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.

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”

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?

Fight the (Sedative) Power

The Author, aged 1. Note cheerful gape.

Until I was about five, I could not breathe through my nose. Literally. If I tried to hum I would run out of air and have to gulp for breath before I turned blue and fell over. I had that expression common to the adenoidally-impaired: a sort of gape that might have been cute on a five year old, but makes you look stupid at 6. My adenoids and tonsils were so persistently swollen that the only thing to do was to yank them.

Me being, even then, me, I was hugely excited about this. Going to the hospital and staying over night. An operation! Whee! So the day of the event I was delivered to the hospital first thing in the morning, checked in and dressed in hospital togs, and given a sedative by suppository (I was not thrilled by this–no one had said anything about having things shoved up my butt, but I was an easy-going child, and it was all so exciting!).

It was so exciting, in fact, that when the sedative began to do its job, I fought it off.  Continue reading “Fight the (Sedative) Power”

Police Brutality and How My Jury Found For a Black Plaintiff

As I write this, the Derek  Chauvin trial is still under way, another Black man has been shot by law enforcement, and a Black Army officer has been brutalized and his life threatened. As outraged and saddened as I am by these heinous events, I also remember a time when I served as a juror on a civil trial that pitted law enforcement against a Black victim. This was many years ago, a time before Black Lives Matter, a time when it was assumed that police actions, no matter how brutal, were acceptable and justified. The case received no notice. It made no difference, except to me and, I hope, the plaintiff. But I think it’s worth telling now.

The events, as I remember as related in the course of the trial, were that two law enforcement officers stopped a car for a broken tail light. It was at night in a fairly well-to-do area. The driver was a young Black man. In the course of the traffic stop, the officers beat him so badly as to leave him with permanent injuries and needing years of recovery. The officers would have had us, the jury, believe that their actions were necessary. The plaintiff asserted that he posed no threat and offered no resistance.

The two officers were white, and they were at least six feet tall, muscular, and clearly fit. The Black man was small, about my size (I was 5’3”), lightly built, well-spoken, a professional. As the testimony proceeded, I found myself more and more appalled by what happened, and more incredulous that two trained officers could not have found a non-violent way of managing a routine traffic stop.

After we heard the testimony, we were instructed as to the law that we must follow, which required that the officers have malicious intent, or something to that effect. We wrestled with the language of the law and with how to interpret it in light of the events. For myself, my conscience and my sense of what is right and just were far more compelling. It was luminously clear to me that the plaintiff had been horribly beaten for no other reason than being a Black man. That the officers, who were supposed to act in a responsible, fair manner, were guilty of a gross abuse of power. Through the deliberations, I argued passionately for justice as I saw it. Some of my fellow jurors were already of my opinion, others were persuaded by my arguments, and a few insisted the case did not fulfill the letter of the law and the officers were justified.

In the end, however, we found for the plaintiff. (A civil trial does not require a unanimous vote.) The jury did not award him everything he asked. There were no punitive fines, but reimbursement of medical expenses and, if memory serves, a portion of lost income. After the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney said she was not able to tell us before, but the award of just a single penny in a trial of this sort meant the plaintiff could now take the case to Federal court for civil rights violations (or a similar next move—I may be fuzzy on the exact details). I will never forget the look on the Black plaintiff’s face after we delivered our verdict. I don’t know if was hope or amazement or relief. In that moment, I felt myself part of something greater: a very small step toward justice.

 

There is more to this story, a post-script as it were. The judge thanked us for our service and then advised us to leave the area as soon as possible. The year was 1992. The jury in the Rodney King case was about to deliver their verdict, and protests were expected. Outside the court house, the streets were almost deserted except for police vehicles. My usual bus was not running because the route had been blocked. Eventually I made my way home on another bus, watching the fires from the freeway.

I’d like to think that what I did, that infinitesimal step towards a more just society, made a difference. The temptation, though, is to become discouraged and stop trying. I’ve learned since that giving up is a luxury born of white privilege. My Black friends don’t get to take a vacation from racism because it’s difficult or terrifying. Today, almost 30 years later, white law enforcement officers are still brutalizing Black people.

I am reminded of a teaching in my own tradition, (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, part of the Talmud), attributed to first century rabbi Tarfon:

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21)

Let us persist, then, and accomplish what we are able, knowing that the next generation will take up the task after us.

 

Tea and Silence

The past year has brought many changes to our lives. Almost everyone I know has let go of something that was no longer valid in their life. So have I, and I expect this will continue. We will emerge from the isolation we’ve endured (some of us more comfortably than others – I’ll get to that in a minute), but we will not go back to the way life was before. Instead, we will go forward.

For me, sheltering at home did not make a huge difference. As a writer, I already worked at home. I’m an introvert, so I don’t mind isolation. The biggest difference was that my spouse began to work at home also, and this has now become permanent for everyone at his company who used to commute to an office building. That office, we recently learned, will not reopen. My spouse will continue to work in his home office across the hall from mine. The change, for me, meant loss of alone time. As an introvert, I treasure alone time.

That’s why I’m grateful for my daily practice of tea and silence. Each morning, I feed the cat, then make myself a pot of tea and sit in the sun room with it. The first cup I drink while gazing out the windows at the morning sky, the trees, the birds, and the clouds. This connection with the natural world around me is so important to me – it sets the tone for my day. It reminds me of the world of which I am a part.

The cat comes and sits in my lap. I write in my journal, I usually color a bit (I decorate my journal with art), and I often write a note to a friend. Most days I spend about an hour with tea and silence, though it could be as little as fifteen minutes. I always conclude my writing with a statement of gratitude, and I spend a few minutes in meditation.

This is a practice I will not be giving up. It has helped me cope with the loss of alone time, and with the stresses and uncertainty of the pandemic. I recommend it to anyone who wants to start their day with a moment of quiet, rather than immediately jumping into activity.

 

Living History: Schools and Bathrooms

I’ve been working on a short story that is set in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964 and involves the Freedom Summer actions that were part of the Civil Rights Movement. When my writer’s group critiqued an early draft, one person asked me, “Who are you writing this for?”

She went on to explain that if I was aiming the story at people my age, that is, people who remember that time, the amount of explanation I had was fine. But if I wanted a broader audience — a younger audience —I should put in more detail about what things were like in Mississippi (and the United States as a whole) in 1964.

That comment made me think not just about the story, but about the many things that I know a lot about because I lived through them, whether personally or because they were major news, things that I think of as “just life” but that are, in fact, now part of history.

I am a Boomer, part of the leading edge of that very large generation of people born in the years after World War II when so many people, at least in the U.S. and probably in many other parts of the world, were desperate for a return to some kind of normal.

Like many U.S. folks of my generation, I had the experience of going through life as part of the largest cohort anyone had ever seen. The U.S. population has more than doubled in my lifetime; the world population has tripled. The post-war baby boom set that in motion.

My kindergarten class had 60 kids and two teachers; it met half a day for one semester so that they could offer kindergarten to all the kids whose families wanted it. My first grade class had 45 kids and the teacher was just out of college. Fortunately, she was a born teacher. Continue reading “Living History: Schools and Bathrooms”

Raised in a Barn: A Heist

When I was a kid we went from our home in New York City to our work-in-progress barn in Massachusetts virtually every weekend. Among other things, this meant that my brother and I got very good at packing. My father had a system for packing, which meant we had packing lessons and were supervised by my father until he was certain that we could be trusted to follow the protocol. All clothes were to be folded and then rolled into neat tubes which could then be stacked in our brightly colored duffels (mine pink, my brother’s, blue). This allowed one to pack an extraordinary amount of stuff–far more than one generally needed for a two-day weekend.

In addition to the duffels, routine weekend luggage included my parents’ suitcase, whatever luggage weekend guests were bringing, and an object that we called the Meat Bag. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: A Heist”

Family History on St. Patrick’s Day

I went out to run an errand on Wednesday and spotted someone walking along wearing a green sweater, green skirt, and green tights. None of them were precisely the same shade of green, nor did they blend in a completely harmonious manner, but they did convey a brazen greenness.

That’s when I realized that, even though I knew it was St. Patrick’s Day, I was not wearing anything green. Fortunately, I was also not wearing anything orange. This is important among those of us who can trace some of their heritage back to the Irish Diaspora.

My Irish ancestors were not Orangemen. My great-great grandfather, Florence McCarthy, followed his brother Dennis to the States in about 1850. They were McCarthys from County Cork.

My grandmother Omega was devoted to her grandfather. He named her — he was a scholar of classics (like my nephew, his great-great-great grandson) and taught Latin and Greek before taking a job with the railroad.

My grandmother was the only person I knew growing up who despised the English. I may have picked up her distaste from some discussion about the coronation of Elizabeth II, though I would have been a tiny child then, but at any rate it was very plain. Continue reading “Family History on St. Patrick’s Day”

In Praise of Not-Mothers

My mother and me, 1963.

My mother and I had a somewhat fraught relationship. She was beautiful and smart and funny, and troubled (I have entirely unscientifically diagnosed an anxiety-depression disorder with a touch of OCD), and as the only girl in the family I was “hers” in the way that my brother was my father’s. Which is not to say that my Dad and I weren’t close–it was more that I was the person she reached for–and as my parents’ relationship foundered, she reached for me a lot.

Flash forward: I’m an adult and I have kids, and our goal, my husband’s and mine, was to Make New Mistakes. On the theory that making mistakes while raising children is unavoidable, even with all the love in the world. Goals are great, but not always achievable. So how did we not replicate the same unintended mistakes our parents (and in particular my mother) made?

The flippant-but-hot-untrue answer: a good deal of pre-children therapy on both our parts. But equally true: I was lucky enough to find a succession of not-mothers, women who modeled adult womanhood for me in an un-fraught way, and welcomed me to it. Continue reading “In Praise of Not-Mothers”