Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Originally uploaded by Ben-Zion.

We've had a couple of DVDs from Netflix sitting around the house for a couple of weeks. After a while, an unwatched movie becomes like a job.

"Are we going to watch this thing or not?" Ted will say.

"Maybe tomorrow. I've got some reading to do tonight," I reply. (Ever the procrastinator when it comes to anything that begins to resemble work.)

So last night it was do or die. We were either going to check these films out, or we were going to admit defeat and send them back in their cheery red jackets, unwatched.

I read the description of the first, Ushpizin: ...a week in the life of two recently converted orthodox Jews preparing for a lavish Sukkot feast...

"Doesn't sound like much of a plot." Ted winced. "Did you order that?"(Blaming each other for poor movie choices is one of the sports we've developed in our marriage.)

"The reviews were really good," I said defensively, though I had added the film to my list so long ago, I could no longer remember why.

Ted wasn't buying. "What about the other one?"

The second film was French, subtitled, and sounded slightly more promising. We popped it in the DVD player, but within twenty minutes, it was playing to an empty theatre. Ted had drifted off to his computer; I was doing laundry.

"Looks like you're not too interested in the movie either..." he called from his office. Since this clunker was another one of my choices, it was two points for him. I could practically hear the swish.

"It's interesting, but I'm not in the mood," I said in lame defense, though I already knew I'd lost the game. "Maybe we should try ten minutes of the other one. If it's no good, I'll send them both back tomorrow."

"Five." Ted ambled reluctantly toward the couch.

As it turned out, five minutes was all it took for us to be mesmerized by Shuli Rand's terrific portrayal of Moshe, and his obvious passion for the subject. (He wrote the screenplay as well.) Ushpizin is a film about religious faith--not the dogmatic, self-righteous kind, but the sort that is all about passion for God.

Like any intoxicated lover, Moshe thinks about his deity constantly; he and his wife, Malli, pray incessantly from their whole being. Whether in the kitchen or on the street, they sing to God, clap their hands, and raise their voices in love or grief as they struggle to make sense of their lives--and to do the right thing.

Having no money to celebrate the Sukkot, they pray that they will be given what they need to honor God properly on the holiday. And they are. Not only do they receive a gift large enough to cover an eleborate feast, they are surprised by unexpected guests.

Serving guests on a holiday is considered a great grace, so Moshe and Malli rejoice, determined to treat their Ushpizin or "holy visitors" as such. The only problem is that their Yussef and Eliyau are two escaped convicts, bent on exploiting their hosts.

The film (and beyond it, life) asks the question: Are believers like Moshe and Malli, who serve their vulgar and obstreperous guests with joy and generosity the fools and suckers Yussef and Eliyau believe them to be? Or are they full of holy wisdom?

The two oily guests eat the impoverished couple out of house and home, demand the last of their money, and ultimately disrupt both the Hasidic neighborhood and the marriage.

When Moshe turns to his rabbi for advice, he is told, "No matter what, don't get angry."

For the most part, Moshe, though eminently human, does not. He weeps and struggles and clenches his fist, but he continues to pray and to love. The reward he receives in the end seems contrived--and unnecessary.

For me, the central truth of the film was that Moshe and Malli had something that no one, not even a pair of determined con men, could take away from them. It was a gift so rare and beautiful that just watching it could make you weep.

What greater reward could they hope to gain?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A to Z Meme


I've been tagged by mb for another meme.

accent: When I'm in my hometown, I lapse into a Boston accent; at other times, people have thought I'm Irish. But mostly, I'm as neutral as a newscaster from Nebraska. (Nice alliteration, huh?)

booze: pale wine in the winter, dark beer in the summer

chore I hate: cleaning the tub--or the fridge. The oven, too, though at least, it no longer involves those noxious fumes. And the microwave when people forget to use a paper towel....Am I only allowed to hate one chore?

dogs/cats: one aging shepherd/lab mix, a jack russell, and two cats.

essential electronics: computer, stereo, and my digital camera, if that counts

favorite perfume/cologne: anything that smells really clean

gold/silver: probably silver, but jewelry isn't my passion

hometown: Brockton, Massachusetts, former "shoe city of the world". Also home to legendary boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler

insomnia: If it were an Olympic sport, I'd be a gold medalist.

job title: Writer. Always have been, though this is the first year I got to write it on my tax form.

kids: four

living arrangements: Live in a house with people I love and lots of plants and animals.

most admired trait: Willingness to learn

number of sexual partners: Does anyone really answer this one?

overnight hospital stays: Every time I go near the place, I leave with a baby.

phobia: Public speaking! (Oh my god, how will I ever give readings?)

quote: "No fear. No envy. No meanness." — Liam Clancy

religion: According to a quiz I recently took on Stephanie Anagnoson's blog, I'm a mix of Bhakta, which is a pure lover of God, and a philosopher type.

siblings: Just me and an army of imaginary friends.

time I usually wake up: Late. Old waitressing habits die hard.

unusual talent: I can do more sit-ups than anyone I know, even if I never practice.

vegetable I refuse to eat: Don't much like beets, but I wouldn't turn down a bowl of borscht with sour cream.

worst habit: Disorganized. Lazy, too. Grumpy when overtired. Prone to melodramama. Which is considered "worst" depends on who you ask.

x-rays: lots of dental

yummy foods I make: Start with tomatoes, garlic and cayenne...and take it from there. Also make a great chocolate cake with cream cheese icing.

zodiac sign: Leo

Now for my taggees: How about getting some men involved: Perfect Virgo maybe? Fred Garber? Floots? (If I picked on you last time, you are exempt.) P.A Moed, Marilyn, Jordan Rosenfeld, and anyone else who'd like to share their bad habits and number of sex partners on the world wide web...have at it.



I found this thought provoking post on Clare Dudman's blog a few days ago and have been talking about it ever since. Apparently, they have a series on the BBC, which she refers to as "The Happiness Programmes".

In the episode she discusses, they focus on consumerism, the path so many of us take in the quest for happiness, only to find ourselves lost in deep woods, or trapped in a house that is gradually being taken over by a dangerous proliferation of STUFF.

However, according to Dudman's piece, we're hardwired to go out and bring stuff back--just like I'm driven to suit up in my waitressing gear and pick up a tray in the spring. It's as old and primal as the hunter-gatherer instinct, except like a lot of our instincts, it's been screwed up by our distance from nature, and the genius of advertisers.

So yeah, I read this and I was thinking about it for days. Every time, I went to pick something up in a store, I asked myself, "Do I really need this? Or is my over-civilized hunter-gatherer instinct just homing in on the wrong prey?

I was thinking about it at work the other day, too. At the end of the shift, we bag up the leftovers to take home. It's an amazingly satisfying activity--even though half of my carefully wrapped kill rots in my fridge after I get it home.

The other night I got two pieces of chicken parmesan (which were promptly eaten by my son), a quart of minestrone (lunch the following day) and an oatmeal cookie, which someone had left behind on the table. (My mother gobbled that up with her tea when she stopped by.)

While we were packing up our spoils, I decided to share a little bit of the happiness programmes with my co-workers.

"You know why we're doing this?" I asked.

"Because we didn't get any dinner, and we're planning to wolf this when we get home,"
one intrepid co-worker ventured.

But I was already shaking my head, smartypants style. "Nope. Because it satisfies the hunter-gatherer instinct."

"Maybe that's why you're taking it home. I'm doing it cause I'm hungry," my pragmatic co-worker replied as he packed his dinner into a plastic bag.

But we had been overheard by another worker, who laughed out loud. "So that's what you're thinking about while you walk around the dining room with a dreamy look on your face? Hunting and gathering?"

Yup. That's what I'm thinking about.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


waitress uniform

Last November when my agent called with the news that she had sold my novel, one of the first things I did was build a small pyre and burn my waitressing shoes. According to the pedometer I wore to work, I put on an average of 5-10 miles every shift four to five days a week in the season that stretches from May to October. In other words, those were some hammered shoes.

Anyway, the burning of those black shoes wasn't supposed to be merely ceremonial. It was supposed to trigger the end of my waitressing career. Only it didn't.

A month ago, when "the season" hit, some primal urge drove me back. Think of birds flying south in the winter, cats slithering off to die in the woods....that kind of hardwired animal instinct. When the captain called with my schedule, I found myself mysteriously ironing shirts, digging out aprons and nametag and punch card.

The only trouble is, I don't have any waitressing shoes. And I'm not buying another pair. Not ever. (At least, I hope I'm not.) So I showed up in this old pair of Sketchers from the back of my closet. Very un-regulation.

So far I'm getting away with it. And if someone calls me on it? Maybe I'll remember that acrid November smoke, and I'll finally get it: I don't have to do this anymore. Maybe it's all about the shoes, after all.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


In fairy tales, wishes always come in threes. I wonder why? Are the genies and fairy godmothers trying to tell us that there only three things truly worth wishing for? Is the offer a test? Wish well and you will be happy for life. Flunk the exam and you will be forever banished from the land of fairies and gnomes.

It reminds me of another three. Edgar Allen Poe said there were three things in life that the human being needed to thrive. It's a great wish list, and one that has been with me since I first read it.

1. Someone to love
2. Work you care about
3. Outdoor life

Yes, I could be happy with that, but I would also want health, and a place to live, and a peaceful planet...and then I would want the people I love to have work they care about and someone to love and...well, you get the idea.

So why only three? Maybe because the genie knows that we fairy tale people are a greedy lot. Once he starts performing on command, we'll never stop rubbing the lamp...So okay, I accept. It's three.

1. I wish that I would wish for things that bring real happiness and good.

2. I wish that I would wish as passionately for others as I do for myself.

3. I wish that I would smile when I wish and keep smiling whether my wish came true or not.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Laughter 10c, originally uploaded by geor·gia.

One thing I learned from yesterday's post and the ensuing comments is that Kids pretty much own the joys of:

*Running for pure pleasure
*Cannonballing into cold water on a hot day
*Playing dress up (without needing to shop for designer clothes and matching accessories.)
*Catching fireflies in jars
*Jump rope
*Skipping (tell the truth, when was the last time you saw an adult skip? Not that I'd particularly want to see it, but still...)
*Playing make-believe and having no one question whether you plagiarized the characters or the dialogue.
*Putting on a real baseball uniform and having your family watch you play--not because you're a superstar, just because it's fun.

And what do we adults get in return for the time we've put in on this planet:

*The right to go to a bar and pay five bucks for a watery beer anytime we want.

*The right to sprawl on the couch in front of the TV at the end of the day--at least, as long as none of the kids' shows are on.

*Credit cards! That's right, we can go into the store and buy anything we want, kids. So there. Bet you'd like to try that one.

*Credit card bills. Oy vey. Apparently, if you can't afford it today, you're probably not going to be able to afford it tomorrow either? Who'd have thunk?

*Nagging phone calls from some very dogged folks employed by the credit card companies. Seems they want their money and they want it now.

*Caller I.D. Now we're talking.

*Ever mounting late fees and fines.

*Another trip to the bar for more watery beer where you can stare at another TV, and practice Scarlett O'Hara's philosophy: I'll think about it tomorrow.

*The chance to worry about global warming, distant wars, rising interest rates and lowering pay scales--and the increasing sense that you can't do much about it.

*All washed down with more watery beer on credit. What a deal!

No seriously, it's not that bad. I love being an adult. I don't have to eat my vegetables, if I don't want to. (The strange thing is, I do.) No one gets to be "the boss of me"--err, except of course, my boss. And no one ever tells me to clean my room. Now that I"m the mom, I get to clean all the rooms while everyone else is running, playing make-believe, and get this--laughing.

That's right. It seems that while no one was looking, the little buggers took control of laughter, too! According to this source, most kids find something worth laughing about more than 400 times a day while we adults manage only about fifteen grudging hee-haws in the same time period.

Well, this is where I draw the line. Today I'm going to walk around with a little notebook and put a mark in it every time I laugh--and I'm not going to stop till I reach 400. I'll laugh at the guy from the credit card company when he calls on the phone; and when someone dumps a back pack or a pair of socks or a half-eaten grilled cheese in the middle of the living room, I'll laugh at that, too.

I'll laugh at spilled milk and bad news that I can't do anything about.
I'll giggle about the characters who aren't cooperating in my latest novel, and my own reluctance to sit still and get the work done.
I'll laugh until the dogs bark back and the cats run for cover.
The only thing I won't do is tell knock-knock jokes. After all, we adults have our dignity.

(Oh crap, just noticed it's already noon, and I haven't laughed once yet. I've clearly got some serious laughing to do.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


photo by Jake Lukac

All morning, I've been looking for a quote about running from the novel that is currently keeping me up at night: Joanne Harris's GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS. It's a suspense novel about a dangerous game of wits between an aging Latin teacher at a private school for boys, and a bitter young prole who is determined to get revenge against the place that has excluded and humiliated him.

But it also pits the sixty-five year old Roy Straitley against the most merciless adversary of all: old age and obsolescence. In the quote about running (which I couldn't find) Straitley observes that boys always run; he wonders when he stopped.

After I read the elusive passage a couple of nights ago, I dreamed of running all night. Not the kind of running adults most often do--dutiful for-your-health jogs through the neighborhood, or driven, never-enough-time scrambles. No, my dream running was the kind done by boys, as Straitley observed--and by girls, too. Pure exuberant movement, simply because you absolutely can't wait to get to the other side of the room or the other side of the field.

When I awakened in the morning, I immediately fingered a little white scar that I've had since I was four. I know it's impossible, but I swear I remember running up and down our narrow knotty-pined kitchen, running joyfully and repetitively simply because I was so happy to be inside my body, so happy to possess legs and breath and life. On the day I got the scar, I'd run so fast that my hand plunged through the front window, in a small but memorable explosion of glass and blood.

Like so much else, my scar is faded now so I painted it red so you could see it. Painted it red so I would remember Roy Straitley's questions: Wasn't it wonderful to run just for the sheer pleasure of it? And why did we ever stop?


Saturday, May 13, 2006

SUNDAY SCRIBBLINGS: The Books I would Write


I took this photograph at a defunct cranberry bog near my home where we often walk our dogs. Though it is spring, there are corners of the bog that have succumbed to a spooky eternal winter. The trees are silver with death, their branches devoid of buds. We keep the dogs away from those areas. In past years, the wild quacking of the ducks who returned every year, would drive the animals into a frenzy. This year we've only seen one. When we've visited the bog this year, the solitary duck is silent.

If I could, I would write a book that could make a reader SEE the formerly riotous colors of the place, the scarlet fields, the incredible lush green of the ducks' necks, and HEAR the competing barks made by ducks and dogs.

I would write a book that would make you so hungry for colors like that you would search the world trying to replicate them.

I would write a book that asked questions about the abandoned bicycle in the photograph.
Who owned it, and where did they ride it? How did it end up here? Are they still looking for it, or have they outgrown and forgotten it?

I would write a book that would make you care deeply about questions that never concerned you before.

I would write a book that would keep you up at night, desperate for answers.

I would write a book that would make you thrill at the newness of spring, bicycles, hope; and weep at what is lost forever.

I would write a book that would make you examine one small patch of ground with the the passion and exactitude that my dogs scour the bog with their noses.

If I could, I would write a book that would make you peer into the murky waters, and see yourself.

I would write a book that would make you watch the sky, waiting for the ducks to return and the trees to recapture their green splendor.


So, can you see the duck?

Thursday, May 11, 2006


1. First the definition: calls it the state of being resolved. Don't you hate it when they do that? The second definition is better: firm determination.

2. Or as William James said, "If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it."

3. Most of the resolutions I made when I was younger involved DOING (and numbers): run 3 miles a day. Write 30 pages a week. Submit your work to 10 new places. Now my resolutions focus more on BEING: Be kinder. Be more aware. Be the Peace you want to see in the world.

4. I often thought I failed at my resolutions, but looking back, I see that they pointed me to the place where I am now.

5. Real progress is frequently incremental, and sometimes takes years to see.

5. Keep resolving anyway.

6. I resolved to write a novel and to sell it, and I did.

7. It might not have happened that way. Sometimes Resolution needs to marry Luck.

8. Physically, resolution is the runner's art. Sometimes it's a sprint, but more often, a marathon.

9. Resolutions before bed keep me awake. For me, resolution is morning's virtue; the evening is for gratitude.

10. If your van is stuck in the snow (see photo from flickr) all the Resolution in the world probably won't get it out of that rut. In this world, you need friends.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Woody Allen's latest film, Match Point, which I caught last night on DVD, is bookended by two quotes about the nature of luck. In the first voice over, we are told than being lucky is more important than being good. The film ends with the birth of a child, who is toasted with a similar wish: that he will grow to be a lucky man, rather than a great one.

But the theme of this story in which ambition and sexual desire turn deadly, concerns something more venal than luck. Like many of Allen's characters, Chris Wilton, an Irish striver who marries into the British aristocracy, seems to have been created to prove a point: Getting what you want is more important than being good. It is a theme that threads through much of Allen's recent work; and how you feel about that premise will most likely decide your opinion of Match Point.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Type Tray Coffee Table - 15, originally uploaded by nep.

1. This photograph, found on flickr, perfectly illustrates the key components of Order: sorting, containing, and throwing away. (Outside all these neat compartments lies the vast world of things that have been eliminated.)

2. I'd give myself a B in sorting, a B- in throwing away, but I get a D (at best) in containing. In my life, thoughts, objects, and emotions frequently overflow their containers.

3. Meditation helps, but sometimes I have trouble finding a "time container" for that.

4. Time and the things that fill it are the most important variables that need sorting in the pursuit of Order.

5. I get more done if I plan my day in the morning, and write the plan down.

6. I was going to give myself an extra week, because my rooms and my files and my life are still out of order. But life being a "come as you are" party, I figured I'd do just that. So here I am--still a mess, but maybe a little less so.

7. Creating Order isn't something you do all at once when the guest is at the door. It infuses everything you do, or it doesn't exist at all.

8. Creating Order from chaos is what writers do all day. Maybe that's why I have trouble with order in other areas of life...

9. Nah. That's just an excuse.

10. If I organize my study for the next day's writing before I go to bed, I sleep better.

11. Order is a close friend of last week's virtue, Equanimity. The more Order I create, the more balanced I feel.

12. My life will never, ever be as neat as the tray in the photograph.

13. The pure truth: I wouldn't want it to be. Too many stories are found in the things that lie outside any tidy domain.

Next Week's Virtue: RESOLUTION

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

This is important to all of us:

Save the Internet: Click here



I'm always so excited when I visit one of my favorite blogs and find that I've been passed a meme baton--not because I'm very good at doing them, because I'm not. No, I just love the feeling of being included, being part of a community. It brings back the joy I felt when I was chosen for someone's softball or basketball team. (Unfortunately, given my lack of athletic ability, the person who chose me often lived to regret it.)

Anyway, despite my good intentions, I often never get around to finishing the memes. Something I feel like I absolutely must write right now forces its way to the head of the line, or I break it into pieces and only finish half my assignment. In other words, I tend to cheat--just like I did in those childhood softball games whenever I got a chance.

This particular meme, however, looked like a lot of fun. It involved going through an interesting list of books, crossing out the ones you've never read, bolding the ones you have, etc. I really wanted to do it. But just as I had trouble hitting a softball straight, I also occasionally run into technical difficulties. Computer cross outs are simply something I don't know how to do. So once again, I did it my own way.

Thank (and apologies) to P.A. Moed and Debra Broughton who brought me into the game. Hope you don't mind that (once again) I broke a few rules.

The 3 most influential books in my life:

(I know, I know; it's an absolutely impossible question, but here's a stab at it)
1. Crossing the River by Czeslaw Milosz
2. Little Women: I wanted to be kind like Beth, treacherously beautiful like Amy, wise and loving like Marmee, but of course, most of all, I wanted to be a writer like Jo. This book encapsulated all my girlish aspirations.
3. Les Miserables: I read it out loud to my two oldest sons when they were about eight and ten.
I can still remember the three of us weeping on my bed at the death of Jean Valjean.

3 books I've read more than once:

1.The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. A small, spiritual classic with a message I need to hear again and again.
2. Crime and Punishment: I can still remember reading it on the subway in Boston when I was eighteen. I was so engrossed in Raskolnikov's world, I missed my stop and traveled to the end of the line.
3. Pride and Prejudice: No one is murdered, no international conspiracy or deadly virus is involved, but this is the novel that comes to mind when I hear the word "thrilling".

3 great books that I personally hated:

1. Moby Dick: Endless details about whaling, and not a woman in sight. I must have taken at least 3 courses in college that required this particular epic.
2. Didn't much like The Scarlet Letter either, though Hester Prynne, cast away from respectable society and living with that horrible A across her chest, remains a vivid character in my mind.
3. Beowolf! I'm sure it's a wonderful story, and maybe if it wasn't force fed on me when I was eighteen, I might have been more appreciative. Maybe someday I'll try it again. On second thought, who am I kidding?

3 "Pure Pleasures":

1. Gone with the Wind: It may not be pc, but Margaret Mitchell's Civil War novel has some of the most memorable characters in commercial fiction, a terrific plot, and a philosophy I've employed a few times myself. (I'll think about that tomorrow...)
2. Green Eggs and Ham: I used to beg my kids to let me read it just one more time. I can still hear their little voices: "Please, Mom; can't we read something different tonight?"
3. The Valley of the Dolls: At fifteen, I learned everything I ever needed to know about plastic surgery, traitorous Hollywood men, and pharmaceutical pick-me-ups and let-me-downs from the glamourous Jacqueline Suzanne. Wasn't there also a man with a sculpted jaw and a name something like Lion involved in the story?

3 great books I should have read, but haven't--not yet:

1. Don Quixote: I'm a little afraid of this one. Something tells me I might relate to the character whose name has become synonymous with cockeyed optimism a little too much.
2. War and Peace: In the volume I have, there is so much dense writing packed onto a page, that I better read it soon before I'm too blind to see it. But truthfully, that may have been what's deterred me thus far.
3. To the Lighthouse: I loved A Room of Her Own, and the diaries, but have always been intimidated by Virginia Woolf's fiction. Sometime, in this lifetime, though I'm not quite sure when, I mean to overcome that particular fear.

3 books I recently ordered:

1. The Accidental by Ali Smith
2. Pere Goriot by Balzac (Inspired by Irina)
3. Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein (Regular readers know about my obsession...)

Now I get to choose my own team. So click on the links and play the game properly, try it my way, or invent your own version:
Robin Grantham?