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 lovely daughter 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, my daughter’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.

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: