Archive for June, 2012

Home is where

June 24, 2012

Yesterday was the last Shabbat my good friend Joel spent as a rabbi at my synagogue. It was a sad morning. Sad to sit in my usual seat, going through the same order of prayers and rituals and readings – sit down, stand up, sing, listen – knowing that each predictable step in the service was bringing us that much closer to closure. I could only imagine how it was all hitting him, sitting up there in his chair beside the ark, looking out for the last time at the community that has come to love him in the four short years since he arrived.

By the time he had finished delivering his farewell sermon, half the room was in tears, including Joel.

But it was more complicated than that. Sure, the Seltzers are moving away. But they’re going to a place they know and love, and starting a new professional adventure.

They’re giving up a sure thing in order to grab a chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sort of like what David and I did five years ago, when we gave up our comfortable life in Vermont to try something new in Rhode Island.

Though, in our case, we weren’t going to a place we already knew.

I remember finding my way around my new neighborhood, taking it on faith that one day each storefront and house would be so familiar I would hardly notice them. I remember how proud I was the first time I managed to drive to the mall and back without making a wrong turn. I remember seeing two women chatting in a coffee shop, and telling myself, one day that will be you.

I knew this wouldn’t happen on its own, though. Sure, we’d managed to make friends in the other places we’ve lived. But this time it would be harder, especially for me. Our kids were already out of the house, so they wouldn’t be finding other children with parents we could bond with. And I didn’t even have a job to go to. How do you become a part of the community if all you do all day is sit at home, writing? This was one big reason why we started showing up regularly at synagogue.

And it worked. I remember looking around the sanctuary, being struck by how all those strangers seemed to know each other. Within a few weeks, we were recognizing people. Driving home, we would rehearse the roster of who had been there, identifying the different Rhode Islanders according to which Vermonters we had initially mistaken them for. (It’s uncanny how many people resemble other people.)

Soon we were attaching names and salient details to the faces. I started occupying myself during services by counting the number of people I could identify. Pretty soon, I realized I wasn’t just picking out the people I recognized. I could also tell who was new, or only showed up occasionally. Around that same time, I started forgetting to count.

Five years later, I’m still a newcomer here. And I still miss Vermont and our friends there very much. But this is home in a lot of ways. How? The perennials we planted are filling out. We have favorite beaches and restaurants. I don’t patronize the Stop and Shop on Warwick Avenue because it replaced a plant nursery I loved.

Most important, this is home because the people we used to identity by a few surface traits, and were able to recognize because they looked like other people, have become our friends. They’re people we share running jokes and disputes with. People we could call in an emergency. People whose celebrations and sorrows we have shared. People who look like nobody but themselves.

And now, as we wish Joel and Eliana good luck in their next chapter, there’s this. Home is the place where you stand when you wave goodbye .

Just Desserts

June 22, 2012

Matzah crunch with toasted almonds and coarse salt

A friend left a message on our phone the other day. She said she was in New York City, and wouldn’t have access to her email. So if I got any good news about my book in the next 24 hours, I should call her, rather than email. Why? She wants to celebrate my good fortune by eating lots of desserts, and New York City is a great place to indulge a sweet tooth.

Black Flower Chocolates, Vermont

The online magazine Tablet recently ran a piece about the Hebrew word firgun. Never heard of it? Neither had I. According to the article, firgun is ungrudging happiness at another person’s good fortune. The author describes the sentiment in purely positive terms, as an ideal most of us can only strive to achieve. (A reader commenting on the story takes a more jaundiced view, calling firgun the opposite of  schadenfreude. It’s the refusal to judge the good luck of those who don’t deserve it, the commentator suggests.)

Moroccan treats

Do I think my friend wants to hear about my success out of pure firgun? Of course not. Sure, she’ll be happy for me. But she also craves, for example, a certain seven-layered cake, some particular donuts, those big almond cookies the Jews call Chinese and the Chinese call Jewish, you know, the ones with a nice dab of chocolate in the middle? She wants an excuse to feed her passion. And that’s fine by me. I wish I could have given her that excuse while she was in the city. But it didn’t work out that way.

Valentine’s Day truffles

As I wait, do I have firgun for other writers’ success? Not really. But I do take comfort in the thought that if it happened for them, it can happen for me. When it does, I’ll be sure to let my friend know. And after I have my own celebration, I’ll enjoy hearing about all the decadent delights she consumed in my honor. We’ll both have our cake and eat it, too.

Mille feuille

Picture Books 101

June 19, 2012

While everyone else is starting their summer vacations, I’m heading back to school. On Monday I’ll be teaching a class of 5th and 6th graders about “being an author.” That’s how my friend phrased the request, anyway.

I said yes because I haven’t done one of these gigs in years, and I remembered they were fun. Also, when my friend asked, the date was an entire month away. The then-Present Me blithely agreed, figuring the chips would fall on some hapless Future Me. Trouble is, that former Present Me has by now morphed into a smug Past Me. She’s off somewhere sitting on her duff, no doubt eating bonbons. In other words, it’s time to get it together.

I have 90 minutes to fill. My plan is to spend the first half talking about my life as an author, focusing mostly on Crab Moon. To prepare, I pulled out my Crab Moon archives. That’s a foot-high stack of file folders – printed-out email messages from my Aunt Susan, drafts, correspondence with Gale Pryor, my wonderful editor at Candlewick, a packet of photographs of horseshoe crabs sent by my cousin David, notes from phone calls with Gale, more drafts, photocopies of fab illustrator Kate Kiesler’s sketches, dummies and paintings, yet more drafts, business correspondence, and finally page proofs, published reviews, and letters from readers.

I had remembered how long the process of bringing the book to publication was. But I had forgotten the particulars. Looking through the old drafts and letter now, searching for the essential artifacts that would tell my audience something interesting and useful, I was struck by

— how much the story changed between my first idea and the final book

— how much better (cleaner, sharper, more focused, better paced) the book is than my first idea

— how much of that cleaning and sharpening and focusing and pacing is the work of my editor (although the actual words on the page are mine)

— how lucky I am to have landed in some patient, capable and persistent editorial hands.

The second half of my class will be a group exercise in literary analysis. We’ll compare three picture-book treatments of The Little Red Hen, discussing the different choices the authors made, and talking about which elements are essential to keeping it the same story (could you write a version without the character of the little red hen, and still consider it The Little Red Hen?).

I could spend days (year, a life time) on this stuff. But I only have an hour and a half. And my audience of 10 and 11-year olds probably doesn’t share my passion. What do I want them to take away from the session?

— Real people write books.

— There is no one right way to tell a story.

— In picture books, the words and the images work together to tell the story.

— Writing in any genre involves lots of conscious or unconscious decisions.

— Writing well in any genre takes patience, persistence, and a willingness to listen to constructive criticism.

— A great editor can be a book’s greatest asset.

Making Up Stories

June 13, 2012

One of my favorite games when I was a kid was making up stories. Using plastic figurines or dollhouse dolls or myself as the actors, either talking aloud or inside my head, I would narrate – what? Not exactly stories, now that I think about it. I can’t remember very many actual plots.

Making up stories about myself was more like adding an authorial voice-over that commented on whatever I was already doing. The joy of the game was that it turned the mundane act of walking down the street or taking a bath into something fascinating. Something you might read in a book by Sydney Taylor or Eleanor Estes, or maybe even Joan Aiken.

With the figurines and dollhouse dolls, it was about creating characters in relationships – families, neighborhoods, friendships. These characters rarely did much. But the personalities and jobs and back-stories I invented for them suggested all sorts of possible stories, if I ever got around to making them up. Only I never did. As soon as I had figured out who everyone was, the game was pretty much over. And the next time I took the toys out, the joy of turning them into a whole new set of characters was impossible to resist.

When I was around 10, someone  (my aunt? my sister?) gave me a box of cards designed by Charles Eames. They have notches that let you hook them together and build with them. But what’s really great about them is that each one has a photograph of some small object or set of objects – ordinary everyday objects like spools of thread, pills, vegetables, eyeglasses, and less familiar objects like a katchina doll or an abacus.

The set is meant to convey a multinational, we-are-all-one message, something like, all of humanity shares a single home. Which is great. But what interested me more were the different personalities the pictures suggested. The pills might be a sickly old woman, the eyeglasses a professor, the hard candy a happy child. Each time the cards were shuffled and sorted, a new set of family units emerged. The challenge was to assign the cards in each set personalities to construct a plausible household. Again there were no actual stories. But the process of creating a story-esque aura was an indescribable pleasure.

At some point, I started writing the stories down — first in spiral notebooks, and then at the typewriter, and finally on the computer. You might think that committing words to a page would force me to quit fooling around. And I have managed to  complete a bunch of kids’ books, some short stories, and one rather ambitious novel. But for each completed story, there are at least ten that I have abandoned in various stages of incompletion, because I got bored or frustrated or, most often, because I started writing in hopes that a plan would unfold, and it never did.

How do people manage to write stories? Even though I have done it myself, each time I start anew, I’m at a loss. Should I figure everything out in advance, or just start writing and see where it goes?

Right now I have what feels like a very promising idea for a new book. I know my protagonist and what her situation is when the story begins. I know what the event is that’s going to throw her life into turmoil and make her question everything she thought she knew. I know how she will respond, and how she will be changed, and I’m pretty sure I know how it will all turn out and where the ending will leave things.

I know where and when it takes place, and who the subsidiary characters are, and I have a pretty good idea of what motives them, and how they will be changed in the course of the book. I know how long the book should be, and how the narrative arc should flow from one chapter to the next.

But there’s so much I still don’t know. For example, what all these people’s jobs are. And where they grew up. What they look like. What sort of music they listen to. Whether they believe in God or read books or know how to cook. Do they wear glasses? Get along with their parents? Have speech impediments? Follow sports? Vote? There are so many questions, and so many possible answers. What if I get it wrong?

Maybe what I need to do is stop taking the process so seriously. Maybe I need to forget that I have a finished book and an agent who’s shopping it. Forget that being a writer is my only job now. Forget that I’m trying to start a new book. Maybe I need to remember the fun of making stuff up, and just let myself play.

Wish me luck.

(These aren’t my toys. They’re my kids’. But you get the idea)

The Cemetery at Kabelvag

June 6, 2012

Twenty minutes out of Svolvaer, on my first drive through arctic Norway’s Lofoten Islands, I stopped to admire the handsome wooden church at Kabelvag. The day was very still, with dark clouds threatening rain. One other car was parked in the lot, but I saw no sign of any people. I was photographing the angled roof lines and the building storm clouds when I heard shouting. The voices didn’t sound angry or alarmed. Just needing to communicate across a distance. They were coming from the other side of the road, where there was a cemetery I hadn’t noticed before.

Maybe the cemetery was worth seeing. But now the rain had started. I returned to my car just as the shouters — a man and a woman — climbed into theirs. They were white-haired, with straight backs and a general look of fitness, in that Norwegian way. They were carrying rakes and trowels. Gardening tools. They eyed me briefly before looking away. We didn’t speak.

I drove on along E10, the two-lane road that’s the closest thing the Lofotens have to a highway. I passed quiet ponds and sodden fields, silver bays and cloud-capped mountain islands. The grays of the sky shifted. The rain came and went. It was chilly, more like my idea of March than late May. At Rorvik, I turned South, towards Henningsvaer, a fishing village with beautifully preserved wooden houses. In a restaurant overlooking a canal, I treated myself to a bowl of fish soup and a cup of hot coffee. I spent the next hour wandering around the little town, taking pictures. Fish hung out to ferment. Hand-blown glassware in a gallery window. A yard filled with odd sculptures assembled from found objects. Spring buds on the birch trees. The white clapboard siding of the Lofoten Arctic Hotel.

I headed back toward Svolvaer, retracing the route I’d taken in the morning. When I reached the wooden church at Kabelvag, I stopped once again. This time, the lot was empty. I crossed the road to the cemetery, not sure what I was looking for.

What I found were neat rows of headstones, not terribly old. Statues of angels, not particularly attractive. Pretty stone birds perched on the stones of children. And everywhere, fresh flowers. Pentecost was just a few days off. Is that a traditional time for remembering the dead? Or is tending cemeteries as soon as the ground thaws an annual rite of spring in this harsh climate? I could only speculate – just as I could only guess at the meanings of the inscriptions (the Norwegian tantalizingly close to English, but still beyond reach), and conjecture about the lives behind the names and dates of the dead.

I like cemeteries. I have photographed them in southern France, in Burlington,Vermont, and here in Rhode Island. The day after I explored the Kabelvag cemetery, I visited another one in worse weather, outside the hard-edged fishing town of Stamsund, two islands over. In my novel, two important scenes are set in a cemetery.

Why do these places that appeal to me so much? I like seeing how the old stones weather. I like thinking about the people who selected each stone – chose the words, picked out the pictures or the carvings, planted the flowers, maybe as recently as that morning. Gravestones don’t just memorialize the dead. They also reflect the sensibilities of the survivors, and convey the conventions of the times and cultures in which they lived. When my father traveled, he liked to read the phone books that were then standard in hotel rooms. Skimming the lists of residents in Omaha or Sausalito, he would remark on the area’s ethnic make-up. I read graveyards in this same way. But I also peruse them for more personal stories.

Idar Bjornar Rodi was born in 1937. That would have made him 3 the year the Nazis occupied Norway, and 8 when the war ended. How did this early experience shape his life? Eirik Bergstetdt Henningsvaer died at 6. Was he sickly? Or did he die in an accident? It was impossible not to wonder, and humbling to acknowledge how much I would never know. It was humbling to acknowledge these people – parents and children, neighbors, generation after generation – who had lived out their lives in this place that for me was the end of the world, a remote location I was lucky to be getting a glimpse of.

I felt lucky. The clouds were lifting. I felt safe, sheltered by my solitude, and secure from the dangers of real life, the way one often does (foolishly, no doubt), in foreign countries. It’s a trick of the mind that comes from being happily alone and far from home, while knowing that in a little while you’ll be back where you belong. But it wasn’t just the foreignness that made me feel safe. It was also the cemetery itself, a sanctuary not just for the dead, but also the living. A protected place where I was free to snoop around in strangers’ lives without fear of encountering any actual human beings.

And anyway, I wasn’t alone. Someone was nearby — unseen, but close enough to hear. Someone who was typing. A clerk, maybe. Or a person composing a letter. Or maybe a writer, like me. Whoever it was must have been just beyond those trees. The sound of the typewriter was perfectly clear – quick bursts of the typehammers striking the paper, followed by long pauses, as the typist searched for the next receipt that needed to be recorded, or pondered the next word.

It was the sound of my father composing a travel piece at  his desk in the sun room. Of my mother organizing her remarks for the Board of Education in the bedroom beside mine. It was the sound of my own writing, back in the days when I dreamed of one day selling a story and spending the earnings to trade in my manual typewriter for an electric. It had been a long time since I’d heard the sound.

All this passed through my mind before I registered what I was thinking. As soon as I did, I knew that of course I was wrong. There was no desk nearby. And even if there had been one, the person working at it wouldn’t have been using a typewriter. Even here in the arctic, typewriters were anachronisms.

So what was I hearing? Birds. Those large brown ones, flapping between the trees. Their voices (it couldn’t have been their wings, could it?) sounded exactly like typewriters. I smiled at my mistake. But as I turned back to the graves, knowing I was wrong, I couldn’t shake the sense that I had company – and comforting company, at that.

The Other Red Meat

June 3, 2012

Do you eat meat? All meat, or just kosher? Halal? If just kosher or halal, are you strict about slaughtering, or do you just avoid certain species? Do you avoid red meat? Non-organic meat? Sad meat, from animals that were factory farmed? If you don’t eat meat, what about fish? Would that be all fish, or just wild-caught? What about bottom feeders? If you don’t eat meat or fish, what about eggs and dairy? Honey? What’s your position on wheat? Tree nuts? Peanuts? MSG?

Are your food taboos based on religion? If so, which flavor? Is it ethics you care about? Meaning cruelty? The environment? Labor policy? Localism? Is it your health? And if so,  are you worried about weight? Allergies? Something else? Or are your dietary decisions more of a gut thing? Maybe you just don’t like peas.

It’s complicated, this business of eating. And even after you’ve gotten your food rules worked out, new information or questions might force you to rethink your rubric. (Pigs aren’t as smart as you think. Sea bass are endangered. If road kill is fresh and healthy, isn’t it wrong not to eat it?)

My own food outlook has been evolving. When dinner hosts ask my husband David and me what we eat, our standard answer is “everything.” But that’s not really true anymore. Because we’re concerned about cruelty, we try to eat meat only from animals that have been raised humanely. We eat fish (fin- and shell-) because we figure they’re equally happy whether they live in the wild or in fish farms, but we avoid over-fished species, out of environmental concerns. For health reasons, I try to go light on the fat, and favor whole grains over white. I also generally steer clear of ice cream and other dairy products, for reasons I won’t go into.

That’s how we eat at home and in restaurants. When people have us over, however, we just say we eat “everything,” because we don’t want to be a bother to our hosts. But I’m beginning to think it might be time to change our public eating status.

The question came up last week, when we were at a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands, in Norway’s far north. The conference was held at a “base camp” of cottages with an associated restaurant, where most attendees ate three meals a day.

Breakfast was available for several hours, and served buffet-style – the default arrangement at Scandinavian hotels, where the morning meal is standardly included in the price of the room. The basic menu includes breads, cheese, cold meats, fish and vegetables, as well as fruit, nuts, cereal and yogurt, boiled eggs, some sort of sweet pastry, and maybe, for the tourists, scrambled eggs and sausages on a steam table. Cushier lodgings mean classier rations. At the conference hotel, the cheeses were scrumptious, the smoked salmon luxe, and tiny croissants dusted with lightly caramelized sugar to die for. The range of options, and the help-yourself set-up, was ideal for people who want stay in charge of what they consume.

Lunches and dinners were a different matter. The thirty or so philosophers and their guests all sat down at the same time, at two long tables. When everyone was settled, the server called us to attention with the tap of a spoon on a glass, and announced the menu. “For dinner tonight you will have stockfish in pastry, followed by halibut with leek puree and roasted potatoes, and for dessert you will have panna cotta with blueberry coulis.”

Fish dominated the menus, which was just fine with me. And substitute dishes were available for those philosophers who had registered their dietary desiderata in advance. Several ate fish, but not meat. Others were pure vegetarians. At least two others were vegans; at the chef’s request, they had sent ahead links to websites with appropriate recipes. One philosopher ate meat, but not fish or wheat. In the parlance of our English-speaking Norwegian servers, fish-eaters were “vegetarians,” and anyone on a more restricted diet “vegan.” The simplified terminology worked well enough until the second night.

The server stood before us and tapped a glass with a spoon. “I will announce tonight’s menu,” she told us, quite happily. “You will start with a whale carpaccio served with cream cheese, watercress and beet puree.”

Cue the gasps and murmurs. (“Hang on a sec. Did she say whale?”)

“But what if we don’t want to eat whale?” someone asked.

“Those who do not want whale will have salmon,” the server smartly replied.

More murmurs. “I won’t eat whale,” someone called out. “Me neither,” said someone else, amid the general clamor. The server – a slight woman, about the age of the undergraduates the philosophers taught back home, managed to get our attention.

“Who will not eat whale?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. “We have seven servings of salmon,” she added.

More murmurs.

“But what if more than seven people want the salmon?”

“The salmon is only for the vegetarians.”

“Pescaterians,” someone corrected her.

“If you are a vegetarian you want salmon,” the server said firmly. “If you are not a vegetarian or a vegan, you want whale.”

Clearly, we were having a communication problem. But what was getting lost in translation wasn’t the nuances of vegetarianism and veganism, but the meaning of want.

As the servers went off to fetch our plates, we did some quick calculations. Whale are way smarter than fish, but it’s hard to imagine another animal with a more free-range existence. Aren’t they endangered, though? I thought of the great sperm whale, hunted nearly to extinction. Whales’ majestic size. The awesome distances they travel. The grace with which they propel their huge bodies through the water. The romance of their songs – of singing through water. The sweetness of their calves. Rafi, “Baby Baluga,” and the days when our children were babies. It was like asking us to eat Barney, the big purple dinosaur.

I stacked all of that up against the fact that the whale had already been purchased, prepared and plated. It seemed unlikely that refusing it would make much of an impact. And weren’t we always saying it was important to be good guests?

We were visitors in someone else’s home – a country where intelligent, ethical people eat not only whale, but reindeer. Also sheep’s head, boiled whole and served with mashed rutabagas. For Christmas. If we were in Korea, the dish du jour could be dog. And where is it, Indonesia? Where they eat the brains of live monkeys? A friend of ours who once traveled to somewhere in Africa representing a nonprofit claimed to have been honored at a feast where she was served live insects. “I could feel their legs wiggling as they went down my throat,” she said. What are the limits of accepting hospitality?

“The whales that are eaten here are not endangered,” the one Norwegian philosopher at our table assured us. “There are strict rules about how they’re caught and killed. Policemen go out on the boats to make sure everything is done right. The way they are killed is much less cruel than the way factory farmed pigs, for example, are slaughtered. And I have seen no convincing studies proving that they are more intelligent than other species, such as pigs.”

Our plates arrived. And reader, we ate it. The meat was deep red and delicious — dense, clean and meaty like grass-fed beef, but richer on the tongue, and when you sank you teeth into it, a soft, silky texture.

If you’re going to challenge your dietary principles, it might as well taste good.