Apr 15 2018

Stockholm Writers Festival #SWF18

I write this as I am sitting here sipping at my first cup of morning coffee. Actually it’s already after noon and I just got up. My body aches. My eyes are fuzzy. My throat hurts and my voice is hoarse. No, I am not sick. I’ve spent the last couple of days participating in the Stockholm Writers Festival, the first ever writers festival for writers of English to be held here in Stockholm and I am so energized! (despite waking up this morning feeling like I’ve been tossed around in a tumble-dryer)

Who's ready for a Writers Festival? Here's a bunch of faces you'll be seeing about in the coming days, all excited to meet you in just a handful of hours!

Who’s ready for a Writers Festival? Here’s a bunch of faces you’ll be seeing about in the coming days, all excited to meet you in just a handful of hours!

Thursday afternoon, April 12, was the kick-off mingle for helpers and faculty at SWF founder, Catherine Pettersson’s incredible new apartment. There were lots of home-made baked goods on the kitchen island along with different colors of wine, and Catherine’s son Victor knew to fizz the water with lots of CO2. Fuzzy beer was available on the rooftop terrace. And while the apartment was pretty cool, it was the people I had a chance to meet and talk to that made the evening. I got to schmooze once again with Cat’s rat pack of incredible people who helped her shepherd her idea to reality; Lizzie Harwood and her Mickael were there, as were Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Sandra Carpenter, Susan Wuest, Sarah Hollister, Kendal von Sydow and Adnan Mahmutovic. I got to talk sci-fi with Paddy Kelly. Met Eira Ekre again and her guy Dan who I spent a lot of time talking to about cool virtual reality stuff. I chatted with faculty member, Paul Rapacioli, from The Local. He was interesting and funny and also tall so I didn’t have to talk to him while scrunching down. Always a plus. I talked with the charming Clydette de Groot who together with her husband, Charles, sponsored the Festival’s First Pages Prize. I met (and talked with) Adam McCulloch, the winner of the First Pages Prize, who traveled here all the way from Mexico. Another of the Faculty members I had a chance to meet was Brooks Sherman and his wife, who came all the way from the US but via Italy so he wasn’t too jet lagged and seemed really excited to be here.  There was a chance to once again meet the wonderful group of young people (yes, Ting Yiu, you are a young person) from the Stockholm University Masters program in Transnational Creative Writing who were going to be the helpful volunteer facilitators at the festival. There were many more there that I wanted to talk to but it was impossible to talk to everyone when there is so little time and so many great people. I knew I would see them later on Friday and Saturday.

And I also got to reconnect with my dear friend Amy Brown (who abandoned me and Stockholm, to move to the sunny shores of Florida) and her cuz Elinor Lipman (keynote speaker) who was lots of fun to talk to. Amy, Eli and I went and ate dinner together afterwards with our friend Carol Henderson.

A Writers Festival? But I’m a graphic designer!
It all started for me on Tuesday, 9 May 2017, (a whole year ago in case you didn’t catch that) in an Expresso House where I met with Catherine to discuss helping her with this writers thing she was doing. She knew I did graphics (and was also interested in writing) so she wondered if I could offer her my graphic designer help. It sounded like fun so I said yes. Catherine can be very persuasive.

She had already found a logo for the festival – I just helped make it more usable. I did a quick proposal brochure for her to show around. During the following months I made a few ads and the odd graphic here and there when needed until it was time to start work on the festival program brochure. Lizzie Harwood’s husband Mickael Gohier, Marketing Director for the Antalis paper company, was donating some very hi-tech paper for the back cover of the program. It had a computer chip embedded in it that when programmed would lead your smart phone to the comments page on the Stockholm Writers Festival website. I got to join Mickael and Catherine at the printer’s to watch the back page being printed and to test how it worked. It worked great! We also printed up business cards on Antalis donated paper with embedded chips leading to the SWF website. So cool – combining old tech with new tech.

And so it starts

And so it starts

Friday, April 13, 2018
OK, so it was Friday the 13th, but what a great day anyway! And it was sunny!
Registration opened at 4pm at the Berghs School of Communications. Berghs generously donated their facilities for the festival. I got my nifty festival bag with a bunch of goodies and my name tag! I schmoozed a bit with people I knew and some I didn’t, till we were all called in by the clanger to take seats around the round tables in the Berghs Auditorium. Catherine was on the stage, dressed in a fantastic coat covered in images of Stockholm. One of my pet peeves (I have many) is people who speak in front of an audience and don’t know how to do it; who talk into their papers, who don’t enunciate clearly or speak too fast or too unhearable, people who quite simply don’t know how to take control of their audience. Catherine isn’t one of those. She is a natural on the stage, funny, authoritative and clear, and she belongs up there.

We started off with guest authors Elinor Lipman, Derek B. Miller, Jess Lourey, Cassie Gonzales, and Marina Blitshteyn on the stage reading excerpts from their books. (and I ended up doing something I told myself not to do – I bought 2 new books)

Then Lizzie and the de Groots announced the winners of the First Pages Prize and gave awards to the first and second prize winners who were brought here for the festival. Adam McCulloch won the first prize and Kristy Keller won second.

And then the big crowd of attendees rearranged themselves into their genre tribes. I joined Lizzie Harwood in the tribe of Memoir writers. We all sat together bonding over what we each wrote about. Yes, I’m beginning to think I belong here. 

After a dinner of Hawaiian Poké with my friend Liz Watson and Hedvig Andersen, another attendee, we headed to the Hellsten Hotel for a SWF mingle. Don’t ask me to list who I talked to – my brain is mush by now. But if you talked to me (and remember doing it) write me a comment! (and remind me what we talked about!)

Saturday, April 14, 2018
And so it began – 8am registration. I got there at 8.30 because I was already registered. The coffee was very strong  – and needed. The clanger started ringing and we all got summoned to the auditorium.

A panel discussion about the state of the publishing industry, moderated by Paul Rapacioli with the guest editors, agents and publishers; Terri Bischoff, Rebecca Carter, Amy Cherry, Peta Nightingale and Brooks Sherman, started the day off.

Then on to the first breakout session.
I had chosen to listen to Julie Lindahl talk about memoir: Writing from past pain. As a Jew with a grandparent who lost family members in the Holocaust, listening to someone discuss how discovering rather late in life that her grandparents had been SS members and how that hidden past had affected her and how writing about it had helped her, was very enlightening. I wanted to talk more to her later but didn’t manage it.

Then came 2 sessions of Buttonholing the Expert, a kind of speed-dating (with a lunch break at Urban Deli in between). I’ve never done speed-dating and I’m not really very good at rule-following so I decided to listen twice to Jess Lourey discuss editing hacks. Catherine, standing just above me on the stage saw me not changing tables and announced to the whole auditorium that I was not following the rules. Boy, what a bully she is! I didn’t move though. I figured I needed to know those hacks. I also went to Lizzie Harwood’s table and listened to her excellent advice on story structure.

Then we had time for 2 more break-out sessions:
First, The role of research by Jenny White. She described how she used research for her trilogy of novels about the Ottoman Empire. But Jenny is a star in my book because she told me when I had met her a few weeks ago that Diana Gabaldon had done a very nice blurb for her first book. Anyone who knows me or has read this blog already knows how I feel about Gabaldon and her Outlander books so I won’t get into that now.

The third breakout session was about Subtext and lead by Cassie Gonzalas (my writing guru) and was great as usual. She has discussed subtext in some of the workshops I have taken with her before and amazingly enough I actually remembered some of what she has taught me. And she gave us a writing prompt to do – always fun.

And then we needed to be rewarded with Fika – coffee and cookies and casual conversation. (Tea too if you preferred that.)

Midway in between bites of cookie, the clanger rang again bringing us all back into the auditorium to hear our guest writers, Katarina Bivald, Jess Lourey, Derek B. Miller, Marina Blitshteyn and  Elinor Lipman, lead by moderator Sandra Carpenter, discuss how they kept on writing in spite of everything. Gee, even real, professional writers have problems writing (and tricks to get over it). Good to hear.

And finally our Keynote Speaker, Elinor Lipman got up on the stage to talk about her writing process, one sentence at a time. As she spoke from her collection of index cards, she explained to us how she puts her books together with no advance formal outline. As I watched her shuffling through her cards, I realized that was the same way she wrote speeches too. She was warm, funny and very entertaining. A very good ending to a fantastic day.

But wait! It’s not over yet…

Together with my pal Amy Brown, her cousin Elinor Lipman, Editor Amy Cherry, Newsman Paul Rapacioli and publisher Peta Nightingale I went for dinner at The Queens Head, a nearby British style pub. I had Fish and Chips – what else!

By 8pm we had rejoined the rest of the SWF18 gang at the Hotel Hellsten for the Literary Idol event in their glass-covered room. A variety of hors d’oeuvres and wines of different colors was there to sample. Elinor Lipman, Amy Cherry, Terri Bischoff, Brooks Sherman and Peta Nightingale sat as judges as Marina Blitshteyn read 1-page entries submitted by SWF18 attendees. If 2 or more judges raised their hand before the piece was finished, it was out. It was so interesting to listen to the variety of the entries and there were a lot of them. By about 10.30 the judging was over and it was time to call it quits. I said goodbye to new friends and old and left to come home.

There was an additional series of Intensive Workshops scheduled for Sunday April 15 but they seemed to be more for those who are further along on their writing paths so I didn’t go to those.

In summation…
This has been my first and so far only writers festival so I have nothing like it to compare it to. But I worked in the conference field for over 15 years, making slide shows for speakers and I have been to a few of those conferences. And I will put this first time effort up there in the top 5! Professional was just one of the words I would use for this event. The Festival committee members Lizzie Harwood, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Sandra Carpenter, Adnan Mahmutovic, Cassie Gonzales and especially the brain child behind this amazing endeavour, Catherine Pettersson have done a fantastic job. Their modest goal of selling 100 tickets was more than met and as I looked out on the auditorium filled with people who all seemed to really want to be there, all I could think was that here in Stockholm, Sweden, a place where English is almost a second language, holding a writers festival for writers who write in English was something that was long overdue. I am so glad I could be part of this whole event, both as contributor and attendee and I am really looking forward to coming again next year.

And next year I will take a picture of each new person I talk to while they are holding their name tag!

Here’s to #SWF19!

 


Mar 25 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.

 

 

 


Feb 25 2018

Minyan

My minyan - from a while back
My minyan – a while back


Minyan is the Hebrew word for a quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. The most common activity requiring a minyan is public prayer.

According to the Orthodox view a Minyan requires 10 Jewish men to be official. The Reform movement says it only needs to be 10 Jewish adults, either male or female.  I’m on the side of the Reform movement and I feel I can be flexible as to the number 10.

Rosh Hashanah was just around the corner. This is the Jewish holiday celebrating the arrival of the Jewish New Year. It comes around just as the leaves start to change color every fall but it’s not always on the same day in the ordinary calendar so it can be hard to keep track of, if you are not actually looking for it. Together with Yom Kippur, it is one of the most important of the Jewish holidays. It’s usually celebrated with other Jews by going to synagogue, to pray together. When I was a kid, I would be dragged along by my parents to the relatively new Reform synagogue they were members of. In my early twenties, I would sometimes come home to visit my folks for Rosh Hashanah and spend the day with them in synagogue. After services, when we got home in the afternoon, we would eat dinner together. I never belonged to a congregation when I lived in New York – didn’t seem to feel the need for it then – I had my family to be with.

The notion of family has always been important to me. In my twenties, I might not have wanted to admit that to myself. At that point in my life, it was friends that seemed to matter more. And… it wasn’t like I came from a family that was all warm and encouraging and accepting, building self-confidence and creating harmony, kind and loving. No, my family was none of that, though occasionally, some of those things peeked out when the coast was clear.  We weren’t a very big family, just my parents and me and my brother and my mom’s brother and his wife and their kids and of course, Bertha, my maternal Grandmother. My family was a typical Jewish family, loud and noisy and opinionated and not too accomplished when it came to diplomatic skillsets. As my mother used to say about her mother, “Bertha always thought it was better to give a knock than a praise.” Maybe that was good though. It made you strong – able to take it. It certainly didn’t build self-confidence though. But you did learn to talk back and speak up….eventually. That was, after all, your only defense. So, family gatherings were often loud argumentative affairs with people talking all at once, no one listening, no one given the time to finish a sentence and often someone’s feelings getting hurt and ending up crying in the bathroom. Those were the good gatherings. Sometimes, you just remained at the table, cowering, hoping no one noticed you. And no one ever said “I’m sorry.”

But in spite of all this I still wanted to join our family get togethers, especially the big ones, Passover and Thanksgiving. Those holidays were celebrated either in my parent’s home or my uncle and aunt’s home. On smaller holidays such as Mother’s Day, we would all meet up in New York City at Radio City Music Hall and see a show. Then we would drive down to Chinatown for dinner. When we were out in public we were more civilized; though I do remember an interesting argument between my grandmother and her son, my uncle, about how to use chopsticks. I remember sitting there, as others talked about what to order – always a lengthy process – watching the two of them; just waiting for the irritation to build up into an explosion. I really wanted to be sitting at a different table with other diners during that meal.

After us kids started to move out, live on our own, there were less and less gatherings. We still met for Passover and Thanksgiving though. I always took the bus from New York City home to New Jersey, to my folks or to my uncle and aunt’s. But then, I moved to Stockholm and that was a lot longer than any bus ride could take me.

For the first few years I would return once a year – to join my family for Passover in the spring or Thanksgiving in the fall. They would catch me up on what they had been doing and I would tell tales of life in the foreign land called Sweden. In 1988 my cousin Karel hosted the family Passover gathering for the first time, in her small New York City apartment. She showed great bravery in doing that. Our grandmother, Bertha, insisted Karel could not host the Passover Seder because she was still unmarried. And Bertha insisted she would not come to it. Karel ultimately managed to squeeze a lot of people into that space. We weren’t a very jolly bunch that year due to the fact that Grandma Bertha had died just three days prior to the event. The funeral had been the day before. So, we sat there, reading our Haggadahs and eating our chicken soup and matzah balls, feeling the lack of our Matriarch who had made us feel Jewish with her Yiddish accent. Luckily for us, my cousin had a two hour long video tape of an “interview” she had done with Grandma just six months earlier. We all sat and watched it while we drank our coffee and ate our flour-free desserts. “Why are you so late? What kind of jalopy are you driving?” were the first words out of Grandma’s mouth when Karel walked in the door of her apartment. No hello. No how are you. No I’m glad to see you. In the following two hours, Bertha managed to say something uncomplimentary about every single person in that room. We all felt much better after that. Someone summed up the movie by saying, “Yep, that was Grandma.”

The years passed and my son came along. I discovered there was a Jewish Center here in Stockholm and when my kid was a year old I started taking him there to a mother/toddler sing-a-long group once a week. I could speak Swedish by then, though fluent was not a word I would use to describe my skill. I learned to sing baby songs in Swedish. I had no idea they were also in English – well, maybe I recognized the Swedish version of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The older my kid got, the more I started to feel the need for family – Jewish family – on my side of the ocean. And I needed it in English – because Moses said “Let my people go”. He didn’t say “Släpp mitt folk”. So in 1997 when my son was almost 6 years old, I put an ad in the American Woman’s Club magazine saying I was looking for other American Jewish mothers to join me to celebrate Jewish holidays with our small kids. The 6 or 7 women who responded were women who I had met occasionally during the past few years at one thing or another. We always said we should get together but we never did.

Finally that fall, on a dreary grey day, we all met and celebrated Rosh Hashanah together. We started with Tashlich, the ceremony where we “cast our sins into the depths of the sea”. Together with our kids, we walked down to a nearby lake and threw our bread crumbs, symbolizing our sins, into the water. Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out from behind the clouds and shined down on us. I couldn’t have ordered better special effects. I figured God was giving us his approval. Back in my friend’s house, we lit candles and said prayers over challah and apples dipped in honey and sweet red wine, in both English and Hebrew (I had to do some research for that). Then we ate chicken soup, and brisket and chicken with honeyed almonds and sweet noodle kugel and teiglach. All made from Jewish recipes we had to look up because most of us had never bothered to ask our bubbies how to make these dishes. It didn’t matter. They were all wonderful.

That was 20 years ago and we have been meeting to celebrate the New Year and other holidays ever since. My baby boy is now a tall thin, 26 year old computer programmer with a full time job and I am retired. I named my group Jewish American Parents in Stockholm or J.A.P.S. for short. Through the years, we have joined together to read the Haggadah at Passover Seders. We baked tons of hamantaschen for Purim. We shared an amazing variety of latkes at Chanukah. We tasted cheese blintzes with hallonsylt at Shavuot. And at every holiday, I gathered our kids around me and watched as they pulled out objects relating to that particular holiday from the Holiday Bag; a Lego horse, a wooden apple half, a small portrait of a woman with a crown, a mini menorah, a draidle. I explained to them what each object they were holding stood for and what its significance to that particular holiday was and why we were even celebrating that holiday. (I have to thank Rabbi Google for all the help. I couldn’t have done it without you)

We have also joined together for Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and school graduation parties. We have consoled each other over dead or dying parents and have rejoiced with each other for birthdays and anniversaries. And we have eaten many, many more helpings of brisket at our cyclical celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. I had found my family. I had created a minyan – on this side of the airplane flight.

This past fall, the leaves were starting to turn color and it was Rosh Hashanah season once again. A few weeks earlier, Janet, one of my J.A.P.S. since the very beginning, texted me to ask what we were doing for Rosh Hashanah this year.  She was the only one who asked. I realized I didn’t really have an answer for her. It wasn’t like I didn’t remember that it was coming up. It was sitting there in front of me like a giant sign on a highway in Kansas. But I just wasn’t feeling very Rosh Hashanah-ish.

Every year I invite my J.A.P.S. to my place for Rosh Hashanah. I live right near water so that makes the bread crumb thing easy. People bring tons of food with them. We go down to the canal in front of my building and throw our sins out to the ducks who greedily eat them up. Then we trek back up to my apartment to say our now memorized blessings over the wine and candles and challah and apples. We eat and schmooze; until the food is done and it’s time to go home. But this year, I didn’t send out any emails asking who can come. I didn’t tell people what time it would start or what food they should bring. My apartment was a mess and I had no desire to clean it for company. I just didn’t feel like doing any of the organizing that I always did to make sure our get-togethers got together.

Throughout all the years we have been meeting, it’s always been me who organizes each event. Regardless of what day the holiday falls on I decide for us to meet on a weekend. That usually helps to assure attendance. First, I send out SAVE THE DATE emails. Then I send out emails asking who can come. A few years ago I started sending the emails directly to the kids who have their own email addresses. They are now old enough to decide for themselves. Often I don’t just ask. I coax and cajole and wheedle them into joining us. I feel it’s important to get as many as possible to come. I organize the symbolic food we need to celebrate the holiday and the food we just eat and I suggest who should bring what, based on understanding of each individual’s cooking skills. The Holiday Bag no longer appears – the teens started to revolt – so I stopped with that. And to be honest, I now have trouble remembering all that information I once taught them, so it’s easier not to bother. So… mostly… now we just gather together with all our food, say the blessings and then we eat. (and schmooze of course. It wouldn’t be Jewish if there wasn’t a lot of talking) I know everyone has a great time and enjoys being with each other in spite of my bully tactics. And it’s usually only at Passover that I get so over-stressed that I start yelling at people. Eventually some brave soul dares to take me by the arm and bring me over to a quiet corner to sit and calm down. But this Rosh Hashanah I was already really tired and I hadn’t even started. I didn’t have the energy to herd cats.

I don’t think any of my J.A.P.S. are particularly Jewish in the sense of religious. They are like me – a pretty secular bunch. But over the years, many of them have said to me how glad they have been that we meet, that I organized these holiday events, that I taught their kids some Jewish knowledge. They appreciate and thank me for what I did for them! I try to respond modestly.  But the truth is I didn’t do it for them at all.

I did it for me! I did it because I wanted a family here. I wanted a small community of English speaking Jews like myself to raise my child in, to be Jewish with. Hilary Clinton wrote “It takes a village” and I built myself a village. I finally understood the meaning of the concept of a minyan. It had nothing really to do with men – and the number 10 is simply an approximate tipping point for being able to build a community. The J.A.P.S. became my Minyan, comprised of Jews and Goys and our children, who I hope learned to feel Jewish because of what I did. I never bothered to count the number of Jewish heads.

But now what? My child is grown. He is as Jewish as I can make him. The members of my Minyan have also become my friends. So I ask myself, “Do I still need a Minyan and how big does it have to be?” Maybe the real question is, “Does my Minyan need me?”

Back in the states, my parents are gone. My Uncle and Aunt are over 80 and not up to having big family events at their home. Some of my cousins have taken over the task of family gatherings, at least for Passover and Thanksgiving. Not being there, I don’t know more than what Facebook tells me as to what other sorts of family shindigs get organized.

At this point in my life I can do pretty much anything I want. So what is it I want? Probably what I always wanted – to be wanted, to feel needed and to feel part of a community.

So instead of the usual big gathering we were just a few. I made a big batch of honeyed chicken and rice. Janet came over with a bag of salad. Her boys came too. Risa came by because she called at the right time. She brought brownies. And Evelin, another of our youngsters dropped by at the last minute. We blessed apples and honey. We ate Challah that Håkan baked. We sat and ate wherever there was room in my messy living room. And as I sat there with the others,  I decided that my Minyan was just the right size.

 


Jan 16 2018

Death and life

The North Chapel

The North Chapel

I went to a funeral on Friday; for a woman who was exactly the same age as I am. I have to admit that I didn’t really know her very well. We circulated amongst the same circle of American friends here in Stockholm. While I had socialized with her IRL a number of times, it was mainly through the modern world of social media that I got to know her. She was a writer, among other things, and it was through her blog that I knew her best – that was where she kept us updated on the progress of her illness that eventually got the upper hand.

It was a very nice funeral. It wasn’t the first I had attended here in Sweden so I sort of knew the ropes; I think it was my 7th actually. Is that odd to keep count of, the number of funerals one has occasion to attend? The weather was better than one might expect in Stockholm, in January – it wasn’t snowing at least or even raining but just a cold gray cheerless kind of day that we have had more than enough of this past winter. She got a pretty good turnout, in spite of the weather and it being just an ordinary Friday. I saw a lot of the Americans I know here, the people she knew too, as we all stood outside waiting to go into the chapel. Some of them I had seen recently, others – it had been a while, most of them I meet on Facebook. You search through the crowd finding the familiar faces, you go over to them, you hug, ask them how they are – an unnecessary question actually. You could tell by their faces how they were. And a funeral was not really the appropriate place to catch up on things. 

The service was calm, lovely and felt meaningful, personal. Her husband and two daughters gave emotional heartbreaking eulogies. Other friends of hers went up and talked about her. Two recorded songs were played towards the end of the service. By that Hawaiian singer. The notes of his ukulele floated up and filled the small chapel with images of sand and beach and warm sunny days. The second song was “Over the Rainbow”, one of my favorite songs since I was a small child. It wasn’t Judy Garland but maybe almost better.

After the service we all went back outside and waited for the hearse with the casket to begin a slow advance towards the gravesite with everyone following behind. That was new for me. It felt very ceremonial, to walk behind the hearse – a sombre procession on a cold gray day. At the gravesite, family members carried the casket to the grave and it was lowered in. A rectangular hole, six feet deep with a pale casket at the bottom. I know I’ve seen graves in movies or in photos but this was the first time I stood next to an open grave in real life. “It’s so deep.” was all I could think. And so final. I tossed my pink rose onto the casket lying there at the bottom. And said good-bye.

When I started writing this piece, I had only planned on putting a few words up on Facebook – to say I had been to a funeral and it had gotten me thinking about the whole getting older thing. And then I would link to a post I had written about aging. But the words grew more and more about the funeral and so ended up here instead.

I don’t think, when I was younger, that funerals disturbed me all that much. I was young. Illness and death were far away. Sad. But far away. As I age and as my Baby Boomer generation ages, death is less far away. But the people who I have known, cared about, loved, who have died, don’t seem dead to me. They are still alive – in my head. But I just can no longer call them. My smart phone seems to have lost their number. And even if I could call them, they wouldn’t answer me. But I am not going to spend my time thinking about death. It’s not really interesting to me. I’d rather think about the journey  – the process of aging. Who am I at 66 years old, the same age as my friend whose journey is over? What am I becoming? How am I different from my 25 year old self. Or am I still the same?

 Here’s a link to that older post I was going to link to on Facebook. It’s called I’m still a lot like I was and its actually about life not death.


Dec 7 2017

Me Too two

Okay! That’s it! I’ve had enough. This Me Too thing has just gone too far.

Al Franken resigns.
A man who has admitted, all on his own, that he feels free to grab a woman’s pussy simply because he is famous sits in the White House and another man who chases after young, underage teenage girls when he himself is in his 30s has a good chance to become elected to the Senate and Al Franken is the one who resigns and leaves politics.  A man who during his two terms in office has fought “for the people who needed his help. Kids facing bullying, seniors worried about the price of prescription drugs, Native Americans who have been overlooked for far too long. Working people who have been taking it on the chin for a generation. Everyone in the middle class and everyone aspiring to join it.”

That is who is resigning and I am so angry!

It started with Leeann Tweeden. She claimed that it happened at a USO show. It was a USO show! And, following in the fine tradition of USO shows since the time of Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe, it was going to be raunchy. It was supposed to be raunchy! What other kind of jokes or skits do you do in front of a bunch of young military guys but off-color, bad taste and sexy ones? Just so you know, that was a rhetorical question. Franken wrote a bunch of the skits – they included kissing and probably touching. But Tweeden claims that Franken kissed her without her consent and that he groped her tits while she was asleep. I’ve seen that picture. He’s not even touching her – his hands have shadows under them, and I doubt she is actually asleep. It looks like the kind of posed, goofy fooling around that one does when you’re supposed to be tasteless.  And I’ve seen a video of Tweeden on stage next to a country western singer trying to do his part of the show – make music. She sidled up to him, rubbed her body against his and grabbed his ass. Maybe he should complain Me Too too. Because that is also “sexual harassment” isn’t it? In any case, Ms Tweeden knew what she was getting into when she signed up to do a USO show. I don’t believe her one bit.

But the floodgate opened and a number of other accusers raised their voices to claim he grabbed their asses while taking pictures with him. Al Franken is a shrimpy guy, he’s pretty short. Yeah, I know, every guy is short to me. But he is only 5 foot 6 inches tall. When asked to take a picture with someone, you might put your arm around their waist. And if you don’t bother to raise your arm, there’s a good chance it goes below someones waist and ends up near the ass. Especially if you’re a short guy like Al. When you’re asked to take hundreds of pictures in a day – real quick like – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where to put your hand. It just lands where it lands and then you’re on to the next photo-op.

Another accuser says he put his hand around her waist and that she felt that was inappropriate “groping”. Another claimed he tried to give her a kiss. She described it as a “wet” kiss. We have only her allegations to go by as to how “wet” she thought it was.  Still another claims he tried to get her to go into a bathroom with him. This he denies categorically and says, “I did not proposition anyone to join me in any bathroom.”  Another accuser claims he demanded he get a kiss from her as his right as an entertainer. This accusation he also absolutely says is completely untrue and he could never even imagine saying something like that. I think maybe this woman is getting him confused with the man who does believe that, Donald Trump.  Four of these accusers are anomalous. And I think that stinks too. Especially in America where you have the right to meet your accuser face to face.

I read somewhere that someone said that these accusations against Franken must be true because they have a lot in common. Well, there is another reason that they might sound the same – someone coached them to say what they said. There wasn’t anything to accuse him of that was really bad – no outright rape or threats to end their careers if they didn’t let him have his way with them, no actual pussy grabbing or physical threats – just a few misplaced arms and hands, actions not even serious enough to remember doing. And if you can’t remember doing them, how can you prove you didn’t?

But then Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Heidi Heitkamp and other Democratic senators came out demanding he resign. Shame on you, ladies, and men too!  I’m sure they are trying to show they are taking the high road, to prove their finely tuned sense of morality.  But the Republicans, who have no sense of morality at all, as proven by their support of Trump and Moore and the despicable tax bill they are trying to ram down America’s throat, are just sitting there laughing at them. The Republicans don’t even have to win an election to get rid of one of the most aggressively anti-Trump Democratic senators. The Democrats are doing their work for them. The R’s are laughing all the way back home to their big money donors.

Probably since we humans were still living in our caves, men have been able to be the ones who decided everything; first, because of their greater physical strength,  then their greater economic power and greater political power.  After all, we shouldn’t forget that it’s probably not much more than 100 years since women were still considered the legal property of men and in many places in the world still are. So we women have been getting used to being raped, beat up, killed and harassed in zillions of ways, for a pretty long time. But things are changing. In some parts of the world, mainly the industrialized west, women are no-one’s property any longer. They own themselves. They can decide for themselves what they want to do, how they want to live and how they want to use their brains. And just now they are willing to stand up and tell how they have been abused and harassed and they are being listened to for like probably the first time! And I think that is fantastic. But there is something to remember. Even women can lie – for lots of different reasons. And not all men are guilty. Even if a woman says so.

Now, even more so due to the influence of Donald Trump, the US is undergoing a period of isolationism (Trump’s America only), religious extremism (in the Republican Party), false accusations (fake news), and lapses in due process (Lock her up). The last thing we need is a kind of mass hysteria like what happened in the 17th century, during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. I applaud women who are willing to speak up about rape, abuse of power and true sexual harassment. But, please, equating a mis-placed hand, a kiss, a hug, or a bad joke with these things makes the rapes, the abuse and the truly awful harassment seem trivial. Standing out in the public square screaming Me Too and pointing a finger at someone is not the way to make true changes. You have to judge a person, Man or Woman by what they stand for. What the lives of Trump, Moore or Harvey stand for is not the same thing as what Al Franken has worked for his entire political life.

Don’t let Me Too confuse you too.