I guess you could say I’m fairly impressionable. Not in a way that makes me easy prey to cult leaders...I hope. You won’t find me selling pamphlets in airports for the Hare Krishnas or accosting people on Hollywood Blvd. in front of the Scientology Center. But when I’m exposed to something that I find particularly interesting, no matter how far outside my personal experience, I can go from complete obliviousness to full-out obsession in a manner of seconds.
I’ve noticed this in my job. Most of the books I work on these days focus on social studies, literacy, early childhood, or ESL issues. Occasionally we have staff meetings in which we are introduced to other disciplines and get to hear the editors who work in different fields discuss their upcoming seasons. I used to love math when I was in school until some truly bad high school teachers sucked that love right out of me. I don’t think I ever took a math class after sophomore year geometry (where our teacher called unplanned tests “parties”) and I went through adult life with the common phobia of “I hate math, I’m horrible at math, etc.” But last year when the Heinemann math editor introduced us to some of her interesting new titles, I had a sudden about face. “Math is the answer!” I cried. “Math is the only thing that will get these kids motivated about school! Everything should be about math.” Similarly, a poorly designed and completely over-my-head astronomy class in college turned me off to science in a big way. “Science is not for me,” I’d sadly intone. So much for my dream of becoming an Apollo astronaut (or was my space career already in trouble because of the fact that even going up in a Ferris wheel filled me with utter terror?). But when I learned about Heinemann’s latest science titles, my dormant attraction to the Periodic Table of the Elements was reignited. “Science is the key,” I insisted. “Every subject in school should be designed around thematic science concepts.”
Last Friday night we had Shabbat dinner with my orthodox cousins Nurit and Ephraim who were visiting from Israel with four of their seven children. They lived in L.A. when the kids were small but I haven’t seen them since they left 10 years ago. What a shock it is to see children after so long when you have such a strong memory of them as young kids—it was like looking at those computer-generated renderings they do of missing children to give people an idea of what they will look like as they age. All through the Shabbat meal, the family would burst into song, spontaneously breaking into perfect six-part harmony as they sang the Sabbath prayers. The kids, all close in age, were so sweet with each other, and I was immediately struck with two things I absolutely needed to do with my life: 1) become an orthodox Jew, and 2) have seven children. Why oh why didn’t my family indoctrinate us into the fold as seriously as most of my relatives did? It was obvious to watch my cousins that their faith was the centerpiece of their life, around which all other concerns revolved. And where are Leah’s six brothers and sisters? I want my own set of Jewish von Trapps, raising their voices in song in between the gefilte fish and chicken soup. This fantasy lasted until the next morning. Then I remembered my grandfather's constant attempts to entrench us in orthodox rituals throughout my childhood. In truth, I love Judaism today but only because I have worked hard to forge a version of it that resonates with me, and I don’t think my practices would cut it in the world of orthodoxy. Oh well. And as for my missing children, the fact is that Kendall and I are actively trying to get pregnant right now (oy, sorry for that visual, and of course I don’t mean RIGHT NOW—we’re on a plane and my membership in the mile-high club has long since lapsed) and I’m in enough of a panic about the possibility of bringing ONE more Miller onto the planet at my age, much less an entire Brady Bunch worth of future musical comedy stars. We visited a fertility doctor last week for the first time, just to check out our aging parts (again, sorry for the visual), so who knows? Maybe Kendall will have sextuplets and my dreams of being Georg von Trapp will be realized. Until then, I have enough anxiety about raising my existing child, thank you very much. And to be honest, while I think large families can be the coolest, I’m pretty sure that I’m way too selfish to adapt to that lifestyle. Nor would I want my newfound orthodoxy to cramp my style—what if there were a screening of a nitrate print of 1944’s film noir “Laura” at the Academy on a Friday night and I couldn’t go because it was Shabbat? I’m not saying that my love of Gene Tierney exceeds my love of God, but…well…
In the SuperShuttle on the way to LAX this morning we stopped in Inglewood to pick up a wonderful man in his 60s who was on his way to Atlanta to attend his 47th high school reunion. We watched him kiss his loving wife good-bye. She recently retired after 35 years teaching third grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District and now runs bible classes at their church. This man had gone to a very small school in Georgia that was shut down as segregation came to an end and the African-American students were allowed into the larger high schools. Although he walked with some difficulty and recently had an operation on his back, he seemed far more active than I could ever hope to be. He told us about his passion—traveling the country in his motor home and camping at remote lakes, deserts, and state and national parks. His enthralled description of the natural beauties of this country made me wonder why I spend the vast majority of my life on a concrete slab. Now that his children are grown and his wife is no longer interested, he travels mostly alone, but next week he is taking his five-year-old grandson on his first camping trip with Grandpa. As we got out of the van at the Southwest Airlines terminal, I was convinced. “Kendall, I want to start camping! Let’s buy a motor home and tour the country. I want to see the stars every night! I need more natural beauty in my life.” I thought about moving to Inglewood and befriending this man. Maybe he’d take ME on my first camping trip with Grandpa! Everything about this man, I thought as we snaked through the Southwest Airlines security maze, from his adoring wife to his long-term friendships with his high school classmates to his extended family, camping experiences, and love of church, seemed like the perfect ingredients for a truly fulfilling life.
Is my own existence so empty that I feel the urge to radically change my life whenever I meet somebody interesting? Why does it cross my mind to switch professions whenever I hear somebody talking passionately about theirs? Why can’t I walk out of the Cirque du Soleil without thinking that I must devote my life to becoming a gymnast (hey, stop laughing, it is not too late!). Why when I’ve visited the First A.M.E. Church in L.A. do I practically have to be held down to keep myself from being "saved" then and there and joining their fabulous gospel choir? Why can't I pass large Chasidic familes on La Brea Boulevard without thinking that I should grow payess and start talking Yiddish to Leah? I’m hoping that instead of indicating my own discontentment, this tendency only means that I am a naturally curious person who gets excited about life and enjoys being around other people who are excited about theirs. At the moment, I’m ready to drop everything and devote my life to Southwest Airlines, this flight is the greatest. Comfortable leather seats, free snacks galore (a rarity these days), and only one class so we don’t have to gaze at the hoi polloi eating their damn shrimp cocktails in first class. Not that I’d be eating anything other than the kosher plate. Remember, I’m turning ultra-orthodox.