Archive for November, 2010

You Are What You Meat

November 23, 2010

Cows grazing at Pat's Pastured farm

When my son was six, I helped chaperone his class’s pre-Thanksgiving field trip to a turkey farm In Williston, Vermont. The trip didn’t turn out quite the way his teacher had hoped. The birds were crowded wattle to wing in an indoor pen, shuffling and shuddering, the cacophony of their collective gobbling loud and alarming. It came in waves. It was clear the birds were upset and setting each other off. Many of their normally red wattles were blue – a sign of anxiety, the farmer calmly explained. His baseball cap had a picture of a hand giving a one-finger salute. It was easy to imagine that the birds’ distress was directly related to his plans for their near future. But it’s more likely they were upset by the presence of 30 jostling, noisy first-graders.

It’s enough to make me never eat meat again, I thought as we hurried the kids out of there. Except it wasn’t. Just a few days later I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of my family and blithely tucked into my turkey. And I have continued to tuck into turkeys – and chickens and lambs and cows and pigs.

But maybe not as blithely.

We used to serve it for dinner seven nights a week and buy any cut that looked good and was affordable. First we stopped eating veal, and then we started searching out other meats from animals that had been raised humanely. At the time we were still living in Vermont, where our neighborhood grocer carried lots of stuff from local suppliers touting free range/organic/fair trade/sustainable/heirloom/insert-your-pc-food-catchword credentials. So finding foods that assuaged our consciences was easy.

Less easy was paying for them, which meant we ate meat less often. Which I considered a good thing.

Then we moved to Rhode Island. Three years ago, when we arrived, there were two Whole Foods stores within a fifteen-minute drive of our house. Today there are three, plus a Trader Joe’s. These national chains pedal lots of groceries with groovy credentials. But kind treatment of livestock isn’t among them.

Not surprisingly, Rhode Island also doesn’t have nearly as many farms as Vermont. But the number is growing (in fact, last year Rhode Island’s farm roster has grown more quickly than 48 other states’). And in the short time we’ve been here, there has also been a boom in farmer’s markets.

We like knowing how our meat was raised and buying it directly from the folks who raised it. But market schedules don’t always jive with ours. And even without the middleman, purchasing happy meat retail is still pricey.

This fall, we faced a choice. I leaned towards going meatless – or nearly meatless. David proposed a different approach: buy a freezer chest and find a happy-meat farmer to fill it.

Now I’ve got a freezer in my basement filled with 100 pounds of dead cow. It’s happy dead cow. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a cow comes from spending its days grazing on grass in a Vermont pasture. I picked the meat up last week – three cardboard boxes – from a woman in Coventry, Rhode Island, who’d picked it up the day before from Corinth, Vermont, where she owns a farm and rents it to tenants who raise, slaughter and butcher angus cows.

On Sunday David and I drove to Jamestown, Rhode Island, to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey. It’s a happy Thanksgiving turkey. Or at least, it lived a happy life. Assuming happiness for a turkey comes from spending its days pecking at bugs in an open pasture on a narrow strip of land with Narragansett Bay sparkling to the east and the west.

Would it be better not to eat animals at all? Probably. But this is where we are this year. And when I sit down to our turkey dinner on Thursday, I’ll know the turkey I’m tucking into didn’t spend its days wattle to wing in a hysterical mob. That’s something to be thankful for.

White Out?

November 12, 2010

With all the buzz about the demise of the paper newspaper and the dead-tree book, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the story I read in this morning’s (paper) Providence Journal. Phone companies are phasing out residential phone books.

White pages are going the way of the rotary-dial in Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Florida. In some of these places you’ll be able to receive them on request, but in others they’re disappearing altogether.

I understand the arguments. I don’t like wasting paper any more than you do. Lots of people recycle their white pages as soon as they’re delivered, it seems. In a 2008 Gallup poll, only 11 percent of respondents said they use physical phone books to look up residential numbers. Makes sense. It’s not just that they can find the numbers on line or capture them in their phones’ memories. It’s also that as more and people eschew land lines altogether, the white pages are becoming less and less useful.

And yet I can’t help feeling disappointed, the way Nicholson Baker felt (and I did too, thought a lot less eloquently) about the demise of the card catalogue. Call me old.

But what about people who don’t have internet access? Those people do exist. And they’re not all over the age of 80. Lots of people just can’t afford it. And as libraries cut back their hours, another source of free public internet access gets lost. And even for those people who do have internet access at home, what about broken routers and power failures?

And what about all those incidental uses phone books have filled? Without fat phone books, what will children sit to reach the Thanksgiving table? How will people prop open finicky doors?

Most of all, I’m sad about losing the community record a residential phone book represents.

When we traveled, my father used to read the phone book that came in the hotel room. Naturally, we made fun of him. It was such a nerdy Dad-like thing to do. But he pointed out that you could learn a lot by reading a phone book. By seeing how many columns of Silvas were listed in the Cape Cod book, he got a sense of how many people of Portuguese decent had settled in the area. As a one-time American Studies student and a journalist and a generally nosey person, he was endlessly interested in which ethnic groups lived in which parts of the country. As his daughter, I inherited this fascination.

When we moved to Burlington in 1987, I was the only Horowitz in the book. The book I carried with me when we moved to Rhode Island lists three. In the Providence book there are 17.

As a school librarian, my mother hob-nobbed with lots of children’s writers. Because I was an aspiring author, she was always bringing me tips from her visiting scribes. Mystery writers know the ending before they start, and then work backwards. No one who spends fewer than six hours a day writing can expect to make a living from their craft. Writers get the names for their characters from the phone book.

I took this last tip to heart, and keep two sets of white pages, Burlington and Providence, near my desk expressly for this purpose. That’s where I found the names for Leila’s neighbors in Bat Time, Mr. Perrault and Ms Kottmeir and the bat-fearing Mr Mackety.

In a world without white pages, kids will pull up to the Thanksgiving table on plastic molded booster seats. Pretty round rocks picked up on the beach will prop doors open. People like my father will find other ways to delve into the demographics of places they visit, and writers will find other sources for their characters’ surnames. But I’m keeping my phone books for that purpose. And I still don’t know what people who can’t get on the internet will do.




What’s the Big Idea?

November 9, 2010

Where do you get your ideas? When I have presented my children’s books at schools and libraries, that’s the one question that has always come up. The answer is, of course, that every book is different.

I got the idea for Mommy’s Lap, a picture book about the birth of a new baby, when my daughter was five months old. As I pushed her stroller around the neighborhood, I started thinking about the best time to have another baby, and how my daughter would react when she had to share her parents with a sibling.

Bat Time pretty closely describes the summer bedtime ritual my husband established with our daughter when she was four.

Crab Moon was inspired by a series of emails I received from my aunt, who has a beach house on Long Island, where she watches the annual spectacle of horseshoe crab gathering at high tide to spawn.

Breakout at the Bug Lab grew out of a profile I wrote for Seven Days about a local entomologist and her giant hissing Madagascar cockroaches pets. In the course of our interview I gathered more material than could fit in one story. Bug Lab plays off some of those unused anecdotes.

After Bug Lab was published, I got my own roaches – a male and a female – to embellish my author visits. Eventually the stage roaches reproduced. When I tried to find homes for the roach offspring, Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was born.

Inspiration for Little Grandma’s Mirror, the novel for adults now in the hands of my agent, was both more simple and more complicated. The simple inspiration was my mother’s death. The only way I could deal with my loss was to write.

What to write was more complicated. Several approaches vied for my attention: the literal details of what actually happened; a freer interpretation of how it felt and what it meant; the realistic, contemporary fiction that grew from the other two; and the fantastic tale of an imaginary shtetl that mirrored the themes I was getting at with the other approaches, the way a dream reflects and refracts the residue of waking reality. Did I mention that each approach demanded a different voice?

I guess I could have just picked one path. Or I could have written several separate stories. But as strong as my need to get this stuff down was the sense that it all belonged together. The question that consumed me for nearly a decade was how. The answer to that question is the essence of the finished work.

And here I sit, casting about for my next project, and I find myself asking myself, Where do ideas come from? Of course I know the answer. They come from our lives and from other people’s stories. They come from our obsessions and from the dreamy associations the mind manufactures when we’re thinking about something else. And they  come from the words that find their way onto the page without any particular plan. That’s how it has worked for me, anyway. The trick now is to remember that, and to trust that in one way or another, it will happen again.

Booked Up

November 3, 2010

I’ve done everything I can with my book. Its fate is now in the hands of my agent and the publishers he’s pitching. While I wait to hear what happens (as patiently as possible – not exactly easy), I’m trying to keep busy.

After voting yesterday, I checked out the new café offering Providence’s first Montreal-style bagels (not as good as Myer’s). I started two crocks of green tomato pickles. And I put up 17 storm windows. Today I might actually haul out the vacuum cleaner.

My default position is at my computer, pretending to work on my next project. I don’t have one yet. As far as I know. I do have a lot of ideas floating around, though, and I try to remind myself that a cloud of floating ideas was about all I had 10 years ago, when I started writing what eventually became Little Grandma’s Mirror. Maybe, if I pretend long enough, the ideas I have floating around now will coalesce into another book.

The other thing I’m doing while I wait is reading. Novels.

This might not sound like a big deal. But it is. I’m a very slow reader, and novels especially absorb me. Even if I don’t particularly like a book, I get caught up in analyzing where it falls short. If I do like a book, it’s even worse. I don’t just admire the marvel of the structure and linger over the minutia of the language. I become emotionally invested in the characters and caught up in the story. And when that happens, it’s hard for me to think about anything else.

There was no way I was going to risk getting so absorbed in someone else’s book at a time when I needed to be so absorbed in my own. But ever since I handed my revised manuscript off to my agent, I’ve felt free to get absorbed all over the place. And getting absorbed is an understatement for what happened with the first book I turned to.

I picked up Aleksandar Heman’s 2008 The Lazarus Project after hearing the author read a story by Bernard Malamud on a New Yorker podcast (if you love short stories and you don’t know this series, check it out). Heman is a Bosnian native who became an accidental American when war broke out at home, in1992. That means English isn’t Heman’s first language – and yet he handles it with a delicacy and deftness that brings to mind Nabakov. Heman is also seriously funny, and in The Lazarus Project he uses humor to spin a tale that is dead serious.

Actually, more than one tale. The Lazarus Project tells several stories. One imagines the fate of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who was gunned down by Chicago police in 1908, as part of a trumped-up war on anarchism. Alternating chapters follow Brik, the post 9/11/2001 Bosnian-immigrant writer who tries to understand Averbuch’s story by retracing his journey through Eastern Europe. Traveling with Brik is his photographer friend Rora, whose improbable tales of wartime Sarajevo provide the book’s third narrative thread.

Any one of these stories packs enough plot and colorful characters to comprise a satisfying novel on its own. What makes The Lazarus Project so extraordinary is the way Heman juxtaposes and intertwines the tales. Each one sheds light on issues raised in the others, and the combined creation offers timely insights into the disorientation of the displaced person, the dangers of the xenophobia, and the meaning of home.

I like a lot of books. But it’s not often I come across one I wish I’d written. It was like that with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. Jayne Anne PhillipsMachine Dreams, too. Also The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. And now I’m adding The Lazarus Project to the list.

Few things in life are better than finding a book that resonates so deeply. And the best part? The way a book like this sends me back to the keyboard to take another look at those floating ideas and imagine the story they’re trying to tell.