Archive for July, 2010

Back to the Garden

July 20, 2010

I used to be a timid gardener, willing to plant but reluctant to weed or prune or replant. Who was I to say which growing things deserved to live, once growing, how far they could extend their reach or where they were rooted? Live and let live was pretty much my motto. The result wasn’t pretty.

Well into my second full summer here in Rhode Island, I have found my horticultural heuvos. I pull weeds with a vengeance and prune branches with confidence. And I’m beginning to get into the idea of digging up specimens and tucking them back into the soil somewhere else.

Just this afternoon, I took up those three flowering tobacco plants whose leaves turned out to be way larger than I’d expected, and I put them behind the impatiens they’d upstaged. Then I took one of the impatiens plants and slipped it into the space where the tobacco had been. And then I gave the plants a nice soaking to help them settle into their new homes.

The whole operation took less than fifteen minutes. It was enormously satisfying. The corner of the bed no longer looks stupid, and I feel that much less like a helpless bystander in my little plot on earth. I’m feeling the same way about my writing.

For the last little while I’d been anticipating my agent’s editorial notes on Little Grandma’s Mirror. As I waited, too distracted to work on any other project, I started imaging worst-case scenarios. Sure he liked the book enough to take it on, I reasoned, but now that he’s gone over it more carefully he’s realized he made a mistake.

The edits arrived in my inbox on Sunday. They were very thorough. The cover letter stretched over six page – about three times as long as I’d expected. And the attached copy of the manuscript was covered with the electronic, track-changes equivalent of red ink.

Of course he said nice things. He told me how much he loved the book and assured me that I could pull off the revisions it needed to be really great. But those words barely registered. All those questions and comments had thrown me into defensive mode.

I worked as an newspaper editor for several years, so I’m familiar with red ink. But not from the receiving end. Never before has anyone had so much to say about anything I’ve written. Then again, never before have I written a novel of 300+ pages.

I spent a day “processing.” That is, I forced myself to read the comments carefully enough to summarize them in my own words, and I got used to the idea that my ambition to be a writer was ridiculous and unnecessary. Plenty of people live perfectly happy lives without ever trying to publish novels. Without all that pesky composing and revising I’d have more time for less stressful pursuits. Like gardening. All I had to do was work up the nerve to tell my agent when we talked on the phone this morning.

Of course, that’s not what happened. It’s not as if I wimped out. It’s that two minutes into the conversation, we were discussing my book’s structure and themes and characters more seriously and productively than I had ever discussed them with anyone. Having to explain my characters’ motivations made me understand them better. That made me see which of their actions didn’t make sense, and how incidental details could be better used to further my themes.

Yes, my agent was asking me to do a lot more work. But hearing the enthusiasm in his voice convinced me that the effort would pay off. And that made me eager to get started.

I’ll be creating new scenes, weeding out those that don’t belong, pruning those that do, and moving others around. Before I dig into the manuscript, though, I’m going to take a couple of weeks to get some perspective on what I need to do. I’ll do most of that away from the computer: jotting ideas down in a spiral notebook and mulling things over as I muck around in the garden.

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My First Pig Roast

July 11, 2010

Every year my sister-in-law Sarah throws a giant pig roast at her home in Colorado Springs. This year David and I attended for the first time.

On Thursday we drove with Sarah to Castle Rock to pick up the pig. It weighed 108 pounds, and was wheeled out to the car in a long, cardboard box that looked like it ought to be draped in an American flag. Instead, we pulled a plastic bag around it, because juices were dripping out of one corner of the box. Once the pig was safely stashed in the back of the Subaru, we returned to Colorado Springs, where we dropped the box off at Front Range Bar-B-Q.

On Saturday afternoon, the Front Range Bar-B-Q guy parked his smoker in front of Sarah’s house. The smoker looks like an old-fashioned train engine. The pig was laid out with an orange in its mouth and pepper slices over its eyes. Its snout was hairy and its skin was glistening. It had already been smoking for several hours. Sarah had asked the Front Range people to finish the cooking in front of her house because she wanted to smell of the smoke to fill the air.

In the Torah, the fragrant smoke of grilling meat is the essence of the sacrifices at the Temple. When the pleasing aroma rises to God, the offering is accepted. Of course the animal being sacrificed at the Torah isn’t a pig. And as far as I know, the text makes no mention of oranges in the animal’s mouth or pepper slices over its eyes. After the smoke has risen to God, the pilgrims and their friends feast on the flesh. That’s what happened at the pig roast.

Coolers were filled with beer and soda. Two guitar-strumming singers from Manitou Springs played folksy covers. Guests brought sides of hummus, green-bean casserole, artichoke dip, pasta salad, silky-smooth collard greens. Counting the babies, there were about 70 people altogether. The pig was brought in from the smoker and laid out on the table, where we could watch it being sliced as we loaded our plates with meat and and topped it with sauce.

The sight of the pig laid out like that turned my stomach. But I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t keep kosher, so I helped myself to a little of the meat and spooned over some of the sauce. I think it tasted pretty good. But I didn’t really taste it. I couldn’t get the sight of that pig out of my head.

There are lots of reasons for not eating animals: human health, animal cruelty, environmental sustainability. I find them all compelling – but not as convincing as the deliciousness of a good lamb curry. The laws of kashrut present dietary restrictions as God’s commandment. I don’t believe in a god who commands, and love the salty bite of bacon – but I’m Jewish enough to feel guilty when I eat it. And I suspect that I would have been less put off if that pig had been a goat or a lamb.

Or maybe not. The way that pig was displayed, with everyone talking and laughing around it felt – what? Disrespectful, I guess. It was as if we were saying, “Ha ha, joke’s on you. You’re dead and we’re having a party.”

And if the specific strictures of kashrut strike me as arbitrary, its more general encouragement of eating awareness resonates deeply. I like the idea of taking the physical instinct to feed your face and turning it into an act of devotion. You don’t need to believe in God to see the point of slowing down, considering what it is you’re putting in your mouth, and remembering that your life depends on it.

I believe that if a person is going to eat animals, she should be willing to face up to what she’s doing. Someone who can’t stomach a slaughterhouse tour has no business eating what comes out of it. I’m pretty sure I could be sickened by such a visit. But I haven’t been to one yet.

The night after the roast I had trouble sleeping. As I lay awake, I wondered if come morning I would finally take the plunge and tell David I was giving up meat.

I didn’t. Today at lunch, I passed up the leftover pork in favor of chicken. Then I dug in with gusto, picking the bones clean and gnawing the cartilage. Surveying the remains on my plate, I realized what I had done. I forced myself to imagine the living creature I’d just consumed. But the thought was too unpleasant. I quickly set it aside and told myself, maybe tomorrow.

Team Spirit

July 2, 2010

So I’m sitting on my front porch this afternoon when all of a sudden I hear someone screaming. “OhmyGod! OH MY GOD! Oh! My! God!” Did I mention that this is just one person? The screaming is followed by a round of solo applause. Then quiet returns to my street.

I’ve never really gotten the sports thing.

One of my earliest memories is driving home on the Garden State Parkway from visiting one of our grandmothers in Elizabeth, the smoke from Daddy’s cigarette blowing into the back seat, the Yankees game droning on the radio. The sound of sports on TV, punctuated by the cheers and groans of my father and my brother, accompanied my childhood. I learned to turn it into white noise and tune it out.

But even as I tuned it out, some essential elements seeped in. Most importantly, I knew the Yankees were our team, right up there with the Democrats, the Jews, the public school system and the A&P.

When I got married, my husband put my no-sports stance to shame. Not only did David ignore sports. He hadn’t even grown up in a family where anyone followed them. To this day, if he finds himself in a group of guys shooting the shit about the World Series, he’s liable to say, “That’s baseball, right?” Sure, it’s an exaggeration. But it gets the point across. We take pride in such moments.

Sometimes David accuses me of being more interested in sports than I’ll admit. That’s because every now and then I’ll let myself get drawn into the drama. I usually pay enough attention to know who’s playing in the World Series, and if the Yankees aren’t, I’ll find a reason to root for one of the teams that is. I favor cities in blue states. I like underdogs. And I automatically favor anyone who’s playing against the Red Sox.

Not that I actually ever watch a game. Baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf. If it’s on a TV and I happen to be in the same room, I might gaze at the colored jerseys and the pumping legs for a moment, but then I’ll space out. But when the morning news wakes me up, I’ll listen for the scores, register a moment of mild happiness or disappointment when I hear who beat whom, and then get on with my day. It’s sort of a nice feeling, to be mildly glad or sad about something that makes no difference whatsoever.

The one big exception to all this sports indifference came four years ago, during the last World Cup.  Our family was spending two weeks in France, which was working its way to the finals. The whole country was berserk with football fever. Soccer wasn’t just  filling TV screens. It was spilling out onto the streets. Buildings were bedecked in red, white and blue. Sidewalk racks overflowed with souvenir soccer shirts. People walked around with the tricolor draped over their shoulders like Superman capes and cars raced by with French flags fluttering out their windows.

The night France played the quarters we were dining outside in a village in Provence. We knew Les Bleus had won when someone started circling and re-circling the tiny town, honking and waving flags.

The night France was in the semi-final, we were driving back to our gite from Avignon. Our route took us through the centers of a series of villages. We knew Les Bleus had advanced to the final because each village center we passed through was more packed with more inebriated revelers waving larger and larger French flags. Traffic slowed to a near halt. People shouted and pounded their fists on the hoods and roofs of the crawling cars. I wished we had a flag of our own to wave so no one would mistake us for citizens of whatever country France had just beat. Instead, I leaned on my horn, and we got home safely.

By the time the final game was played, we were in Paris, and feeling firmly committed to Les Bleus and totally anti-Italian. Our daughter bought a blue football jersey with Zidane’s name and number. She wore it to dinner at an outside table in St. Germain, where the streets were packed with people who’d come to watch the match in public. I was nervous about what might happen in the aftermath, so we went back to our hotel and watched it there. And we actually did watch it, although four years later, the only thing I can remember about the game was Zidane head-butting the Italian and being expelled from the game, and then Italy winning. We were momentarily disappointed. Then we went to bed, relieved that we would be able to sleep through the night without being disturbed by partying sports fans.