March 30, 2012

Hello, world. I am a writer.

Hello, world.

My name is Leah and I'm a writer.

Hee hee...still makes me blush. I've gotten better about telling people that I write books, but it's still sort of strange, what with the whole "I'm not yet published" thing. There's the "well, I could self-publish tomorrow, but I'm still holding out for the traditional route" conversation to be had, and the "these things take time" conversation as well.

But still, awkward conversations and explanations notwithstanding, I've grown more comfortable adding "writer" to my own self-labeling - it's now up there with "runner," "nerd," "mom to a cool kid" and "closet Broadway show tune fan."

This week was a rough one, though, writing-wise. I hit my first bout of writer's block on my new book. About 30,000 words in, I realized I hadn't begun to define my bad guys, and I realized I hadn't done that because I didn't have a clear picture in my head of who, exactly, they are.

So I spent one night staring at a break in the page where some kind of explanation needed to go. Nothing came, so I finally put up my computer, nowhere near my nightly word count goal.

The next night, I tried again. Still, nothing. Just a hazy blob, where I needed a strong, well-planned image to be. Again, I shut down early, frustrated.

The following morning, I mentioned my dilemma to Charles as we drove to work. We joked around a little, and then somehow, mid-conversation, the bad guy image took shape. He mentioned the movie The Fifth Element, and suddenly the image had depth, too. It was amazing, all there, all complete, as if he'd been there the whole time.

I thought that night would be great for writing.

But I let some outside factors and stress-factories get in my head, and I wasn't able to get past them. The well-formed, well-defined image just wouldn't show itself on my computer screen.

The next night I finally admitted I needed to give myself a break and take a night officially off. I was afraid of doing permanent story damage if I kept banging away at my keyboard, making no more sense than if I'd let my epileptic hound-dog have a go at it. 

The break was a relief.  It gave me a moment to catch my breath, decontaminate my brain.

Today, I found my voice again.  

It was a me-day. I have them about once a month.  I don't work Fridays thanks to my part-time schedule at the office, but usually Zoe stays home with me. We have fun on those days, but I'd hardly ever call them productive.

So once a month or so, I send Zoe to school on a Friday.  Those are my me-days.  Today, my goals were ambitious:
1. Run
2. Write
3. Clean bathrooms (my LEAST FAVORITE TASK EVER!)
4. Run errands
5. Write some more

I was mid-way through my first attempt at writing, and it wasn't going well.  I was still a little stuck, still a little frustrated.

But then I did what any crazy writer would do: I took a look at the people I was writing about, and I realized I had a problem.  One of my good guys? Yeah, he's bad.  Deep down bad, too.  Like, super-bad. I'd been trying to keep him good, but I was failing, because he was meant to be bad.

So I wrote a couple of sentences, letting him be kind of bad. 

And it felt good.

I wrote a few more, letting him be even worse.

And it felt even better.

And after that? Writing became possible again. More important, it got fun again. Which is great because, like I said to my mom last weekend, if I were to win the lottery (and yes, I did finally buy tickets to Mega Millions today because, well, why the hell not??), I'd still write. I love writing. Even though I hit a snag this week. Because snags can usually be worked out, with a little bit of time and patience.

So hello, world.  I am Leah, and I'm a writer. 

***************

In the event that you find my babbling about myself boring, let me at least give you a book recommendation.  You've worked hard to earn it.  

Read Double Dead, a tale of a vampire stuck in a zombie-infested world.  The writer is Chuck Wendig.  He's nice, and a pretty stellar writer.  Buy his book.  You'll enjoy it.

March 23, 2012

Caleb Learns to Fly

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Mom asked Caleb as he brushed his teeth.

“An astronaut,” he answered through a mouthful of foam.     

"What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mom asked Caleb while they ate lunch.

“A surfer,” he answered, his mouth full of food.

It was their favorite game. Caleb wanted to be a snowboarder, a race car driver and a fire fighter. Every day Mom asked him what he wanted to be, and every day Caleb’s answer was different. 

But then one day, Mom stopped asking.  

Caleb was very sick.  He wasn’t allowed outside for a long time. Instead, he had to stay in a hospital room.  It had a window, and looked out over a beautiful park.

“Let’s focus first on getting you better,” Mom said, when Caleb told her he wanted to drive a garbage truck.

One especially sunny day, Caleb sat at the window and watched the children play below.  

“Mommy, when can I go outside?” he said, letting out a big sigh.

Mom carried him back to his bed without answering. She picked up the globe that she had placed on a shelf in his hospital room.  

“Where do you want to fly today?” she said as she sat beside him.

Caleb was confused.  “What do you mean?”

Mom spun the globe. “Touch your finger to a spot on the globe and we’ll fly there.”

Caleb touched Africa.  Mom smiled. 

“Close your eyes, Caleb,” she said.  “Let’s fly to Africa. It should only take a minute.”

They stretched their arms out and closed their eyes.  They left the hospital room far behind them and flew out over the ocean towards Africa.

“I feel the breeze on my face!” said Caleb.

“I smell the wind across the savannah,” said Mom. “I think we’re close.”

“What do you see, Mom?” Caleb asked.

“I see gold! Gold grasses!” she said.  “Do you see them?” Caleb nodded.  “I see short, stubby trees, and tall, skinny ones. Over there I see a watering hole! There’s a hippo in the water!  Do you see it, Caleb?”

“I see a giraffe eating at a prickly tree branch,” said Caleb.

“I see a lion stalking a wildebeest, and an elephant stomping through the underbrush and leaving a trail behind her.  Do you see her calf walking beside her, Caleb?”   

Caleb saw it.     

And just like that, Caleb and Mom spent an afternoon exploring Africa.

The next day was sunny again.

“Mommy, when can I go outside?” Caleb said as he sat at the window.

“Where do you want to fly today?” Mom said as she carried Caleb back to his bed and picked up the globe from his nightstand, where it stood since the day before.

This time they flew to the jungle in South America. They saw howler monkeys shouting from the treetops.  Colorful toucans flew through the stormy skies.  A long, black river, brimming with piranhas, rolled lazily along, and jaguars stretched out in the tree branches.

Caleb and Mom flew somewhere new every day.  The snowy banks of Antarctica, where the penguins danced and played.  The beaches of Hawaii, where surfers sliced through the waves.  Snow-capped mountains and the Grand Canyon, where yellow, orange and golden rocks sparkled in the sunlight.

Sometimes Caleb felt too sick to fly.  He lay on his bed while Mom lay beside him.  She flew anyway, carrying him in her strong arms, and she whispered in his ear about the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal and the sparkling lights of Broadway. 

And so the days passed.

And Caleb started to get better.

One day when Caleb and Mom had just returned from flying to the Great Lakes to see bears and moose, the doctor walked in, carrying Caleb’s thick hospital chart.  He made a few notes, read some of the papers, and then looked at Caleb and Mom.

“How’d you like to go outside tomorrow, Caleb?” he said, and he smiled.

There were still rocky days ahead for Caleb.  He and Mom continued to fly almost every day, even after he’d left the hospital and returned to school.  Most nights, after Caleb’s teeth were brushed and his story was read, they’d fly somewhere together.

Then one night, long after the hospital visits had stopped and most of Caleb’s life had returned to normal, Caleb lay in bed beside Mom.  “Where should we fly tonight?” he asked.

"I have a more important question,” said Mom. “Caleb, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Caleb stared up at the ceiling, which he’d decorated with paper airplanes and cotton ball clouds.

“Well,” he said. “I think I’m going to be a pilot.”

And wouldn’t you know? That’s exactly what he did.


****************

Caleb is a real boy.  I grew up playing soccer with Caleb's mother. On March 6, 2012 he was diagnosed with leukemia.  He and his family have a long fight ahead, but even in the hospital, Caleb hasn't lost his beautiful smile.

If you'd like to help Caleb and his family along on their journey, please consider donating.  Also, prayers, happy thoughts, and virtual hugs are always appreciated.


March 22, 2012

One more voice raised in outrage

Once, a black professor, my all-time favorite professor in fact, argued to my class of mostly white faces that a white woman and a black woman could never truly be friends. A white woman could never understand trials faced by a black woman. She could never understand the fear, the repression, the weight of her dark skin.

I argued with her, somewhat naively, that my experiences as a Jew would help me on the road to understanding and friendship.  That my distant family's experiences in Nazi-lead Europe qualified me to be friends with a black woman like her.

She stared me down for a moment before answering.  "You don't look Jewish."

She was right. I have blonde hair. Blue eyes. I don't look Semetic.  If I ever needed to, I could pass for something else.

A black woman probably doesn't have that luxury.

I still disagree about whether or not I can be friends with a black woman; I've had many friends with skin much darker than my own.

But I don't know if I disagree, anymore, about never being able to understand.

Because I look at Zoe. She, by Jewish law, is also Jewish. With her darker hair and darker eyes, she probably looks more Jewish than I ever did.

But still, as she gets older, she will probably be safe walking down most streets. She will probably never be stopped by someone in an affluent neighborhood, challenging her right to be there. Telling her she looks suspicious.

Many things may happen to her in life, but I doubt she will ever be accosted, and then brutally shot and killed, based solely on the color of her skin.

I, like many, am outraged that our world is still not safe for black children walking down the street, holding nothing more dangerous than a bag of Skittles.  My heart breaks for Trayvon Martin's parents, who will never see their own child alive again. And I sadly acknowledge: I cannot begin to comprehend their burden.

One man's actions destroyed another young man's life, for no reason other than the color of his skin.

I will never begin to understand that.  All I can do right now is raise my own voice in outrage, to add to the chorus of broken hearts.

March 20, 2012

India, Pakistan and two great books

I love spending time in other countries.

Not that I've done it often, at least not in a physical sense.

But I do spend a lot of time reading about other countries, and I love books that allow me to feel like I've actually been there.

This month, I've spent quite a bit of time in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It's all been thanks to two very interesting, very different non-fiction books: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan, by Amhed Rashid.

************

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully disturbing book.  Beautiful in that the writing is lush, lyrical.  You are in India while you read it; you can smell the spices, hear the music and the nightly calls to prayer.

But you can also feel claustrophobic while reading Boo's descriptions of the slums of Mumbai.  The tight and tighter living quarters. The filth. The stench of the public toilets, which are really just glorified drainage ditches.  You can smell the smog and the car exhaust, and you can hear the airplanes taking off and landing mere feet from the slum.

Boo's writing is that good.

Her story about a family, wrongfully accused in the death of a one-legged slum-dweller, is heartbreaking. A society rife with corruption allows a sham of a trial to continue long after it's been proven (over and over and over again) that the accused are all innocent.

The sub-stories of desperate suicides, and wrongful deaths left not investigated, may make you cry.

Boo's writing is that good.

Throughout the story, you bear brief witness to the opulence, the wealth of the new India, in which the upper class grows richer and more powerful. When you glimpse it, though, it is through a fence or over a wall or while hanging from the side of a fast-moving bus, and you know the people about whom you've read, about whom you now care, will never taste that life.

They'll only taste the slum.

You will be sad. Because Boo's writing is that good, and the stories she tells are that real.

*************

Where Beautiful Forevers is lyrical, Pakistan on the Brink is thick, heavy, laden with information. To read a chapter is to learn more than you ever thought you could grasp about the recent history of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also the multiple (and continued, in the opinion of the author) follies of past and current United States administrations.

Each chapter is a standalone essay about a different piece of history. The first one, about the slaying of Osama Bin Laden within the Pakistan borders, offers a chilling account of the moments leading up to his death, in the small, sleepy city in which he had long hidden.

Later chapters detail the Taliban regime, extremist organizations within both countries, and offer further insights into the Pakistani disenchantment with the West.

It's a dangerous world about which Rashid writes, and a disturbing one. While reading, I felt my Americanness descend upon me like a scarlet letter.  It made me feel less safe.

What I found truly interesting, though, and why I chose to write about these two books in tandem, was this: Rashid frequently points to the economic growth and successes of India, Pakistan's nemesis and neighbor.  He holds India up as the example to which Pakistan should aspire.

While reading that, I thought of the slums, the corruption, the pollution. I thought of the anger and resentment of a people living under complete economic repression.

I was struck by the similarities of the two countries, and their differences. The thing is, both countries teeter on the edge of an ever-sharpening knife. Let's hope neither country ever falters.

March 18, 2012

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. Whoa.

Ever go to a show where you know one of the people playing, but not the other? 

And ever then find out at the end that the other guy, the guy you didn't know, happened to sing one of your favorite songs from your teenage years?

Yeah. Me too. Last night. Wanna hear about it?

***********

Charles and I started listening to Lyle Lovett when we first started dating. Much of his music fills me with that rush of adrenaline, the sudden, intense happiness of the first few months of a relationship.  

So when he comes to town, we try to go. 

He's country, sure, but even though I'm a Jersey girl, there's a lot of country-girl in me, too.  Plus, his music is funny! If you've never listened to him, you should.

Anyway, on to last night. 

He was playing an acoustic set with a guy named John Hiatt. I'd...never heard of a guy named John Hiatt. But still.  Lyle Lovett? Acoustic (my fave!)? Sign me up.

When they came on stage, the audience laughed.  It was St. Patrick's Day, so Lyle wore a kelly green suit. And if you've never seen a man in a kelly green suit...well, it looks as silly as you're picturing in your head right now.

They started to play, and to banter between sets, and they were both excellent. Strong voices. Great music. Hilarious storytelling.  

Lyle played one of Zoe's favorite songs, "If I Had a Boat."  I tried to record it for her, but Mr. Drunk Man next to Charles decided that was the perfect time to head out to yak. Gross. But still. Lyle sang it. Live. And I sang along.

I didn't know any of the John Hiatt songs, but I enjoyed him anyway. His voice was so rich! And strong. I couldn't figure out how he was just a songwriter, and not really famous in his own right.

Then, towards the end of the show, the fellas joined together in a duet performance of Lyle's song "Fiona."  They hit, together, in harmony, a huge note towards the end, and it was so beautiful and strong and amazing, and it lasted so long and was so damn intense...I punched Charles. I had to do something! So his shoulder got slugged. Sorry, honey!

So then the show ended....and we all stood in my least favorite part of any show...the obligatory "clap till they come out for the encore that you know they're going to do anyway." So we clapped. And they returned to the stage for the encore they were never not going to do.

John Hiatt picked his guitar back up. He started to play. My jaw fell slack, my eyes flew wide, and I punched Charles in the shoulder again. "He sings this?" I whispered as loud as I could.  

And then I listened.

************

Back in high school, when I was a skinny, insecure, awkward teenage girl in the grunge-y 90s, I wanted so desperately to be amazing at something. Even if it meant being weird.

Enter what I'm sure was a critically-panned, angst-filled movie called Benny and Joon, about a (slightly...romantically) mentally ill girl named Joon, and her brother Benny.  Joon was quirky, but an incredible artist, and I'd watch her work, wishing I had half her talent.  (The fact that it was a movie and that I have the artistic talent of an aardvark didn't stop me from buying a couple paint sets around that time. My art career...didn't pan out.)

Add to the movie a love interest, the ever-stunning Johnny Depp, and you pretty much had my favorite movie of the time.

At one of the most intense parts of the movie comes this song. I never knew who sang it, and never bothered to look it up. I just...watched the movie sometimes, just so I could hear the song. It made me so happy, it was so beautiful.

Here it is. This is what John Hiatt sang last night.  This is what, for me, made a great show...magic.


March 11, 2012

To Tulsa and back again

A note to would-be travelers: If you travel to a different time zone on the weekend Daylight Savings Time begins, you can expect your body to be doubly-confused when you return home and instead of being 8:30, it's now actually 10:30.

Just...for future reference.  

***********

Zoe and I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend to visit my brother, Jonathan, and his kids, Josh and Kira.  We hadn't been in over a year and a half, and we'd never traveled that far by ourselves, so it was an adventure, to say the least.  Too much to write about in a single blog post, but since I doubt many people would read me rambling on about our travels over multiple posts, I thought I'd record some memories I hope not to forget. I think it'll give you a taste of where we've been while I've been mostly radio-silent.

***********

Something about air travel causes my typically-shy Zoe to break completely out of her shell and befriend anyone in her path.  If you happened to travel by Delta through Atlanta this weekend, you may have seen her, talking to strangers, telling them her name, basking in their admiration of her pigtails, telling them over and over again that she is three and a half, showing off her new purple sneakers and her race cars. 

***********

An image: walking through a grocery store parking lot in the freezing rain, chatting with Jonathan.  In front of us went 12-year-old Kira and Zoe, holding hands and giggling. They had not seen each other since Zoe was two.  They are both tall and thin for their ages, with long, straight brown hair. From behind they, look like a matched set. 

************

We took an afternoon walk through a nature reserve.  Now there were more of us (Jon's girlfriend and her daughter joined us).  The three girls, ages twelve, eight and three-and-a-half, ran up ahead, giggling and playing.  We took pictures of all three of them, standing on rocks, sitting on benches.  For a while, they were a team.

Later that afternoon, they sat together on the floor of the living room, making birthday cards for a party to which we were headed.  When Zoe couldn't figure out how to make a "J" for the name Jamie, the girls wrote it out for her so she could trace it.  Zoe was so proud to hang out with the big girls, she wrote the name again, just to prove she could.

*************

The birthday party started after Zoe's normal bedtime, and was at a place Jonathan referred to as "Chuck-E-Cheese on crack."  He wasn't exaggerating.

I was overwhelmed at first, and through dinner, but later Zoe and I cut loose in the game room.  She rode a merry-go-round.  We whacked aliens and alligators in the arcade. Took funny pictures in a photo booth.  Bowled. We ran around and giggled and played, schedules and routines be damned. 

**************

Then, later that night, in the middle of the night, I awoke to find Zoe thrashing about in the bed. I reached out to hold her hands to soothe her, and drew back from the heat emanating from them.  She was burning up with fever, miserable, unable to sleep.  

I rummaged through Jonathan's medicine cabinet looking for something, anything I could give her, but since his children are no longer small, I found only adult medicine.  

If I could bottle the feeling of lying in the bed beside my child, stroking her hot little nose soothingly while she tossed about and grew ever hotter, I would. I don't want to feel that way again, but I don't want to forget it either. It's a sad feeling, but also one flooded with love.

Finally I awoke my brother, who went out at two a.m. for medicine and a thermometer, and helped make everything ok again. 

**************

The following day, post-doctor-visit, fever well in-hand, Jonathan, Zoe and I hung out at his house, killing some time before heading to a soccer game. It was just the three of us.

My brother is very musical; in his dining room, there are drums, a piano, and several guitars.  

"Let's make a band," Zoe said, and we did. She banged carefully on the drums while I plucked "Baa Baa Black Sheep" on the piano, and Jon played along on his guitar.

We were terrible, but I loved it.

Later, he played and we sang "Margaritaville" in its entirety. I am tone-deaf, but Jon and I have always sung together, and we laughed as we muddled through a song about boozing it up at the beach. Zoe watched in silent, befuddled amusement.

***************

When we left in the morning, my nephew Joshua was still asleep in bed. He's sixteen, busy with his own life and his own friends, but he made a point of being around for much of the weekend to hang out with his baby cousin.  

I knocked on his door to say goodbye, Zoe by my side.  

"Bye, buddy," I said into the dark room.  "We love you."

"Bye," he said.

"I love you, Josh," Zoe called from behind my legs.

"I love you, Zoe," he replied.

March 5, 2012

Some thoughts on "Jewish" writing

When I was a kid, growing up in a heavily Catholic part of suburban New Jersey, the fact that I was Jewish made me feel...just a little different. A lot different, sometimes. My favorite "I'm different" memory was taking peanut butter and jelly on matzoh to school during Passover.  All my friends had normal bread.

And when you're a kid, different means weird, right? Uncool.

But now that I'm an adult and a reader and a writer, I've noticed something. It's a recent observation. But it's true.

I am surrounded by Jewish books. They're written by authors I admire. And they're cool!

Did it start, years ago, with Philip Roth and his new picture of Jewish New Jersey Americana? If so, then it was certainly perpetuated by writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer.

More recently, we've had an uptick in books about Anne Frank.  There was The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman.  Then Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander (see my review here).  Now there's a new collection of short stories called What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander.

The Holocaust even pops up where I least expect it, like in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, in which a Holocaust survivor is an extremely influential character. (I loved this one, by the way. It was creepy.)

It's true, I may be programmed to look for Jewishness in the world around me. I've blogged about my Jewish identity, and these days I wear my silver Star of David with pride. I wouldn't hide my matzoh sandwiches anymore, if only I could stomach matzoh. (I'm sorry - it tastes like cardboard.)

Because right now it's sort of cool to be Jewish, isn't it? Culturally speaking, anyway.  Fans, maybe, of bagels and lox if not gefilte fish. Perhaps not hanging out at shul, but reading the Old Testament to our children at night. Jonah and the Whale. Moses and the Red Sea.

Maybe I was a little different than most of my friends growing up, but that difference didn't restrict me. It helped me define myself. Based on the sheer volume of Jewish-themed books I'm seeing, maybe I'm not the only one in my shining silver star?

As for me, I'm writing sci-fi.  Zombies. But if you dig into my first novel (ok, it's not published...yet...so you can't dig...yet), it's no accident that you'll find a camp, medical experiments and other terrible ways to treat your fellow man.  This is what's in my head; it's what I write about. It terrifies me to contemplate the atrocities in Eastern Europe in the 30s and 40s.  I write about it so I can take something so scary, so crazy, and make it mine for the demolishing.

In my book, I do something bad to the camp.  (Charles fussed at me for having a spoiler here before.) It was cathartic.

I wonder, based on the sheer volume of books addressing Jewish themes, if perhaps I'm not the only one requiring catharsis?

I'm certainly not alone, and I feel as though I'm in amazing company.