Kidstock and Mr. Romantic

Black and White photo of four screens and 500,000 people on the Great Lawn
Photo: Daniel Hulshizer/Associated Press

When you have small children you do things with them. At least we did. This is how, 29 years ago, we (including two kindergarteners) wound up in Central Park in New York City, on a June afternoon, waiting for the premiere of the Disney animated film Pocahontas.

The event was much heralded, and a month or so before the event there was a lottery for tickets. I never win lotteries, but somehow we won this one. We received four tickets, and invited S, one of my daughter’s besties. Came the day, we packed up food and drink and blankets and umbrellas (drizzle threatened for a brief while) and jackets and… all the myriad things you wind up carrying around when you have children. And about 2pm, along with 100,000 of our fellow parents-and-kids, we hied ourselves to Central Park to stake a claim to a bit of ground to call our own among the sea of parents and small children on the Great Lawn. “My God,” my husband said as we were orienting ourselves (four screens! concession stands! phalanxes of port-a-potties! youthful humanity as far as the treeline!) “It’s Kidstock!” 

The movie could not start until dark, but this whole thing was being produced (massively, lavishly) by Disney, and if there is one thing that Disney excels at, it is moving people while keeping them just entertained enough that they don’t riot. Especially children. Once we had found ourselves a small holding, one of us (probably my husband) took the girls to reconnoiter. There were various entertainments offered on each of the four stages: singers and appearances by Disney Channel stars and so forth. But mostly our girls chattered and played on our small patch of turf. People we knew passed by on their way to find their own patch of turf. And then the family of A, a boy in the girls’ kindergarten class, came by. We scootched over so they could establish a beachhead adjacent to ours: one of the best tactics of parenting is strength in numbers. It’s much easier to sit on a lawn among 100,000 people if there are four adults watching 3 kids, and you can take turns paying attention.

The day stretched on. Food was consumed. Strolls around to stretch legs and alleviate boredom were taken. A Pocahontas doll was scored for each of the girls. The question “but when will it start” was asked many times. As hard as it is to believe now, this was before smart phones, so instead of a sea of tiny heads bent over screens it was a sea of seething childhood, wiggling and giggling and wishing the sun would set already. And we (Danny and I) began to notice a fascinating bit of kid behavior going on between the three five-year-olds. First, a note about my daughter Jules. She was a dreamy, highly imaginative kid into make-believe and stories. One of the things she did not go in for was the crushes that some kindergarteners indulged in. Her friend S, on the other hand, was the kind of small girl who watched the relationships around her, hawklike, and knew who in the class “liked” whom. S was a pretty girl and used, frankly, to being treated that way; she was always watching the people around her, angling for position. Then there was A, or as his mother referred to him, Mr. Romantic, a sunny, affectionate kid. And Jules was… clueless.

At last the movie starts. The music swells. We settle in to watch. But I kept getting distracted by the little drama that is playing out on our blanket. See, A sort of snuggles up to Jules–whether he meant it romantically or just felt comfortable with her, I don’t know. S, seeing this, sidles over to A’s other side, presenting herself to be snuggled. A does not oblige. S is clearly frustrated by his lack of interest. Meanwhile, Jules is sitting there, eyes on the screen, riveted to the story. Through the 80 minutes of the movie A is watches the movie and occasionally looks at Jules. S watches the movie but is distracted by A’s apparent preference for Jules over herself, and gets antsy and fidgety. Jules is oblivious.

The worst part of the whole experience was, of course, getting packed up and home. The 100,000 people who had arrived over the course of the afternoon now all wanted to be gone and home at the same time. A and his parents said good night and vanished in their own direction. Danny and I packed up our belongings, put jackets on the girls and joined the clog of people heading toward the exits and the West Side. I don’t remember whether we delivered S to her parents or they picked her up from us. I do recall an initial frostiness emanating from S, which I think baffled Jules–suddenly her friend was mad at her, but why? Eventually S was worn down by Jules’s cheery rhapsodies about the movie (“what was your favorite part?”) and her frostiness dissipated. They stayed friends for several years, until time and changes in schools did what the attentions of Mr. Romantic, on a starry New York City night, could not.

Raised in a Barn: Marmalade

Square jar filled with orange marmalade
Photo: WikiMedia Commons

I swear I’ve told this story before, but can find no evidence of it anywhere. So.

When I was in my 20s, the daughter of an old family friend asked me if she could get married at my parents’ house. She asked me before she asked my parents 1) because it was a virtual certainty that my father, who loved parties, would say yes, and 2) she wanted to make sure that this would not put my nose out of joint, me being the Household Daughter and at that point unmarried and sans prospects. I appreciated her thoughtfulness, but said of course she could. The Barn was a terrific place for parties, and a wedding seemed like an all-around good use of the place. 

The wedding was catered, and it was my father’s first time having Others–not family or guests under supervision–take over the kitchen (my mother had pretty much ceded the kitchen to my father at this point). So there was a wedding, with many people bustling about in the kitchen, and there was much rejoicing. At the end of the rejoicing bride, groom, and guests decamped, the caterers cleaned up, and the Barn was much as usual.

It was at that point–about 6pm–that I discovered a 30-gallon plastic trash bag, half filled with sliced mixed citrus fruit, tucked under the kitchen island. There had been a plan for sangria, apparently, which got forgotten in the scrum. My father, peering into the depths of the plastic bag, lamented the waste of all that fruit. “There must be something we could do with it.”

I should have known better, but offhandedly said that we could make marmalade with some of it (it was an awful lot of fruit). “Great!” my father said. Thus I found myself, at 6:30 on a Saturday evening, driving in to town to pick up 10 pounds of sugar.

Once returned, I did a quick sugar-to-fruit calculation, and we filled our largest Dutch oven to the brim with fruit and sugar and water. It was probably 7:30 when we turned the heat on under the pot. Then we waited. And waited. My father, not the most patient of humans when dealing with a process with which he was unfamiliar, began to get antsy. And tired. And grumpy. Around 9pm, when we were still waiting for the pot to boil, he announced that he was going to bed. And he did, leaving me with a vast pot of stubbornly un-boiling citrus and sugar. By the time the stuff began to boil it was midnight; by the time the fruit had softened and the juice begun to thicken toward jamminess it was 1am.  

At which point I realized I had not thought about containers, let alone about sterilizing jars and tops. I began, frantically and not too quietly, to search for every spare jar and container in the house. A note about the kitchen at the Barn: my parents’ rooms were above it, and one side of the kitchen was open to the hallway. Noise in the kitchen inevitably would be heard upstairs. So while I was rattling around finding containers and filling the next largest pot with water in which to sterilize them, my father shuffled out to the landing and demanded to know what the Hell was going on downstairs.

“I’m finding jars to put the marmalade in,” I said, between clenched teeth. (I was, at this point nursing a fine sense of abandonment.)

“Well, don’t make so much goddamned noise!” Dad shuffled back to his bed. I put more jars into the pot to sterilize. 

Eventually, all the jars were filled with marmalade, sealed with a lid or paraffin, and, because I was by then truly irritated at having been left do all the actual work, I washed all the pots and gear, and put everything away. The finished ranks of mis-matched jars–about two dozen of them, if I recall correctly–I arranged on the kitchen counter, and made my way upstairs at about 4am.

My father, creature of habit, woke at 6am. Out of my slumber I woke enough to hear him shuffling downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. I could tell the moment when he saw the jars of marmalade because I heard him mutter “Jesus Christ.”

We did not discuss the process subsequently. We gave the largest pot of marmalade to the bride and groom, as a souvenir. The rest went to good homes–many good homes. Years later when I told this story within my father’s hearing he got the most peculiar, abashed grin, as one who realizes he was not the hero of this particular saga. By then he had become a quite proficient maker of jalapeño jelly and other canned goods. To my knowledge he never again attempted marmalade, even as sous chef.

Raised in a Barn: A Floor to Stand On

Things in the colorful home of my childhood happened in stages–either very rapid or very slow stages. For example, it was not until eight or nine years after we moved into the Barn full time that my parents insulated the interior walls in the living room and hallway–up to that point there was only the exterior walls of the structure between us and the elements–and when the wind swept down the mountain on its way to the valley below, it got frigid. For the first six or seven years that my brother and I slept in “rooms” in one of the former haylofts, they were rooms by courtesy–roughed out 2 x 4 studding to which plasterboard panels would someday be nailed, but no actual walls that stopped anyone or anything from coming in (like, say, cold winds, younger brothers, or bats). On the other hand, when my father decided we needed a trapeze, the thing went up in a matter of days. Priorities, you see.

One of the things which was a lower priority was a finished floor. The floor in the loft was made of plywood sheets. Someday there would be finished floor. But it was not a priority–there were other things that were more interesting to work on (it has only taken me to right now to realize that my father was driven to work on the things that were absolutely necessary or absolutely interesting. Mere flooring in an area he didn’t frequent much was neither of those things).

Sometime when I was in college–Christmas break of my junior year, I think, I decided I needed a finished floor. I told my father so. The family finances were not, at the time, amenable to hiring someone to put in a floor. But we calculated the amount of oak flooring we’d need for my room and the hallway outside, purchased it, and accompanying hardware and tools, and loaded it into the back of the station wagon. When we got home we took out maybe a dozen oak boards and brought them upstairs, and Dad showed me how to install the flooring myself. I think that he got the first row or so settled. Then it was my project. So over the next week I put down the boards–they were tongue-in-groove boards, and were installed using a tool which would set nails at a 45° angle. I could generally get between 1-2 feet width-wise in a day (before the unaccustomed work and my own butterfly tendencies chased me away). For a 10 x 12′ room that made it a 5-6 day job.

A side note: it was December/early January. Rather than moving all the flooring in to the house, I kept it in the back of our station wagon and just went out and got what I needed. One evening I went to visit a friend for dinner. On the way home I got a flat tire. Bless my friend who, when called (I had to hike to the nearest house on the sparsely populated state road, in those pre-cellphone days) got into his warmest work clothes and came to help me change the tire. Of course the spare was in the back of the station wagon which was still half-full of oak flooring. Before Alan got there I had already started removing the boards, trying to put them somewhere where they wouldn’t absorb too much snow–oh, yes, there were snowdrifts, did I mention it? I don’t think we had to completely empty the station wagon before we could access the tire. Eventually, and before I succumbed to frostbite, the tire got changed and I headed for home.

By the time I headed off to college I had a floor of light-oak, unfinished, in my bedroom. But I wanted dark wood. My father had this idea of soaking the wood in automotive oil to change the color, but in the end I settled for a dark stain, which I applied when I came home for the next break. At last: a civilized floor!

Over the next year I finished installing the oak boards in the hallway, starting from the landing and working toward my brother’s room. I don’t recall if we ever hauled a floor sander upstairs–those things are brutally heavy, and there was only a very steep ladder upstairs. But the floor was eventually sealed and done. In later years I twice refinished the existing hardwood floors in the apartments I lived in. So I can add all these experiences (I would not call them skills, just a willingness at the time to do the labor) to the long list of things I can sorta do, if I have to. But if ever I need a floor again, I think I’ll hire someone or do without. Once or twice is a learning experience; more than that is just exhausting.

Tradition and cholent

I’ve been looking at maps this week in my spare time and it was Purim over the weekend. Purim is an historical festival, not so much a religious one, so I always try to make sense of a bit more Jewish history as my learning for the celebration. I was perplexed as a child when non-Jewish families didn’t do learning as part of their celebration. This is a tradition. My tradition is not that of Fiddler on the Roof! and the song “Tradition”.  It is learning and food, much food. There are many Jewish cultures. Learning is one of my favourite bits. It ranks as high as chicken soup.

When I was a teen, I had this conversation.  It began with me asking, “What did you learn for Christmas?”

“I got these presents, let me show you. You show me your presents, too.” Chanukah collided with Christmas that year, as it did from time to time, but my friend was totally baffled when I showed her my present for fifth night, which was a small box of Smarties (Australian M&Ms). Me, I had present-envy. I didn’t get presents such as hers even for my birthday.

I am a slow learner. The next Easter I asked a Greek Orthodox friend.

“What did you learn for your Easter?”

“We didn’t learn. We dyed eggs red and cracked them.” She had some dye left over and we totally messed up my mother’s kitchen and destroyed many candles making decorated eggs. We didn’t crack them, because Easter was over. We put them in a bowl and left them on the counter until my father complained about the smell.

Later I found that not all Jews learn every festival. But it’s my tradition and I love it.

This year’s choice for Purim was propelled by the sad fact that historical research and research for novels all take planning. I was considering actual Jewish populations along the Rhine at different times for something I’m looking into later in the year. I had a crashing thought that had me investigating maps last week. I used Purim to give me the time to make everything make sense. Tomorrow I’m back to my regular resaerch, which is currently wholly in literary studies

For all this (except the literary studies), I blame cholent.

Cholent, the dish, is a Jewish slow-cooked casserole from (mostly) Eastern Europe. Its name, however, most likely comes from French. We talk a lot about European Jews migrating east, but the most popular explanations and timing don’t fit Western European history. Yiddish is a lot more recent than the first migrations, and… it’s complicated. I made it understandable using maps. The maps themselves don’t explain things – they triggered the explanations, which is why there are no maps in this post and only one link to one. I answered a lot more questions that night and this weekend than I could give in a post – the question of Jewish movement eastward, for instance, must wait.

I began with a map of the Roman Empire at its pre-Christian peak. There were millions of Jews distributed throughout the Roman Empire as citizens, as non-citizens, and as slaves. I’ve seen estimates of numbers ranging from one million to ten million, and I usually use four million as a compromise number to work with.

Four million is over a quarter the size of the modern world Jewish population so, a while back I calculated how many Jews we would have around today if history had been kinder. It was in the vicinity of 320 million. Eighty million if you take the minimum number of Jews in the Roman Empire and over a billion using the largest estimate. We would not be such a tiny minority, in other words, if we had progressed simply because the world population has expanded and we had not been forcibly converted, mass murdered, exiled, enslaved, enthusiastically converted to other religions and so forth.

Populations follow trade routes and you can see evidence Jewish life along all the Roman trade routes. Well, all those where anyone has looked. Antisemitism is so deeply ingrained in our societies that many experts demand far more evidence for a Jewish burial than, say, a Christian one. There is a lot that probably needs to be re-evaluated in the archaeological record if we want to know actual Jewish populations in most areas.

Assessing the written record is easier, but not in a good way. The vast majority of Jewish records have been destroyed, and we’re reliant on surprising survivals such as the Cairo genizah. This means our knowledge through writing is patchy from anyone Jewish, because of the destruction, and biased from anyone else. Occasionally the bias is positive. Occasionally.

This means we really don’t know a lot about how many Jews lived in the Roman world, where they lived and how they lived. We know a lot more than we did, but we still have big gaps. We do know, however, the geographical limits of Jewish life and the trade routes related to much of the Jewish everyday.

The next map I thought of, then, was of Charlemagne’s empire at the time of its division into three, 843. I was thinking of places that were more antisemitic and less antisemitic and they pretty much follow this divide. It was easier to be Jewish in the central band of the empire (the one with Charles’ capital – which makes sense, because his personal confessor converted to Judaism and this does not seem to have ended the world) and a few key places nearby. These are all, in modern day Europe in eastern France (usually the parts that also speak German), the Saar, Italy, Provence and Burgundy. This became the Jewish heartland of non-Hispanic Europe in the Middle Ages.

It is the original Ashkenaz. It’s the Ashkenaz that made European Jewish marriages one husband to one wife, but refused to relinquish divorce despite enormous pressure from local Christians. Rashi, one of the great Medieval scholars, used the word ‘akitement’ for divorce: marriage in Judaism was and is a contract that can be acquitted, it’s not a covenant. European Jewish was both Jewish and European and that wide strip of territory that formed that heartland explains a great deal about us.

Ashkenazi culture spread east and changed and that’s a story for another time. It began to spread early enough so that ‘cholent’ could have a French name: it came from the Carolingian Empire after French developed as a language. Not before the eleventh century. Which is interesting because… I have another mental map for that.

In the late 8th century, a Jewish trade network operated from that region (and possibly Champagne). We don’t know a lot about it, but when I looked at its most known route, Jewish traders used those ancient fairs, with a special focus on Medieval fairs. I have a book with maps of every town in that region that had a fair in the Middle Ages and the dates we know those fairs operated and I cannot find it! So this is work for my future, after my thesis is done.

The Rhadanites were gone about the time that the Khazar Empire declined and fell, and one of their trade routes led to the heart of the Empire, so that’s something else to explore one day. About the time both faded from view, the Crusades began in Europe and persecution of Jews became far more severe. But… right until the mid-20th century, those towns were part of larger trade routes and had Jewish communities.

Every trade fair needed a route to the fair, and each stop was a town usually between 15-20 miles from the previous and also served as fairs for local farmers. In the Middle Ages, prior to all the murders and expulsions, so many of these towns had Jewish traders and craftspeople. And so many of those families would have cooked cholent or an equivalent.

This is a small fraction of what I spent one night and one Purim sorting out. I have to leave it now until September. I’ll write it up more accurately and less improperly when I’m actually working on it. In other words, these are my early thoughts.

Why did I share them with you, then? Part of the family tradition of learning includes talking about things. If anyone wants to talk about these subjects, this is a good place and a perfect time. Why perfect? Because all my thoughts are halfway right now. I could be very, very wrong in how I see things.

There is a tradition to this learning. The tradition is that you have to prove anything you want to challenge. Evidence! When I was a child and we argued without evidence it occasionally led to very sophisticated behaviour, such as the sticking out of tongues, which got us into trouble. Evidence is safer than the sticking out of tongues.

What’s the aim of challenging and providing evidence? That the learning may continue… (kinda like the spice must flow).


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 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.