The Lost Past and the SF Writer

I wrote about lost culture for The History Girls  last week, and I’d like to continue the conversation with myself today, here.

Our lost past is often the past as experienced by cultural and religious minorities in lands ruled by someone else. My personal quest for lost pasts is currently the European Jewish past. I want to know what my ancestors ceded, culturally and religiously, in order to survive. I want to find out what’s missing. I also want to write more novels that use it.

The vast majority of English-language novels are informed (often very quietly) by Christianity. If writers depart too much from this, then most readers won’t have an expected set of understanding to start from and will have to work much harder to get into the novel. The cultural and religious minorities do the heavy lifting to make multiculturalism work. For the whole of my life I’ve had to do cultural outreach because most people can’t or won’t. This is not a wonderful thing for the everyday, and it also has an uncomfortable effect on our fiction. If the vast, vast majority of readers expect to see an historical world that refers to Christian heritage, then they need to be given a clear path into anything different. Creating that clear path while avoiding tropes and racist constructs can be … difficult.

I’ve got a bit of a history of looking into these things. My academic research examines what we do as writers to construct the worlds for our novels and to narrate the stories set in those worlds. I look into what we see when we build that novel… and what we don’t see. When I started publishing my research, I started with examining how writers use history in fiction, and moved onto cultural encoding. Right now, I’m beginning to have a much more precise understanding of how important genre is as a pathway that readers travel into story.

The novel I’m currently (slowly) working on is set on Earth but in the same universe as Poison and Light and after that same catastrophic war. It’s about lost culture.

The trick will be to welcome readers into a very strange land and to make them want to stay a while. The town at the centre of the story, where everything happens, is almost all Jewish. This was not historically so very odd, the capital city of seventeenth century Lithuania was at least 40% Jewish, for example, and many of the nearby towns were almost 100% Jewish. The history was destroyed when almost all the Jews in these towns were murdered and the English language world was left with some really odd views of that time and place. Christianity informs those views, and so does antisemitism. Moreover, since the Holocaust, most people have forgotten that there were wholly Jewish towns in Europe, that being Jewish was perfectly normative for millions and millions of people. It’s easier, storywise, to describe us as perpetual outcasts.

A Jewish strange land where Jews are safe, however well I can back it up historically, is surprisingly difficult to write. It’s not that Jewish history is lachrymose, it’s that we focus (in popular culture) on the hate and the loss and the tears. It’s easy to do. It’s easier to focus on tears than to to discover lost people and their interesting lives.

What’s important right now is that I think I’ve found a way of building the town so that it contains actual Jewish history (reconstructed with some glaring errors 300 years from now, since future historians and world makers are human, too, and will have their own preconceived notions) while keeping it interesting to the reader. It all comes down, as so many things do in fiction, to the opening.

I could spend another 300 words explaining my theories and how I apply them to create the first words of the novel. Or I could simply give you my draft first words and you can ask yourself, “Would I read this novel?” All the explanations in the world don’t make an opening tempting. Let me give you the words:

Space and boundaries fascinate me. Take, for example, the street I walked through this morning. To most people, it was just a street. A very wide street. Once upon a time it was set up for horse and carriage. In the old, old, old world. Then it was used by motor cars and grew wider. That was the old, old world. It became so wide that, in the difficult days of the old world, there were wooden houses down the middle. They lacked plumbing and almost any other amenity. They became the place where refuse was thrown. The people that society couldn’t accept. Wouldn’t accept. Hated for no good reason. That time didn’t last long. It wasn’t because the bad attitude towards other humans failed. It was because someone in power noticed the value of wide streets. They bought it up, turned it into a market zone and all the rickety houses were knocked down.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that half the people who live in this town are descended from the poor souls who were thrown out of their homes, like dirty dishwater. Their work brings the tourists in. Their work creates my work. Even walking down this street feels insolent.

Publication in the time of COVID – another anecdote

I want to introduce you to Poison and Light, but I have no idea how to do this. It was released during the first year of COVID and so most bookshops have not been interested in it: it’s available from online stores, mainly. It was a finalist for an award, but there was no ceremony for that award, so no-one noticed it there, either.

This is all ironic, because it’s the book I wrote for people who wanted this history with the panoply and the danger. It has a Code Duello, and costume drama, and hot air balloons, and tentacled aliens, and secretive printers, and evil conspiracies, and the main protagonist is the last refugee from old Earth.

There’s one special character in it who was going to get their own novel if this took off, because they are just so very cool. I say ‘they,’ because even though they publicly identified as male, they didn’t always privately identify as male. It’s their idealism and their amazing clothes’ sense and their even more amazing rapier skills that made me want to know more.

I’m not the only person to want more of Fabian. Instead of summarising my novel, then, I’m going to send you to a review of it. That way you can see what both the novel and Fabian look like to someone other than me: https://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2021/03/03/poison-and-light-gillian-polack-shooting-star-press-2020/

Me, I wrote Poison and Light because I wanted to explore a world that wanted to hide its head in the sand by pretending it was in the eighteenth century. Some residents of New Ceres thought they were in a world where nobles ruled, gloriously. Others thought they were in a world with decadence they could enjoy. Still others are planning a revolution. You get some of all of this in the novel, but it was going to be a series if it sold well enough, and there was far more excitement in store in those later volumes that will now never happen. There are issues that would have emerged concerning failed terraforming, for instance (we need more novels about failed terraforming, given what we’re doing to our own planet right now), and of slavery, and of how much New Ceres could remain its independent and dangerous quirky self when the rest of the galaxy had recovered from the war. How does the dream of history hold up against reality?

The novel I’m working on now is set in that same universe, but back on Earth. Only one character overlaps. I’m sorry, but that character is not Fabian.

I used actual 18th century texts and ideas and stories to build the world of the novel. That novel was part of the research project into how fiction writers use history, and testing the concepts other fiction writers presented me with gave me far more insight into what they did than if I’d simply collated my interview notes. It doesn’t come up in History and Fiction, and nor should it. When I use novels to test ideas, those ideas become part of the novel. I still have to check those ideas against my research for my academic side.

This means you can read Poison and Light without caring a jot about Gillian-the-researcher. You can enter it for the strange future world and for the people. In a perfect world, my readers do this. They look at my characters and pick the actors they would love to be playing them. Which leaves my second last thought as, “I have no idea who would play Fabian.”

My last thought is that I need to write more about Poison and Light. It deserves to be seen.

So Much of a Good Thing

Map of California indicating drought status as of January 13, 2023
Image from U.S. Drought Monitor https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Current Map/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA

I have rain fatigue.

This is the rainy season in San Francisco. We know to expect that December through February will be wet–although this year the procession of atmospheric rivers, cyclone bombs (WTF?) and their accompanying sequelae–floods, mudslides, property damage, even loss of life–seems to be overdoing it. The mantra, in California, is “We need the rain.” And we do. The unrelenting rain of the last month has been a soggy, cold, disastrous blessing. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll note that there is no where in the state that isn’t “abnormally dry.” Currently a little less than half the state (46%) is in a state of severe drought,. Sounds pretty awful. But wait, what about all that heavy rainfall in the last month? Hasn’t that helped at all?

In fact, it has. A lot. Three months ago 94% of the state was in a state of severe drought (41% was actually in extreme drought). Three months ago 16% of the state was in a state of exceptional drought–and exceptional, in this situation, is not a good thing. So that last month of rain has been a godsend. And given how far the state still has to go in order to be out of a state of drought, I should not complain if we get another month or two of deluge.

Sadly, I almost certainly will. Continue reading “So Much of a Good Thing”

How we understand the past ‑ from three directions

I’m a bit late because things are suddenly very busy. I also have no time to write anything new. Let me give you something old…

This was first published on 11 December 2011 BiblioBuffet. I wrote for BiblioBuffet for 3 years, once a fortnight, and it was such a joy. You can still find all the pieces on the Wayback Machine.

One of the recurring tasks of the Medievalist who does other things (like write here, or teach, or write fiction, or even go to dinner parties) is to deal with the popular idiocies that abound about the Middle Ages. Flat earths, rotten food, chastity belts: popular ideas that have little or no grounding in actual history sometimes appear unending.

A little while ago, I reviewed a book about classical science. This book (unintentionally) reinforced one of those odd views about the Middle Ages. It assumed that there wasn’t much in the way of scientific progress or scientists during the period. James Hannam read my review and emailed me, suggesting I read his book on Medieval science, God’s Philosophers. How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science,which addresses precisely this issue. He kindly sent me a copy and he was right ‑ I needed to read his book. If you have an interest in what actually happened in science in the Middle Ages then you might also need to read his book. I don’t agree with all of it, but I’m very glad it exists.

The writer’s choice of form is shaped by the nature of their caring about history. Hannam cares passionately about science in the Middle Ages and he faced some of the same dilemmas as I do concerning popular misconceptions. This is why he wrote what he wrote.

In his introduction, Hannam lists many of the less-intelligent things, of the kind I listed in my first paragraph those I gave above, that I’ve found people think about Medieval science. His list gave me an immediate sense of not being alone. Hannam points to sources such as Richard of Wallingford and Thomas Aquinas and quotes Voltaire and others deriding the darkness of the mind in the Middle Ages. Through these quotations he demonstrates, passionately, where our rather negative view of Medieval science comes from. I shall refer to this introduction in class next time the subject comes up, because Hannam has all too obviously encountered the same sets of attitudes I have. He looks at those attitudes, and deals with them succinctly and clearly.

His views are not mine. They exclude women’s science, for instance, and I would have liked a better coverage of the science behind the spanking new technologies of the time, of distillations and spirits and advanced optics and more. I would especially have liked a close look at how the different religions of Europe combined to achieve major cultural transformation.

Hannam’s book is a popular history. It targets some widely-held misunderstandings about the Middle Ages and the role of the era in modern science. It carries its own burden of understanding, however. What do I mean by ‘burden of understanding’? We all interpret the world around us. We all carry a whole raft of material we use to help us in this interpretation, from assumptions right through to careful analysis. Hannam’s material is carried by his passion for the Middle Ages and the shape of his understanding of the Middle Ages. His Middle Ages isn’t mine: it is, however, still powerful.

These interpretations are linked to the form we choose to write in, the subjects we choose to write about and the approach we take to these subjects. Hannam chose popular history. There are other choices.

Not so long ago I looked at a scholarly writer whose passion led him into the life of Benedetto Blanis. The result was a book, Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis, that was written from an expert (academic) vantage point but that is accessible to the wider public. It contains fascinating insights into Jewish life in Medici Florence. Because Edward Goldberg’s passion was more scholarly, the overview of Blanis’ life and times was not enough. His new book, A Jew at the Medici Court. The Letters of Benedetto Blanis Hebreo (1615-1621), contains the letters of Benedetto Blanis. Unlike the first book, this is not really for the wider public. It’s a critical edition of the letters, with English summaries and rather good notes. Unlike the popular book, we can see directly into Blanis’ life.

The wonder of a good scholarly edition is that the notes and the index and the scholarly apparatus (I am in love with the phrase ‘scholarly apparatus’) serve as tools to help the reader see something more clearly. In this case, it’s Benedetto Blanis and his world.

It’s a terrific companion volume to the first book and the summaries of the letters give the key information in each (which is good for readers who have insufficient Italian). Goldberg’s passion for the past is expressed through his wish for us to see Blanis and understand his life, and he gives us all the tools we need. The letters themselves are the pure magic. Goldberg was clever to realise this and facilitate the transit between them and the reader.

They’re a door opening to give us a peek into something amazing. Opening the volume at random, I read that Blanis has received his patron’s last letter. He’s extremely polite to his patron ‑ his language is full of courteous superlatives. He uses phrases like “deo gratia” ‑ this shows to me that the Christian and Jewish communities had common language. And all of this is to ask if he can send a package of clothing and some silk to Venice under Don Giovanni’s seal. It makes me think that the patronage relationship can be like that of a child at boarding school towards the family back home. “Send money.” Send food.” “Can I do this, please?”

A good history will give you a considered overview. A good critical edition of primary sources allows you to think differently and explore byways. here, the focus changes according to the life of the letter writer, not the thesis of the modern author ‑ this means that letters can throw up the most extraordinary bits of information. At this point I should give you an interesting tidbit to lure you into yearning after the book. Three times have I opened this volume to find something and three times I’ve found myself absorbed in the stuff of Blanis’ life, when he was trying to make a living, when he was trying to get out of prison, when he was describing a suicide, when he was carefully manoeuvring around politics that were bigger than he was. It’s an addictive, fascinating book.

In this instance, the first book illuminates the second ‑ Goldberg’s passion for history has given us a pair of volumes that work marvellously together.

A third book that’s led first and foremost by the writer’s passion for the (historical) subject is different again. It’s fiction, for one thing. Suzy Witten, in The Afflicted Girls shows her passion for communicating the horrid events of Salem in 1692.

This kind of book is harder for the historian to evaluate. I can read the letters presented by Goldberg and I can analyse Hannam’s approach to science, but the measure of success for history in a novel is how much the reader cares. And the historian as a reader of historical fiction or fantasy is a very difficult reader indeed. It’s not that I don’t read historical fiction: it’s that I’m a fussy audience for historical fiction.

Witten has been dutiful in her research, and it shows in the fine detail that colours the novel. What is missing for me is that (especially near the beginning) the fine detail is uncoloured by emotion. I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted at the Porter family’s “roll-top bright painted calash.” It’s not something that I know from my own frame of reference and Witten doesn’t always give enough information for me to interpret it within the frame of reference of the novel. It must be important, for the description occurs at the beginning of a chapter, but I don’t know the way in which it’s important. Is it presumptuous of the Porter family to paint in bright colours, or is it an entirely everyday thing? Are they rich, or struggling poor? Without any knowledge of how much it costs to buy and run a calash, I don’t know where it fits in the society of the novel. This means that, while the society of the novel is full of detail, I don’t always have the tools to assess that detail and Witten herself doesn’t always give me the tools. I can see Witten’s passion for the past and for brining readers the lives of this town at this time, and I hurt when they hurt (for it’s a strong narrative) but I do it from the vantage point of the present. It’s a distant viewing, not a close one. When Witten brings us close in (as she does on the very next page, when we learn that the use of a Boston dressmaker has social and emotional consequences) the past is far more alive.

By the time we reach the harrowing events of the witch trials, the past is more fully alive and the novel is powerful. Still, it’s interesting that Witten carries with her the baggage of description. Its excessive detail is her way into understanding what the past looks like and feels like. It’s her way of carefully documenting it. Documenting, however, works best in a book such as Hannam’s and fine documentation of detail works best of all in a book such as Goldberg’s. In a novel, that documentation works better when it has an emotive aspect. It is a path into the past for the reader and it’s important that this path show us how the specifics of the place and time were viewed.

Telling detail is, in fact, the reader’s link to the normative past, the typical day. Those small bits of information concerning daily life show how that normal everyday moment is seen by those who live in the world of the novel. When this small world all falls apart, we then have a frame of reference from which we can understand the emotional depths. This link between the apparently trivial and the narrative is something that’s much more difficult for nonfiction to achieve. It can bring us into the past and make us feel for the history of individual and to cry for the loss of their lives.

All three of these books-the popular history, the letters, the historical novel, carry us into the past. They use different methods and have different reasons for the journey, but they are how we, as readers, begin to understand the people who have gone before.

Books mentioned in this column:

A Jew at the Medici Court. The Letters of Benedetto Blanis Hebreo (1615-1621) by Edward Goldberg (University of Toronto Press, 2011) 9781442643833

Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis by Edward L. Goldberg (University of Toronto Press, 2011) 9781442613331

God’s Philosophers. How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam (Icon Books, 2009) 9781848311503

The Afflicted Girls. A Novel of Salem. By Suzy Witten (Dreamwand, 2009) 97800615323138


Work in summer

I had very fine intentions this week. I was going to say something Wise. Then I was going to say something Important. Then I was going to move back to my introductions to my own books, and talk about a novel.

It’s summer here, however, and the heat has melted my brain. This is why I normally write in the wee hours of my morning at this time of year: there is less heat then.

So what was I doing in the wee hours of my Monday morning? Why was I not writing to you? I finished my monthly Patreon newsletter, and sent it out. What you get from me today, then, is a pause. If you want to know more about my Patreon, you can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/GillianPolack

This month my patrons asked me to talk about antisemitism. There’s a short story where I tried (and failed) to find a way of explaining the cultural loss it incurs. There is non-fiction that gives some explanation. There’s some (very personal) advice for writers who come from mainstream culture. It explains the first big step they can take to write about people who come from different backgrounds to themselves. Without this first step, other understanding can be shallow, and so the writing is less than it should be.  And, for my top tier of patrons, I talked about what’s happening in the publishing industry. I pointed to the need to support writers in these very, very difficult times. My estimate is that the next three years is going to lose us many favourite writers: support from readers is the biggest factor in many of us staying the distance.

All this boils down to the appearance of my once-a-policy-wonk self. It’s talking to my historian self. I’m looking at the shape of publishing and its internal dynamics and patterns of change over time… it’s all a bit too exciting.

If you want to know more about any of the subjects I talk about on Patreon, I can talk about them here, on Mondays. My patrons get first look, though, so it won’t be instant. And since I’m no longer paid for my insights, writing about the big subjects that tax my brain is a low priority. I’ll still work at understanding everything (we all have our obsessions – I have this one and I have chocolate), but I can’t take it further. Income matters.

My highest priority right now is writing about my research. (I get paid for it!) This month and next I’m focused on food and foodways and history and genre. A curious side-effect of this research is that I think I finally understand what makes certain writers popular. I can trace the critical aspects of their fiction and have linked them clearly to things of cultural importance in the outside world. This fit with all my earlier work, but it means I understand far, far better what makes a work a best-seller when an equally good work dies in a ditch. (I love my research so very much!)

I’m gradually working through the physical morass I’ve been in for the last few months. When I’m out of it, I’ll return to interviewing writers. I have so many amazing writers to interview!

In the meantime – including next week – I’ll keep introducing my own work.

If you want to see me at a conference, I’ll be at the virtual side of Boskone in February.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I go to ponder food in fiction.

Reading (and Writing) Warily

Somewhere fairly recently I was in a conversation with someone (can you tell I cannot for the life of me remember when, or with whom, the conversation occurred?) about the why of writing. The person I was talking with spoke pretty definitively about why writers write, and while her points (I can remember it was a woman I was speaking with, maybe by the time I finish this post I’ll remember her name) were valid, I thought they were also limited. As if she could not imagine reasons to write that were not hers. Which is the crux of why I write. I’m trying to figure out why people do what they do. It’s why I read, too: to understand.

I am the daughter of an alcoholic, which comes (at least for me) with a certain number of good and bad sequelae. One of those is a certain wariness, and the ability to zig and zag given immediate circumstances. Another, for good or ill, is to set up a series of actions, and create a story that explains why my characters complete those actions. Continue reading “Reading (and Writing) Warily”

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.

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.