forgive me for reminiscing, I just can’t help myself sometimes. Not everyone likes to go back. And not everyone can.

My maternal grandmother has been sliding further into Dementia over the past year.  Forgetting her surroundings, her visitors, her life. Right now it’s mostly her short term memory, but at some point, will the long term memories also begin to fade? What will happen to the strong-willed, fiery and fabulous character she once was? I want to write it down—any vivid memories she has left, and those of my own—depicting the vibrant life she once led so that it will always exist.

I try to pay it forward with my own words. If you know me (or are reading this blog at all) you’ll know enough that I am not a short winded person. I could never be a true journalist where the information must be relayed in short, concise messaging that doesn’t elaborate. I’m the girl who wrote about the sparkling, glittering, brilliant, gorgeous, rainbow-colored, splashing diamond waterfall when she was 8. I’m not sure how much has changed.

I give my words freely in the hopes that, sometimes, they will mean as much to others as theirs do to me. I try to paint pictures so crystal clear that I can envelop those around me and take them there, too. And I write about what matters to me most so that I’ll always have a time machine.

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Not A Nerd…But Almost

Remember that character in Sixteen Candles with the back brace? The one played by Joan Cusack who had braces and wore a red sweatshirt with some 50’s doowop girl on the front? And when Joan bent over for a drink at the water fountain (all awkward and hunched because the metal hinges on her brace only allowed for robotic movement) she used the skirt on her sweatshirt to wipe her mouth?

That could have been me. That probably should have been me. Somehow I managed to escape epic nerddom by a just a hair.

A brief (or not so brief, depending on your attention span) blast to the past will outline a few of my more prominent dweebilicious traits. Weigh in as you will. Remind me of others I have forgotten, this should be fun.

The Eyepatch

It wasn’t a black pirate one, but almost as bad. I have what is called a “lazy eye”, and NOT I must clarify, the kind that runs rampant in its eye socket like a cat chasing red laser dots on the wall. This kind of lazy eye is truly of the slacker sort, and allows its counterpart to do all the work while it sits aside, smoking pot, looking pretty and batting its eyelashes at the passersby.

My patch was flesh colored, which now that I think about it, might have been worse than channeling good ol’ Captain Hook. It pretty much matched my skin color and was plastered over my left eye and worn in hideous combination with oversize 80’s wire-rimmed glasses. I bet from afar it looked like I didn’t even have a left eyeball, just some super creepy stretched skin cavity where a normal 9 year olds eyeball should have been. And I walked around like this, day and night (that’s right, I had to even sleep in this ocular bandaid), possibly oblivious to the horrified looks of small children. Or just blind to them because they were always on my left side.

I endured an entire summer of this superficial deformity. I can only imagine the kind of traumatic, self loathing inspired poetry this inspired at the time. (That’s right, 9 year old poetry. Also nerdy). And now my left eye is only slightly worse than my right with proper lense correction. My family was kind enough to avoid any photographs during this short phase of my life so that it’s memory lurks only in the disgruntled recesses of my brain. It’s so much easier to laugh about when the off-balance, one-eyed raccoon tan line fades.

Scoliosis

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in 5th grade. This was after several embarrassing moments in the gym locker room where some stocky, fuzzygendered nurse would ask me to lean over the dressing bench while he/she ran a prehistoric plastic tool down my spine. For everyone else it was a quick, painless swipe. But for me…there was always this dramatic arm movement when he/she swished around the curves of my rogue vertebrae. Then there would be sighing, and retrying, as if on the 3rd attempt each spindly, spinal piece would suddenly jump to attention and back in line.

What followed was quarterly trips to the Orthopedic Surgeon so that they could slap lead magnets over my ovaries and x-ray my thoracic curvature for changes. My spine was a lazy piece o’ poo. Slumping in not just one spot, but two! Making a sinking, slimy ‘S’ pattern on my back that, later in life, prompted my mother—irritated already by the 90’s trend of backless tops—to point out that I “didn’t really have a pretty back”. (Sorry mom, hate to throw you under the bus here, but that comment has been the source of much laughter between your two eldest daughters throughout the years).

I had nightmares that I’d end up like Joan Cusack. A clunky, rigid human being who creaked her way through life, carrying an oil can just like the Tinman in case of rain. It’s possible these were the only months of my existance that I paid any attention to posture. I sat straight up, poised and proper through every reading, writing and hebrew school studies class I had. The completely slumped, side-shifted, kicked-back-gangster position I’m adopting currently in my chair as I type will clue you in that I managed to scrape by without the brace. However, if you happen to catch a glimpse of my back you can easily see where it goes astray. Just glad I managed to dodge that iron bullet.

Swing Choir

Now, the first of my two pushes towards nerdvana were out of my hands. Just random lumps of coal in my genetic stocking. But this third piece? All of my own making. When I turned 13 and entered 7th grade, something inside of me called out for, The Jazz Square! Three Part Harmony! Acappella Christmas Carols! and Awkward Middle School Choreography!

I tried out and, oh joy, joined a group of gangly bumpkins ready to sway their way through a bunch of boring show tunes. And as if just being a part of this song squad wasn’t enough, I somehow managed to get stuck in the soprano section. Have you heard me sing karaoke? I can rock a mean Just Like Jesse James, but those high notes are A STRETCH. So how could I have possibly ended up singing One Tin Soldier at the top of my lungs, at the top of the music scale? It must have sounded like someone was chasing a potbelly pig the entire performance the way I was squealing out those notes.

Thankfully that year, my weekend choir performances at the local retirement home were offset by a constant stream of Bar and Bat Mitzva parties on Saturday nights. While this may sound like it belongs in the geek bucket, it was actually a place to eat, drink (soda), and dance the night away with boys. Albeit they were the adolescent, hairy sort, but better than nothing. And I found that I’d rather belt out every word to Baby Got Back than Circle Of Life, which led to dumping swing choir the following year. Though, there may, or may not, be a video on my facebook page that some crazy ex-swing choir mate tagged me in. We’re dancing with hightops on our hands. Enjoy.

I’d like to be clear that I in no way mean to offend the glorious land of nerddom. I could have flourished there just as happily as anywhere. I’m just intrigued by the slight forces that ushered me away from the world of dungeons and dragons, and into one of busch light in basements. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had kind of an affinity for the loveable geek? The answer to why many of my crushes over the years had a couple of dorktastic qualities themselves. I consider it an honor that I was able to straddle the fence between spouting Shakespearean sonnets on stage, and playing Beer By Albertsons with the cool, older kids.

And now, what’s nerdy is cool, and all the lines are blurred and preconceived notions should be left at the door. And I’ll work hard to make sure that, whatever my child enjoys doing as he grows up, that I strive to embarrass him as much as possible along the way. Maybe he’ll develop a love for the foghorn, or realize early on that studying cell particles is his thing, or take up yodeling. Or, you know that lone boy in the ballet recital who’s dressed as a crab while all the other girls are mermaids? That might be my kid.

I’ll never be sorry for the path I’ve traveled thus far. It’s all just a part of Choose Your Own Adventure, right? But dude, I’m pretty happy that I don’t have an eyepatch on right now.

To Israel And Halfway Back

***Written years ago for a travel writing class in college, I recently reread this story and realized its potency and relevancy in the world of today. It highlights memories that still blaze true, and are even more reflective now that my sister is living in Israel.***

Seventeen is a tender age to visit one’s homeland.  In a place where the sun rises and sets on some of the holiest places on earth, my memories of Israel are a haphazard collection of adolescent love affairs, fabulous mountaintop sunbathing and nights spent taking vodka shots out of empty film canisters.  At the time I promised myself that I would write in a journal every one of the thirty-four days that I was in that tiny strip of exotically landscaped history; but when reading that journal today I find misspelled Hebrew names of the landmarks we visited, plenty of gossip on who slept in whose sleeping bag last night and whether that strange kid actually attempted suicide with the plug-in wire from the iron.

I remember nameless places and sweat drenched complaining.  I remember techno dancing in bomb shelters and mysterious eggplant meals.  But most of all, I remember those sunsets.  The most alluring and heart stopping moments that stun you back to life, running on the cracked, barren ground toward the ends of the earth, just to make the magic last a few more precious seconds.

Visiting the Bedouins and following them camelback through the desert was the most authentic, yet somehow luxurious experience I had on my israeli adventure.  Knowing that this group of people were vagabond types who slept in tents far away from civilian cities, I reluctantly dragged my hundred pound wheeless suitcase towards what looked like a circus tent made of rain resistant tarp.  I groaned as we stumbled over jagged rocks and looked around at the vast and empty expanse that surrounded our hovel for the night.

Pulling back the plastic shower curtain of a door to get inside, I ran into a few of my fellow group members who stood fairly agape at our Indiana Jones accommodations.  It was so unexpected that you had to take a minute to shake off the surprise of finding Persian rugs sprawled across the floor and miniature round tables set low to the ground, crowned with lit candles and surrounded by soft, white pillows.

It was warm and glowing inside the corners of the three-walled abode, and on the left side you noticed that there was no curtain enclosing us from the world outside.  Ten feet from where we were sleeping was a fence of 4’ boulders all snuggled up against one another, attempting to keep warm amidst the evening desert wind.  Beyond that protective barrier, the earth dropped off into nothing.  Miles below the land looked like a feather stuffed quilt, its colors and designs rolling up and down against the twilight sky.

It’s hard to breathe standing in a place like that, where the wind is tempted to blow you right off of your crest and into the waves below.  Everyone has colorless eyes, reflected against the wash of pinkish grey, cascading down the boundaries of the world.

Israel is like a whirlwind game of Jumanji, where a new set of challenges and adventures are awaiting you around every turn.  In a country that is only 280 miles long and about 85 miles wide, it seems that the eclectic landscape of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are the only thing residing peacefully together in the cramped quarters.

Five years ago when I boarded my midnight Tel Air flight to Israel, over 500 other anxious adolescents were joining me.  In a time of so-called peace, there was only one suicide bombing that happened in Jerusalem during the month I was traipsing around, and I probably only stopped for a second to be thankful I wasn’t near the attack.  Now, most of the youth group trips to Israel have been cancelled. Any young adventurers are left to endure a hundred year sleep plagued with nightmares, patiently waiting for prince charming to sword through the decades of war’s undergrowth, and let back in the dreamers.

We were the dreamers, the schemers and troublemakers taking over the gawky tour buses that summer. Seventeen, free from parents, and legal to buy alcohol and cigarettes, get tattoos and piercings, we skirted around every rule and took full advantage of all our opportunities.  Trekking through the sandy sun drenched Negev, I lit a cigarette while riding high atop my new camel friend, Abu.  There were so many clothes, sleeping bags, and other random supplies stuffed into the side pockets of Abu’s sporty fanny pack that my inner thighs were stretched in gymnast like directions.  I just looked down to my far-from-Moses-and-forty-years-in-the-desert-friendly companions and laughed, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were smoking a Camel on my camel?!”

By noon the heat in the desert is too intense for laymen to be bumming around in, and our Bedouin guide led us to a giant rock structure that seemed to rise out of the barren landscape at exactly the right time.  It was a twenty-foot alcove that tucked us inside its cool, stone walls, and we scattered like mice to find the best shaded hiding places that might lull us into mid-afternoon sleep.

No air conditioned hostel before, or cushioned mattress after, would offer the kind of sleep we found in that sprawling old piece of God’s architecture.  I lay there with my head resting on my water bottle, looking out into the starkly blue and brown landscape, peacefully unappreciative that it would be one of the most serene moments of my life.

When you first think about camel trekking through the desert, Aladdin-like images are conjured up full of rolling orange sand dunes and magic carpets.  But our abandoned dune seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood singularly majestic amongst the miles of flat, cracking, rocky desert floor.  After a breathless climb to the top, I expected to look out over that imaginary sea of blowing stand, but instead was accosted with more of the rocky, ungraceful terrain we had previously traversed.  So I sat atop my lonely beach castle and entertained myself in the evening sun, watching handfuls of sand slalom around the stiff brown hairs on my unshaven legs.

For millions of people around the world, Israel is the religious mecca, and some spend all their lives trying to make one trip to see the birthplace of their beliefs.  When I tell people that I spent over a month in the holy land when I was only seventeen, they always ask me, why?  I tell them that it is sort of a tradition.  I tell them that my parents did it when they were teenagers, and it was their plan to send their children to experience the same sort of adventure.  I tell these people that it was my right of passage, my good fortune, to be sent away to have such an important and life altering experience.  Sometimes I wonder what I have to show for such a lucky break besides remnants of the vulgar songs we used to sing on the bus, and photographs of the vicious sunburns we managed to incur.

People look at me in disbelief when they find out that I spent so much time in this war torn country at such a young age.  I find it impossible to explain that it hasn’t always been this way, that there have been times of peace, that Israel is a stunningly beautiful country perfect for any type of fantastical vacation or getaway.  I see the confusion in their eyes and know that they are wondering how it is possible, after all of these bombings, that anything beautiful could be left behind.

I remember how we used to sit in only our bras during the long trips up the coast, and pluck our eyebrows to pass the time.  I remember how we begged to go see Armageddon one night and I cried the whole movie through.  But most of all, I still remember those sunsets.  We ran on the cracked, barren ground towards the ends of the earth; watching the dragon-fire sun sink deeper into the dusk, with tears in our eyes from the stinging dry air and my camera long since gone.  I stared in disbelief and promised myself I would never forget what that moment felt like.  The most alluring and heart stopping moment, that still stuns me back to life.