Building A Village

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Not the future. My future.

My aunt turned 98 on Thursday, and I went down to spend a couple of days with her. I am often awed, not just by the devotion her primary caregiver shows (a woman who was her housekeeper for 30 years and took caregiving certification courses so she could be there for my aunt) but at the network of care that surrounds her. My uncle’s nephew manages the finances and coordinates her home care. Her medical care is overseen by UCLA’s Geriatrics department (which coordinates with all the medical visitors–primary care doctor, PT, nurse supervisor, meds management, etc.). Her wonderful primary caregiver is there for several days at a time (and her younger daughter, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA, subs in on occasion), and there are several respite caregivers that my aunt knows and likes, who come in so that Maria can have some time off. The guy who manages the building and takes care that everything is working properly. And family: my daughter lives in the garage apartment of the building and has dinner with my aunt a couple of times a week. I am planning to visit for a few days every couple of weeks for the foreseeable. So that’s more than a dozen people.

My aunt wanted to stay in her own home, and is fortunate that a lifetime of work and saving has made that possible–and that her sweetness, and the love everyone has for her and my uncle, ensures that she’s surrounded by kindness and affection.

On the other hand, my father, and my in-laws, both chose to go to continuing care residences. My father did so because he went blind, and living in a rural community meant that all of his time was spent arranging rides to shop and visit doctors, and… Dad was ferociously independent and deeply social. It was a better fit for him to move–on his own initiative–to a place where things like rides, and shopping, and a social life, were part of the of the package. He lived there for about a dozen years, and loved the place. And my in-laws sold their home and moved into a similar continuous-care place while they were still hale enough to make it their home: they made friends, got involved in politics and other things, traveled widely, and were always happy to come back to their new home. In both cases, moving in long before they needed assistance (medical assistance anyway) or heightened care, meant that they had a community and a sense of belonging. They did not mourn, as some elderly folks do, for the home they left when they were put into nursing care. They were home, and the care came to them.

Because I write SF and so many of my friends are writers (with all the colorful personalities and imaginations that implies) the subject of how to handle our own futures sometimes comes up. Every few years someone says “what we should do is pool our money and buy an apartment building/subdivision/whole town and live there.” Continue reading “Building A Village”

Two types of hunger

Way back when I did more things that were political and public, friends and I learned that it’s possible to get through life without hating, without accusations based on little or no evidence, and without destroying the lives of others. We learned, quite simply, how to learn before judging. We talked about folk dance and folk music (in fact, some of us danced and some of us sang), we learned much history to advance our understanding. I can still do some of the dancing (although these days it hurts, physically, which is ironic) and sing some of my favourite songs to myself (not to others beachhead really, I have no voice) and I still learn the history. What I’ve never stopped doing and what I can still do well is cooking. Hunger for food helps feed the equally-important hunger for understanding. Let me introduce you today, then, to four cookbooks that have served me well when I need to remember how complex and wonderful different cultures are and how there are many paths to avoiding hate.

The first book is Christiane Dabdoub Nasser’s Classic Palestinian Cuisine. A friend who is Palestinian Australian said I was missing her cultural background from my book collection, even though I was cooking food that was very similar to her own cuisine. She was right. I had not even begun to understand where her food and foodways were like mine. We talked a lot, and we ate each other’s cooking, which helped, but my library didn’t reflect this at all.

I couldn’t find a Palestinian Australian cookbook. Nasser’s was published in London, though, so it’s close enough for now. By ‘for now’ I mean I need more. One cookbook is not even close to a whole culture. The first cookbook is to open a window and to begin to see through that open window. I begin learning where I make non-rational judgements and where I lack knowledge and understanding, and then the recipes I cook help me break down my issues and to stop applying them to someone else’s culture. It helps me see people, and to stop hiding behind my own biases. It helps me look for what we share and to avoid hate.

I make a variant of Nasser’s potato with rosemary dish for Passover. It’s wonderful. Sadly, there are never leftovers. For dinner tonight, I’m choosing between two different eggplant (aubergine) salads. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

I chose the second book because I needed a cup of coffee. I’ve just finished my cup, and I feel almost awake. Given I’m writing on a hot summer’s day, this is a good thing. Antony Wild’s Coffee: A Dark History is not my favourite history of coffee volume. It was the first I saw when I looked at my shelves. It is, however appropriate for today.

We all carry a lot of half-understood history with us. All our foodstuffs and foodways have their own history and sometimes we know things and we think we know things and… it helps to find works that debunk and reconsider and don’t shy away from the less-good elements of the past.

The history of coffee walks hand-in-hand with empire-building and slavery if you want to focus on one side of its history. Coffee offers so much more than this, however, and I’d not use Wild’s book alone. Coffee helped European political blokes talk to each other through coffee houses from the seventeenth century. It changed the shape of discourse, in fact, in those countries. It shaped that discourse in part of the Middle East. Opening the door to coffee history is to open the door to understanding how even the history of a single type of bean carries with it cultural complexities and is worth understanding.

The last two books are, in my library, a pair. I use them a lot. They’re both by Claudia Roden. Roden does all the things I’ve talked about. She breaks food and foodways down into specific cultures: her volume The Book of Jewish Food is a masterpiece in this way. It doesn’t contain my foodways (there’s a story in that) but it’s given me a basic understanding of how Jewish food and foodways can be interpreted and understood in a wider sense. I can integrate this with my own historical knowledge (and it helps being an ethnohistorian, I admit) and I can talk Jewish food with most people. I have favourite Jewish foodways, and I explore them separately, but I always begin with Roden’s work.

The same thing applies to my learning about the different food and foodways of the Middle East. Her A Book of Middle Eastern Food is the book that began me on this wonderful journey, when I was a teenager. I owned my own copy from the moment I left home. My little paperback is from 1982. Without it, I would not have known enough to ask friends “What should I look for in a cookbook that takes into account your background.” I have hundreds of cookbooks now, but this was one of my first, and I still love it. My copy is battered and much used.

Each note Roden makes about this cuisine or that has sparked research at my end. I find more recipes, look into the culture that owns them, begin to understand the food customs and rules… and remind myself that doing this help me remember, every day, that respect and understanding trump hate. This means, of course, that I need another cookbook. It’s been a very difficult year so far for me as an Australian Jew. My obligation from that (according to the way I see the world) is to understand better other people who are also hurting. I shall watch for cookbooks and recipe websites. This is not the only way I try to understand, but it’s definitely the most fun.

When You Can’t Write

For a long time, I used to joke that I couldn’t afford writer’s block. I began writing professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved “pre-writing,” going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go; when I’d get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I’d write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them.

I kept writing through all sorts of life events, some happy, others really awful and traumatic. Like many other writers, I used my work as escape, as solace, as a way of working through difficult situations and complex feelings. I shrouded myself with a sense of invulnerability: I could write my way through anything life threw at me!

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I hit an immovable wall during a PTSD meltdown following the first parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. For weeks at a time, I battled flashbacks and nightmares. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop crying. Also, I couldn’t write. That creative paralysis added another dimension to the crisis. If I couldn’t write, who was I? Where were my secret worlds, my journeys of spirit and heart where people healed and things got better? Gone…and I didn’t know if I’d ever get them back.

I was fortunate to have a lot of help, professional and friendly, during those dark weeks and months, some of it from fellow writers. No pep talks, just friendship, constant and true. Eventually, as I recovered, I was able to return to fiction writing as well, although by then, I found myself a single working mom and had a new set of demands on my time.

Writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons. In my case, it was personal and emotional, part of a larger crisis. Other times, however, the well runs dry when the rest of life is going smoothly. Quite a few years ago, I ran into a writer I greatly admired (at an ABA convention), and I’d not seen anything from this writer in quite a few years. I introduced myself and asked when the next book would be coming out. Only when I saw the change in the writer’s expression did I realize how difficult the subject was. I was probably the hundredth person that weekend to ask. (Eventually, this writer came out with several new books; I wonder now if the appearance at the ABA wasn’t a way of trying to get the head back into writerly-space.)

Sometimes, a writer feels they’ve said everything they have to say. Or that one book or one series is it; there are no new worlds begging to be explored. They can rest on their laurels with a feeling of satisfaction and closure. For the rest of us, though, not writing is anywhere from excruciating to devastating.

I  think it’s not at all helpful to try to “cheer up” a writer in the middle of a dry period. The specific reasons–creative paralysis, personal crisis, discouragement–vary so much. I think it’s safe to say that each of us has to find our own way through. For me, it’s helped immensely to know I’m not the only one to go through it–and that’s the operational term “go through it.” Come out the other side. Talk about what happened, in the hopes of being the light in the darkness for someone else.

The Wall

Left-of centre Jews in countries like  Australia, the US and the UK face a wall. We try to talk to people, but instead we talk to that wall. It’s an immense and solid and stubborn wall. Its bricks are made of bigotry. The wall prevents people from talking to each other, from working together, from meeting shared goals, and, every day, makes life unsafe for more and more Jews.

This week, in Australia, a bunch of things happened and each one of them showed me a small bit of that wall. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it, but at least I know why a whole bunch of people I’ve known for years suddenly can’t see me and won’t listen to me. There is a fragging wall between us.

I handle the wall by not carrying every moment of hate and every ounce of despair at once. I try to take the bits I can handle and only turn to the next bit when I’m ready. This is difficult, because more hate and more hate and more hate is thrown my way. Those who do the throwing, who once were friends, are often behind that wall. They tell me I have to follow their guidelines and do everything their way, otherwise I am evil. I need to put the lives of Gazans ahead of my own. I understand that demand. People in Gaza hurt. Their lives are in constant danger, from the IDF, also from Hamas, from other militant groups. If I silence myself and join the marches, however, will it help them? If I devalue my own life, will it help them?

It won’t. I cannot change the lives of Palestinians by shouting at clouds. The best thing to do, then, is to find wise people I can learn from. I seek out people who don’t hate: they are Palestinian and Israeli and they talk to each other about the future. I cheer on the Israeli crowds demonstrating against Netanyahu’s government, because Israel is a democratic country and can change its path. Its citizens need support to make those changes, not incessant and impossible hate.

While I can’t see how exacerbating antisemitism in Australia helps Israel change its direction or saves lives in Gaza, I can see that it hurts Australian Jews. We’re not asked our views or our thoughts, or if we lost anyone on October 7, or if we receive hate mail. We are required to use old-fashioned (mostly hateful) shibboleths. If we don’t use them, then we’re accused of being part of the problem. Also of murdering children. This is fascinating from a story angle, but almost impossible to handle as part of every day. So many diaspora Jews have to watch for red flags and warnings of danger to us, personally.

In short, to reduce the impossibility of all of this I ask myself what I can do if I want justice for the most people possible. I can listen and, when it’s appropriate, talk. Not give the shibboleths. Not silence myself. Not accept hate.

I cannot talk for anyone in the Middle East: I’m Australian. I can only speak for myself. More than this, I can only speak for myself when it’s safe for me. It’s probably not entirely safe for me to write this, but it’s safer than going onto a social media site and trying to talk with anyone on the other side of that damnable wall. They won’t hear, and I will become one of their increasing number of targets. (This is literal, but now is not the time for me to go into the blockings and the lists.)

Those behind the wall of hate are mostly good-hearted people who mean well. Life would be so much less complicated if they were monsters.

So much has happened in my vicinity this week. I can handle just two incidents, of the many. To talk about everything would be to carry all the weight at once and I would collapse under the strain. These are both Australian things. Not the ‘it’s not safe to be seen in public wearing things that identify you as Jewish’ nor the watching for red flags to find out precisely which people I thought were friends are really not, right now. Not the old stuff of being accused of murdering and being told I’m privileged and being told I don’t know history or … so much old stuff. The old stuff is the foundation of the wall. The new stuff is the wall itself. Right now, the wall is growing every day.

In Australia, straight after the October 7 massacre, when most of us with friends and relatives in the region had no idea who was hurt, who was dead, who was hostage, someone in authority decided that it would be a good thing to allow Australians (mostly Jewish) with links to that border area, by lighting the Sydney Opera House with the colours of the Israeli flag. The idea was, I think, that Sydneysiders could mourn together and that this would help with an impossible situation.

On the day, the police advised Jews, “It is not safe to go to the Opera House” and that, if anyone Jewish went, we should dress to not look Jewish. No stars of David, no kippot, nothing indicative of our background. Most Jewish Sydneysiders took this to heart and stayed safe at home.

Why did the police send this advice? Because they were told that there would be a pro-Palestine demonstration. This was not like the more recent demonstrations. It was not crying for an end to war, because there was, at that point, no war. I may not think that the constant demonstrations help, but the loss of life, the pain, the torment the non-Hamas folks of Gaza are going through – that’s enough reason to demonstrate so I understand those who are part of them. I wish they’d take the time to understand me. Back then, Israel had not retaliated. It was in shock. Most of those who demonstrated were polite, but even the polite demonstrators were celebrating the murders of October 7.

Some demonstrators said stuff. A video was circulated of the stuff. Some people claimed it said ‘Gas the Jews’ and others said it did not say this.

Last week the police reported on the video. While they thought the video said “Where’s the Jews” and “Fuck the Jews,” their expert says it did not say “Gas the Jews.” They said that there were people who heard “Gas the Jews,” but that the police didn’t have enough information to change anyone. In other words, they agreed about the level of antisemitism expressed by some of the demonstrators, but couldn’t act on it.

Those who live on the other side of the wall to me are now making a commotion about how things are, that we all made such a fuss about a false claim. Those not behind a wall are saying that the antisemitism was shocking.

The second event concerned a fire. Those who lit a fire that destroyed the Burgertory takeaway in Caulfield were arrested.

Why is this such a problem? It isn’t, in one way. Criminals arrested, proof was tendered that it was not a hate crime against the Palestinian-Australian owner of the restaurant chain, we could all move on.

Except…

There had been an anti-Jewish riot (not a large one, but not a safe one, either) the Friday after the Burgertory fire. The owner discouraged action, I believe, but a bunch of people (a very large bunch) drove from suburbs an hour away (or thereabouts) to protest the alleged Jewish burning of the restaurant. No-one knew who the arsonists were and the demonstrators decided it was a Jewish thing. Australia went from “Fuck the Jews” to “Blame the Jews”.

Caulfield is a suburb with many Jews. Also, it was one of the big round number anniversaries of Kristallnacht. The protest (with its violence) was in the park next to a synagogue.

Someone on Twitter the next day posted that they (they themselves, not people they knew) had seen creepy men in the park when they went there to demonstrate. One of their friends talked to one of the creepy men, and were told that they were synagogue security bods. The guards are nothing new. Synagogues in Australia have needed someone watching out for things all my life, and I have very unfond memories of all of us being marshalled outside in the 70s, because of bomb threats. No Jewish institution in Australia is safe right now, and the Federal government gave a big wad of cash to both the Jewish and Muslim communities to address the safety of Muslims and of Jews in this increasingly perilous world.

The guards in the park are important because of that tweet: we know that at least some of the visitors from many miles away knew there was a synagogue. I knew there was one too, because a cousin is very active in the synagogue. He was among the evacuees.

The bottom line is that, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the police closed down a Jewish service, unfinished, because people outside were feared to be violent.

The moment the actual arsonists were made public (just last week) loads of people wondered (publicly) if those who had claimed the fire was set by Jews would apologise. I didn’t see apologies. What I saw were wall-blinded people finding something else to hate in Jewish Australia. That’s another story, and too close to me for safety right now.

I’m tired of the hate. I’m tired of those who only see what they want to see. I would be less worried about my fatigue if the wall didn’t also lead to a blindness concerning the Middle East. I’d be less distressed by this if the protesters worked towards outcomes we could all live with. I wish the activists asked “How can we get people out of this mess? How do we help everyone not guilty of vile things be safe and have food and rebuild and… how do we get all the people who are committing crimes be put on trial?” If we supported Israel, then it could be persuaded to dump the government (so many Israelis already want to) and Israel could start to talk with the non-Hamas Palestinians in Gaza and work their way (however long it takes) towards an accord. If we sent more help to Gaza, though any agency that is not compromised, then people would not starve. If, instead of being exhausted on demonstrations and apparently righteous anger, that same energy were put into finding a way (lobbying? raising money?) to create a Marshall Plan equivalent, then the people of Gaza would have the option of long term help to create a solid economy and to rebuild Gaza and to bring business back to Gaza.

While the new antisemitism uses a rather compelling edifice to block their view of the world rather than spending energy working towards a just future for all parties who are not actual criminals… I cannot admire those who shelter behind it. Until they break down the wall, they are helping make Australia unsafe for Jewish Australians. They fuel the crowd at the Opera House and the crowd in Caulfield and create an atmosphere of constant hate. This is the choice of those behind the wall: I don’t have to like it.

Better Living Through Sauerkraut

I wish I had been taught Chemistry differently. To this day, most of the chemistry I learned in school was as a side-benefit of my biology classes. I loved bio, and survived chemistry (required) and physics (ditto) in order to take the advanced biology class my senior year, wherein a good deal of chemistry was taught in passing, particularly when we were looking at DNA and genetics. But beyond that, Chemistry the subject seemed utterly detached from things I cared about. Okay, some times you just have to buckle down and get through the classes you don’t much care about (I’m looking at you, PE) to get your ticket punched and make your way out of high school. But I think I would have learned more if it had been related to something else. Like food.

Flash forward a few decades to when I gave a lesson in bread-making to my daughter’s second grade class. It’s a perfect basic chemistry lesson for kids: simple enough to be reduced to 7-year-old level, but tied to something familiar (better yet, edible). I just came across the handout I did for the class, which is what put me in mind of it.

And this morning, spurred by an article in NY Times Cooking, I made sauerkraut. It is ridiculously easy: cut up a head of cabbage, put resulting shreds in a bowl, “massage” (the NYT term, not mine) two tablespoons of Kosher salt into the shreds for five minutes, until the cabbage starts to soften, reduce down, and release some liquid. Then pack into jars and stir every couple of hours, to speed fermentation. All the time I was up to my elbows in cabbage I kept wondering 1) is this really going to work? and 2) why does it work. So as soon as I had packed the cabbage into its jars and cleaned up the mayhem that cutting up cabbage produces, I hied me to the internet.

According to the Clemson University website, “Cabbage is converted to sauerkraut due to growth and acid production by a succession of lactic acid bacteria. Salt and limited air creates desirable conditions for the leuconostocs – a group of less acid tolerant lactic acid bacteria that grow better at 60°F to 70°F.” Fortunately for my sauerkraut, the winter temperature of my kitchen is somewhere around 65°. The salt works–as I noted as I worked–to soften and draw juice from the cabbage. As a bonus, it also works to keep undesirable bacteria at bay; you want the desirable bacteria, of course: the leuconostoc lactic acid bacteria that create lactic acid. 

See? Chemistry!

The Clemson site gives a recipe that requires 25 pounds of cabbage and yields 9 quarts. I suspect that once my much more modest batch has fermented fully, it will be something closer to a quart and a half.

All of this reminds me that I need to make a batch of bread and butter pickles. For science!

The Things I Know, The Things You Know

This post originally appeared a while back on my own blog.

Many writers (I won’t say all writers, because I don’t know them all, but at this point I think I have a pretty decent random sample) know a bunch of different weird things.  Many writers (see above caveat) were probably the sorts of kids who stored up random factoids, or had deep pools of info about odd things, or could list all the kings of England from Edward the Confessor onward (that used to be one of my parlor tricks, along with reciting the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales).  Many writers research science, or history, or Alexandrian mythology, or sanitation in ancient China, or, or, or…

The thing is, if you’re the kind of person who picks up spare facts the way other people nab pocket change, it will sooner or later burble to the top of your consciousness.  My husband, the Gray Eminence of rec.arts.music.beatles, can reliably identify which out-take from which bootleg two bars of a given Beatles song is from, and probably knows all sorts of arcane info about who was recording that day, and can expound at length about the cool fill Ringo was using, or why George was using that guitar or…  I, who have only the laywoman’s hey-I-was-there-when-the-Beatles-were-cool-the-first-time appreciation of the music, can still enjoy Danny’s over the top minutiae.  And when I need an in-house set of professional ears, I have it.  Your friends and beloveds are fonts of all sorts of information, if you only think to ask.  And if they don’t know, someone among them will almost certainly know someone who will know.

Mumbly-years ago I was writing a novel set in New York, in which our Hero had to go to Rikers’ Island, the NYC jail complex that sits in the middle of the East River.  First thing I learned was the difference between a jail and a prison (jails are short term, prisons long term, for one thing, and are generally run by local law enforcement–sheriffs and police departments; prisons are state- or Federally-run, and are for people who are in for more than 365 days).  Second thing I learned was that, at the time at least, it was very hard indeed to find out logistical facts about the prison (how do you get there? is the protocol different for lawyers and visitors? what’s the layout of the place).  Now, of course, there’s a website for directions, with information on the various facilities, and so on, but in these long-ago days, not so much.  So I asked a friend’s husband, the only lawyer I knew, if he knew any of this stuff.  He didn’t, but a friend did, and after an hour of fascinating conversation I knew more about Rikers’ Island than I’d thought possible.  Thus: the power of friends and their friends.

I’m a member of a list called Joys of Research, which is a stunningly valuable focused-crowd-sourcing tool: it’s simply a bunch of writers who have different areas of expertise.  Ask about medieval latrine technology or the decomposition rates of bodies or the weight of an 1795 flintlock pistol and someone will know.  And if no one knows, they’ll have suggestions about where to find the information.  Just being able to narrow the informational sources down a little is often a huge help when you’re time-crunched.

I’m not organized enough to make a list of who of the people I know I can ask for what, but you might be.  And an added benefit? You get to know people better.  I am hampered by shyness and an early inculcation of the goofy notion that asking people questions was rude.  (I know.  I know.)  But asking questions about another person’s interests is a wonderful way of deepening a friendship, especially if you’re able to ask about things your friend is really interested in.  My friend Steve can talk mammalian biology until the cows come home (he might even know why the cows come home). My friend Claire knows medieval history, my friend Kevin is a go-to for herbal information and cookery; my friend Ellen is a stunning well of mid-20th century American pop-culture. When I started working on Sold for Endless Rue I discovered that my friend Tess, who had been the administrator of Clarion when I went there, knew tons about the literature of medieval medicine.  Connections FTW!

And never forget that you might be the one who knows something someone else needs to know.  And that feels really good too: you get to be the pro from Dover and expound on something near and dear to your knowledge base too.

Shakespeare is Another Country

For a couple of months, my younger brother and I have been having a discussion about Shakespeare. It is not acrimonious, but there is some increasing frustration on both sides. On my side–well, Shakespeare is not my favorite writer, but he’s right up there, and I enjoy his work and particularly enjoy it because, in the course of my education, I learned something of the world in which it was written–his influences, his commercial competitors, the world in which he was writing. Also: I’m a big nerd, and knowing this stuff makes me happy.

My brother–at the age of 68–is wrestling with Shakespeare, and seems to be increasingly frustrated, maybe even irritated, that he’s not getting it. “Why does he have to write like that? It’s incomprehensible!” My brother is a smart guy. He’s also the kind of guy who reads the Bible for fun, and he does not shy away from archaic language (for my money I’d rather read Shakespeare–the plots make more sense). But he seems to run aground with William S.

I’m visiting my brother and his wife, and last night coming back from a very nice joint birthday dinner–we’re both December babies–the subject of Shakespeare came up. “Well, why the hell did he write in verse? People don’t speak like that.” “I just don’t get the language.” “It’s just incomprehensible!!!” The more we talked, the more frustrated we both got. I pointed out to him that Shakespeare may not be his cup of tea, and there’s no dishonor in that. He counters with the fact–which I don’t deny–that thousands of people over more than 400 years have found Shakespeare’s plays, and his poetry, compelling. So why doesn’t he? “What am I not getting!”

The problem, as I see it, is that my brother wants Shakespeare to write differently, in order to be more accessible to him. Shakespeare, having been dead for more than 400 years, is unlikely to do this.

Shakespeare was writing for an audience that expected plays to be in verse. He was writing for an audience that shared what my husband calls CBK: common body of knowledge. He was writing in a unique political and social time (writing, say, the Henry tetralogy–Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V–took some fancy dancing, because any part of it could have been taken as a criticism of the reigning queen, Elizabeth, who necessarily took a dim view of stories about nobles usurping power from monarchs to become monarchs themselves. Criticism of the reigning queen could be terminally hazardous to your health). He was writing in dialogue with his contemporaries, particularly with Kit Marlowe. He was writing for an audience that was a mix of upper and lower class, educated and not so educated, and so he mixed up the high and low in all of his plays. He was writing for a culture that–while largely non-literate–enjoyed getting punch-drunk on words as well as plot, and admired a well-turned phrase. He was not writing plays he expected to outlive him, certainly not to become part of the spine of English literature. And I suspect that, if Shakespeare could put his prickly writer’s ego aside (we all have them, honestly) he might have told my brother “not everyone is gonna like everything I write, and that’s cool.” (Though he doubtless would have said it better).

If my brother is unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to become or pretend to be part of one of those constituencies, then maybe Shakespeare really is not for him, and not all his “but I should understand” protestations will change that. Thinking of this last night after our conversation, I realized that he reminded me of a woman I roomed with in Paris on my first visit abroad. A middle-aged teacher from Ohio, she had very adventurously decided to come to Europe on her own, and she was very excited to be there. But every night, for the three nights I shared a room with her, she complained about the French. No one was speaking English. “I know they know how. At least some of them must. But no one even tries.” I attempted to point out that it was their country, English was not their language, and it was… odd to expect that they would speak it to her regardless. Even odder to feel that the French were deliberately being difficult in not doing so.* Increasingly, my brother sounds like he feels that Shakespeare was deliberately being difficult by being, well, Shakespeare.

I don’t think there’s any way I can help him with that.


__________
* I found, on that trip and subsequent trips, that if I made a good faith effort to speak at least a little of the language of a country I was visiting, it engendered a great amount of goodwill (the Greeks positively glowed when I tried out my 10-15 phrases in Greek when I was there). This includes the French, who have always suffered my attempts to speak their language with patience and good humor.

Retiring, Not Shy

For the past few decades, whenever I have seen an ad that says something like “The SFPD is hiring” or “You could be a police dispatcher” or something like that, there is a small, weird part of me that thinks, maybe I should apply for that. Despite the fact that I hate job hunting, and despite the fact that I don’t want to be a firefighter or police officer (and am well past the age where my application would produce anything but laughter). The urge to figure out the next thing is still deeply massaged into my psyche.

In February I gave notice at my job. The fact that I set my departure date in December 1) because when your workplace has only three employees, the replacement of one can take a while; 2) I wanted to wait until my 70th birthday, which is in December; and 3) If I held off until I turned 70 I would be eligible for the maximum Social Security benefit to which my years of employment entitled me. Or something like that. 

I started a file on the museum’s shared drive, initially named “How to be Madeleine,” but, as the time passed, respectably renamed “Operations Manager Procedures.” So that over the months, as I did something–say, filed the sales tax or applied for a one-day license to serve alcohol–I could document the work flow. So life went on. In October my boss started the recruitment process to replace me. I am happy to report that she found someone great, and I am busily sharing, not just those Operations Manager Procedures, but all the bits and pieces of organizational history and lore that are tucked somewhere in my brain.

So after all these months when retirement was sort of theoretical, it’s suddenly (as of this writing) two weeks away. I find I’m feeling a little unsettled about it. Continue reading “Retiring, Not Shy”

It’s Not Halloween

… and yet I just turned up this photo, which made me think of the weird things I–and my kids (and in the photo, my brother) have worn to costume events.

The photo is of my brother wearing the “Bat Fink” costume my father made him. The Bat Fink was made with plaster-of-Paris-permeated muslin over a wire armature, in the shape of a raven with a three-foot wingspan. It had yellow marble eyes that caught the light, and a bloody skull in its beak. It was built onto massive shoulder straps (I’m not sure if it also belted around the chest), which is why there was an additional breastplate of plaster-of Paris skulls which covered the straps, and black fabric that draped from the bottom of the raven over my brother’s shoulders and down to about his knees. He wore a skull mask to finish up the look. I suspect that, wearing the Bat Fink, my brother would still have been under 6 feet (he was 7 or 8 that year), but it was imposing, and likely to scare the teeth out of our small neighbors in Greenwich Village. A couple of years later I wore the Bat Fink on my shoulders (carefully draped with black fabric, but no skulls) to open the door and dispense candy to Trick or Treaters.

Okay, my family–all of us, but particularly my father–had no problem with standing out in a crowd. Continue reading “It’s Not Halloween”

Mad for Beads

I don’t think of myself as a crafter, but I do do a lot of craft-like things. Maybe I should rethink?

I like knowing how to do things, even if I don’t do them brilliantly. I like to sew (big project sewing–mending and quotidian stitchery not so much). I taught myself to knit, and have knit some stuff, but not much–as with sewing, I tend to do a big knitting project that is almost certainly out of my league, and eventually finish it.

And then there was Klutz. I worked at Klutz Press for three years in the production department. One of the things most Klutzniks did routinely was to test instructions. So I learned to make tiny Fimo beads, and to do quilling (it’s curled paper art), and make Star Wars-themed paper planes. And I made things with beads. So. Many. Beads. I wound up organizing the massive bead stash (by size, by style, by finish), and when Klutz’s California offices closed, I was offered the opportunity to take any and all beads when I left.

I was good. I was even thoughtful. I did not just take all the beads (there were a lot of beads–in order to test the beads, both for compliance with US regulations on materials for kids, and for working with projects and designs–we had to get beads by the ounce, and an ounce is a lot of beads). I chose beads I liked, and I mostly chose the really small beads: 11/0s, Delicas, and 15/0s (okay, I took some 8/0s and 6/0s, t0o. I’m not a saint). In the years since I left Klutz I’ve become a fairly competent bead weaver.

I bead at night, while we’re watching after-dinner TV. I don’t string beads, or work with wire (I know some amazing bead jewelers who do both, or either); what I do is the intricate, fiddly stitching of beads in a pattern. Bead weaving. The necklace in the photo above is done with the flat Cellini stitch; it winds up looking complex, but really, the hardest part of finishing the flat Cellini necklace is remembering which bead I’m supposed to be picking up when. I’ve made climate change necklaces (bands of different colors for different temperatures, over a 100 year period… pretty and sobering) and Russian leaf earrings, and, and, and… It keeps me from fidgeting while I track plot and dialogue.

So what do I do with the pieces I make? I’ve sold some pieces here and there–mostly those commissioned by friends. Then, last year, after a friend had a good experience with entering her artwork in the World Fantasy Convention, she persuaded me to try entering my beadwork in this year’s WFC Art Show.

Spoiler: I got into the show. To my surprise and gratification, I sold half of the work I showed. More than that, I got the sense that this is something I’m good at, and something that has the potential to give joy to others. In the words of Ruth Gordon when she was given an Academy Award at age 73, “I can’t tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this is.”