Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year’s Resolutions

Once again, a brand new year is peeking around the corner. Once again, I resolve to make no New Year’s resolutions.
You know the kind, in one year and out the other. That’s year, no typo.
A year is a long time and barely a blip at the same time.
It’s one day at a time for me.

If you ever made a New Year’s resolution and kept if for a year, chime in. I would love to re-consider. At the very least, I’d consider nominating you for some award. You have earned it.
All right, just for today, then~
I have one resolution. To rediscover the difference between wants and needs.
 *May you have all you need and want all you have.*
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bursting Closets and Other Horrors

You've seen this in a movie, or a cartoon. The main character keeps shoving things into the closet so as to get them out of sight. The shoving act begins to look more like a strain to close the ominously reluctant closet door, until one final opening and- BURST! The contents spill in a giant heave, buoyed by the pressure created inside.

I think I saw it first in a Marx Brother’s movie, A Night at the Opera.
The contents look rather happy in this still photo. That’s because they are the Marx Brothers, always looking for contact. But I digress.

Just back from a much needed fortifying break, visiting family and dear friends in Israel, and not being in contact with my virtual life. This means that in another corner of this computer, call it the closet, is an Inbox that has not been opened in a month.

The last time I did this disconnect it was only for ten days, and almost five hundred messages poured in as soon as I opened that door. Actually, they rumbled in, making Ms. Computer hiss and shake with excitement for a full five minutes before it declared all messages had been received. It was three days of wading in and weeding out before I had sorted them and was in a position to answer any.

So now I’m afraid to click on that door.
You see, even if it is not obvious, I am a neat person. I can’t feel rested until things are in place.

Then something even more terrifying occurs to me. What if, instead of five hundred times three (gone for a month this time, simple arithmetic) which is a (gulp) one thousand and five hundred messages to sort, what if, just possibly…

There aren’t very many, or any?

Neatness has its limits. A house is only a showcase if no one really lives in it. A super neat closet is also one that isn’t used much.

I take a deep breath…

Phew. Fourteen hundred and twenty seven. That’s one thousand four hundred and twenty seven we-want-your attention notes, even if ninety percent are of the general not-really-you variety. Happy now.

I’ll see you again when –

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Gone Fishing...

The owner of this blog* will be unplugged for the next month.


That means not blogging and not (gulp) receiving Email. If you have my cell number, I could be reached there. If you don't, I will be back and eager to hear from you after December 24.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Trompe l’oeil, or Painted Illusions

With the return to Standard Time behind us, (finally adjusted, thank you) we get to be in “real time” for a few months. That is, before we get back to fooling our clocks again.

It’s a sort of mind trick we play, this one we do together. But it got me thinking about the many such fool-oneself-even-as-I-acknowledge-it-and-it-still-works sort of tricks we have come to accept.

See what I mean?^

Decorators call it trompe l‘oeil, or “deceive the eye” in French. Decorators must have figured that if you say it in French it sounds fancier and not quite as shady.   An example of trompe l’oeil is when you paint a visual of a rug onto a wood floor, thus giving the feel that there is a rug exuding its beautiful pattern there. You tell yourself it is better than a real rug, because it will never crinkle or need moth treatment. Voila.
We all have our known illusions. Such as putting artificial sweeteners in our coffee, telling ourselves we are better without the calories and future diabetes, but hoping our tongues don’t notice. We celebrate various ribbons and trophies for our kids even when many are nothing more than participation awards. Writers have this peculiar habit of celebrating the oxymoron we call “a good rejection,” (that’s a personal praising of our writing replete with specific glowing comments about the enclosed story) but, alas, it’s a NO.

But perhaps the greatest illusion is that what is will always be. We know death is inevitable, but we pretend it isn't.

This is not a call to strip all illusions. I actually feel like celebrating them. I need mine.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mystery Wrapped inside an Enigma

Years ago, when I first began writing with the hope to eventually get published, but had yet to  tell anyone about it, a package arrived in the mail.

It was addressed to me, and had no return address. The package was posted after that fateful September 11th 2001, and after the postal service announced it will no longer accept packages without a clear return address. It must have slipped by, because it had no return address.
I didn't have a bomb-sniffing dog, or any dog for that matter. I stared at it for only ten seconds. My curiosity and love of mystery-presents got the better of me. I tore the brown wrapper open.

Inside was a bomb. Not the kind that explodes and shreds the receiver to bits, but it might as well have been. It was a book.

SHUT UP!” the title said.
The subtitle was A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue.

Who sent it? I examined the book. It was a used hardcover. I examined the postal stamp- it had been mailed from a small town in Iowa. I don’t know anyone in Iowa. Never have.

Who knew I was writing? And writing fiction? And using or misusing dialogue? Not even DH.

I tried asking loved ones near and far who might have thought to send me an anonymous gift. Or was it an insult? To this day I don’t know.

I got a resounding round of denials.
“Nope, I didn't send you anything, nor had asked anyone else send you anything. And what was it anyway?”

I found the title offensive enough that I buried the book somewhere and forgot about it. I also made a mental note never to send gifts anonymously, even if the titles spoke softly of appreciation. It was just too disturbing.

The other day, while plowing through my books and making what could be called some semblance of order, this mystery present surfaced again.

And just in time. I’m deep in using and abusing dialogue in my WIP.

Will the old Gifter stand up? I don’t expect them to. It wouldn't be much of a story if they do. I’ll chuck it to Ms. Universe.

So thank you. And I’d still hope you don’t send anonymous packages, everyone.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quirky Ghouls

I don’t know about you, but run-of-the-mill skeletons and every day witches don’t do much for me. They have become so banal they've lost their mojo. Not scary.
As you prepare for Halloween, ask yourself- do I want to be just another blood-dripping-from-an-arrow-in-the-head walking dead? I don’t.

Time was when this holiday was an emotional exorcism, making the English speaking world shiver. Waking up from the nightmare the next day, November first All Saints Day, one felt their psyche cleansed of the ghouls. I'm not making fun, nor claiming scholarship. This is not about origins or deep meaning, but about what the celebration of ghastly ghosts has become.

Maybe that’s the point. Ghouls are no longer ghastly, and everyday life is filled with ultimately more terrifying things. Always was.

A few not-so-fun “fun-facts” to usher us through this week:

*Victorian guidebooks advised the women to put pins in their mouths to avoid being kissed in the dark when trains went through tunnels. SCARY.

** A pumping human heart can squirt blood a distance of thirty feet. Just imagine what mess a hole in the heart would make. Yuck.

***99% of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct. Memento Mori. That really does it for me.

Candy’s always good.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Making Memories

My step mother wrote that she’s about to go on vacation with her grandchildren, to a lovely resort by the Mediterranean Sea. She asked about my childhood experiences in that very resort, where I spend a week every summer until I was twelve or so.

The name of the resort, Nachsholim, was then called Tantura. That was the name of the Arab village nearby, which has been leveled since then. When I was little (before 1967) there were many more abandoned Arab villages, standing empty since 1948, and in ruins. They stood as testament to who was once there. At some point most of the ruins disappeared as well, and they are no more.

The Kibbutz itself, which ran the vacation resort, is nearby. The accommodations were much more modest than they are now. Guests paid very little to stay in the original Kibbutz wood huts, and eat three meals a day in the original old communal dining room. I remember frogs in the shower, lots of them. There was no hot water, and the frogs frolicked in maniacal dances on the unfinished cement floors.

In the earlier years, until I was seven, my father was still with us. I remember that we had to take the old train from Jerusalem, and get off in what looked like the middle of nowhere. Then an old kibbutznik would come with a horse and carriage. Not the chivalrous kind you see in New York’s Central Park, but an old creaking hard carriage with an even older horse. I remember sitting in front and watching the horse defecate as we rode. They do it while walking, unlike a cat or a dog, who have the sense to stop when they have to go.

I also remember the nightly entertainment. I really looked forward to “Movie Night.” The “theater” was a white sheet hung from the trees. We sat under the stars and watched a projector screening onto it. If we were lucky, the projector didn't burn the film too many times and we got to see the whole movie to the end. Once, when the ending was too damaged, the kibbutznik who sat at the projector got up and told us the rest of the story.
Other nights there was communal folk dancing, or a magician, or a live singer. I remember one soprano who sang classical repertoire and was accompanied by a pianist. My father’s comment later was that if the singer could have been one tenth as good as the pianist, we might have been able to call it a real concert.

I also remember the really bad sunburn I always got the first day. No one heard of sunscreens then, and instead they coated us with tanning oils. Needless to say, with my complexion, real tanning was not going to happen.

We went there every summer that I can remember, until they changed to fancier accommodations and my mother didn't like the new prices or the new arrangements. I actually didn't, either. We did it the new-and-improved way only once. I was probably twelve then. I missed the “pioneer” feeling of the old huts. Like the village, Tantura was no more.

It seems impoverished as I think of it now, but I loved it all. My mother was more relaxed, and it was a happy time.
©Shelagh Duffett

I thanked my stepmother for reminding me of those days, and wished her a delightful time by the sea. Her grandkids, my niece and nephew, will build their own lovely memories of the place, and their days with her.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Gifts Come in Many Wrappers

When I was ten years old the doctors thought I may have childhood leukemia, still quickly lethal back then. I was hospitalized for ten days and so many tests, that I wiped the needles out of my memory.

I do remember other things about that event in my life. Such as the snow that blanketed Jerusalem and paralyzed the city mid-way through my hospital stay.
The roads were impassable for all but emergency vehicles, and my mother could not visit me for three days. I thought about my friends who were likely throwing snowballs and making snow men.
During my childhood that was one of only two times it snowed, a huge event of almost mythical proportions. 

 I was the “left-out-of-the-fun person” par excellence. I carried that sense forward, and it appears in my stories.

 I also remember the Hassidic boy whose large and loving family was ever present. We were roommates in a large room, more like a ward, with six others. When he saw me with colored pencils and paper one Saturday, he explained to me why I should not draw or write on the Sabbath. I complied as to not upset him.
But what I got from him was a profound gift that lasts me to this day.

“When you draw or write you create something new, “  he said. “ When you create, you become like G-d, or G-d’s assistant on this earth. G-d rested on Sabbath, and asks us to do the same.”
He used the Jewish HASHEM (“the name”) instead of G-d. I still omit a letter as to not use The Name in vain.
 To this day I feel this bit of mystical stream when I bake, draw, or write. G-d’s assistant on this earth.

My suspected a-typical leukemia turned out to be a very severe case of Mononucleosis with every complication ever mentioned in medical books. After I returned home, I still couldn't go to school for two more months. I had a deep and ever-present fatigue for a time, even after my return.

 In addition to these gifts, I also took with me a glimpse into the world of the children’s ward, and a new window to empathy for those who are in it.

I remind myself in times of sadness that all is a gift if I can open to receive it, like a ten-year-old child.
I also give myself permission to ask G-d to be less generous with gifts of pain and sorrow. I’m human.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

All Good Things…

There’s a saying that all good things must come to an end. Bummer.

Here’s the good News: All bad things do too.
If you are going through challenging times, remind yourself as often as you need to-
This shall pass.
It won’t always be this way.
You've been here before, and the sun came back to shine again. Brightly.
Most people remember Rhett Butler’s line from Gone with the Wind as the last line of the movie- that cuttingly negative, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a….”

Actually, it’s not. Rather, it’s Scarlet who has the last word. “Tomorrow is another day.”

Much better. More positive, and so true, to boot.

©Folk art above by Victoria De Almeida (Reading girl with cat) and Medana Gabbard (Sunrise over town)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We’ll Never Have Unanimity-

And that is Why We Keep Writing

One of my least favorite speech clichés is, “When all is said and done.”
When, perchance, is that?
Busy folks know all is never done, even after it’s done. Writers know all is never said.

Biologist can’t agree on definitions for the word LIFE.
Psychologists can’t agree on what the word PERSONALITY means.
Anthropologists can’t agree on the meaning of the word CULTURE.
*Or the meaning of the word MEANING.*
And so we keep on talking, and telling, and writing. No matter what you think of Darwin’s theory, evolution of understanding is a never ending journey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In with the New

---But Not Out with the Old

Yesterday was the official first day of fall, and the Jewish New Year begins at sundown tomorrow.

I’m in the midst of the first draft of a new novel for pre-teens, (a.k.a. MG) and the writing is taking all the pontification out of me. That is to say, I’m in a non-pontifical mode. Readers don’t want to get hit on the head with what they should or shouldn't.

This has spilled over to thinking about Rosh Hashanah, (literally, “Head of the Year”) and the many sermons that accompany it. You’re not going to get one here. Instead, a memory of the Jewish New Year meal from thirteen years ago will have to serve in its stead.

My mother was a permanent guest at our home every Friday and holiday. That year, 2001, the holiday fell on a Monday, less than a week after September 11th. Friends of my father and stepmother were visiting the bay area from Israel, having just managed to leave New York City after flights had resumed. I didn’t know them well, and when they called, I asked them to come for Rosh Hashanah dinner. I figured that, like all of us, they were traumatized and could use some taste of home.

My mother was a Kugel fan. If you haven’t heard of kugel, let’s just say that it is a casserole of cooked-anything-at-all mixed with beaten eggs and seasonings. I had promised her a round kugel for Rosh Hashanah. Round, like all New Year dishes that symbolize the closing of circles.

didn't make kugel often, so I set out to make the best. I had a mother to honor, Israeli guests to comfort, and an urgent need to respond to the disaster that had struck our nation with the perennial Jewish celebration motto: They tried to kill us, we survived, LET’S EAT!
My mother dreamed of potato-kugel. So I grated and seasoned and mixed and mashed, pouring the mixture into a greased round dish and into a 375 degree oven. 
Then it occurred to me- the last time I made carrot-kugel, DH mentioned not once, but twice, how much he liked it. So I grated and mixed and added the cinnamon and brown sugar and to another round dish it went, also into the same oven.

DD came in and asked what I was making.
 “Kugel, for the New Year,” I said.
“Yum. I love noodle-kugel,” she said. Oops. I wasn’t thinking of her favorite. So I boiled egg noodles and mixed in the eggs, apple sauce and the raisins, and into the oven in yet another round baking dish went kugel number three.

It crossed my mind that having something green for the New Year was sort of mandatory. Think harvest, re-growth, life. Zucchini-kugel would have to serve that role. More grating, beating, mixing, pouring. The oven was almost at full capacity.

DS came in. With the resolute expression six-year-olds are so good at, he informed me that he doesn’t eat any of these kugels. In desperation I made the only kind I knew he would: chocolate-kugel. Not very traditional, but it was round and it was going to be irresistible. Think dark-chocolate not too sweet soufflé, only this one stabilized with matzo meal so it doesn’t collapse.

 By then I was ready to collapse. 

Our guests arrived right after my mother. Introductions were made, and they complimented our table. I lit the holiday candles, and DD blessed the round challah. DS said the blessing over the fruit of the vine, (ours-wine, his and DD’s grape juice) and we said SHE-HEH-CHEH-YANU, the prayer of gratefulness for having arrived to this day. It had never meant more.
I opened the oven door and brought out the first. 
“Wow, kugel!” our guests exclaimed.
I went back and brought the second. 
“How nice, a kugel!” the wife said.
I was feeling positively giddy when I brought the third. 
“Ah, kugel,” I heard. It sounded a bit like a sigh.
Not done, I came in with the fourth. 
Another kugel?” said the husband.
I felt positively sheepish bringing in kugel number five. But it was chocolate; the only one DS would eat.
I suspect our guests from Israel thought they really had landed in Oz.

That Rosh Hashanah is now a memory, part of family lore. My mother passed away, and our guests are long gone. My kids have left the nest. It will be one kugel this year, and I will choose. One kugel will have to stand for all the others.

Let’s eat.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Nonsense Sagacity

Breathe in,
Breathe out.
Breathe in,
Breathe out.
Forget to do this
And attaining Enlightenment
Will be the least of your problems.

At DD’s orientation last month, the Dean of Juilliard told the incoming freshmen: “Don’t forget to breathe.” In that context he meant they should get out of their practice rooms, experience the great city, go for walks in Central Park, and remember to draw essential nourishment when the vessel runs dry.

Deep in first draft to a new MG, I must do the same.

For me this means taking the weekends off. Yup, just like a regular job. It also means that I don’t allow myself to write for more than a certain number of hours on writing-days. This is not a sprint, but a long distance journey to the finish. Strategic pacing is paramount.

 And of course, there’s the breathing thing. That, and a good cup of coffee.

© All above cat-art^ by Shelagh Duffett

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

From The Mouth of Babes…

…And Everyone else's

In one of those moods today, thinking about unexpected insights I've gotten over the years from just about everyone I've known, when I realized there’s a theme, and it’s called missing DD.
I also woke up in a generous mood, or, as it is often referred to- a mood to share. I’d bet you have plenty such insights gleaned not from the famous wise-folks, but from your family, friends, neighbors, and a passer-by.

A woman is like a teabag. You never know her strength until she’s in hot water.

A neighbor, after hearing about my experience giving birth to the above DD

Luck comes when you are prepared to receive it.
DD’s music teacher

And finally-
The saddest thing about a person dying in the middle of talking is that you never hear what they were going to say.
DD, in one of her out-of-the blue utterings, when she was three years old

Can you tell I miss her? DD who's now all of seventeen, and probably having the time of her life at Juilliard, is never far from my heart. I was blessed to have DS before her, and fortunate to have him go to school not too far away. But the wise folks know that each of those we love is unique and irreplaceable.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Be Happy

Years ago, at a particularly difficult moment in her life, my wise stepmother told me she chose not to fall into depression, and chose to be happy. “It is a choice,” she repeated. It took me years and some hard choices of my own to understand what she meant. Did I mention already she was wise?

I think about the happiness I know, and have come to realize that it has to do with being at the moment and counting one’s blessings. Cliché? Well, maybe it is, and for a reason.

An empty-nester has a lot of time to think about things. Time occupied by meeting the needs of others is suddenly vacated, leaving patches of spaces that, before they’ll be filled by new demands, just hover there.

I choose to think about happiness as moments of grace. Not the big ones, the expected joyous milestones, but little gifts that remind us we love and are loved in return.

Meeting a friend I have only known virtually, who took the trouble to drive many hours just so we can spend an afternoon-

Having a relative offer to drive down to help DD’s transition to college. Every bit helps-

And this, right now, this very moment-

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When Do Writers Celebrate?

Getting a manuscript finished does not mean you will get an agent to represent it.

Getting an agent does not mean you will get a sale.

Getting a sale to a publisher does not mean the book will make it all the way to publication.

Making it to publication does not mean it will have decent sale numbers. Or awards. Or good reviews. Or anything.
So when do we get to celebrate?

I’d say- celebrate every one of these milestone. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.
No, this is not an announcement. I celebrate every milestone, and have had almost every one of the above mentioned set-backs. I’m just doing my usual thing here- giving my four-cents worth.

Chin up, brave dreamers. Every bit counts.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Warning: RANT

Or: How I Became a RUDE Person

I’m no different from ninety eight percent of Americans. Inundated with sales calls, advertisement on sites, the airwaves, and practically everywhere I look, I count on my home being my sanctuary. I willingly climb the many steps that form an obstacle-course to our door, because they have kept most door-to-door solicitors away. Who wants to walk up two flights of stairs of a now-in-construction path when some homes have front doors at street level?
A few years back, the lauded Do-Not-Call Registry stopped stopping anyone. I still had the front door, though. But for some reason the unofficial moat is no longer working. The floodgates have broken, and the solicitors have been floating in at an alarming rate all summer long.

On our neighborhood Email group, alerts have been coming of rude solicitors who hurl insults, yell, and walk away name-calling. The number of unique descriptions has increased from once a week to a few a day, every day. Since it’s not a crime to knock on a stranger’s door or even walk away yelling at them, the police have no interest in such. The neighbors are left to  videotaping and sharing, and rubbing our ears in the hope we haven’t heard what we thought we did, then rubbing our hands in frustration. We glance at our NO SOLICITORS signs, and wonder why they didn't look as pathetic to us when we hung them up.
The word solicitous, which is related to solicitor, is defined as being concerned, caring, considerate, attentive, mindful, and thoughtful. Oh, really?

I used to be nice at the door. I used to listen and consider. I used to think about what the huffing ‘n puffing person had to say. After all, they came all the way up from the street. Only my very best friends would deem to attempt this feat, and only because they valued my company.
The other day DD told me my abrupt way of speaking to a solicitor who came back after I asked her, nicely, not to, was rude. “They are people,” she said.

I realized I had become rude.

Gimme’ your tired, yearning to breath free. I no longer know which of us are the poor. I should probably go away to recharge on some island for a while. Only I suspect the road to it will be littered with billboards eager to make sales/converts/conquests of the huddled masses. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Packing, Shipping, Moving…

So here I am, an assistant packer to DS who’s moving to his second apartment. In a few days, when this is done, I’ll be assistant shipper to DD who is moving a lot farther, and then an assistant mover-in (a glamorous term for a tag-along) as she checks-in to her residence only three thousand miles away.

And then…
Back here, to what is euphemistically referred to as the empty nest. Empty? Not my cluttered abode. But without what has been the hearth and soul of it, the nippers.

My late mother, who was an avid bird-watcher, told me chicks leave the nest once and then return, before leaving for good. My family got to observe many nests of different birds and their hatchlings, who found our home and yard a desirable place to build theirs. My mother’s observations proved right.

And so it is with humans- they leave but return before they leave permanently. But it is never the same. A new stage is set, and the parents must move on to the third act.
But I can’t quite grasp it, because I’m too busy. That’s a good thing. Otherwise my grip may lose its grasp, and I’d become a puddle of muddle.

Advice, support, and good recipes welcome!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

August Days

If you can explain this quotation to me, please do. I’m still thinking about it.

Some love summer, because less is expected of us in summer. The pace slows, and for those who take real vacations in other locations, August is a most likely time.

We dress lightly and do most anything half heartedly. Even where the heat is oppressive, the image of cool lemonade on a wrap-around porch is more August than any other. The burdens and undertakings are still a month away, around the corner, as soon as September peeks.
So put your feet up and allow it to sink in. There’ll be plenty of time for misery later.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Back from the Boondocks

Well, I’m back and not worse for wear. In fact, I felt rested from no-cooking-dishwashing-driving and all things computer. “Felt,” because as soon as I opened my Inbox a deluge poured in. Two weeks of neglect made my computer furious. I could hear it hissing, “Who do you think you are not checking-in for ions?”

When it was done rumbling and grumbling, 486 messages were waiting to be examined. That’s four-hundred and eighty six, yes Ma’am.
Two days later, and I am almost caught up. Many messages were discard-able, true. But discarding three-hundred plus messages takes time. Then there are the others.

This got me thinking that I spend entirely too much time with Email. I’m not running a corporation; I’m barely running my life as a manager of my family. I value staying connected. I've gotten a lot from E-connectivity and can’t remember how it was before, in cavemen’s days. But maybe I don’t need it as much as the folks I see on their portable devices in all places at all times.
I now value even more the needed disconnection. Reminder on my E-calendar: do it again sometime.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Still Away...

While DD plays,

I try to stay cool.

In more ways than one.
Back next week, calm and collected.