Monday, March 31, 2014

OMG A2Z!!!

     I'll just admit it right up front. I'm probably going to be the worst participant that the Blogging A to Z Challenge has ever seen.  I can't even paste the damn gadget onto my home page!  When I try to do it, my computer tells me that the gadget is "broken." Well, the gadget looks just dandy to me, so I strongly suspect that I'm the one who's broken, and my computer is just trying to spare my feelings.
     But I'm gonna plunge in tomorrow anyway.  I'm signed up.  I've chosen a topic: My Favorite Things. It's a darling topic, if I say so myself.  Now all I have to do is produce twenty-six themed blog posts in thirty days.  What could possibly go wrong?  Besides for everything, I mean.

             I'D TURN BACK IF I WERE ME

Saturday, March 29, 2014


     What? Like this has never happened to you? Not even once? Fine. Let's try this one: So your 91-year-old mother walks into a bar...  Yeah, I figured that one would work better for you.
     Except that MY 91-year-old mother has probably never been to a bar in her life. And yet, in 8 days from today she actually is moving to another continent. To be more precise: she is moving to the junction between two other continents, Europe and Africa.  To be even more precise: she is moving from the United States to Israel. And I'm not even kidding.
     I can explain. My mother has lived in the U.S. her whole life.  But (1) she's an Orthodox Jew, and to many American Orthodox Jews, Israel is not half a world away, it's sort of around the corner.  Even if, as in my mother's case, it's the only country you've ever visited outside of North America.

 (2)  My brother has lived in Israel for over 30 years.  He, his wife, four of his five children, the three spouses of those children, and the one new baby, all live in Jerusalem.  My mother is moving to a senior facility half a mile from my brother's home. She will be surrounded by attentive Orthodox family members, and will no doubt spend holidays and other important occasions with them.  This move was her idea, and it makes sense for her.  Much more sense than it does for her to stay in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she grew up, but where her only remaining family members are a sister who suffers from Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes her, and a nephew and his wife.  I live two hours away, and see my mother irregularly.  My kids' lives bear no relation to hers, and they love her dutifully but not deeply, and don't feel very connected to her.  So it all makes sense, right?
     To be honest, my mother did a pretty shitty job of parenting me. As an adult, I can understand that it was a byproduct of the pretty shitty parenting she received, her resulting lack of self-esteem, her need to project her enormous stockpiles of shame and self-loathing onto me because I was a girl, like her.  As a child, I lacked such perspective; all I knew was that she apparently derived pleasure from making me miserable, but I didn't know why.  As soon as I could get away, I fled as far as my own terror of the unknown and injured psyche would let me. And I managed to rescue myself, more or less, if you don't count the permanent emotional scars.
     But then when I was 33, I had a baby, and I made a conscious decision to not deprive my son of  a grandmother just because of the havoc she had wreaked in my life.  My father had died when I was 30, and when that happened, my mother gradually began to exhibit an ability I had never suspected she had.  She began, by tiny increments, to grow and change, to be able to accept that my choosing not to lead a life ruled by religion did not equate to my choosing to be a monstrous human being.  Yes, it was a laughable degree of insight, but for her it was an enormous step.  So I decided, despite my deep misgivings, to give her a chance to know her grandson.  And, step by step, she and I began to build a relationship.  It was superficial, which was all she was capable of, and it was intermittent, which was all I could tolerate.  But it was the best we could both do, given our respective limitations, and
we both hung in there with it.  And as a result, my kids know their grandmother. I made the right decision, hard as it was for me. I did it for my kids, and I'm proud that I did.
     Now she's moving far away. I've been trying hard to help her prepare for the move, to clean out her dresser drawers and medicine cabinet and pantry, to sort and throw away and distribute the belongings she's not bringing with her. I've made sure to bring my son to say goodbye, and I'm bringing my daughter tomorrow, and my husband and I will come see her off at the airport next week. And there's no doubt that, once she's safely on the other side of the world, a lot of responsibility will be taken off my shoulders and shifted to my brother's.  Relief definitely has its place in my mixed emotions.
     But so do a lot of other feelings.  Guilt, for not having spent more time with her while she was here.  Resentment that no matter who I am and what I've done with my life, it will never be good enough for her because it will never follow the pattern she chose for me before I was born.  Anger that, even though she's taken lately to telling me over and over how much she loves me and how much she'll miss me, it's too little too late.  Her job was to make me feel she loved me when I was a child, when I needed that, and she failed in every way possible. Anger, too, that I had no model for learning how to be a good mother to my kids.  I had to teach myself from scratch. And resignation that the only way I'll ever see her again after next Sunday is to travel to Israel, a country about which I have extremely mixed feelings, to say the least, and to be an awkward visitor on my brother's turf.
     It's hard, all of this.  So much harder than if my mother had just (after the Sabbath ended, of course) freshened her lipstick and walked into a bar.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


     Our baby girl has somehow survived our parenting for 18 years. And we have somehow survived her childing.

     So is it time to stop holding our breath now?

     NO WAY.  Happy birthday, Amy!  You'll always keep us on our toes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I've got a great story idea. Like many great story ideas, it was inspired by the headlines, but the headlines are only a kickoff point. The only thing I believe this story is missing is a hook. I'll lay out what I've got so far, though, and maybe you can help me come up with one.
     My protagonist - let's call her SubRosa ("sub" for literary submissions. Aren't Latinate puns the best?), has been working for years at a branch of a government agency. Following a semi-Stalinist purge of all the longterm managers (and that's just the prologue), a new head honcho - let's call her Juno - is brought in from a different branch of the agency. Juno is like no manager Sub has ever seen before. For one thing, her wardrobe is a dead ringer for those of Sub's young daughter's Barbie dolls, but Juno herself is no Barbie doll. Her outlandish clothing style, accompanied by the kind of heavy makeup and styling usually seen only in professional photo shoots, and her Aging Club Kid persona, mask a cool and calculating intelligence. One of Juno's first acts as manager is to convene a meeting of the office professional staff and inform them that, unlike the former disgraced honcho, she will not require them to sign in or out, or to keep the office apprised of their whereabouts during the standard working hours. There is only one limit placed on their new unaccountability: "Just don't embarrass me," Juno says with a subtle smile. It's a phrase that will come to haunt Sub.
     The reason for this largesse soon becomes apparent. Juno herself has no intention of being accountable for her whereabouts during the standard working hours, and by granting to others the same freedom she assumes by right, she plans to buy the loyalty of those inclined to take advantage of it. And her plan works. The staff professionals who share her deep commitment to their own entitlement begin to drastically cut back their hours on the job. And, when they are physically there, they no longer feel compelled to actually produce much work, because it doesn't take them long to discover that very little is expected of them in that regard as well. The office becomes divided into two camps: those whose goal is to get away with doing as little work as possible while still collecting a paycheck, and those who care about the agency's purpose and are appalled by what they see going on around them. Juno smiles, and flits off to an 11:00 a.m. yoga class. Those who are appalled by her have no power; she has divided and conquered; mission accomplished.
     Juno remains uneventfully in her title, though not at her desk, for ten years. When Sub inquires of her better-informed colleagues as to how this could be, she is told that Juno's father-in-law is deeply politically connected, as a result of which Juno's role as head honcho is "untouchable." Juno operates in her titular position by delegating almost all of the day-to-day work to her overwhelmed subordinate managers, while she herself is absent and, even to them, frequently unavailable. On the rare occasions when Juno's presence graces the office, she has been known to boast to those same subordinate managers about her own inherited power, her untouchability. She takes some level of pride in it. Over the years, she maintains the contacts and makes the decisions that can only be done at her management level. Otherwise, she is MIA, with only one notable exception: Halloween. You see, Juno is a wiccan. She makes no secret of it; in fact, a tiny, playful image of a witch on a broom hangs on the usually-closed-and-locked door of her usually-empty office. Although Juno always spends Halloween itself in Salem, Massachusetts, with her fellow wiccans, she always ensures that her minions at the office arrange an annual Halloween party (unheard of before her tenure) sometime that week, and she never fails to attend, in full costume. And since her daily attire could legitimately be considered by many to be a costume, it stands to reason that her actual costumes must be seen to be believed.
     In the end, Juno triumphs over all her foes. After 25 years of nominal employment with the agency, she retires with her full benefits and pension. The only side-effect of her tenure is that she has driven Sub's branch of the agency into the ground, destroyed its reputation, and trampled the rights of its clients. This is such a minimal price to pay that it does not even register on Juno's radar screen.
     A few years after Juno is safely retired, a news story breaks about the governor of the state in which she and Sub live and work. The story at first seems minor it itself, but it soon snowballs, revealing a viper's nest of corruption involving the governor and his cronies so brazen as to amaze even diehard political junkies. Eventually, many roads of dirty power and dirty money are traced back to one man who has profited perhaps more than any other under the governor's reign. One man who is so confident in his unassailability in the powerful position to which the governor has appointed him that he routinely ignores his own obvious conflicts of interest, freely voting on matters involving the agency he heads which affect his own financial affairs and those of the private company that bears his name. He is, you see, untouchable. And what, you might ask, does that man have to do with this story? You've probably already guessed. He's Juno's father-in-law, of course.
     So what do you think of my story? I know, it violates a lot of conventions of story-telling. For one thing, the protagonist plays no active role; she just watches the story unfold. And, for another thing, there's no hook. But maybe that's because the ending of the story hasn't been written yet.

p.s. Dad-in-law's resignation from the agency is a good start for the ending, though.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


   It took me forever to finish reading THE GOLDFINCH (Little, Brown, 2013), and then it took me a slightly shorter version of forever to sort out my thoughts about it enough to be able to review it. I'm finally ready to give it my best shot.    
     Almost the first thing the adult Theo Decker tells us about himself in this novel is: "Things would have turned out better if she [his mother] had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me to someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life."
     And while that is undoubtedly true, and we learn soon how affectionate and devoted thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother were to each other,  we also learn more disturbing things about that "before" period - before the terrorist explosion in the unnamed New York art museum which killed Theo's mother - that make us question how differently his life would have turned out after all.  Because by the age of thirteen, Theo had already developed a pattern of following another boy's lead into engaging in petty crimes - burglaries, small thefts - about which his mother knew nothing.  He attributes this problem to the recent sudden and total disappearance of his abusive, alcoholic father.  Maybe.  The fact remains (and the adult Theo has some awareness of this, although the child Theo has none) that no matter how much he and his mother adored each other right up to her death, irreparable damage had already been done.
     As if to underscore this, the author makes a point of letting us know that there is not one character in this almost-800-page novel who is exactly what he or she seems to be.  Even Theo's mother, whom he had grown up thinking of as an open book, turns out to have apparently had some sort of ambiguous, undisclosed relationship with an older lawyer named Mr. Bracegirdle.  Even the uncompromisingly decent Hobie, who eventually becomes Theo's de facto adoptive father, has a seemingly quasi-marital relationship with a married woman that Theo doesn't quite understand.  And even Pippa, Theo's fellow child-survivor of the museum blast and the object of his blind lifelong worship, turns out to have secrets of her own.
     The only creature in this novel who is precisely what he seems to be is one who exists solely in a painting: Karel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch."  Theo knows this painting of the intrepid little bird intimately, because it left the chaos of the museum just after the explosion in Theo's possession, and continues to follow him through his improbable, Dickensian journeys. But before those journeys begin, Tartt forces the reader to know exactly what it feels like to be a thirteen-year-old boy in New York City whose mother has met a violent death, whose father has fallen off the map, and whose only other relative is a grandfather who lives far away and who openly dislikes the grandson he has met all of twice. And if any reader has failed to fall in love with Theo before seeing him left utterly alone and helpless in his motherless apartment,  that failure will be remedied instantly in this part of the story.
     Once Social Services discovers Theo's predicament, he (and the painting) end up, almost fortuitously, living with the Barbours, the old-money-society family of his friend Andy. Maybe even more importantly, he meets and gets to know Hobie, a middle-aged, highly skilled furniture restorer and rather incompetent antiques dealer. Theo slowly begins to recover from his trauma, and to adapt to his new life. But just when he begins to show signs of actually thriving (because, remember, we're in Dickens territory), his father, long missing and presumed possibly dead, shows up at the Barbours' with his bizarre girlfriend Xandra to claim Theo like a mislaid package, and sweep him (and, of course, the hidden painting) off to the outskirts of Las Vegas.  I mean, where else, right?
     In Vegas, Theo has a roof over his head, but is otherwise left completely on his own.  And that is when and where he meets Boris, and forms with him a two-member tribe of Lost Boys, wandering drunkenly through the desert moonscape, that ensures their mutual survival. Boris: he is such a brilliant invention that words fail me before I can even begin trying to describe him. Boris has lived everywhere and nowhere, experienced nothing and everything, and has seen more of life's seamy side in his fifteen years than anyone since the Artful Dodger. Scofflaw. Alcoholic. Thief. Opportunist. Philosopher. Degenerate. Charmer. Friend. All these, and so much more. Thanks to Boris, Theo's life again becomes bearable.
     And then things start going very wrong for Theo's father, who ends up committing suicide-by-truck on the highway, and Theo has to leave town in a hurry to avoid falling into the hands of Social Services again. Toting everything he owns as well as Xandra's neglected miniature dog, Theo escapes via buses back to New York City, where he winds up on Hobie's doorstep.
     Nine or ten years pass. And although, under Hobie's benevolent influence, Theo has grown up to be a more-or-less law-abiding citizen (if you don't count a serious addiction to painkillers and the fact that he's never told anyone about the priceless work of art that he keeps hidden in his room, wrapped in a pillowcase and packing tape), it's clear, just from the sheer incongruousness of Theo's life so far, that it could still take other turns. Which, as we soon learn, it already has; the antiques business evidently provides a lot of opportunities for shady dealings, if one is so inclined. And if you've read this review carefully, you can probably guess who suddenly shows up in New York one day, calling Theo's name in the street. Yeah. It's Boris, and he's not there by accident; he has some very important, very unwelcome news for Theo. And that's when things get really complicated. Because, in Boris's own words: "this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can't get there any other way?"
     Ah. That's the question, isn't it? If good leads to evil, and evil to good, how does one distinguish between the two? Is it even possible to live a moral life in a world such as Theo's, and ours? What matters: our intentions, or the results of our actions? What matters: life, or art? The goldfinch itself, still existing through the alchemy of art some four hundred years after its own death and the death of the painter? Or is it only the rendering of it on a wooden board that matters, because art is true and vital in a way that life itself is not?
     I hope you're not looking to me for these answers. Read THE GOLDFINCH. When you reach the end, you still won't know the answers, but you won't be able to forget the questions.

Friday, March 14, 2014



     Okay, yeah, I'm still blog-incapacitated, but I wanted to touch base anyway.  Anybody want to do a guest post or anything?
     There are times I can advance toward the world, and then there are other times, like this past week for instance, when all I can do is retreat.  But I won't be able to keep retreating once April arrives, because here's the foolhardy thing I just did: signed up for  the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  And what is that?  It's a commitment to blog every day except Sundays throughout the month of April on a theme of my choice, running through the alphabet as I do so.  My theme will be My Favorite Things, and I pledge to write about one of my favorite things on each of those 26 days.  Pretty crazy venture, I'll grant you, for someone who spends about 90% of her time camped out inside her own head, but see, that's why they call it a challenge.  So by the end of April, if you keep coming back here, you'll know way more about me than you ever thought possible.  Or necessary.  Or even desirable.
     You can join the Challenge yourself if you want.  In fact, I urge you to, so that we can commiserate.  And for the rest of March, if you need me, you'll find me hiding in a bunker.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


..... because I do, really I do.  It's just that I have a couple of tiny glimmers of hope about my book, and of course I'm obsessed about them and can't focus very well on anything else.  But I can't talk about the glimmers because they might result in absolutely nothing.  So I'm trying to hold off on blogging until I have some news to share, but since as a practical matter that might take years, decades, eons, then I need to just post something so you folks know I haven't succumbed to some dreadful fate.  God, I love that word succumbed, don't you?  It hints of a succubus, as well as of a cucumber, as well as of Benedict Cumberbatch, and who doesn't love a good cucumber succubus as portrayed by Sherlock Holmes himself?  No one I'd care to know, that's for damn sure.
     So here I am, posting. And do you want to know what the word "posting" reminds me of?  It reminds me of the English riding lessons I took for years, several times a week, until I stopped 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with my son.  Posting is what you do when you're riding English and your horse is trotting, which is the most uncomfortable gait for a rider, and so with every trot, the rider rises slightly in the saddle to prevent his or her butt from just slamming down into the saddle.  I always loved horses, but I never became that great of a rider and never learned that much about horsemanship.  But I suppose that when you ride Western, you just get used to your butt slamming into the saddle every time your horse trots.  And if that's the case, why, I believe I would rather post, thank you very much.
     Speaking of my son, his spring break is this week, and he'll be coming home tomorrow for a few days, and that will be fabulous.  I wish I could remember when I last saw him, but I do know that it feels like it was a very long time ago.  But then, it always feels like that, a constant, low-grade missing of him, and I suspect it will never stop feeling like that, and that that's the price one pays for loving someone so much and watching from afar as he learns to take possession of his adult life.  It's such a privilege, this kind of missing.  It signals that things are working as they should be.
     Right-o.  That's it for now.  Thanks for following along with my brain drippings this evening, and I 'll try to pretend to be more functional next time around.