Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Memory

Many years ago, when Ron and I were still much too young to blame our memory failures on our advancing age, we had the year of the Christmas pillows. The only excuse I can give for the pillow fiasco that happened that year is that we were having the kind of addled brain blips of working parents in a busy, chaotic, noisy household full of children. I enjoyed those busy days and am not complaining about them. But the fast pace and complexity of our lives could, and did, lead to incidents like the pillows.

The whole thing started when I bought two nice-quality down pillows at Costco for an excellent price. I put one in Ron’s closet and told him to give it to me for Christmas and I hid the other one to give to him for Christmas. The pillows we were using on our bed had seen better days and we were both in need of replacements, so the pillows were a good practical gift.

When Christmas rolled around, a few months later, I could not for the life of me remember where I had hid Ron’s pillow. I could not find it. I figured it would turn up eventually and that when I had more time to look for it I might find it. When we opened gifts, I would just explain to him that there was a pillow in the house for him somewhere. On Christmas morning, I was handed a huge fluffy package and opened it to find my pillow, given to me by Ron. But there was something odd about it. It was not the pillow that I had bought at Costco. It was a different one. He had forgotten about the pillow I had told him that I put in his closet. So I promptly went and got that pillow out of his closet, and gave it to him. Problem solved. We both had lovely new pillows. Months later, I stumbled upon the pillow that I had intended to give to Ron, fallen down behind a mountain of stuff in the back of my closet.

Do you remember this Marx Brothers routine? Groucho says to Chico, “I bought you a gift.” And Chico says to Groucho, “And I bought you a gift too.” And Groucho produces a huge salami and hands it to his brother and says, “It’s a salami.” And Chico says, “Funny thing, I got you a salami too,” and he hands an identical salami to his brother. Ron and I stopped buying each other cards a couple of years ago when we bought one another the exact same Valentine’s Day Card. Now, when we buy each other the same gift, we always say, “I got you a salami.” Maybe we should say that we got a pillow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Jewish Mom Network

[I thought I posted this blog entry on Sunday, but just discovered that I did not! Here it is for your reading pleasure.]

One Saturday in October I got a phone call from Sudi. He said he had stumbled in his bedroom (in Oakland) and fell into a mirror leaning against the wall. The mirror had a jagged edge and Sudi cut his leg, just above the ankle. He said he had gotten the bleeding to stop, elevated the leg, and put ice on the cut, but it hurt a lot and he thought he needed stitches. He has a standard transmission car and the leg hurt too much for him to drive. We managed to find a nearby emergency room and a friend to take him there (where they stitched him up). Unfortunately, he was planning to go grocery shopping that day and he had no food in the house. One of his roommates brought him a sandwich for dinner. He called me early the next morning, sounding miserable, to tell me he hadn’t slept much and he was still in pain. He couldn’t walk on the leg (he wished he had asked for crutches at the emergency room). He didn’t have anything in the house to eat for breakfast and he still couldn’t drive (he could barely walk).

I told him to sit tight and I would locate reinforcements. I called my friend Phyllee, my soul sister and a Jewish mom like myself. Phyllee lives here in Ukiah. Her boyfriend of the past couple of years lives in Berkeley so she often goes to stay with him on the weekends. Phyllee and I raised our children together and became very close when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack when her daughters were still teenagers. I called her cell phone and luckily she was, indeed, in Berkeley for the weekend. I told her what was going on with Sudi. He needed to be taken back to the emergency room to get crutches, and to the grocery store to get ibuprofen and food. She said not to worry, she and her boyfriend would head right over to his place in Oakland and take care of him. I called Sudi back and told him help was on the way.

Soon afterward, I got a phone call from Phyllee. She said that she was in the emergency room with Sudi and they were waiting to see a doctor. He had been given a painkiller and crutches and Phyllee had made sure he ate some breakfast. But here was the thing, Phyllee was calling because her daughter Bonnie (who lives here in Ukiah) had just called her to tell her that she was sick and she needed help. Bonnie had gotten food poisoning the night before and had been up sick all night. Phyllee was worried that Bonnie was dehydrated. Bonnie was too weak and dizzy to drive to the store and she didn’t have anything in the house to eat on a delicate stomach. She needed Gatorade, saltines, and chicken broth. Her roommate was there with her, but he had no driver’s license and she lived out on the Rez, not near the grocery store.

I told Phyllee not to worry, I was on it. I ran out of the house and, while Phyllee sat in the emergency room with Sudi, I brought Bonnie some supplies, made sure she was rehydrated and her electrolyte balance was back (Gatorade), that she was not running a fever, and I called Phyllee to give her the report. We jokingly called ourselves the Jewish Mom Network. It is not often that one has the opportunity to return a favor so instantly. Crazy that both our children were having a crisis at the same time. Jewish moms to the rescue!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Permission to Be Happy

I recently read an article written by a hospice worker about the regrets that people have when they are dying. Among the top five regrets the hospice worker listed was that people wish they had “allowed themselves to be more happy.” That’s a curious regret, and perhaps an all-encompassing one that covers all the others; like not spending enough time with one’s children when they were young, or not traveling more, or spending too much time at work and not enough time with family and friends, or not pursuing a passion for photography more aggressively, and so forth. Because all of those other regrets are about not allowing oneself to make the adjustments necessary to be more happy.

But the other part, the biggest part, of not allowing oneself to be more happy has to do with recognizing and appreciating what one has received and what one has accomplished. It seems to me that people who regret not allowing themselves to be more happy are people who recognize as they are dying that they did not count their blessings often enough, did not pause to be grateful for all the good things, the beautiful things, in their lives. Furthermore, I think that accomplishment is an underappreciated value for many people. The American Dream (and, as George Carlin says, “you have to be asleep to believe it”) dictates an image of success based on money, power, and large brush strokes. So people in this country tend to think of themselves as “ordinary,” or failures, or someone who didn’t accomplish much if they didn’t invent the Internet, discover a new element on the Periodic Table, win American Idol, play pro-football, or make a million dollars. People don’t give themselves credit for their accomplishments, the real accomplishments, such as raising good children, working for 40 years as a third-grade teacher, putting a smile on the face of customers as a grocery store cashier for 30 years, making beautiful gardens, planting trees, learning to recognize birds by their songs, being a good friend; well, I’m sure that you can think of a million more, you can see where I’m going with this. Enough said.

This is what I want to say to anyone reading today’s blog: Remember to give yourself permission to be happy. Don’t time-travel in your head as much, wistfully remembering the good old days now long gone, or imagining the future. Settle in the present more often and appreciate your contribution, the good work you have done so far. It matters. It makes a difference.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Stories We Tell

The stories we tell are more than entertainment, more than educational tools: they profoundly impact the world we live in and they may very well determine the survival of humans on this planet.

First, some physics. I confess that I am woefully deficient when it comes to understanding even the most basic principles of physics. But I do understand that physicists have proven that the universe is fundamentally made not of matter but rather is made of energy and surrounding fields of energy. Also, quantum physicists have proven that scientists observing how particles behave in an experiment actually have an impact on the outcome of the experiment. By the act of observation, the observer changes how things turn out. The observer’s energy alters the result of the experiment.

Next, about water. Dr. Masaru Emoto, of Japan, has proven that the quality of water changes according to the energy people send to the water. In his book The Hidden Messages in Water, he shows how his experiments prove that water crystals (as water freezes) formed from water coming from water bottles with positive words written on them (such as “love” and “gratitude”) are magnificently beautiful, while water crystals formed from water coming from bottles with negative words (such as “hate” and “anger”) are malformed, and frequently are unable to form crystals at all. Dr. Emoto’s research into the formation of ice crystals proves that the energy that humans put out into the world has an impact. If water receives positive messages from people, then it is high quality water. If it receives negative messages then it is impaired water. (You can see this vividly in the photos in his book.)

So what does this mean about our stories? It means that the stories that we tell make a huge difference as they go out into our world. Our stories shape our future, the quality of our lives, and even our survival on the planet. Our stories are manifestations of our visualizations of a better world, a beautiful world, a world worth living in. It matters that we put positive images and positive stories into the universe. Our stories have an energy that influences outcomes. In the 1970s, a motivation theorist named David McClelland wrote about his theory that the development of societies, the rise and fall of nations, and the progress of humans on the planet are impacted by the stories that humans tell. Our folktales, children’s stories, myths, legends, and fairytales influence history, culture, and (according to McClelland) economic systems. Our stories create the patterns of our world; not just the stories we tell our children, but all the stories we send forth, create our world. (That’s why Harry Potter must persist and vanquish Voldemort.) As a writer, I have a responsibility to put forth positive stories (not necessarily with a happy ending, but with positive messages). But I’m not the only one. Each person has a huge responsibility to promote positive energy with the words, images, history, portrayal, and concepts sent out into the human conscious and unconscious.

So be very careful what stories you tell.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy WalMart (or The Holiday Spirit)

It’s all starting to be too much for me to process. While some Americans are being sprayed in the face with pepper spray by the cops for sitting peacefully to register their rage at the greed and corruption of corporate America symbolized by Wall Street; other Americans are being sprayed with pepper spray by fellow shoppers for battling their way through mobs of crazed consumers just to buy a waffle iron on sale, contributing to the corruption of corporate America symbolized by WalMart. The irony of this juxtaposition is a bit overwhelming. When I step back and attempt to look at my country through the eyes of a Haitian, Iraqi, Colombian, or Nigerian, I can only imagine how decadent, disturbed, and dysfunctional American culture must seem. Well, heck, it is.

WalMart is the antithesis of the Occupy Movement and I’m proud to say that I have not stepped inside one in probably 15 years or more. May I remind you that WalMart contributes large chunks of its profits to campaigns for Republican candidates and agendas that perpetuate corporate rule. May I also remind you that WalMart’s labor practices are abysmal, and include policies that allow them to maintain (within the law) legions of employees nationwide with no benefits whatsoever. Few WalMart “sales associates” can support a family on what they earn. ($7 an hour and no health plan? What is up with that?)

If we wish to constructively direct our anger about the injustice and unfairness of our economic system then the thing to do this Christmas is to not buy anything that puts money in the pockets of the corporate giants, including not buying anything on a credit card that we can’t pay off as soon as the bill comes due. My gift to myself this holiday season is that I have now closed out my Chase and BofA credit cards and converted them to credit cards through our little local credit union. Of course, none of us can be completely pure and untainted. After all, I just filled my car up with gas; and not much contributes more to corporate bloat than buying gas. Sigh.

I’m totally burned out on all of it. This Christmas, I’m giving my children homemade gifts exclusively. They’re getting applesauce made from apples off the tree in the back yard, cuttings from my aloe plant, CDs of their dad’s radio show, a photograph of the house at McNab Ranch (that they grew up in), a foot massage, a promise of a free copy of my novel when it comes out in the spring, and sock puppets.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Frog Story

For several weeks, Ron was hearing a frog croaking in front of our house in the evenings. Not a delicate creaky frog, but a big loud frog. This frog was driving Ron crazy. He would just be settling in to listen to music, read the newspaper, watch a movie, or play his trombone, and this frog would begin making a racket. Ron kept going out on the front porch and looking for the culprit. But frogs have this habit of falling silent the minute a human gets too close. “It’s so loud,” Ron complained, “that it sounds like it’s right inside the living room.” My book group met here on Wednesday and that frog started croaking, and they could hear it where we sat at the dining room table. It really did sound as if it was inside the house. Well, as it turned out, it was. On Thursday morning I noticed Golda (my orange tabby cat) studying a little one-inch square white-green object in front of the sliding door to the deck. I went over for a closer look and sure enough, it was a frog. I managed to rescue the frog from Golda before she ate it and I released it out onto the deck, where it hopped merrily on its way. My guess is that it was living in one of the cold-sensitive plants I brought in for the winter a few weeks ago. They are in the front hallway. It was such a tiny frog, I can hardly believe it made such a loud croak. But the house has been blessedly quiet in the evenings now so it was definitely that little fellow. Hop softly and carry a loud voice.

Now, and this has nothing to do with frogs, I want to share a quote that resonated with me this week. I just finished reading Suite Française by Iréne Nèmirovsky. She was a well-known French novelist, Jewish, who was deported to the camps and killed when the Nazis occupied France. She had written nine novels by the time she died, at the young age of 39. Her husband also perished. Her daughters were hidden and managed to survive and one of them (only 10 years old at the time) packed her mother’s manuscript for Suite Française in her suitcase to remind her of her mother when they fled after their parents were arrested. Nèmirovsky’s work has been compared to that of Tolstoy. (She emigrated to France from Russia when she was young.) At the end of Suite Française, there was an Appendix that included some of Nèmirovsky’s notes to herself about the book. This is the note from Iréne I wanted to share: “What lives on: 1) our humble day-to-day lives, 2) Art, 3) God.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ann and Tom, Colombia and Haiti

Earlier this week I was visiting my father in New Jersey and he took me to lunch with his friends Ann and Tom, who are activists who work for peace and justice in the developing world. Tom works to improve conditions for the people of Haiti and Ann does her main work for the people of Colombia. They are elders, in their late 70s or early 80s (couldn’t tell exactly). Tom spoke about the need for a paradigm shift in the way Americans approach Haitians in their efforts to help. American aid organizations are inclined to send food to Haiti to the exclusion of exploring ways to reestablish the means for Haitians to produce enough food to feed themselves. Tom says we need to think about how to partner with the Haitians, to collaborate with them to provide assistance that will make a lasting difference and not just address an immediate need. At one time the people of Haiti were able to grow enough rice and beans to feed themselves. Tom says that helping Haitians restore their rice paddies would be the most significant step toward ending hunger in Haiti. We talked about the fact that Americans are often patronizing when providing aid to the developing world, assuming that we know what people need; when in fact they know what they need better than we do.

Tom’s wife Ann founded the Colombia Accompaniment Program and she says she started the organization after she asked Colombians what was needed. They told her they needed American witnesses to come and stand beside them in solidarity to stop the violence in their country. So Ann went home and created a program (like Witness for Peace) that sends witnesses. Their presence reduces the violence experienced by Colombians. I didn’t know before reading some of Ann’s materials about Colombia that it has produced the world’s fourth-largest uprooted population, with over 2.6 million Colombians now refugees or internally displaced. The country remains trapped in a civil war waged between guerrillas, the Colombian military, and paramilitary forces (many formerly military). The war there has raged for more than 40 years, with deep roots in political exclusion and economic injustice. Just over 1% of the landowners own 55% of the land, the top 10% of the population receives 44% of the income, and 55% of the population lives below the poverty line. (By-the-way, Ann encourages people to buy Equal Exchange coffee from Colombia because your purchase benefits the indigenous Colombian coffee farmers.)

I could learn so much from Tom and Ann given more time to spend with them, but we only had an hour at lunch, so I absorbed as much as I could in the short time allowed. One of the things that stands out for me from our conversation was the discussion about partnership, about asking what is needed instead of assuming or dictating. To truly offer help as one person to another or one nation to another, the one offering must be willing to base the assistance on what the recipient really needs. What the recipient really needs may turn out to be quite different from what was anticipated, much more difficult to provide, and something with which the donor does not feel quite so comfortable. I admire Ann for asking the Colombians what she could do and then going home and finding a way to do it. In the end, we need to be prepared to learn from one another and to be changed in the process.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Parenting

On Wednesday my youngest child turned 20 years old, marking the end of over 14 years of parenting teenagers. I once heard a joke that went something like “your grandchildren are your reward for not strangling your teenagers.” To be honest, I’m not sure that teenagers are significantly more challenging than toddlers. They are certainly more expensive than toddlers, but each is challenging in their own way. I am proud to say that I enjoyed my teenagers. They were a lot of fun. I’m extremely grateful they survived. And exactly what they survived? I really don’t ever want them to tell me.

So today, while contemplating my complete transition over to parenting adult children, I discovered a very disturbing article in the paper about a fake parenting study published by the satirical magazine The Onion as a joke. I have no quarrel with The Onion’s article. I am taking issue with the people who thought it was for real and agreed with it. Now that is scary. The Onion article heading was “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.” They pretended a study was conducted and found that no parenting practices or styles were successful; that every parenting style produced “profoundly unhappy adults” who are bitter and isolated, and “unprepared to contend with life’s difficulties.” The story was a joke. It was run in the same issue with an article entitled “Nation Finally Just Breaks Down and Begs Smart People to Fix Everything.” The make-believe research study mentioned in the article is attributed to the California Parenting Institute (CPI) in Santa Rosa (just down the road from me).

When Robin Bowen, executive director of CPI arrived at work on Thursday morning her office was swamped with phone calls and emails from people who believed the article was true and wanted copies to prove that they were right all along in their theories that no matter what parents do it doesn’t make a difference in how their children turn out! One woman called because she is writing a book about how parenting doesn’t really have any impact on children and she wanted a copy of the report. CPI has been working hard for over 33 years to provide parenting education in an effort to help people raise healthy, happy children.

I am astonished and shocked that there are so many people who seem to think that parenting makes little difference on how children develop and eventually turn out as adults. The fact that so many people thought the study was for-real and agree with it is pretty disheartening. I know that no one who reads my blog is this ignorant, so I’m preaching to the choir here. But I just have to say, I think all the problems of the world would go away if everyone raised their children well.

Next Sunday I will be on vacation and won't be blogging. I'll be back again the next week.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Each Voice

A couple of weeks ago, Diane McEachern of Bethel, Alaska took her three rescue dogs, Mr. Snickers, Seabiscuit, and Ruffian, with her to a site on the Alaskan tundra, held up a cardboard sign that said “Occupy the Tundra,” and had a photograph taken. She sent the photo to the Occupy Wall Street organizers and it was posted on Facebook, where it went viral. Why do I, and so many others, find this photograph so moving?



Diane is one little person off in the wilds of Alaska who thinks it’s important to raise her voice and be counted. And she’s right. The way the world will change is one person at a time, one step at a time. No matter how isolated we are or how small the sound of our own voice may seem, we must speak up anyway. Each voice added makes the message slightly louder. And who is to know what small action will make a big difference? As snowflakes pile up on a great oak tree in a storm, eventually one of those snowflakes will be the one that causes the tree to break. I have seen it happen. Which snowflake was it?

I also loved hearing that one of Diane’s co-workers saw her picture on Facebook and offered to join Diane on the tundra the following weekend. As my mathematically gifted husband points out, “Diane has already doubled the size of her demonstration.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Frances and Me

When I received a call from Tom Southern at Boaz Publishing in the fall of 2009 to inform me that I had won the Frances Fabri Literary Prize, I had no idea who Frances Fabri was and no way of foreseeing the extraordinary journey ahead. This is the story of my soul-connection to Frances Fabri and how her legacy is changing my life.

Frances Fabri was born on September 22, 1929 in Bekes, Hungary. When the Nazis invaded Bekes in 1944, she (age 14) and her parents were transported to Auschwitz. She never saw her father again. She and her mother saved each other’s lives on many occasions and, miraculously, were both still alive when the war ended. Frances and her mother emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 along with Frances’s husband, Emery Fabri (whom she later divorced). Frances studied history and literature at Hofstra University in New York. In 1972, she moved to San Francisco. She spearheaded efforts in the U.S. to begin compiling oral histories of Holocaust survivors. She founded the Holocaust Center of Northern California and she designed the protocol for interviewing survivors that is used to this day. When she died in 2006, she left her estate to her friend Matthew McKay. Wishing to use the inheritance from Frances to honor her memory, Matt and his wife Judy, in collaboration with Tom at Boaz, established the Frances Fabri Literary Prize.

The Fabri Prize seeks to “discover deserving but underappreciated works of fiction and have them published.” I had spent over 15 years working on Memories from Cherry Harvest when it won the Prize in the fall of 2009. Tom informed me that the Prize Committee had decided to award the Prize to two novels that year, but that they felt the other novel was closer to being ready for publication than mine. They would award the Prize to the other novel in 2010 and to mine in 2011; and Tom and the McKays wanted to meet with me to discuss work they felt needed to be done on my novel. Not only would my novel be the first novel written by a woman to win the Fabri Prize, it would also be the first that had a Holocaust theme as a core element of the book. Part one of the four-part book is based on the true story of some of my family members who survived the Holocaust. When I was awarded the Prize, I read about Frances for the first time and was astonished to discover that it had been her deepest desire to preserve the stories of those who had survived the Holocaust so that their experience would be remembered. This impulse to remember was one of the reasons I wrote the book.

In March 2010, I met with Tom and the McKays to discuss the changes they felt needed to be made to my novel, which were considerable, but I was open to hearing their suggestions. I felt the revision was doable, and I was willing to do it. I spent the next six months rewriting the novel yet again. In the fall of 2010, I sent the new version to Tom and the McKays. They loved it. I thought we were good to go; but it turned out that more was in store for me. The McKays had decided (and Tom agreed) that they wanted to “up the ante” on the Fabri Prize by moving it from its home at Boaz (a tiny press) and placing it under the wing of a larger and more prestigious publishing company. They wanted to raise the visibility of the Prize and the books produced as a result of the award. For the next few months, Matt and Tom met with Charlie Winton at Counterpoint Press to hammer out the details of moving the Fabri Prize to Counterpoint. Every once in a while I received an email from Tom thanking me for my patience. I believed that this was a move engineered by the spirit of Frances. I researched Counterpoint Press and was overwhelmed by the list of authors under their imprint (including, among others, Donald Barthelme, Wendell Berry, Janet Frame, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Lamott, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Gary Snyder).

Forget patient, forget excited, I was now crossing over into the realm of terrified, awed, and overwhelmed. Not only was my lifelong dream of being published going to be realized, but I was going to be published by a publisher with the resources to help me reach a wide audience and perhaps experience commercial success. In July 2011, I signed a publishing contract with Counterpoint. I am stunned by how seriously Charlie and his staff are taking me, an unknown author, and my book, a first novel that I have been writing for 20 years. Charlie hired Anika Streitfeld, one of the best book editors in the business, to work with me on revising the book. I am now in the middle of that process and have never worked harder in my life as a writer. I am not being pressured to make any changes that I do not wish to make. Counterpoint is leaving all decisions about creative content up to me; but I trust Anika (I can see how she earned her reputation) and I am taking her editorial suggestions seriously and working to address them.

In a few weeks, the McKays, Tom, and Charlie will announce the move of the Fabri Prize to Counterpoint, and Memories from Cherry Harvest as the first Fabri Prize title to be published by Counterpoint. The book is scheduled to officially launch in June 2012. Look for it! Each morning, when I go for my walk, I sense the spirit of Frances Fabri walking beside me, cheering me on. Her life’s work was all about remembering the Holocaust through the stories that emerged from it. I hope my life’s work can help fulfill her vision.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Occupation of Wall Street

Every day at 7 PM the “General Assembly” gathers in Liberty Square in NYC to protest the corporate takeover of America. This protest action is called the Occupation of Wall Street. Similar general assemblies are taking place throughout the country and in countries throughout the world. To find out more about actions of the Occupation and the daily General Assembly in NYC click here.

The NYC General Assembly has posted the official Declaration of Occupation on the General Assembly website and for this week’s blog I want to repost the Declaration. Here it is, in its entirety.

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts. *
To the people of the world,
We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.
Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.
To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.
Join us and make your voices heard!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Farewell to Wangari Maathai

Last week Wangari Maathi, founder of the Green Belt Movement, died at the age of 71. In 2004, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she became the first African woman to win a Nobel. (The fact that it took so long for an African woman to win a Nobel is a sad comment about the world in which we live and about whose work is valued and whose is not.) Maathi created the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya in 1977 with the dual purpose of restoring the natural environment of Kenya that has been devastated by deforestation while at the same time empowering women to become economically self-sufficient, to stand up for their rights, and to do something concrete to preserve the environment. The Green Belt Movement organized the women of rural Kenya to cultivate (in tree nurseries) and plant trees.

In 1985, the UN held the third global women's conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Maathai gave presentations to describe the work of the Green Belt Movement. She took delegates to tour nurseries and to plant trees. Her activity at the women’s conference helped to secure funding for the Green Belt Movement to expand its activities outside of Kenya. In 1986, Maathi founded the Pan-African Green Belt Network, through which representatives from 15 other African countries came to Kenya to learn how women could set up programs to combat “desert-ification,” deforestation, soil erosion, water crises, and rural hunger.

As a result of her work empowering women and planting trees, Maathi was twice imprisoned, and in 1992 she suffered a severe beating at the hands of the police while leading a peaceful protest. Her husband divorced her because she was too headstrong and he “couldn’t control her.” She was forced out of her home and stripped of her position as a teacher at the University of Nairobi. Nevertheless, she won a seat in the Kenyan Parliament in 2002, which she held until she was forced out of government in 2008. After that she took her politics back to the streets.

Maathi taught the women of Kenya that it was their civil right to preserve the forests of their homeland. Her work continues after her death. She achieved significant environmental protection in Kenya through tree planting, soil conservation, sustainable management of the local environment and economy, and the cultivation of local economic resources. The Green Belt Movement will continue to help women throughout Africa to generate their own incomes through business ventures such as seed sales. Through Maathi’s work, thousands of impoverished women have been educated about forestry and the Green Belt Movement has created over 3,000 jobs for women. What better legacy to leave? I honor you Wangari Maathai.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Cover Blues

My publisher claims to be committed to working with me to produce a cover image for my book that I like, or at least that I can live with. But this is turning out to be more of a challenge than either of us bargained for. And it is causing me a great deal of stress. I think I am being clear about my thoughts on the cover image and then they forward to me a new version that still does not address my issues with the image. I am wondering where the short circuit is here. I finally wrote directly to the cover designer, for the first time, in an email yesterday. Previously, I was depending on my contacts at the publisher to convey my thoughts. Hopefully this will work and the designer will make the desired adjustments. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. See what you think. There are two huge issues that I am having with the present version.

The first issue is that there are images of two women, one in the foreground and one in the distance, seen from the back and they have straight hair. I keep asking for them to have curly hair. Straight hair doesn’t work. My book is about Jewish women, and granted there are many Jewish women with straight hair; but it is the Jewish women with curly hair who are ridiculed, made to feel inferior in appearance, and viewed in negative stereotypic ways by the dominant culture. For me, seeing straight hair on these women feels like if I wrote a book with all Black characters and then the publisher put a picture of a white woman on the front cover. When I attempted to discuss the cultural significance for me of curly hair on the women in the cover image, the publisher attempted to make me feel like I was concerned with an abnormal level of detail. The women in the book are described as having curly hair. The publisher, a white guy, not Jewish, told me not to be so literal. Huh? I find this disturbing. I thought I had made myself clear, and that he would convey to the book designer the need for this change. But it didn’t happen. In my opinion, the straight hair makes it look like the book designer never read the book (although the publisher swears to me that she did).

The other issue that I have with the cover image is that there is a tree on it that does not resemble any real fruit tree that I have ever seen. If there is a fruit tree on the cover, and I like the placement of the tree and the fact that there is a tree at all, but if there is a fruit tree, it should have the shape of a real fruit tree. It is triangular, with the small point of the triangle at the top. No one in their right mind would prune a fruit tree like this tree and I can’t imagine one growing that way in nature. A few weeks ago I offered to send images of fruit trees to the cover designer and the publisher said, no, no, we’ll take care of it. But that sorry tree has not changed one iota since. I finally sent images of apple trees and cherry trees to the cover designer, explaining that with just one glance, she will get what I mean about the problem with the shape. Additionally, it is a pretty sorry tree. Trees are such exquisite creatures and they play such a significant role as a symbol in the book, I would think that the cover designer could put some energy into producing an image of a fruit tree that would be beautiful. As a gardener, who has lived with and cared for fruit trees for close to 30 years, I think it is not too much to ask to be given at least a believable fruit tree on the cover of my book (if not a beautiful one).

Sorry for the rant, but this is what is on my mind today. I had to say it. I hope I am heard by the book cover designer and not shuffled aside as being unreasonable.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Little Kindness

This past week I received a welcome kindness and also experienced having someone else work hard on my behalf. It reminds me of what we humans are capable of doing together when we support each other and help each other through the difficulties that life presents. Sometimes it seems as though the world is full of thoughtless people who can’t bring themselves to be kind to others. I remember one time when I accidentally cut someone off for a parking space in a parking lot. She made lewd gestures at me and I could read her lips forming swear words. I immediately pulled out of the parking space and motioned to her to take it. I had been in the wrong and felt bad. I waited for her to emerge from the armor of her car and I walked over to her and apologized. She was as sweet as could be, understanding, the opposite of the demon I had witnessed in her car. It befuddles me how people can be so nasty when distanced by being inside a car.

On Tuesday, my contact at my publisher, Liz, went to bat for me in the annual marketing meeting with the sales reps for the spring titles. On the phone with her and the publisher himself, I heard the news that she had pitched my book to the sales reps with such enthusiasm that they had all pre-ordered more copies than was expected. Every one of them, which the publisher said rarely happens. Consequently, the publisher has now increased the number of copies in the first printing and, more than that, Liz is beginning to generate some pre-pub buzz for the book. Liz has been very patient with me as a rookie author, and I am grateful to her for her faith in me and my book. We have settled on a title finally, we are sticking with Memories from Cherry Harvest. I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life re-editing to respond to the suggestions of the developmental editor.

The other kindness that I received this week came as a big surprise. As Ron and I come down the home stretch, with our last child having only two more years of college, we are struggling financially. I am going to have to be vague here, because I need to protect the person who did me the kindness. I paid a visit to a medical professional who has been seeing me for many years. I needed to have some medical care that I couldn’t afford and she provided it to me without letting anyone else in the office know, without allowing it to appear on the record or notifying our insurance carrier (who would not have paid for it for reasons too complicated to go into). She has children at home and I gave her a copy of The Call to Shakabaz for them to show my gratitude for her compassion for me and my situation. We humans have such potential for good. I choose to put my faith in that.

Before signing off for this week, I want to remind all you maties out there that tomorrow is Dave Barry’s official Talk Like a Pirate Day. I hope you will do your part with a few avasts and ahoys sprinkled in your vocabulary.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bringing Peaches for 9/11

It has been ten years since 9/11, the event that has shaped the worldview of my children’s generation in the same way that the Kennedy and King assassinations shaped the worldview of mine. I wrote the following in 2001 to come to terms with the tragedy of the Twin Towers and Flight 93. I still believe every word of it now, ten years later.

As a lifelong pacifist, I believe that retaliation is never the answer. Retaliation is the problem and justice is the answer. We of the U.S. must face up to the consequences of our actions in the world and understand that we are not immune to large-scale tragedy. If nothing else, this was the mighty lesson of 9/11. We must understand that the family members of those we have murdered in other lands, for whatever reason, lofty or not, might hold a valid grudge. We must accept that we are vulnerable to their rage. Will Americans ever understand that our safety and security at home depends on the safety and security of the rest of the world? ALL the rest of the world? We are in this together.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, I received an email from my friend Sue. She wanted to connect with her friends around the country. She told us that in the wake of the terrorist attacks within our borders, she was at a loss for what to do. She took some peaches from her peach tree to a neighbor. While walking to the neighbor’s house with the peaches, she resolved to engage in acts of kindness with a new dedication. She decided this would be her way of responding to the inhumanity that threatens to engulf us. The significance of Sue’s choice of action is not lost on me, a Jew, whose family would not be alive today if not for the simple acts of kindness committed by ordinary people struggling to remain human and caring in extraordinarily inhuman and brutal circumstances. In the broader vision of history, many of these simple acts of kindness are recognized as heroism. Thus, in the post-9/11 world, we must act bravely by holding fast to the moral value of caring for others. We must hold fast to the value of love.

It is not so difficult to love our families, our own children. It is far more difficult to love the stranger, the other, those not like us whose values and perceptions differ from ours. I do not believe that people are fundamentally the same. As long as we think that people are fundamentally the same, then racism, injustice, war, and terrorist acts will continue. People are different and that difference is the essence of the richness, the wonder of humankind. That difference is our greatest resource, our greatest challenge, and the gem that we must chisel from our rough perception. Rather than forcing similarity where it doesn’t exist, we must take that terrifying step of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes, of making the effort to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Terrifying because we risk transformation. We risk being deeply and irrevocably changed by what we learn from this experience.

Unlearning racism is not the same as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with the mystifying actions of someone different from oneself. Tolerance is a fragile veneer. Unlearning racism is about opening our hearts to the possibility that there are beliefs not our own that have value and that our personal view of the world and our view of life is not the one and only right one, the only truth. There are many truths. A Buddhist monk once told me that being a good Jew was being a good Buddhist in his worldview. Unfortunately for us struggling humans, oftentimes different truths are in conflict with each other. If we truly wish to see justice and peace prevail in the world, then we must accept that our personal truths constitute only one perception out of a multitude of perceptions, and that right and wrong may not be as straightforward as we would wish. My fundamental truths and values may differ considerably from those of someone else, in fact, they may contradict each other. Who has the vision or the right to determine which of our truths or values is better or more accurate or correct? We have to live with that and find a way to avoid fighting about it. We have to be big enough, wise enough, brave enough, compassionate enough, and caring enough to learn from each other and to permanently change each other.

In short, we must all show the bravery of heroes. We must take each other peaches from our trees. We must listen, question, strive to understand, listen to the words of the voice and the words of the heart. Listen without fear of transformation, confusion, and doubt. Listen to hear more than one truth. Listen as if our lives depended on it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day Weekend

This week marks 20 years since we moved to the Ranch in Mendocino County. We left our 40 acres of forest over 3 years ago. I still miss it and not a day goes by that I don’t remember with affection some aspect of that place and the time I spent there raising my children. On that day in August 1991 that we moved from Berkeley to the Ranch, I was 7 months pregnant with Sudi, Akili was 4, and Yael was 7. We had not seen the property since May, before we managed to sell our Berkeley duplex. Ron had driven up earlier in the day in his van and I turned off 101 in my little green Honda hatchback with the children bouncing excitedly in their seats during the early afternoon.

As we wound our way uphill on the dirt road, we became engulfed in dust and I suddenly realized that something large was ahead of us on the dirt road to have kicked up all that dust. It had to be our moving van! Sure enough, as we drove the last piece of road to the top of the driveway, we encountered the moving van cautiously crawling ahead in front of us. The children were much too excited to sit in the car and they got out and passed the van on our driveway and ran down to the house where Ron was already surveying our gorgeous parcel with satisfaction and plotting what he would do there.

Our friends Maggie and Linda arrived soon afterward to help us unpack. The movers were unloading for the rest of the day. Then came that fateful first night in the new home when we listened to the chirpy insects kick up a holy racket outside our window and Ron turned to me and asked that now-famous question “Where the heck are we?”

In October of our first year in the house, we hosted a camp-out and invited our Bay Area friends up for a weekend. That weekend was the first annual gathering, which was moved to Labor Day Weekend in our second year at the Ranch and has become a family institution. Once upon a time, Sudi overheard me mention to a friend that she should join us over Labor Day. She asked “what’s Labor Day?” Sudi’s eyes widened and he said in astonishment, “You don’t know about Labor Day?” It was as if someone had confessed to not knowing about Christmas. Every year we hosted a camp-out on the property over Labor Day Weekend. In the early years, we sometimes had as many as 30 people in tents, with lots of children running in a pack around the house at all hours.

Those abundant years of tent cities on our property are well behind us, and out-of-town guests are few for the weekend event these days. But we still host a potluck BBQ and open house on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend each year, and this year was no exception. I am still enjoying the company of friends Jessica, Sylvia, and Gayla (with her husband and baby girl along). There is no excuse needed for an evening of gathering friends together, delicious food, good music, laughter, and reaffirmation of the good life we live in Mendocino County. Another day in paradise.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Needing a Pensieve

A few weeks ago I decided to take a sabbatical from reading nonfiction politically charged books about the corruption of governments, the devastation of the environment, plague, financial collapse, child soldiers in Sudan, and other cheery topics. Instead, I am rereading all the Harry Potter books and I gotta say that I am loving every minute of it. It doesn’t get any better than J.K. What a genius. Last night I finished The Goblet of Fire, number four in the series of seven, and the book in which the pensieve is introduced. After begin reintroduced to the concept of a pensieve, I realize that the older I get, the more I need a pensieve. Would someone please invent a real one?

In case you live under a rock and have not read Harry Potter or seen the films, the pensieve is a basin filled with molten light into which the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Wizard Albus Dumbledore, stores thoughts and memories that are cluttering up his brain. Dumbledore is a very old fellow. The older I get, the more material I have cluttering up my own brain and I really do wish I could take some of this nonsense out and store it in an external brain available to me for access whenever needed. I am impressed that J.K. understood this so clearly at the young age at which she created the concept of the pensieve.

My mind is so full of infinite details that need attention, things to remember to do, memories from years gone by, stories to be told as well as stories heard and loved, inventions and imaginings not yet committed to paper, reveries, creations, meditations, connections, images, fragments of sensual experience, tunes, and on and on and on. I could not live without post-its to help me remember things that need tending to on a daily basis, including work tasks as well as household management tasks. And I am astonished that writers could even function before computers; I can barely remember what I myself did before them, when I wrote on a Hermes electric with a one-character memory correction key. But in truth, after recently celebrating another birthday, I have to admit that I long for that pensieve in which to store some of this stuff that is spilling out of the closets of my brain. If I’m like this in my 50s, what on earth will I be like in my 70s, or beyond if I should be so lucky to live that long? I shudder to think.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Counting My Blessings

Last week, sitting in the back seat of the car while Ron and Sudi chatted about music up front, swapping tunes, as we drove down the state for a little family reunion with our grown-up children, I took a moment to count my blessings.

We picked Sudi up at his student digs in Oakland, a house he shares with half a dozen other CCA art students, and then went to L.A. where we spent a night with friends. Throughout our trip, Sudi spent hours under his headphones composing music, which is his passion. We picked Yael up Friday after work (she has a job at a company that provides resources and social marketing tools to the fashion industry) and drove to San Diego where Akili lives (he works as a web developer for a company that provides marketing tools and builds websites for green businesses) for the weekend. Friday night we went out to eat with our three plus Akili’s girlfriend of more than three years, Tina. It’s an experience eating out with young people these days as it involves a great deal of hand-held electronics, such as passing phones back and forth to share photographs, looking up things on the internet that they can’t quite remember, and my daughter occasionally tweeting parts of the conversation to her growing following in tweet-land. We were at the restaurant for over two hours. Great meal. Great conversation. Lots of laughs. The following day we walked by the ocean. Then I cooked dinner for everyone at Akili’s place and we shared a couple bottles of wine. Crazy, drinking a bottle of wine with my children at dinner! Still getting used to it. And when it got dark we watched the spectacular fireworks over Sea World (a nightly show is done throughout the summer) from Akili’s roof.

Back to my moment in the car. This is a lovely picture. My children. Our terrific time together; but, as I counted my blessings in the car, I noted that I have worked very, very hard in my life to paint that picture. The financial creativity, juggling the family dynamic, dealing with all the problems great and small, being present for my children daily and nonstop (even when I would have preferred to be sitting in a quiet study writing), cooking nutritional foods, keeping the household running smoothly, family outings and vacations, moving to 40 acres of remote forest for heaven’s sake to raise the children in nature, attending school events and getting to know teachers, and reading aloud to each of them separately for half an hour every night for years and years and years. Cultural enrichment. Viewing films and listening to music. Sports events. Sending them to college. That was a big one (trying to swing that financially). And on and on. I am truly blessed, and I am grateful for it, but make no mistake: I worked for these blessings. I earned them. And I had children because I wanted to spend time with children, live with children, support children, and enjoy children. I still believe that all the problems of the world could be solved by good parenting. Parenting is as parenting does. I am looking forward to more fat years down the road with grandchildren on my knee.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Four Years Later

Four years ago on August 8 my dear friend Elena was struck and killed by a truck while biking to work in Oakland. I have chosen, on the anniversary of her death, to think about everything that she has given me in the years since we lost her rather than how much I miss her.

Probably the biggest gift I have received from her since she left is my friendship with her parents, Candy and David, who are in their mid-80s. They are still quite active for elders; perceptive, funny, thoughtful, and wise. After Elena’s death, I quickly fell into the habit of calling them every week. Now my Friday doesn’t seem complete unless I have my phone call with Candy. She catches me up on what Elena’s friends and family are doing, reports on her health and the health of her husband, and always gives me a detailed weather report. She asks about my children and I fill her in on the latest. We have a “chit-chat” as Candy calls it; but it’s often more as sometimes I share my deeper concerns and worries, my successes, latest thoughts on life, and frustrations with dogmatic insurance adjusters and crazy appliance break-downs. All that stuff. Just life. Chit-chat and more. Sometimes David will get on the phone with me to tease me about something or to check up on me. Of course there is something about Candy and David that reminds me very much of their beautiful daughter; but they are also distinctly wonderful. I cherish our friendship. Thank you Elena for giving me this friendship with your parents.

Another gift Elena has given me since she left is the increased closeness I have developed with some of her friends who I didn’t know that well before our loss. Lately I have spent more time with one of her friends in particular who I only knew in passing when Elena was alive. I am looking forward to getting to know this woman better in the future and am grateful to have deepened that connection.

The year after Elena died, I started a scholarship fund in her name to provide financial assistance to college-bound high school students who speak Spanish as their first language. The scholarship has taken off with a life of its own and I no longer have much to do with it. Money is collected, a couple of “angels” give several thousand dollars, and each spring a scholarship board meets to cull through applications from students and select awardees. A group of Elena’s friends attends the award ceremony at Berkeley High School and meets the young people who have received scholarships and their families. The scholarships always go to such dynamic and motivated young people and their parents are always so proud of them and their accomplishment. Elena has given them the gift of college tuition and has given me the gift of witnessing the continuation of her work. I am deeply moved at the scholarship presentation every year.

There are so many other little things to cherish that Elena has given me since she left. As I think about it, my mind fills with images and bursts of recognition of gifts from Elena. I see the image of our mutual friend Linda on her wedding day wearing an antique lace tablecloth that she inherited from Elena over her wedding gown, and it was the perfect and most exquisite addition to her ensemble and contributed to the beautiful glow that surrounded Linda that evening. My son Sudi, Elena’s godson, has recently landed a gig DJing a radio show once a week on Berkeley Liberation Radio. When I think of how thrilled Elena would have been about this, I have to laugh. Elena gives me that laugh. And then there are the sunglasses. I took a pair of Elena’s sunglasses from her house. She had a bag of glasses, all different kinds, and her parents offered them to her friends during the week after Elena passed away. I took a pair of sunglasses. In the past, my sunglasses have not lasted long, but this pair is indestructible! I wear them every day. They are not my style in appearance, but they are really good sunglasses. I wear them every morning when I go for my early walk, and sometimes I think that I’m seeing the world through Elena’s eyes, continuing on this earth for both of us.

Now, four years out, I remain thankful to Elena for the gifts she continues to give me.

Note: Next Sunday I will take my first vacation from blogging in about five years. Be back on the 21st.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Signing the Contract

Alone, and quietly, with no fanfare, I celebrated one of the most significant events of my life this past week. I signed my first book publishing contract. I wish I could say that it was no big deal, but I would be lying. It was a very big deal.

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. All I ever wanted to do with my life was write. How lucky I have been to have received so much more than that out of life. My passion for writing is so close to the bone, that I almost don’t know how to start to talk about the journey to the moment that my pen touched down on that book contract this week.

Over 20 years ago, I started writing down notes and vignettes for a story I had an idea about writing. Fragments of the story came to me and sometimes I captured them, while other times they escaped. I began writing my first novel in earnest in 1993. At that time I had three small children and I was working fulltime. I lived at the Ranch and so I spent a great deal of time driving back and forth to town. When I got behind the wheel, my mind would usually go to this novel. As soon as I arrived at home or at work, I would scribble notes to myself.

I started to get up at 5 AM every weekday to write for an hour before waking the children to get them ready for the day. Sudi wasn’t even in school yet when I started writing this book. I wrote on an old desktop computer with a DOS operating system and no mouse. I still remember the glow of the green rectangular box that was the cursor blinking at me. Some days I wrote no more than a paragraph or a few sentences. I wrote like that, early every morning, Monday to Friday, for six years before I finished the first draft.

Then I had a few people read it, and I got feedback, and I started revising, rewriting, developing new material, cutting material that didn’t work. I threw away the whole first section of the book and started it with the second one. I reworked the book for a couple of years, and then had people read it again. And then reworked again. I started sending queries out to publishers. Sometimes a publisher would request the manuscript and I would send it. I have a folder about an inch thick of rejection letters for this novel. And I have rewritten it many, many times over the years. I would set it aside, and write something else, and then go back to it and rewrite. My nickname for the book became “War and Peace.”

In January 2010, I got a phone call. I had entered the novel in a contest and the prize was publication. The people who ran the prize wanted to award the prize to my book, but they wanted me to make some changes to it first and they wondered if I was open to that. I met with them and listened to their suggestions. They wanted me to do a substantial rewrite that mostly involved cutting three sections out of the middle of the book. It would mean taking three of the main characters and making them into peripheral characters. I agreed to do it. The book had too many main characters and too much going on. The people who ran the prize convinced me that the book lost momentum in the middle and the change was worth making. I spent the next six months rewriting yet again.

The people who ran the prize loved the rewrite. But they explained that they couldn’t award me the prize just yet because they were in the process of finding a new home for the prize with a different publishing company. They told me to be patient and I was. I waited. What else could I do? In June 2011, they completed an agreement with their new home for the prize and I was delighted to discover that this publisher is a very prominent company, well-known and well-connected. Then the publisher contacted me and we began negotiating a contract.

On Wednesday of this past week, the final contract that we have agreed upon arrived in my email inbox with instructions for me to print, sign, and mail to the publisher. Alone, in the quiet of my study, I picked up my pen and signed. All my life, I have dreamed of that moment. By now, I have quite a few book-length manuscripts stashed in my closet. I wonder which of them will ever go out into the world. But this week, I am celebrating the miracle of one of them stepping out on that journey. So many hours, so many years, so much sweat and tears, so much hope and despair locked in those pages. I am astonished at how much I wanted this, how long I had to wait for it, and how grateful I am that my day has finally come.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Living in the Bubble

Most of the time, I live in a bubble. That’s how I stay sane, how I stay alive. This week, I found myself outside the bubble and it’s frightening out there. I couldn’t last long outside the bubble. I’m working on getting back inside.

I was reading David Eggers What Is the What, about the life of Sudanese Achak Deng, who was one of the Lost Boys. The back of the book promises it is “unexpectedly funny,” but I did not find an ounce of humor in the first 100 pages, during which this poor child of about seven years old experiences every horror imaginable and then some from the time the fundamentalist religious fanatics of the North first raided and destroyed the town of his birth in South Sudan, killing his family. I stopped reading yesterday at about 100 pages. I know that I should bear witness for this poor soul. But I can’t bear another word of his excruciating story. I returned it to the library. I never reached the unexpectedly funny part.

Ron and I are watching the Ken Burns series about the history of Jazz music. It’s a fabulous odyssey, and indeed has many funny moments as well as terrific music. Jazz (or “Jass” as it was first called, named after the jasmine perfume of the whores who frequented the New Orleans music halls where “Jass” was born) evolved in tandem with the evolution of America. It would be impossible to talk about the history of Jazz without talking about the history of America. The other day, when the images of lynchings began to appear on the screen, I covered my eyes and asked Ron to let me know when they were done. At least a full minute went by before the assault was over and I was able to watch again.

This week’s Time Magazine reports a famine in Somalia, and contains photos of starving children. Images of malnourished African children are rooted in my brain from when I was a child. African children have been dying of starvation for a long time. So have American children.

The newspapers this morning report the shooting of more than 80 youngsters at a summer camp in Oslo; slain by a psychopathic fundamentalist religious fanatic. This week there was also a shooting in Santa Rosa by a mentally ill jealous boyfriend. He killed an off-duty police officer, who was someone’s beloved father, son, husband. friend. Even the local newspaper reports a fatal shooting at Lake Mendocino, which was caused by a quarrel over drugs.

What is wrong with us humans? Causing each other such pain. Traumatizing children. Creating generation after generation of damaged, mentally ill, and lost souls, who continue to perpetrate violence and harm. Why are we so violent? I’m having a bad week, a sad week, a week out of the bubble to grieve for the failures of humankind. Let me back into the bubble. Let me back into my fortunate, insulated life. I can’t take it out here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mystified by Kitchen Dummies

My daughter Yael called me yesterday evening from a friend’s house. She had offered to cook him dinner, but when she arrived at his house she discovered that he had no kitchen tools whatsoever. She sent him out to buy a cutting board, a knife adequate for cutting vegetables, and a frying pan! She called me while he was out at the store. “Mom I was so shocked, I caught myself sounding like you,” she said. “You should see this guy’s kitchen. He has nothing. You would not believe it. He eats out all the time. Guess what he keeps in his kitchen cupboards?” I couldn’t begin to guess. “Office supplies, Mom. He has envelopes in his spice cupboard! He has the stuff you would store in your office in his kitchen cupboards.”

I asked her what she had offered to cook for him and she replied tacos. “Tacos?! You have got to be kidding,” I said. “He doesn’t have what you would need to make tacos?” She reminded me that she had just told me he doesn’t have a frying pan. So we spent a few minutes together just being amazed that there are people in the world who live like this. How they do it, neither my daughter nor I can figure. I remember visiting my cousin one time and discovering that he too had nothing in his kitchen. He did not even have a pot in which to boil an egg! His mother never cooked. They always ate out. He always eats out. How can people live like that?

I can’t imagine not cooking my own food most of the time. My home cooking is better than what I can get at most restaurants. If I do eat out, which I rarely do, I go somewhere that they cook things that I’m not good at making myself or they have standards on the menu that are difficult to ruin, like a Greek salad. All of my children do a lot of their own cooking, even if simple fare. Not surprising, though, since they were raised on good homemade food and they enjoy making things just the way they like them, even if it is just a simple fried egg sandwich.

I love to cook. When my children were growing up, I made a pie or two every weekend throughout the winter, I cooked a complete vegetarian sit-down dinner for the family every night, and their dad made pancakes for breakfast on Sundays. He frequently barbecued for us in the summer or made chicken or fish to go with my homemade vegetarian meals. We ate well. Not only that, but I grow some of the things I eat too. What a concept, huh? From garden to table. Well, Yael’s friend can eat envelopes, but I’d rather live the high life. If you have never visited my recipe project blog (Amy's Transformational Vegetarian Recipes), pay a visit by clicking here. Last night I posted a new summer recipe that I just invented this week. Summer recipe because it has homegrown squash and basil. It is oh so yummy. Heads up: You need a cutting board, a knife, and a frying pan to make it.



(Photo by Elaine Hamby)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Recovering That Which Was Lost

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring in El Paso, Texas. Rabbi Stephen A. Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso has documented the many Mexican immigrants in El Paso who have come to him over the years to ask him to explain certain bewildering actions of family elders that turn out to be connected with Jewish rituals.

For example, a woman brought her elderly mother to Rabbi Leon because the elder was dying and she demanded to see a rabbi. The elderly woman spoke only Spanish and she had emigrated many years before from Mexico. The family was Catholic. The elderly woman produced a set of tefilin from her purse and explained that her grandfather would put on the tefilin every morning when she was growing up. He did this in secret and the elderly woman’s parents did not know about it. Only she, the little granddaughter knew. When he was dying, he gave her the tefilin and instructed her to put them (there are two pieces to it) in his coffin with him. He told her to find a rabbi and ask about the tefilin. He said the rabbi would explain. She put one piece of the tefilin in his coffin with him, but she kept the other. Now she was dying and she needed to unburden herself. She gave the tefilin to Rabbi Leon. The elderly woman’s family asked the rabbi what this meant.

Rabbi Leon explained to the family what the tefilin is (a ritual Jewish object used for prayer) and that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Many of these Jews would continue to secretly practice their Jewish customs and they are termed “crypto-Jews,” or Jews who practiced their rituals in hiding. Jews had already been fleeing Spain for years when they were formally expelled under the Inquisition in 1492. The grandfather of the elderly woman with the tefilin was most likely one of these crypto-Jews who fled or was expelled. His children and grandchildren were Catholics, but he continued to secretly pray every morning in the Jewish tradition. The elderly woman and her daughter had not previously known that their family descended from Sephardic-Hispanic Jews.

El Paso is one of the places where many of the descendants of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition ultimately found refuge. (Another is Juarez, Mexico.) Rabbi Leon has encountered hundreds of Jews who came to El Paso through Mexico, and a surprising number of them did not realize that their family was Jewish until some event revealed the truth to them, as it did for the family of the elderly woman with the tefilin.

Rabbi Leon has had Catholic Mexican immigrants come to him to ask the meaning of tefilin or of a magen david (Star of David) necklace or of a tallis (prayer shawl) that they inherited and they are shocked when they put the pieces together and realize that their grandparents or great-grandparents were forcibly converted and that they are, in fact, of Jewish heritage. He has had Catholic Mexican immigrants come to him after the death of an elderly grandmother to ask if he can explain why she lit candles every Friday night. (This has happened rather frequently. It seems that lighting Sabbath candles was one of the last vestiges of the religion to which these crypto-Jews clung.)

Rabbi Leon has found that when these descendants of forcibly converted Jews discover their true heritage, they are eager to learn more about Judaism. The rabbi writes “The enormous number of those with Hispanic background who have Jewish roots is apparent. Imagine if a fraction of that Hispanic community, the fastest growing population today, began to explore its roots…. Should this happen, the impact on the world would be astounding.” Surprisingly, many of these Sephardic-Hispanic Jews actually return to Judaism. One would think that they would not be prepared to give up their religious beliefs and become practicing Jews, yet many of them do just that. At the very least, they are interested in learning more about the heritage that was lost.

This entire phenomenon fascinates me. I am reminded of the ritual on Passover when we hide the Afikomen, a piece of matzah, and the children must look for it. This is a symbol that reminds us that what is lost will be found and returned by our children.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Noam’s Runaway Face

So I read a very interesting article written by Rachel Kadish about what happened to her cousin Noam Galai’s image of himself yawning. Noam is a shy Israeli photographer, born in Jerusalem, who took a photo of himself in the mirror yawning, with his mouth wide open. Although a benign activity, the photo looked like he was having himself a huge primal scream. He apparently posted the image on Flickr. Then, unbeknownst to him, his yawning face took on a life of its own and went out into the wide world.

A year after he put the image on Flickr, while living in New York, he discovered that the image of his yawning face was appearing on T-shirts. He had never sold the photo to anyone for their use and no one had ever contacted him about using it. Yet his face had become public property and he was not making any money off the use of the image. He eventually used an online tool to search for the image and discovered that his yawning face, characterized as a “screaming man,” was appearing all over the world on T-shirts, skateboards, playing cards, and posters (for music concerts as well as political causes and events). His face was being spray-painted on walls as graffiti art. He no longer owned his face. Without his consent, he had become the poster boy for revolutions and underground artists.

The image of Noam’s face, viewed as an outraged scream, has become one of the primary images for the Iranian resistance movement and as such appears all over Tehran. The image of Noam’s face is thus being used as a key symbol of their cause by the same political activists in Iran who refer to Israel as a “cancerous tumor” and deny that the Holocaust happened. Noam is a Jew, born Israeli, who served two years in the Israeli Army, and who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. I am trying to wrap my head around this irony. The image is being used by other political movements as well, by-the-way, including many in Central and South America. The image was used on banners in Spain and in Colombia calling for the release of certain political prisoners. It’s also being used by many musicians to depict a guy having a good time listening to live music.

Noam apparently is not phased by the fact that the world has absconded with his face and that his photograph has been reused without permission or compensation. He has started printing up his own T-shirts and other items with the image and has been selling them. He started a Facebook page where he tracks the use of the image. It’s a good thing that he isn’t bothered by where the image has gone. But it sure makes me wonder about intellectual property rights and credit for creative work and who owns what and how artists can maintain control of their material. Or if they should even try.

Here are some of the images of Noam that have appeared:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Founding Fathers' Nightmare

On Tuesday, my friend Ina will work her last day as the Children’s Room Librarian at the main branch of the county library system after serving 10 years in this capacity. Although Ina is in her early 60s, she was not planning to retire this week. Her position has been cut from the budget. In addition, the library will be closed for yet another day of the week, leaving it open only 3 days a week. For this reason, I have no patience for government officials talking about low literacy rates and children unable to read and teacher accountability for this problem. I pay $4000 a year in property taxes to this county. If that money were put toward Ina’s salary, she could work 2 months a year part-time. And if 11 other people (out of the over 80,000 living in this county) were allowed to allocate their property taxes to Ina’s salary, then she would be back at work fulltime, serving our county’s children.

This coming fall, when children return to school, there will be no librarians at the elementary schools in our local school district. Our district has already cut excess, cut essentials, and is now cutting off arms, legs, and noses. The administration has also cut all “health technicians.” This position was a downgraded version of the school nurse that was created to save money (less-qualified staff, lower salary). Yet the health techs are trained in medical and health procedures. With them gone from the schools, there is no one on staff qualified and trained to, for instance, administer insulin if a child goes into a diabetic coma. Boy is our district a disaster waiting to happen now. Firing the health techs was about the most unwise cost-saving maneuver I can imagine (is it even legal?). Wait for the first lawsuit when a child is rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. I am being optimistic. I am assuming any medically fragile child who goes into crisis will live. Whether or not s/he will be literate is another issue.

This year’s Fourth celebration is just around the corner. And I’m thinking that two of the greatest institutions of a free society, the public library and the public school system, are being destroyed. While our libraries and schools are collapsing, the politicians argue about whether or not to tax the wealthy, which is really an argument about how much they fear crossing the corporations that put them in power. While our libraries and schools are collapsing, federal tax dollars are being poured into buying weapons for soldiers who are turning schools in Afghanistan into rubble, which is really about lining the pockets of those profiting from the military industrial complex. Poor Ben Franklin (who, remember, invented the public library). Poor Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. George Washington. Oh how the founding fathers must be turning over in their graves. One nation, under Capitalism, with liberty and justice for the wealthy.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Out of the Shtetl

The shtetl, for those of you who don’t know Yiddish, was the Jewish “ghetto” back in the day, in Eastern Europe. Jews lived relatively isolated in these little communities. Lived and died there, never left, until finally driven out by persecution, as depicted in Fiddler on the Roof. So this week, I’m thinking about that construct, living in a close-knit circle of friends and family, for one’s entire life. I left my home where I grew up and travelled far away, all over the world and all over the country, in fact, before I settled in California. I don’t regret moving to Cali. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Ron and I share a deep love for the ocean and would never go too far from the Pacific. I have a circle of friends here, my own self-made shtetl of community. Yet this week, when my Cousin Marcie passed away in N.Y. at the age of 89, I had a few pangs of remorse. Our family is now so spread out that I rarely see the cousins with whom I grew up (including Marcie’s children) and my cousins’ children. I would have enjoyed watching these children grow up and being a part of their lives.

Today, on Father’s Day, my dad is in Israel visiting his first cousin Sari, who was born and raised there, and her sister Dalia, from Canada. Sari’s daughter was married last week so Dad and Dalia (and some of Dalia’s children) went for the event. When the Nazis began to overrun Europe, my father’s family scattered to the four winds. Canada, America, Australia, Israel, France, wherever they could find safe haven. Sari and Dad are close and visit each other back and forth internationally once or twice a year. Sari calls Dad each week on her cell phone, often more than once a week. I suppose if our family had stayed together in a shtetl, we would have been in each other’s business, it would have been nasty, quarreling, gossiping, driving one another crazy while loving each other to death. Maybe it’s better this way. And yet.

My children took my (and Ron’s) adoration for the Pacific away from their childhood with them. I doubt they would ever leave Cali. Like me and Ron, they need to be near the ocean. They are spread out across the state, but that’s doable. Close enough. Ron and I will be having a reunion with them in August at the beach (of course) when we drive down to San Diego. The Cali shtetl? Maybe a little bit.

Happy Father’s Day to my lovely husband and my terrific dad.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Great Liberation Upon Hearing

I just returned from the Dance Brigade (of San Francisco) performance of their new piece entitled “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing,” which, for those of you who don’t know as I did not, is the original literal title of what the Western world refers to as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” It is also referred to as the “Bardo Thodol.” I know very little about Eastern religions and so did not know that the “Bardo Thodol” is read aloud to the dead from the time they are dying, through death, and during the time between death and reincarnation.

Tibetan religion teaches that we progress through many lives in the process of liberating ourselves from our negative karma so that we can ultimately become enlightened and liberated from the constant return to the earthly plane that happens when we are reincarnated. Interestingly, this very week I am reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of my Familiar, which I read many years ago and forgot so am rereading. One of the characters in Walker’s book, Lissy, remembers many lives through which she has passed. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Lissy explains that when people get old and approach death, they are in the habit of looking at death as a resting place, as peace. They imagine that they will finally put down the burdens of this world and move on to the spirit realm. But Lissy does not let us off the hook. She says that we do not escape the tangle in this world so easily. We are destined to be reincarnated and to return to continue figuring it out, reversing the damage, cleaning up the environment, and all the rest of the hard work that needs to be done. We cannot so easily escape the mess the world is in. Lissy goes on to say that what scares her most is not death but what she will find going on in the world when she is reincarnated back into it, i.e., how much worse the situation will be.

The “Bardo Thodol” is read aloud to the dead because it is thought that when someone is newly dead, their awareness is confused and that they need help and guidance to advance to enlightenment and liberation or else to their return to the earthly realm through reincarnation. The Dance Brigade’s performance was a representation of one spirit’s journey from death, through the afterlife, and back through the doorway of entry for reincarnation. Walker’s character Lissy basically tells us that we are not allowed to throw our hands up and give up, to grow old and die in peace. One way or another, we will have to work through this mess, make sense of it, heal what has been damaged, in order to come to enlightenment, which occurs when we recognize the luminosity of awareness. Not when we simply see the luminous, for the Tibetan Buddhists believe that we always see it upon death each time around, but when we recognize it, for we don’t often recognize what we are seeing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On the Meaning of Cats

I read in the newspaper that recently completed research proves that cat owners live longer. Cat owners are 40% less likely to die of a heart attack and 30% less likely to die of any type of cardiovascular disease (including stroke, heart failure, and chronic heart disease) than people who have never had a cat. Yay kitties. According to this latest report, interacting with cats reduces stress. I’m not so sure about that; clearly the experts have not met my scamp Ella, who is the smartest cat in the known world. She is a cat with a sense of humor and the joke is often on me. Ella has figured out how to open the screen door to the back deck. Although her sister, Golda, has seen Ella do this trick over and over again, Golda can’t work out how it’s done. So Golda frequently sits at the door patiently waiting for Ella to appear to open it for her. Golda is a very beautiful orange tabby with green eyes who is a generic cat. Nothing unusual about her. She does all the things cats do. Ella, on the other hand, is kind of like a small child trapped in a cat’s body. Ella is all black with enormous green eyes in a little round face, and a constantly impish expression. I have had about 15 cats over the years, but these two girls are my favorites of all time, especially Ella, who is my darling.

After reading about the increased longevity of cat owners, I wondered if it’s the impact of having a cat in the household that makes the difference or if it has more to do with the sort of person who chooses to have a cat in the first place. Perhaps people who have cats are easily amused, or quickly delighted by the antics of animals and other natural phenomena, or less likely to sweat the small stuff. Interestingly, people who have dogs live longer than people who have never had a cat or dog, but people with dogs don’t live as long as people who have cats. What is up with that? What does this data really tell us? Heck if I know.

The article that said that cat owners live longer also said that the following habits increase longevity: meditating, taking a multivitamin, hanging out frequently with friends, exercising, flossing, eating healthy food (and that specifically included red wine and dark chocolate so yay to that), and getting enough sleep. If I am fortunate enough to live to a ripe old age then I want my extended twilight years to contain a lot of purring and a lot of dark chocolate.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hoarding

I have heard that there’s a reality show where professionals help obsessive hoarders get rid of accumulated stuff and organize their home. I don’t think I’m bad enough to be a candidate for that show. I don’t have to climb over stacks of newspapers to navigate from my living room to my bedroom and I don’t save every single paper clip, pencil stub, and plastic bag (although I admit I’m tempted). Nevertheless, the other day Akili accused me of being “an organized hoarder.” I have a lot of stuff that I don’t need but can’t quite part with. I have to keep telling myself that giving away objects does not diminish the experiences associated with them. I am not giving away the memories, only a thing that I associate with the memories. I won’t forget the great night out in Switzerland just because I got rid of the empty bottle of wine we drank (I still have that bottle on my kitchen window sill).

This past fall, I decided I needed to downsize my stuff. So each week, for several months, I forced myself to fill my trash can with things that had no earthly further functional use and I made a run each week to Goodwill with a load of items that still had some life in them. I hate the idea of sending stuff to landfill. I am the queen of recycling. But some things are really all used up; such as broken fishing rods, an unidentifiable plastic object the size of a large dog labeled “save for Akili’s car” (with a piece of tape on it that says “Akili says throw this out now”), sneakers that the children wore to shreds back in the 1990s, a game of Chutes and Ladders that is missing half the playing pieces, an in-dash tape player that was removed from a car in 1987, broken video tapes of Elmer Fudd cartoons, a stained and falling apart copy of a cookbook about cooking for a vegetarian baby, my father’s Tennessee license plates (he left Tennessee over 20 years ago), etc.

Now that I’ve removed the first level of stuff from my life, the harder work remains. I need to reassess the things that I still like to look at, but truthfully don’t need for anything. I have always collected beautiful objects. I have saved a million things my children made while growing up. I have hung onto old clothes that I loved that have too many holes and stains to wear anymore with the thought that I might cut them up and make something out of the material one day. Sigh. For the time being, I’m letting myself off the hook; but one day, when I move out of this house, I’ll get rid of that Rastafarian puppet Akili made in fifth grade. I swear.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Graduates

I spent the day yesterday at Cal State Monterey Bay at a graduation ceremony for the daughter of a good friend. Last year at this time we were at Akili’s graduation. He grew up with the young lady who graduated yesterday and I have known her since she was a little girl. We are extra proud of the accomplishments of these young people these days when the state colleges have raised the cost of tuition, making it more difficult for students to complete a degree. Our friend who graduated yesterday thinks she was perhaps the only Native American graduate from CSUMB in the 2011 class, and since there is no Native student association, she was invited by some of her African American friends to participate in “Black Grad” (a private celebration sponsored by the Black Student Union) earlier this week. Her mom told me that so few Native students attend college, or complete a degree course once started, that the Gates Foundation is phasing out the Native American portion of the Gates Millennium Scholarship (which the younger sister received and is using to pay for her college education).

When I went to college in the 70s, students normally completed their bachelor’s degree in four years. These days, according to the N.Y. Times, it takes college students an average of six years to complete a degree. The financial stress of this prolonged period in college is enormous. And, ironically, one of the reasons why it takes so long is because it costs so much to attend. Most students have to work while studying. Here in California, there is the added problem within the state college systems that class offerings have been reduced because of budget cuts so students have great difficulty getting the classes they need to complete their degree. Akili received a waiver for a couple of his requirements and was allowed to substitute other classes instead because the classes he needed were unavailable in his final year and he needed to graduate.

According to the Pew Research Center (2009) some 37% of people age 18 to 29 are either unemployed or out of the work force, the highest rate in that age group in 40 years. And last week I read an article that stated that 85% of college graduates move back home with their parents after graduation. That’s unbelievable to me! When I was a 20-something, once you went away to school, you were gone, never moved home again. But these days, they can’t get work or can’t get work that pays enough to support them. (A lot of employers want new college grads to accept “unpaid internships,” which is in fact illegal.) Young people who completed that labor of love and obtained a college diploma now find themselves unable to land that elusive “career job.” They are bagging groceries, waiting tables, working retail, and basically filling low-skill jobs alongside high school students. It’s degrading. Our Akili delivered pizzas for several months. Yael worked as a receptionist and then went back to waiting tables (which is how she earned money while she was in college). Fortunately, Akili recently started a new job at a young company (building websites, doing graphics, and developing social marketing materials) and Yael is in a temporary job as an administrative assistant in a social marketing firm in the fashion industry (we hope it will become permanent with some luck in the fall).

Furthermore, the majority of these grads have college loans they need to be paying off, meanwhile they can’t earn enough money in a low-wage job to fully support themselves, let alone pay off that loan. I don’t think the whole college loan paradigm is viable anymore, but try telling that to the financial aid office. Young people come out of college carrying a huge debt that they can’t repay. They default on the loan, destroying their credit rating for years to come. Their financial situation is terribly stressful. They will never be able to buy a house because they have to pay off that loan first. A note of interest: President Obama still owed money on his student loans when he was elected to Congress.

Whether or not they have a college degree, more and more young people are moving back in with their folks (or never leaving). The N.Y. Times reports (2010) that, “In 1980, 11% of 25-to-34-year-olds were living in multi-generational households. By 2008, 20% were.” Furthermore, the Times states that 56% of men age 18 to 24 and 48% of women in the same age group live under the same roof as their parents. Some of these young people are married with children, mind you, and still need to live with their parents to make ends meet. They can’t find jobs and the jobs they do find don’t pay enough to live independently, often carrying no health benefits. The financial crisis has left an entire generation of hard-working young people pitching tents in the ruins of Wall Street. Or, more literally, pitching their tents in their parents’ back yard. Fortunately, the young lady who graduated yesterday has a terrific job waiting for her. She begins next month. One of the lucky ones. Yesterday was a wonderful celebration of her achievement.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

SPD Family

Last year I read an article about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and suddenly realized that my whole family has it, which explains a lot. I didn’t realize it was a disorder. I thought everyone was like us. When my children manifested issues with certain sensory inputs, I thought it was something all children did to greater and lesser degrees and each in their own unique way. But apparently “normal” children do it to a much lesser degree than my children did and it’s actually some type of genetically linked abnormality, formerly called “sensory integration dysfunction.” Not just our offspring, but Ron and I as well, manifest a laundry list of features associated with SPD. Our family is, in fact, officially (clinically even) “special.”

People with SPD have issues with certain sensory inputs, and the collection of inputs that bother people with SPD are individualized. The experts have categorized them under headings such as “auditory,” “visual,” “tactile,” etc. The bottom line is that people with SPD are very sensitive to certain inputs and can be grossly distracted and driven nuts by some of them.

Having SPD means that Ron doesn’t just dislike okra, because the way it was cooked for him as a child it seemed to be sautéed in snot, he actually gets a shiver at the mention of the word and his bottom lip involuntarily twists perpendicular to his top lip. I have silverware in the kitchen that Ron refuses to use because it isn’t heavy enough for him to eat with. There is a utility knife that I use daily that Ron will not even touch because he cannot abide the texture of the handle. He complains that I walk through the house too quickly and it makes a breeze, which chills him. In fact, he is remarkably sensitive to heat and cold. Threaten to put an ice cube down his back and he will spill his darkest secrets without hesitation. He won’t eat melons (except watermelon) or any fruit that has touched a melon (bad flavor).

I’m no better. I am notorious for not only cutting the tags out of my clothing but removing labels, tags, and stickers from anything that I bring into my house (from fruit to storage bins). I can’t sleep in socks because I get claustrophobic. I find pants grossly uncomfortable, probably because they are too tight (I only wear dresses). I need either long sleeves or sleeveless clothing, nothing in between (I cut the sleeves off all my T-shirts). I hate wearing a hat (headache). I wear gardening gloves because I am afraid of touching a worm with my bare finger. I am intolerably sensitive to perfumed scents (some I am OK with but others make me sick), and take my own bed pillow with me in my suitcase when I travel in case, heaven forbid, the pillow on my bed is sheathed in a pillow case washed in scented fabric softener. I have trouble with bright lights and usually can’t sleep in a room with any light source in it (even a little LED light on a DVD player). Ron says I’m the original princess and the pea. I confess that I actually dislike the color yellow in general (though not always in the specific). There are a limited number of yellow things that I find pleasing (sunflowers and lemons are OK, but I don’t much care for daffodils and yellow wallpaper makes my hair stand on end).

Everyone in our family is pathologically particular about what socks we will wear because we can’t handle lumps or prominent seams. When Yael was a toddler, on more than one occasion, she threw a face-down, on-the-floor, kicking-screaming tantrum if her socks had the hint of a lump in them. For more than ten years, Sudi refused to wear any socks other than one particular brand and type. And Sudi will eat hardly any kind of fruit because he dislikes the texture. He won’t even touch a peach skin with his finger (gives him the shivers), and, as a child, he even disliked the smell of strawberries. (Strawberries! Could anything smell better than strawberries?) Watermelon is the only type of melon Ron and Sudi will tolerate, and even then it has to be just perfect. Too ripe and it’s too mushy for them. Not ripe enough and it’s too cucumbery. It was Sudi who refused to read library books as a child because he said they smelled icky. I had to buy him books to get him to read them. Akili and Ron have acute hearing and can hear sounds that no one else notices. Hence, they both have difficulty with distracting and annoying background noises that “normal” people would block out. Akili also has a keen sense of smell (I do too). He claimed he could smell ants and would get upset when he smelled them in our kitchen at the Ranch. He was almost always right about it too; if he smelled ants then sure enough we would soon discover an invading contingent. Yael used to say she liked the way fresh eggs smelled. By fresh, she meant straight out from under the chicken, when we went to the neighbor’s at the Ranch each week to collect our eggs. One feature of auditory SPD is that the person who has it is aware of so much auditory stimulation that they have trouble weeding out and focusing on things said directly to them. So my boys could never remember what I had just told them. Seriously, aren’t all children like that? Is that really a significant feature of SPD? I’d always make my boys repeat back to me what I had just said. Half the time, they’d say, “Wait, what did you say again?”

I was always amazed at what other people’s children would eat because mine were such picky eaters. Vegetables? Forget it. Yael once lived on nothing but Barbara’s Natural Cheetos for several months. This is the same child who liked to eat raw, uncooked tofu. Go figure. I remember a Thanksgiving Dinner at which Akili ate nothing but canned pears. He used to put ketchup on everything. In fact, he put ketchup on his Thanksgiving turkey every year up until he was about 21 (we have photographs of him at the Thanksgiving table with a bottle of ketchup at his elbow). Yael puts soy sauce on everything. Sudi puts pepper or hot sauce on most of his food. On many occasions, I made a tray of enchiladas (for family dinner) that was elaborately divided by toothpicks marking where the cheddar enchiladas ended and the Monterey jack enchiladas began and where the beans only (no cheese) started and which ones had cilantro and which ones didn’t.

SPD is not considered a serious problem unless it interferes with functioning and quality of life. Children with problem SPD can apparently be successfully retrained to cope with sensory issues through gradual acclimation to them. In our family, we just took these things in stride and adapted to them by making the needed modifications. For instance, we cut the tags out of shirts, found socks without lumps and stuck to those brands/varieties, didn’t force anyone to eat things they didn’t like, adjusted lights and sounds if they were bothering someone, and, in Sudi’s case, didn’t forced him to read a library book. I am thinking that not every family had to be as creative as we have been to accommodate everyone’s oddities. I used to think that these sensory issues were signs that our family is highly intelligent and sensitive. And SPD is often associated with high intelligence and creativity, but not always. I was so smug about how smart and perceptive we are, but in reality we are just peculiar. And imagine an entire household of people with all these weird sensory issues? Imagine raising three children with them? OK, now give it to me, some sympathy please.

[If you want to find out more about SPD, just google “sensory processing disorder.” You will never wear a pair of socks the same way again.]