Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blessed are the Gatekeepers (not)

We live in a world of gatekeepers. There, I said it.

Obvious, you say? Perhaps. And perhaps it's necessary that in a large, complex, capitalistic society there must be this layer of human functionality that is positioned to make decisions about the fates of other humans to protect the interests and resources of whatever institution employs the gatekeepers in question. But in America, where citizens are guaranteed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, isn't it ironic that gatekeepers so often unconstitutionally deny those rights?

For example, there is a gatekeeper that says I cannot refinance my mortgage or get a home equity loan, and therefore I am at risk for losing my home and automobile because I have no access to capital with which to settle debts and make payments.

There is also a gatekeeper that decides whether a medical service or procedure will be covered, which is the difference between health and being hounded by a collection agency.

In my particular case as an aspiring author, there are gatekeepers a-plenty. One gatekeeper decides whether or not an agent will go only so far as agreeing to represent my book to publishers, with no guarantee even that the agent will be successful. Gatekeepers keep watch over the slush pile of manuscripts that no doubt form unsteady piles of paper on their desks, then decide after a simple letter of query or a few paragraphs or pages of a story whether or not it's worth their time to give any further consideration.

And should an agent agree to take on the responsibility for pitching the work to a publisher (with visions of 15% cuts dancing in their heads), they themselves come up against gatekeepers charged with preserving a publisher's supply of paper and promotional budget. Though writing is an art and should be judged purely by aesthetic standards, typically it is sheer numbers and equations that decide who shall be published and who shall wither on the creative vine.

Currently, I owe about a thousand dollars to my oil company; suffice to say, I cannot pay it. After the holiday I will call the oil company and speak to a gatekeeper who will have to decide whether or not my family freezes this winter. As I said, I am aware that gatekeepers often perform a necessary function given our form of government and economy, but at some point gatekeepers unintentionally (or not) promote the degradation of human dignity to an extent that ought not to be permitted in what ideally is a free American society.

I suppose I am in a particularly difficult situation, in that my oft-rebuffed creative aspirations and severe state of financial crisis make me especially vulnerable to and reliant on the whims of gatekeepers. And perhaps it is because I am alone on Christmas Eve thanks to a failing marriage that my bitterness and anger rise so acutely to the fore, but to what extent must my very fate be in the hands of people who are paid to care not about my needs and priorities but rather about the numbers and profits of their employers? Must every gatekeeper have the understanding that letting someone pass through the gate is the exception to the rule? Couldn't a gatekeeper be charged with ensuring that the gates stay open for many to enter?

Rarely have I used this blog for a rant, but rarely have I been so rebuffed by so many "customer service representatives" and rarely has my overall living situation been so dire. I'm doing as much as I can (working my day job, getting whatever freelance work I can get, and continuing to refine my manuscript and send it out) but ultimately it is in the hands of disintered gatekeepers as to whether I succeed or fail. I pray to God that a conscience rather than a formula guides their decisions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I have written 11 hot sauce reviews to date, which are being posted on (look for reviews by "jason"). Even though I'm only getting paid five bucks per review, I've tasted some good products and there's really no cost of doing business so it's not a bad gig overall.

The publisher who contacted me, New Century Publishing out of Indiana, turned out to be a vanity/subsidy press, which requires you to pay to be published. I had a very nice conversation with the president, who was effusive in his praise for my work, and he sent me a publishing agreement. According to the terms, I had to pay $1,750 to cover 50% of the publishing costs (including editing and printing), and I also was required to purchase 40 books. All told, it could have cost me three grand or more, and while I would do it as a last resort, the fact is that the industry doesn't consider this legitimate so my book would never end up in a bookstore or be reviewed by professionals.

I can't tell you how good it felt to finally hear someone give me positive feedback on my book, but ultimately it was all a sham. It hurts to know that (and I spoke with various writers, including one who was published by New Century, and with a woman who runs the website Writer Beware, so I do know the truth about New Century), but at the same time it has given me new resolve to keep at it and to work harder to realize my dream of becoming a published author.

In the meantime, I've also been writing articles and columns for The Jewish Advocate, a weekly based in Boston, so while nothing is bringing in the windfall of fame and fortune as of yet, I'm keeping busy getting my name out there and hopefully that will help wheels to turn and doors to open.

By the way, I'm on Facebook so if you happened to land on this blog and like what you see, I invite you to friend me. I've learned that a writer needs a platform and without an audience or a community, no platform can stand.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When it rains, it pours

I've been turning to craigslist to try to find freelance writing gigs. There's really not a lot of good stuff there for professionals. What people are looking for are people to write content for social networking sites, offering either no pay or pay on a scale depending on how many people click through your piece. Folks posting potentially interesting writing gigs are paying ridiculously low fees. One guy wanted a name for his new company. He said he'd pay $30 for "a good college try" and $200 if he chose one of the writer's candidates. I could get almost 10 times that in the "real world" But for the sake of adventure and some pocket money, I decided to give it a shot. I had a great rapport with the guy and gave him two rounds of names, about 25 names in all. He liked aspects of many of them, but ultimately was unable to select one. He invited me to submit more but I politely informed him he'd already exhausted the time and creative energy I was willing to DONATE to his cause. At least he paid the $30 quickly.

But in the last 24 hours, some things seem to be moving in the right direction. First, I saw a posting a week or two ago from a small independent press in Indiana that was looking for submissions from Boston authors (the press historically had focused on Indiana and midwestern writers but wanted to expand its scope), so I sent a letter and my manuscript via email. Then I saw a post from a guy who has a hot sauce blog and he was looking for people to write short reviews of hot sauces. He was only going to pay $5 a review, but you do get free hot sauce. Again, he and I seemed to hit off and he agreed to send me my first shipment of five different sauces to sample. Then just last night, I responded to a craigslist post from a literary agent looking for novels to represent. So I sent a query letter to her.

Last night, I got a voicemail from the independent publisher. I called him back this morning and he told me he liked my concept. He hadn't noticed that I had attached the manuscript so he said he would read it and call me back later in the day. Still waiting, but this is the first time a publisher has actually seen my work so it's very exciting.

Later this morning, my hot sauces arrived in the mail. They have the following interesting names: Hemorrhoid Helper, Idiot Boyz, Pit Bull, Dave's Insanity, and Hog's Ass. Can't wait to start tasting.

And just a half hour ago, the literary agent asked to see my first 50 pages. So much of my work on my novel once I finished writing it has been filled with the monotony and disappointment of researching agents, sending out query letters and sample chapters, receiving rejections, and waiting to hear. Suddenly, everything seems to have moved into fifth gear. Of course, it could all end in disappointment - which has truly been the story so far - but at least it's happening quickly and with excitement rather than a foreboding sense of futility.

I'll update when I hear something on these developments, and will include a link to the hot sauce site when my reviews are published.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Well begun is half done

Who knew this quote was from Aristotle? I always thought it was from Mary Poppins. With a three-year-old in the house, I certainly watch the latter more frequently than I delve into ancient philosophy. But as with many things, it's the thought that counts. And for someone like me who is getting into the business (well, the practice anyway; "business" implies that money is changing hands) of writing books, it's an important thought indeed.

I recently learned about a competition being held by a literary agent named Nathan Bransford. Writers were to send him the opening paragraph of their work in progress, and the best one would receive a free critique of the writer's work or query letter. It seemed like a low-risk venture, so I entered. But I didn't send the opening paragraph of my completed manuscript, The Grave and the Gay. The reason is that I had already sent a query letter and sample chapters of the work to Bransford and he had rejected it. And even though I had since adjusted the opening (and did so again as recently as 48 hours ago), I felt that a fresh start was required.

I looked at the opening paragraph of my other work in progress, which is a single sentence: "I am the King of Bad Dreams." Nah, that won't work. Not much of a paragraph, is it? I could bring up the next two sentences and pretend I intended the three to form an opening paragraph, but it still wasn't compelling enough to stand up to competition. The fact is, the opening is the hardest part of writing a novel. I'm not sure I'd be happy with my current openings if I spent the next 30 years revising them.

Ultimately, I sent the opening paragraph of the essay I wrote about spreading my friend's ashes, which I shared in an earlier post. Even though it's not a work in progress, it's my favorite opening paragraph:

The last time I saw my friend Marc, he was tumbling down from a bridge onto the ground approximately sixty feet below. I had a good view because I was the one who caused his descent. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but he insisted. And he wasn’t hurt by the fall, because he was already dead. You see, I was spreading his ashes.

Suffice to say, I didn't win. Well, so what? As my hero Abraham Lincoln once said, "I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined." Besides, I'm plenty busy shopping around The Grave and the Gay and working on my other work in progress (which is still untitled; the file name is NEW NOVEL.doc). So I dropped it from my mind. Until today.

I was looking through my "Writings" folder on my computer, where a number of files of varying vintages are stored. Many of these are fragments: beginnings of stories, snatches of dialogue, plays on words, observations, etc. I've saved them because I'd once read that Stephen Stills saves all of his musical and lyrical scraps until he finds a place to fit them in. Maybe it could work for me, as well.

One of the files had the cryptic title, "Fifteen.doc." I didn't recall its contents so I opened it. There was just a single short paragraph:

Fifteen. When I was 15 it seemed like I’d be 15 forever. The summer that I was 15 was a memorable one. I had my first beer, my first joint, and my first kiss. Days lasted years. Nights lasted decades. And then one morning, I woke up and I was 45.

I liked it! I must have written it some time last year, when I was 45. It felt real to me, and yet it was also something I felt I could build on. The first question, of course, was "What's next?" And it came to me very quickly. I appended the following to the paragraph:

And I had a 15-year-old of my own. And I had to tell him that I was leaving his mother.

So now I had a brand new opening paragraph that I wish I had found in time for the competition:

Fifteen. When I was 15 it seemed like I’d be 15 forever. The summer that I was 15 was a memorable one. I had my first beer, my first joint, and my first kiss. Days lasted years. Nights lasted decades. And then one morning, I woke up and I was 45. And I had a 15-year-old of my own. And I had to tell him that I was leaving his mother.

No matter. It was an exciting new beginning and I went with it. Within half an hour, I had five paragraphs and something more: yet another work in progress. In need of a title and, one day I hope, an agent and publisher.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers, RIP

I remember the person who taught me the song, "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."

Her name was Joanne Coombs, and she was my 2nd- and 3rd-grade teacher. I recall her being a tall, thin, cheerful woman with very short blond hair. The only other thing I recall clearly about my two years in her classroom is that she frequently sang or played records to us. She was not the music teacher, but she obviously believed that music was an effective way to engage young students, and in my case, anyway, it certainly was true.

One record she played a lot was the eponymous debut album from Peter, Paul and Mary, which was released in 1962 and so at that time must have been about eight years old. But it was new to me and its effect on me was powerful. Anyone from late boomer to current toddler has had the experience of listening to PPM's sweet and highly accessible versions of classic folk tunes and having those words and melodies indelibly embedded in one's consciousness. It may have have happened in school or at camp, in the living room, the back seat of your parents' car, on TV or in concert. But that music, which has been timeless and ubiquitous for nigh on half a century, has reached us and whether we be fans of it, indifferent to it, or antipathetic towards it, that music likely will still be introduced and embraced by many generations to come.

But today, one-third of the source of that music has been stilled forever. Mary Travers, 72, succumbed to complications from treatment for leukemia, a disease she had been fighting successfully for much of the last five years. She was hired as much for her looks as for her voice (the liner notes of that first album describes the group as "Two bearded prophets of the folk idiom in league with a bright, young blonde-and-a-half"), yet it was that deep, powerful voice that could be delicate, vulnerable, and feminine on one song, and strong, accusing, and impassioned on the next, that was a key ingredient in their uniquely effective vocal blend.

Her two signature songs, "500 Miles" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," would not have been nearly as effective if sung by crystalline female folk voices like those of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins. These songs denote a sadness and weariness that demand an unprimped voice, one that is both soulful and authentic. When one sings from the heart, the voice should not come out from that perilous journey unscathed.

It's easy to minimize PPM's contribution to folk music. There is some truth, after all, to reviewer Richie Unterberger's statement on that they were "folk popularizers rather than musical innovators," although Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey have made their own notable contributions to the canon. Still, there is no shame in bringing the works of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, and Fred Neil to larger audiences.

For me, personally, what I most love to do with music that moves me is to share it. And as I am too much a music snob to have allowed a Raffi album in my house when my first daughter was young, I eagerly introduced her to PPM's music and we had great fun singing along with these songs together. Now that she is nearly 13 and listening to the kind of crap that they give Video Music Awards for, she doesn't care to be reminded of the many times we played that first album in the car or watched their 25th anniversary PBS special that I have on VHS. But, as I told her today when I mentioned how sad I was that Mary Travers had died, someday, God willing, she will have a child and she will look around for music she can share with him or her, and it won't be Brittney Spears that she thinks of. It likely will be PPM.

My younger daughter just turned three, and she has already taken to the music to such an extent that she can't go to bed at night without me singing "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Because of this, it is clear that while Mary is gone, Mary's heart and soul and, most of all, her voice, will live on forever in our hearts and our souls, and yes, in our voices as well because music is indeed meant to be shared. And I guess that ultimately was what Mrs. Coombs was teaching me nearly 40 years ago. So thank you, Mrs. Coombs, and thank you, Mary Travers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11: Eight Years Later

I remember where I was when I found out about 9/11. Right where I am now, at work. A colleague reported that she'd read on that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A more bizarre occurrence was hard at that time to fathom. My initial thought was that it was a Greenpeace protest stunt gone awry. There was not a great deal of reliable information to be found on the Web, and we didn't have a television in the office. It just seemed like another strange thing going on in New York City, something that needn't interfere with my work day or my life.

Then the second plane hit.

Obviously, this was no stunt. Something was going on. I didn't articulate it at the time, but it seemed clear that we were under attack. And then my phone rang. It was my wife.

"Have you seen the news?"
"Yeah, sort of. Pretty bizarre."
"Lisa was on that plane."
"Lisa who? Which plane?"

Lisa was the sister of a friend of ours. She was on American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the tower. My response, irrationally, was one of anger.

"What the hell was she doing on that plane?"

Lisa was a buyer for TJX. She and a few of her colleagues were going to Los Angeles on business. She left her husband and two daughters that morning as she often did on business trips, probably thinking of when the first time would be that she would be free to call and say she was fine and missed them.

My wife brought me back to rational action.

"I need you to come home now. I want us to pick up Hannah from day care and I want us together today."

Hannah was a month shy of five years old then. Later, I would reflect that this was the day I realized I could not protect my daughter. That despite any precaution I might take, I could not control the world or the other people in it, and so to some extent she and all of us are always vulnerable to some unthinkable catastrophe. That realization, to me, is among the more lasting tragedies of 9/11. The end of innocence. The end of thinking that America is invincible, that our boundaries are impenetrable to attack. We were exposed, and I was afraid.

I gathered my stuff and walked from my office to the subway station. Along the way, I passed a popular lunch place with televisions on the wall and large windows that allowed pedestrians on the sidewalk to see inside. A crowd had gathered to watch live news footage of the tragedy. It was there I first saw the burning buildings in real time.

As I continued to the subway station, I kept the images of the smoke and lapping flames in my mind. It reminded me that I have always been terrified of fires. When I was very young, five or six years old, I witnessed a house fire in my neighborhood. I saw the homeowners crying as the firefighters put out the blaze. I walked home and my house was empty. I became very afraid. Eventually, my mother came home and I began to cry. I was in luck, though, because she happened to have brought me a surprise: a small, plastic treasure chest bank filled with candy.

The next day, I walked back to the house that had had the fire. Windows were broken and the stench of smoke was still strong. I remember looking in the kitchen and seeing the white refrigerator painted with black streaks of soot. The fear returned. In school, the incident prompted our teacher to discuss fire safety and how to look for fire hazards in our own homes. I obsessively scoured our house and garage, becoming nearly hysterical to find paint cans in the garage. It was some time before I stopped having nightmares about fires.

Now I was in the subway station, which was eerily quiet. Every trash can looked suspicious. I looked around to see how best I could escape this underground station in the event of an emergency. It would not be easy. I looked at the other people in the station and on the train. What exactly does a terrorist look like? Some teenagers were laughing with false bravado, saying they'd kick any Arab's ass. I prayed just to make it home to see Hannah again.

The next days and weeks were filled with funerals and shivas, condolence calls, making and delivering food, and obsessively reading as much as possible about what had happened and why. Alas, the latter question may never adequately be answered.

The world changed forever that day, not just because America had been attacked, but because depravity took on a new definition. Humans not only were the targets but also the missile. Can it be the sickest minds are also the most creative? How do rational people protect themselves from irrational people? How can laws control ideologies? And why the hell did we focus on Iraq? It was all wrong, all inconceivable, all inexplicable.

And we were called upon to explain it, by Hannah. We tried to guard her from the news but she found out that the reason Lisa was gone was because someone flew a plane into a building. How did that happen? Can it happen again? We tried to explain that it was done on purpose by a very angry person who made a bad decision. And we don't understand it either. And we can only hope it doesn't happen again. And all we could do was hug and kiss our daughter and tell her that we love her, because we can only control how we feel and how we act, and though it may not be enough to ward off danger, it's all we can do, and it's all I want to do today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Turks

Here is a short piece of creative nonfiction I began last year. It's still not complete, there is much more to say about my family's relationship with a Turkish family who lived in our neighborhood for two years, but I've worked it into an essay of bloggable length. Hope you like it.

I can tell she’s Turkish. I’ve learned the skin tone. Not that they’re all quite the same shade, but there’s a quality, almost a shininess, to their skin. Of course, Turkey spans from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, so there are millennia of miscegenations that resulted in this clean, bright complexion that is flawless as eggshell with subtle hues of olive and turmeric.

Just a few years ago, I would have been none the wiser as to the woman’s ethnicity; I might even have thought she was jaundiced or had a fading tan. Her silence I would have taken for shyness. Yet now, after spending considerable time with a few Turkish families, and becoming close friends with one, I know just from her skin tone that she is Turkish, and that her silence is part pride and part fear. She knows very little English, if any at all, yet she knows that Americans – even eight years after 9/11 – can be suspicious of people who are not clearly one thing or another, neither white nor black nor Asian nor Latino. She tries not to speak so her accent does not give her away. Nor does she want to appear unintelligent.

Yet she clearly needs help. We are in the grocery store and she is eyeing a container of bulgur wheat on the top shelf that her small frame prevents her from reaching. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t ask me even with her eyes if I would use my six-foot height to hand her the box. But I figure if I do it quickly and matter of factly, with no great fuss, I can help her without her feeling any shame. And so I reach up, grab the box, and hold it out to her. She smiles slightly and gives a small nod as she takes it from me. In my limited vocabulary and poor pronunciation, I say you’re welcome as my friends taught me: “Bershay deyil.” Her eyes grow round in surprise and it’s my turn to smile. But I know I can’t deliver on the promise of bilingualism, so I continue down the aisle.

No doubt you know the phrase “he knows just enough to be dangerous.” That describes my knowledge of the Turkish language, which is beautiful to hear yet intimidating to read. Like a typical American geocentrist, I have learned a pitifully small number of phrases, whereas my friends during our two years together became quite competent in English. Nonetheless, I enjoy surprising Turkish people, especially children, when I see them around. Say “merhaba” to a Turkish child in America who wants so much to assimilate into the culture that he craves a Big Mac over his mother’s scrumptious börek, and he’ll likely fall off the playground structure he’s sitting upon.

This woman must be part of a third or fourth wave of Turkish nationals who have moved to the greater Boston area in the last few years. They have come for two-year stints, sent by the Turkish government to study international finance at Boston University. Why they chose to settle in the small, sleepy northern suburbs I’ll never understand. One would think they would become better acclimated in a more dynamic, diverse college-age community.

Yet I’ve learned that community is where you make it, and here in Melrose there is now a small apartment building that is nearly 100% Turkish-occupied. When our friends were there, we knew several other families in the building as well, but now, sadly, we’re somewhat out of the Turkish loop. Each succeeding generation of Turkish national has required less help from a local American to get acclimated. The earlier visitors had established the unwritten manual for how to get by here, including the key English phrases you must master (no doubt more street-savvy than the antiseptic classroom English they began to learn in Turkey, and which is part of an ongoing requirement at B.U.), how to get to the Armenian markets in Watertown where the ingredients are more familiar, and where to find the parks and schools and libraries and movie theaters.

Observing the evolution of this neighborhood has provided me a glimpse of what my own immigrant ancestors had to endure and had to build when they settled in America. In a microcosm of the immigrant experience, the later Turkish arrivals have benefited from the difficulties and sacrifices of the earlier ones. The later ones perhaps don’t need to establish a friendship like our friends did with us. We helped them immeasurably and I’m sure the small kitchen table we gave them continues to be passed around to newer families.

In a way, then, the newer families are like the children and grandchildren of our friends, yet they also are ours, too. But now they have stronger wings and don’t need us, and they can go about their lives with less intervention from locals like ourselves. Except for the fact that this one Turkish woman was short and I was tall, I would have no knowledge of – nor be any use to – her or her family, or the compatriots in her displaced community.

Let me tell you about our friends and how we met them. Their names are Kerem and Olgun. They arrived with their daughter, Ilayda, who coincidentally was the same age as our own daughter (eight), and both at the time were only children. My wife met them because she had helped to organize a mentor family system at our daughter’s school, located a short diagonal walk across the street from our house. The school at the time had a principal who was more concerned about his tan and his suspected drinking problem than with making it easy for new families to get acclimated into the school community. My wife felt that by pairing experienced school families with newbies, it would benefit the latter and help build a stronger community overall.

Families old and new took to the idea enthusiastically, and my wife had little difficulty making matches for most of the new families. She even was able to hook up two Latino families, though there are very few in the entire city of Melrose, which historically has been largely Irish and Italian, though its first mayor was a Jew named Levi Gould. Then she came to the Turks. A Muslim family from Turkey who spoke very little English (the girl none at all), three years after 9/11 in a small city whose citizens weren’t among the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, which until recently had had a young gay Republican mayor about whom most people would only admit publicly that he was unmarried.

My wife decided that we should be this family’s mentors. On one hand, it made sense because she is a social worker and is used to working with families from different cultures – not to mention that she’s also by definition a people person who would go to great lengths to be helpful and friendly to anyone. The fact that each family had a daughter the same age and who would therefore be in the same grade (though, as it turns out, not the same class as there were two third grades) was also a plus. My daughter, though, is much like me, which is the opposite of being a people person. It’s not that I’m a misanthrope, although I probably meet some of the criteria, but I’m just not about conversation, especially with strangers. It’s not that I’m an asshole, I’m just economical with words (when I’m speaking anyway). Joni Mitchell in her song “Talk to Me” is pleading for communication from someone very much like me: “You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency!”

My wife helped the Turks get settled in the school, though there were issues from the start. Neither the principal not Ilayda’s teacher would allow one of the parents or an independent interpreter to attend classes with her to translate for her. This was a pretty big sticking point for a while, which caused my wife, not one to criticize people too strongly, to tell me she felt the two educators were racists. They spoke about the philosophy of immersive learning, but she felt the only philosophy to which they were hewing was one of narrow-mindedness and penny-pinching.

Kerem would frequently call us that first year to recount some experience Ilayda had in school that day that seemed unfair or confusing to her. We would listen to their side of the story, try to make a judgment as to whether there was just some innocent cross-cultural mix-up going on or something potentially more intentional and sinister. If the latter, my wife would go to the school the next day and take it up with the principal and/or the teacher. I can’t say that she endeared herself to the school administration that year, but she did impress upon them that showing a little courtesy and patience with Ilayda and her family would not amount to favoritism.

Within a month or so of school starting that year, my wife invited them to our house to meet me (since I was working and my wife’s contact with the Turks was generally limited at that time to school hours, I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet them). I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but after hearing about them on an almost nightly basis, I was curious to see what a desperate Turkish family looked like.

To put it in one word, gorgeous. This family came from Central Casting. Though our daughters were the same age, Kerem and Olgun were clearly younger than we were. They were fit, trim, and totally attractive. Kerem had an athletic build, a wide, kind face, and an engaging smile. Olgun simply could stop traffic. Though a district attorney in Turkey, she could have been a model in the US. Ilayda, with her long hair and pretty face, looked like a Turkish version of our Hannah. If we could get past the anticipated communication barrier, I could easily enjoy their company.

Hannah and Ilayda went downstairs to play in our basement playroom. We learned from Hannah later that they didn’t speak to each other; Ilayda would point to certain things and Hannah would tell her what it was called, but beyond that they didn’t try to make meaning verbally. Still, they played well together, apparently, which was a not insignificant triumph for them.

We sat in the living room. My wife had prepared some snacks, cheese and crackers, nuts, lemonade, etc. They didn’t eat anything though when we encouraged them to dig in they would only say thank you. It wasn’t until later that they told us they didn’t eat because it was Ramadan, the month-long Muslim observance of daytime fasting. Strike one against the stupid Americans.

After general niceties, introductions, and stumbling small talk, my wife and Olgun went into the kitchen to make some tea. It was then that Kerem challenged me. In his faltering English, he peppered me with questions about Jews, Israel, George W. Bush, 9/11, and the war in Iraq. I was totally unprepared for the onslaught. Though he asked his questions with respect and genuine curiosity, they were hard questions to answer in a way that would not appear defensive, and in some cases I had to fight through rumor, assumption, and misinformation that he had apparently received in Turkey. It is to his credit that he wanted to fact-check it all with me rather than simply accept it and use it to prejudice himself against me as a Jew and an American.

I learned that this was very much his style. They held strong opinions about things, especially about their own country and customs, but they were critical thinkers, intellectuals who were really not at all religious. Unlike most Muslims, they drank alcohol (the marvelous raki, known as Lion’s Milk because it turns white when mixed with water and has a bite that will quickly take down an unsuspecting drinker; I gained many points by going drink for drink with him on a number of drunken nights), and I don’t know if they had any kind of prayer regimen but it certainly was not as stringent as more traditional Muslims would follow. We ourselves are Reform Jews and if there were such a thing, the Turks would certainly identify themselves as Reform Muslims. Cultural and political identity was more important to them than religious dogma.

Among his questions:
• What is the connection between Judaism and freemasonry?
• Is it true that Jews control the US government? (His assumption was that Jews comprised 20% of the US population; it’s actually less than 2%.)
• Was it true that on 9/11, Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home?
• Was it true that George W. Bush was complicit in 9/11?

You can see the challenge I faced. Just to understand the questions in fractured English was difficult enough; to provide reasonable answers was daunting. From anyone else, I would have had a knee-jerk reaction of anger and accused him of anti-Semitism. But for me it was important simply to know that this is what a friendly and intelligent young man from Turkey had heard in his country (and mind you, Turkey has historically been very friendly to Jews and to Israel).

Perhaps the most difficult response I had to formulate was to the last question. Nobody thinks less of George W. Bush than I do, but I could not and would not ever accuse him of complicity in this horrific crime against humanity. Any yet, there may be historical precedent. After all, it is believed that Franklin D. Roosevelt had prior knowledge of Pearl Harbor. The motive would be the same in each case: to justify an offensive operation by allowing oneself to be the victim of an attack. Which is not to say that either Roosevelt or Bush, especially Bush, even if complicit, could have foreseen the scope of the terror and destruction that ensued. The question is, how badly did these men want to fight? I think it’s clear Roosevelt was under significant pressure from the Allies to enter the fray. Unquestionably, Bush the Younger had his eyes on Iraq since the day of his inauguration.

One thing Kerem and I could often agree on was our disappointment with the US government. My fellow Melrosians, however, didn’t care much for his criticisms of American foreign policy. As for me, I couldn’t and didn’t support anything the Bush administration did, and it was hard not to apologize on an almost daily basis for some terrible action or untruth that was coming out of Washington.

One thing we had to agree to disagree about, however, was the Armenian genocide. Along with most Turks, Kerem would not consider arguments that supported the idea that a genocide had been committed. One night, he even showed me a PowerPoint presentation that detailed the atrocities committed by Armenians against Turks. When, near the end of their tenure in America, we traveled with them to Washington, DC, they refused to join us in touring the Holocaust Museum. Indeed, evidence of the Armenian genocide is present there, in exhibits and in the bookstore.

But as I say, we agreed to disagree, and when they left Melrose to return home to Turkey, our friendship was still strong. And after all, he still knew a lot more about my country than I did about his. When we said goodbye, I reminded him of the conversation we had that first time we met and asked that he counter misinformation about Jews and Americans (as any foreigner who meets my family will soon learn, not all Americans are wealthy) when he hears it.

By the time they left, both our families had given birth to a second child, just a few months apart. These two young children represent a part of each other’s lives we know little about, and serve to magnify the distance that separates us, and how much we miss them. Someday, we hope to visit them. Then we will truly understand what their experience was like and how much courage it took for them not only to come here to live and work and go to school, but to trust us, confide in us, and love us. I like to think that they were lucky to have found people like us, but I know that we were just as lucky to have found them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


That's the silly way of saying the word "coincidence" that my older daughter Hannah and I used to have fun with. I've written about coincidences in this blog thrice before: here, here and here. And, as I discussed in the latter post, I tend not to view coincidences as being random moments of oddly connected or relevant happenstance. They are certainly inexplicable but part of their magic comes in not needing an explanation. I like to think they're a clue to some as yet unrealized eventuality. That something in the future will transpire, not necessarily beyond my own will and motivation, that will justify and bring meaning to the "coincidence."

So here I am, a writer who is trying to get an agent to represent his first novel. My progress on this front is being built on the foundation of several form letter rejection notes (and one very nice one). And there I was, last week, with my wife and two daughters away for a week, and I was missing them very much and feeling profoundly sad about my life in general. And there I was, during the time of their absence, on Martha's Vineyard for an organizational retreat, which provided much-needed collegiality, belonging, acceptance, and alcohol. And there I was, after a delicious dinner with my fellow Boardmates, with several drinks in me, walking the streets of Edgartown, and finding an interesting shop open, and entering said shop and looking around, that I found a book.

The book is called To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession, by Dan Koeppel. The cover features a collage of images of dozens of different birds. The design of the book cover is what caught my attention (indeed, that is its purpose). The title didn't particularly stir me, nor did the description on the back cover. The only thing that seemed at all relevant to me is that the bird-watcher in question was a father at a certain crossroads in his life who had two children. OK, that's sorta like me. But again, after a few drinks, it was just the cover that got me curious. And then I opened the book.

I didn't open the book very far into it. Page viii, in fact. Because it was lowercase Roman numerals, I knew it was an intro or prologue of some sort; in fact, it was the Acknowledgments, the section of a book when an author is so extraordinarily grateful at being published that he or she spills his or her guts in a thank-you fest designed to appease the Literary Gods so that this good fortune may continue and lead to the next-best thing to getting a book published: getting a second book published.

And so I open the book and you know how certain words that are familiar to you are so well known in their shape and construct that regardless of the font in which they are set, these words literally leap off the page and stab you right in the eyes? No? Well, trust me, it happens. And it happened this night in the store in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard while my children were away and I was profoundly sad yet also pretty buzzed. And here's what I saw: my older daughter's name. I saw the words Hanna Rubin (though my daughter's first name has the palindromic spelling). And I was so shocked, I had to read the paragraph in which it appeared, which I reproduce below:

I wish I was the kind of writer who was supremely confident in his talents and instincts. But even when I haven't had faith in myself, Hanna Rubin has. There is nobody I've met who has been more supportive, more generous, and more decent to me than Hanna. ... I don't know if I've ever told her how much she means to me.

In the next paragraph, the author notes that Hanna introduced him to his agent, who also eventually served as his editor and, after she founded a small press, his publisher as well. So let's recap:

1. Hanna Rubin, almost exactly my older daughter's name
2. A writer who is not so much supremely confident in his talents and instincts
3. Hanna's supportive, generous, and decent to the writer (OK, maybe this one doesn't always fit so well)
4. Hanna brings agent and publisher into the picture

So even though this book is nonfiction and mine is a novel; even though it's about bird-watching, which to me is a major snooze; even though it's Hanna and not Hannah, I was really knocked out by this coincidence. I was missing my children so much and then suddenly one's name is staring at me. I was doubting my dream of becoming a published author, and here is one who made it. I showed the paragraph around to several of my Boardmates, and their sharing of my amazement suggested to me that I needed to buy this book. And so I did.

I haven't begun reading it yet, and I'm still not convinced I will enjoy or be much interested in it, but I'm willing to hold out the hope that this book might someday prove to be a clue into a future time when my dream comes true and my daughter, when asked what her father does for a living, can answer not as she does now ("a writer of some sort") but with that wonderful one-word description, a title as noble as any that I could ever aspire to: "author."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Plays on the Potty

Why do men read on the toilet? I think part of the reason has to do with the fundamental difference between men and women. In the bathroom, women sit all the time; men only sit half the time. We're very accustomed to peeing and fleeing. Unlike women, men don't consider the bathroom to be a venue for socializing. For the most part, we do our business and get out. Unless it's time for number two. Then we're impelled to slow down, sit down, and get down to more serious business. Sitting and shitting, unlike standing and pissing, leaves our hands empty and our eyes with nothing to focus on. Thus, a book or a magazine, a newspaper or a catalog, gives us to something with which to pass the time while we're waiting to pass our lunch.

Another reason why I, at least, like to read on the potty is that it actually gives me time and space in which to read. I spend much of my non-working time not otherwise devoted to eating and sleeping either by parenting or writing. But I like to read and so last year I decided I would keep a book in the bathroom at all times, and read a chapter or two each time I was in there sitting down. Because I can't read large amounts in any one sitting, I chose slim volumes.

Recently, I realized that over the last few years I've been collecting plays. It wasn't particularly intentional, but anytime I'd go to a yard sale or a used book store, I'd look at books and be able to find a good play for very little money. They're generally short, as far as books go, and given that I've written one one-act play already and probably have more in me, it's instructive and inspiring to read great plays. And they seem to work particularly well when read in chunks (if you'll pardon the expression).

Over the last few months, I've read the following plays on the potty (the first two I'd read before; I considered them proof-of-concept bathroom reading):

Our Town - Thornton Wilder
Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller
After the Fall - Arthur Miller
Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches - Tony Kushner
End Game - Samuel Beckett
Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett
Talley's Folley - Lanford Wilson
Da - Hugh Leonard

Currently, I've just started a collection of plays by Günter Grass that includes Flood, Mister Mister, Only Ten Minutes to Buffalo, and The Wicked Cooks. I'd like to get some works by Eugene O'Neill, Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, and August Wilson as well, but as I'm a relative neophyte in the playwright world, I'm pretty open to anything that looks interesting. I'd like to avoid ancient and Elizabethan texts since I'd rather keep it light and readable given the context.

Now, while it's quite conceivable that no one will ever want to borrow these books from me, or loan me any of theirs, I think I've actually created a nice, sustainable, and wonderfully entertaining tradition for myself. All the bathroom's a stage....

Friday, July 31, 2009

Short story sampler

Before I actually started writing a novel in earnest a couple of years ago, I made a number of half-hearted attempts. It's not that I didn't have a story to tell, but I couldn't imagine an ambitious enough narrative arc to serve as scaffolding for a rich, complex story with lots of characters and subplots and action. After a few pages, the story would kind of peter out and I'd lose interest. It struck me that maybe creative writing wasn't my thing after all.

Then one birthday I was given a volume of Raymond Carver short stories as a gift. I'd never actually been much of a short story fan. Just when you're getting interested, the story ends and if you're reading a collection of them, every few pages you have to get acclimated to new stories and situations. I've always been a big fan of James Thurber, however, but I always viewed his work as humorous essays rather than short stories, and the fact that you knew they'd be funny virtually guaranteed a reward for the effort.

But I found the Carver volume extremely compelling. He gave each story a sense that what happened before and after the scope of the narrator's reportage was at least as important as what was in the story itself. In fact, it's not what was happening in the story that was so interesting, it was how the characters thought and behaved in what were generally quiet though emotionally tumultuous settings that made them so rewarding.

Thus inspired, I decided to see if any of my scraps could be turned into a short story, and if any short story-length plots came to mind. I managed to complete one before getting involved in my novel, but have at least three or four more that are in various stages of completion, all of which I hope to continue working on when I have the time. Here are brief descriptions of them, from most complete to least:

Elevation - At 4,500 words, this one is complete. It's an idea that I've had for a long time, inspired by a friend of mine who, despite his success with women, has expressed to me that he wished it were permissible to approach a woman and come right out with, "I'd really like to sleep with you." In my story, a guy wants to do something similar, although he claims to want to do it for purely altruistic reasons. He believes women tend to devalue their own looks, so he wants to give out cards to deserving individuals that simply say, "You're very attractive." That's it, just give out the card and walk away. When he finally gets up the courage to do it, he finds it more intimidating than he thought. There are plenty of candidates, but he finds it hard to seize an opportunity. Eventually, on the subway, he finds himself seated across from four women whom he would not have initially thought to give a card. As he looks more carefully at how they look, how they're dressed, what they're doing, what they're reading, he begins to see more than he did at first. One in particular grabs his fancy. When she gets off the train, he follows her and fumblingly gives her a card. She challenges his intentions and he comes clean that he doesn't really know what his motives are, only that he's captivated by her. They decide to have a drink and get to the heart of the matter. The title comes from the main character's conclusion that there is indeed beauty to be found in those who are "unbeautiful" and his parting advice to the reader that "an unbeautiful woman will elevate you."

The Untangler - I've always been fascinated by knots, both the intentional kind and the frustrating tangles that seem impenetrable. I think that people tend to make their lives tangled as well, and wise people can help you untangle them. So the main character in this story is someone who has difficulty committing to women and he gets himself in sticky situations. His most recent ex-girlfriend had given him a set of wind chimes that became hopelessly knotted in a storm. The woman he's living with (to whom he hasn't been faithful) suggests he take them to her uncle, a retired handyman who is known to friends as The Untangler because he's very adept at untying knots and fixing thorny problems. As the old man works on the knots, he casually imparts to the main character a great deal of wisdom and insight into knots and life. By the end of the story, the wind chimes are in good shape, and his relationship will be, too. I have a few pages written here, but coming up with the wisdom will be challenging. I'm also researching nautical knots to inform the uncle's testimony.

The Triumphant Return of Chip Chumley & the Champions - Here's an example of a story that was intended to be a novel but it ran out of gas. Maybe it will be a novel someday, but it could also be a short story. When I come back to it, I'll see where I think it could go. It tells the story of a group of estranged friends who had been in a high school band together and have agreed to reunite to play at their 25th high school reunion. There's some funny stuff about music in here; I started writing it shortly after reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, so it's heavily influenced by that book's style.

The Second Chance - I have just an outline and one torrid sex scene written for this piece, which talks about a man who meets up with a woman he nearly had sex with 20 years earlier when they were in college. The woman is 15 years older than the man and had left school initially when she was 19 because she had become pregnant. Though the two were attracted to each other while in school together, she was in a very different place than he and wouldn't let their making out advance. Now in the present, he's in his mid-40s and she's 60, but the flame still burns. There is praise of older women here.

There are other scraps that may turn into something as well, but this is plenty to keep me busy given I'm still working on my two novels: one in 5th revision, the other still in progress.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The search for a literary agent

Writing a novel is fun. Getting an agent to represent it to publishers is not. I guess they're both difficult endeavors, but one has more control over the former than the latter. I had long been procrastinating about sending query letters to agents, perhaps thinking that so long as I don't offer it up for rejection it would not be found rejectable. As a social late bloomer, I realize I basically did that to myself in high school. Better to not ask a question than risk getting the answer you didn't want to hear, I thought.

Well, so anyway, I finally did it. I sent query letters and manuscript samples to seven literary agents. Within days, I got three rejections, all form letters of course. All stating that even though it was a form letter, they really did read and consider my work. I was just a little dejected about being rejected because, after all, I expected I would have collected a few of these red badges of literary courage along the way to being published. Also, as an occasional buyer of MegaMillions tickets, I am accustomed to disappointment. And, of course, it was my hero, Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote, "I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

So I responded to the three rejections by sending out three more query letters. This made me feel I was still in the lead. Shortly thereafter, I got another rejection, one from the first bunch. Today, I got my first rejection from the second bunch. But it was NOT a form letter! In fact, it was so nicely worded that I want to cherish and share it:
Dear Jason,
... There is much to admire in your work. It’s an incredibly intriguing premise to base a novel on an 17th century English folk song. We both loved how you follow the poem's lyrics but also make colorful embellishments of your own. The descriptions of life at the Barnard estate, spring festivals in Lancashire County, and background history developed for each main character are all rich and add important substance to the novel. Unfortunately, however, I’m sorry to say that THE GRAVE AND THE GAY did not garner the unanimous support we require when taking on a new client. We are forced to be particularly cautious about representation given the intense competition in today’s marketplace, and there were concerns that there was a bit more “tell” than “show” here in the novel. Additionally, while characters based on a folk song are potentially fascinating, we did not connect with them quite as much as we would have liked.

Fiction is such a tough sell these days and we must be incredibly selective about the few projects we take on, but do know that opinions differ greatly in this industry. We could certainly imagine another agent being quite enthusiastic about this. We wish you the very best of luck and hope to see your name on a bookshelf soon.

You know, this letter started out so nice that I knew a BUT was coming. Still, if only the girls in my high school were as gentle at saying no as this person was....

So according to my scorecard, I think I'm 0 yeses, five nos, and five haven't heards. That still gives me some cushion for failure. My plan is to send out more letters in the next week, but at the same time I'm going to put my second manuscript (32,000 words to date) on hold while I continue to work on the first one because, to my way of thinking, as nice as this latest response was, I'd rather a tepid acceptance over an enthusiastic rejection.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reflections on a year of blogging

I started this blog on June 27, 2008. Not knowing exactly what I'd use it for, or how frequently I'd post to it, or whether anyone would ever read it or comment on any of my posts, I decided to enter the blogosphere and see if one could do so without resorting to the temptation to make it a semi-public diary full of private, egocentric minutiae. Instead, I tried to keep it to my life as a writer (both my day-job and freelance writing, as well as my late-night creative writing), as a means to detail and organize the many project ideas I come up with (and test their viability), document some of the more interesting projects I've undertaken in the past (and those I am in the midst of), and explore some of what inspires or moves me that may inform or otherwise be revealed in my writing.

I can't say I've been wholly successful in this attempt, but looking over a year's posts, I'm happy with what I've posted and am frankly a bit impressed with the scope and arc of my posts and the projects and ideas they represent. Whether it's family history or novel writing, ghost-writing non-fiction or even lamenting the loss of my biggest celebrity crush, it's been a busy and fairly productive year for me, in spite or because of personal issues in my domestic life and the ever-present stresses and strains of work and finances that plague any writer.

If you've popped in here occasionally, thank you for checking in; I hope it's been mostly worth your while. If you've come here accidentally or purely out of curiosity, I hope you'll take a few moments to browse around and see if you find anything at all interesting - and if so, please leave a comment.

Currently, I am 30,000 words into my second novel and still hoping to set aside a day to send off the first one to some agents. Those are my top two priorities for the next few months. More on them later.

In the meantime, I am happy to celebrate the one-year birthday of my blog. The little tyke is crawling along; I hope that we both grow this year.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Farrah Fawcett meant to me

I am known in my office as the "'70s guy," which generally refers to my taste in music. But those who know me well know that I am inherently and unashamedly nostalgic, and it is a general truth that most of my all-time favorite movies, TV shows, and musicians are from that oft-maligned decade. Though I was only seven years old in 1970, when I came of age at the dawn of the '80s it was apparent to me that a large part of myself would remain in that time period that saw Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the White House and accommodated both the Ecology movement and disco.

In Judaism, a boy comes of age at 13; for this Jewish boy, that year was 1976. I barely knew I had hormones racing under my skin and would soon be assaulted by both welcome and unwelcome bodily changes, but all that changed when Charlie's Angels premiered on ABC. To say I was awestruck, starstruck, and dumbstruck by Farrah Fawcett is a vast understatement. I was in love. I had never known such magical beauty existed.

It's not surprising that I fell for the blond Angel, as my youthful crushes had been on such golden-haired lovelies as Marcia Brady from The Brady Bunch, Ellie Mae Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies, and a classmate named Tammy I was too shy to talk to. But Farrah was something else altogether, and that something else was obvious: nipples.

I was playing at my friend Richie's house one day. His mother was out shopping. When she returned, she said she had something for us. She gave us each a copy of Farrah's famous red bathing suit poster. There was so much to look at: her hair, those teeth, the nipples. I stayed on the nipples for a while. Back in 1976, that wasn't something a 13-year-old kid saw a lot of. In retrospect, and knowing Richie's mother as I did, she was essentially saying to us, "You're 13. Here, go learn how to masturbate." Thus my love for Farrah was consummated.

The next three years or so saw my bedroom become transformed into a Farrah shrine, my walls covered with Farrah posters and magazine clippings. I even had a Farrah pillow that I used as a damper for my bass drum (OK, I did sleep with it a few times, too). Eventually, they were all replaced by Marvel comic book covers, and over the years I broadened my taste in and experience with women, but Farrah always remained in my heart as the first clear proof of my heterosexuality.

Today I don't even own the red bathing suit poster, but a few years ago a colleague gave me a mug with that image on it as as birthday present, and this past year my work got me a Farrah cake for my birthday. I took the teasing I got in good fun but I was also aware that she was fighting cancer, and the idea that this archetype of beauty was being destroyed by disease was disquieting. Recently, when the TV special documenting her battle with cancer aired, it was heartbreaking. I even cried at the end. And I knew this day would come, the day I would learn that she had died far too young at age 62.

One colleague hugged me today when she heard the news. Others made pouty pity faces at me, as though someone genuinely close to me had died. Despite my real sadness, I felt I had to somehow justify the impact this quintessential sex symbol's passing will have on me. I can't just talk about lust and tissue boxes, that's too creepy. What, then, does she mean to me really? Why do I care so much about Farrah Fawcett?

I guess it's because she represents an awakening to me, the opening of a new part of my identity and personality; she was a standard to keep with me as I grew up and went out into the world, part of my tastes, my beliefs, my cares and concerns. Not that Farrah herself encompasses all of that, but my eyes literally and figuratively were opened for the first time when I was 13, and everything else I've seen and done and learned and believed somehow has been built on that bar mitzvah-year foundation. It may not be Farrah at all that still draws me to Farrah; it might be that she simply represents the time when I took those clumsy first steps towards physical, mental, and emotional maturity (I'm still working on that last one, actually).

And maybe that's why I'm such a nostalgic person. As I get older, life gets more challenging and confusing, more frightening and less fun. The doors that were wide open when I was 13 seem to be closing. Maybe Farrah is a wedge that I've been using to keep that door open just a little bit. Just to let a sliver of light from my youth pierce the darker air of my adulthood. Something to remind me of easier times. Something to give me hope.

And now that wedge is gone. Of course, her image still remains and ultimately, it was the image I was in love with. And maybe that image can keep that door open a little longer. And maybe that light will also illuminate that wedge, and those things for which I still yearn - love, security, confidence, comfort - might somehow be more possible, more visible for me. Standing out in the dark even. Like her nipples.

Rest in peace, Farrah. And thank you for being on my wall and always smiling at me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Of Mourning

I wrote this last week after going to the wake of someone who died too young.

The grief of a black woman in mourning is overwhelming. We’ve seen it, all too often unfortunately, on the evening news. I saw it tonight in person. It’s noisy and uncontrolled, yet somehow almost ritualistic, like when folks in the black church “get the spirit.” The pain it reveals is impressive, its source so deep and raw that it is impossible to be unaffected by it.

Where does such an unreserved response spring from? Maybe from centuries of historical suffering. Perhaps its roots are in the exuberant kineticism that is so characteristic of black music, dance, and art. The creative impulse in black people, it has always seemed to me, is in some way an act of survival – a defiant display of self-expression that says to the forces of oppression (real or imagined, internal or external): “I am alive.” “I am not still, I am alive.” “I am still alive.”

As it is with creativity, perhaps so it is with the wrenching keening of a black mother approaching the open coffin that bears her prostrate son. She bore him nine months; this ornate wooden box will bear him forevermore. She thrusts her head and her arms upwards but she does not open her eyes, does not look heavenward. She does not cast blame, but cries for mercy. Her anguished wails, her swaying body, make it clear that she is not the one who is dead. The dead cry for no one, least of all for themselves. It is the living who must bear the unbearable pain, feel and endure the loss, ask the unanswerable “Why?”

The dead accept death as no living person can. Certainly no mother of any kind anywhere can accept the death of her child. But I, distant enough to feel regret but not to mourn, for I did not known him, try to find a blessing. This dead man, this young black dead man, knew love and did not die from violence. He died playing soccer, a sport he loved. But his heart took an unexpected time out and his last kick was his last kick. It could have been worse, thinks I.

White, paternalistic impression? Perhaps. To me, it all could have been much worse. Not so to his mother, who shouts his name over and over as she leans over his unresponsive body and strokes his face. (What will become of the tears she sheds onto him, I wonder, when this night is over and the coffin lid is closed? Some of her will be with him always, I presume, even under the surface of the earth.) Not so to his wife, who is white and young, and who will spend their second wedding anniversary quite unlike the first, which no doubt had been imbued with so much hope, so much promise, and the unspoken belief that they had so much time ahead of them in which to fulfill their expectations.

The black mother, the white wife, they will try to go to sleep tonight. They will be haunted by the shock, by the loss, that still seems unreal. Somehow, rest will claim them and they will arise tomorrow morning – at first with a millisecond of hope that it was all a dream and that today will be another day of assuming the world’s terrors are not their own. Then with the hard slap of memory, they will understand that it is true: he is gone. And the sadness will return. And the anger. And the disbelief. And the grief. The grief, the overwhelming grief of a world in mourning.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Will the world ever learn?" Barack Obama and Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald

Today, President Obama visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, accompanied by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a Buchenwald survivor. Of the estimated 250,000 prisoners held there, 56,000 – including 11,000 Jews – were murdered.

I thought the remarks made by Chancellor Merkel, President Obama, and Mr. Wiesel were important enough to devote a post to. I would only add that this visit comes after stirring speeches in Egypt and Germany in which the President effectively reached out to the Muslim world and promoted America's commitment to helping forge a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. To my way of thinking, this trip by Obama has been both historic and hopeful, and I am inspired by the reintroduction of moral leadership in the United States.

CHANCELLOR MERKEL: (As translated.) Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen. Here in this place a concentration camp was established in 1937. Not far from here lies Lima, a place where Germans created wonderful works of art, thereby contributing to European culture and civilization. Not far from that place where once artists, poets, and great minds met, terror, violence, and tyranny reigned over this camp.

At the beginning of our joint visit to the Buchenwald memorial the American President and I stood in front of a plaque commemorating all the victims. When you put your hand on the memorial you can feel that it has warmed up -- it is kept at a temperature of 37 degrees, the body temperature of a living human being. This, however, was not a place for living, but a place for dying.

Unimaginable horror, shock -- there are no words to adequately describe what we feel when we look at the suffering inflicted so cruelly upon so many people here and in other concentration and extermination camps under National Socialist terror. I bow my head before the victims.

We, the Germans, are faced with the agonizing question how and why -- how could this happen? How could Germany wreak such havoc in Europe and the world? It is therefore incumbent upon us Germans to show an unshakeable resolve to do everything we can so that something like this never happens again.

On the 25th of January, the presidents of the associations of former inmates at the concentration camps presented their request to the public, and this request closes with the following words: "The last eyewitness appeal to Germany, to all European states, and to the international community to continue preserving and honoring the human gift of remembrance and commemoration into the future. We ask young people to carry on our struggle against Nazi ideology, and for a just, peaceful and tolerant world; a world that has no place for anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and right-wing extremism."

This appeal of the survivors clearly defines the very special responsibility we Germans have to shoulder with regard to our history. And for me, therefore, there are three messages that are important today. First, let me emphasize, we Germans see it as past of our country's raison d'être to keep the everlasting memory alive of the break with civilization that was the Shoah. Only in this way will we be able to shape our future.

I am therefore very grateful that the Buchenwald memorial has always placed great emphasis on the dialogue with younger people, to conversations with eyewitnesses, to documentation, and a broad-based educational program.

Second, it is most important to keep the memory of the great sacrifices alive that had to be made to put an end to the terror of National Socialism and to liberate its victims and to rid all people of its yoke.

This is why I want to say a particular word of gratitude to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, for visiting this particular memorial. It gives me an opportunity to align yet again that we Germans shall never forget, and we owe the fact that we were given the opportunity after the war to start anew, to enjoy peace and freedom to the resolve, the strenuous efforts, and indeed to a sacrifice made in blood of the United States of America and of all those who stood by your side as allies or fighters in the resistance.

We were able to find our place again as members of the international community through a forward-looking partnership. And this partnership was finally key to enabling us to overcome the painful division of our country in 1989, and the division also of our continent. Today we remember the victims of this place. This includes remembering the victims of the so-called Special Camp 2, a detention camp run by the Soviet military administration from 1945 to 1950. Thousands of people perished due to the inhumane conditions of their detention.

Third, here in Buchenwald I would like to highlight an obligation placed on us Germans as a consequence of our past: to stand up for human rights, to stand up for rule of law, and for democracy. We shall fight against terror, extremism, and anti-Semitism. And in the awareness of our responsibility we shall strive for peace and freedom, together with our friends and partners in the United States and all over the world.

Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Chancellor Merkel and I have just finished our tour here at Buchenwald. I want to thank Dr. Volkhard Knigge, who gave an outstanding account of what we were witnessing. I am particularly grateful to be accompanied by my friend Elie Wiesel, as well as Mr. Bertrand Herz, both of whom are survivors of this place.

We saw the area known as Little Camp where Elie and Bertrand were sent as boys. In fact, at the place that commemorates this camp, there is a photograph in which we can see a 16-year-old Elie in one of the bunks along with the others. We saw the ovens of the crematorium, the guard towers, the barbed wire fences, the foundations of barracks that once held people in the most unimaginable conditions.

We saw the memorial to all the survivors -- a steel plate, as Chancellor Merkel said, that is heated to 37 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the human body; a reminder -- where people were deemed inhuman because of their differences -- of the mark that we all share.

Now these sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time. As we were walking up, Elie said, "if these trees could talk." And there's a certain irony about the beauty of the landscape and the horror that took place here.

More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished. I will not forget what I've seen here today.

I've known about this place since I was a boy, hearing stories about my great uncle, who was a very young man serving in World War II. He was part of the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps.

And I told this story, he returned from his service in a state of shock saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head. And as we see -- as we saw some of the images here, it's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock.

My great uncle's commander, General Eisenhower, understood this impulse to silence. He had seen the piles of bodies and starving survivors and deplorable conditions that the American soldiers found when they arrived, and he knew that those who witnessed these things might be too stunned to speak about them or be able -- be unable to find the words to describe them; that they might be rendered mute in the way my great uncle had. And he knew that what had happened here was so unthinkable that after the bodies had been taken away, that perhaps no one would believe it.

And that's why he ordered American troops and Germans from the nearby town to tour the camp. He invited congressmen and journalists to bear witness and ordered photographs and films to be made. And he insisted on viewing every corner of these camps so that -- and I quote -- he could "be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever in the future there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."

We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished. To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.

Also to this day, there are those who perpetuate every form of intolerance -- racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more -- hatred that degrades its victims and diminishes us all. In this century, we've seen genocide. We've seen mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground; children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war. This places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests.

But as we reflect today on the human capacity for evil and our shared obligation to defy it, we're also reminded of the human capacity for good. For amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know that there were many acts of courage and kindness, as well. The Jews who insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. The camp cook who hid potatoes in the lining of his prison uniform and distributed them to his fellow inmates, risking his own life to help save theirs. The prisoners who organized a special effort to protect the children here, sheltering them from work and giving them extra food. They set up secret classrooms, some of the inmates, and taught history and math and urged the children to think about their future professions. And we were just hearing about the resistance that formed and the irony that the base for the resistance was in the latrine areas because the guards found it so offensive that they wouldn't go there. And so out of the filth, that became a space in which small freedoms could thrive.

When the American GIs arrived they were astonished to find more than 900 children still alive, and the youngest was just three years old. And I'm told that a couple of the prisoners even wrote a Buchenwald song that many here sang. Among the lyrics were these: "...whatever our fate, we will say yes to life, for the day will come when we are our blood we carry the will to live and in our hearts, in our hearts -- faith."

These individuals never could have known the world would one day speak of this place. They could not have known that some of them would live to have children and grandchildren who would grow up hearing their stories and would return here so many years later to find a museum and memorials and the clock tower set permanently to 3:15, the moment of liberation.

They could not have known how the nation of Israel would rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust and the strong, enduring bonds between that great nation and my own. And they could not have known that one day an American President would visit this place and speak of them and that he would do so standing side by side with the German Chancellor in a Germany that is now a vibrant democracy and a valued American ally.

They could not have known these things. But still surrounded by death they willed themselves to hold fast to life. In their hearts they still had faith that evil would not triumph in the end, that while history is unknowable it arches towards progress, and that the world would one day remember them. And it is now up to us, the living, in our work, wherever we are, to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take, and ensure that those who were lost here did not go in vain. It is up to us to redeem that faith. It is up to us to bear witness; to ensure that the world continues to note what happened here; to remember all those who survived and all those who perished, and to remember them not just as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed just like us.

And just as we identify with the victims, it's also important for us I think to remember that the perpetrators of such evil were human, as well, and that we have to guard against cruelty in ourselves. And I want to express particular thanks to Chancellor Merkel and the German people, because it's not easy to look into the past in this way and acknowledge it and make something of it, make a determination that they will stand guard against acts like this happening again.

Rather than have me end with my remarks I thought it was appropriate to have Elie Wiesel provide some reflection and some thought as he returns here so many years later to the place where his father died.

MR. WIESEL: Mr. President, Chancellor Merkel, Bertrand, ladies and gentlemen. As I came here today it was actually a way of coming and visit my father's grave -- but he had no grave. His grave is somewhere in the sky. This has become in those years the largest cemetery of the Jewish people.

The day he died was one of the darkest in my life. He became sick, weak, and I was there. I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words. But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there.

And I thought one day I will come back and speak to him, and tell him of the world that has become mine. I speak to him of times in which memory has become a sacred duty of all people of good will -- in America, where I live, or in Europe or in Germany, where you, Chancellor Merkel, are a leader with great courage and moral aspirations.

What can I tell him that the world has learned? I am not so sure. Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war -- every war is absurd and meaningless; where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it.

But the world hasn't learned. When I was liberated in 1945, April 11, by the American army, somehow many of us were convinced that at least one lesson will have been learned -- that never again will there be war; that hatred is not an option, that racism is stupid; and the will to conquer other people's minds or territories or aspirations, that will is meaningless.

I was so hopeful. Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one's life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.

We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn't. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.

Will the world ever learn? I think that is why Buchenwald is so important -- as important, of course, but differently as Auschwitz. It's important because here the large -- the big camp was a kind of international community. People came there from all horizons -- political, economic, culture. The first globalization essay, experiment, were made in Buchenwald. And all that was meant to diminish the humanity of human beings.

You spoke of humanity, Mr. President. Though unto us, in those times, it was human to be inhuman. And now the world has learned, I hope. And of course this hope includes so many of what now would be your vision for the future, Mr. President. A sense of security for Israel, a sense of security for its neighbors, to bring peace in that place. The time must come. It's enough -- enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It's enough. There must come a moment -- a moment of bringing people together.

And therefore we say anyone who comes here should go back with that resolution. Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart. Memories here not to sow anger in our hearts, but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity that all those who need us. What else can we do except invoke that memory so that people everywhere who say the 21st century is a century of new beginnings, filled with promise and infinite hope, and at times profound gratitude to all those who believe in our task, which is to improve the human condition.

A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: "After all," he said, "after the tragedy, never the rest...there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate." Even that can be found as truth -- painful as it is -- in Buchenwald.

Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing me to come back to my father's grave, which is still in my heart.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Current Project: Volunteering for the Lewy Body Dementia Association

So I got to about 21,000 words (40 single-spaced Word pages) of my new novel (code-named NEW NOVEL) when I hit a wall. I was going at a solid clip of 1,000 to 1,400 words a night at least three or four nights a week. Then I reach a point where I wasn't sure where next to go. I tried one direction then killed it. Tried another and wasn't sure. Reworked it a little and it may work out but I've been busy and lost momentum so I haven't been devoting the time and brainwork to the project like I should.

Which doesn't mean all is lost. I'll get back to it. I'm far enough along that there's no going back. I like what I'm writing, it may be too thinly veiled as far as being autobiographical is concerned, but I can always work in more creative nuances in the second draft. The other reason why I'm not overly concerned is because I've been busy with worthwhile things. One is a fairly meaty freelance project. The other is a volunteering gig.

Loyal readers are aware that my mother died of Lewy body dementia (LBD) 10 years ago, and that last year I wrote a post about her on this blog that found its way onto an LBD Facebook page and the online forum of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA). Through the kind of instant serendipity that is endemic to social networking on the Internet, I've become tied into a hodgepodge community of LBD-affected folks that include a soprano, a cardiologist-turned-memoirist, a support group leader, and the leadership of the LBDA. Though I didn't expect my blog post to draw me into this network and among the volunteer ranks, this is exactly what's happened. And I'm loving it!

To date, I've completed two projects and have begin sharing ideas I have on branding this insidious disease, which is the second-most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's disease. The gist of my argument is that people's eyes gloss over when they hear "Lewy body." They understand dementia to some extent, but they don't get that LBD is why mom can't figure out how to make soup anymore and why dad can't form an intelligible sentence. It's why their minds and their bodies will give out until they can no longer communicate with others, recognize others or understand what others are saying to them, toilet, care for, or feed themselves. And then they die.

What I'd like to help accomplish is to make LBD and the LBDA mean something clear and compelling, the way MD and MDA (muscular dystrophy and the Muscular Dystrophy Association) do. You think of the latter and you think of smiling kids with crutches, leg braces, and wheelchairs, you think of Jerry Lewis and the telethon, you think about giving. That's what LBD and the LBDA need, and it's all in the branding and what they can do with it. That's an ongoing project that will require a lot more thinking and collaboration.

The projects I've completed are a direct mail brochure targeted at neurologists to raise their awareness of LBD and invite them to download materials about LBD for their practice and their patients from the LBDA website; and an ad that will appear in the program book for the upcoming Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The latter opportunity is very interesting. A guy named John Bankert worked his entire professional life (41 years) for one organization: the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He eventually became its executive director. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with LBD and had to retire. In March 2009, he died. So the LBDA negotiated a half-page ad to appear in the program. The message of the ad honors John for his long commitment to the organization, highlights the fact that only a disease as awful as LBD could make him step down from the job that he loved, and inviting readers to donate to a fund in his name.

Judy Carter, a very talented graphic designer and friend, generously agreed to donate her skills to the project. It's one thing to volunteer for an organization and do professional work for them on a pro bono basis; it's another thing to be the friend of someone volunteering and be willing to also waive one's professional fee to support the cause. I and the LBDA are very grateful to Judy for her excellent work.

Future projects will likely include grant writing and organizing (with the soprano) a benefit recital, as well as the branding initiative. Somehow, work doesn't feel like work when it's for a cause you believe in. It becomes invigorating, exciting, and motivational. The very act of helping out the LBDA has given me a newfound curiosity and commitment around this disease that prematurely ended by mother's life. I look forward to helping them until the day when the LBDA is no longer needed.

Until then, with these two projects in the can, I can hopefully get back to the novel.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In Memory of Mrs. Sal

Mrs. Sal was Marie Salamanca. To those who knew her better, she was many things, and there were many things within the city of Melrose, Massachusetts, with which she was involved. But to my family, Mrs. Sal was simply the crossing guard whose post was right outside our house. We live on a corner and Mrs. Sal would park her car on the side street in front of the side of our house (if that makes sense) and take up her post every morning and afternoon as kids walked to and from the elementary school just a few properties down.

I never saw her much, as I left for work before the school rush. But my wife and our two-year-old daughter Stella became friends with her. At first, they would just wave to her from our dining room window. Then they went out one day and my wife introduced herself and Stella to Mrs. Sal. Eventually, Mrs. Sal came to know Stella's personality and knew when she was sick (which is often, as she has asthma). My wife would bake treats for her, and she would give us gifts as well.

This is very much the defining thing that separates my wife and I as creatures on this earth. In a million years, with all the time and opportunity in the world, I would never once wave to a crossing guard I wasn't being crossed by, and I certainly would never introduce myself or strike up a conversation - much less a friendship - with the person. Not that I'm a mean, ornery loner, but I just don't find it practical. Maybe I'm selfish in thinking if there's nothing in it for me why make an effort to connect with another human being, but to me it's more a question of utilitarianism. I don't need to do it, I don't perceive the rewards as being worth the effort, and given all the time and opportunity in the world, I'd just rather spend it some other way.

My wife is different. She's all about connecting, she's all about community. She pays forward, she does unto others, she's a one-woman village willing to raise anybody's child. So, fine. Mrs. Sal came into our life. I've met and spoken with her only once, and I've waved a few times. More than a few times I've driven past her without waving. Just because.

I do have positive feelings towards Mrs. Sal, and I valued the fact that she thought kindly on my family and especially on Stella, for whom she quilted a small blanket that Stella adores and insists be on top of all her other blankets so it can always be seen. Mrs. Sal even wrote on one of the squares a note to Stella, whom she called her "morning star."

A couple of months ago, Mrs. Sal began working a different crosswalk, not far from our house, but not within view. As such, we hadn't seen her as frequently. Her home is next to the playground, so we have seen her there on occasion. Last weekend, in fact, my wife and Stella were at the playground and my wife suggested they walk over to pay Mrs. Sal a visit. Just then, my wife saw a friend of hers, someone who knows everything that goes on in town, who told her that Mrs. Sal had suffered a serious asthma attack and had coded. She was in the ICU at the local community hospital, and had been declared brain dead. She had been taken off a ventilator the night before and eventually passed away last Monday.

When my wife heard the news she was in shock. She called me at home, where I was doing yardwork, and asked me to come to the playground to play with Stella while she made calls and tried to get more information. She spoke with Mrs. Sal's daughter. It's doubly hard for the daughter because her father is critically ill and no one could have anticipated that he would outlive his wife. Finally, my wife came to me to tell me everything she knew, and then she started crying. I told her to go home and I stayed with Stella at the playground for a while longer. Stella doesn't know, and I'm not sure it makes sense to tell her. She doesn't ask about her very much, though "Mrs. Sal's blanket" remains a treasured possession. I suggested to my wife that she write a letter to Stella about Mrs. Sal, that Stella can read when she's older. I also suggested to my wife that she write Mrs. Sal's family a letter and include a photo of Stella sleeping with Mrs. Sal's blanket.

To be perfectly honest, in this moment of sadness and regret, I'm not sorry I didn't know her better, but I do finally see the value of the relationship my wife forged with this woman. In doing so, she gave Stella an opportunity to get to know an older person, a person working in the community, a person from a very different background than her family. She also gave Mrs. Sal the chance to be a light for someone, to spread caring and joy to a neighbor. There is, I know, an inherent value in making a personal connection with other people; it doesn't have to pay off in gifts or favors, and when it does it spawns a reciprocity rooted in altruism. These aren't transactions, they're expressions of gratitude, concern, and affection.

I know I often close myself off to that reality. I'm not a people-hater, but I'm also not someone packing large amounts of extroversion and empathy. I can handle being alone and I don't need a lot of people in my community to know me. I wish sometimes I could be more like my wife, I think it's a noble ideal, but I know it's not me. And that's fine. However, minus my wife, Stella would never have had that opportunity to get to know Mrs. Sal, and Mrs. Sal would never have known what nice people live in that house she parked alongside of.

So now Mrs. Sal is dead. She leaves behind many people, I'm sure, whose lives she touched as she has touched ours. And I am truly grateful for the kindness and caring she showed to my wife and Stella, and thankful to my wife for having made that relationship happen.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Sal.