Archive for October, 2011

Taking down the tomatoes

October 25, 2011


Today I took down the tomatoes. That is to say, I diligently undid all the things I so diligently did last Spring. I untwisted the twist ties, unsnapped the cage cross-bars, pulled up the stakes. I unearthed the plants and clipped them into manageable lengths, and dropped them into the compost bin, where the compost in which the tomatoes thrived so happily all season was produced. The bed is clear now except for the parsley at one end and at the other, the stripped Brandywine plant I left standing like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. After Halloween, we’ll retire our Jack-o-lanterns to the tomato bed, where we can watch them fold in on themselves and decay.

Dirt to dirt. It was just after noon, but the angle of the sun was low. The air was warm, but the breeze was chilly. This was a spectacular year for tomatoes. We ate them in salads, on bagels, in eggs, as part of sauces and straight from the bowl, as snacks. The vines I was uprooting were covered with flowers and fruit small as grapes and hard as rocks. With two weeks of warm sunshine, they would ripen. But they don’t have two weeks. I usually take pleasure in working outdoors and in following the progress of the seasons. But today’s chore left me sad.


I have been thinking about time lately. Or, more specifically, deadlines. Today’s to-do list was driven by deadlines: finish mowing the lawn; clean up the tomatoes; pull down the storm windows. Tomorrow I’ll buy the Halloween candy and the pumpkins. On Friday I’ll pay this week’s bills. By the end of the week I need to get to work on my November column. By five-thirty I need to start making dinner.


And floating through and beyond all these deadline-driven tasks is what I consider my “real” work, which is writing my next book. On the one hand, I have all the time in the world to do it. If I wanted to, I could devote eight, ten hours to it five days a week. And on the other hand, no one is expecting it or telling me to do it or waiting for excerpts. All my adult life, I have dreamed of having this kind of freedom. But the blessing of unlimited time can also be a curse. Back when my writing time was precious – when I had to squeeze it in while the kids were napping, or before they came home from school, between freelance assignments or on days off from my day job — I was a lot more productive.

How do you keep working when all your motivation is internal? I have tried various tricks over the years – scheduling writing times; giving myself deadlines or word quotas; exchanging chapters with a critique partner. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Yesterday I sat at the computer all morning, doing everything but writing, and despairing of ever producing another word. Then I went outside and did some yard work, and when I returned to the desk, the words just flowed. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe taking down the tomatoes made me sad because it reminded me that my sense of unlimited time is an illusion. Maybe it reinforced my wish that my writing had a deadline. That someone was expecting it, that someone other than me was counting me to be as diligent about my paragraphs as I have been about those plants. That I felt as proud about my prose as I have been feeling about my produce. Or maybe my low feeling was just a temporary chemical ebb. Or else I was just really sorry to see the last of those delicious tomatoes.




Occupational hazards

October 18, 2011

David and I marched with Occupy Providence on Saturday. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, and a really nice crowd — students, parents carrying young children on shoulders, anarchists waving impressive black flags, people hiding their faces behind Anonymous masks or scarves (which may not have been strictly necessary, but gave the event a more edgy tone), union members, people chanting in Spanish, white-haired veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, and other citizens of various stripes. Anyone who wasn’t carrying a sign was taking pictures. The Providence police kept watch non-threateningly. The What Cheer Brigade brass band provided a jaunty, jazz beat.

The atmosphere was lively but controlled, everyone seeming to be putting a big premium on getting along. One guy apologized to David after stepping on his heels. When I asked another guy (or maybe it was the same one) where the march was heading, he answered politely, and then said, “Thanks for coming out.”

“Glad to be here,” I answered, as I realized, He’s being deferential because I’m old enough to be his mother.

Wasn’t it like just yesterday I was feeling too young to march against the War in Viet Nam? Back then, I didn’t entirely understand the issues, but the basic idea was pretty plain: war = bad, peace = good.

Although my heart is clearly with the Occupy Wall Street people, I’m not sure I entirely understand the issues this time, either, although the basic ideas behind lots of the signs was perfectly clear.

“My country has let me down.”

“Who stands up for us”

“How is the war economy working for you?”

“Stop creating hurdles for voters”

“When the rich rob the poor it’s ‘business.’ When the poor fight back it’s ‘violence.’”

And then there were the chants. I know you’re not supposed to take them literally, but is a bunch of people parading through the streets really what democracy looks like?  When it comes right down to it, what does “This is what democracy looks like” even mean?

We assembled in BurnsidePark, the locus of the ongoing demonstration, and marched in a circle through downtown, stopping at the federal buildings, the Textron Building, Bank of America, Providence Place Mall, and finally the State House, before heading back to the park. At each stop someone addressed the crowd, using the relay system that has become a hallmark of this movement.

The crowd is brought to order by someone calling, “Mike check” through a megaphone. The people standing closest the speaker repeat, “Mike check.” Then the people standing farther back repeat the phrase, until everyone is paying attention.

The speaker uses the same system. He or she states a phrase into the megaphone, and the crowd amplifies his or her words, passing them along to the people at the back, until everyone presumably has heard it. Then the speaker moves on to the next phrase.

As a medium for public discourse, it’s cumbersome, unreliable, and gorgeous. The repeated lines become a chant. The crowd is unified, with everyone listening as carefully as they can. Whatever the content, the medium’s underlying message is that many voices are more powerful than one. And at the same time, hearing so many people repeat a line, down to the timing and inflection, amplifies the fact that these are the words of a single person, an individual.

This irony was most obvious when we stopped near Bank of America.

“I am a teacher,” the speaker said.

“I am a teacher…I am a teacher…I am a teacher,” rippled down Westminster Street.

That was lovely. We are all teachers, we seemed to be saying. We stand with you. It reminded me of the story (not strictly true, but still pretty) about the Danes all wearing yellow stars during the Second World War.

Then the teacher continued, “And there’s more of you out there than I’m used to speaking to.”

“And there’s more of you…” the crowd dutifully repeated. It was a sweet display of respect. But it was also absurd, in a sort of Monty Python way.

Afterwards, the writer in me couldn’t help thinking about what sort of style would work best for relayed speech. Phrases should be short and natural, with no wasted words. Bullet points work better than paragraphs. Numbers are not so good – the difference between a million and a billion and a trillion gets garbled. The speech’s overall structure should be clean and transparent. Specifics are better than generalities, as long as they make a general point that’s easy to grasp. It’s a little bit like the easy-readers I used to write – controlled vocabulary, direct sentences, natural line endings.

If someone had thrust the bullhorn into my hands and asked me to speak, I might have said something like this:

“I am not poor. I have more than enough. After this march I will not camp out. I will go home to my house. I will eat a good dinner. I will sleep in my warm bed. I am not poor. I am not unemployed. I am not homeless. I pay my taxes. And that’s just fine with me. It’s good to share. I believe / a society is judged / by how it treats / its most vulnerable members. Our society is failing. But I believe / we can do better. Thank you for spreading this message.”

Why be good?

October 14, 2011

My October column for the Voice & Herald.

I once worked as the librarian at a Catholic girls’ high school. Before I took the job, I worried that my background would be a barrier. But the nuns loved having a Jewish librarian. They saw me as a direct line to their religious roots, and I began playing up my Judaism in order to please them. Everything was fine until Sister Mary Emilie invited me to address her Religion 9 class in a sort of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Judaism session.

The students submitted questions in advance. Lots of them were easy. What is a bar mitzvah? Why do men wear those little beanies? Why don’t Jews celebrate Christmas? Other questions were trickier. Do Jews like Jesus? What about hell?

A few days later, I stood before a room full of fourteen-year-olds in matching yellow blouses and checked skirts. Flipping through my index cards, I talked about coming-of-age rituals and covering the head as a sign of respect. I told the girls that Jews consider Jesus a great teacher, but don’t believe anyone can be the son of God. As for hell, I said, it’s part of Jewish folklore, but not doctrine. “Nobody tells Jewish kids that if they sin they’ll go to hell,” I added.

Hands shot up all over the room.

“Then why be good?” A girl in the front row asked.

Because it’s good to be good? I wanted to say. A good person isn’t just out for number one – even in the very long term. Jews don’t need threats to do the right thing, I thought, trying not to look smug.

“Because being good makes the world better,” I said.

Sister Mary Emilie smiled at me from the back of the room. The girls seemed less convinced. But I was at a loss as to what else to say. I was a school librarian and Jewish. That hardly made me an expert.

Three decades later, I’m still thinking about that girl’s question.

It comes up when I’m reading Torah. Sure, we don’t read about guys in red Spandex suits brandishing pitchforks, but a parasha rarely passes when God doesn’t threaten to subject sinners to some living hell. Crops fail, armies invade and the nation is scattered, all becauseIsraeldoesn’t act right. One particularly pretty passage pictures evil doers eating their own babies. Do stories like these teach us right from wrong, or just bully us into submission?

The question comes up a lot during the high holidays, when divine judgment gets personal. We have committed all sorts of sins, the story goes, and God really ought to smack us. But if we pound our chests hard enough and say we’re sorry sincerely enough, maybe we can avert the harsh decree. If we’re more concerned about being judged than about what we did, what kind of morality is that?

For folks like me, who don’t believe famines and foreclosures are divine judgment, the Machzor suggests picturing God as a parent. The image is a lot easier to identify with than that of a king, or a judge with a ledger. And the idea of an internalized parental voice describes pretty well how it often feels to make moral decisions.

But how does the Be Good For Mommy model stack up morally? That depends. Suppose the voice in your head is warning you to be good or else. Even if you’re just trying not to feel guilty, if that’s the only thing keeping you from cheating your customers or punching your sister, you’re still basically acting out of self-interest. It’s good that your sister’s arm doesn’t hurt and your customers aren’t ripped off. But it doesn’t make you all that good.

What if the voice in your head wants to kvell? Do it for me, you hear your mother saying, as you write that check for tzedakah. Make me proud. Wanting to make someone else happy, or to shed a good light on them, is morally better than doing it for yourself. But best of all is if the voice of your parent – or teacher, or tradition – is there to remind you about the underlying principles that let you distinguish right from wrong on your own.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Maimonides. “A man should not do the mitzvot and learn Torah so that he will receive the blessings promised or obtain the hereafter… only the ignorant and the children are trained to worship God from fear, so that they will develop and worship God out of love.”

Not interested in worshipping God? Maimonides also articulates behavioral goals that should motivate any moral person. “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

If only I had said some of that to Sister Mary Emilie’s students. Instead, I turned to my next index card. “Someone wanted to know about Christmas?” I asked.

Details, details, details

October 12, 2011

Early in our marriage, David and I went to dinner at some friends’ house, and our hostess told a story. I think it was about a dog, but I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is this very nice woman’s torturous way of telling it, and how we strained to remain patient as she got distracted, out loud, by one irrelevant detail after another. At one point our friend interrupted herself in mid-sentence, screwed her eyebrows in distress, and asked, “Or was it a Thursday?”

That’s what we remember.

“Or was it a Thursday?” has become one our marriage’s most enduring memes, shorthand for, “Get to the point!”

Usually, it’s David saying it to me. I’d like to think that’s because I’m usually the one talking. To be honest, though, I do have a way of thinking aloud and of getting overly interested in insignificant specifics. I hope I don’t do that too much when I’m talking to someone other than David, who vowed to stay with me through richer and poorer storytelling. And I really hope I don’t overdo irrelevant details on the page.

The beauty of first and second and nth drafts is that you can start out filling in as many details as you want, and then go back and remove the ones that don’t matter. Filling in the details helps me immerse myself in the world I’m creating. And while I might plan out and my story’s general shape and overall meaning in advance, the details often offer unexpected keys to how it all fits together.

For example: Early in the process of writing my novel Little Grandma’s Mirror, I knew an important scene would be a shiva meal. I put my characters in the dining room, and then started looking around in my mind’s eye and describing details. I noticed the windows and the overhead light fixture, the art on the wall, the spread of bagels and smoked fish, the soda and wine set out on the sideboard, and the small stash of hard liquor locked away inside it. It wasn’t until I got to that locked cabinet that I realized one of my characters was going to break into the booze, and bad things would ensue.

What kind of bad things? And what was it about my character that would make her unlock that forbidden cabinet? These were important questions. Answering them got me over a huge hurdle in the hard work of shaping my story. By my nth draft, the windows and the overhead light fixture and the art on the wall were long gone. The spread on the table remained, and provided a foil for much of the scene’s action. As for that locked-up stash of liquor, it not produced the scene’s climax, but also became a telling motif that recurred throughout the rest of the book.

Whether the event our hostess was describing occurred on a Tuesday or a Thursday may have been important. But she should have figured that out in an earlier draft, and then started talking. On the other hand, if she had, I’m sure David and I would have forgotten the whole event a long time ago.

A chicken for your sins

October 7, 2011

Want to read a seasonally-appropriate excerpt from my work in progress? Click here.

Tomato Atonement

October 2, 2011

What does Yom Kippur have to do with growing your own? I suggested an answer in a sermon I gave at my synagogue yesterday. Extra thanks to Rabbi Joel Seltzer for his very helpful editorial suggestions.

Shabbat shalom and l’shana tova. When I was in my first year of college, I spent Yom Kippur as the guest of a professor. More than 30 years later, that day is still vivid in my mind. I remember the guy who organized the excursion. He was an older student named Aaron Lansky, who went on to found the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I remember how novel it felt to fast until after sunset. When I was growing up, my family never returned to shul for Neilah. Hearing that final teki’ah gedolah was a revelation. But what I remember most about Yom Kippur 5737 is broccoli. (more…)