Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mazel Tough

"Ugh, how much are you giving him?"

I'm on the phone with my sister, about two hours before our cousin's son's Bar Mitzvah.  I haven't been to a Bar Mitzvah since the dawn of my own pubescent awkward phase (1985-1989) and have no idea how much constitutes an appropriate gift.  (Let me explain: the generally accepted gift for a Jewish life event is a check.  Gifts and registries are for Hanukkah (Worst. Holiday. Ever.) and Engagement Parties.  Bar Mitzvahs and Weddings require gifts of cash.  It makes it easier to figure out exactly what people think of you and what to think of them in return.  We're going to judge each other anyway, so this provides a quantifiable way of keeping score.)

"$268."  This is $250 + another $18 representing "ch'ai."  No, not the spicy tea of cloying sweetness served latte-style by Starbucks.  Pronounced like the word "Hi" as if spoken while clearing your throat or mocking a comical German accent, it is the symbol for "life" based on the numerical value of two letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

I'm a little blown away.  I figured, unless you are a close relative, the standard gift for a couple would be between $150 and $200.  After thinking about it, I decide to go with $200.  This has the benefit of making my sister look good while saving me a little bit of cash.

By 7:30pm Neil and I have ventured out into the frozen night and into a rental car.  Half an hour later we're  on Long Island - in the same catering hall where my sister got married - assaulted by an array of cousins, children of cousins, and non-cousin cousins (the cousins of your cousin who you aren't actually related to - like when the bloodline is through your aunt, so her kids are your cousins, but your uncle's bloodline produces nieces and nephews who are your cousin's cousins, but no relation to you.)

My mother has no brothers and sisters, but all her first cousins were like aunts and uncles to me.  All three of them had at least two kids - and one had four, now ranging in age from 40 to 17 - so I've always had lots of cousins.  And since most are (or were) married and had kids, there are a lot of people for Neil to meet for the first time.  Most of them live outside New York, from the DC area to Florida to Arizona.

I have to say Neil did a great job navigating the smorgasbord of family whose general sense of humor covers the limited range from snarky gossip to fart jokes.  Honestly, the evening was tame by historical standards (everyone got so drunk at one wedding ten years ago, none of us can remember it and no one is sure the couple ever actually got married.  Listen, at this point they have three kids, two mortgages, and one personality.  It no longer matters.)  I guess things quiet down now that most of them are between 40 and 50 and are in the presence of their teenage children.

One thing did happen, and I can't wait to tell you about it.  "Cousin" Trevor (I know, I usually stay away from names unless I have permission.  But Trevor is a public personality - he lives in L.A. and produces movies.  Bad movies.  Blame him for "All About Steve" - the dreadful Sandra Bullock-Bradley Cooper vehicle that no one saw but everyone laughed about.  And "License to Wed." Barf.)  Anyway, Trevor is a non-cousin cousin - we're all related through my aunt, and he's from my uncle's side of the family.

Trevor is the kind of guy who was attractive at 19 but probably treated you badly. And the combination of his looks and cocky attitude and your low-self-esteem issues made you think he was awesome.  But really, he was an asshole.  And a tool.  And a douche.  (I'm guessing.)  He's the guy whose looks get swallowed up by food and alcohol and arrogance so that, by the time he hits his early thirties he's bloated and obnoxious - sort of a junior Tony Soprano - who still wears his hair long and slicked back.  Yuck.

So "Cousin" Trevor hits on one of our cousins who is 50, going through a divorce, and clearly grossed out.  So, when she points out that it's gross, he's gross and - um - they're sort of family (like in Clueless, when they're not related, but sort of related, and it's kind of creepy when they become a couple.)

So he proceeds to hit on her 19 year old daughter.

Oh ... and his opening line, "You know, I'm kind of a big deal."

Can't make this stuff up folks.  I'm seriously glad there's no much crazy in my life, otherwise this blog would be nothing but Macaroni and Cheese recipes.

But otherwise, it was a great evening.  Most of my cousins are making the transition from 40 to 50 looking almost exactly the same.  My sister looked incredible.  Seriously - she's had three kids and gets about 11 minutes of sleep a night, but looks terrific and could easily pass for 27 (she's not.)

When we left, I thought about how nice it was to have so much family - and how much we all genuinely seem to love each other.  Maybe it's just because there's a better than even chance we're going to need to borrow money from each other at some point, but I do love a big family event.

Speaking of big events, I spent the balance of the week in Nashville - departing early Monday and returning late Friday.  It was my company's big sales kickoff meeting.  Ordinarily, I hate these events.  They always happen the second or third week of January.  Since most of the last six weeks of the year are relatively quiet, or are focused on one or two deals, January is when you're itching to see your clients and they have awoken from their food comas with a million things they need from you.  It makes it difficult to spend four days in a conference room without feeling a little antsy.

But I was looking forward to this - I'm new and needed to meet people, build relationships, and try out my jokes on a whole different audience.

I must admit - it was a great event but the duration wore on me after a while.  By Thursday I had gotten to the point where I couldn't sit still for longer than twenty minutes at a time.  My body had grown resistant to food fetched from a chafing dish (corporate trough) and the endurance challenge of starting my day with a 7am meeting and ending it with a social event lasting until 11pm. My brother-in-law, who is also in sales, calls these events "Structured Fun."

Oh - and the event was in Opryland - a massive resort with several wings connected by paths and gardens and a fake river.  It simulates the outdoors, but indoors, like being in one large pavilion at Disney's Epcot Center.  At one point, I went 69 hours without going outside.

The company has an energetic and entrepreneurial culture.  It's only been around 12 years, has grown rapidly through the massive adoption of its core product and several acquisitions, and everyone is so bright and eager it can be hard to avoid becoming cynical simply to provide some contrast.  The ethos of the company is jeans with a button down (not tucked in) and a blazer.  The muscial tastes are routed in the years between 1985 and 1992, with a dash of bar mitzvah thrown in.

There are no restaurants to report, since we mostly ate in the resort, except the night the party was downtown at B.B. King's and I wouldn't send people I hate there to eat.  Feh.  It's not about the food there.  It's about making it out without dancing like a fool.  (Pictures of me on the dane floor will NOT be posted here.)

Most of the week was spent in a news vacuum.  There was simply no time for television, and the only newspaper I saw was USA Today - so I didn't get any outside news that couldn't be represented by a pie chart.

Occasionally I got updates via Twitter, Facebook or CNN online.  I followed the battle over televising the Federal Court trial over Proposition 8.  I think it's ironic that the argument of the Prop 8 supporters is that they represent the popular will of the people (not really - it was a close vote, not a blowout) yet these people somehow represent a fragile populace and need to be protected from any risk created by televising the trial.  If the argument is popular will, then you can't deny the right of the people to view the process.

I also occasionally got updates on the tragedy in Haiti.  This is awful, people.  Awful.  There is no word, there are no jokes.  This is a country that cannot seem to escape devastation.  It has been plundered, exploited and battered over the years, from dictators to disease to natural disaster.  Yet, through it all, you cannot tamp down the incredible spirit of its people.  Haiti is the only country to rise from a slave revolt, kicking out the French Colonial imperialists and claiming their own nation.  The people resonate with hope and optimism and joy, even in the most terrible of circumstances.  It is humbling to watch people who had nothing, who lost their entire country and tens of thousands of family members and friends, entertain each other by dancing in the streets or line up patiently for a bottle of water and some food.  Yes, there has been some looting, and some riots, but the overall situation has been one of hope.

And, I have to admit, it was inspiring to see President Clinton and President Bush teaming up to assist in the relief effort and help raise money.  It reminds you how much more we could achieve if more issues were handled in a non-partisan manner - if we agreed the issue was too important for politics or partisanship and tried to legislate from the compromise rather than the differences.

Whatever you think of Bush - and the divisiveness and policies that arguably destroyed the country, or Clinton - and the pettiness, the triangulation and the high ideals but low morals - both of them have always been humanitarians.  Bush did more for the continent of Africa than any other President - addressing issues from malaria to HIV.  Meanwhile, Clinton has used his Clinton Global Initiative to help fund and tackle the world's greatest problems like poverty and disease.

So, we won't end with snark this week, folks.  There are a million ways to help. (Text "HAITI" to 90999.) Give to aid organizations such as Partners in Health, or Doctors without Borders, or the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

Even gross Cousin Trevor would give something.


  1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Bar-Mitzvah. You can use Simchabucks online gift calculator to figure out how much money to spend on a Bar Mitzvah gift.

  2. Ummm ... your cousin is Ron Burgundy?

    You're welcome. :)

  3. Fuh-ney as always.

    My only defense to my actions in Nashville is that I went to a private Christian college and never really experienced a frat party AND (if you noticed the Christian part in there) I've never been to a bar-mitzvah. So better late than never to the frat bar-mitzvah.

    PS - Is it possible for me to be part of a culture that mimics 1985 to 1992 when I was only 5-12 years old at the time?? Just sayin.