Category Archives: Uncategorized

Friend debuts first collection

Some years ago, I met Theresa Milstein at the annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She fascinated me. She was teaching grade school, working towards an additional master’s degree, taking care of two children—and writing. I was in awe of her dedication and energy. A couple of years later I convinced her to join my critique group and we began to read each other’s work. Theresa was sharing fantasy for young adult and middle grade readers with us, but privately she was indulging her passion for poetry. Her first collection, Time & Circumstance, a mixture of poetry and prose, will be published by Vine Leaves Press on March 21.

time_circumstance-cover

I asked Theresa how she got started writing her small pieces. She explained, “Ever since I began writing seriously, I’ve been signing up for workshops, conferences, and retreats to improve my craft. At some point, a poetry workshop was offered at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I thought learning how to write more sparely and lyrically would improve my longer pieces. I signed up. Nothing I wrote during that workshop was salvageable, but I learned a lot. In between novel-length manuscripts, I kept writing poetry. Here and there, I started submitting to literary journals.”

The prose pieces in her collection are quite short. Theresa calls them “vignettes.” I asked what sparked her interest in that particular literary form. She said, “Vine Leaves Literary Journal began as a platform for vignettes. Unlike a story, which has a beginning, middle, and end, a vignette is a moment captured, something that could fit on a vine leaf. The journal thought both prose and poetry could be vignettes, so I began submitting both. Vine Leaves accepted one of each in 2012.”

And her book, Time & Circumstance, how did that come to be?

“At some point, I sent the editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Jessica Bell, a few poems for a project she was considering. That project fell through but she asked if I had enough pieces to make a collection for Vine Leaves Press. I knew I didn’t have enough poems, so I asked if I could include prose too. She agreed. Terrified, I sat on the idea for months. One day, I pulled all my vignettes into a single document. If I could find cohesion—and muster enough bravery—I would send the manuscript. It took a long time, but I finally hit the “send” button. It was accepted and now an actual book is coming out next week.”

Time & Circumstance is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and electronically for both the Kindle and Nook.

 

I miss the Nigerian prince

It’s been years since a Nigerian prince offered me untold riches if I would supply him with my banking information. It’s also been some time since someone was robbed in Europe and couldn’t get back home unless I sent money. Today, cries for help are coming from ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews by way of Monsey, New York.

The latest is from Reuven Boltin, a resident of Modi’in Ilit, Israel. He says that he is fighting for his life and needs “…NIS 40,000 ($10,500) a month” for medicine.

He makes quite the case. Included in the mailing is a letter from his local Rabbi attesting to his need, and an official-looking clinical summation from the Oncology Institute Clinic. Both documents also appear in their original Hebrew (I assume) to give the appeal the appropriate verisimilitude. The mailing came with an envelope that has a Monsey, NY, address in case you want to send a check.

While I am normally an empathetic person, this missive just made me mad. Why, you ask? I suspect the answer is guilt—with a smattering of fear.

Guilt, because the letter elicits no sympathy from me, and maybe it should. It begins, “My Dear Fellow Jew.” They’ve got that part right: I am, indeed, a Jew. But I am an American Reform Jew, which is a far cry from an Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew. Modi’in Ilit is a Haredi community, a group “…characterized by a distancing from post-modern secular culture,” according to Wikipedia. I know very little about Israeli Haredim except that they are typically insular groups who practice their religion guided by the ultra-Orthodox equivalent of my way or the highway. I find it antithetical that they would not shake my hand because that is too intimate, but they can ask me for money.

The fear comes from being identified as a Jew by an unknown third party. It’s not that I mind being Jewish, as a matter of fact, I’m quite proud to be a member of the tribe. Look, here I am, outing myself to all you readers as a Jew! But there’s something ominous about getting a letter from someone I don’t know, preying on my Judaism.

I suppose the 64,000-dollar question is, is Reuven Boltin, of Modi’in Ilit, Israel, really ill? The url for donations (www.tovvchesed.org/boltin-fund) makes one think that there must be a www.tovvchesed.org, but one would be wrong. The url takes you directly to a PayPal page and there is no tovvchesed.org. There is, however, a .com by that name, which purports to support needy children. At that site, there is also a link for “special situations” that reads, “At Tov V’Chesed, we stand at the sides of our families through the unexpected financial struggle that results from a medical crisis by ensuring that the daily needs of the suffering family is [sic] provided for until they are zoche to welcome their family member back home in good health.”

So maybe it’s not a scam. Maybe Reuven Boltin, of Modi’in Ilit, Israel by way of Monsey, NY, really needs help. If he does, I hope he gets it. I’m waiting for my prince.

Ignore stranger’s baby bump

A woman I know has a condition called diastasis recti, a post-pregnancy muscle separation that leaves her with what looks for all the world like a baby bump. She has gamely tried to shrug off congratulations from well-meaning strangers, but recently reached the end of her rope and announced that, “No one should ask a woman if they are pregnant. Ever. Period.”

As a society, we tend to view pregnancy as a happy state of affairs, so it’s not unusual for people to want to participate. But if you have to ask someone if they’re pregnant before congratulating them, you should probably think twice.

Many years ago, I was in Las Vegas for a tradeshow, sitting at a bar with my much older boss, when the bartender asked, “When are you due?” I was not, in point of fact, pregnant. I was, however, wearing a billowy sundress that might have led him to that conclusion. I was thrown by his question, less because he thought I was pregnant than that he obviously thought my boss and I were a couple. That was truly horrifying.

So, I would have to agree with my frustrated friend, you should neither ask if someone is pregnant, nor when they are due. Now you are thinking, but if I’m 99% sure that person is pregnant, can I say congratulations? If the person is a stranger, my answer is no. What if the pregnancy is not a cause for celebration? You wouldn’t say to someone, “Congratulations on breaking your leg.”

Here’s what you can do. If you are a woman, cis, trans, or other, you can smile at a pregnant stranger in the name of sisterhood. You may or may not get a smile in return. It’s even possible that you will get a scowl. Some pregnant women may be offended if they think you are smiling because they are pregnant. They may not want you presuming on their pregnancy. (I know whereof I speak. I was one of them. In hindsight, I should have smiled back. Because really, why not? Must we all go around ignoring each other all the time?)

If you are male, smile at your own risk. But only speak to say, “Please take my seat,” or “Let me get the door for you.”

Is indignation worth the risk?

We don’t typically answer the phone unless we recognize the number, but this particular time Andrew picked it up. Then he said, “Microsoft Operating System Service Center? You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” and hung up.

I was surprised. Speaking his mind when what he has to say is less than charitable is completely out of character for him. But that was only the first surprise.

A moment later, the phone rang again. Caller ID displayed the same number. Andrew picked up the handset and replaced it to end the call without engaging. Within moments, it rang again, so he picked up the handset and replaced it, again.

At first, I was amused that the bogus telemarketer had the nerve to call back. By the third or fourth call, I was getting nervous, wondering when he would give up. After half a dozen calls, Andrew unplugged the land line. That stopped the phone from ringing, but it didn’t stop the answering machine from picking up. This is what it captured.

“Hey you motherfucker, are you afraid of me? You son of bitch.”

My answer to that question was decidedly yes. Despite the fact that the background noise and his accent indicated that the caller was in an overseas call center, I was scared. (I could be wrong about the call coming from overseas, but you’ll note that “son of bitch” is not a typo. He did not say “son of a bitch,” as I would have.)

After that, Andrew unplugged the answering machine, too, effectively disconnecting us from the repeated assault on my nerves. When we plugged everything back in, about an hour later, the phone was quiet.

Andrew clearly scolded the caller (for which I lovingly applaud him), but the response was more than excessive.

I had a similar situation in the bank the other day when I suggested to an employee that he shouldn’t be discussing politics with a customer in front of other, potentially not-like-minded, customers. I was chastised in turn by another customer for not respecting the employee’s freedom of speech. (If we’re friended on Facebook you can read all about that.)

Fortunately, my public admission of discomfort (okay, annoyance) did not result in a threat to my well-being, as it clearly did in the case of the bogus telemarketer. But I did feel uncomfortably exposed.

It has become painfully clear how easy it can be to silence dissent.

For now, we will go back to our policy of not answering the phone if Caller ID leaves any question as to who is calling. So if you want to discuss this with me, you’re probably better off writing.

Keep reading

A passing nor’easter made the wind howl. I snuggled under my flannel sheets and thought about Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, the book I had just finished reading about a black family in rural Mississippi during the days leading up to hurricane Katrina.

The protagonist is a fifteen-year old who is pregnant. She has three brothers; their mother is dead and their father drinks. The local boys, including her brother, Skeet, fight their pit bulls for bragging rights. Near the end of the story, the family struggles to survive the hurricane. It’s tense and moving, and I was engaged in their struggles, but it was not until I read the author’s afterword that I cried.

Jesmyn Ward is black. She graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan in 2005. She was back home in DeLisle, Mississippi, with her family, when Katrina hit. In the afterword, she described fleeing from the house with her family as the water rose and seeking shelter with a white family that turned them away. I was shocked and I felt shame—for being white.

Surprised by the strength of my response, I spent some time puzzling it over. Here’s what I came up with: A book is an invitation to suspend your life and step into someone else’s world. Everyone is welcome, because the author wants the reader to share what they’ve written. The afterword was something different. Those pages were to be read at your own risk, as if the author knew a dose of reality would hit harder. She shared her personal experience and I felt exposed, as if she was saying to me, and other white readers, “check your privilege.”

In an interview Ms. Ward gave to BBC News she said, “When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America… it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there.”

Then she said, “If one day, [people] are able to pick up my work and read it and see … the characters in my books as human beings and feel for them, then I think that is a political act.”

Today, more than ever before, it is important that books like this are read by everyone, everywhere. We are so limited by our own experiences that even those of us with the best of intentions may sometimes appear careless in deed or thought. It’s time to be hyper-vigilant, as we resist those things that we deem unacceptable, to remember that our view is not the only one.

The nor’easter made the wind howl, but the heaviest rain, sleet, and snow happened elsewhere. I was safe and warm, wrapped in flannel and my white privilege.

The emotional one

In my family of origin I was known as “the emotional one.” My mother served this up as an explanation hinging on an apology to my sisters who were infinitely more stoic in their demeanor. My memory is faulty, but I am willing to assume that my mother was genuinely distressed for me when I cried. I know, however, that my sisters were decidedly unmoved. I do remember occasions when one or the other would say, with exasperation or disdain, “Why is she crying, now?” Empathy was in short supply and hugging it out unheard of.

After I cast my vote for HRC, I got in my car and felt the familiar restriction in my throat that presages extreme emotion—and tears. Immediately a familiar tug-of-war began in my mind. One part of me wanted to give in to the tears, let them happen without question for whatever catharsis might be looming, the other part of me began to analyze why I was having such strong emotions and questioned whether any of the possibilities justified my response.

At this point you’re probably thinking this post is about the election, and while it does relate obliquely, that’s more happenstance than intention. I really wanted to muse about feelings, and how not to judge them.

The weekend before the election, I attended a seminar on visiting the sick and Jewish mourning customs. In small groups we shared why we were interested in the subject. When it was my turn to speak, I could barely choke out the words for the pain in my throat. Crying and gasping, I stuttered my reason for attending. I was horrified at my inability to control myself and apologized repeatedly as we rejoined the class.

When we left, a woman who witnessed my distress, with whom I am only casually acquainted, asked if she could give me a hug. I don’t have the words to explain how I felt as she hugged me, but in that moment I was deeply appreciative that she wanted to express that she cared about my pain.

Strong, negative emotions can be difficult to witness. In our society we’re expected to bury anger, despair and sadness to spare others from discomfort. That is something that I don’t seem to be able to do, but like others who are exposed to my tears, I am made uncomfortable by them. My desire is not to learn to restrain myself, but to become comfortable with my responses; to acknowledge that they are an integral part of who I am, and that without them I would be, somehow, less than.

Maybe this is about the election. People are in pain, sad, and scared. At least fifty percent of the country could use a good, strong hug; affirmation that we care about their pain, even if there is nothing we can do to help. We need to be allowed to feel our feelings, otherwise how do we ever move on from anything?

Not minding my own business on the MBTA

Riding the Red Line to my class this morning, I watched a woman get on at the Central Square stop. She was in her late 60’s, perhaps older, and she wore an embroidered jacket, tan slacks, and rather sporty tennis shoes. Her curly auburn hair was too short to be considered long, but long enough to suggest that she was not fully embracing her age. She carried two bags; a plastic tote emblazoned with a pink ribbon for breast cancer, and an oversized purse covered in a busy pattern. I mentally filed her under Cambridge liberal.

Once seated, diagonally across from me, she unzipped her handbag and took out a piece of candy. She unwrapped it, popped it into her mouth, and closed her fingers around the cellophane wrapper. She then slowly lowered her hand to the edge of her seat and, looking studiously into the distance, opened her fingers and dropped the wrapper on the floor. The charade of nonchalance, meant to deflect attention, did not work. I witnessed the whole thing.

I was immediately reminded of a story my sister-in-law told me about the time she was walking on the sidewalk and a car, stopped at a red light, tossed a bag of garbage out of the window. Without hesitation, she grabbed the bag and tossed it right back in! Could I be as brave?

I stared at the woman until I caught her eye and then I deliberately looked down at the wrapper and back up at her while my eyebrows communicated that she should pick up her litter. I am convinced she understood, but there was no sign that she was the least bit discomfited. Between Kendall and Park Street I stared at her. Periodically, she would check to see if I was still staring, and each time I repeated the performance.

Why was I so invested in this silent battle? Was it because her furtive behavior made her seem even guiltier to me? If she had just slid the wrapper into one of her bags, I could have spent the ride observing other people, rather than fixating on her. Why didn’t she do that?

As the train approached Park Street, I struggled to decide what to do. I thought about picking up the wrapper myself before the train stopped, but I was afraid if it did I would land on my face. Also, I thought she might kick me while I was bent over in front of her.

When the train pulled into Park Street station, I got up from my seat. As I walked past her I said, as brightly as I could, “Don’t forget to take your litter before you leave.”

She didn’t even look at me.

Did she pick it up once I was gone? Was she embarrassed enough to think twice about littering next time? Was she even from Cambridge? I’ll never know.

When I got to my class I discovered I had the wrong day and I had to turn right around and get back on the T to go home. Was that karmic retribution for not minding my own business?

I invite you to leap into my business and tell me what you think. But no littering, please.