Goodness, Sweetness and just a touch of ratbaggery

Firstly, let me wish you all a happy and healthy and good and sweet New Year.

Rosh Hashanah starts very, very soon in Australia (I’ve put a delay on publication, so that it’s on Monday for most of you, but it’s already Monday afternoon here) and I’m furiously trying to get everything done in time. Lockdown, oddly, makes everything harder. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said “But of course it makes things easier.” I have apple and I have honey and I have mooncake in lieu of honeycake. I’m meeting my mother and her BFF and one of my BFFs online in a bare few minutes. My friend is a cantor and we’re going to have some music.

What makes this Rosh Hashanah special is my friends. One friend found me an apple. Another found me some honey. A third went to considerable length to get me mooncake. Even though I’ll be alone… I won’t be alone.

The downside is the number of people who want things from me today and tomorrow (sorry, but I can’t do these things) or, worse, the half-dozen different people who, just this week, have sent me invitations or reminders for events on my Day of Atonement.

To be honest, I’m not that observant. The more difficult people become around me because I’m Jewish, however, the more I stick to my special days. Holding gorgeous science fiction events (three of them! three different organisations!) on my holiest of holy days will make me stick to what I was taught as a child and even to fast and to pray. This has been the case ever since primary school. So many people have wanted me to be less Jewish or even not Jewish at all, and every time they express this or encourage me to be Christian or to eat pork or simply to work after sunset on days like today… I discover my Judaism all over again.

I do wonder what my religious views would be if I didn’t encounter antisemitism so often, or the limited toleration that I’m facing now. That limited toleration means that I make my mother happy, by doing the right things. This is not a bad outcome.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe, celebrate or don’t celebrate, please have a wonderfully good and sweet year. For anyone who, like me, will be fasting (at least as much as the doctor permits) then well over the fast. And for all of us, may we get through this pandemic well and safely and emotionally intact.

Politics in Families

Blaine A. White, Creative Commons

Okay, we’re living in a moment when politics are… a fraught subject. I listened the other night as my 25-year-old daughter and my husband–who are not actually on opposite sides of the fence–had a 45-minute conversation fight discussion exchange about something. My daughter has admirable patience when talking with people of opinions that do not march with hers. With  her parents (whose politics are not far from hers at all), well  the word “scolding” comes to mind. But we are her parents, so there’s that.

The fraughtness of politics within families sometimes has less to do with opinions than with family dynamics. This is one reason why I almost never talk politics (or religion) with my brother. He and I are so far apart on the political spectrum that it’s hard to believe we share any DNA at all. Continue reading “Politics in Families”

It’s Not Cute, Damn it.

Yep, it’s another month, another installment of “Better Humaning Through Dogs.”

Generally, I try to write about the positive elements of dog companionship – or at least, the interesting ones. And generally, people who love or work with dogs understand the psychology of these animals, or are willing to learn.

But sometimes, I swear to dog, er, god, media makes education difficult, and I just have to scream.

Recently I saw a People magazine article, one of those clickbait headlines squibs, about a puppy so protective of a new family member, it wouldn’t even let the baby‘s mama touch baby. And it was, as these things always are reported, done up in a sweetly twee, isn’t it cute! tone.  Isn’t that a good dog?

No, it’s not cute. At that level, it’s called resource guarding, and it’s not something you should be encouraging in your dogs, OK? (Or your cats, for that matter.)  Yes, dogs are excellent guardians, and are often very careful and watchful around the younger members of their pack, four or two-legged.

But when the family dog gets upset when anyone else comes near the baby, to the point of growling or showing teeth, Rover or Fluffy isn’t being protective over your offspring. Rover or Fluffy is claiming them as their property, their territory.  That’s a version of resource guarding, and it’s not a healthy situation, much less “cute.”

Resource guarding, within context, isn’t a bad thing.  Between dogs, it’s annoyingly common – I’ve seen this play out more times than I like, working with shelter dogs, with friend’s dogs, with my own dog. Between dogs, its a way of laying down boundaries: this is mine and I will share it, this is mine and I will not. Most dogs will recognize and accept those boundaries, and back down (when they don’t, that’s when you get dog fights).

But humans, for the most part, are clueless about the warning signs, and very bad about backing off.  And no, you can’t count on your dog recognizing you, and knowing that you are to be trusted.  Not in the instant of reaction, anyway.  To the resource guarding dog’s mind, everything is a potential threat to their possession of the beloved object.  Even another pack member, maybe even alpha pack members.  And they’re not going to sit back and rationally think it out; they’re going to respond the way they’re designed to, quickly, efficiently, and potentially bloodily.

And a dog’s idea of defensive behavior?  Involves teeth.

That means anyone attempting to reach for the child, in the case of this article, or a person in need of medical care, or even a partner attempting to show affection, risks getting bitten.  Maybe badly.

So yeah, articles like the one I saw are the worst kind of narrative, assigning emotions and motives inaccurately, and making it seem like a good thing. A trained guard dog does not behave that way. An untrained guarding dog is a danger to everybody. Including that dog. Because you know what too-often happens to dogs that bite. Even if they’re not at fault.

So yeah, please, please.  If you have a dog that is showing signs of resource guarding against humans, particularly if they’re resource guarding another human, get them (and you) professional help to stop it.

The life you save may be theirs.

for more information, I’d suggest starting here.

My Life in Dogs

I live with a geriatric half-Dalmatian former-athlete dog. She is sweet and stubborn and ridiculous… and approaching the end of her sell-by date. I had not thought to see my own mortality mirrored in my dog, but there it is. She’s not my first dog, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t get to see my earlier dogs age.

When I was seven and away at my school’s spring camp for a week, my parents had some friends over for dinner. As a hostess gift of sorts they brought… a beagle puppy. They had stopped at a gas station the week before, and found a litter of orphaned pups in the ladies’ room. They spent the next week distributing these tiny animals who were really too young to have left their mother to all their friends. This included my parents. I suspect my mother greeted this new addition to the household with mixed feelings. She wasn’t anti-dog, but she had two small children and here was another lifeform to be responsible for. By the time I suspect she was thinking that a beagle puppy was one lifeform too many, I got home from camp Continue reading “My Life in Dogs”

I’m baaack…

I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. I managed to get an infected bone. My finger is still infected but, bit by bit, I’m back to normal work. Routine has been very hard to regain, because of on and off restrictions due to the pandemic. I was restricted until I was vaccinated and now I’m vaccinated, my whole city is in a very thorough lockdown.

What have I been doing with my time? I’m working on my PhD. It’s the right kind of research for right now because I don’t actually need libraries at this point. I am being as clever as I can and working from my computer. It’s literary studies doctorate and my case studies are fantasy novels and it’s the perfect thing to do when life is sour. In The Wizardry of Jewish Women I made a joke about a demon-infested lemon tree throwing sliced lemons at one of the characters so imagine me turning those lemon slices into a delicious drink. It’s the best way of handling the impossible.

I’m a little public for a bit, too, because of Australia’s Reading Hour.

Every year Australians are encouraged to stop for an hour and read, and the world of libraries and schools and bookshops works together to encourage that reading. One of the key ways they promote it is to nominate writers as Ambassadors, and me, I’m one this year. This year is a bit light-on for events, because everything has to be online, but there is one that is free. Three writers (Sophie Masson, Juliet Marillier and me) will be chatting about books. Here is the link to it: https://www.newc.org.au/what-writers-read.html

While I was dealing with everything, my new novel came out. I call The Green Children Help Out a Jewish superhero book, but it’s a bit more than that. I wanted to build a contemporary magical world where the ground crunched underfoot, that is, it felt as if we could be there. I wanted the people who were saving it to be people who are heavily undervalued in our own world but are seriously, seriously cool. And I wanted to show that coolness. Now I want to move to that world, for it’s COVID-free and being Jewish is not something that needs explaining all the time. Also, I want to be one of the Green Children. I have absolutely no idea what my superpower would be, but I’m open to suggestions.

How Stories Save Us

Stories can heal and transform us. They can also become beacons of hope.

Quite a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult personal time, I came across a book about the inherent healing power of telling our stories. No matter how scattered or flawed our lives may appear, as we tell our stories, we gain something. Patterns emerge from seeming chaos, and our lives begin to make sense. It may be dreadful, agonizing sense, but even tragedies have order and consequence. I found that over time, the way I told my story changed, reflecting my recovery process and new insight.

The mirror side of story-telling is story-listening. While a confidential diary or journal can be highly useful, having someone hear our words can be transformative, especially if all that person does is listening. Not judging, not analyzing, not wondering how to respond, just taking in our words, a silent partner on our journey. Often we feel less alone in retrospect, no matter how isolated and desperate we might have been at the time. Additionally, a compassionate listener invites us to be kinder with ourselves.

Perhaps this is how Twelve Step programs work, apart from any Higher Power mysticism or Steps: that by simply hearing our own voices relate our histories, and having the experience of being heard, we open the door to viewing ourselves through the lens of new possibilities.

Personal storytelling calls for discretion, of course. Although it may be true that “we are only as sick as our secrets,” casually (or not-so-casually) violating a confidence from someone else is not the same as choosing to include the listener in our own private lives. Some of us never learned healthy boundaries about what is safe to share, and when, and with whom. We, or others, can be harmed by indiscriminate broadcasting of embarrassing, illegal, or otherwise sensitive information. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about, on the other hand, is as much about the journey as it is the facts.

Stories can get us through dark times by giving us hope and inspiring empathy. Stories work by creating a bond between the narrator or central character and the listener/reader. Who wants to read a story about a person you care nothing about? And if that appealing character has a different history or journey, or learns something the reader never experienced, so much the better. We accompany them into darkness and out again. Continue reading “How Stories Save Us”

Raised in a Barn: A War on the Front Forty

Note that even my father’s dog Nellie got a new outfit for the occasion.

My father was born to be a king. Or at least lord of the manor. He had the eccentric manor and the acreage.  And when some friends of mine from the Society for Creative Anachronism came to visit, with the express purpose of deciding whether the front lawn would be a good place for a war, Dad was all in.

By the front lawn, I mean the approximately 20 acres of pasture across the road from the Barn, proper.  When my parents bought the barn, 180 acres of land came with it: the front 20 (often referred to as the front forty, perhaps because of the alliteration) separated from the Barn and the rest of the mountain by a county road, and the 160 acres around and behind the barn, most of which was hilly, forested, and not much in the way of farmable.  The front 20 was rather rolling, and ran down about a quarter of a mile to the Housatonic River, storied and sung in my youth for its horrid pollution. My brother and I had never stuck a toe in it for fear of having it dissolve.

My SCA friends returned to their barony and pitched the idea of a battlefield event, and the War of the Roses was born. I was kept apprised of the planning (since I was more or less the intermediary between my parents and the machineries of war), and some basic ground-rules were set: the war was across the road from the Barn, but people were permitted to come up and draw water from the hose spigot outside the studio door. Digging a hole in which to roast an ox (my father’s face was incandescent at the thought) was okay, and smaller fires likewise, so long as they were rigorously tended. This area for parking. This area, marked out with pennons, for the battle, and That area—essentially the rest of the field—for setting up temporary residences.

Of course I made my parents suitable garb. My mother didn’t want anything particularly fancy—”your basic medieval schmatta,” as she put it. But my father… I told him to find a painting from any period from 1000-1600 and I would do my best to make the clothing depicted for him. Of course he went for Henry VIII. My father, barrel chested with knotty, muscular calves that would have made the Tudor court swoon, was made for this.  I made him the outfit, and he wore it for the weekend and…did I saw born to be a king? Yeah, like that.

My recollection of the whole weekend is rather kaleidoscopic: I bounced back and forth between the camp and the Barn (and slept in my own bed). The fire over which the ox (well, the half-cow) was to be roasted wasn’t lit early enough, which meant that the meat wasn’t actually cooked until half past 10 that evening. The battle itself was spectacular—a series of individual fights first, followed by a melee, all framed against a sky full of gray clouds. Despite the overcast of the day it was warm, bordering on hot, and after the war was over, some of the combatants took themselves down to the river to skinny dip. Apparently the river had been cleaned up a lot while I was living elsewhere: no one dissolved or emerged from the water writhing in agony (and at the following year’s war skinny dipping was a feature, not a bug: the day was hotter and sunnier, and immediately after the battle the banks of the Housatonic were teeming with naked warriors).

Possibly my father’s favorite moment of the weekend came on Saturday evening. People camped pretty much where they wanted, and one young woman had pitched her tent three quarters of the way down the field, just before the river bank. And she started having belly pain. Among other things, my father was a member of the volunteer ambulance squad, and a qualified EMT. Someone found me and reported a woman in pain, and I charged up to the Barn, where my father had retired for the evening was wearing his civvies. Within a minute of my outlining the problem Dad had his kit in the car, slapped the green flasher on the roof, and tore down the hill to the campsite. “Hot appy!” he announced, and judged this was not the time to wait for the ambulance. He loaded her into his car and took her off to the local hospital, where her appendix was removed just in the nick of time.

The next day the Baron and Baroness of the presiding Barony made a presentation to my parents, and they were roundly huzzahed. I think my mother enjoyed it, in an “I’m just here to watch the young folks being crazy” sort of way. But Dad was in his element: how often do you get to be the Lord of the Manor, Rescue the Maiden (from the fearsome Appendix!) and dress like a king?

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 10

We’re home! Back in Boston. I have never felt so tired in my life. I finished the deck well after dark on the last day and moved on to other essential repairs—such as securing the planks on a little bridge that were flipping up like a cartoon gag when you stepped on them. Here’s the final deck railing section, and the finished project the day we left:

By some miracle, we made it to San Juan in time to catch our JetBlue flight, after a near-all-nighter cleaning up the construction zone (the whole house) and packing. I tried to sleep on the flight, but it was a lost cause. Now, though, I’m all refreshed (hah!) after ten hours of sleep in my own bed. My own bed! I plan to rest for a week. Maybe two.

I thought I’d close this year’s Chronicles with some stray oddities.

Last year I wrote about the Ho Chi Dog Trail we’d discovered running through the property. Stray dogs had found a gap in the fence at one end and periodically came racing through in well-behaved packs, going about their business and disappearing up near the car gate. It was kind of fun, but not the sort of thing weekend renters want to see. I found the gap and plugged it with metal fence rails hastily zip-tied into place. That was a year and a half ago. This year, the gap was back: one rail knocked out and cast aside. Did the dogs do it? Who knows? But mark my words, they won’t do it again. We had the rails welded into place, by the fencing crew who were on the job last week putting up real fence in place of the mangled old cyclone fencing.

Speaking of putting things up, one small but important task was figuring out an appealing way to hang curtains in a room with concrete walls and awkward corners. Allysen came up with copper pipe as a great curtain rod, and I figured out a way to carve blocks of wood to drop them into, so they’d look good and be easy to take down, and yet not fall down when you wanted them to stay up. Securing them to the walls was the hardest part. Even with a hammer drill, that old concrete was tough!

I’ve yet to address a crucial subject: craft beers. They have a number of really good craft beer makers here on the island. You can buy their beers in the grocery stores now, which previously you couldn’t. My favorite is Ocean Lab Brewing Company’s Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale. But weirdly, you still can’t get it in restaurants! If you ask for Puerto Rican beer, you get your choice of Medalla or Medalla. (Pronounced “meh-dah-ya.”) Medalla’s a light lager, on a par with Bud Light—decent enough, if you’re hot and tired and want to glug something to quench your thirst. But as a tasty brew with a meal? Not even close. When we asked the restauranteurs why they don’t carry the local craft beers, they said, “Not enough demand. Only the tourists want it.” Well, but… don’t you want to attract tourists?

Still, my preferred drink down here is rum punch, following a recipe created by Allysen’s dad, Phil Palmer. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Fresh-squeezed lime juice, dark sugar syrup, amber rum, and water (in the form of crushed ice). Top with Angostura Bitters and fresh-ground nutmeg. Simple, and unbeatable. We’ve cut the sugar some, and are more straightforward about weak. So now we say, “One of sour, one-and-a-half of sweet, three of strong, and forget the weak.” (Okay, we still use the ice, of course.)

(At home, in fact, my recipe for frozen margaritas is based on this formula: “One of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and three of stronger.” Lime juice, dark sugar, Triple Sec, and tequila. And lots of ice.)

Here’s the final rum punch of the trip, and a fitting close to this year’s Ponce Chronicles:

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 9

If you haven’t been following, I’ve been building a deck. Actually, replacing a rotted-out wooden deck beside the swimming pool at Casarboles, my wife’s family’s place in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I’m in a race against the clock (we leave for home in two days, having already extended our stay by two weeks), and it’s been a bear. In the middle of it all, I developed an ear infection, probably from protecting my ears with noise-canceling earbuds, complete with ground-in dirt. Did I let that slow me down? I did not! (Well, maybe a little.)

Here’s a sort of stop-motion record of what I’ve been doing:

Grinding and painting the steel supports…

Last floor plank laid, yours truly ready to keel over…

The new floor, shown to the audience in daylight by a far more attractive model; old, rickety railing system still in place…

Old railing gone, new railing begun… two days to finish…

Okay, back to work!

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 8

Progress! With a capital P. Here’s the pool deck yesterday. I filled in that gap and then some, today. Geez, I’m tired. But I have hope of getting it finished before we leave.

And here’s a new bit of railing. It replaces the well-crafted, elegantly curved railing that Allysen’s dad built, and which some boneheaded weekend tenant broke and tried to conceal by hiding the pieces in the bushes. Deep breath.

By the way, in case you’re wondering how I got those curves in the wood to so nicely match their pairs on the other side…

I found two pieces of warped lumber at Home Depot. Their curvature was exactly what I needed.