can't believe I'm already
Saturday, May 2 2009
setting: Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland
It was your typical day two in Silver Spring, starting with a walk in Sligo Creek Park. It was cloudy and we were hoping to avoid others there, the kind who either have children in strollers or purebred yappy dogs on short leashes and take a dim view of off-leash mongrels (the likes of Sally and Eleanor). We ran into an unfriendly man with less-friendly purebreds, but then we ran into a very friendly Rottweiler named Coda whom we had met before. It turned out that Coda's "mom" knew a bunch of people (African-Americans mostly) Gretchen had known as a kid.
Later Gretchen's brother and sister-in-law left the kids with Gretchen's parents and the four of us drove into Adams Morgan and went to Meskerem, Gretchen's favorite Ethiopian restaurant. As always, we got the communal injera covered with blobs of various vegan wats. As always, the food was somewhat better in my anticipatory memory than it was in practice, and I also ate more than I should have. Another factor I had to deal with was one of gustatory velocity. Perhaps because of competition with a fast-eating brother in a childhood of limited food preparation, I have always been a very fast eater. I have a difficult time slowing down enough for Gretchen not to think me a glutton (indeed, I've developed a bunch of rituals forbidding eating during various phases of Jeopardy). But the in-laws are much slower even than Gretchen, to the point where I wonder if they even like food. Keeping my gluttonous tendencies in check over a wat-smeared piece of injera was by no means effortless.
Back at Gretchen's parents' house, we were visited by a woman named Samantha, who had been in Uganda with Gretchen when they were both infants (back in the days of Idi Amin). Samantha also brought her precocious nine year old daughter, who throughout our socializing kept up a constant text-message dialogue with one of Samantha's 21 year old friends. Later, after Gretchen brought down the Baby for show and tell, the nine year old daughter began begging her mother to get another cat. I was struck by the monotony of her begging, though it did range across a number of media. At one point she claimed that the 21 year old friend (now reached through a voice connection) had something to say, implying that she too would be lobbying for Samantha to get another cat. But the ruse quickly fell apart when the cell phone was switched to speaker phone mode and the voice on the other end of the line was apologizing for being dragged into a social event and was bidding adieu.
The big birthday party for Gretchen's mother began in the mid-evening, starting with the arrival of the caterers. These were the guys from Woodlands, an Indian restaurant we'd gone to in the past. They brought in tray after tray of mostly-vegan food (though there was also a dish that contained a cubed cheese). As this was going on, people began arriving. The crowd ended up being a mostly 60-something affair, but both Gretchen and I were struck by how good everyone looked. There wasn't a single fat person in attendance, and a number of the 60-somethings were attractive enough to gladden me away from some of my mid-life blues. Sadly, though, many of the conversations I overheard were about various health problems. 65 might be the new 40, but only if people stop talking about the medications they have to eat every morning. Perhaps one of the reasons people seemed so unusually fit given the demographic was the number of musicians and composers in attendance. There's something about music, so long as it isn't rock and roll, that seems to act as a preservative.
Indian is one of my favorite cuisines, though (since the event was so rich in older Jewish folks), it was spiced very mildly. One of the reasons I like Indian food is for the boldness of its flavors; I would have found the food disappointing had I not discovered the small bowl of spicy pickle that had been thoughtfully provided by the Woodlands staff.
There were a number of "events" scheduled in sequence after the food had been eaten. These included a skit, poetry, prose, music, and a slide show. Gretchen's brother had composed a song for the occasion, set to the melody of "When I'm 64," and Gretchen had been practicing some tricky pieces on her guitar. But before she played, there was a special PowerPoint slide show that basically boiled down my mother-in-law's life to four minutes of pictures. It was beautiful and also somehow incredibly sad. It's impossible to see someone go from zero to 65 in four minutes without feeling sadness, no matter how happy his or her life might have been. Life is, after all, a slowly-unfolding tragedy. There was an unintentionally-poignant moment at the very end, when a picture of my mother-in-law was shown with a cartoon bubble coming out of her mouth saying, "I can't believe I'm already 65." By the time Gretchen's turn came, she was crying and having trouble keeping it together. She soldiered on, though, doing a respectable job with "April Come She Will" and "Angel From Montgomery," though she bailed out halfway-through the very difficult Paul Simon song "American Tune."
At some point as I was passing through the kitchen, I was delighted to see the guys from Woodlands making plates of food for Sally and Eleanor.
Later on, after most of the people had left, the party wound down into little groups of people talking to one another. I was having a great conversation with this one guy about Leon Botstein, Bard College, copper swing lamps, and Jewish Philosophy when Gretchen's brother and father (the doctors in the house) came over and the subject turned to the guy's medical problems. It turned out that he had a rare form of lung cancer, a kind that nonsmokers can get. As this was being discussed (mostly in dry, medical language), I felt myself growing gradually woozy and nauseated. Perhaps I had just been standing upright for too long. Whatever the reason, eventually I had to leave. I went into the kitchen and sat next to Gretchen, injecting a bit of off-beat Darwinian logic into an ongoing discussion of the different strategies employed by men and women involved in "monogamy." (It turns out that it's sometimes advantageous for a woman to sleep around, particularly if she is in a monogamous relationship with a faithful, skillful male who is nevertheless endowed with inferior genes, such as the kind that make someone hideous.)
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