Birthday Blues


April 20……..Hitler’s birthday. Mine as well.

I’m in a Doctors waiting room in Amherst Virginia, been here for two hours, FOX NEWS on the TV. Springtime for Hitler doesn’t feel so much like a joke. I got a tick bite, but a good dose of anti-biotics will ward off potential Lyme Disease.

Fox News, on the other hand?

“Happy birthday” says the receptionist.

As birthday parties go, this one’s crummy.

When Ford Madox Ford was my age he looked like an old Walrus. Or else he was dead. One of the All-Stars– wrote THe Good Soldier and Parades End, which are still very much alive.

He beat the reaper.

I might not live long enough to finish my masterpiece.

“Don’t fret yourself,” says Memphis Earlene. “

You can grow old with the Blues, she reminds me.

That is, if they don’t kill you first.

“If the Blues were going to kill you you’d be dead already,” says Memphis Earlene.

“‘ You get to be an Old Blues Woman in this lifetime”blue crazy.”

Not that I’m there yet.

Not old enough.

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Sweet Memories of Yemen Blues

Yemen: 2006. I’m the only woman in the room, I’m chewing qat for the first time, and I’m doing it wrong, masticating the tender green leaves into pulp and then swallowing, as though I’m eating salad greens.   Despite my faux pas, such is the magic of Yemeni hospitality that I am feeling perfectly at home among strangers. My host, who I am meeting for the first time, has graciously invited me into his home as though I am a welcome guest rather than an intruder into a male sanctuary.

“Just chew it a little and stuff it in your cheek, Judith. Don’t swallow it,” he patiently explains.

I’m here because Larry has fallen in love with Yemen, for the warmth of its people and its beauty, both natural and architectural. He’s the one who told me about the “Solomon Hour”, a magical time in the late afternoon, when Yemeni men and sometimes even Yemeni women chew qat, feel wise and view the large world with disinterested, affectionate equanimity. Special rooms, often with spectacular views are reserved for qat chews.   According to Larry, a qat chew among friends is a civilizing ritual.

I wanted to experience this for myself.

Qat, the leaves of a shrub grown throughout Yemen, is a mild stimulant.   I have yet to hear of qat inducing violence or other anti-social behavior. Qat seems to make the routine aggravations of the day assume their proper proportions. Life looks easier in the afternoon, which is when tell-tale cheek bulges appear on the faces of many men in the street.  What appears to be a badly swollen jaw is really a thick wad of chewed qat, stuffed into one cheek. In a country where men don’t feel properly dressed for the street unless carrying some form of weapon, there’s much to be said in favor of a substance that promotes sociability and frees the mind from agitation.qat chew

The best qat room I’ve seen so far is Dar-al-Hajar, the Imam’s palace, at Wadi Dhar. Built on top of a five story rock, it looks fantastical, like something placed by a show-off genie. The palace interior is both austere and magnificent: thick white walls, with irregular niches, stained glass windows, and winding staircases. The view from the qat room is spectacular, overlooking the entire wadi.

Back in Khalid’s well-appointed qat room, we contemplate the latest installment of World Cup soccer on television. Instead of mountain vistas. I am surrounded by happy men, speaking in English for my benefit, and they are doing what comes naturally to men back home, namely talking about sports. France is playing Switzerland. Is America the only country in the world that doesn’t take soccer seriously? Back home in Washington DC, World Cup Soccer barely grazes my consciousness. Under the influence of qat I rise to my country’s defense, reminding everyone that America has a championionship women’s soccer team. Didn’t we beat Brazil?

By now I have generated a healthy beginner’s wad in my right cheek. I feel clear headed, alert, and full of good-will. No distortions of time and distance, or ravenous hunger for junk food like a marijuana-induced high. It feels more like a strong dose of caffeine and nicotine without the coughing and the jitters.

“Is this the Solomon Hour yet?” I ask.

There are three stages to a good qat chew. Stage One is full of humor, of good natured joking and general discussion. Like now, for instance. Larry has been studying Arabic, and with encouragement from the group and his friend Muhammad’s assistance, he tells a joke he has learned from one of his teachers. In Stage Two, group conversation breaks into individual discussions of more serious nature. Arabic surrounds me. I don’t understand the words, but I can hear the music, that of good conversation,and surmise that we’ve entered Stage Two. With Stage Three comes silence and individual contemplation. My host hastens to advise me that there’s no fixed program, and some of the best chews never leave Stage One.   By now, my throat is dry and my right cheek aches from holding in an immense wad of qat. My thoughts feel too large for words, at least the ones at my disposal.           This must be Stage 3

Dame Freya Stark, the famous British explorer wrote of experiencing, upon setting foot in Yemen a rich and novel sensation , namely happiness,” pure and immaterial; independent of affections and emotions…a delight so rare and impersonal that it seems scarcely terrestrial when it comes.”   Perhaps this best describes the exaltation I felt waking up for the first time in Old Sana’a, to a cityscape like none I could have imagined. Each building looked hand-crafted. Every house, no matter how humble, half moon windows decorated with curvilinear designs and stained glass, or encased by intricate wood carvings. There seemed to be an acknowledgement that every day beauty was essential as food. The delight continued as we drove down to Aden, past smaller versions of Old Sana’a tucked into mountains. Everything man-made harmonized with the landscape.

I contemplate the miracles of technology and friendship that have brought me to Yemen to chew qat, and conclude that life is full of unexpected pleasures.

I think I’ve hit the Solomon Hour.

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Memphis Earlene Schools Me Again

There’s no place in the Blues for “My Child Didn’t Get into an Elite Pre-school.Children do not belong in the Blues. Lost my Baby in the Mall? A heartstopper if you’re the parent but it’s not the Blues.

Blues Kindle cover” Don’t ask why, just accept it as a Given,” Memphis Earlene tells me.

“What about Post-Partum Blues in Saint James Infirmary?” I ask.

Memphis Earlene gives this some thought.“The Blues are strictly personal,” she says which is one of her all-purpose answers.

I take it to mean that feelings of sadness and inadequacy fit into Blues language but not true terror. ‘My baby has cancer’ is too big for the Blues when there’s a real baby involved. See above.

“What about the Holocaust?” I ask Memphis Earlene.
Now she’s pissed.
“I taught you better than that,” she says. 
“Nazi Concentration Camp Blues is not only tasteless but a violation of Blues Ethos. The Blues were created by free men and women, not slaves.

The Blues are Existential.

The Blues are the price you pay for being free.

“Don’t ever forget that, honey. The Blues are a goddamn privilege, ” says Memphis Earlene.

 Blues for Beginners: Stories and Obsessions.  Still available on Amazon and Smashwords.  Buy it, read it and learn.


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Those French Anti-Semitism Rioters Blues

Those French Anti-Semitism Rioters Blues.

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Those French Anti-Semitism Rioters Blues

Original name for this post was going to be Too Much News Blues, but then I saw this  headline.

France’s Jews Flee As Rioters Burn Shops, Attack Synagogue


” I’d hate to add  France to the  No Fly Zone,” I say.

Alarmed, Scarlett, my lifestyle consultant, looks up from this Month’s issue of Elle.

“ You can’t write off a whole country just because of some hooligans,” she  says

I don’t want Mr. Greenberg to be proved right.   He taught Sunday School  at Larchmont Temple.  Anti-Semitism was the whole point of Western Civilization, he said, the fulcrum, the foundation, the essential characteristic.  Assimilation? Hah! Look at what happened to the German Jews.

Don’t get  comfortable  was his message. Don’t trust the goyim. It could happen here.

I knew  he was dead wrong about America.  Anti-Semitism was a side show, a mere bagatelle compared to slavery and genocide of Native Americans. But Europe?

I don’t want to retreat into Defensive Tribalism.

I don’t want to live in fear.

I hesitate before signing a petition.  I make a small donation to J Street.   Self-hating Jew? How could I not be proud to belong to a people who gave us Shecky Green, Rosa Luxemberg, and half of Karl Marx?

History repeats itself, second time as farce, according to Karl Marx.  The difference between a race riot and a pogrom is the degree of state sanction—it’s not Kristallnacht, I remind myself, but maybe an early warning?

“Whatcha gonna do?” says Memphis Earlene with a shrug. “Things are tough all over. Look at the Ukraine.”

Land of the ancestors, hers and mine.

Memphis Earlene’s people were the ones who turned down the chance to embrace one of the three great monotheisms and stuck to pagan ways.

“What’s so great about Monotheism?” she says.

“Give me an hour, I’ll come up with something,” I say.

But I haven’t.







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Cannibis Candyman Blues

Poor Maureen Dowd, but how could she have known? hellhound 2       She hadn’t spent the early Eighties being a weekend hippie like I did.   But smoking is so hard on the lungs if you inhale. Walter White, meet Betty Crocker.

“Step away from that oven.  Put the cookbook down,” says Memphis Earlene, “Don’t even think about it.

She’s referring to those Alice B. Toklas Gingersnaps I used to make.

Little known fact–baked dope is much stronger than smoked dope. The high is higher and kicks in long after you forgot you’ve eaten the cookie–or cookies, because the ones I used to make were tasty.  Two were more than enough. Three was asking for trouble.

Good times, not that I remember much.

Woke up one morning to find an empty canister, a huge puddle of ginger colored dog puke and Morgan sleeping off what could have been a bad acid trip on steroids in a human being but was just naptime. He’d eaten an entire Tupperware canister of fresh baked Alice B.Toklas gingersnaps I’d been careless enough to leave on the coffee table.

There’s no such thing as a bad acid trip if you’re a golden retriever.  They are enlightened beings unlike you or me or Maureen Dowd.

If you live in Colorado and insist on venturing into the dangerous world of baked goods you’ll want the weakest dope possible, the kind frequently taken for oregano, not the one toke variety.  One toke dope is Overkill.  And you don’t want to use sugar. Sugar adds that addictive quality, which is why it’s so hard to stop at just one Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano.

If you insist on baking cookies they should be no more appetizing than dog biscuits.

Diet dog biscuits.

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Love Letter to the IRS

green heart

Dear Internal Revenue Service,

This is a love letter. Bet you don’t get many of those.[1] Mind if I call you Irving? You’ve been called worse. Some think hating you is the highest form of patriotism. I, on the other hand, think of you as the man I married in 1975 when I was fresh out of law school and saddled with debt.

We met at a job fair in Washington DC, back when women with law degrees were novelty acts. Your experience with women was limited to secretaries, clerk typists, and the girls at the Lone Star.[2]

I looked into your pale eyes and said, “Speak to me about ERISA.”[3]

Aha! A live one, you thought.

When you asked about my long-range career goals I lied and said I wanted to be a GS-13 Tax Law Specialist.  I signed on to protect and defend the Constitution.

There’s a wistful quality about you, Irving. At parties you stand around the clam dip and hope beautiful women will flirt with you.   You wear cheap suits that are too big in the shoulders and use Old Spice aftershave.   You are tone-deaf, near-sighted, humor-impaired, and partially color-blind, which is maybe why your socks don’t match. Your eyes are the color of cocktail onions bottled in brine.   You are officially apolitical, like death itself.

You thrive under fluorescent light, much like the plants we keep in our cubicles to remind us that green is the color of life as well as money.  

You are partial to veterans, men who almost became priests, and big fish from small southern towns where everyone works for the mills.   People for whom institutional loyalty is second nature.   I was loyal to you in my fashion. “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, [4]” I’d respond when taunted.

You are furtive about your trysts with high priced call girls who so often steal your wallet, but not about those long lunches in the Lone Star.

You’re so not my type.  You know nothing about jazz nor do you subscribe to High Times for indoor gardening hints.   You haven’t spent your adult life studying t’ai chi so you could become a better surfer.“What’s foreplay?” you asked me once; and when I explained, you said it would take too long.

Oh Irving! You saved me from a life of shared apartments in rough neighborhoods, storefront clinics, second hand clothing and ramen noodles in exchange for the best years of my life, the prime time of my days (Monday through Friday with a half hour for lunch).

Financial dependency laced with resentment? I’d call it old-fashioned married love, not unlike my grandmother’s marriage, which lasted 50 years most of them unhappy. I was only going to stay till I finished my first novel, which would surely be a bestseller, like Fear of Flying. [5] Please don’t laugh. We were all young once, except you.

Like many women I shaped myself to your needs, which were foreign to my nature, and consoled myself with fantasies of secret stardom. Attempts were made to ignite passion in hotels that did not have room service. I was Joan Didion [6]with a migraine in Detroit but we’ll always have Fresno. That motel had a swimming pool and the nighttime sky stayed pink. We pretended I was Joni Mitchell and you were Crosby, Stills and Nash. I’m glad you talked me out of the tattoo. Some might call it Stockholm syndrome, but I say love the one you’re with. [7]

Writing was my true love, but you came first.

Thirty years passed, not as a dream. More like a situation comedy in real time with no laugh track. Your gradual loss of self-esteem was painful to behold.   I watched you experiment with hair gel and try to squeeze your stout self into Euro-styled suits. You wanted to look more ‘corporate’. Tried to pass yourself off as MasterCard or LL Bean. I protested when you changed our mission statement.Instead of “taxpayer assistance” we would provide “customer service,” and “customer satisfaction”.

I drew the line at language abuse.

“Customers? ” I cried. “They’re taxpayers, not customers. Real customers can take their business elsewhere. No one says ‘I was going to sign up with IRS but AOL offered me free Internet porn. ”

You looked right through me with those cocktail onion eyes. It was as though I hadn’t spoken.

I skipped out on my retirement party. Didn’t even say goodbye. Our divorce was final and I was bitter at first about The Wasted Years.

I should have been more gracious, especially in light of the pension.  Writers need patrons or grants or some means of earning a living while we are learning our craft, and even afterwards.  You kept me on a short leash in terms of time but left me to write whatever I chose so long as it did not reveal sensitive taxpayer information.   You honored your obligations.

You were my first and best teacher.   You taught me that proper punctuation has the force of law.

With love and gratitude,

Judith Podell,


[1] David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King comes to mind.


[2] Topless bar in Washington DC across the street from the FBI building. Rumored to have been acquired by the FBI from a seizure.


[3] The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a heartbreaking work of staggering complexity, intended to ensure that the private pension system would provide meaningful benefits to employees through a series of tax incentives. It was widely believed that this could be accomplished through a complex network of regulations containing loopholes big enough to drive a truck through.


[iv] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote that is carved above the entrance of IRS Headquarters at 1111 Constitution Avenue.


[v] Published in 1973. Arguably the Great Jewish American Feminist Comic novel. Certainly the first, and a hard act to follow.


[vi] The anti-Erica Jong.


[vii] Title of song by Stephen Sills. Don’t think the original expression was his.


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