Friday, July 29, 2005

The Fabulous Yiddisher Britisher Tour Begins

Perhaps I've watched too many episodes of the BBC "What Not to Wear" (actually, I think I haven't seen nearly enough), but I saw plenty of fashion disasters while cooling my heels in Dulles airport waiting for my flight to London yesterday. First, there should be a total ban on baby-pink cowboy hats. They are an abomination, even (or especially) when perched on the head of perky blonde cheerleader types. Second, more women should wear a salwar kameez (long, slit tunic over loose trousers worn by Punjabis & Pakistanis), which can be tailored to enhance the figure or left loose to hide flaws. Third, fewer (i.e., none) should wear micro short-shorts (we used to call them hot pants) & tight tank tops, especially females with, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, low-slung pelvises and heavy calves. Those females would look ever so much better in, oh, a salwar kameez. And don't get me started on all the flabby bellies I saw hanging out over low-slung jeans.

Handy tips:
1) To lessen jet lag, fly to Europe in the morning & arrive at night. Flight is less crowded too (or maybe that was just because fewer people want to go to London these days, for some reason).

2) The foreign exchange booth at Dulles doesn't open till 2:30pm--useless for said a.m. flight. However, there's a 24-hour booth at Heathrow just outside the baggage claim area.

3) When traveling, wear a shirt you wouldn't mind sleeping in--and wearing next day till your lost bag finally shows up. United Airlines provides a lovely overnight kit w/ toiletries and an oversized white T-shirt, but the latter is so scratchy with sizing as to be unwearable.

Favorite signs in London:
1) "Humped zebra crossing" - No, it's not for a dromedary equine, it's a raised pedestrian crosswalk.

2) "Mind your head" - This was over the low doorway going into the breakfast buffet at my hotel, but I think it's invaluable advice for all of life.

Favorite new Britishisms, learned from a London cabbie today:
1) "Sleeping policemen" = speed bumps, of which there are a nauseating number in Islington. Perfect for practicing hunt seat, as if going over a jump on a horse.

2) "Rat run" = cut-through side streets, many of which now contain sleeping policemen.

I met British writer Howard Jacobson (THE MAKING OF HENRY; ROOTS, SCHMOOTS: Journeys Among Jews, etc.) for brunch today. Ironically, given the subject of his books and my visit, almost every eatery on the block was Arab; we ate at a fantastic little Lebanese place where I also had dinner last night. I am now officially addicted to grilled halloumi (Cypriot cheese). Though Jacobson's people come from Manchester and Lithuania before then, and I keep discovering more cousins in & around Manchester, previously from Latvia & Lithuania, we established that we are not related by blood or marriage. So far, anyway; there are still more cousins to unearth.

And speaking of unearthing, I and 2 cousins were denied entrance to Edmonton Cemetery this afternoon (picture follows, once I figure out how to upload pix from my shiny new camera). Yes, the place closes at 4pm, but no one bothered to tell me that the gates lock up tight at 3pm. In another delicious irony, the cemetery immediately next to it--though separated by an immense block wall surmounted with barbed wire--is for Muslim Turks.

Grim view from the Greenway alongside Edmonton Cemetery.
(Yes, I know what it looks like...)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Loops in the Family Tree

Here in Virginia, one of the local pastimes is telling West Virginian jokes. (You have to look down on someone, right?) On I-81 in Virginia, the speed limit is 65, but in West Virginia it's 70. The reason for that, I cracked wise one day, is because they're hurrying home to their cousins.

Since then, I've learned that in West Virginia it's illegal to marry your first cousin. But it isn't in New York. (Take that, Murray Hillbillies!)

For the past three years I've been researching my family tree, aided enormously by the databases and Family Finder feature at, the website for Jewish genealogy. And here is what I found:

I come from people who marry their cousins.

I'd known for years that my father's aunt Dinah had married a Stander cousin from England, Sam. Supposedly he was a second cousin, but there were no hard facts, and I've yet to find any evidence either way. I always figured this was an anomaly; a one-off kind of thing. And then in the course of more research, I found a second pair of cousins who married, and a third, and a fourth. Dinah and Sam weren't aberrations, they were the norm!

The practice seems to have stopped after World War II, and fortunately wasn't so pervasive that we're all mad (at least not very), or have hemophilia. However, it has ensured a marked resemblance through all the branches of the family, especially the men. My father, the late actor Lionel Stander, exemplifies the Stander Y-chromosome look: barrel chest, skinny shanks; broad, round-cheeked face; reddish hair, freckles. A cousin I recently met has the same round cheeks and stiff-legged gait as my father. Through JewishGen, I heard from a man who claimed kinship. I was ho-hum about it (my dad is a popular guy to be related to) until I got his photo in an email. And then I nearly plotzed. I forwarded it to my mom, and her reaction was the same as mine: "Oh my God!"

The gravelly voice was my dad's alone, but I hear eerie resonances in other Stander men. Three of my far-flung cousins, who have never met each other or even spoken, sound almost identical. Another says, "Hello, Bella!" in the exact same intonation as my dad, albeit with an English accent. I like to call him just so I can hear his voice; it's like getting a piece of my father back.

Tomorrow I'm off to England, in search of the Stander mishpocha*. No doubt I'll find many more familial resemblances--and differences--while I'm there. Stay tuned for the Fabulous Yiddisher Britisher Tour.

*(Yiddish) entire family network

Monday, July 25, 2005

Whose Story Is It?

While traveling a couple of weeks ago, I reunited with a friend I hadn't seen in more than 20 years, whom I shall call "Jane." Over dinner with her and another long-lost mutual friend, I shared news of my life and that of our friend "Kevin." We all had a great time, and when we parted I was full of warm, fuzzy feelings over old ties renewed.

Last week, Jane sent out an e-newsletter chronicling recent events in her life, with a good one-third devoted to our meeting, including liberal quotes of what I'd said over dinner about Kevin's personal life. Many of the salient details were dead wrong, and I sounded like a gossipy bitch. I only found out about this when Jane proudly forwarded me a response to her newsletter from an old acquaintance of mine (whom I didn't know she knew), who'd gone to college with Kevin.

I felt betrayed that Jane would broadcast my private remarks, and mortified at the thought that word would get back to Kevin. And as a journalist, I was furious that Jane hadn't bothered to tell me beforehand that I would be "on the record," or to verify my quotes afterwards.

When we finally spoke, Jane couldn't understand why I was so upset. She explained that she'd been sending weekly newsletters for some time, and supposedly they were being archived at some institution along with papers from her earlier life as an activist. Jane said that she sees herself as a cross between Anais Nin and Michael Musto (I made a mental note to laugh about that later), and that her life is in the public domain. "Well, mine isn't!" I snapped.

Following the first rule of politics ("Kill the story before it kills you"), I called Kevin and told him the gist of what happened. However, I didn't think it necessary--or kind--to let him know exactly what Jane had written. So there's been no bad fallout.

However, this affair caused me to think about some larger issues. Namely: Whose story is it? When you write about your own experiences, where do you draw the line between your life and others'? Whose memory is right? (think of "Rashomon") And what do you owe the people you write about? Do you describe them and your feelings about them exactly, even though it might hurt them? Do you ask permission to write about them? Do you even tell them at all--and if you don't, are you opening yourself up to legal action?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Past Not Quite Recaptured

I started reading a review copy of a historical novel that's coming out this fall, which was ballyhooed as a sexy page-turner, rife with period details. Hah! The action takes place in late 17c northern Europe, yet one character wears "bloomers" (invented ca 1850); another speaks of his master's "gift for sadism" (de Sade was in late 18c & the word "sadism" wasn't in use till at least 1885); the heroine is imprisoned in a shabby room, where there's an old cotton coverlet on her bed (not then, there wasn't!). I threw in the towel at page 170, as I no longer believed in the world the author created; nor, for that matter, the plot and characters.

In other novels I've reviewed, one author placed kerosene lanterns in 17c Salem, Mass. (kerosene was invented in 1852); another had characters in 1850s London using such words as "claustrophobic" (introduced 1875), "slow motion" (1925-30) and "loner" (1945-50), plus had roses blooming outside at Christmas; yet another had her heroine in the mountains of North Carolina in the late 18c making raisins from wild grapes (no way: pits are too big, skins too tough, berries too small & climate too damp) and giving sugar cookies to one and all at Christmas (as if! sugar would have been way too expensive & hard to come by to dispense so freely).

Why don't writers do their homework? Why don't editors and copy editors (assuming there are any of the latter left) catch these errors--and many, many more--before they make their way into print? Am I the only one who notices or cares?

P.S. Alas, even my childhood love, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, suffers from inaccuracy. Heroine Kit swims, something no proper English girl would have known how to do in 17c Barbados. I did research on Barbados for my as-yet unwritten Great American Novel, and in those days only the native Caribs and Africans swam. In fact, the latter are credited with inventing the freestyle stroke.

P.P.S. There are some authors who get the details right. (By odd coincidence, they also write compellingly. Hmm...) Specifically: Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal & the White), Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Virgin Blue, etc.), Louis Bayard (Mr. Timothy), Edmund White (Fanny).