Chanukah

5:45 PM is windup time. I am finishing an email to my boss, letting him know how far along the current coding project is. Then I have to close up files and leave notes reminding me where to pick up the project in the morning. This process usually takes time because for the last forty-five minutes, the sounds of bored children at loose ends has been steadily growing.

“Samuel, stop!” Sounds of crashing and grunts. “Mama! Samuel keeps knocking over my blocks!”

“Rose, they are his blocks. You are supposed to be sharing them.”

“I AM sharing them. He keeps knocking mine down.”

“What are your choices, bud? What can you say to him?”

“Samuel! Don’t do that!”

“That isn’t what I had in mind.”

Dawn’s voice is getting thinner, less patient, though she is keeping mostly cool so far. She is trying to cook dinner. Little conflicts and problems that the children can normally handle on their own are large and looming at this time of day. I can usually count on at least one tantrum a day between five and six o’clock. Child experts call it Happy Hour, which only goes to show how sarcastic even child experts can be.

“Come on Yosef. Let’s go start the Maccabee army. We can wear shields!” There is a crash of wooden blocks, a squeal of delight, and then the pounding of four little feet down the hallway.

I hibernate the computer and turn off the desk lamp. I switch my computer glasses for my regular distance glasses. The computer glasses were a new addition to my wardrobe around my 38th birthday, just one in a series of small notices from my body that I am growing older. They allow me to see the screen at a distance of 18 to 36 inches without making my eyes work so hard. Sometimes I switch to my distance glasses before the computer is done shutting down, and a quick glance at the screen give me the shadow of a headache. I am hardly feeble. I am not falling apart at the seams yet. But what was I thinking raising preschoolers in my forties?

The office/bedroom door is ajar, but I slide it open and step gingerly over the baby gate. I am barefoot and step softly and quietly ont the large floor pillows on the other side. They protect Samuel from his own inertia when he charges down the hallway running from his sister. It is something of a challenge for me to see how far down the hall I can make it before they notice me. I get as far as the bathroom before Rose flies at me.

“Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!”

She gives me a flying hug and I stagger back a couple of inches. Samuel is not far behind, but with Rose in the way, he holds back, satisfied with just repeating, “Papa!”

“Can we light the menorahs?” Rose asks, a tad louder than she needs to.

“Sure,” I say, at the same time Dawn says, “Rose, I asked you to put away your books ten minutes ago.” Somehow, only my voice is heard. “I’ll get the candles, Papa!” and she races off.

Samuel chimes in. “Candles! Candles! Candles!” When he is excited, Samuel has this demonic gravelly edge to his voice that makes him sound twenty years older and two hundred pound heavier. He growls out the last “CAAAAAAAAAANDDLLLEEEEEEES!”

“Put your books away, Rose, and then we’ll light candles.”

“OK! I’m doing it right now! C’mon baby-Samuel-Sam-the-Merry-O!”

I can tell from the depth and duration of Dawn’s sigh how long she has been after Rose to put her books away. She might think it unfair that Papa has the magic touch, but that’s not true. If at anytime she had told Rose, “No candles until books are put away,” Rose would have responded right away. Dawn just didn’t think of it.

We get down four boxes of candles, one for each menorah. Both Rose and Samuel have menorot made from two-foot long blocks of wood. The wood has been carved until only the letters spelling their Hebrew names remained, Chana Mindel and Shmuel Yosef. Metal candle holders poke out from the top of various letters. These menorot take up most of the back edge of the table, leaving just enough space in between for Mama’s and Papa’s menorot. This year, Dawn uses the small golden menorah carved in the shape of an espalier tree, a wedding gift. Strickly speaking, this menorah is not kosher because the height of each branch is supposed to be the same. Also, the cups that hold the candles are slightly too large and the candles won’t stay in without having their bottoms melted a little. But it is the most beautiful of all the menorot we own. I use a silver plated menorah that my parents brought home from a trip to Israel. It is rather simple in design and had several tarnished spots that resist cleaning. It looks something of a plague victim, but the blemishes aren’t noticeable in the candlelight. Once lit it has a classical grace that lends some spritual authority to the scene as it towers over the other menorot in our small Chanukah shrine.

When I grew up, Chanukah candles came in a box with crude illustrations reminiscent of the old JNF tzedakah boxes where we put our charity coins. Think Halloween UNICEF boxes, only in a blue color scheme and with drawings instead of photos. The candles were hardly more than three inches long with spiraling ridged edges like twisted licorice. They were cheap and ubiquitous, but a few years ago we started to see fancier candles sold in stores. They were longer, smooth sided, with vivid colors and often multiple colors on a single candle. They were fancy and cost more, and when we were DINKs, we bought some because we could afford them. But now we buy them because we can’t find the cheap ones in the stores anymore. Such is progress. Dawn bought four different kinds of boxes and Rose and Dawn both wanted rainbow colors. This worked out well, since Samuel didn’t care; he just wanted “CAAANNDDDDLLLEESSS!” And I preferred the simple elegant blue and white collection to match my menorah.

Because we want things to be “just so,” we laid out our candles in advance and decided which ones would be lit on which nights. Dawn and Rose both wanted a variety of rainbow colors on each night, while I tried to stick to a single color scheme each night. This allowed me to give Rose a small mathematics lesson. My box was evenly split between white and blue candles. I decided to do all blue on first night, all white on the second, blue on the third, white on the fourth and then switch – white on the fifth, blue on the sixth, etc. Rose wanted to know why I didn’t just go back and forth every night, and I was pleased to be able to explain it to her in a way that did not bore her. She followed my whole description attentively and was even polite enough at the very end to say that she understood. I did not investigate this claim.

Rose insisted that we light her shammash first with a match, and then use it to light the other shammashim. We learned this the hard way on the first night, when she burst into tears, and we had to delay our prayer a few minutes before we could understand why. Samuel sat in Dawn’s lap, as patient as he could be, which is not very patient these days. We sang our prayers and took turns lighting. I helped Rose remember to light them in the right order. You fill the candles from right to left and light the candles left to right. Or as I tell them, you fill Hebrew and light English.

Then Dawn would help Samuel light his. This was the most nerve wracking part of the evening for me. Samuel is twenty months old. He is quite strong, able to bend silicon plastic spoons into the most interesting shapes. He is very fast, and he is entering his terrible twos, complete with kicking, hitting, and throwing-himself-on-the-floor-tantrums. So it takes a great deal of narishkeit on our part to sit him on the table, put a burning candle in his hand, and, grasping his hand tightly, help him light the candles on his menorah. For some reason, his candles were the only ones with wax on the wicks and so took much longer to light. Each night I unconsciously practiced holding my breath longer and longer as the number of candles increased, until my face glowed as brightly as the candles from the effort. But there was never a single mishap, perhaps because he really didn’t care about lighting or touching the candles. He wanted to watch them and would look at Rose’s already-lit menorah as he unknowingly lit his.

“Can we have our gelt now?” Rose always asks at this point. I remind her that Mama and Papa need to light their own menorot first, and we should probably get Samuel off the table before that. Samuel must be watched like a hawk for the next hour because he knows how to climb the dining room chairs. We strap him in his high chair, light our menorot, and then bring out the gelt. The children do like the candles, but the chocolate is great incentive too. Rose carefully unwraps all three of hers before eating any of them, and narrates what she’s doing, repeating herself louder and louder until she is sure she has been heard.

Rose likes this holiday, and we have put some effort into making it joyous for her without outright bribery. We don’t want to compete with Christmas. We want her to be able to go to her Christian friends’ homes and observe their traditions and help them celebrate, and have her bring friends home and show her what we do. We want mutual respect, but we want a clear distinction. We are Jewish. They are Christian. We won’t have a Chanukah tree. They won’t light Christian menorot. It’s OK to be different and respect and enjoy our differences.

Earlier this week, she came back from gymnastics with stamps on her feet and shins. One stamp was a Chanukah menorah. The other was a set of Christmas tree ornaments. She announced that she liked the Christmas stamp better. Four years old, and I wasn’t prepared. I asked her very nonchalantly, “Oh? Why is that?” Inside I felt shaken.

“Because the Christmas stamp is bigger.”

“Oh, I get it!” I answered cheerfully, but I am making a mental note: get a bigger Chanukah stamp next year.

A Day in the Life

Here’s a little diary of my son’s day, as told in his own words.

“papa. mama. hana!” The usual role call attendance every morning. All campers reporting for duty.

“snow.” Look. Someone frosted the yard.

“nana.” That would be banana, and I’d like some for breakfast.

“tahter.” With water, of course.

“nummies.” And breast milk. What do you mean you don’t expect a shipment until after lunch?

“pick.” I would like to choose my own cereal.

“raisin.” And I would like some of what you’re having, too. What’s this? No, no, I want it from YOUR bowl.

“candle. all gone. more.” Who turned off the pretty menorah candles from last night?

“people. walk. bye.” Oh there go the neighbors out for a walk. Have a lovely time in the snow!

“c.d.” Put one in and let’s groove.

“truck!” An incredibly cool tow truck in our neighborhood! Alert the press!

“sit.” Yes, I’m rather tired. Lets.

“down.” Yes, I know I’m adorable, but I don’t care to be five feet off the floor with your cereal breath in my face.

“up.” On second thought…

“gym. gym. gym.” Papa, did you know that Mama is taking me to the Recreational Department open gym this morning? Rose, did you know that Mama is taking me to the Recreational Department open gym this morning? Mama, did you know that you are taking me to the Recreational Department open gym this morning?

“grapes. hold.” I’ll take those, if you please.

“matkes.” [sic] Hold the apple sauce and sour cream.

“dreidle!” A shiny blue one and it’s so exciting I can hardly stand it!

“gimel!” I don’t know what it means, but everyone else seems to think it is worth shouting.

“noise. bang.” I’m something of the sensitive type, so please, only I get to make loud noises.

“home. walk. please.” Why am I at the neighbors house with Rose? Where are Mama and Papa? This is too weird for me. May I go home, now?

“on. please.” It’s rather stuffy in here, so could you please turn on that Air Exchanger thingee with the bright lights on it.

“nummies.” Yawn! A little late night snack, and I’m off to bed. See you Rose. See you Papa. I got a date with Mama. Kiss, kiss.

Night Duty

I wake in the middle of the night, having no sense of what time it is, nor why I am awake. Our bedroom is dark save for the red LED dot on the monitor. Then more dots appear, forming an arch from left to right. I hear it now – Samuel calling for Mama. But Mama is not available for two more hours, five AM. That’s our night-weaning rule. It’s my job to get him back to sleep.

Dawn calls my name, nudges me to see if I’ve heard. She has probably been awake longer than I have been. I grunt to let her know I’m somewhat conscious. Sometimes Samuel goes back to sleep on his own, and we both lie there, breathing quietly. He calls her name again, a hint of sadness and near hysteria. I sigh, involuntarily of course, and try to keep my exasperation in check. This is a difficult and tiresome chore, one that I had thought we might be beyond but has recently resurged.

He has been teething, filling the last gap in his mouth. At first we thought he had merely reached the “edible cutlery” stage of development. He would suck apple butter off a slice of bread or humus off a cracker and then discard it and ask for more apple butter or humus. When Rose was his age (20 months) she would suck catsup off french fries and then offer the french fries back to us. Charming.

But then we saw the pointed canines slowly emerging in Samuel’s mouth, four perfect little white volcanos erupting. For days he has been drooling, chewing on his hands, occasionally pulling on an ear. The preventitive dose of ibuprofen we gave him before bed only lasts six hours. By three in the morning he is wet, thirsty, and had a terrible pain in his jaw.

I wish I could be more gracious about it, but I’m not getting enough sleep. I try to remind myself that he won’t be a toddler forever, and someday soon he won’t let me hold him in my lap and rock him anymore. If Rose is any indication, it won’t be long until he sleeps all night and needs to be hoisted out of bed in the morning with heavy construction equipment. I remind myself that the reason his teeth hurt is not because they are making a new hole in his gums, but because they are making a new hole in his jawbone. But it’s no use. I am grumpy in spite of my best intentions. Perhaps if he had been calling for Papa instead of Mama …

I pull the bed covers back, careful not to let in the cold air under the covers. I’m not just trying to score good husband points. I have vain hopes of getting back under those covers before they get cold again. A bathrobe waits next to the bed and I tie it on. I turn off the monitor so Dawn can sleep, and so she can’t hear anything that might happen next door that she wouldn’t completely approve of. I quietly turn the door knob, pull back the oiled hinges, and step lightly onto the laminate floor of his room.

I find him standing up in the crib looking expectantly towards the door, his silk cowboy blanket clutched in his fist. He takes one look at me and then throws himself back into the crib on his belly and begins to scream. I am not Mama. I will not do. Waiter, this isn’t what I ordered – there’s a Papa in my soup.

I wonder how frightening I must look to him. A looming and growing shadow against the wall? A humonculus with gruesome and distorted features lit theatrically in the glow of the night light from below? A hairy woodland predator who has eaten his Mama and put on her pink bath robe? My bath robe is torn and has not yet been replaced.

I pick him up from behind, careful to avoid his flailing limbs. He is not scared, he is angry and uncomfortable. I am not far off. I know that before I can get him to sleep, I will desperately need to pee. I skip no steps, having learned the hard way, and quickly run through the drill – fresh diaper, a drink of water, a booster dose of Tylenol. Now, I am his friend again. Or at least an acceptable servant.

“Papa. Rock.”

He is so darn cute. He will not sleep right away, and he won’t stay asleep unless I hold him. He can be snoring in my arms, but if I put him back in the crib too soon, he wakes again and the whole show starts all over. So what is too soon? By trial and error I have discovered that if I am still awake, it is too soon. I settle into the glider and adjust him to the perfect position. From here, if we both fall asleep, he can’t fall out, unless he is really trying which, so far, he never has.

A half hour later, I open my eyes and he is sleeping soundly. I put him in the crib and lay him down carefully on his side. He eyes snap open, he rolls on his stomach, and pushes up with his arms. It happens in a blur, in less than a second. Act two begins.

I lift him bodily so I can tip him sideways back in the crib and start to pat his back. For some reason he finds this incredibly calming and occasionally soporific. His head rests on a plush blue blanket thing for a pillow. On one end is the head of a blue, long-eared dog, but the rest of the body is relatively flat, as if the dog had been chasing a steamroller and lost. Samuel has buried his nose in the dog’s lower vertebrae, so I cannot see if his eyes are open. It is probably better this way. Making eye contact is too alerting. I wait for his breathing to soften instead.

A large fleece blanket is draped on the far side of the crib, blocking the direct glare of the night light. The only sounds are the clicking of the hot water registers and my son’s breathing, mostly steady but occasionally twitching. He is not asleep yet.

Pat. Pat. Pat. Steady, even, slow, light. Since I cannot reach his back when I am standing up, I must lean over. But my back is too tired to hold up my upper body at this oblique angle for long. I cannot lean on the crib railing. It is designed to be raised and lowered and cannot support my weight without rattling. Instead I stretch over a bit farther and put my right arm on the head board and then rest my head on my arm. This eases the strain on my back.

Pat. Pat. Pat. But it restricts the flow of blood to my right arm. Pat. Pat. Pat. My arm is starting to feel numb and tingly at the same time. Pat pat, pat pat, pat pat. My arm is falling to sleep faster than my son. Pat pat pat pat. This is really uncomfortable. Patpatpatpat. And I need to pee. Patpatpatpatpatpatpatpatpat.

Finally his breathing is steady and slow. I slow down the pats, lighter, softer, slower, until I am just brushing the dust off his pajamas. I lift my left hand slowly off his back. I lift my head off my right arm and a rush of blood sends little shards of glass from my elbow to my finger tips. I raise my right arm off the head board like a lump of dead wood attached to my elbow. A lump of dead wood on fire, that is. So far, nothing in the crib has creaked or squeaked. I am standing upright. I am half way there. I am invincible. The theme to “2001: A Space Odyssey” is playing in my head. Quietly, of course.

But I’m not in the clear yet. For some reason the soles of my bare feet adhere to the laminate flooring in Samuel’s room. Not a lot, but enough to make a small noise, like the sound your bare back might make peeling off the black leather seats of a car on a hot summer day. It is a small noise, quieter than the clicking of the registers, but it is out of place and would wake him in no time. Slowly I lift one heel and then the other, and I carefully tiptoe between the crib and the rocking chair. It is a tightrope walk. If I bump the glider, it will make noise when it rocks. If I bump the crib, the side bars will rattle. And I can’t walk on my heels because they will make that sticky squelchy noise on the floor. I get about three steps without a sound, which is pretty damn good and makes me think that if I lose my job I could earn a decent living on Breaking and Entering. I lose it on the fourth step.

“Papa. Pat. Again.”

I pick him up and we go back to the glider. It’s quite cozy, very comfortable for sitting, with a tall straight back, but there is no pillow or indentation to rest one’s head for sleeping. I fall asleep anyway and wake at five in the morning with Samuel asleep in my lap and a painful crick in my neck. When I lift him up to carry to Dawn, he wakes and starts up a little choking sob when he sees her. Mama! Thank God, you’re alive! The noise subsides when he begins to nurse. I fall asleep next to them in the bed and don’t hear a thing until seven in the morning.

Winter. Finally.

Snow fell last week and for the first time this season it didn’t melt into the cracked asphalt of our dead-end road. Over the course of two days, we accumulated enough snow to hide the worst of our landscaping offenses, but not so much that we had to shovel any to get out of the house.

Once upon a time I was fairly vigilant about keeping the driveway clear. When you drive over fresh snow, it forms tire-track ice on the driveway which remains until the spring thaw. Every morning I would peer out the window to see if anything had fallen overnight. If so, I would dress in my clothes from the day before invariably jeans and a T-shirt with a fleece sweater, one of my slovenly telecommuting habits step into my Sorrel boots, and grab a winter hat that covered my ears. I would spend a purging hour wielding the broom and shovel stationed on the front door landing. It was a chore, one that gave me some badly needed exercise, but which also required a preventative dose of ibuprofen.

But I’m not attending to the shoveling this year. If I am not busy with the children or Dawn or the kitchen or the laundry, I would simply rather read and write than shovel my driveway. December is not half over and the ice tracks have formed on the driveway with every promise of growing deeper.

The house is warm. After our energy audit last year, followed by some low-tech winterizing and a new Buderus boiler, we are now under budget for our heating oil. Admittedly we only have to heat 1300 square feet. Unless it is an especially cold winter, we are unlikely to burn more than 1000 gallons. That sounds like a lot of fuel, but there are aging, 3000+ sq ft, Victorian homes in Montpelier that are beautiful buildings with twelve-foot ceilings and enormous bedrooms, and which burn several thousand gallons of fuel oil in a year. Their owners wear sweaters indoors and hop quickly into beds piled with quilts to keep out the draft. It is a rare day that I walk outside and do not see a rumbling, diesel, heating oil truck on its way to or from a delivery for such a house. I used to covet them, and still do on occasion, but I am not rich or assiduous enough to maintain one. I will never forget our house inspector words: “This is the perfect size house. It’s just a little too small for a family with teenagers.”

Yesterday was the first truly cold day of the season. It was so cold (how cold was it?) that the weather report said the low temperature was 15 degrees and the high temperature was also 15 degrees and the current temperature was 11 degrees. We had been invited to Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home a mile away, and we do not drive on Shabbat if we can avoid it, so we decided to walk and get our winter “sea-legs.” At four-thirty we herded the children to the mud room.

The front door of our house opens into a mud room with tall windows on three sides. It is something like an exposed, walk-in closet in both content and organization. The previous owners painted the ceiling sky blue with white clouds, but only a rare visitor notices this. There are fourteen hooks on the wall, a depot mirror, a bench, two chairs, and two stools all cluttered with winter coats, autumn jackets, wind breakers, wool scarves, fleece hats and mittens, gloves, neck gaiters, and ear muffs in every color and size imaginable. More than enough to cloth our entire family twice over plus a friend or two. The floor is strewn with Sorrels and winter boots, slip-on shoes for dry days, hiking boots, indoor slippers, and socks that never made it into the house. The few bare spots on the floor are covered with dirt and puddles of melted snow and little treasures brought in by the children leaves, sticks, pine cones, stones, forgotten stuffed animals.

This is our staging room for outdoor adventures. It has a baseboard radiator like every room inside the house, but somehow it only manages to keep the room just above freezing. This is enough to activate any odiferous bacteria in our boots and to melt the ice and snow we track in. Our feet never fail to step in these freezing cold puddles once our shoes are off. It is not a room that invites loitering, and for this reason alone we are able to get the children to cooperate when it is time to get dressed for outdoors.

Everyone got bundled. Samuel was the most layered, because he would be riding in his Twinkle, a down-sized baby jogger, and would not be generating any heat from walking. He wore pants, two shirts, a sweatshirt, wool socks, snow boots, insulated waterproof mittens, a fleece hat with ear flaps that connected under his neck and was covered with the sweatshirt hood. All of this was bundled inside a snow suit that went down to ankles, out to his wrists, and over his head leaving only his face exposed. That he can manage to walk in this outfit proves how strong and coordinated he is at nineteen months. But once he is clicked in his Twinkle, he can happily, comfortably, and safely fall asleep in the coldest weather.

Dinner was as convivial as it can be in a house that is not child-proofed. One of us has to play point-guard on Samuel at all times, so only one of us got to engage in adult conversation at any given time, with a certain expected level of interruption. Rose had great fun playing with her friend, an older girl who is teaching her all sorts of funny, clever, and impolite elementary school behavior.

Our friends offered to walk us part of the way home, but the walk started badly. Rose got her fleece mittens wet with snow. They weren’t likely to keep her hands warm enough all the way home. She refused to wear any others we offered because they were too big, and she was quite naughty about it, yelling, pulling back, and throwing a small tantrum outdoors a block from their house.

It was already after bedtime and neither child had eaten much at dinner. Dawn was also tired and her knee hurt from an ice skating bruise and she was struggling to keep her voice and temper even, which she did remarkably well. I had not slept enough the night before, which was fortunate. Had I more energy to get angry, the situation might have devolved into a power struggle, but instead I took the mittens off Rose’s hand and offered to carry her on my shoulders. I knew that when her hands got cold enough, she would let us know as she has done in the past. That pacified her.

Once she was on my shoulders, I warned her that I would not allow her to hurt her hands, and if I thought they got too cold, she would have to put them in her pockets or inside her sleeves. By this point, she was calm enough to hear me and accept that. After one block, Dawn had the brilliant idea of giving her Samuel’s mittens. His hands did not reach outside his snow suit arms, so he didn’t need mittens. Rose agreed and walked the rest of the way, happily chatting and holding mittens with her friend.

Shut Up and Dance

About eighteen years ago, I attended a contra dance in Milwaukee. I was a new dancer, pretty good but not confident, and I didn’t know anyone in Milwaukee, having never danced there before or since. I plucked up my courage and asked a pretty young woman (I can say this now, at the time she was probably older than me) to dance. I recall that we were at the end a long line in a short hall and were therefore somewhat pressed against the oak benches at the back. She was cheerful, but quiet, and in my nervousness I tried to make conversation, and continued to do so even after the music started and the caller began to give directions. She smiled at me and politely told me something in a foreign language I didn’t understand. She explained that she had said, “Shut Up and Dance” in Irish Gaelic.

It thought this was way cool (though admittedly this was in the days before “way” had become an adverb). I was too impressed to realize I had been chastised. “Shah! Tanz!” I replied, which, when she asked, I explained was the same thing in Yiddish though I couldn’t vouch that it was grammatically correct. That sort of broke the ice, and we had a fine dance.

I do not remember seeing her much after that. Sorry to disappoint my readers. She lived 90 miles away and was married. End of that story. I mean to tell a different, far less interesting, story.

This happened in my mathematics graduate school days, before there were internet browsers (even the original Mozilla – remember that?), when the business community thought “network” was something you did over lunch or in the men’s room, and the internet existed as a loose confederation of computers financed and maintained by the Department of Defense, not unlike the various states of the Union during our War of Independence from Britain. At the time there was email, for email came first before the chicken or the egg, and there were bulletin boards which were little more than public email accounts that you could post to and read but not delete from.

I spent most of my days solving complicated mathematical problems, which explains why I wasn’t the most suave conversationalist on the dance floor. But every once in a while I wanted a project, a challenge, something to exercise my mind that didn’t require Greek letters, Arabic numerals, and a chalkboard. So I posted to several bulletin boards asking for help in translating “Shut Up and Dance” in as many languages as possible. I got hundreds of responses which only proves that there are bored geeks with too much time on their hands everywhere in the world.

I recently uncovered the list. Whittled down from duplicates, I ended up with 77 entries, which I consider a respectable number. It used to be available on the internet via Usenet archives and such, but ever since Paula Abdul’s “Shut Up and Dance” album came out, my list appears somewhere around number 10,000 on Google’s search engine results. So here it is, with a renewed lease on life. Please let me know if you have any additions or find any grammatical or spelling errors:

My Evolution as a Writer

Someone asked me why I did Nanowrimo this year, so here’s a little biography of my brief evolution as a writer as partial answer to that question. It’s something I’ve been meaning to put down for a while.

At the tender age of fifteen (roughly) I entered a short story in a competition at the Clayton Junior College Creative Arts festival. My entry was a typical piece of adolescent memoir. I am certain it was terrible: on par with the work of my peers perhaps, but certainly no better. At the time I thought it brilliant. It may have contained a gem or two, but I have no surviving copy with which to evaluate it.

On the day of the festival, I sat in a room with about 30 other high school students from all over North Georgia awaiting the results of the competition. A professor walked into the room with a stack of our submissions. He was a young man, perhaps not even a true professor but a lecturer with a one-year contract. This was a community college, after all. Nevertheless I thought him old – old, wise, and mature. At the time I thought high school seniors were mature.

He spoke with the unsmiling sourness of an academic who could not teach, because he did not understand students who did not love literature as he did. He returned our stories and announced that no prizes would be awarded. None. Nada.

All of our stories lacked sufficient merit. Not one was worthy of a single prize. But so as not to make the event a complete waste of time, he was going to read to us what a real short story was supposed to be like. His authority confined us to our wooden desk chairs as he read to us for a half hour. To this day I cannot remember a word of what he said, and I don’t think any of us were listening at the time. We were far too humiliated to pay attention, and spent our penal time browsing the red ink he had spattered all over our stories and despondently crushing the remaining crumbs of our egos.

I did not try to write again for twenty-five years. I took up other interests, primarily music and dance, but I read a lot and never forgot that I had once wanted to be a writer. I believed, and still believe, that I had some talent, but I did not have the courage to expose myself again nor the understanding of how to develop whatever talent I might have.

When I got my first job after college, I was a spendthrift with my time, filling it with all sorts of outdoor and artistic pasttimes. I was so very busy, perhaps because I was lonely and unhappy and could not stand to sit alone with nothing to do, though despite my efforts I regularly found myself in that situation. I remember one weekend afternoon in Seattle with nothing to do, sitting down at a computer to write a story. After an hour, I read back what I had put down and was so disappointed in it that I did not try again for ten years. I got married and had children and continued to work at my job, telecommuting from home. Almost all my time was spent working, parenting, and keeping house. What precious little was left over I husbanded very carefully.

Then a little over a year ago, our monthly electric bill arrived, and with it, a one sheet newsletter. On the back it announced a writing contest held by Vermont Magazine with a $5000 cash prize. I’m not sure why the whim took hold of me. I did not need the money, though it is a sizable amount for a writing contest. I did not really know if I could win, but that did not matter. I had an idea and wanted to write it down anyway, and there was little else I could do with my limited spare time. I wrote it in a few days and then spent months revising it, working in the late hours after the children were in bed, or on those rare mornings when I woke before anyone else. I mailed it off two days before the deadline, still unsatisifed with it, but out of time. The winners would not be announced for five months.

I went on with my life, and did not consciously plan on writing again. But December came, and I went to a Chanukah party of a newly forming chavurah. We sat on the floor of a shag carpeted living room, nibbling cookies, and having an adult conversation while the children played in the playroom. Our hostess worked for the state of Vermont, and she dispassionately described the uproar she created at work when she had the temerity to suggest that the office Chistmas party be redubbed a Holiday Party. As I listened to her understated indignation, I wondered what it would feel like to be a Christian in a world where Judaism was the dominant religious culture. So I went home and started another story.

I was embarassed to tell Dawn what I was doing, having no sense of the quality of my work, but I could scarcely hide that I was busy with something. When I confessed, I expected her to question the value of spending my time on such foolishness when there was always laundry waiting to be folded and dishes mouldering in the sink. But she did not do that. She encouraged me. She told me that she had always thought I wrote well.

I will never forget those words. Months later, I read that every writer, published and unpublished alike, can recall the moment in their life when someone gave them permission to write. That was my moment, and at forty-one years, with a very late start, I ran with it.

In April I received a letter from the contest judges. My story had not won the contest, but it did receive an honorable mention and they encouraged me to try again next year, as many of the previous winners also did not win on their first entry. I was hooked, and have been writing ever since.

Life after Nanowrimo

November ended with a few unseasonably mild days, just warm enough to walk out the house without stopping in the mudroom for extra layers. The sun is approaching the shortest day of the year and tends to saunter over the hills in the morning rather than leap. It hugs the horizon all day, though not nearly as intimately as it did in Alaska, and by 4:30 it is stumbling off to bed. The light would have been beautiful, but the weather could not seem to make up its mind. The sky had a strange pattern of color, like a Magritte painting: one end like indigo twilight and the other a whining drizzle. It could not decide whether to put on a proper cloud dress or simply go naked around the house with the shutters drawn, but in the end it never got out of its bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.

Rose left for school yesterday morning wearing the light blue winter coat that matches her eyes and a fleece bonnet that resembles a Laura Ingalls Wilder sun bonnet. I don’t mention to Rose that Laura hated her sun bonnet because it obstructed her peripheral vision, and the Little House books often mention her pulling behind her head, held on by the string tied around her neck. But she is like Laura, returning home at noon in a T-shirt and stretch pants with mud stains on the knees.

Then today the cold returned, the sky was the electric gray of television static, and it rained and rained. The storm which is pummeling the midwest is expected tomorrow, and apparently the front will be as clearly discernible in the sky as it passes overhead as the red line on the weather maps. This should be our first snow of the season, and we are firing up the crockpot in anticipation. Ironically, my office in Seattle has been snowed and iced under for days. Seattle!

I am still several hours behind on sleep. I finished my 50,000 words yesterday fifteen minutes before midnight. I did not want to wait until the last minute, though my novel is hardly anything but complete. More like a series of loosely connected vignettes that have yet to be tied together much less brought to its intended conclusion. I focused on putting characters in situations and following their every move, thus nearly every chapter ended completely differently than I thought it would. I enjoyed it, the entire process, except for a few hours last night when I worried I wouldn’t cross the finish line in time. What was most exhiliarating, challenging, and potentially dangerous about it was that I took some advice from a writer and teacher, Charles Johnson (see his short story entitled China), who urges his students to write through characters of different gender, class, race than themselves. The other stick-my-neck-out risk was publishing excerpts of the first (and thus far only) draft in my other blog. But it is supposed to be a world-wide community exercise and I wanted to participate fully.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Samuel’s canines are pushing through, his last baby teeth save for the two year molars which we don’t expect at nineteen months. He has the slowest growing teeth of any child I have met, and we are dosing out infant, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs every evening and even during the day sometimes. Dawn cannot stand the sound of him grinding his teeth; he does not do this often, but it is like fingernails on the chalkboard for her, and she will not let him near her nipple in the evening without a half hour head start on the Ibuprofen.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Rose woke up with her right eye glued shut. It was slightly red and there were a bit more sleep crumbs in the corner than was acceptable. We are experienced parents who can recognize conjunctivitis when we see it, and we managed to get a doctor appointment in less an hour. The physician’s assistant prescribed some antibiotic eye drops and complimented our vigilance, saying we caught it before the other eye had a chance to become infected. Someone gave Rose a tootsie roll pop on her way out. Though it wasn’t Shabbat, our day of the week for sweets, we let her have it at home. It was bright cherry red, and she decided that she was a mosquito eating a blood lollipop. I asked her how it tasted and she answered, “Delicious. I can almost taste the vessels.”