Last week, my good eye started to do what my bad eye did last November, fall apart. But this time, I knew exactly what was happening and emailed my eye doctor, who snuck me in for an appointment. The bottom line is that the damage to the eye is minor because I caught things early and I’ll have surgery in two weeks. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and am feeling optimistic. The surgery will be far less involved this time around. The recovery time should be a lot shorter. It paid to be vigilant about my eye health over the last nine months. Or maybe I wasn’t vigilant, but neurotic. Is there a difference?
I’m trying to put together a summer men’s mah jongg league. We’ll smoke cigars, drink vodka, tell stupid jokes, and play mah jongg under the stars. First we need to learn the rules and next month I’m going to take lessons. My mom played the game this way:
The Fourth Hand
“One crak.” My mom took a sip of coffee from a cup that was part of her Rosenthal China set, one of the few things my family brought with them from Europe.
“Two bam.” Eva, a dozen years older than my mom and in a floral dress with a lace wrap, took a piece of my mom’s strudel.
So it went during all of my childhood in Milwaukee. Once a month when I’d come home from school, three ladies would always be there calling out their tiles. There was Eva, a German war survivor who was always cheery yet formal. There was Rosie, another boundless optimist just like the other two, but who was American born and petite. She always wore a cardigan sweater, even in the summer. Of course, there was my mom, a Polish war survivor. The game would rotate from house to house once a week.
I still don’t know what craks and bams are. But my wife does. My mother-in-law does. My daughter does. Every Jewish woman I’ve ever known well knows how to play mah jongg, an ancient Chinese tile-based game.
All the tile sets I’ve seen have been made from plastic, but once upon a time they were made from bone. My wife owns a set. My mother-in-law does too. So does my daughter. They don’t play regularly, hardly at all. My mother played the game once a week for thirty years.
How did a Chinese game become an entertainment staple for Jewish women in America in the 20th century? I have no idea. Mah jongg does seem kind of exotic in comparison to card games, and playing cards was a crude thing to do according to my mother. Whenever she said the words “card player,” kurtenshpiler in Yiddish, it was with derision.
Ah, but mah jongg. That was something real ladies did. It showed refinement and class. How this distinction came to be is anyone’s guess. It was just implicit. Card playing was done at night with cigarette smoke in the air. Mah jongg was done in the day with your best china. You dressed like a lady should dress, as if you were going to a charity luncheon. You talked politely with your friends. If you talked about other people, you didn’t gossip, but focused on their successes. These were the unwritten rules of these three ladies.
Playing mah jongg was part of being balbattish. You kept up your home. You made sure that your kids’ clothes were clean and mended. You made sure that your husband was color coordinated when he walked out the door. There was always a meal on the table promptly at 5:00 so you could watch the news at 5:30 as a family. And you played mah jongg. It was all part of a package and all three of these women were effortlessly baltbattish.
Except there was one essential problem for this trio. You play mah jongg with four people. My mother played mah jongg with Eva and Rosie for decades. But the fourth? There was never a suitable fourth for the long haul who shared their sensibility.
At first, my mother’s good friend Honey played with the threesome. But there were compatibility problems. Honey was a top-notch bridge player, a fast talker, crude and down to earth. She hated getting dressed up. Mah jongg or “mahj” as it is known for short ultimately was twee and beneath her. She lasted for several years, not ever fitting in, before she called it quits. She always liked my mom, she said to me once about her revolt from the weekly mah jongg trio. “But those other two.” She shook her head.
A second fourth hand came on board, Sylvia, who was someone my mother barely knew from synagogue. She caught on instantly to the vibe of the other three. She dressed up. She was polite. Unlike the first fourth, she didn’t mind that every week they set some money aside from the bets for a yearly trip to Chicago to have lunch and go to the Phil Donahue Show (and after that TV show went off the air, Oprah). Honey would call Phil Donahue a fag and laugh after she hurled the insult. Sylvia, like the other three, thought Phil Donahue was one of the most attractive men on Earth. “And so intelligent, too,” they all concurred.
My mother became fast friends with Sylvia as a result of mah jongg. They’d shop together and drive down to Chicago to buy clothes. With Sylvia on board, the mah jongg group was as tight as it would ever be. Then one day, my mother walked into her friend’s house and found Sylvia slumped over her kitchen sink, dead of a heart attack at the age of forty-two. That event truly shook my mother. “Her face was all blue!” She said more than once. For two or three years after, my mother was very conscious of her own mortality. The mah jongg group was back to three.
A new fourth hand was found, someone who was a dead ringer for the comedienne Madeline Kahn. Marilyn. She even talked like Kahn, with the same strange theatrical rounding of vowels. She was American born, came from serious money and unlike the other three wasn’t sunny. She dressed up because she always dressed up wherever she went. It was a strange fit, this oh so serious and status conscious woman in the mix with the other three.
At face value, Marilyn shouldn’t have lasted. There was always something a little off about her personality, nervous and diva-like. Then three years into her being the fourth hand, something happened that made her a fixture in the group in an off again/on again kind of way. She went off her rocker. Off to an asylum she went for three months. When she got out, her doctor recommended that she return to normal activities. One of those normal activities was mah jongg. Back she was at the weekly table. The replacement fourth hand was sent off to exile.
Marilyn wasn’t the same woman when she came back. She’d stare off into space and rattle off words that made no sense. She’d shout out in anger over little aspects of the game. My mother and the other two adapted. The joy of playing clearly was gone, but now they shared a valuable community role. They were doing the right thing by helping a sick woman.
Every eighteen months or so Marilyn would go back to the asylum. The temporary fourth hand – another German-born war survivor, Ava – would come back. You’d see the original trio relax and enjoy the game again. But it was understood that this would be a brief holiday. No one ever suggested that Marilyn not come back and join the group. Weekly mah jongg was essential therapy for Marilyn.
For ten years this shuttling of Marilyn into and out of the asylum took place. She died in her fifties of cancer. The temporary fourth came back full time. My mom, Eva and Rosie finally were back to being ladies, not nurses. The only sore point was that Ava would not infrequently mention that she didn’t understand why they had kept Marilyn on all those years, that it hadn’t been fair to her. The other three would say nothing when Ava’s hurt feelings would periodically surface.
Once a year they’d all go to Chicago to see Oprah, although they still remembered Phil Donahue fondly, and have a ladies lunch in the big city. They’d talk about how good a person Oprah was for weeks after. She wasn’t crude like the other TV hosts and hostesses. She was a real lady. It’s probably true that Oprah would have made the ultimate fourth hand at my mother’s mah jongg table.*
About a year before my mom died, Eva passed on. She was about 80 at the time. I saw her a month before she died and watched her play. Thirty years of watching women play mah jongg and I still don’t know the rules. She was sunny as always and alert. That was probably the last time my mother played mah jongg in her own home.
My daughter has my wife’s aunt’s mah jongg set on my father-in-law’s side, I think. My wife has her aunt’s set on her mother’s side. I don’t know who has my mother’s set. Maybe we do. I probably should learn how to play. But I think that there is another unwritten rule out there that of course my mother never told me. Real men don’t play mah jongg.
*Oprah’s mother lived outside of Milwaukee for many years. She was a vivacious woman and my mom met her once or twice at a burger joint they both liked that was near my grandfather’s junkyard. According to my mother, Oprah was in high school with me for a brief time. I remember a very shy, large girl who had a locker down the way from me, was in choir, was harassed now and then by upper class boys, and who disappeared in the middle of the year. Was that her? I have no idea.
Sorry for the delay. I’m starting to make the graphs. Then there will be a few days where I make sure I like it and make minor tweaks. Then it will go online.
This will be my last major update. Ever. That doesn’t mean that grade inflation has ended. Far from it. I’ll write one more research paper on the topic and I’ll be done. It’s been kind of fun being America’s Grade Inflation Czar and I’m proud of the work Chris and I have done.
But I have a finite amount of time on this planet and I have a long list of stuff I want to do. OK, I won’t say never about a future update. If I’m 99 years old, have a working brain, and have done everything else on my long list, I promise to do another update. For those desperate for new data (there are, I know, a few of you out there), here’s a graph of 100+ years of grades at one school. It won’t be posted on the website. Consider it a teaser. Enjoy!
I went to my eye doc for the first time in three weeks, yesterday. It’s been seven plus weeks out from my eye surgery and I feel like me again. There’s a little drop of gas left in my eye, but it doesn’t screw up my vision unless I look down. My central vision isn’t what it was before my eye started to fall apart, but it’s a lot better than it was before surgery. My macular hole is gone. My retinal tear has fully healed. My doc says my vision might continue to improve over the next six months. I’m ecstatic.
But it took a while to get there, a lot longer than anyone told me it would. A friend who had this surgery and who heard about my kvetching while I was recovering agreed. She said that the recovery from her vitrectomy for her macular hole was worse than the recovery from her hysterectomy. Ouch. I have no idea how common long drawn out recoveries are from this surgery. But they likely aren’t uncommon.
When I last went on and on about my eye on this blog, I was two weeks out from surgery. What would follow was the gradual (about 2 percent a day) loss of gas in my eye. I started to get a glimmer of vision in the top part of my eye at about week three. Every day the gas level would drop a little more and I could see more. That was the good side of things.
But there was continued fatigue, which lasted through the sixth week. There were incredibly painful sinus headaches that would wake me up in the middle of the night and drive me to tears. From weeks two through five, the headaches were so frequent that I continued to spend a lot of time in my massage chair during the day. Keeping my head down seemed to dull the pain. Every day I would wake up, pop two Tylenol tabs, and ride my morning headache out in that massage chair. My eye felt incredibly tight and strained, like it was in a vice that was squeezing it constantly. It was draining both emotionally and physically.
During the middle of week three, the gas level in my eye was down enough that I could see a significant amount through my right eye, but that meant my brain had to process this fuzzy visual info. I’d get dizzy if I walked around the neighborhood using both eyes. Also, my repaired eye was very sensitive to wind and cold and would tighten up even more than usual while I did my daily walk. These walks would induce severe headaches. I called up my doc and asked if I could temporarily use an eye patch, something he told me not to do originally. He relented and said it would be OK. The patch turned out to be very useful, especially for walking outside. I wouldn’t get dizzy. My eye wouldn’t cramp from the wind and cold as I walked and my headaches were back to being mostly manageable.
By week five, the all day headaches were gone. Instead, I’d have a headache when I woke up that was fairly mild and that would tend to disappear by about 11 AM. I didn’t need to use the massage chair anymore. The middle of the night headaches would happen every third day or so and were still nasty. But the eye strain and the feeling that a vice was squeezing my eye were gradually abating. I could sense I was getting a little better day by day. My wife said the pattern was that I’d have two days forward and one day back.
Then in the middle of week six, my energy started to return in a rush. I stopped having headaches in the middle of the night. The gas level in my eye obscured only about twenty percent of my vision. The eye strain was gone.
I started to work again during week six. I still couldn’t see all that well when I read, but I bought some cheap high power reading glasses to help me. By week seven I didn’t need the reading glasses anymore. I could read pretty well with my old progressive lenses.
All in all, it took six plus weeks to recover from this surgery. I’m overjoyed both to have energy and have pretty good eyesight in my repaired eye. Sitting around and dealing with pain every day was no fun. I haven’t had a headache in three days. I’m happy and grateful to be able to focus my brain on work again.
I received comments from early readers about my new novel, Among the Righteous, and will spend most of December writing one last draft before I send the book to my agent. I’m feeling optimistic about this new book. November was National Jewish Book Month and that meant I visited a lot of synagogues to talk about The Mathematician’s Shiva. TMS has been out for 15 months. I never imagined it would be noticed for anywhere close to this long, but I’m, of course, happy that it continues to be noticed and read (and continues to sell). I went up to Seattle and Vancouver to give three talks. Below you’ll find a picture of the houseboat I stayed at in Seattle, whose airport has the nicest TSA agents I’ve ever met. I have a couple of April speaking dates for TMS and then will put that book to bed so I can start talking about the new one.
Those craving for an audio version of The Mathematician’s Shiva (or craving for some shameless self-promotion from me) can now preorder a copy. Perfect for a winter drive along I-80 or the Trans-Canada. Or for a summer drive on I-10 when you’re roasting and dreaming of cool climes.
I had a fun time in NYC. I picked up the National Jewish Book Award for The Mathematician’s Shiva and spent some time being a tourist (two shows and two museums). The Mathematician’s Shiva won another prize this month, the Friends of American Writers Literature Award, which I will pick up in Chicago in May. I’ll pick up the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal finalist prize for The Mathematician’s Shiva in June at the ALA annual convention in SF. If you’re a librarian who is attending and want to speak with me, send me an email. The response to this book has exceeded my expectations by far and I am grateful. TMS has gone through four printings and its fifth will have updated blurbs and award mentions. I’ve been working with the Library of Congress, which is putting out an audio version of TMS for the sight impaired. It’s been fun riding the (unexpected) wave. I’m hibernating in April so I can make some solid progress on my next novel. I’ll do a little traveling and speaking in May.
The Mathematician’s Shiva continues to find an audience and is still showing up on bookstores’ bestselling lists (which both surprises me and makes me happy). It was named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal finalist and was also named one of the Favorite Physics Books of 2014 by Scientific American. Reviews are still coming in – which also surprises and makes me happy – including reviews from the European Mathematical Society, the Jewish Daily Forward, Cleaver Magazine and Washington Jewish Week. I had a fun time at a Jewish Science Authors program at the Foster City JCC. I’ll be giving a little music show at The Marsh in Berkeley on February 24th and will be appearing at an AAUW girls science camp fundraiser in Mountain View on February 28th.
The Mathematician’s Shiva is the 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner for Outstanding Debut Fiction. I am ecstatic. I was also very lucky to have had so much support while writing this book. It took four years to go from beginning to write TMS to publication and I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for their help along the way.
List of all winners and finalists is here:
Every year I take a Christmas tune written by a native Yiddish speaker, translate it back into its “original” Yiddish, and send it to my friends. This year I’m going semi-public. The tune is The Christmas Song by Melvin Torma (aka Mel Torme). It isn’t publicly listed on Youtube, but you can find it below. Enjoy!