Final Friday: Year Out, Year In….

I woke up this morning thinking, “today is December 30th.”  The final Friday of 2022. A weekend to celebrate (good planning, 2022!), and Monday rolls around in a new year.

[disclaimer; the rest of this post will be taking a Northern Hemisphere view of the season.  Apologies to friends in the Southern hemisphere]

For me, the “new year” always feels like it starts in September.  Part of that may be because I’m Jewish, and our lunar new year comes around then, but I think it’s more about school starting again.  New clothes, new schedules, new notebooks and pens… all that amazing, long-stretching possible.

By the time December comes around, though, the routines have become, well routine. The notebooks are scrawled in, the pens lost or dried up, the possible likewise drying into the actual.

Maybe that’s why New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday, because you’re stuck, you’re tired, you’re a little worn out, and then New Year’s Eve comes around, and people start talking about fresh starts, about making resolutions to do it better this time.  It’s a second chance pretending to be a new start. It’s addictive. 

And resolving to do something is easy.  “This year I’m gonna…”

So many things we’re gonna.

Over a decade ago, I  resolved to make no more resolutions, and that’s one I’ve managed to keep.  Mostly.  But I’m no more immune to the lure of a fresh start than I am to the lure of a fresh, new notebook, never mind that I already have more notebooks, half-filled, than even a writer could ever need.  It’s aspirational, I’m gonna DO IT this time.  I’m going to take control of my own story, and rewrite it fresh, and better.

Yep. This year I’m going to stop worrying about Goodreads reviews.  I’m going to stop buying anything from Amazon. I’m going to write every single day, and make every single internal deadline.

C’mon.  No I’m not.  

That’s not to say we can’t change, of course we can. We do. In fact, it’s harder NOT to change, than to change.  It takes serious effort to remain static in the face of life’s constant friction. But personal, internal changes are most effective when done a piece at a time.  There is no deus ex machina to lift us overnight out of our funk.

But if our lives are stories – and they are, a multitude of intermingling stories, crosshatching the globe –  then January 1st doesn’t start the revision of the last 365 days. It’s the first page of the next chapter.

Time to build on what we’ve already written.

What new chapter are you going to write?



Community and Virtual Connection

It’s been several years since I’ve gathered with fans and other writers in person. I used to attend local science fiction conventions regularly, but the last one was FogCon (Walnut Creek CA) in February 2020. I find it amusing that my last haircut was in March 2020, although one is not necessarily causative of the other. I attended book signings at local stores and gave presentations at our local branch library. I also organized a monthly lunch and support group with a group of local writers. Needless to say, all these came to a screeching halt with the pandemic, and while some have ventured into in-person conventions, I have not done that yet. I’m in my mid-70s, which in itself increases my risk of serious disease or death, but I feel strongly that no one should ever feel pressured to defend wearing a mask or justify staying away from indoor gatherings. (In my case, there’s the personal risk, plus that my younger daughter spent the final year of her medical residency in Family Medicine taking care of desperately ill and dying Covid patients — this was before vaccines were available — and she is fiercely protective of me.)

All of which leads to social isolation, especially from my peer group, other genre writers. Video conferencing has helped ease the loneliness, although nothing entirely takes the place of hugs and shared adventures. My first forays included skyping my husband every night when I took care of my best friend in another state during the last weeks of her life; we finally went to phone calls because the video kept pixelating, the signal was so poor. Then my daughter attended medical school on the other side of the country and we video chatted regularly until her last year, when she was in clinic most of the time.

When the pandemic hit, I was fairly comfortable with many things video, and I started attending conventions remotely, for example, The Nebula Awards weekend, InkersCon, and various panels at other conventions. Hang-outs, mini-conventions, and themed chat sessions (such as those hosted by Lemon Friday) have proven to be great ways to meet new writers and learn much cool new stuff. I love being able to watch recorded events so I wasn’t forced to choose between two panels I wanted to attend. And to re-watch things at my own convenience. I even moderated a panel, although the inconsistency of my internet connection (due to living in a remote, mountainous place) knocked me offline for a full 10 minutes. Thankfully, the panelists carried on in fine fashion and no one seemed the worse for my absence!

Besides virtual conventions (and telemedicine doctor visits), I’ve participated in other ways of networking through video chats. Three other professional women sf/f writers and I formed a career support group, and we meet a couple of times a month. We’re on 2 coasts and 2 continents, so with the exception of the time difference, geographical proximity isn’t an issue. A colleague and I have bi-weekly writing dates, which have worked out splendidly for both of us. We chat for a few minutes about what we intend to work on, then we leave the chat window open while we each dive into our respective projects. The improvement in focus and accountability is extremely helpful. SFWA (and, I assume, other groups) host regular Writing Dates and I’ve attended a few of these. The structure of the sessions I participated in didn’t work for me; there’s a break at 45 minutes and then chat in breakout room, interrupting my concentration. My colleague and I picked a length for our sessions that allows us to go deep into our work without taking up all day. We’ve both been known to take a short break at the end of our session and then return. Having only 2 participants means we can adjust to our individual needs.

I still miss seeing my friends in person, strolling through the dealers rooms at conventions, autographing books for my readers, and all the fun of masquerades and other fan-run performances, and I’m looking forward to doing all that again. But modern internet technology plus our own creativity has produced a bevy of alternative ways to get (or stay!) connected. I hope that when or if the pandemic eases and we’re back to “real life,” we’ll keep these discoveries, too!

The past feels like food and puns today.

It’s my father’s birthday today. He died in 1988. on 8/8/88, to be precise, five minutes before midnight. He was very fond of puns and bad jokes and I was there and I will maintain, whatever anyone tells me to the contrary, that he died before midnight so that he could make one last joke. His son-in-law was American, so I think it would have pleased him that the joke works in both US English and Australian English.

My tribute to him is a story that’s currently being considered for publication. On his deathbed, you see, I promised I’d write a story (a mystery story, I thought at the time) that was inspired by the murders in Belanglo Forest, NSW, in the 1980s. I camped in that forest at that time, and must have walked by dead bodies and did not see them. The story is written and it contains some carefully placed jokes that only my father would truly understand. It’s being considered by an editor, and if it gets published, I’ll let you know, so that you, too can explore a bit of Belanglo Forest and wonder if you would be like me and walk cheerfully of an early morning, entirely unaware of being surrounded by grue. It’s not the story I promised, because I found that the promise was too laden with missing my father. In all these decades you’d think I’d get over it, but there are some things we don’t get over.

Since 1988, Christmas has been difficult. Until then, it didn’t really matter that we didn’t do Christmas, because I could always say, “I prefer my father’s birthday.” And I got to decorate my BFF’s Christmas tree with her, and cook Christmas treats, and she came round to us to fry latkes for Chanukah. We shared our festivals up to the point our parents agreed, and life was much better.

After Dad died, there was an ache every Boxing Day, and when people pressured me to celebrate Christmas (as they still do) “because it’s secular” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were treading on my father’s grave. My close friends know this, and have found ways to make this week happy, and these last few days have been lovely.

Dad and I would have strategised our way through the pandemic, and he would’ve made bad jokes, and he would’ve opened his dental surgery extra hours to make sure that no-one missed out on dental treatment just cos there was a pandemic. He would have turned up his nose at my cooking when I cooked what I wanted to, which, during his last few years was the food my friends from Malaysia and Singapore and Japan taught me, and before that the food that my non-Jewish Australian friends taught me. But he got used to pizzas quite quickly and, given enough time, he would have learned to love yakitori. The first few times he would poke and it and ask for real food, though. And he never ate anything savoury with spices. Spices, in his world, were for sweet food.

How do I know he would have adjusted? Well, when I was a child, his special time to cook each week was Sunday mornings. We’d sit round and eat and read and play patience and do the crossword, and eat his special breakfast.

For years this breakfast was scrambled eggs made with pickled cucumber, eaten with leftover challah, or, when he felt exotic, French toast made with leftover challah, or something equally from things he found in our kitchen. He’d make Turkish coffee for himself in a saucepan (not actual Turkish coffee, “Bushell’s Turkish Coffee” a local excuse to overcaffeinate), and the rest of us would drink tea. When he learned that he liked Italian food (finally!) and that bagels were likewise trustworthy, he’d go out early, pick up some bagels from Glick’s (bagels were an excuse to gossip, I suspect, just as offering to get more milk or eggs were – we the children were sent out as search parties for him some nights when he didn’t come back from getting milk because the conversation was more interesting than walking home), and then go to the local cheese factory and get ricotta so fresh it still steamed, and some pecorino, and maybe another cheese or two. Always ricotta and pecorino. We ate them with fresh tomato and cucumber and maybe dill pickles. The dill pickles were always Pose’s pickles, and were so exactly like the ones my grandfather made that one day (just a few years ago) I asked Mr Pose about the recipe and he explained that he and my grandfather came from the same town, so of course they ate the same pickles. The only reason the pickles were optional, was because often, Saturday lunch would be leftover challah, topped with leftover roast potato, leftover roast (mostly lamb, this being Australia in the 60s/70s), sliced tomatoes and those wonderful pickles. I miss those pickles. I miss Dad more, though.

The reason Dad’s memory is eliciting thoughts of food is that his birthday rarely coincided with Chanukah. Today was the last day of Chanukah and he would have been 99 if he had lived. He died when I was 27, and I was born in 1961 and this year am 61. Dad would have teased me about the 61/61.

Ave atque vale, Dad, and I wish you were here to tell me (as you used to), “That’s Greek to me,” and then laugh when I try to explain with great sincerity but not entirely disingenuously, that it’s Latin. Then we’d wonder why it doesn’t work nearly as well in Hebrew and we’d say ‘Shalom v’Shalom” to each other, to make sure we were both telling the same joke.

I miss you.

Militant Pedestrian Rag (Rant)

A couple of days before the solstice, I walked to the store about 5:30 in the evening. We’re at 9.5-hour days here, so it was already dark. My partner had found a long string LED (probably designed for wrapping around a bicycle), so I was carrying it to be more visible.

I always walk to the store, which is about 12 blocks away. I go several times a week and space out my shopping so that I don’t carry too much at a time. It’s a way to combine errands with exercise.

When I reach Piedmont Avenue, which is a heavy pedestrian area, I usually cross at a specific crosswalk across from Peet’s Coffee. There’s no light there, but it gets a lot of regular use.

So I get to the intersection, look to my left and see a car slow down and stop for me. I start crossing. Just as I reach the middle of the street and am turning to look right to make sure the cars coming the other direction are also stopping, I hear someone gun a motor.

So I stop and look left as well as right. A car comes barreling around the ones that stopped for the crosswalk, zooms right past me, and makes an immediate turn onto a small residential street.

If I hadn’t stopped, the car would have hit me. If anyone had been in the crosswalk on the other street, it would have hit them, too.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that I got my ears cleaned out the other day so that I heard the engine roar. I also can’t tell you how glad I am that I know to pick up clues like that and act on them even if I’m not sure what’s going on.

I was angry, but I wasn’t hurt (or worse).

This, my dear friends, is why I consider paying attention to be the most important skill in self defense. Because while everyone worries about the bad guy who might jump you, the truth is that accidents are a great deal more common than assaults.

And the same skills that protect you from bad guys protect you from accidents. Continue reading “Militant Pedestrian Rag (Rant)”

Raised in a Barn: Objects in the Mirror May be Larger Than They Appear

‘Tis the season.

I believe I have said before: I was raised in a barn. Not as to table manners, but as to structure. My family had been in the process of converting the barn to a livable space for about eight years when we moved in full time. But even before that we spent every weekend and all vacations in the country, my parents working on various construction projects or trolling lumber and hardware stores or antique stores while my brother and I lurked, trying not to break anything (antique stores) or cut off any digits (hardware stores and pretty much everywhere else). The first year we had Christmas in the country, things had been left to the last minute (our Christmas stockings were filled jars of jam from a General Store we stopped at on the way up to Massachusetts). Our Christmas tree was a series of boughs my father cut down that night and nailed to the wall in a roughly tree-like shape (when you live in a barn, nailing things into the wall is not a problem).

The next year, however, we got us a real tree. From our own mountain. We set off, my father, my brother, my beloved Aunt Julie and I, up the snow-covered path behind the house. For the first hundred yards or so it was pretty clear, after which there was about fifty yards of fighting your way through the briar patch (no blackberries in December, but still a gracious plenty of thorns), and then another 200 yards or so of climbing up an increasingly steep (and slippery) incline until we reached the stone fence, a family landmark. The stone fence was a 3-foot high wall of rocks enclosing a vast rectangle of what had once been farmland. The farm, defunct for many many years, had been taken over by trees. The trees had subsequently been logged for a time (now and then we’d stumble over the hulking, rusty remains of an old logging truck, like coming on dinosaur bones) but that time was decades ago. There were hundreds of fir trees, reaching to the skies.

I think the notion of cutting down a tree on one’s own mountain seemed to all of us like a fine, outdoorsy thing to do; as so often happened, no one really thought through the logistics. My father spied a nice tree, significantly smaller than the surrounding trees, and therefore Christmas-tree size. The rest of us–myy brother, my aunt and I, agreed that it was a lovely nice tree, and Dad whipped out the axe and chopped it down. Then we began to drag the thing down the hill.

Oh boy. Oh dear.

We were by this point probably half a mile from the Barn. I was nine that year; my brother was seven. We were very willing to help, but probably weren’t much use. My aunt was in her mid-thirties, more useful, but also with a bad back. I suspect my father felt that this was all on him, and in that he would have been correct.
Dad began to tug and pull at the tree, with our nominal assistance, until it had sufficient momentum to start sliding down the mountain. At one point we had to lever it over the top of the stone wall, a process I recall as taking forever and requiring many shouted instructions and considerable profanity. We made it down the steep part of the hill without anyone dying, through the briar patch again, and finally onto the lawn and thence the terrace. At which point the true nature of our Christmas tree was revealed to us:

It was thirty-five feet tall.

Up there on the mountain, surrounded by seriously tall pines, our little tree and been petite and cute. Lying on its side on the terrace it was huge. We shook off all the snow and debris that had accumulated as we dragged the tree down the hill, and, if memory serves, opened the sliding glass door that was only opened on state occasions because the track was rusty and the door weighed a literal ton, and eased the tree into the living room. Fortunately, the living room had forty-foot ceilings (Barn!). So my father rigged up a sturdy tree stand, we put our Mexican tin star on the top, and we raised the tree to stand. It was awesome: a little like having the Rockefeller Center tree in your living room only without people skating underneath it.

All the lights and ornaments were brought out from the closet. My father supplied a six-foot stepladder. My brother and I were allowed to decorate the tree as far up as we could reach from the second-to-the-top step of the ladder and no higher, so we lavishly decorated. Our Christmas tree that year rejoiced in lights and decorations on the bottom seven feet of the tree, then there was a long, uninterrupted space of blank pine, and finally, way at the top, the Mexican tin star that had presided over trees and tree-like objects for years prior. Like so much in my childhood, it was splendid and just a little odd.

The next year my father went back to nailing boughs on the wall.

Meet The Wizardry of Jewish Women

I promised to introduce my books to you, and it’s Chanukah (Happy Chanukah!) so I thought you’d like to get to know just one novel. It’s not my best, but it may well be my equal-most-important.

Being Jewish in Australia isn’t the same as being Jewish in the US, Canada, the UK or most of Europe. I’ve said this a lot, but, just once, I decided to tell about one type of Australian Judaism in fiction. There’s so much talk around that kinda assumes that most Jews are religious, or practising, or somehow high in their observance level. For the oldest branch of Judaism this is true for a very few, but not for the many. The many are wildly secular, yet still Jewish. I wanted to explore what this could mean in one family. A family with Secrets.

I created The Wizardry of Jewish Women to explore some of the magical adventures of that family.

Jews came to Australia with the First Fleet. In fact, those earliest migrants came as convicts on the First Fleet. They themselves came through England. Some were from England. Some were from families that had moved to England to escape persecution. Their Jewish practice was very English in style then. My father’s mother’s mother’s family weren’t First Fleeters – they arrived in the 19th century, but they were from that background. I tell everyone it’s scones-and-committee Judaism. It’s the closest you’ll see to Church of England in Judaism. Social change is high on the agenda, and university education is normative.

These days we’re a tiny minority in Australian Jewish communities, but once upon a time, we were the dominant group. Sometimes this was good, sometimes this was not so good. Always, it was interesting.

For The Wizardry of Jewish Women, I used recipes from my family, but the characters all came from backgrounds where they were Jewish by default, just like most of Australia is Christian by default. It’s such an Australian novel.

What still surprises me is that, as far as I can find out, it’s the first ever Jewish Australian fantasy novel. We’ve had Jewish writers of fantasy since our early colonial days, but Australian Jews are not the subject of fantasy novels. In fact, most publishers ask for Holocaust novels, or novels about the Ultra-Orthodox. These are obviously the novels that sell.

The good thing about Wizardry’s own life story is that whenever it looks as if it will go out of print, another publisher takes it up. Its print history is like a relay team with a baton. It’s never been taken up by a shouter-about-books or by reviewers. It’s interesting that what we think of as game changing can hide in plain sight – it’s only when critics see and publicly dissect something that what that novel does becomes visible to the rest of the world.

Still, this novel changed things for me. Since then, I’ve been able to write more of my background into my fiction. It liberated me, emotionally, from writing what others expected me to write and from building my world using solely building blocks from cultural majority backgrounds. If you read through my more recent fiction, you’ll find that, since The Wizardry of Jewish Women, I’ve become more and more able to reflect my own views of the world. I’m not there yet, but The Green Children Help Out (my most recent novel) informs me that I’ve come a long way since that first Australian Jewish fantasy novel.

One aspect of it has come back to bite me. The incident in the Parliamentary Triangle (Canberra has a Triangle, that began with a carved-out hill), the one with Molotov cocktails… was quite real. I was the president of the organisation that was attacked. Recent hate mail reminds me why I stepped down from Jewish leadership.

Fiction was part of the reason, but another part was a deep desire to walk this Earth without threats. Walking this Earth without threats is not going to happen. Being publicly Jewish has a cost. But at least it’s not Molotov cocktails right now. And I did excise the demons from that night by putting them into a novel… It’s not my best novel, but it was shortlisted for the popularly-voted Australian science fiction awards. That’s better than I expected for something that went where other novels dared not go.

I Did Not Write This in Longhand, But …

I don’t usually read John McWhorter. Over the years, I’ve seen enough work by him to know I find him annoying, possibly because he strikes me as one of those people who have carved out a career as a contrarian.

But he had a column about whether kids should be taught cursive this week and, given his usual defense of the old-fashioned, I thought this might be one place where he and I aligned.

Nope. Turned out he thinks it’s great that kids aren’t learning cursive anymore. Our ongoing record of disagreement continues, because I do think learning cursive — or, as I call it, longhand — is useful.

Now I should tell you that the only subject I struggled with in elementary school was handwriting. That includes learning to print as well as learning to write longhand.

It’s not that I couldn’t recognize the letters — I was reading before I started school — nor that I didn’t know how to make them.

It’s that the way I made them was always messy. They were readable. They were “right.” But they didn’t look very good.

Longhand was no harder for me than printing, which is to say that I could easily do both, but never do either to my teachers’ satisfaction.

The end result? Judging by my handwriting, you’d assume I was destined to be a doctor. (I wonder if the old joke about doctors’ handwriting still applies in the modern world in which prescriptions are sent electronically.)

My handwriting has not improved with age. At one point in my life, I took an aptitude test in which I discovered that I had multiple aptitudes — an explanation for my multiplicity of interests — except in one area: fine motor coordination.

I test at 5 percentile on fine motor. The funny thing is, I kind of enjoyed the test for that. I was just very, very slow and clumsy at it.

I took typing in summer school when I was in high school and even though I was never a great typist — I am apparently not good at any skill where you are supposed to be very accurate with your fingers — I immediately starting typing everything.

Long before personal computers were a thing, I was writing on a typewriter rather than by hand. I should probably note that I was raised by journalists, and being able not just to type but to write directly on a keyboard was considered a basic skill.

I thought correcting typewriters were a gift of the gods and I got my first computer in 1983 (which is about to be 40 years ago). Typing on something where I could correct my errors and go back and revise without having to retype was the most wonderful thing I could imagine.

I compose almost everything I write by resting my fingers on a keyboard and thinking. (I do not like keyboards that are so responsive that you can’t touch a key without it registering.)

So why, you reasonably ask, do I think it’s good to learn longhand? Continue reading “I Did Not Write This in Longhand, But …”

Guest Post: Do Women Make Better Leaders

My older daughter, Sarah, currently a college student, earned praise for her essay on the leadership role of women. With her permission and no small measure of pride, I share it with you.

The assignment was: Some theorists have suggested that the world would be a much better place to live (i.e., fewer conflicts, wars) if women held all the positions of leadership. Do you agree? Why or why not? Do women in positions of power tend to behave in more stereotypically female (caring, nurturing) or male (aggressive, dominant) ways?

Would the world be better off if it was run by women?  This deceptively simple question is best broken down into components: Are individual women better leaders than individual men?  Does the culture of leadership drive women in positions of power to behave in stereotypically male ways?  And, What is the effect when the majority of leaders in the legislative space are female?

The first two sub-questions are related.  Are individual women superior leaders?  Perhaps not, because for every Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel there may be a Margaret Thatcher or Marine Le Pen.  Perhaps the character traits expected by the electorate, and the strategies employed by powerful women to attain and defend their status, weeds out individuals who behave in a cooperative, nurturing manner.  It is quite plausible that the culture of power, or the traits demanded of leaders regardless of gender, is so pervasive that the theoretical advantages of female leadership are eliminated.  What does the data show?

A Forbes analysis indicated, and an academic analysis later confirmed, that the countries which fared best during the pandemic were led by women: Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark all took the pandemic seriously and took early steps to safeguard health.  This association has been found to be systematic among a sample of 194 countries (Garikipati & Kambhampati, 2020).  Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir instituted free testing, while Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen instituted 124 pandemic-curbing measures early, in January of 2020, and by April were sending face masks abroad.  Their success is punctuated by the expression of traditionally feminine traits: Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg went on live television to reassure children that it was okay to feel scared.  Just try to catch a strong-man leader such as Bolsonaro or Putin doing that! (Wittenberg-Cox, 2020) Continue reading “Guest Post: Do Women Make Better Leaders”

Dealing with Tough Times

We’re living in a tough time, where bigots and bullies are being accepted and where a lot of people are hurting. My personal indication that I needed to reassess what less-bigoted folks do around me (what they accept, whether they understand the implications of their acceptance) is hate mail, which is a lot better than when it was mob threats and Molotov cocktails twenty years ago. Back then I became a kind of go-to person for a bunch of people including government folk and community organisations who wanted advice on how to stop things spiralling down. This is because of my life experience, but also because of my academic specialisations. I won’t go into that here. I’ve talked about it a lot at conferences and published books and papers, so it’s easy enough to find out about.

Last time, I was a leader in the Jewish community. This time, I’m a writer and an academic. I suspect that’s the cause of the difference in how I’m being treated on a number of fronts. For the last decade I’ve had to begin afresh every single time I’m in a new environment. Sometimes it’s because I’m Australian: when I did my MA in Canada nearly 40 years ago, a heap of people assumed I’d left school early because my accent didn’t sound posh enough to them. The didn’t ask “What’s your background?” They ‘knew’ it from my accent. This is happening again. My entire specialist knowledge and life suddenly don’t exist, because Australians are not associated with these things in that person’s mind.

This is a minor version of one of the side effects of cultural bias. We don’t tend to accept the skills and knowledge of people we see as different to ourselves unless they prove it. My CV and forty years of work are not enough when people feel culturally threatened and don’t see that they feel this. They want me to go the apprenticeship route and they want to give me advice and if I follow the advice, then they might let me speak. This time, I’m not being asked advice. In fact, the opposite is happening. I’m being excluded far more, and reproached far more. Instead of the children and grandchildren of Nazis talking to me about how they can avoid repeating what their parents did, I find myself alone. This is a constant in my life and it can be very educational, but right now, it’s silencing me.

If I can be silenced, with all those years of helping people and giving workshops and speaking up… then a lot of other people are worse than silenced.

In quite a few ways, the problem is not with the bigots right now – it’s with those who accept the side effects of that bigotry, or who take what they see as neutral action that is less uncomfortable for them, personally. Silencing me is more comfortable for people who don’t want to learn about the cultural basis of prejudice, for instance, because these people may be setting up white-only or Christian-only or ‘folks I can drink at the pub with’ groups.

These tight little very supportive friendships, that exclude those who don’t quite fit (and that help so many of us through the impossible times we keep facing due to the pandemic and due to climate change and due to extreme politics) create a better environment for bigotry to flourish. Many good folks we know are not bigots, but they unintentionally create environments where bigots prosper and their victims are hurt. I look around at groups when I am verbally attacked. I look at the cultural composition of that group, and the personal background of those doing the attacking. How conformist are they? How narrow is their social circle? Could I be threatening simply by being myself?

Right now, when someone says “I’m not prejudiced,” it should be regarded as a red flag unless their environment demonstrates clearly that their actions reflect these words. Who is in their close social groups ie who can they talk to honestly? Is it people from the same background as them, or do they accept people from different backgrounds? How far are the people from different backgrounds forced to conform to be accepted? For instance, if there is anyone Jewish in a mainly Christian group, are they pressured to sacrifice their holy days for any reason and told that Christmas is standard? In another group, are lunch parties organised during Ramadan, excluding anyone who observes it? Are get-togethers organised without any consideration of friends who have mobility issues? I could give six pages of examples of this kind and not reach an end of them.

The bottom line, in all of these cases, is whether that close group contains anyone who has significant differences and if those differences are accepted as everyday and in need of respect, or if they are trodden on. How much does the individual from the not-quite-normative background have to sacrifice to be part of the group if they’re accepted into it at all?

There is a curious aspect of this sacrifice that demonstrates when there is a culture that’s dominant in a particular group. How much does someone speak for their friends? If something is wrong, do they sit down and nut it out, as equals, or do they explain how a problem can be solved without this nutting out? Who takes the intellectual high ground and why?

While we often recognise this approach when it’s clearly religious conversion, it’s can also be cultural conversion, directly from a person with a privileged majority background to someone who comes from outside this space. It can also be attempted gender conversion, or health conversion from those who believe firmly that invisible disability is a product of a poor approach to health and well-being.

This approach can stop the mutuality of conversation instantly, because it’s hard to explain why one’s life is so very different to the way that person is perceiving it. This isolates those who face any kind of prejudice.

The irony is that the person telling them how they can be a better person, or fit into the social side of things more easily is often genuinely trying to help the person from the minority background deal with problems. If this is the case, then a handy solution might be to research before suggesting answers, and accept that we all have specialist knowledge of our own lives and that we should be part of the research that feeds into advice about our lives.

People from non-majority backgrounds are often treated as less equal. That need for me to prove I can research and think, despite my two PhDs, or the need for others to explain Judaism to me, as if I’ve never thought about my own religion, are just a couple of the issues I face, personally. However, the range of ways these actions can be brought into conversations are huge, because cultural differences are huge and focusing on the needs of the privileged means we never learn how to see variations and to handle them. The skill we all need is how to see cultural variations and physical and intellectual and gender and… any part of humankind, and not to feel threatened, not to need to act to change the person to make ourselves feel safe.

These conversations are not equal because most of us lack the capacity to enter equally into conversation with someone we see as different to ourselves. I’m one of these people – I learn and I learn and I will never stop learning. The book I’m reading this week is Khyati Y Joshi’s White Christian Privilege, because if I falter on my commitment to learning then I am just as guilty as the people who have tried to give me ‘help’ these last three months. Every time someone has criticised me, I’ve asked around and done some serious research to find out why I was perceived the way I was, what I ought to be doing, and only feel as if maybe it isn’t all my fault when I discover that the person’s voice is not reflected in the voices of those I trust. Then I take the issue to the next step, which, currently is Joshi’s book: I need to see how everything looks from a range of views. I need to widen my own understanding of different cultures.

Then I make my own mind up about whether I myself am problematic, or whether someone is handling me in a way I need to be concerned about. These last three months, seven people have handled me in ways that, when I checked into it, I need to be concerned about.

A lot of people are silent when life becomes worrying due to this kind of issue. They might say to themselves “These two can sort it out” or “I don’t know anything about hate mail – I’ll just leave this one alone.” Silence may look supportive (and on occasion, it actually can be supportive) but it can also exclude someone who has been pushed to the periphery.

Declarations of ally-ship do the same when they’re not backed up with everyday action. Everyday action might be as simple as the friend who said to me “When is it OK for us to meet? How can I do this without hurting you?” A cup of tea and a good discussion is a very good first step, when silence can leave a person alone when facing vast problems.

So many allies say, “I am an ally because I’m leaving the solution to you.” For me, this is a red flag. I’ve heard it from too many people recently, relating to far too many different situations. Some involved me. Some involved people from other minority backgrounds and from other people with other disabilities.

It’s becoming easier not to take responsibility for what happens in our circles, I suspect, or to put that responsibility clearly on the shoulder of the person who is already burdened by bigotry. This is why the US, UK, Australia and a bunch of other countries have problems with increased racist abuse: we accept that far more than we accept our own responsibilities.

This post doesn’t have a clear ending, because it’s not that kind of subject. We need to talk.

Epiphany at the Ear Doctor

I had no idea the closet door squeaked so loudly. Wow, you can hear the shower in the neighbor’s apartment! And I definitely need to turn the volume down on my phone.

This increase in noise level is the result of finally going to the doctor to have my built-up ear wax scraped out after over a week of suffering from stuffed up ears. I suspect it was a couple of years worth of ear wax and that my ears had been filtering out the edges of daily noise for some time, but it was only over the past week or so that I really couldn’t hear much of what was going on around me.

I knew what the problem was. I’ve had this problem all my life. My ears don’t shed ear wax very well. When they start getting stuffed up, I try to do something about it. I have drops. I have a bulb for shooting water into my ears.

I prefer to have it removed by a professional, because shooting water into my ears always ends up making me lightheaded and a little nauseous. Also, it rarely works. But over the years, I’ve gotten the impression that I’m considered a nuisance when I go to the doctor for this sort of thing.

Except this time. When the doctor finished cleaning out my ears, she said, “You should have that done every three or four months.”

I cannot tell you how much joy those words brought me. (I have another appointment in March.) I don’t have to put up with this problem. I don’t have to get to the point where I can’t hear and then beg a doctor to do something.

I can just schedule a regular appointment, like for teeth cleaning. I had no idea this was possible. Continue reading “Epiphany at the Ear Doctor”