Monday, January 07, 2008

On the day after Christmas, even Jews are exhausted

On the day after Christmas, even Jews are exhausted. So little carpet, so much mopping!

Pre (my) pubescence, “mop-top” was a popular noun used by people with a professional interest in sterile prose to identify a recently discovered species of musician, indigenous to England, then coming into favor with those professionals’ sterilized children. Why were they called mop-tops? Perhaps because they cleaned up, financially speaking.

In my middle age, and especially during the holidays, a mop-top is a far more prosaic item used to clean floors soiled by relatives’ muddy shoes, misplaced hors d’oeuvres, paw prints, wily dust monsters, wayward ribbons, bows and wrapping paper, artificial pine needles shed by petroleum based pine trees and sundry food items that had attempted to escape from panting pots, hot plates and kitchen counters, only to discover that the laws of Toy Story do not apply to vegetables or condiments, and who, when captured away from any nutritional battleground, are considered to be and are treated as enemy combatants.

In the pre- and post-Christmas arena that is otherwise the dwelling my wife kindly allows me to share, I am the mop-top mercenary. In this battleground, there are frequently sharp engagements with such rogue elements as hard-boiled carrots, skittish silverware, bottle tops gone AWOL and unidentifiable sticky stuff. Officially, I am in charge of all mopping up operations. But I also bag and carry out the trash and recyclables.

Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Limpia, Limpia, Limpia*, I am not afraid of being replaced right away. My wife is too busy cooking. My mop and soapy water filled bucket comfort me.

*From the Spanish infinitive verb: Limpiar. Trans: To clean.
Imperative verb (command form): Limpia. Trans: Clean!

It’s a tough job, but my wife says I have to do it. She says we can’t afford extra help. Plus her mother is much more useful in the kitchen than I am. Especially with a knife. Personally, I think that she wants to keep me out of her hair but underfoot.

When I was young, my parents warned me again and again that marrying someone who shared our religious affiliations would ultimately make marriage easier (I think they meant more tolerable). Although they were both big league sales pros, I wasn’t buying. They would have had an easier time selling unbreakable nylon rope to the guy wearing the hood and handcuffs under a gallows-tree.

At the time, being young, naïve and analytical, I didn’t see how any married life could be worse than what I observed six and a half out of every seven days for most of my short life. Still, they insisted that it was important to have something in common.

By “something,” they meant religion. Our religion, as I understood it, consisted of membership in the ranks of the bourgeoisie and two obligatory family outings to Temple Emanuel each year.

As it happens, I was born in America. But like most children of that period and class, I found that my constitutional rights were few while my obligations were virtually unlimited. Consequently, I became a permanent member of the loyal opposition at an early age. In retrospect, it seems natural and appropriate that the woman that I eventually fell in love with and married was also a life-long member of the loyal opposition. It’s just that the high priests guiding her opposition wore robes of a different color than the corresponding leaders of the opposition on my side.

The high priests of the opposition on her side identified themselves with a plus sign. The preferred insignia on my side was an asterisk. On the other hand, the spiritual leaders on both sides wore yarmulkes at work.

Interestingly enough, the robes on her side prayed in a nearly lost language associated with an ancient, now vanished empire. A language that my wife didn’t speak. Guess what? The robes on my side did the same thing with another, equally ancient language that I didn’t speak. Coincidence or fate? You tell me.

And you know what, on both sides, the ones wearing the robes were guys.

The main difference between us seemed to be that the opposition on her side traced its ideological roots back to the state that had once or twice vanquished the state to which the opposition on my side traced its roots, just a bit before both states went to pieces. Widely scattered little pieces.

In short, we had lots in common! My wife’s ancestors had been enslaved and forced to build buildings and tend crops. Mine, too! Sure, they were enslaved on different continents in different millennia, but slavery is slavery, no matter when or where. So why quibble?

Her family got itself skunked by poverty. Mine had dined on empty plates many times prior to my arrival on the scene. Her mother left an abusive partner. Mine did, too. (Of course, mine went back while hers didn’t. To which I say: Viva la difference!)
English wasn’t her mother’s first language. It wasn’t my father’s first, second or third language.

My wife’s mother is a clean-a-holic neatik. One her hobbies involves emasculating shrubbery. My mother was an acolyte of Saint Spic-n-span.

Mom knew exactly where everything in the house belonged, to the cubic micron, and whether anyone had dared make an uncertified adjustment. Dust was so afraid of her, it just blew over our house and stopped by the neighbors, instead. It didn’t dare enter the house.

My wife lived with her mother until she was 30. I lived with my parents, off-and-on, until I was 35. (However, I lived in a guesthouse.) Both mothers took their eldest’s (long overdue) departure as an unforgivable personal insult and then got over it.

Her grandmother’s given name was Delphina. My mother’s given name was Delphine.
As far as I can tell, the only important thing my wife and I didn’t have in common was gender! Believe it or not, that really concerned my mother. She got over it, thank God.

Which brings us back to the day after Christmas and the Four Questions.
What are the Four Questions? In our household, as I was growing up, the youngest person at the dinner table was assigned the job of asking four questions at least once a year. But not just any old questions. Not even the questions that really concerned the youngest person, such as the law on child labor and involuntary indenture or the law that said the liver and spinach on one’s plate must be eaten before anything else could be served no matter how long it took or how disgusting it looked, smelled or tasted.

Nope, the Four Questions were pre-formulated by robes so wise and venerable, they had even provided the answers. No cribbing necessary. Any idiot could pass this test. Year in, year out, the questions never changed, sort of like high school biology tests. The answers didn’t change either. In the culture I grew up in, the test books are valued family heirlooms.

Basically, the Four Questions aren’t really questions. They’re traditions... pillars of meaning and culture akin to the magic of the Eifel Tower or a flying buttress. They link ancestors and descendants within a shared experience. On the other hand, they can also be viewed as an insidious, culturally legitimized, intellectually paralyzing form of brainwashing, using the standard regimen of disorientation, humiliation, positive and negative reinforcement to achieve homogenous (and easily controlled) thought processes.

I think that’s why my wife felt so comfortable adopting the Four Questions. It’s just that in our house, the oldest puts the Four Questions to the youngest. And instead of asking the Four Questions in the spring, we get started in December... on the day after Christmas. Every year, I ask my wife the same Four Questions. And every year, without fail, she has the answers.

· Do you want me to mop now or make breakfast first?
· What movie do you want to see today?
· What time do we pick up your mother?
· What else do you want me to do?

Such is the beauty of tradition.

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