January 2009 Archives
I grew up with a scrappy little kid named Sammy Hoffman who is now a tall director/videographer named Sam Hoffman. He has just started up one of the most brilliant yet simple Web sites I’ve seen in a while, called Old Jews Telling Jokes.
It is exactly what it sounds like: a series of short clips of Jewish-Americans of a certain age telling slightly off-color jokes in the Borscht Belt tradition, each joketeller set against a white backdrop as spare and elegant as an Apple tutorial video’s.
There are only a few entries up so far, but they’re all a pleasure to watch, and it’s inexplicably gratifying to see Sam’s own mother, Diane Hoffman, a pillar of Central New Jersey Jewry, using salty language. I only wish my father had lived long enough to participate; he had tons of material.
In March of 2007, my wife, two children, and I traveled to Coral Gables, Florida, to attend a family wedding. There was a palpable air of anticipation and hubbub in our hotel as we checked in, but not, alas, because the Kamps had arrived. No, it was because Barack Obama was holding a fundraiser there the same night as our wedding (which was taking place at a church down the road).
The wedding, like Obama’s fundraiser, was on a Saturday night, but since our kids’ school was on its spring break, and since we were in sunny southern Florida, we stayed on at the hotel for a few more days. So, it turned out, did the Obama family; they were in the same situation, with Malia and Sasha on vacation from school.
Bear in mind that this was still early 2007, almost ten months before the Iowa caucuses; Barack Obama was still just one of several quasi-declared candidates, and his family was not yet cocooned 24-7 by security and handlers. Every day, I’d go down to the pool to set up chairs with my kids, and I’d look across the water to see Michelle Obama doing the same with her kids. Barack would make a brief appearance in mid-morning, in a suit but with the jacket slung over his shoulder, bidding his wife and girls a tender (and, it seemed, slightly bummed) goodbye before spending his day stumping. Thereafter, the two girls would spend their day splashing in the pool and distracting their mother from the magazines she was reading. My two kids would also spend their day splashing in the pool and distracting their mother from the magazines she was reading. In the late afternoon, a wrung-out Barack would reappear and warmly greet his wife and girls after a long day’s orating and handshaking. Me, I’d been reading back issues of Mojo and enjoying blender drinks.
I suppose that if I were a proper reporter or journalist–two terms I shy away from; I think of myself merely as a “writer”–I would have walked right up to the Obamas and schmoozed them. (Our kids are of similar ages and might actually have enjoyed playing together.) But I was reluctant to violate their space, especially since they were on vacation, and especially because I had a sense that they would not get to enjoy such quiet, unmolested poolside chill time again.
In retrospect, I regret not at least saying hello, because it would have caused no harm, and because, for heaven’s sake, they were right there in front of me. Five weeks later, Obama was assigned a Secret Service detail–the earliest in a campaign cycle that the agency had ever taken responsibility for a candidate not already under its protection (like a vice president or a former First Lady)–and Malia and Sasha’s life-in-a-bubble began in earnest.
As the Obamas prepare to move into the White House, I think back to that time–probably their last-ever “normal” vacation as a family–and wonder what Malia and Sasha will make of it when they’re grown up. They are about to embark on an extraordinary life experience that comes prepackaged with excitement and privilege, but they will also find themselves constantly scrutinized, guarded, escorted, judged, mocked, blogged about, photographed, and upheld as symbols of something-or-other by David Brooks. I hope Spring Break ’07 stays with them as a nice memory, and not as their “Rosebud” moment.
I’ve heard it said a lot these days: Why, in times of economic crisis and war, do news organizations still devote space to human-interest fluff? Because, sometimes, it’s as utterly enchanting as this.
I wrote an article for The New York Times about a celebrated glutton who was, perhaps, not as gluttonous as we thought. You can read it here.