Archive for April, 2012

Running on Weird

April 26, 2012

Weirdly, I find myself running. I say Weirdly, because I’ve never been that kind of person. I don’t have time to go into all the reasons, so you’ll just have to believe me. It’s weird.

Oh, I’ve tried running before. I would huff around the block once or twice, get tired, and tell myself I wasn’t cut out for that kind of torture. Or my left foot would get tense. How could I possibly run with a tense left foot? And so on.

And then I started to put on a little weight. Not a lot, but enough to notice that my favorite clothes were no longer comfortable. I checked my Body Mass Index, and came out a hair over healthy. Just a hair, but I could see where things were heading.

My Mom was heavy, and she only lived to 71. Her medical problems included a host of issues that have been correlated with being overweight. That scares me.

Around this time, I had just gotten my first smartphone. I found a cool app that monitors your eating. Having to answer to your phone every time you carve yourself another slice of pie turns out to be hugely motivating. With my phone as my conscience, I started losing weight.

The first pounds dropped as easily as getting undressed and leaving your clothes in a heap at the foot of the bed. But then I hit a plateau.

I had been going to the gym four or five times a week for years, a holdover from the time in Vermont when my doctor ordered me to lose weight. But I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually worked up a sweat there. (Mostly, I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of watching morning TV; we don’t own a set, so I have to get in fix in somewhere.) I’m not stupid, so I knew that getting past my plateau would require ramping up my workout. But the prospect seemed so…tiring.

Then one Sunday morning we couldn’t reach our daughter on the phone. When we finally did get a hold of her, she confessed that she had been secretly running a half-marathon. Why secret? You’ll have to ask her. The point is, I took the news as a challenge. If my kid could do it, damn it, so could I.  Not a half-marathon, mind you. That would be ridiculous. But some kind of running.

I started slow – walk a little, run a little. Sometimes I went outside, but mostly I did it at the gym, relying on the trusty treadmill to measure the miles and control the incline (that is, keep it flat).

The last pounds dropped off. I reached my target weight, and celebrated by buying some new clothes – a couple of pairs of pants that actually fit, a pretty dress that shows off my newly bitchin’ bod, and some pricey running tights to replace the cotton yoga pants that absorb my sweat, and then feel like crap.

To justify my official costume, I started running like a maniac. Still sticking to the treadmill, I quickly upped my mileage from 1 mile to 1.5 to 2 to 2.5 to 2.75. The day I hit 2.75 miles, I felt wonderful all over. Except for my left calf, which was bruised and swollen and painful and hot to the touch. I freaked out and called my doctor, sure I was about to die from a blood clot. (It would be poetic justice for the very thing I was doing to buy a longer life to be what cut my life short. Too bad I wouldn’t be around to write about it.)

Turned out, though, that I was fine. I had just overdone it. My doctor, who has never ever discussed life style or preventative health or anything like that, insisted that as long as I could, I should definitely keep running.

Facebook friends offered advice. Another friend left an offering on my front porch: two books about running. With my bad calf iced and elevated, I read, and realized what I’d done wrong. I had increased my mileage too quickly, and hadn’t given myself time to rest. There was a weird breathing pattern I should use – inhaling for three footsteps and exhaling for two, so the same leg doesn’t receive all the extra force that comes  with exhaling. The book also gushed about the joys of running outside in such glowing tones, I felt envious.

So yesterday I tried it. I walked David to his bus, and then I took off, up Broad to Pawtuxet Park, where I looped around on the grass to check out the sparkling water. Then I headed over to Fort and out to the end of Seaview, where every yard has a flowering tree, and the tulips are at their peak.

By now, about a mile and a half into my run, I had the strangest sensation. I was no longer thinking about my legs. They just were doing their own job, while my mind and I were going along for the ride. It was like being on a bike. And not pedaling very hard. Then I realized something else. My breath had fallen into the rhythm the book recommended. Three in, two out. I wasn’t even doing it on purpose.

At the end of Seaview I paused to admire the harbor and do some stretches. I didn’t feel the particularly tight, but it seemed like a good idea. Then I started home.

My route took my past Stillhouse Cove, which ends in an uphill slope to our street. I remembered some more advice from the book: keep you pace constant; when you’re going uphill, just take smaller steps. I hardly noticed the hill.

I wasn’t ready to stop yet, so I decided to run past the house a few blocks, and then turn around and walk back home. Give myself time to cool down. Walking back, I felt exhilarated. I did a few more stretches on the porch, then went inside, drank a tall glass of water, put my legs up, and calculated my route. I had run 2.63 miles, 0.6 miles longer than I had planned.

Call me weird, but I’m sold.


Telling Time

April 21, 2012

There’s a minor moment in my novel in which two kids squabble over a portable music player. The first time I wrote that scene, back in 2002 or so, the player was a Sony Discman. I later updated it into an iPod. Revising it now, I have just come across a note from my agent. Shouldn’t the iPod be an iPad?

The comment got me to thinking. In what year does this story take place, anyway? When I tell people what my book is about, I usually use the word “contemporary,” to distinguish the present tense plot from the parallel tale that weaves in and out of it, and takes place in the past. No one ever asks what “contemporary” really means. I guess people just assume I mean now. So when I used the word back in 2002, I meant 2002. And when I use it today, I must mean 10 years later. But can I really just keep pulling the story forward?

No. It’s not just that when iPads give way to wePads or iPutzes or whatever, I can’t keep going back and updating the technology. The bigger issue is that my main characters, who are the parents of school-age children when the book takes place, have back stories and memories involving the Kennedy assassination, acid trips, and other details that anchor their childhoods at the time when mine took place, in the 1960s and ‘70s.

And then there’s that parallel plot line, which involves, among other things, early 20th-century immigration, 78-rpm records, and the early adulthood of my “contemporary” characters’ grandmother. I can’t make her stand still in time while her descendants move forward. Not without eventually inserting an intervening generation.

The bottom line? I can’t just keep floating the “contemporary” time period forward. I have to anchor it in time. But when, exactly? Does it take place before or after the terrorist attacks of 2001? The New York City skyline appears in a few places. Does it include the World Trade Center? A high school student in the contemporary story listens to a lot of music. What is it? This same kid has a cell phone. What’s the earliest year when this would be plausible? Two lesbians living in New reconsider having a baby, but the idea of getting married never comes up. Do I bring up the possibility, or call “contemporary” pre-2005 or so?

Timing is everything.

Dealing With Darlings

April 13, 2012

My agent recently sent me her editorial letter for the book I’ve been working on ever since I was in diapers (the diapers part isn’t really true, but it sure feels that way).

Two years ago, I did a major rewrite on this same book. It took me  months, and made the book much better – tighter, more coherent and consistent, easier to follow, better paced. When I was done with it, I thought I was done. I mean, I thought I was done with this phase. I figured that when (God willing) someone offered to publish the thing, more revisions would be necessary. But that round would be backed up by a contract. I would have received half my advance upon signing the contract, and the second half would be due to me when I turned in the completed manuscript. That’s how it happened with my previous books, anyway.

If I knew more revisions were in store, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my wonderful, sharp-eyed, savvy agent, who has absolute faith in me as a writer, and is totally in love with this book, would not want to send the manuscript out until she knew she had done everything in her power to make it as perfect as possible.

I have been writing for most of my life, and have always been edited. I count on being edited. I come from a family of editors. I have worked as an editor, myself.

I could kiss my agent’s feet for ferreting out my typos (mostly errors that got inserted in the last set of revisions). I’m grateful for her suggestions of where I might add a phrase to make some bit of specialized terminology accessible to a general audience. I’m glad to have pointed out to me that I over-use a certain sentence structure. And about those places where she says I need to clarify the point of view? Well, yeah. I knew that was coming. I just hoped I could land a contract first, and then make the fixes.

And yet. Her editorial letter (kind, encouraging, reasonable) arrived in my inbox like a fist to my solar plexus. Why? Because of my darlings.

“Kill your darlings,” Stephen King advises us writers. He means those bits of verbiage we fall so madly in love with that we resist removing them, even if they have no reason to stay in the story. My agent singled out two chapters that are most definitely my darlings. She didn’t say I should kill them. She even said she likes them. But she also very strongly suggested I change them.

I secretly call these chapters my “fugue chapters.” One is the funeral fugue, and the other is the unveiling fugue, describing the ritual that takes place a year after a death, when the headstone is dedicated. Throughout my book, point of view shifts from character to character. But all of the major characters are present in these two chapters. They all participate in these rituals, but bring very different perspectives to it. I wanted to convey the simultaneity of their thoughts. I wanted the sounds of their thoughts to bump up against the sounds of the boilerplate liturgy, and the sounds and sights of the damaged headstones, the airplanes flying over, the rain and the mud and the other distractions. I wanted to convey the sacredness of these two events – to show that they take the participants out of normal life, that they can’t be experienced in the normal way. I laid the chapters out like poetry, cutting and splicing the different trains of thought and interweaving them with the words of the prayers to create interesting, accidentally-on-purpose juxtapositions, contrasts, images, alliterations and rhymes.

Years ago, I staged a public reading of an earlier version of the funeral fugue. Six friends participated, each one reading the point of view of a different character. It was awesome. The audience couldn’t necessarily follow every detail (especially since it was out of context), but they could definitely feel the mood I was trying to convey.

Of course, because I had six difference voices, they could distinguish the different voices in the text. The trouble is, I’m writing this book for the page, not the stage. And it’s not a poem, but a novel, in which the reader wants to be pulled forward and find out what happens. And the trippy kaleidoscopic composition is just too hard to follow. I want the reader to slow down. It’s okay if they feel challenged. But they need to be able to meet the challenge. I don’t want them to give up and stop reading.

So, what to do?  Fire my agent? Ignore her advice? Rewrite those two chapters so they’re just like the rest of the book?

My solution: Take a deep breath, wait for the pain to subside (it took two days), and then look at the chapters, and figure out why I’m so attached to them (the fact that I wrote them, and that they came to me spontaneously, doesn’t count). Then find a way to create the effect I’m after without losing the reader.

Back in college, I studied linguistics and literature. I used linguistics to analyze literary style. What makes Hemingway sound like Hemingway? The usual answer is something like that he writes in short sentences. But if you analyze his writing, it turns out that he doesn’t really. He writes short sentences in key places, like the beginnings and endings of paragraphs. In between, he writes sentences of all different lengths. If he wrote the same length of sentence over and over again, his stories would be really tedious to read.

The take-away for me is that a little bit of a cool stylistic effect can go a long way. That will be my watch word as I revise my fugue chapters. I’ll figure out how to be judicious with my juxtapositions, how to pace and place my special effects so they’re effective, but don’t undermine what I’m trying to say.

I love these darlings. But I love the book they’re part of even more. 

Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup

April 3, 2012

Passover prep is well underway at my house. Last weekend I got the chicken soup and matzoh balls made. I used Big Grandma’s recipe, as recorded by my mother in Cooking Is My Bag, a fundraiser cookbook put out by the Montclair Education Association, I’m guessing in the late 1970s.

Big Grandma (may her memory be for a blessing) was (among many other things) my mother’s mother, an ace fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, a fiercely competitive Scrabble player, a skilled knitter and needle-pointer, a Canadian Club drinker, an opera listener, a staunch supporter of and frequent flyer to Israel, and our family’s official soup maker.

She was famous for two soups: mushroom barley with beef, and chicken with matzoh balls. She brought them to our home frozen in quart-sized containers weeks before whatever holiday they were meant for. Serving the soup meant setting the container in a saucepan half filled with water and gently heating it until the soup was melted enough to slip out of the container, and then getting it nice and hot. Once I was living too far from New Jersey to come home for Passover, I found out that making chicken soup with matzoh balls is more difficult than just waiting for your grandmother to drive up the Garden State Parkway with her vats of frozen soup.

But it’s not that difficult. Mostly, it just takes some advance planning, because doing it right takes three days. Here’s how I did it this year.

Day one: Make soup!

Quarter your whole chicken. (B.G. didn’t keep kosher, but she did demand a kosher pullet for her soup. I don’t keep kosher, either, but I do try to eat only the meat of animals I believe have been raised humanely. This year’s soup chicken scored a 5 – the highest grade — on Whole Foods’ animal treating ratings.)

Throw the chicken parts into your soup pot, along with three large onions, four or five celery stalks, and two or three large carrots. (I also add a bunch of whole garlic cloves. And this year, a parsnip. Don’t tell B.G.)

Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. (B.G. says to then skim any accumulated “fluff.” This makes the final broth beautifully clear. But it’s also a pain in the neck, especially when the chicken and vegetables are bobbing up over the top of the water. I used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to accomplish this step. Now I ignore it. No one has ever complained.)

Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. (I think B.G. cracked the pot lid. I used to, but no longer bother.)

At this point, this year, I added a bouquet of parsley, as recommended by Big Grandma’s brother-in-law, Uncle Moley. I also seasoned with salt and pepper.

Simmer another 30 minutes.

Remove the carrots and chicken parts, and strain the rest.

Cut the carrots into coins and return them to the soup. (Uncle Moley also returns the chicken to the soup. B.G. and I reserve it for other uses, such as chicken salad and chicken tertrazini, one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

Cool the soup in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Skim, mix and chill

Skim the fat from the top of the soup. (This soup fat isn’t exactly the same as schmaltz you make by rendering chicken fat with onion. But it works just as well for matzoh balls, and it’s a lot more convenient.)

Make your matzah ball batter by creaming the soup fat and combining it with beaten eggs, matzah meal, and salt and pepper to taste. Amounts: 3 TBS fat to 3 eggs to 3/4 cup matzah meal.

Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.

If you’re freezing the soup for later, you can do that now.

Day three: Make matzoh balls!

Get a big pot of salted water boiling while you set up your matzah-ball-making station. (The recipe in the Montclair Education Association cookbook doesn’t include this part. It’s the secret to success B.G. shared with me when she found out I was planning to actually use the recipe she had so casually dictated to my mother. I felt privileged that she’d given me this extra wisdom. Especially since years earlier, when I asked her to teach me to knit, she’d gotten disgusted with my ineptitude and given up almost immediately.)

To make your matzoh balls B.G.’s secret way, you’ll need the batter you’ve had sitting overnight, a bowl of warm water wide enough to wet your palms, a towel to dry your fingertips.

To form smooth, round matzoh balls, dig walnut-sized bits from the batter with your dry finger tips, and roll them between your wet palms. Keeping your finger tips to be dry prevents the batter from becoming soggy, and keeping your palms wet helps the balls slide around without sticking, so you can form a lovely sphere.

Drop the balls into the water and let them boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Remove them with a slotted spoon. Let them drain and cool. Then you can freeze them. (I used to freeze the balls in the soup, but they tended to fall apart as the soup thawed.)

That’s it. Do it right, and the result will be a broth that’s rich in taste, just slightly sweet, and not at all greasy, and matzoh balls that are flavorful, firm enough to stand up to a spoon, soft enough to melt in your mouth, and not at all heavy. Plan on offering seconds.

Happy Passover!