Tuesday, December 22, 2015

BEST GIFTS I EVER GOT

Whether you are a Christian or not, it is impossible to ignore 
the frantic gift-giving/receiving/contemplating/hunting/gathering/chasing that sweeps the land at this time.

And would you want to? I do my version of it and enjoy every bit. 
Giftation, or Giftatis, take your pick. It’s in the air, and I’m not holding my breath. I’m taking it in.

But I got to thinking what makes a gift really great. For me, it turns out to be the same whether on the giving or receiving end of it. It has to do with purpose and thought. If something I do involves concentrating on the person and their needs, it is fulfilling. If I sense the same in something I’m given, it is rewarding.

Generic does nothing for me.

We say, “it’s the thought that counts,” and mean the gift was a dud, but at least the giver thought about us. I think this saying is a dud.
A good gift conveys the thought was directed and specific. I can feel the joy that went into it, and this joy is akin to the joy I have experienced giving in the same way.

A long time ago, in what could have been a galaxy far away, a little boy who knew I had always wished I had an older brother growing up, made me an older bother. He made my older brother by drawing him, almost life size, and giving him a birthday, (three years older than me) and a face. His name is “Mirka’s Older Brother,” and he hangs inside my closet and greets me every day to start my day right.

It didn’t cost; it was all thought. That little boy was my son, way back in kindergarten.

His little sister, not yet four at the time, taught herself to draw what she knew was my favorite animal. She practiced feverishly on hundreds of pieces of paper until she felt she had it. 

She gave mom a pet no one else had.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Suggestions are NOT Commandments

Or-
Writers and Artists—Burn those “shoulds”

I was having a most rewarding talk with a multi-published and lauded writer, and we found that, from my modest perch and his lofty one, we came to see many of the writerly edicts as, at best, helpful suggestions. Unfortunately some of these suggestions are taught as indispensable commadments in creative writing classes, and repeated in interviews by respected creatives.


Here is a summary of a few of these suggestions, with a suggestion from me that if something is helpful to you, keep and cherish it. But please, PLEASE— don’t parcel it out as a commandment. We already have ten official ones, and many more unofficial ones, taught at our parents’ knees.
1. WRITE EVERY DAY. It is helpful for many, but in no way a measure of dedication or a predictor of good work.


2. READ A LOT OF SIMILAR BOOKS TO THE GENRE YOU ARE WRITING. I do the opposite, especially while working on a first draft. I don’t want “voice seepage” or derivative plotting. But some find that reading a lot of similar books revved their engines. Either is fine.

3. NEVER GIVE UP. You’re welcome to give up. Many times. As often as you need to.

4. NEVER ASSUME YOUR WORK WILL BE THE EXCEPTION THAT ALLOWS YOU TO BREAK “THE RULES.” This is true, and I don’t suggest anyone be presumptive of anything. But if we didn’t have rule-benders we would never break new ground, either.

5. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND YOUR WORK. That sounds nice and it is empowering. But I believe in something bigger, and pray that I do the best work I can. Sometimes it isn’t all that, y’know. If you believe in yourself that’s all right also.


6. IGNORE THIS BLOG POST AND OTHER CURMUDGEONLY ONE LIKE IT. This, I’m afraid, I wholeheartedly agree with. Be your own boss.




Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tree Longings? Not me ~

First Hanukkah without kiddos, and their first without a menorah. Living away from home in Christmas land, the memories of Hanukkahs past but faint echoes somewhere in their hearts, I wonder if, despite the way I raised them, this sentiment may have been part of their ethos—
Not me. For me, Christmas lights, trees and carols are for the outside. Lovely, but other.

Home, on the other hand, is all Hanukkah. Lovely, and ours.

This year it’s just us—
HAPPY HOLIDAY

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The existential foolishness

…of this blog 




Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise
Proverbs 17:28



Herein lies the vanity and senselessness of blogging. But I’m not so proud as to avoid being a fool. Another way of saying, I put myself out there about this and that and the price is the appearance of self-preoccupation and the delusion of self-importance.

No wonder my more tasteful friends in real life turn their noses at blogging.

I certainly don’t do it to promote a product, (blogging of the personal sort rarely works for that) or to gain followers and climb some popularity ladder…
(Evident, I think)
… Personal blogs everywhere have been on a waning trajectory.


I do it because I like to. I like each and every one of you who read it, and I love when you chime in.

We’re all fools. Let’s frolic in our folly together. Winter is coming, and it can be dark and lonely out there, in the land of the seriously wise.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Social Media Faux-pas

I will assume that anyone commenting on a followed blog, or a Facebook page, or a tweet, means well. Almost all do. And let me tell you, sending thoughts out there and not getting comments is a very lonely thing. So they are not only welcome but wanted and appreciated.


But there are the well-meaning ones that manage to be remarkably unhelpful. Remarkable because they mean well. I’m not referring to the few that do not mean well, the trolls, or the ones coming out of folks who just got bad news and think misery loves company is a social commandment.

I have been the unlucky recipient of two of the examples below. But most come from others, friends and acquaintances, who either shared their pain with me or I was there to witness it. Even as they said nothing in retort, it was painfully obvious this was a backhanded compliment.

Examples:
“You never age!”
“You’re a miracle of preservation”
“How do you manage to stay so young looking?”

Nice, but what they really say, and in a public forum, (like commenting on new Facebook profile picture) is that you are in fact old. Thanks.


“Nice haircut. When will you grow your hair back?”
“I love what you did with your hair. I’ll send you my stylist’s number. You’ll love her.”
“Looks great. Is it Nice and Easy?”

Lovely, but what they really say is that your hair has suffered a misfortune in incompetent hands.


“I loved, just loved, your other book. When will you write another one like that one?”
“I got your book a year ago!” (No other comment. Yup, that’s it.)
“Your book is good for people interested in the subject.”

Sounds positive, but what they are really saying is they can’t recommend it, and need to post a public warning to that effect.

And then there are these doozies. If you’ve ever been in the vicinity of such utterances, you could feel the silent hissing:

“You look wonderful! Are you pregnant?” (Never a good idea to say this, especially to a man.)
“We’ve got to have you over. Maybe next May when our garden is blooming.” (Said in early June.)
“It’s nice that you write for children. Have you thought of writing a book for real people?”

This last one is one of only two that I actually received myself, and from my father. Ouch. Not telling which of the others was also given to me.

Okay, good people. Let’s not do any of that. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DO I HAVE TO…. ?

I was thinking the other day about the first time one of my children’s teachers called us in for a conference. Our kiddo was in kindergarten.
“Mr. & Mrs. Breen,” said she. “No matter what I tell your child to do, the answer is 'I don’t have to.'”
We were baffled. We never got that at home from this child.
“I had to meet you,” said the teacher. “I had to see what sort of parents raised a child who feels they don’t have to do what all the other children do.”


We did not raise our kids to start a revolution. We didn’t set an example of obvious non-conformity. There was nothing we could point to that explained it.



When we returned home, our progeny got a talking to about respecting authority, and leaving any sense of entitlement in the drawer, for later. Much later. Like until they reach the age of majority, and pay their own bills to boot.
Deep down, I realize now that I was alarmed and concerned about how my kids will navigate their school years and later function in the work force. But I also understood them in the deepest way. There are so many “have to” thrown about, and the line— to question and accept or chart a different way— can be a fine one.


I didn’t want my children to exercise this discernment too early. But I hope we planted a seed that will let them do it as adults. Blind obedience to conventional wisdom robs any person of their full humanity.


I think about these lines from Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American novels. Conventional wisdom in that time and place said that a runaway slave was property that must be returned. Huck Finn is conflicted between what he was told was right, what everyone he ever knew insisted was right, and something inside that said, do I have to? Do I REALLY have to?
He resolves it thus:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”—


As we write stories for younger readers, we need to introduce the idea of this conflict. Gingerly, carefully, thoughtfully. But I feel a duty to bring it in, because it is important, and no full character, no full story and no life can be full— without learning to ask, do I have to?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Let’s Talk About…

…CATS

I’m in a self-indulgent mood. I don’t want to think too hard. Goodness, I’m doing that with my WIP.*  *(WIP= Work In Progress)


I don’t want to delve into deep emotions. My WIP is draining my reservoir of that, too.

I’d rather not pour out yet another preachy wisdomism. Yea, that WIP is taking what I’ve got in my teachy-preachy arsenal right now.

I just want to hang out for a bit. I hope that’s all right.
And maybe not even talk.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What EBooks Could Be

Some bloggers have been lamenting the EBook bust.

As one who writes for younger readers, I observed that the EBook boom never happened for them. Neither picture books nor novels for pre-teens have been great sellers in that format.

Why? Aren’t young’uns crazy about devices? Don’t they want their books on a handy-dandy virtual page, like the rest of their social life?

A writing friend commented that the problem with EBooks is that they fail to use, really use, the electronic features they are capable of having that would have made them different.

EBooks, as they are now, are just computer files with nothing more than the print text and the ability to enlarge it, or even find certain words.
The capability that we have come to expect from any website or digital article would make books better, in ways, than print. Digitized text could be made to have "extra layers" not only in the way DVDs contained more features than the film, but so much more. EBooks could have highlighted words that would take the reader to side videos, moving clips, or extra material, which includes sound.


This would mean higher production costs, but publishers get a near-free ride with EBooks as they are now. No warehousing, shipping, printing or dealing with worn returns. For a single process of file conversion they have a product that costs pennies, with a few more to the distributor, (mostly Amazon) and is “in print” forever. It behooves publishers to make a different and distinctive product if they really want to make true “electronic books,” or EBooks.

But we are so not there yet. As it is now, there is no compelling reason to read on kindle even if the price is right and you can haul a whole bunch of books in one light device. Few kids read a whole bunch of books at once anyhow.

Where they do use it, increasingly, is for textbooks. As school systems force this conversion, kids don’t mind not having to haul those books. But this is different from pleasure reading.
And no matter what, you can’t hug your favorite volume, your most beloved book, if it’s a file on an E-reader. That is why they need to give us something more in exchange.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

You Bet Your Life

I didn’t grow up in the United States, so much of my retro-knowledge, when it comes to popular culture, was acquired retroactively. Re-runs and YouTube contributed greatly to making me relate to the shared memories of Americans, including those from times that preceded my time on this earth.

I’m a fan of This Day in History. Goodness, we now see that Google has made a fetish of it with their daily tributes to such on their logo. So I’m not apologizing, but sounding the drum roll for this. Ready?

On this day, in 1947, YOU BET YOUR LIFE radio program premiered with Groucho Marx.


Ta-Da!

If you don’t know who he was, it’s not too late. Google and search YouTube, and you can thank me later. But just for today, October the 27th, I will wet your appetite with some awesome quotations, some specifically from that program. These will dispel any notion that popular culture has little value.



“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

“Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.”

“Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

“I have nothing but confidence in you, and very little of that.”

“I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.”

“Before I speak, I have something important to say.”

“I intend to live forever, or die trying.” 



Groucho died thirty years later. But his perverse take lives on. These nuggets of not-much contain more insight to the machinations of the human psyche than many philosophy books taught at great universities.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Meeting Virtual Friends

Ever had the experience of corresponding with someone for years, and then meeting in person? I have been lucky to have had this. Twice.

It can be a bit unnerving. Someone who has shared many personal things, trials and tribulations, sweet and bitter moments, but always from the safe screen of distance, paper, or now the ethernet where the real isn’t quite, is about to become touchable. Someone once told me it feels a bit like blind dating, when you realize you are about to be exposed and scrutinized, for real. Obviously, this goes both ways, as you will be observing also.

What some worry about is that the real connection, felt virtually, will be missing somehow in person.


Not my experience. The first time, after years of a very close connection, I met a dear friend in person when life took me only four hours away from her home. She made the trek, and made my day. We made music together, dancing on the street---
^Meeting Author Evelyn Christensen in Oberlin



The second time happened last weekend. An online critique group pal whom I’ve “known” since 2008 suddenly materialized in the bay area, half a continent from his home. Lucky me—we had a delightful connection.
^Meeting Author Mark Ceilley in Berkeley



In a strange way it feels like meeting characters from favorite books, and you what? I can attest they are real.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Recognition & Success

Or—
Where is the reality in recognition and success?

In 1915 Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest in San Francisco. Not only did he not win, he failed to even make the finals.

©2013 From the Norton Book of Facts to Blow Your Socks Off






There have been experiments of writers submitting classics or Pulitzer winning manuscripts of others to editors, to see if they will be recognized, requested as originals, or rejected. They were rejected with personal comments that indicated they had merit, but were “not quite ready.”

J. K. Rowling’s own experiment with making it both critically and commercially without her established name nearly failed miserably. Her editor, who knew the real identity of one “Robert Galbraith,” was happy to take The Cuckoo’s Calling. But the public was less impressed, and the sales were lower than others for the genre. It was rescued by a leak of the real identity of her authorship, and rose to the rare stratosphere of mega bestsellers.

This is what I gather from our infatuation with brands: the next time anyone suggests that worldly success or failure is an indication of intrinsic worth, I can safely and assuredly ignore their assertion. But there may be many more lessons in there that I am missing.
 What do you make of it?

Onwards, to do good work.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The BEST Ever All-Time---

I must confess that I, too, read this feature in the NYT Book section. It’s called By the Book. They always ask the same questions of well-known writers. I find out quickly if we are like-minded by their answers.


Ursula LaGuin’s fiction is legendary, (and written as the stuff of legend) even if not what I am drawn to reading. Her tastes are both classical and also run toward the sort of books she writes.

Where I find she is a “sister” is in her distaste for “Best” sorts of questions—Best book? Best film? Most overrated? The very notion is ludicrous, but the answers are entertaining so we like this feature anyhow.
don't say it’s absurd because it is subjective, obviously, but because even for a single subjective point of view this is a changing feeling and not something you want immortalized in print. “Single most overrated” today is a different one tomorrow, depending on what you are reading. It’s fine for a dinner conversation with friends, but not so much for a public interview that will be available possibly long after you left this world.


We have abused “Most” and “Best” to death.

Blogger interviews have also taken this trend on full steam, and even lowly me (I) have had to face and fend off such questions.

I was put in my place years ago when my then-eight year-old informed me he doesn’t answer “who’s your best friend” questions. His reasons echo the ones I mentioned, and I realized how we begin this senseless conditioning of thinking about the subtle and complex as a horse race. I owe him big for it. After that, I never watched another Oscar show without seeing it as pure entertainment devoid of real substance. The Best movie of the year? Nah.

But it’s still entertaining to see the “losers” (I know, na-ah) and the glowing winners, and hope for a moment of reality, because it is live and so little isn't packaged these days.

For the record—I had a ready made answer for “favorite food,”  “favorite color,” and “favorite subject” and such while I was growing up.

Then DS set me right, and I grew up.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Literary? Commercial?

A thoughtful writer posted that he can’t get agents to respond to his literary manuscript, and is choosing to revise it and fashion a more commercial way to tell the story. He asked if others have gone that route to eventual publication.


In response, another writer shared a link to an article on BuzzFeed Books. It’s a parody of a critique group member offering Jane Austen feedback on her supposed yet-to-be-published manuscript called Pride and Pejudice.

It’s hilarious, and it’s also spot-on. All who commented on it agreed they have gotten and given such. Red-face and phooey on us all.

This got me thinking about how important a backbone is to artists. Maybe to all people, but especially for those who are guaranteed to face a lot of rejection.

Art is never made without great vision. Getting and considering feedback is a good idea, but losing sight of your vision will guarantee failure. Commercial books are written by committee, even if it’s a committee of one with only echoes of the voices of others.

What is a legitimate concern for writers of literary books is that they communicate well. To this end— the input of others can be of enormous help. But it saddens me when the voices of commerce become gospel.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

About the Day of Atonement

On the eve of the most somber day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, I think about what I have to atone for.

And then I realize I am always atoning for something. That’s an existential fact, at least for me. It’s a given that I could have, and should have, and didn’t do better.


I will forgive all the kind-hearted people who greet Jews tomorrow with a well meaning “Happy Yom Kippur.” I’ve been guilty of worse when it comes to unfamiliar cultures. I have a lot to learn about a lot of things.
{And what’s with the meal table? ^ It’s a day of fasting!}

So, no, this is not a happy holiday sort of day. Guilt is not a happy place. We're much happier when the day is done. But guilt has an important and legitimate function, as we who are Jewish know.

To anyone I may have offended, I'm sorry.

May you be signed and sealed in the book of life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

(Another) HAPPY (Jewish) NEW-YEAR

According to the Jewish calendar, we just entered year 5776.

That, according to tradition, is counting back to the creation of the world.
Certainly, not the world as the geologists count it, or the world as the Christians count it from the birth of Christ, or the world as the Muslims count it from Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina, or the Hindu count from the start of the Kali Yuga, which, incidentally, is startlingly close to the Jewish start.

It’s the world as we count it, and it’s old enough for me.


It’s also the time when all who are not diabetic are invited to slop-up inordinate amounts of honey, drizzled over everything.

Whether this is your count or not, come and have some anyway.
Honey cake recipe: (Easy and full proof)
Turn oven to 350 Fahrenheit (or 175 Celsius). Spray non-stick for baking on two 9”by 5” by 3”, that's inches, (standard) loaf pans.

Mix—
2 cups honey
1 cup strong coffee (decaf is fine. It’s for flavor), brewed and cooled
2 TBS. Brandy
4 eggs, beaten
½ cup oil

Add—
½ cup brown sugar

Sift together—
3 and ½ cups flour
1 TBS. baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
TBS. spices (Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice)

Add the dry sifted mixture to the liquid and mix well. Bake loaves for 50 minutes to an hour.

*Here comes the crucial part— wrap cooled loaves in foil and do not eat until at least three days have passed. This is a difference between an ok spice cake to a great Jewish Honey Cake. And you've got a spare loaf to give as a gift!* 


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Mystery of Simultaneous Blooming

The other day I looked with glee at my gardening handiwork. My trimming and legendary weeding left a nice neat line, edging the green plants in my yard.

Only a week later I passed by, distracted by the weight of grocery bags as I huffed up the stairs, when—what happened?—my lovely line of just-trimmed ivy looked like a child in need of a haircut whose hair was just ruffled by an adoring uncle. Branches were sticking up in all directions in an unruly dance. I couldn’t believe it.

I swear, this maniacal sprouting happened overnight. 
And it wasn't just one kind of plant; this contrarian response to my gardening was orchestrated by a few adjacent plant species, no doubt in sympathy with the ivy. My greens had unionized, it seemed.
^Not me— just a mammoth hedge and its trimmer


It reminded me of the mystery of Cereus greggii, a plant specie that flowers only one night a year all over Arizona, always simultaneously.
I thought about the attempted scientific explanation regarding chemical reactions and what not. But even scientists admit they don't quite have it.
Then I thought about how cultural phenomena that sprout with seeming coordination in distant parts of the globe are also explained, even as we don’t really have a handle on why.

Some months back, writers on my favorite kid-lit forum, chimed in about our works-in-progress. (WIP in writers’ speak.) Somehow it turned out that a whole host of us were writing time-travel middle grade novels set in the same state, South Carolina. It was eerie.
I did suggest some of us might move one state over. I mean, there are other states, Virginia. But no one was budging. Each of our stories had to be there.

Years from now, assuming a simultaneous publication of even a tenth of our body of work, (one can hope) it will be explained by cultural commentators somehow. But we, who lived it, know better. There is no rational explanation.


 I have experienced this mysterious phenomenon before. An idea I thought original, sprouted from others with whom I have had no communication. They didn’t steal my idea, and I know with certitude I didn’t steal or even borrow from anyone. It’s that Cereus Greggii thing, just happening in a different sphere.

Simultaneity. To me it is as close to proof that our five senses barely scratch what is real.

This is what I'm contemplating as I trim the front yard plants to make a nice neat hedge, again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Author of All

God made mankind because God loves stories.”
Elie Wiesel


I have a friend who is facing some serious health challenges. My friend is also a writer, and (lucky me) one of my best Beta readers. She is my “make it logical and consistent” cop on the beat.
When I lamented the illogicality of her predicament, as she had lived a model healthy lifestyle, I also grieved that, unlike the stories we writers conjure where all the pieces must fit and make sense, we don’t get to fully author our real life stories.


Her response blew me away. “I'm very thankful The Creator is in charge of my story. No matter what life brings and even if it appears from the outside that the story doesn't have a happy ending, I know, if I let him be the author, the story will be a love story and the joy at the end will be beyond imagination.
 Unlike me, my friend was raised in a devout Christian home, and to the best of my knowledge has never wavered from that course. Her academic training is in logic (mathematics, to be specific) and she is rational in every way. But reason had not made a dent in her house of faith.

I am not so blessed. My road is paved with doubt and fear of ceasing control, even as I know this sense of control is illusionary.
Ah, the joy of writing. There we are the authors.