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.

Where the past comes to my aid…

I’ve had my COVID update jab today. This means I’ll be clear in a few weeks and can maybe be a bit social. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who are COVID-vulnerable and who has a charming long and painful reaction to the vaccine.

Instead of a real post this week (and maybe next week and the week after, it depends on how long it takes to get through this) I thought you might like something from my past. Three things, in fact. If you scratch below the surface you’ll see a suggestion about how I approach the terrible things happening this month. The posts aren’t about that, however. The posts are about what I was thinking 15-16 years ago. The novels I was writing then were “The Time of the Ghosts” and “Poison and Light.” Both of them are still in print (“The Time of the Ghosts in its umpteenth edition, and “Poison and Light in its first) and the cover of “Poison and Light” contains artwork by Lewis Morley, who entirely understood my thoughts and dreams about the world of the novel. For a change, instead of saying “This book may be out one day, if I’m lucky” I can send you to the exact stories I wrote about, way back then. There aren’t many advantages to getting significantly older, but this is one of them…

(2007-11-26 21:45)

I need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was still active in the Jewish Community. At work on Friday afternoon I answered the phone and at the other end was a frantic community leader. “Gillian, you have to come to synagogue tomorrow, it’s very important.” He couldn’t tell me why. All he knew was that he had received a phone call from a well-known Melbourne rabbi (who had never met me) saying that Gillian Polack had to be at synagogue on Saturday morning. The rabbi knew I didn’t usually go to Shul, too, and he had said very firmly to “make sure she’s there”.

I couldn’t arrange a lift, so I hopped on my two busses very early and walked the half mile or so at the other end and found the Progressive Service and looked around for any reason I might have been summoned.

In front of me was a visiting cantor (but visiting from overseas – no links with me or mine), the backs of heads of the usual congregants, and about thirty aging pates. The usual congregants kept sneaking back to me to find out why I was there “Is there something happening this afternoon that wasn’t advertised?”

I whispered a question about the thirty heads to one of them and he whispered back “visitors from Melbourne, doing a tour – nothing to do with the cantor.” Somewhere in that crowd of heads probably lay my answer.

The service ended. Everyone stood up. The visiting group turned round to survey the back of the hall. I heard a woman’s voice cry, “There she is,” and one elderly lady ploughed out of the mob and towards me. The others all followed, like sheep. Some of them knew me, most of them were simply following their natural leader.

Valda is a friend. Except that it’s now “Valda was a friend”. I don’t believe it yet. Mum told me about her funeral just fifteen minutes ago.

She was nearly ninety and we just got on well. We snarked together at conferences and we stirred her kid brother (a close friend of my father’s and another friend of mine – the two of us have stood to the side at parties and brought down the tone of the proceedings since I was a teen) and we did a lot of very good volunteer work together. She died in her sleep, her life a resounding success.

I will miss Valda for a very very long time. And I will always remember how many people went into operation to make sure we got to chat when she was in Canberra. She could have rung me or she could have told my mother, but Valda simply told everyone she wanted to see me and – because it was Valda and we all loved her – everyone made sure it happened.

I will also never ever forget that horde of touring retirees descending on me. I was a whistle-stop for the Canberra part of their bus trip. And I bet Valda knew this when she called out “There she is.”

For the record, the questions were mostly about my Melbourne family. Also for the record, I asked in response “You’ve been away for a week and you miss them?” Valda hasn’t even been away a week and already there’s a hole in my life.

Identifying bigotry, bias, and poor judgement

Today’s post was going to be short and simple because today I feel very short and rather simple. Except it’s my least favourite topic and it’s the topic that governs so much of our everyday. So it’s long and complicated.

Because I often encounter prejudice, I have ways of measuring how far it extends so that I can avoid problems and problem people when there are no solutions. I don’t walk away from anything lightly, but I need ways to assess if an event of group has become unsafe for me or if I’ve become so much a second-class citizen that I cannot be certain my voice will be heard when a problem arises. I have walked away from something just this week, which is why this post is so very personal.

These are some of the things I use to look for incoming problems and for current problems. Every one of them relates to experiences from the last month or ongoing issues. They don’t work for extreme prejudice ie I had no way of predicting the Molotov cocktails that were thrown at a building I was in or hate mail I received. I cannot gently walk away before bad things happen. It’s not a complete list in any way. In fact, it’s simply the tools I’ve had to use this last week.

1. Red flags.

Indications that someone doesn’t see things the way I do, and (the ‘and’ is important) may act on their viewpoint in a way that’s, at best, uncomfortable, or at worse, dangerous. I avoid someone who lives locally to me, for instance, because they always want to talk about Israel or money: I’m Jewish, so I must always want to talk about Israel or about money – those are two red flags. There are other red flags for other aspects of my life. Some of them relate to being safe as a woman, some being safe as a person with chronic illness and disabilities. This last week I’ve encountered ten red flags from three people. Red flags often feel creepy to people in the same group. They’re indications of where a path can lead. When I mentioned one of them (the gender-related series) their response was “That’s so creepy.” While they’re not themselves dangerous, they can lead to bad places. One red flag won’t make me walk away from a person. We all make mistakes and we can all be stupid, after all. A consistent display of red flag behaviour, however, is a safety issue.

I first try to address the behaviour, because some of it is copying others. If telling a person “This hurts me” or “This makes me uncomfortable because…” doesn’t change anything, I have to get out.

2. Equality of access

One of the easiest-to-spot evidence of othering is when two people have equal background and put equal work in and one is rewarded while the other has to move on. This has applied to me more in Cnaberra than elsewhere in Australia. I can teach a subject for years and have amazing student ratings and full courses every time and then be dumped from the institution without notice (ask me about why I’m not at the ANU one day) or be told that, while other people are remembered by the organisation, I have to apply as if I’m a new person. I ask about my records with them and they say, “We’re not looking at history.” Except they do… with non-minority writers. Because of my disabilities, I have limited energy and not a lot of income, so it’s very easy to make something impossible for me by making it a two day job to apply for something that will give two hours income. If I weren’t in such a small community and if I didn’t hear that others are not made to jump through the same number of hoops and that their experience is counted and that most of the jobs I have to apply for as if I’ve never been seen locally are given to people whose names have come up in discussions… I’d assume it was a level playing field. There are, in other words, organisational ways of othering and of keeping undesirables out.

It took me a long time to realise this was happening. My moment of illumination came when someone carelessly said “We can’t consider you because you’re not experienced enough. The others have more qualifications, too.” This sounds innocuous. Except… I have two PhDs, a teaching qualification, 30 years teaching experience, ten novels, thirty years organising experience, non-fiction published on the subject. even the occasional award. What did my replacements have? About 1/10 of these things. What works in my favour outside a bigoted community is an actual impediment within one.

3. Fairness of treatment

This is so complicated in real life, but it comes down to “If you have two incidents at an event, are they being treated using the same set of values and the same approach/process and are all people involved in them being treated with equal fairness.” This includes communication about the incident. It’s so very personal at the moment that I’m not going to give an example, because it’s a bit triggery. Triggers are things to be avoided.

4. Being included

Who is at a social event and why? How are they treated? There are some once-close-friends who I will not dine with any longer because they only include me when they want to prove they’re not bigots and when I am at the same table as them they talk down at me. I’m only allowed to speak when spoken to. I have to respect the social order.

Or, from the other direction, is there someone who is continually left out even though they technically belong in a particular group? Are there events that don’t include this one person time after time? And, if asked, do the orgnaisers simply assume someone has asked them? Additionally, if the person is disabled, does anyone even both to ask “What do you need us to do so that we can include you?” or is the assumption made early on that it’s easier to invite everyone and expect that they won’t be able to come.

This kind of thing is very badly recognised and handled in Australia because we don’t like to admit we do it.

5. When specific racist/problematic things occur, how those in charge react?

When there is hate mail or stones or Molotov cocktails or something else, how do the people in charge handle it? For years I was the go-to person for advice on these things. Now I’m told socially, “Look, antisemitic event in Canberra. You should know.” It’s done with apparent sympathy, but no support, and no sense of how I may feel to be told of a Hitler salute and that it was handled with less effort than the amount taken to deal with issues where I was seen as the guilty party. And that’s the caring people. It’s a red flag that the allies only see themselves as allies. This relates to people from majority background, or some other minorities. It also includes people who come from minority backgrounds but do not have the life experience to handle problems for others from that background, but who think that they do – this is a very sticky and thorny area. All of these people can unintentionally compound a problem. It’s also a red flag that the wider community accepts something.

There is one very difficult area here. I said that it was a very sticky and thorny area in the previous paragraph. What is this sticky and thorny area? Passing: ie it includes people from the same minority background who can ‘pass.’ Some of us have knowledge about handling difficult issues, and some do not. Just because someone from a minority passes, doesn’t mean they have the knowledge to make wise decisions… and it doesn’t mean they don’t have this knowledge. It depends so much on the individual.

If I weren’t public, for example, about being Jewish, I could publicly skip all the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism and pass as white in Australia. It wouldn’t negate my knowledge, and I was brought up traditionally and so have a fair amount of that knowledge, and my historical knowledge is mostly relating to Europe, which deepens my understanding. I know stuff, in other words, and can give good advice if asked. (The red flag for me is who rushes into things without asking, but that is an offshoot of 2 – experts who are not seen as experts because they are being othered so their expertise is not acknowledged.)

A very well-known group that has ‘passed’ is those Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews who went into hiding for their own safety. Many Sephardi Jews were killed after Inquisitional interrogation brought out that they ate Jewish-style eggs, or salad on Saturday afternoon ie that they hadn’t relinquished all Jewish culture. Some remained Jewish in secret and a few of them are emerging into the Jewish world now. Most converted to Christianity or Islam and remained safe but lost hundreds of years of heritage.

For anyone who can pass, it can be simply not telling people about your private life and that can save you from so many mean places. I choose not to hide, and these last two years I’ve questioned my own wisdom in making that choice. Anyone who cannot hide, of course, has to deal with a lot more garbage than those of us who can and those of us who do. How those in charge of a place or an event react to problems hurts those who cannot and those who will not hide their minority identity consistently and often.

This is not even close to a complete analysis. It’s based on my experiences, mostly over the past year. There are bigger and much better analyses. The first place I send people who want to get a handle on this is https://nyupress.org/9781479840236/white-christian-privilege/ While Joshi’s book is about the US, the first three chapters in particular apply to Australia. Why is this so important? Many of the people who cause such problems have good intent and are otherwise nice people. They don’t, however, have a solid way of measuring their world view, understanding how it affects their thoughts and actions, and using understanding to handle bigotry. The work is often given to those who are bigoted against, which means that the experts are also the ones who need support. It means, also that those who have to deal with all these things in their everyday have to be willing to take on, as voluntary work, helping privileged people. Step one is understanding, and Joshi’s work is the first step in the path to that. Just the first step. Right now, I really wish more people in my home town would take that first step.

Ironically, I sued to teach these subjects to public servants. I was thrown out of that job without notice and without even a letter saying “Sorry we’re losing you after 20 years.” I found out I’d lost the job because of a notice saying “Your email account is being cancelled.” Manifestations of prejudice are varied and some can only be handled by walking away.

On the Bookish Life

I spend two hours a day exercising. This will not make me slender or muscular or fit or fabulous. It will, however, enable me to get out of bed safely, to walk up the street, to cook, to work. On a bad day, I do at least a half hour. On a good day, whenever I need even a 3 minute pause in work, I do stretches. Some bodies require greater effort than others to do the everyday. Mine is one of them. Every day I do these exercises means less pain the next day. Each day I give in and stay sitting at the computer or the television or talking on the phone or lying in bed means that the next day will be … not good.

Why am I telling you this? I increasingly notice a problem with the way people who have invisible disabilities are treated. We need to talk about it. A blogpost is a good way of beginning a conversation when one is limited of movement. This is that post.

I use a walking stick mainly so that the rest of the world can see that I’m not capable of the things they think I ought to do. I can’t run a 100 metres at breakneck speed the way I did as a teen. On a bad day, even walking to the bus is a vast endeavour and it really helps when the bus doesn’t stop 100 metres away from the bus stop. It takes me time and effort to walk that 100 metres and… some buses don’t want to wait that long. If the driver can see the effort by looking at the walking stick, then they will stop where I’m waiting and both the bus driver and myself are happier.

Today I wish that the walking stick principle applied to my letterbox. It was bitterly cold this morning and I entirely understand the post office delivery person wanting to move as quickly as possible, but the card they left me in lieu of ringing my doorbell means I have to walk for over a kilometre to retrieve a parcel. Then I have to walk back again.

The walking stick is a critical piece of equipment, and so are the exercises. I shall do them assiduously every day until I’m able to walk up the street and get that parcel.

Every day is a set of calculations. Can I do this today? What do I need to do in order to be able to that the day after tomorrow? The more I exercise the fewer of these computations I have to make. The more I am willing to label myself as visibly disabled, the more condescending many people are, and the more I am actually able to do stuff.

I don’t get many face to face gigs any more. My writing income is significantly reduced as a result. This is rather annoying side effect of the walking stick announcement. So many organisers begin asking the most physically capable people on their lists for their events. The most physically capable of us get the work, they get the income and they get the book sales. I am still asked for online gigs (sometimes even with money attached!), but face to face in my own locality? Rarely.

It’s not that people hate me. Audiences, in fact, really like me. It’s that a lot of us are described as ‘difficult’ because we can’t do all the things, all the time. My local bookshop made up excuses when I asked them for a book launch two years ago. My audiences are good and my sales are good with those audiences (in one case there were 83 people and all the books sold out within ten minutes) but the bookshop (and writers’ centres, and community centres, and a lot of local community groups) like to organise events with someone who will come to meetings face to face. If you can’t, but can still come to the event, it’s considered not good enough. This is especially true for free events. If I’m willing to give my time but not able to meet all the other demands (“Come in today for a meeting, please”, “Can we do this online?” “No, not really. Besides, you’re local. It’s no effort for you.”) … I’m not asked again.

This is interesting for other reasons. One of the booksellers in question actually told me I should accept reduced royalties because the 50% of the cover price they got wasn’t enough for all their overheads. They were being paid for the function in question: I was not. The function promoted my books and writers are simply expected to work without pay for the vast majority of promotional events. Without pay and usually without meals. If the book launch is during a meal time, I’ve been asked to cook food for the audience, but I can’t eat myself because … it’s a performance and I need to be available to answer questions and explain the book and… all the things.

The disabilities are not the only problem then. The heart of the matter is that writers are expected to have day jobs or other sources of income. Most people see us as kind of serious amateurs, rather than as professionals.

This changes the way we do things. For me, there’s a rather special side effect given by these experiences. Since I worked out why my local income was way less than it should be and my local presence is way less than it should be, I can’t buy all the books I want. I simply don’t have the money. I prioritise what I buy. Where there are two books I want to read and I can only afford one, I will buy the one where the writer faces similar obstacles to me. Or where the writer is from a country where they have to fight an entirely different range of obstacles.

There is a really good side to all of this: my book collection sparkles with exciting work by authors who ought to be well known but are not.

I need to get back to those book posts and introduce you to some of them!

The Rules of Writing

All genres of writing have their rules. For example, you can’t put a spaceship in literary fiction (though Michael Chabon could probably get away with it).

In science fiction, one of the rules is that you can’t write about writers.

Some people take this rule very literally. I once wrote a story about a freelance writer in a gig economy who needed to go from Washington, D.C., to Virginia at a time when passports were required between states. Hers had expired, so she had to cross illegally.

(Once again I realize that a story that I never spent much time submitting was ahead of its time and now is so obvious that it doesn’t seem prescient. I mean, we’re now living in a time where states are purporting to prevent their residents from traveling to other states for health care, not to mention one with an economy built on gig work.)

But back to the subject of fiction rules. One of the criticisms I got from my writers group was that it was about a writer and that wasn’t acceptable.

But that’s not what the rule means, really. There’s no reason your character can’t be a writer. The purpose of the rule is to keep science fiction writers from producing the navel gazing stories that revolve around writing.

There are any number of exceedingly boring literary stories and even novels that revolve around editorial assistants who are working on a novel and having an affair with their much older editor boss.

Others focus on creative writing professors in minor colleges and their inability to write and their affairs with their students.

This is the kind of fiction you get when a writer takes that major writing instruction “write what you know” literally. And this is the kind of fiction that the rule against writing about writers is trying to avoid.

I am thinking about this because I just read a couple of positive reviews in The New York Times of books that I can’t imagine being of interest to anyone at all. Perhaps there is a small subset of writers who want to read books about aging writers who can’t produce anything and younger writers who are trying to get some dirt on them to feed their own writing. Continue reading “The Rules of Writing”

Parental Archeology

In the annals of 1950s cheesy paperback covers, surely Man of the World should feature somewhere. The sell line (“He wanted her for things money couldn’t buy”) drips innuendo, without actually saying anything. The babe on the cover is sultry. The promise that it’s “complete and unabridged” suggests that there are naughty bits that a more timid publisher might have expurgated. I found nothing that by current standards would be considered naughty.

Growing up, this book was among the hundreds of paperbacks from the 50s and 60s that lined the walls in my parents’ house. I read a lot of them, but only recently have I tried to read this one. There’s a reason for that: is is supposedly based on my parents’ courtship.

My father was a graphic designer working for David Selznick in Hollywood when my mother came to interview for a secretarial job. I don’t know that she was actually his secretary (by the time I wanted to ask questions, my parents’ relationship had degraded to the point where neither of them wanted to talk about it) but she caught his eye. And within a year or so both of them had relocated to New York City, and my mother was working as a secretary to film critic Stanley Kauffmann, who (according to family lore) had a crush on my mother. And somehow Stanley decided to make Mom (and therefore Dad) the centerpiece of his new novel. So I had to go digging through it, looking for clues about these people before I knew them. An archeological dig, as it were.

Reading this book is weird. I’m not a big fan of mid-20th century male-angst fiction (which is how I would classify this book). But every now and then there is a sentence or a description that makes me sit up and think Oh My God: These Are My Parents. 

When my parents met my father was married to a woman named Kit, who was a model, Vogue Magazine beautiful, and apparently a… difficult person. According to the novel, the protagonists (Nick and Delia) have a rather chaste thing going on–she lives with her mother, as my mother did–and they go to the movies or out to dinner. Early on in the book she decides this is going nowhere, and moves to New York. Okay, so far it jibes with family lore. My mother moved to New York and lived in a walk-up over a men’s haberdashery across 6th Avenue from the Women’s House of Detention on 9th Street. My father moved back to New York, having split with the beautiful Kit. He had an apartment-and-studio on 11th Street. Somehow they got back together. 

There are the bones of that story in the book (I will confess I’ve read about half of it and only skimmed the rest). It’s the details–particularly about Delia–that are so startling, that hit me with the force of accuracy, even when it was something I’d never considered before.  Here’s one:

With one letter he dictated, he asked her to enclose a memo that his former secretary had typed before she left, Delia retyped the memo.

“Why?” he asked. “What was wrong with it?”

“I–I’m sorry,” she said, and shrugged. She frequently stuttered when she was the least bit disturbed. “I–I know she was your secretary and very nice and so on, but I just don’t call that good typing.”

“Why not?”

“L-look at the spacing. It’s spotty. And some words lighter than others. Like there.”

“You know that you’re slightly nuts?”

“I can’t help it. I like it to look nice.”

And my first thought, after slightly nuts? was Holy crap, that’s my mother, the woman who could type 105 words a minute on a Remington manual typewriter. The woman who was given raise after raise at Bantam books, because they wanted her to keep doing secretarial work because she was so damned good at it. 

The bits where I recognize my father are less startling, but ring almost as true (Kauffmann didn’t have a crush on my father, after all). I wish I’d read this book decades ago, when it was still possible to ask my parents about some of it. Are any of the plot details–beyond the ones I’ve related above–remotely accurate? I’m not certain I would have gotten much out of them–they really didn’t talk about their early relationship even before that relationship started shredding. But with this book as a starting point I could have asked some questions.

My mother died in 1986; my father died in 2011. No matter how carefully I comb through the pages of Man of the World, I’m not going to know the truths about their early years. And yet I keep paging through, looking for clues.

 

Frost and Games

I want to complain about the cold again. When frost comes early, as it has this year, I want to complain until it goes away, which will probably be around August. It’s not that I dislike the cold, it’s that the cold frolics frivolously with my chronic illnesses. I used to go to work early purely to crunch the frost underfoot on my way in. That was my twenties, and this is my sixties and it’s as if I’m two different people.

My new self brings some surprises. Someone was respectful to me today. I kept looking around to see if they were talking to someone else, but there was no-one else there. I could get used to respectful.

The other thing I noticed today is that I didn’t instantly want to write a chapter of novel full of crunchy frost and chill air. I used to love taking the weather and telling it strictly to march alongside a novel, keeping my characters and their life struggles company. I used a very hot summer to bring magic ants into Elizabeth/Lizzie/Liz’s everyday in Ms Cellophane and also to make a memorable Christmas. I needed help to make a memorable Christmas because I’m not that good at Christmas.

I still bring weather into my fiction. I love weather and it’s fun to use it to shape moods. The opening of The Green Children Help Out has London weather. That rain isn’t critical to the story, but it helps me remember that most of the story is set in a wetter country than my own. It’s dry outside, and around zero degrees Celsius. We’ve been given a sheep graziers’ warning (spellcheck wants to change this to “a sheep braziers’ warning” or, alternately, to a “sheep grenadiers’ warning” – Spellcheck is quite obviously not Australian), which is a common weather alert up here in sheep country. Although, to be honest, the town I live in has more kangaroos than sheep.

All national capitals should have more kangaroos than sheep. Washington DC would be far more entertaining with mobs of ‘roos staring at the tourists and politicians and public servants. When a mob stares, every single one of them takes the same pose and only their heads move until you’re past. That’s my experience, anyhow.

One Christmas (since it’s cold it must be Christmas – I get this message from films set in the northern hemisphere) we had a work celebration at the restaurant next to the golf course with its full wall of floor to ceiling windows to bring the green into the dining room. We were all a bit drunk by dusk, because, of course, real Christmas is in midsummer. At dusk (again, of course, this is normal in civilised countries) all the kangaroos and wallabies came down and stared at us through the never-ending windows. One group of ‘roos did the mob stare. Drunk public servants wearing silly Christmas hats stared right back.

The older I get the more daft stories I collect. I tell my favourites over and over again. Sometimes I put them in my novels. My novels are littered with tellable moments.

For a full decade I asked readers to guess which moments in the contemporary novels were the real ones. They never guessed correctly.

I found myself blinking in stupid surprise when a reader told me, very seriously, that the real-life incident in Ms Cellophane was me swimming naked in the Murrumbidgee and getting arrested for it. I was wondering how to explain that I’m not very bold… and that I cannot swim. I blinked even more energetically when someone explained to me very sincerely that the series of events at Parliament House in The Wizardry of Jewish Women was obviously fabricated. I fictionalised it enough so that I wasn’t precisely representing the real people, but the events happened. As I love telling people, it’s just as well I fictionalised, given what happened to one of the people whose character I changed. Although I also love explaining to people that if you’re a politician and get a bit grumpy at lobbyists who want to talk, be very careful that none of them write fiction.

For those of you who haven’t played this game before and would like to guess a real incident from one of my novels, go for it. If you’re right, I’ll send you an unpublished short story so that you get something to read before it enters the big world.

Or you could tell me why I was happy to explain that yes, I once caused a Deputy Prime Minister to fall down a mountain (not at all intentionally, I assure you!) but am glad I rarely see politicians these days, because the original person I based a character on is not someone I really want to be introduced to with the words, “This is that writer who put you in that novel.” Guessing correctly who the politician is will also get you a look at the short story. I’ll give you a hint: you don’t need to know a great deal about Australian politics. You do have to occasionally read the news.

What I do in winter these days then is play mind-games. The first three correct answers this week get a sneak preview of a short story. If you don’t want people to see your answers, you can find me on social media and let me know privately. If anyone plays, then I’ll decide if the short story will contain weather.

World-Building, Dying, and the Memory Lane of Comfort Foods

I wrote this in 2013, while taking care of my best friend as she died from ovarian cancer. From time to time, I want to be reminded of the wisdom that arises in times of crisis.

 

The brochure from hospice inform me that as a dying person’s body winds down, appetite becomes erratic and diminishes. The sense of taste changes so that formerly favorite foods are no longer appealing. The person eats less when they do eat.  Finally, many dying people refuse all food. This can be complicated because throughout human cultures, offering food is a way of expressing love. The dying person may continue to eat in order to please a loved one, but in the end the demands of the body prevail.

Besides nourishing our bodies, sometimes past the point of health and into diet-related diseases, food is laden with symbolic meaning. We celebrate with festive meals; we soothe ourselves with favorite treats from our childhood; we give candy to our sweethearts. Even the term “sweetheart” refers to sweetness, a taste, as do “honey” and other endearments. Taste and smell are the most basic, “primitive” senses, so our expressions of care go zing! right into the oldest portions of the brain.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building is creating different cuisines for each culture or social class, ethnic group or family. While it may be true that just about every cuisine has some version of pancake-rolled-around-filling, stew modeled on the canned stuff in American supermarkets shouts “generic fantasy!”

Just as every family seems to have their own special recipe for spaghetti sauce or meatloaf, you can devise variations on the same dish. Sometimes these variations might reflect notions about what is suitable food for people of different ages, different social status, or even genders (“manly meals” or “kiddy food” or salads-are-for-women). Even within these variations, not everyone has the same taste. Some may be innate (how cilantro tastes is genetically determined), or influenced by personal history (travel, associations with significant events or relationships) and health status.

Which brings me again to caring for a terminally ill friend, in particular providing meals for her. She jokes about taking a trip down the memory lane of the foods she’s enjoyed during her life. Her tastes have become nostalgic, erratic to the point of whimsical, but fleeting. Some of the things she’s asked for are cream of mushroom soup, watermelon, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, buttermilk biscuits from scratch (which I do know how to make), hot dogs with sauerkraut, salami, and vanilla ice cream with lemon sorbet for breakfast. No pickles with the ice cream, at least not yet, although she jokes about the food cravings of pregnancy. Life is indeed uncertain, so she eats dessert first.

The food comes with memories, of course. “Do you remember the time we ate this when we were students and…” or “I made this recipe while horse camping on Mt. Hood…” or “my father used to cook this for a special occasion…” I think the same is true for everyone, but the awareness that time is limited, that the number of times you will eat this dish or reminisce over the adventures that once accompanied it are not limitless, adds a special poignancy. As my friend’s appetite wanes, she eats less in amount and frequency. There’s a shift from the fullness of having eaten to the sensory pleasure of eating to the anticipation, the idea of that particular food. If there is a sense of re-visiting the past – comfort and celebration, adventure and sharing – there is also a gradual farewell.

Easter in 1903 and the importance of listening

Hot cross buns are being promoted all over the place right now, which means that Easter looms. I say ‘looms’ because Easter holds an amount of darkness for me. My family mostly doesn’t talk about it, but it is the moment when my family was told by its patriarch to flee. “Children, run!” he said (but in Yiddish).

I think it’s time we talked about this.

My great-great-grandfather was one of the 500 people hurt (with intent, with malice, with much antisemitism) in the Kishinev pogrom. I don’t know what other damage was done to the family. All I know about it was that he was hurt and saw the writing on the wall for Jews in his home town and that he told his children to run.

The anniversary this year is just before Easter. The pogrom was intentionally during Easter. It’s an historical thing in the Christian world, to hurt Jews on Christian festivals. This is why I strongly suggest that those who want Jews to have Christmas trees or eat hot cross buns should not press it if they meet “I don’t do this things”. You may be touching on hurtful ground if you’re talking to someone who still has that memory of the pain. Also, do not ask us, “Do you remember exactly how your family got hurt on Easter/Christmas?” I’m telling you here, about my family. Let the story of how my family fled across the world because it was unsafe to be home, during Easter save other Jews from that question.

The blood libel played a part in the pogrom, but it was a lot more than that. Nearly half of Kishinev was Jewish, so it wasn’t a small minority being hated by the majority. It was literally people saying, “Let us destroy half our neighbours.”

The blood libel was an excuse. False accusations of murder of a Christian child.

As I interpret it, the pogrom was organised with the help of a newspaper and in a somewhat similar way to the January 6 event in the modern US. I’m reliant on translations and everything hurts to read, because my family was damaged. So… I suggest you read about it. I’ll have links shortly, and one of those links leads to a book on the subject. One day I must obtain that book and read it and understand … today is not that day.

Ironically, the first time I heard about the whole linking of Jews to blood thing was during Passover (near Easter, but that year, not quite the same days) when I was in primary school. I’d brought extra unleavened bread into school because some other children like to try things and assuaging curiosity has been, for me, a good way of reducing the antisemitism.

One child shouted at me, “I can’t eat that, it’s got the blood of babies in it.” I tried explaining kashruth because if one understands kashruth then one understands just how offensive the ‘Jews drink the blood of babies’ statement is. It goes against so much of who we are. That didn’t help

The next day, I brought the rest of the box of matzah in and ask the other child to read the ingredients.

“Flour, water, salt.”

“Which of those is babies’ blood?” I asked. She tentatively nibbled a bit and agreed there was no blood in it and lo, for the rest of primary school I was safe from that particular accusation. To replace the blood of babies, the group she mixed in all decided that I had personally killed Jesus. At age nine. They told me so.

Being a science fiction person already, I asked if that meant I invented a time machine. They were flummoxed and refused to let me play with them. I was flummoxed and started dreaming of things I could do with a time machine. This is when I knew for a fact history was going to be part of my future. And that murdering people was not something I wanted to do. Ever.

Anyhow, back to the 1903 pogrom that destroyed my family’s very middle class life in a major city on the other side of the world…

Here’s a summary. I chose this one because the man in the white hat in the top picture, looks very like one of my uncles: https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-a-small-pogrom-in-russia-changed-the-course-of-history/

It was important historically, as this article suggests. Japan had already begun its road into imperialism, but the inefficacy of the Russian leaders in preventing the pogrom led it to think about the rules of war in unexpected ways. To me, this also suggests that Pearl Harbour was part of a pattern: https://besacenter.org/kishinev-pogrom-russia-japan/

Why am I talking about it now? Because I offered to answer questions about antisemitism in a couple of for a now that it’s getting bad again. I want to do my bit to make it hurt less.

This is why.

I am mostly of refugee descent. At the heart of the way I view the world is always being told that I’m an outsider, that I don’t have full human rights, that I don’t belong.

This has taught me that I need to be public about antisemitism. I need to talk with people about it, even if it gives me pain.

If someone says they hurt because of prejudice, listen to them and hear what they’re saying. Then do some homework before explaining things back to them, trying to solve problems, or telling them someone else hurts more. All of today’s post is about the reason just one branch of my family fled. It’s fine to take learning about these things one step at a time. What is not fine is ignoring or explaining back or assuming we are at fault for the bigotry of others.

This whole post was triggered by it being Easter soon, and by someone telling me that I hadn’t factored in other bigotry when I was specifically talking about antisemitism.

It’s one of those years. I’ve had them before, but… they exhaust me on so many levels. Be gentle to anyone from a minority background. Jews are the canary in the bigotry coalmine. If we’re hurting, you can guarantee the bigots are out in force and attacking other people as well. If you can’t think of anything you can do that will help, try listening. Listening and hearing are such big gifts.

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.