Sunday, August 28, 2005

How do you spell S-T-R-E-S-S-R-E-L-I-E-F?

Have you ever had one of those days – or maybe one of those weeks or months – when the thing that comes most naturally to you is suddenly on temporary vacation?

My life revolves around words. Even in my first career as a counselor, more than a lifetime ago, my life was about spoken words. Now it’s about written words. And the words seem to be on strike, pacing back and forth with signs and chanting motivational rhymes in some space where I can’t get at them. Or maybe they left without me for that long-wanted and much-needed resort vacation.

Or maybe it’s just stress.

My first-born, my baby, is starting school for the first time in his life tomorrow morning. I’ve been an at-home mom with him and his younger brother for his entire life. I’m excited, but a little sad, too. Change is necessary but it comes hard.

I think what I need most is sleep. Yes, sleep would be very good. Uninterrupted sleep. For more than a few hours at a time. Ahh... the very idea!

Sleep is a good way to fight stress, isn’t it? A husband on week two of a chest cold, work pressures, trying to refi the house, off to school for the first time, writer’s block, insomnia, fits of depression... sleep would help a lot of that, I think. And chocolate. Chocolate would help, too. Maybe a glass of wine, or a beer. A bubble bath! Yes, definitely a bubble bath. With the chocolate and the wine, followed by lots of sleep.

Then again, maybe I need to go join my words on their resort vacation.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Blog on a stick

Well, we did it. We survived eleven hours at the Minnesota State Fair.

101,628 people attended yesterday along with us.

I have successfully upheld our (okay, really my) tradition. See, four years ago, I went with my then only toddler and spent nine hours gawking at all the pretty colors and wild people. Or was that wild colors and pretty people? Anyway, it was the first time I’d been at the State Fair in years, and everything was much more amazing when seen through the eyes of a child.

Three years ago, I took the same toddler, now a year older (look! I can do math! I went to college for this!), and spent another nine hours there, this time also three months pregnant with kiddo number two.

Last year and the year before we spent ten hours and nine hours respectively. This year, with no infant in tow, no pregnancy (that I know of), and both children old enough to be sufficiently over-stimulated by the fair, eleven hours seemed insanely appropriate.

There was the high point yesterday: the daily parade at 2pm, complete with marching bands, fire trucks, and a three-story-high black bull statue advertising the beef industry. Two years ago, there was a three-story-high dairy cow for the dairy industry, but I haven’t seen her since then.

There was also the low point (not counting over-stimulated children hitting emotional meltdown) of finding food we could eat. Those of us who keep kosher have a hard time finding dairy or pareve food. Vegetarians have an even harder time (at least we can eat walleye on a stick). Vegetarians with lactose intolerance and vegans probably would fare better (no pun intended) by bringing their own food.

Everywhere we looked, there were hot dogs (pork), ribs (pork), French fries (not always vegetarian), cheese curds, and various deep-fried specialties like deep-fried Snickers bars (at least the Snickers are kosher), deep-fried Oreos (also kosher), deep-fried macaroni and cheese (not kosher), and deep-fried Twinkies on a stick (all the more convenient to walk around while gunking up one’s arteries). One year, the now-defunct Old City CafĂ©, St. Paul’s only kosher restaurant, offered gefilte fish on a stick. Tasty, but apparently it didn’t sell well to the rest of the attendees. I wonder if lutefisk on a stick would do better?

We managed to find an acceptable falafel stand for lunch, but it was like hunting for... well... a kosher food stand at the Minnesota State Fair. Truly, there should be more eating opportunities for those who can’t or won’t eat regularly (hideously?) slaughtered and (questionably?) cooked cows and pigs, without relegating us to deep-fried junk food.

All in all, however, it was a fun day. Great for people-watching. Lots of opportunities for kids and adults to overload. An excellent way to procrastinate on the novel-writing front. And, I found out the hard way, also apparently a good way to get sunburned.

So, with Shabbat approaching and my body sore and exhausted, I’m going to go fix dinner and find comfort in the fact that nothing in the house comes on a stick.

Shabbat shalom!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Blogging Through Writer's Block?

I am supposed to be working on my book.

I am supposed to be writing.

Not blogging. Writing. My manuscript. Now.

I've got a deadline: the sequel to Destined to Choose is supposed to be available to the public late summer/early fall 2006. But that's not going to happen, now, is it, if I don't get the darn thing written.

Part of the problem is that I'm tackling new ground. Arik Zahav, the Israeli-born Minneapolis cop, demanded a bigger role in the second book. I relented and gave it to him, then told him that the reason he was getting a bigger role was that his wife (Rabbi Batya Zahav) was going to be stalked.

He wasn't too happy with me after that.

I've also had to get to know him better, to write his character well. This means interviews and lots of questions for local cops, which has turned out to be one of my more fun research assignments.

In response to reader requests and my own inclination toward self-challenge, the second book is written from three different perspectives: David's (as the main protagonist and title character, this was a given. It's in his contract), Batya's, and Sara's (David's wife).

Do you realize how exhausting it is to walk around in three heads other than my own? Thankfully, my children don't think it's all that weird. In fact, this conversation took place today:

Me: (talking to self, trying out dialogue, walking through a scene)
Oldest child: What, Eema?
Me: I'm just doing book work.
Oldest child: Oh. I thought you were talking to me.
Me: No, sorry. I'm talking to a couple of the people in my book.
Oldest child: Oh, okay. Friends [an unnamed imaginary group of playmates] and I talk all the time.
Me: Really? What do you talk about?
Oldest child: Um, well, right now we're talking about how I want more milk, please.

The truth is, I'm a little overwhelmed.

The aforementioned oldest child starts school for the first time in his young life on Monday.

He's ready. I'm not.

I'm layning Torah for the first time ever in October, and I'm a little nervous about that. I'm layning the maftir reading for Parshat Netzavim. Only three pasukim, but meaningful. Two of the three pasukim are quoted in the introductory pages of Destined to Choose, and play a big role in the theme of that book.

My mom may be coming out for a week-long visit the end of September. I haven't seen her in person since my dad (alav ha-shalom) passed away nearly eighteen months ago.

I have volunteer commitments with my shul, my block club, my moms' group. There is the never-ending business end of work. And the Yamim Noraim are coming up way too fast. Rosh Hashana is in early October this year, and the holidays (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur/Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah) pretty much take up the entire month. G-d willing, it will be a wonderful, insightful, fun, exhausting (in a good way), rejuvenating time with shul, family, and friends.

But it also means less time, energy, and brain power to direct toward writing.

Which is why I should be writing tonight.

Not blogging. Writing. My book. The one I should have done by December.


You know, I sometimes joke about how a few of my characters take over and occasionally write themselves, especially when they don't like how I've written them. Maybe I can use that to my advantage.

Hey David! Yoo-hoo! David? Hey, I've got a job for you...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

This game has been played 715 times...

I admit to being a Mah Jongg Solitaire addict. Well, maybe not an addict. It hasn't taken over my life, I don't feel powerless over it, and I don't play it over and over expecting a different result.

Okay, that last one might not be quite true.

I do keep track of my high scores, and I do expect to beat them. But what I really use Mah Jongg Solitaire for is to get to sleep. See, I used to read books at night before falling asleep. A chapter or two, then turn off the light. Too many nights of refusing to turn out the light because I simply had to know what happened next, however, and the book-reading quickly got banned from the bedroom or my daytime sanity would suffer.

So now it's Mah Jongg Solitaire. A game or two played on my PDA and my eyes simply won't stay open any longer. I'm not sure if it's falling asleep out of boredom or if it's a way to quiet my brain after a day of dealing with small children, husband, house, volunteer jobs, work, writing, and those pesky characters in my head that won't leave me alone until I tell their stories. I'm leaning toward the latter.

I've come to the conclusion that we fiction writers actually do perform a great service to the world. We provide an escape. We do more than entertain; we give you a chance to spend a few hours with our characters, so that when you return to your real life, you maybe have a different perspective. This can be good, such as gaining insight into a relationship or realizing that a problem previously thought insurmountable is actually quite solvable. Or not so good, like developing irrational fears of psychotic serial killers around every corner, conspiracies among anyone in power, or dogs named Cujo.

So how do the designers of escape find their own escape? I find that when I'm reading others' books, I'm still "on." I'm enjoying the story, but I'm also analyzing pacing, noting effective description, mapping the narrative, and exploring character motivations and interactions. To truly turn that part of my brain off, to quiet the constant rush of ideas and what-ifs and fixes for that problematic scene, I have to do something completely unrelated to books and words. I have to keep my brain busy, but not in a create something out of nothing way. I have to do something routine yet not repetetive.

Enter Mah Jongg Solitaire. And now I'm off to play my 716th game.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Tefillin: the ties that bind

I laid tefillin for the first time on Sunday. It’s taken me this long to find the words to write about it.

Now, before anyone starts with the “Women can’t lay tefillin!” argument, others have addressed this issue far better than I, most notably Danya in her blog about time-bound mitzvot. I’ve talked to my rabbi about this, and he has remained steadfast that since I have assumed the obligation of time-bound mitzvot, I should begin to lay tefillin as soon as I resolved my other issues around it.

I’m not going to bore you with all my other issues around it. They were obstacles and they were overcome. My current obstacles have more to do with finding time to lay tefillin and daven in the morning while also getting my children ready to start the day, getting everyone stuffed into our only car, and taking my husband to work. The easy answer is simply to get up earlier. But I have a love-hate relationship with morning. I feel better when I get up earlier, but I dread it when I’m going to sleep the night before.

I guess I’m a morning person masquerading as a night owl.

Only two weeks ago, I was writing a scene in my upcoming novel about my protagonist, David, laying tefillin. I had to imagine what it would be like in order to describe it. How would he feel? What would he think? Would it be just a habit or would it be meaningful to him, even after years of daily practice?

Fortunately, my characters – and David in particular – have a way of taking over and writing themselves, and by the time I was finished with the scene, I had a good idea of how he felt. But how would I feel?

I was delighted to discover that in this case, life imitated art.

Tefillin always seemed a little strange to me. Like practicing some sort of ancient bondage ritual with religious overtones. But then I realized that we do this sort of physical act to represent something greater all the time. My wedding ring binds me to my husband, as his does to me. A piece of jewelry or some item of clothing might be worn to help us remember a person, time, or event.

In this way, I was able to look at laying tefillin as a way of binding myself to G-d. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Intentionally. There was a timelessness about it. The physical feeling forced me to focus my thoughts both inward and outward at the same time, as if my entire being traveled the length of the bond between my body and my Creator.

And the tingling! I thought at first it was an interesting reaction to all of my lofty ponderings, but as it gradually turned to numbness, it became clear that I was simply losing feeling in my fingers because I’d wrapped the strap around my arm too tight!

I know some women who have laid tefillin once and were glad they did, but didn’t care to repeat the experience. I will not be counting myself among these women. The experience I had laying tefillin was intriguing and powerful. I didn’t break down and have a spiritual experience the way I did when I hung a mezuzah on my first apartment doorpost. But it was meaningful on a far deeper level.

Will I lay tefillin again? Absolutely. As soon as I can convince myself that I really am a morning person.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tisha b'Av: Where Sadness Meets Sport

Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the locations hosting the 2005 JCC Maccabi Games, a kind of “Jewish Olympics” for Jewish teenagers. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage in athletics and competitive sport, within a supportive Jewish atmosphere. It eliminates the Friday night practices and Saturday games that so many other sports opportunities require. Kashrut is observed, so those who keep kosher don’t have to worry about a post-game pepperoni pizza.

So long as the emphasis is on Jewish community and not solely on physical achievement and competition for its own sake (thanks to Marc J. for this reminder), it’s an event I would find much easier to support.

But there's one major thing.

The games this year just happen to take place on the week preceding Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning commemorating multiple tragedies. The three weeks prior to Tisha b’Av, known in Hebrew as bein ha-metzarim (between the straits) are considered the saddest time in the Jewish calendar, with increasing practices of mourning during the nine days just before Tisha b’Av.

An excerpt from my book, Destined to Choose (p. 181-2):

“During these three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av, we highlight its importance by refraining from activities that bring us great happiness. We don’t schedule weddings or dances, or even camping trips. We postpone haircuts and manicures. We give to charity, and try to think about others who are less fortunate more often than we think of ourselves.

“So the next time any of us are at the lake, or planning a picnic, or enjoying a warm summer’s night, we can think about the freedom we have and the blessings in our lives. What would it mean to be in exile from our homes, our families, everything that was familiar and meaningful? What would it mean to have the center of our religious world destroyed by people who would not only burn it down but desecrate it first? We can allow ourselves to feel sad, even angry, for those to whom these events were a reality.”

What does it mean, what does it say about us, that such a positive event is scheduled during a time that Jews are traditionally supposed to have more somber thoughts?

One thing it says to me is that the commemoration of Tisha b’Av in America – or at least in the Twin Cities – has been reduced to the day itself, if even that.

Are American Jews finding Tisha b’Av less and less relevant to today’s world? I could draw some interesting parallels between Tisha b’Av and 9/11. Would that make it any more relevant?

Another thing it says to me is that inclusion is subjective. Supposedly, the JCC Maccabi games are open to all Jewish teenagers, age 13-16. Over 1,000 Jewish athletes are expected to participate. But those athletes who observe not only Tisha b’Av but also bein ha-metzarim – The Three Weeks – will be prohibited by their own religious observance from participating. At a Jewish event!

I don’t want to make this a statement about Orthodox versus Conservative versus Reform. I know plenty of Conservative and Reform Jews who take Tisha b’Av seriously. I know plenty of serious Jews who otherwise take Tisha b’Av seriously but this year are fully in support – and participating in the fun – of the games.

I do want to make this a statement about how decisions get made, how events are planned, and whether or not those making the decisions and planning the events know who they’re excluding and why.

I’ve requested an official statement from the JCC hosting the games. Hopefully, I’ll get a response. Stay posted!

Monday, August 01, 2005

How do you learn?

Apparently, I learn by the sink-or-swim method.

I was talking with two other women in shul last Shabbat about the fact that I’d be layning (chanting) Torah for the first time this coming October. The prospect left me excited but very nervous. I’ve chanted Haftarah before, but you get the trope notes and vowels and everything with Haftara. With Torah, there are no vowels, no notes, and all the text is hand-scribed in fancy calligraphy. It seemed daunting at first.

One woman suggested that I start small. Pick a very short reading, read on a Monday or Thursday during morning minyan when there’s only a couple dozen friendly faces. Wait until I’m more comfortable before tackling a longer reading in front of some 300 people. We joked about this being the test-the-waters approach to learning. Dip your toe in the pool, then immerse a foot, and gradually get in.

I said that my history of taking on tasks has typically been to jump in with everything I’ve got. If I jump in the deep end, I will learn to swim! My life will depend on it! Of course, sometimes I stand at the edge, telling myself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...” And sometimes I need that helpful hand to push me in.

The other woman in our conversation offered another alternative: she said she doesn’t even stand at the edge, thinking about it. She just runs full speed at the deep end, jumps in, and as her body sinks to the bottom, wonders, “What have I done?!"