Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Empowering in Yiddish

Every language has a personality, and when I think about Yiddish, I think “self-mocking,” “Ironic,” and “wistful humor.” The last contains the contradiction that makes the Yiddish voice, or narrative personality, so hard to define and yet so appealing. We all know the best storytelling makes you cry and laugh at once.
What Yiddish does not connote is power. It is the language of a people who were shaped by powerlessness. Even a blunt statement such as “you can't pee on my back and tell me it’s raining” suggests someone is humiliating you while you're determined to stand tall. (A parallel idiom in English would be, “I don’t take wooden nickels,” and it is clearly of a different, self-possessed, voice. Both mean you can't fool me. But they don't taste the same.)

So when I heard this saying translated from Yiddish—
 וואס אין אים פאלט מען אריין קען מען פון אים ארויספאלן.
*What you fall into you can fall out of*

I’m going to repeat this^ to self as often as needed. In Yiddish, English, Hebrew, or by thinking while humming intelligibly. If I did it I can undo it. Wow-wee.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It’s Not Only WHAT You Say…

… But also HOW you say it.

Thomas Hardy said that if Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone. To say something that challenges world perception, it is best to speak softly.

Or even better, with humor. 
A lot of opinionators have discovered that making us laugh lowers our defenses. Rhyming well is a neat trick to make the listener dance inwardly, and join the party.

As I revise my current WIP, (writerly shortcut for Work In Progress) I take at least a month between rounds, and when I return I do more than catch the yet-another-how-did-I-miss-that typo. I check to see if I’m laughing, or at least chuckling.

 I don't write humor; I'm very serious. But I find that the only way to not be utterly insufferable (a real hazard for us serious types) is to be funny. Occasionally tickle the reader’s midsection so she buckles a bit, her head lowers, her mouth opens in laughter, and something the reader was determined not to allow in just does.

In this case, the reader is me. I tell the writer, (also me) “Surprise me. Make me laugh.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tax Day Musing

April fifteen just about here, and all over our great nation folks are slaving away to get numbers in order and pay, or at lease pay homage to that other sure thing, taxes.

 A dear friend all the way from my elementary school days, from the far-far-away country we grew up in, was celebrating finishing the deed. Taxes done, wipe brow, let’s raise a steaming hot chocolate to that.

 Unlike me, my childhood friend, who now lives minutes away from me, had had a grown up career in the homeland, Israel. Before she came to the U.S.A. she was already a gainfully employed physician, working in hospitals there, and paying taxes. I came to America when I was still a teen.

 I have no recollection of ever seeing my parents, or any adult, slaving to prepare their taxes. I don’t remember any “Tax Day” or tax-time. Israelis pay a higher tax rate than most, so what was I missing? I shared this with my old friend. Where were we when the grown ups paid taxes? Was I in a coma, or am I suffering some memory block because it was so traumatic and better forgotten?

“Here, in the U.S.A., taxes are mandatory but the reporting is based on an honor system,” said my friend. “The government expects you to tell them all you have earned. In Israel taxes are taken off the top of every payment you ever get. Period.”

 “So it’s not a report-and-possibly-get-audited, but basically we trust you to do the right thing, like we have here?” I said.

 “Trust? Trust you to pay? Are you kidding me? In Israel?” said my friend.

 And then it occurred to me. For all the craziness of our system, the impossible-to-follow maze of rules and deductions we’ve got to navigate, we have something to celebrate.

 When it comes to reporting, we have an honor system.

Call it a bit of light in an otherwise no-fun day. Cheers.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What Do Children Understand, and When?

There’s that repeated question adults, and kid-lit writers specifically, often posit: will kids this-or-that age get this?
Kids understand plenty. That’s where I start from.

Just the other day, while I was in line in the bank, a baby in a stroller with his mom behind me showed me his shoe.
“Shoe!” he said, pointing at it.
I confirmed by repeating, “Very good. Shoe.”
“Eye!” he said, pointing at his eye.
“Yes, very good,” said I. “Eye.”
“Nose!” That was his nose. I confirmed his word, again.
Then he stuck his tongue out. I was waiting for him to say, “Tongue!” but he just kept it there. Then he laughed.

Fortunately he was irresistibly cute. I think he was about 15 months old or so. He’s going to be quite an operator, or at the very least a lion-tamer, I predict.
My adorable little buddy from the bank had mastered the art of excreting the reactions he wanted, and reveled in his ability to engage.

Children don’t have the vocabulary we have, though their passive vocabulary is greater than most of us imagine. They don’t know history, or geography, and they are not connected as they will be after puberty to the procreative impulse. But they understand and, I believe, excel at non-verbal cues.

Children understand other people. It is their business to. I have vivid recollections as a child, watching someone say one thing, when I just knew he didn't mean it. I sensed what people felt and it was easy. I couldn't believe adults around me couldn't see what I saw. Then I grew up, and it isn't as easy anymore. I second guess my perception all the time, and miss.

How many times have you heard, “I don't think kids will get this?” It’s too facile to fall into that trap. But how can we tell?

Personally, I find that different kids, like different people, get different things at different times. The key word is, ahmm, “different.” But there are a few ways I have learned that keep me from underestimating younger human beings’ ability to understand.

The first, and the one I return to because it’s the best I got, is remembering me as a child at that age.

The second is observing my own kids and their friends. This is helpful for writing dialogue uttered by younger people. But it is not as effective for gauging their internal grasp, which much exceeds their verbal expression.

The distant third is listening to feedback that challenges kids' understanding or interest. I always weigh it, and sometime revise. But it is a lightweight consideration after the first two.