30 Day Countdown to Guatemala #travel #Guatemala #Antigua

It has got to be around a year ago that I decided that I was going to live in Guatemala, study Spanish, maybe do some volunteer work, and do a few other things like writing, playing my guitar, and hiking volcanos. I have never lived anywhere other than California, let alone another country. There were numerous reasons fueling this decision in me. That’s a story that currently has unfinished chapters.  I plan to be gone 3 1/2 months.

So my sabbatical (isn’t that a great, important sounding name for it?) starts September 1, 2018 — and I’m leaving for Guatemala on September 6th.  I admit that I do have a round trip ticket and plan to be back in late December.  I am in the process of closing my psych practice – effective August 31st-subject to reopening at a later date. This has not been an easy process on so many levels. And it’s been very emotional.

So much to do.  I’m only slightly overwhelmed as long as I don’t think about it.  I’m excited, nervous, anticipatory, anxious, calm, scared, brave, worried, courageous, sad, happy.  A pupu platter of feelings and emotions which I’ve eaten myself so it’s all laying heavily in the pit of my stomach like a gluttonous mass of fried Asian appetizers.  Feels great going down, but then it lays there like a block of concrete!

The immersion language school in Antigua that I’ve enrolled in just sent me an updated confirmation. It’s getting more real. I’ll be living with a  Guatemalan family but I won’t find out anything about them until a few days before I arrive. What will they be like?  Will they like me?  Will I need to hide that I’m Jewish (my mishasgas, not theirs) – or that I’m in a same-sex relationship (another closet to crawl back into?). I’ve got to turn off my projector that’s running overtime.

I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I am told I will eat the same meals that the family eats, presumably with them. Actually I hope we do. They’ll provide three meals a day, except on Sundays. I’ll do my own laundry. I’ll have my own room, and my own bathroom (an extra charge).  They’re supposed to have Wifi (an extra charge). I have no specific dietary restrictions. But since they’ve asked, I’ve requested non-fried healthyish food. Lots of fresh veggies and fruits (and hoping they know to wash them in filtered water!)  I prefer mostly chicken and fish. Will they think I’m high maintenance?  (Do people in Guatemala even use the term “high maintenance?”)  I imagine they must be thinking, Oh, he must be from California. He probably only eats kale and quinoa, and everything has to be organic, locally sourced, sustainable, gluten free and non-GMO. Does everything need to be served on small plates?

I just took an assessment test to help the school determine what type of learner I am. I have no idea how that went or what that even means. I hope I still know how to learn. The next task is a Spanish placement test to see what level I’m at. I initially tried the intermediate test (I guess I was overly optimistic) but I found I was mostly guessing.  So they sent me the beginner’s test. I hope I’m at least an “advanced beginner” (my term, not theirs).  We’ll see what happens.  Más tarde.

Nine & Nine Thai Kitchen Review

Nine & Nine Thai Kitchen Review $ 738 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91101 Sitting on the geranium-curtained patio that fronts Colorado Boulevard (the legendary Route 66 – how cool is that?) on a warm summer evening or even a chilly one in fall or winter conjures up fantasies of the ultra-famous Tournament of Roses Parade going by. You can almost smell the spectacular flower adorned floats (how do they get the all those flowers to bloom at the same time?), the unwavering excitement of the thunderous perfectly synchronized marching bands and the gorgeous equestrian units. As you come back to Earth, you will discover that this casual family-owned neighborhood Thai gem has delicious food with service that is quick, efficient and friendly. The menu has lots of traditional Thai favorites that we all love, with an energetic and ample take out menu in case you’re on the run or prefer to eat at home so you can watch re-runs of The Golden Girls. Either way, you do not want to miss the Green Curry Sole Fillet, with its luscious green curry sauce complete with coconut milk, bamboo shoots, bell pepper and basil leaves. This wonderfully delectable dish is the cozy color of split pea soup, warm and inviting. The sole was tender and enhanced by the spectacular taste of the sauce which is a velvety smooth combination of sweet and tangy with nine & nine thai kitchen insidejust the right amount of heat. (You can have it mild if you can’t take the heat.) It was served with a delightful heart shaped mound of rice (white or brown) and came out of the kitchen piping hot along with an Asian soup spoon so you can savor every last drop of the savory broth. It’s the perfect dish to energize you before the Spanish conversation Meetup group that gathers nearby for a truly international evening. With Target (Tarshzay) conveniently located across the street, you can take care of any shopping or impulse buying. The Laemmle Playhouse 7 movie theater is just down the street to take in a good flick. Even more importantly and essential, Vroman’s Bookstore, our all-time favorite bookstore (in a possible tie with The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah) is also down the street. If you’re like us, you will not be able to resist the temptation to find a new favorite book either before or after your authentic Thai meal. (Check out “Treading Water in the Nile on News From the Pollywog Cafe’s website.) News From The Pollywog Cafe dot calm strongly supports independent bookstores and urges you to do the same rather than buy books from those big chain bookstores or even Amazon. By the way, as for Nine & Nine’s seemingly unusual name, we’re told by one of the pleasant waitresses that the number nine in Thailand means good luck and good fortune. So it seems that the name Nine & Nine means something like “luck squared” or lucky and luckier. We were certainly lucky to find it! And interestingly (going off on a bit of a tangent), 9 plus 9 equals 18 and in Judaism, 18 is a spiritual number known as Chai which means life or being alive. And you know how much Jews love Asian food! So, Our rating: A- for food (A+ for the Green Curry Sole Fillet); A for value; A for service; B for atmosphere (it’s cute but a little plain). So try your luck and check this one out and let us know what you think.


Eastside Market Italian Deli

Eastside Market Italian Deli $  1013 Alpine Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. This authentic family owned Italian gem is located just off the

Eastside Market Italian Deli, Est. 1929, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

beaten path on quiet Alpine Street adjacent to iconic Sunset Boulevard, just a stone’s throw from DTLA, and a short walk from one of our favorite picture framing stores, Downtown Framing Outlet. As an Italian Deli, this one’s the real deal where you can get a fresh and delicious hot or cold real Italian sub sandwich. This vintage market has been there since 1929 so just its longevity in the heart of this vibrant City speaks for itself. The guys behind the counter have that no-nonsense Italian attitude you’d expect in a place like this, but it took

Eastside Deli Market Counter, LA, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

almost no effort to get them to crack a smile. The traditional Italian Sub with Cheese (#9) is a great entry level sub that is tasty and savory, and served on a hyper fresh soft Italian roll. We’re told that the best seller (no doubt!) is the mouth watering hot Roast Beef, Pastrami and Cheese (#7). Although the daily special “Chicken Parmesan” looks amazing so

we’re definitely going back to try it! And you gotta know that a place that attracts

Eastside Deli Market, LA, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

firefighters and construction workers, and decorates with Vin Scully street signs (and who doesn’t love former Dodgers’ announcer and Hall of Famer Vin Scully!) and a Dodgers‘ autographed tee shirt among lots of other fun tchotchkes has to be great. So our rating: A for food; A for value; A for service; A for atmosphere (great L.A. vintage place with lots of cool stuff and old photos on the walls!)


Bestia $$$$$  2121 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, CA  90021. Have you ever heard great things about a movie and then when you saw it, you felt it didn’t quite live up to all the hype? Well, that’s how we felt about Bestia. But don’t get us wrong – this is definitely a place to check out. Bestia (Italian for “Beast”) has been recognized for a number of years now as one of the best restaurants in L.A.

“Bestia” Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

It is owned and operated by Ori Menache and Genevieve Gergis, a great looking and highly talented husband and wife team, both of whom are L.A. area natives. (Genevieve is the pastry chef and we love the fact that she learned to bake while studying to be a classical French horn player. Ovi’s background and experience is very impressive as well.) Bestia is multi-regional Italian and very popular. It can be hard to get a reservation without persistence unless you want to go at an off-hour. While the food was very good and sophisticated, there were no wow moments or tastes that made us think OMG. It is located in the very cool Arts District of L.A. and the restaurant itself is upbeat, trendy, bustling, a bit phrenetic and noisy with a lively crowd filled with lots of hipsters and wannabes. However, unlike some of the snobbery and attitude that we have found at other hip places, Bestia is friendly, welcoming and delighted that we were there, especially for the first time. The restaurant’s look is mostly unoriginal as it looks like so many newer restaurants these days, done in early industrial, wearhousey (it is a converted industrial space), lots of exposed brick, rustic fixtures and plenty of reclaimed-looking wood. (Check out the unique display of bathroom tile!)

“Bestia” Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

The tables are close together and there is outside dining that is pleasant and quieter. Nonetheless, we did enjoy the atmosphere and it’s cool boisterous vibe. The service was excellent bar none and we did not feel rushed. The house specialty cocktails are delightful, unique and fun. The tasty food is presented very nicely along with a detailed description of each plate as it is served.  The wine list is more than adequate and mostly in the pricey range. So our rating is: B+ for food; B+ for value; A+ for service (the restaurant gets a B for keeping us waiting for 15-20 minutes past our reservation time); A- for atmosphere.

Philippe, The Original

Philippe, The Original –$  1001 N. Alameda, Los Angeles, CA  90012 (While some pronounce it Fill-leeps, we say Fill-leep-ays because it’s more fun to say!) This is one of the oldest and best known restaurants in L.A. and has been family owned since 1908! It’s located in the heart of L.A. aka DTLA, on the edge of Chinatown, just a block or two from Union Station (which you must visit) and of course, is practically the next door neighbor to our beloved Olvera Street (which you also must visit and which has it’s own Haiku featured on L.A. Haiku!). This place is awesome and in our opinion, there in only one thing on the menu – the original French Dip sandwich. That, along with their homemade hot mustard will set you up

“Philippe” Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

for a life-long addiction to this legendary sandwich. We’ve tried a lot and none compares. They sell about 6,000 sandwiches a week!  Philippe claims their famous beef dip sandwich is the original and we believe them!  And if they weren’t, then it’s a tie with the other guys (whose beef dip is not as good – trust us).  Philippe has plenty of other items on the menu – including other dips like turkey, roast pork and leg of lamb, lots of breakfast items including eggs and pancakes, chili, stew, beans, and other sandwiches but the beef dip can’t be beat! It’s an order-at-the-counter, sawdust-on-the-floor kind of place with character plus!

“Philippe” Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

And coffee is just 45 cents a cup!  FYI, your beef dip goes awesomely (is that a word?) with their amazing cole slaw and fresh homemade iced tea. And don’t forget pie or brownies for dessert. So our rating is: A for food (A+ for the beef dip); A for value; A for service; and A for atmosphere (which is L.A. authentic vintage deluxe!) Enjoy.


Tiny slivers of my fingernails dropped in miniature new moon crescents onto some books lying on the floor as I clipped away. In fact, I was sitting on a stack or two of books. Meticulously snipping my nails shorter on the left and longer on the right, and pretending to be the great guitar player that I knew I wasn’t and probably would never be, I observed my buddy come in, look around with astonishment and sheepishly ask “Uh Rick, don’t you think it’s a problem?”

“What?” I said with as much boredom in my voice as I could muster.

“You know — I think you’re in denial, don’t you?” Bob persisted.

“No,” I snapped like a dry twig — “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” realizing the pun but deciding this was the wrong time to call attention to it. Desperately trying to change the subject, I quickly interjected, “I’m almost done. Let’s get out of here – want to go to Rudolph’s for a hot fudge sundae?”

“Sure, let’s do it,” Bob conceded with resignation. Phew, I thought with my chest thumping like a timpani drum and relieved to have avoided the topic once again. I was a tiny fruit bat narrowly escaping the razor-sharp talons of a famished hawk. Rushing to my Prius, we trotted across the sidewalk that resembled a lovely polka dot quilt from hundreds of tiny lavender blossoms that had fallen from the enormous jacaranda tree. 

Bob is simply mistaken – I definitely don’t have a problem and while I’m clearly not in denial, it did happen again tonight which freaked me out a bit. I promised myself that I had only gone in to look. That’s what I always tell myself but this time I meant it. Relieved, I had almost made it out of the store without one. I had glanced at a few but somehow—fortunately — I managed to put them down. Looking around, minding my own business, about to flee through the nearby exit and feeling confident, something suddenly caught my eye. Hmm, I thought, What’s this? Okay, I’ll just pick it up and look at it but I definitely won’t buy it. 

Savoring it meticulously, my curiosity compelled me to flip it over to make a full inspection. Inhaling every minuscule detail, I felt myself drawn in, like swampy rainforest quicksand. Then I heard a women’s voice on the overhead speaker–“the store will be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases to the register.”  Great, I can’t stay– I need to leave. There’s no time to buy anything, I kept telling myself, repeating it over and over like a needle stuck on a broken 78 record.  Using my left hand, I struggled to pry open the vice-like grip of my right hand until it released the would-be treasure. I then sped for the nearest door to escape, like an adrenaline intoxicated gazelle with a determined lion in pursuit.

Then, as if an enormous rubber band snapped me back with the gravitational pull of a gigantic electromagnet on steroids, it was suddenly clenched in my fist again. Let go, I struggled and scolded myself, put it down. Put it down already. You don’t need it. You have too many. Enough already!  But then, that convincing soft soothing voice in my brain kicked in. “Ah Ricky, go ahead and get it. You want it. You need it. You can afford it. And most importantly, you deserve it. You absolutely deserve it.”  

No, don’t get it!, I pleaded with myself. The little angel and devil on top of my head were duking it out just like those incessant black and white Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.”

“It’s fine. Ah, come on, do it. You need it. You deserve it. And it deserves you. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”






Suddenly the final announcement came, the woman now whining with obvious irritation in her voice, “The store is now closed and the staff wants to go home.” Uh oh- I was suddenly hit with an avalanche of embarrassment, realizing that the announcement was obvoiusly targeted specifically at me. My eyes opened wider than a deer in the headlights of a mack truck. I grabbed it and rushed over to the cashier hoping with every part of my being that she would reprimand me for being last and telling me to get out of the store and never come back!  

I hurriedly said to her, “can you put this back for me? – I know it’s too late to buy anything.” Placing it down on the table and about to sprint for the door, she reassured me, “no worries” with a smile more fake than saccharine. “We actually have a few minutes – let me ring it up.” I reluctantly handed it to her, and quickly shoved my chip impregnated credit card into the hungry card reader praying for the card to be declined. Trigger a fraud alert or set off an alarm, I eagerly prayed to a god I didn’t actually believe in – until now. Instead, it blinked “approved.” Shit, I thought. I need to get out of here.

The annoyed cashier handed it to me in a tell-tale hyper-obvious mint green plastic bag with the store’s name prominently displayed on it, more conspicuous than the hot pink “Girls Girls Girls” neon signs on Sunset Boulevard. Terrified that it would out me to the world, I anxiously whispered “don’t you have a brown unmarked paper bag?” I urged her as she noticed the desperation in my shaky voice. I was practically begging.

“No, I’m sorry we don’t,” she said with the same irritation that had emanated from the loud speaker. I quickly shoved it under my shirt, accentuating my blimp-sized belly that grossly expanded from all the crap I ate during the holidays. Scanning the scene in all directions, and hoping to avoid the nosey surveillance camera, I slinked out the back door like a mangy skunk avoiding a lurking coyote, praying to the same god that I didn’t believe in (just in case) that no one would see me. I rushed to get inside my car and quickly slammed the door.

Sitting in the car and catching my breath, I started to wonder, what’s the problem. I did nothing wrong. Then, with a tsunami of buyer’s remorse, I instantly decided, I will return it tomorrow- I will keep the receipt. But then panic engulfed me, like the static electricity generated by the Tesla coil at the Griffith Observatory.

Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

Would they believe me? Would they believe that it wasn’t used? Those employees are smart as whips — they know all about guys like me, I exclaimed to myself as I felt the skin-tearing sting of my own self-flaggelation tattooing its wounds into the keloid scars from my wounded past. They know exactly what people like me are all about, I thought, disgusted with myself. I pressed the Waze app on my iPhone, found the quickest way home, and I hit the accelerator. 

Going about twice the legal speed limit, I was moving along at quite a clip when suddenly, I noticed those ominous red lights glaring in my rearview mirror piercing my eyeballs like fiery hot lasers. Oh shit, I thought as my intestines clamped down like they were caught in the claws of a mammoth lobster. And the bag was sitting right there next to me, a shady passenger about to betray me and divulge my secret. I felt my venomous shame wash over me like sewer sludge. 

Sweat began to percolate and drip down my frowning forehead, stinging my eyes with its acid-saltiness. Should I tell the officer I have an immediate urge to use the restroom? Maybe he would just let me go with a stern warning. No luck. “Your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance” he said like he was pressing charges for a capital offense.

“Did I do something wrong, officer?” I said with the fakest sincerest voice I could manage to squeak out.

“You were doing 65 in a 35 residential zone.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t someone else that you’re mistaking me for?” I paused in disbelief that I had actually just said that!

He rolled his eyes and motioned for me to hand over the papers. I leaned over way more than necessary to reach for my glove box, hoping to hide the indisputable green bag which I knew would become “Exhibit A.” Grabbing my registration and insurance verification, I heard the officer say “what’s in the bag?” I gulped loud enough to confess the overwhelming guilt I was desperately trying to hide. I wondered whether I should try to distract him by telling him that his nose hairs needed trimming. When I showed it to him, he rolled his eyes, clearly conveying, “oh man — here we go — what a loser,” and then said with the threatening voice of an executioner, “I’ll be right back. You better not move.” 

As I anxiously waited, my thoughts were bouncing around as if they were riding the loop de loops of the roller coaster inside my head. Suddenly, the word “unmanageability” attacked my mind after apparently staring me down for some time. I had heard that word before – and it always seemed oddly connected to the word “denial” which I clearly knew I was not in. The officer returned quicker than I anticipated. I desperately tried to look disinterested as he demanded, “sign here.” I looked at the ticket expecting it to say “Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.” He handed me the contents of my glove box. But those words “unmanageability and denial” were still chasing me like a swarm of killer bees.

The warning signs were all there – as much as I tried to deny, rationalize, bargain- the conclusion shouting, screaming at me was that I am addicted, yes ADDICTED — to buying books. No, I can’t be. There must be some mistake,” I pleaded to myself. They’re so, uh, healthy. The rationalization wouldn’t stop like the nasty rash from a bad bout of poison ivy. Even to me I was unconvincing. I could picture myself sitting in a circle of chairs, like those 12-Step meetings I had seen in the movies. I facetiously quipped to myself, “hey, maybe there’s a 12-Step meeting called ‘BAA’ – Book-buying Addicts Anonymous. Step One – We admitted we were powerless over buying books,— that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two – Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Wait a minute – am I insane? Could my life actually have become unmanageable? Could I actually be in denial? Where did all this start? How could this have happened? How did things get this bad? What am I going to tell my friends, my kids, my colleagues? So off to Google I went like Indiana Jones on a searching expedition, looking for hidden answers.

Books and Books – Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

My initial excavation revealed that there’s actually a Japanese word for the literary affliction of people who buy more books than they can actually read – the word is “tsundoku.” It seems that book hoarding is fairly common and certainly well-documented. And it also seems that bookworms like me tend to be fairly proud of what they have accomplished as their shelves fill to capacity. Yes, I was proud of all my books and convinced that everyone who came to my apartment was in awe of how smart I must be. So there it is — you see, I don’t have a problem after all. I was floating in a dead sea of relief like a buoyant brick.  

But reading on, my stomach sickened as I stumbled on something known as “bibliomania” which is the obsessive collection and acquiring of books. Could I actually be a bibliomaniac? I panicked and was on the verge of an anxiety attack. And I started to feel faint. Breathe, I need to breathe. 

As I pursued the underside of every stone imaginable, among the slimy algae covered words, I read that “denial” is actually powerful defense mechanism. Really? I considered it for a micro-second and then, my Doubting Thomas (as my mother called me), fortunately lit up my brain with the stark brightness of a flashbulb and I quickly dismissed it. No way. Can’t be – it’s just  psychobabble. My friends and I always tell  each other that we’re in denial about one thing or another — just like Bob told me.

However, reading further, I read in disbelief that a person in denial refuses to except reality or fact, acting as if the painful event, thought or feeling does not exist (gulp). In other words, the individual recognizes or is conscious of the existence of the truth or fact, but consciously refuses to except it as such (gulp gulp).  I have known and certainly heard of people who continually drink too much alcohol despite its negative consequences yet deny that they have a drinking problem. I pictured the world of addiction spinning on the axis of denial like a lopsided wobbly old globe. But book buying? Ah, come on.  I could hear my insides reassuring me that I should not believe everything I read on the Internet. But then, I stumbled on the fact that even Mark Twain, yes, Mark Twain, one of greatest authors ever- I have every one of his books (of course!) apparently quipped, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Oh, why wasn’t there a “Denial” character in the movie “Inside Out“? Did they purposely leave him out? Hey Pixar, I love you guys but is anybody home? Did you forget something? How was I supposed to figure this out? Where is “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue” when I desperately need him

But then I was reminded that Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite authors (yes, I have every book – of course!) said “Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and in all the nooks.” There you go. If it’s good enough for Dr. Seuss, it’s good enough for me. I immediately shut off my computer, and I even unplugged it, as I was absolutely convinced that I did not have a problem, nor was I in denial (or the Nile). And that was that!

But something was still nagging at me because during my exploration, my miner’s headlamp had illuminated something I tried to avoid – that addiction is often associated with a history of trauma. With my curiosity prevailing as it often did (which sometimes got me into trouble), and determined to make sure and prove once and for all that I was not addicted, I decided to delve into my history with books to see if I could have overlooked something. So down memory lane I went. Bewildered, the yellow brick road was slopped with mud and much bumpier than I remembered. It was riddled with enormous pot holes and detours. It caught me off guard. 

As it turned out, books and I had a rough start and actually, as it turns out, a traumatic past. It started with those stupid “Dick and Jane” beginning readers that I was unfortunately forced to read somewhere around the first grade. I didn’t like them or the icky girly illustrations. Besides the main characters, Dick and Jane, I remember Sally and of course, Spot the dog. And yes, I could and did see Spot run. But the dialogue was ridiculous and boring. “Look Jane. Look, look. See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick. See it Go. “Look” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up” (Yes, these are actual quotes). I didn’t want to read this stuff.  Where were the exciting stories about dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls, or even pirates, cowboys and Indians or super heroes?   And so I didn’t do so well with reading – or just about anything else in school. In reality, I was lost but didn’t really know it at the time.

My reading was excruciatingly slow – a snail was a race car in comparison as I trudged through the thick muddy path of each arduous sentence after another. As I somehow progressed into the next grades, I continually found myself in the lowest reading group. Time and time again, I found myself in Group 3. I knew it – everyone knew it – and I felt like a loser, stupid, defective – it pervaded my soul. I was lost and didn’t know where to turn. And it didn’t seem as if anyone cared about why I was in the lowest reading group — it just was how it was. My teachers tattled to my parents, “Ricky has the ability, he just doesn’t apply himself.”

So instead of my parents trying to figure out what the disconnect was since I clearly was capable, they yelled at me repeatedly and told me, “you need to buckle down—and stop talking in class.” Whatever the fuck that meant. I was lost, overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted — I was patrolling the house every night to make sure my parents hadn’t set the house on fire after I caught them nodding off while smoking on the couch or in bed night after night (in the days before smoke detectors) –  why didn’t they get that? Anyway, enough of the pity party that I just threw for myself and invited you to. Thanks for coming. After all this time, the ache is still there, like the stinger left dangling in your arm with its stringy intestines still attached after a wayward kamikaze honey bee mistook you for a real threat.

My frustration about school grew like rat infested ivy. I was desperately trying everything I could to distract myself from the reality that I was hopelessly defective and in disrepair with parts missing and out of stock. To numb out, I became an incessant TV watcher. I knew the TV Guide by heart. Suddenly, I had the answer. It was easy. It was brilliant. I decided, with conviction, that I simply hated reading. Yes, I hated reading! I could feel my young undeveloped brain convincing my amygdala which was already swollen and oozing with shame more toxic than a baby rattlesnake’s venom. “I hate reading and it hates me” became my mantra. Why do something I hate to do? So I didn’t. And that was the end of it.

It was around that time that my grandmother was visiting from Chicago. One day, she serendipitously happened to ask me if I liked to read. What timing! I promptly apprised her that I hated reading, expecting her to marvel at the stellar reasoning that had brought me to this important conclusion. Instead, I immediately sensed her harsh judgment which I realized was working overtime. Her disappointment tore into me like shrapnel from a Jewish granade. Hopefully she hadn’t figured out what a fuck up I knew I was. After all, one of her own kids was a renowned surgeon and the other was a brilliant Juilliard grad. Now, try to compete with that! I wanted to slink down into the cracks of our tile floor as I melted quicker than the wicked witch of the west

So fast forward maybe about 20 years. Somehow, I found myself loving to browse in bookstores. The books were fascinating and every topic – well almost every topic — was interesting except murder mysteries and sci-fi which were clearly not my thing. I began to buy books. Lots of books. I mean, lots of books. And I intended to read every one of them. They began to pile up on my nightstand, they stuffed my bookshelves, my dresser, my desk, my bathtub and almost everywhere else. Just the same, I reveled in the fact that people seeing my avalanche of books would have no choice but to conclude me to be of superior intellect and of course, very well read. And that was the point. Sort of. Yes, I knew I was compensating for my shaky educational foundation, and probably a few other things, but hey, it worked – at least some of the time. 

While my busy life got in the way of my reading plans, I continually convinced myself that I would definitely find time to read my books, each of which I couldn’t wait to experience. Yes, really! And I continued to buy them and they continued to fill my shelves and stack up even higher on my nightstand. They began to overflow the counters of my dresser and desk, my living room furniture and even my dining room table. A few books were getting read. And I kept buying more and more — and more —and the collection grew- as my apartment got smaller and smaller. Some piles were beginning to touch the ceiling.  Maybe I could open my own library, I told myself with the confidence of — well, maybe it wasn’t confidence, but it was convincing nonetheless.

Running out of space, I realized that I needed to slow down so I put a moratorium on buying books. I felt proud of myself when I could go a day or two, or even three without buying a book, but then I would find myself sneaking into a bookstore where I would spot another book that I simply had to have. I was great at convincing myself all the reasons that I needed it as I expertly rationalized and bargained my way into more written treasures. Then, Amazon Prime came along and it became my new best friend. Now, in just two days, my lovely new bound acquisitions would arrive without me having to go anywhere. 

You can probably see that by this time, I had actually become quite the expert at book buying. I could go into just about any bookstore and within two minutes, or sometimes less, I would find a book that I absolutely couldn’t live without and couldn’t wait to read. Gazing at the book’s cover, my imagination ran wild, like a mustang caught in the loop of a cowboy’s lasso. I became mesmerized, as if ensnared in the trance of a circus hypnotist, his pendulum swinging back and forth before my eyes, enveloping me in the astonishing fantasy and adventure that I knew I was about to embark on, get lost and escape into. I had to have it. And I had to have it now.

I would decide then and there that no matter what I was reading at the time, I would drop it and dive right into my newest book as soon as I got home. However, by the time I arrived at my apartment, my left prefrontal cortex would kick in allowing me to become more rational and agree with myself that I would at least finish the book that I had been reading and then begin my new book. The others could wait. But in the meantime, I began to notice that I had dozens of books laying around with book marks in various places inside them where I had left off while opting to read my newest acquisition.

Besides Bob thinking I was in denial, he also thinks I have OCD — obsessive compulsive something or another. He’s wrong again. Doesn’t everyone want their new books to be perfect?  I mean, the covers and pages need to look like they just came off the printing press. No creases, tears or marks. Before every purchase, I look through every copy of the book I’m about to adopt (that sounds much better than buy) and find the one that is flawless — or sometimes, but rarely, the least flawed. Or I will simply go to another bookstore to find the perfect one. And when I read my books, I am meticulous not to bend the cover or mess up the pages, unless it’s a text book or something for my profession – and then it’s yellow highlighter city. Of course, I never, or almost never go back and review the yellow markings which by that point have more yellow on the pages than the plastic tape surrounding a crime scene.

As the years have gone by, I eventually found that I could hardly get in my apartment because my books were everywhere, floor to ceiling. One day, I couldn’t get to my bedroom – or the kitchen – or the bathroom. In fact I could hardly get through the front door. Standing on the porch trying to figure out a way in, I heard some noise behind me. Glancing back over my shoulder, I began to see many familiar faces of numerous friends and family members who had apparently been trailing me. Wait, what day is it? Is this a surprise party?  Then, Bob approached me slowly and said “Rick, we need to talk to you a minute – is that okay?”

“About what” I snapped quicker than a Victor mouse trap snagging a mangy rodent.  

“We think you know,” Bob continued sounding like a mortician. I had never heard him sound like this before. 

 “What do you mean? as I attempted my best worst impression of being oblivious. I looked with astonishment at the number of  people who had gathered, trying to avoid eye contact at all costs.” No one was fooled. 

“The books….”

“Shit,” I thought. No, anything but my books. I’d rather go to Detroit. (Ok, I borrowed that one from the Zucker brothers). I knew I was in the last chapter. Actually, the epilogue.

So, as I was sitting in the small circle of chairs, I heard myself say in unison with the others, “We admitted we were powerless over buying books — that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe that a power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity.”  As I felt the cold hardness of the metal chair against my back, I realized maybe they were right — that I had been treading water in the Nile.  Perhaps, some day, I’ll write a book all about it. The only thing is, I won’t be able to buy it.  

The Night Before Hanukkah- A Holiday Poem

This poem was originally written by Steve Karbelnig on December 24, 1995.  It has been slightly revised and updated and published here with his permission (All Rights Reserved).  We at the Cafe hope you enjoy it and feel free to share it with others.

The Night Before Hanukkah

’Twas the night before Hanukkah
And all through the land,
The latkes were ready
To be fried in the pan.

The menorah had candles,
The dreidels were near
Would Hanukkah come late
Or early this year?

The goyishe children
Were in bed thinking ways,
of having a Christmas
That lasted eight days.

They couldn’t stand fruit cake
Or egg nog instead,
It was dark chocolate coins
Dancing inside their heads.

Hanukkah Bush in Havana, Cuba (Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved)

My partner in pajamas
I slept while he read
And of course, all our pets
Were asleep on our bed.

When out on our pool deck,
There arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my blanket
What could be the matter?

To the sliding glass window,
I flew like a flash,
Opening up all the blinds
Stubbed my toe with a bash.

And what to my wondering
Eyes should appear,
But a turquoise blue Prius
Had parked very near.

It was shiny and sparkled
As bright as a star
With an Equality sticker
Right there on the car.

With a little old driver,
Cheeks redder than cherries,
I knew in an instant,
It was Hanukkah Harry!

His helpers came quickly,
Kippas holding tight,
He called them by name,
And it took all his might.

Now Hershel and Moishe,
Irving and Saul,
There was Max and ol’ Jacob,
He included them all.

They avoided the rooftop,
What a shlep, oy so high!
With a sack full of goodies,
Tons of dreidels, oh my!

Such a noise they were making,
I started to frown,
We were trying to sleep,
Couldn’t they just keep it down?

He wore a black coat,
His beard darker than slate,
And oy, for a Jew,
He was up very late.

His eyes how they twinkled,
A bit like an elf,
His kippah was crooked,
As I laughed to myself.

It was Hanukkah Harry,
What a mensch, what a guy.
And so many gifts,
Where on Earth did he buy?

It could have been Target,
Or Amazon Prime,
With two-day delivery
Would have taken no time.

He spoke not a word,
But went straight to his work,
He gave out the presents,
And then turned with a jerk.

Oy my back he exclaimed,
As he lit the menorah,
And saw Irving and Moishe,
Were dancing the Hora.

Then he left in his Prius,
To his pals made a kvetch,
Saul was dawdling as always,
Max was having a stretch.

On his radio he heard
as he thought with dismay,
The words in a song,
“Make the yule-tide Gay”

With the gifts to deposit
And resolving his doubt,
He had been in the closet
And it was time to come out.

So I heard him call out
Without even a pause,
That his partner in life,
Was of course, Santa Claus.

How wonderful I thought,
With a smile on my face,
This only could make
The world a much better place.

And I heard him exclaim,
As he drove off away,
You must never buy retail
Oh and yes, by the way-

Remember that everyone
Is as cute as an elf
And it’s always important
To just be yourself.

Have the Happiest Hanukkah,
With good health through the year.
And next year, if it’s Kosher,
I’ll use a sleigh and reindeer.

Mr. & Mr. Claus (Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved)

Review: Manchester by the Sea offers the potential for hope

Manchester by the Sea is a story that revolves around unimaginable tragedy, devastating grief and hope for possible healing. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler who receives a call that his brother Joe has died (not unexpectedly) and goes back to his hometown to help out. Besides handling Joe’s affairs, an issue arises as to the guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son (Lee’s nephew), Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges and whether Lee is willing or able to take on this responsibility.

Casey Affleck (as Lee) and Lucas Hedges (as Patrick)
Casey Affleck (as Lee) and Lucas Hedges (as Patrick)

As the story unfolds, we learn that Lee has previously experienced a horrendous tragedy along with his wife, Randy, played by Michelle Williams. It is here that Affleck reveals his outstanding talent for his credible portrayal of a man who is attempting to move himself forward despite his nearly paralyzing grief and self-blame. Williams gives a predictably excellent performance and even though her appearance in the movie is relatively short, her presence is felt throughout the movie especially after the tragedy experienced by both Lee and Randy is revealed. Hedges also gives an excellent performance and the remaining actors do a very good job as well.

In light of this background, the dialogue continues with the ongoing interactions between Lee and his nephew, and the challenges they both face given the circumstances in which they find themselves. While the interchange is at times funny and even sarcastic, the use of humor is merely a defense mechanism as the movie tries to divert its viewers from the very difficult events and themes that have arisen and loom in the characters.

Casey Affleck (as Lee) and Michelle Williams (as Randy)

The tragedy’s severe impact on Lee has no doubt changed him forever. He becomes a loner, shut down and isolated. However, Lee’s interactions with his nephew fosters  the viewer with hope, yet who is left wondering whether this could be an opportunity for Lee to be able to find meaning in his life once again. Unfortunately, Lee’s devastation and loss are so vast, one cannot help but question whether he ever will be able to actually move forward at all.

The movie, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, while very well done and beautifully filmed, has a chronology that can be a bit difficult to follow at times. But overall, it is an excellent film and well worth seeing. It is one of those films that stays with you for days afterwards, pondering its themes and reliving its highly memorable yet disturbing moments while holding onto the hope that people like Lee who have had they worlds turned upside down and badly shaken, can somehow find their way back to a life that has meaning, love and renewal.