Monday, July 14, 2008

THE HAIR CUT by M. Maines

I have been feeling overwhelmingly happy lately. At eight a.m. on Saturday, after a run, I felt a rush of zestfulness which had been absent in previous weeks. When excitedly debating if I should plant the marigolds first, or perhaps plot the herb garden, but either way, I’ll wear that pretty new dress, I treasured the sensation as a testimony that things are going well.

Within the impulsive sequence of fulfilling my desires, I chose to cut my hair. I biked up to Washington St to get the style I had been lusting of for weeks. A man that hated the cold sculpted my black mane quickly, and with confidence. It was an asymmetrical shape, short on one side, long on the other. There is a small gradient of bangs off to the left. I left feeling beautiful. A man was standing on the corner. He says, “Couldn’t ask for better weather.” I thought he was flattering me.

My friend Torin, who is the most talented within my circle of friends, had the same cut several months before. On her, it looked good, coy, established her as a force to be reckoned with. I like the look on me because it is whimsical and playful. I like it because I am doing something that I want. I also know, immediately, that a line has been drawn in the sand, for my boss will not like it.

That night, in front of the mirror on my dresser, I consider chopping off the long and pretty pieces. I practice posturing my hair just so, hoping that if I kept my head still, she wouldn’t even notice. The easiest thing would be to find the scissors now, but the action seems too sorrowful.

When I entered the building on Monday morning, I see my employer’s eyes registering me; her lips are still. Her position is clear. The mothers took a few days to respond. Julie, who is always wearing tennis shoes and glasses, said it looked like someone forgot to finish the cut, but the one side looked cute. Carry, the most emotional of the moms, said it looked youthful. Teresa, who is moody and formal, said it looked interesting after requesting that I move my head from side to side.

I’ve become insecure. I ask Maddie, a four year old, if it looks funny or if she likes it. Maddie, who is horrified by mistakes, says I should grow it out long because it looks very funny. I’ve been ducking over the children’s waist high mirrors, checking out my own black stripe. When I look at myself, though, I only see something that seems sweet, sensual, perfect to me. I’ll just indulge for this week, I argue to myself.

These young children are saddled with norms in a way that frightens me. I work at a pre-school. There, they all know that long hair is more socially desirable. Iris, who is sly and playful, draws herself with long rapunzel hair, and tells other people she will have long hair again soon.

I can’t imagine myself with long hair, for my hair becomes a wild stallion, a beast, and inside its cage of tangled locks, I am constantly frustrated. It is odd to me how hair becomes this site of female status positioning. I think of the younger populations I know, my social groups at the potlucks, who can acknowledge that this hair cut is relevant, rite of permission and acceptance, but of how limited that acceptance, how finite.
My fickleness irritates me. I dislike this weakness of whispering questions to these small humans, of trying to comfort myself.

When I am at home, eating a Popsicle on a hot day at our new kitchen table, I start to think that they are probably correct, my hair cut is unprofessional, or worse, unattractive. But, at this point, the mildly aggressive boundary setting feels like a challenge. I have always considered myself a radical because I like the exhilaration of going against the grain. When my sister had cancer, my mother cut her long silken black locks into a something crude, something short. When my mother died, I wanted to shave my head as a sign of unity, but my father wouldn’t allow it. I could have used my own hand to buzz the strands, but perhaps I’ve always been the sort who paid too much attention to the rules.

Friday, July 11, 2008

THE CZECHS by Alice Jaffee

When I think of the essence of Czech culture, this song comes to mind: “Aproc Bychom Se Netesili.” It’s from Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride.” Full of optimism, joy, playfulness and always a hint of sex in this quite humorous opera.

So I wanted to tell you how I first came, yes, to hate it. I mean the whole opera. It was a weekday. Oh, yes, back when I was ten or so. I heard that we are going to the movies, to the big “Imperato Cinema,” to see a film of “The Bartered Bride.” The enterprising proprietor greeted us royally, counted the eight heads of the Bondy family, then the friends of ours who were always welcome to come -- Max Brettschneider, always, Hilda Eckstein, Erika Grohman and others. Cheaper by the dozen, so to speak. He usually came up with a reasonable price and put us into one of the front rows.

I had made up my mind I was going to sleep this one out. I was tired from extra gym activity. Just so tired. Alas, this one was much too noisy for my plan. Every time I could catch a little snooze – boing! Another loud, loud aria. Mingled with this malaise was the piano teacher’s verdict that I was tone deaf and could not be considered to become a student. To hell with all that classical music. I did like the “Schlaggers,” the popular hits like “Schon ist die Liebe in Haffen” and other schmaltz.

Many, many years later, in Woodstock, in fact, I woke up one morning and decided to listen to Smetana’s opera with unbiased ears. (It would be interesting to know what brought it on.) No one owned a copy of it – so, I went out to order one. It took weeks before it arrived. I loved it, loved it, loved it! – And this aforementioned song (aria) is now almost a mantra of mine. It translates “Why shouldn’t we be happy, since God granted us health!” The right to be happy, joyful, despite adversities, ours or others’. The Czechs really were that way.

One of my father’s tenants in the four-story building we lived in – a family – was a totally Czech family. The man never spoke German. His name was Suchy – which translates simply as “dry.” Dry he was, almost sour in temperament. He was a tax collector to boot!

Mrs. Suchova, on the other hand, made up mightily for all his shortcomings in social graces. In her presence one felt joyful. Her beautiful lips always about to break into a smile, her shiny black hair -- I remember it so well – was pinned back softly over the ears and the bright rhinestone barrettes met in the middle of the back of her head. Her bella donna eyes twinkled at you amid the milk-white skin of her face. She just seemed to enjoy the sexual innuendos that came her way. They surely had a contrasting balancing act. A playful and lusty pat on her backside was enough of a signal to exit.

Before I let them recede into my memory bank, I want to recall the great cleanliness and warmth of their home and the love she had for their son, Prender, who also never learned German. Paradoxically, my kid brother, Ruben, and Prender went to Czech school together. At this time it was deemed better to avoid German schools. Ruben spoke Czech to him.

Some of my favorite people were the peddlers. They would come after the workers left around 6pm. They would come by appointment. Some three or four of them. Buying men’s and women’s socks, women’s silk and wool stockings, men’s elegant white-on-white shawls made of rayon (“baum wolle”). The men just spoke Czech during the great exchange of energy – gusto and goods. My father, Sam Bondy, as all Czech Jews, spoke a condescending Czech – a noblesse oblige gesture. I don’t know if Pappa was aware of it.

When I saw them coming I quickly ensconced myself in a corner of the second floor at the big oak table where the show was about to begin. My mother appeared with the best Meinl coffee, her delectable pastries generously heaped. The precious gold-rimmed china already in place, the ones reserved for fine company. Nobody told me to leave. I endured all the off-color jokes and boasting about sexual conquests in the countryside while selling their wares. I liked the sparkle in their eyes and their joy of being royalty for the day. They praised Pappa to each other: “Faynovy clovek,” “What a refined man.”

Deep down Sam Bondy actually identified with them. Pappa was born into great poverty in the poorest of the poor neighborhoods on the southside of Chicago’s stockyards. His mother of noble Kohn birth in desperation sent her undernourished older son to Catholic parochial school solely because of the hot lunches – mama mia! He liked mingling with working people. He rose above them. His was an Horatio Alger story.

I liked when the peddler clients had made their purchases. They would finally turn to me and say something like, “Little girl, when you grow up and get married, don’t skimp on food. Skimp on other things, but eat healthy. Promise.” They said it to me in broken German. I must say I kept that promise.

Both my mother and father were skilled salespeople. Pappa had this ability I sometimes see on the Home Shopping Network where you can be seduced into feeling privileged to part with your money so gratefully for the honor of being the potential owner of this remarkable “gem” they are so lovingly stroking.

When the colorful men left they had tears in their eyes out of gratitude. Magic, n’est ce pas?

Another Czech personality I fondly remember – alas, her name I no longer remember – was our Czech teacher at school. She was so typically Czech. Darkish blond hair, blue eyes, robust health. She had this ambition to instill in us Germans a love for this Slavic language. There was this play (I think she had authored it) about the circus. She wore eccentric, theatrical skirts and blouses, definitely a thespian, a real Bohemian. I loved her. I remember all those talking circus animals and then there was Ferdinande and Jacobe – hopelessly in love with the same girl. She just could not reach those German schildren. They, alas, felt strangely aloof, subconsciously superior. Well, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

The play never came to be performed, but I had learned my part of the talking horse diligently. I very much suspect she never got much support from the school principal who regarded the Czechs an inferior minority. What an incredible chutzpah that was! Here was this newly established country – democratic to a fault. This Sudeten region was unfortunately a stronghold of a close Hitler ally named Conrad Henlein who delivered the Sudeten Germans to Hitler. Chamberlain’s shortsightedness made the rape possible. German culture was so entrenched. From the Austro-Hungarian empire – Yisgadal veyisgadash.

Deep down I must have identified with the injustice vis a vis the Czechs who were not treated as equals, as I was not by my family.

The saving grace is that the precious city of Prague with all its splendor was saved from destruction. American youths go there now to luxuriate in the coffee houses and find themselves in this sunny land of splendid democracy – Pravda Vitezi – the truth wins.