Last night, I had a work anxiety dream. I’d gotten a new job to which I was supposed to report virtually on my start date – it was a telecommuting setup. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and I was happily thinking about June 23rd, my first day. Then I looked at a calendar and …oops. It was June 23rd and I spent the rest of the dream (which was mercifully short) figuring out whether there was any possible way I could fix the damage.
Then, Sweetheart woke me up.
“I had my first work anxiety dream!” I said.
Sweetheart handed me my coffee and we chatted about work anxiety dreams. Four hours later, I was opening farewell gifts from the crew at my volunteer job. Leslie, Rose & Sharon got me three really fabulous lanyards, and Heejin got me some beautiful Korean sticky notes based on Chaekga-do.
Sunday is my birthday, and I have already gotten the best possible present. It’s a new job, the happiest of happy endings and one I never imagined when I enrolled in Foundations of Library Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in January of 2008.
It’s so good that the writers got together for Bonus Writer’s Lunch, which usually only happens once a year.
Monday is my first day as a public librarian. I’d love to tell you that I know exactly what I’ll be doing. But the truth is I only know that every day is going to be a fabulous adventure that combines the best parts of all my previous jobs – project coordinator, journalist, editor, bookseller, teacher, songleader and street performer – with a whole bunch of other new things.
By now, everyone is probably experiencing what it is they experience after a major tragic event that ripples out from wherever it happened and into their daily routine.
The day after ISIL/Daesh shared its latest commentary on modern civilization, one of my friends posted this story. It’s dense, but worthwhile for anyone who wants a real understanding of what this movement is all about. If you’re too busy, here’s a six-word summary: “Let’s return the world to 630!”
Here, in my own backyard, I’ve been reading about US governors (my own included) falling all over each other in their haste to announce that Syrian refugees will not be allowed to enter their states.
I know that while many Muslims don’t hate Jews, some do, and would hate being compared to us. But there’s no way I can unsee what I’m seeing, which is a contemporary version of the run-up to the Holocaust with these refugees taking the role of the Jews, ISIL/Daesh playing Nazi Germany, and the rest of the world playing itself.
There’s a Canadian book on Jewish immigration policy during that period called “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948.” The title comes from a comment made by Frederick Blair, then head of immigration for the Canadian government. It was his answer to the question about how many Jewish refugees should be allowed into Canada after 1945.
I was at a neighborhood meeting last night where two aldermen talked about the number of vacant city-owned houses available for sale. I’m sure mine isn’t the only city trying to figure out ways, in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, to deal with this issue. I’m sure it’s not the only city that would love to see those houses filled with hardworking people who would increase the tax base.
No one wants to invite the Angel of Death in for tea and cookies. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be vetted. I am saying that there are three million refugees who would probably think they’d gone straight to heaven if they could walk to the store without being blown up or shot or beheaded or raped or enslaved. Refugees who would be thrilled to pay taxes because it meant they were able to work and earn money.
Here we sit, in our cities full of boarded-up houses and empty apartment buildings. Here we sit, living in heaven and not even realizing it.
It wasn’t until my niece and nephew were 10 and 8 that my life was in a logistical and financial place to take a week off and fly from Milwaukee to Edmonton to visit them.
My brother-in-law, who travels a lot, was going to be gone even more often that month and my mother had mentioned that Debby was not looking forward to a longer-than-usual stint of being the only adult at home. Mom was still living on Cape Cod then, her life a whirlwind of book groups, synagogue activities, shopping, entertaining and traveling to exotic locales with her sisters and nieces.
“I have some time off coming,” I told Mom. “I’ll go up and help her.”
I called Debby as soon as I hung up.
“But Dave is gone that week and it’s their last week of school!” wailed my sister. “We won’t be able to do anything!”
“That’s why I’m coming,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I want to see your life and theirs and hang out and be helpful.”
Which didn’t happen exactly, since I got sick as soon as I arrived there.
Even so, it remains one of my very favorite trips. Elizabeth and Noah were exactly the right ages for what I really wanted. Which was to visit their house and spend some real time with them while they were:
a) young enough for a visit to become part of their childhood memories
b) old enough to remember it clearly.
The kids went to a primary school down the street that only went up to sixth grade. They took music lessons. Elizabeth played in a quasi-elite soccer club. Debby wrote while they were at school, and took them wherever they needed to go after. Even when Dave was in town, he was at work a lot and not around much.
As kids, Debby and I went to an elementary school up the street that went up to sixth grade. We took music lessons. We took swimming lessons. Our mother worked, but her teaching schedule meant that we weren’t home by ourselves for very long before she got there. Dad worked nights and weekends, and wasn’t around as much.
It was about the third day, walking to – or maybe from – school with Debby and Noah, when it occurred to me that my sister had recreated an idealized version of our childhood for her own offspring. My next thought was that recreating any version of my childhood was the last thing I would want to do to someone I loved.
To this minute, my flesh crawls just thinking about it. But it was fascinating to see it in action. I had no idea Debby had been so pleased with Management.
Perhaps if I’d had a different relationship with my mother – one more like Debby’s – I might have felt differently. For me, life at home meant existing in a state of constant low-level terror. Mom had a volatile temper. It took nothing to set her off. I hated being screamed at even more than I hated being hit. When she wasn’t angry, she was dismissive.
At school, the terror was delivered through a different mechanism – my classmates. Having undiagnosed, untreated AD/HD was no picnic in a small school. I sometimes joke that everything in my life has been easier than elementary school and the marriage part of my first marriage. But I’m not entirely joking. It’s no fun spending the formative years of your K-12 education as a social pariah and teacher’s nightmare.
Books were my refuge. I learned to parent from the way the mothers and fathers in my favorite books treated their children – by conveniently dying (“The Boxcar Children”), staying the hell out of their children’s way (“Harriet the Spy”), or listening to them and treating them with respect (“Honey Bunch,” “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Nancy Drew,” “Trixie Belden,””Stuart Little”).
I don’t know what Debby’s influences were. I do know that she and my brother-in-law have raised a pair of lovely human beings. It’s lucky to end up with relatives you like and enjoy spending time with. It’s even better when they’re people you met before you knew whether that would happen.
So, here’s to my sister for finally giving me someone to enjoy clothes shopping with. Elizabeth was worth the wait. The same goes for Noah, who is kind, practical, reassuring and treats me like a person, not an auntly obligation.
Last summer, I gave myself a gift. My friend Judy was offering a four-week writing workshop. I went on-line and registered. She’s one of the Writer’s lunch writers, owner of Redbird Writing Studio and the author of “Shut Up & Write.”
It was everything I hoped for and then some. You can draw a straight line between those four weeks and this blog – my way of establishing a regular writing routine that isn’t dependent on anyone else’s editorial agenda or timeline.
Then, in January, Judy sent me an e-mail. Here’s a condensed version:
“A small group of my students are getting together for a weekend in Waupaca, April 18-20. There will be 7 or 8 of us. All have made friends with one or more of the others in class. The point isn’t writing prowess or number of publications, it’s that they want to write and are good company.
Think you’d like to join us? You get to hang out with the group when you want to, or hide in your room to write when you want to. We’ll probably have one feedback session. No classes.
Let me know if you like the idea.”
Let’s see….a chance to spend a weekend at a bed & breakfast where all I have to do is write and hang out – or not hang out – with like-minded people?
I’d never done a writing retreat before, but it’s something that anyone with any sort of creative aspirations dreams about, I think. The chance to shed nagging day-to-day responsibilities and find out whether the void that creates opens you up to producing work you’ve sworn you would, if only you had the time and space, is true. If it turns out to be just a lie you’ve been feeding yourself for decades, it’s probably best to find out in a low-stakes setting. Judy’s invitation seemed like the perfect chance for a test run.
So, despite almost forgetting that this was the weekend – and remembering in the nick of time, on Thursday night as Sweetheart and I were walking Tuki and Judy’s name came up – I left work early on Friday, packed the car, took the dog for a short walk, hit up the Public Market for some food, dropped by the nursing home to hug Mom, then headed up to the Crystal River Inn, the Bed & Breakfast where seven of the eight writers were gathered. (Barbara lives in Waupaca already, so she didn’t need a place to stay.)
Friday night we went in to town, where Judy was formally introduced, along with several other writers. She’d presented a workshop as part of the Waupaca Book Festival, and we hung about at the coffee shop and bookstore for awhile. I am proud to report that I only bought one book for myself. (I got two others, both holiday gifts.)
Saturday and Sunday both started with a walk and breakfast. On Saturday I went to the cemetery. Then, later, I went back with my camera to take a few pictures of some interesting tombstones.
This morning, I saw a Sandhill crane. It was strolling in the grass along Highway 22, elegant as you please, occasionally bending down for something to eat. I watched from a respectful distance until it safely crossed the highway and headed into a back yard, then continued on my way. (I’d opted to leave the camera behind and just take mental pictures, so no photo.)
A couple of the other authors were staying at the B&B, and yesterday, I decided that one of them – Mike Mullin – needs to come and read at Boswell Books, and do presententations at my friend Marqurite’s high school and at Large Midwestern Technical College. Also, he needs to go to my friend Mollie’s library. She’s a children’s and YA librarian who doesn’t live far from him, so I’ll be doing my Yenta the Matchmaker thing sometime this week.
After Saturday breakfast, our writing pack arranged a time and parameters for a roundtable session (three pages at 3:30). Then Judy and most of the other writers went in to town, with plans for a short hike around a nearby lake between town and roundtable. I stayed back to write.
I decided to tear apart something that had started as a blog post and ended up as something else. I’d gotten feedback on its problems from two people I trust. This seemed a good opportunity to take a stab at addressing some of them.
Several hours and three paragraphs later, I realized a couple of things:
I was really hungry.
No one was back from town.
There were tasty leftovers in my room thanks to my Public Market run.
So, I had myself a picnic on the front steps of the B&B. Then, I took another walk, snapped a few pictures of the wedding party that had shown up to take some post-ceremony pictures and went up to my room to play guitar for a bit.
When the others came back, four of us headed off to Hartman Creek State Park, where we hiked around the lake and I got to indulge my inner 11-year-old. After our round-table session, we went Culver’s for dinner, then home to bed.
This morning, I shared, via e-mail, the group picture we’d drafted a Culver’s staffer to shoot, along with a helping of gratitude.
I’ll end with a condensed version of the e-mail that accompanied our photo.
Thank you all – and especially Judy – for an incredible weekend. Even though I probably only wrote three original paragraphs, they were seismic in terms of what I’m striving to achieve with my word-pile.
I’ve grown pretty accustomed over the years I’ve been mulling the story I wanted to tell and have achieved a comfort level with many of the details of my father’s story and its fallout.
Realizing how important Debbie is as a character in this story is a recent and unsettling development, in no small part because she is (was) a public figure. I feel like the owner of a very small house and now I have to build on an extra room for the elephant. (Sigh.)”
Anyway, extreme gratitude to all of you and I look forward to Judy getting us all together again.”
It’s official. As of last night, I am a beekeeper.
It feels very strange to write those words. My mental image of a beekeeper used to be some sort of slightly feral sage, an interesting sort of semi-holy person standing quietly in the midst of a raging storm of flying, buzzing, stinging creatures.
In other words, someone who is not me. Feral is a good description of me as a housekeeper, or a writer. But the closest I get to sage is Thanksgiving dinner, when I’m making the stuffing.
But that’s irrelevant now.
When I got home from work yesterday, Sweetheart had the bike out and ready. I was just walking toward him when Tammy, Dan and her son Larry showed up. I met Tammy at Large Midwestern Technical College not long ago, and we quickly discovered that Larry goes to the school down the block from me and one of his teachers is a friend. So, we invited them to hang out with us for a bit while I carried the newly-painted hive box, bottom board and top out to the back yard and placed them on the stand.
I replaced two of the wax-only frames with honey frames, so my bees would have something to eat until there is enough flowering plant life to sustain them. Kind of like a bee SNAP program (that would be food assistance, for all you non-US readers) that works the way it’s intended to work – a handup, not a handout. If all goes well, they’ll be making their food soon enough.
I love this woman’s outlook on bees and beekeeping. Also her nose for research and her companionable writing style.
Here’s an example, from a passage she wrote about having to buy a new queen for a hive that had not (as is customary when a queen dies) replaced their queen:
“They seemed so lost. At least, they sounded that way. Rather than offering the unified, major-chord buzz I was used to hearing, individual bees were humming quietly to themselves, out of phase, the result of a weird discombobulation. Without their queen, the workers didn’t know quite what to do with themselves, and obviously, they wouldn’t survive without new bees being made. To fix the problem, I rush ordered a new mated, Italian queen from a honeybee supplier in the South. Just days later, she arrived, caged along with several of her attendants, in a large, puffy envelope.”
Brackney goes on to describe the hazards of introducing a new queen into an existing hive, and does what Sweetheart and I did last night with our queen (who I have named Latifah, in case you were wondering).
The queen cage is a small wood block, about 1.5 inches long and hollowed out in the middle. There’s a layer of mesh stapled around the hollowed out side with a hole on one end. The hole is plugged up with a small bit of cork. After making sure you’ve got your finger close to the cork, you pry it off with a small knife and plug the hole with your hand so she doesn’t fly away. Then, you jam a miniature marshmallow into the hole. Take your marshmallow-cage queen, and turn the block so the mesh side is facing down into the hive. Place the block between two honey frames. The time it takes for the queen to eat through the marshmallow on one side, with bees on the other side helping her, gives everyone a chance to get used to each other.
The queen drops down into the hive, starts laying eggs, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Anyway, Brackney decided to throw caution to the winds and skip the slow introduction process.
“I carefully pried out the cork and summarily dumped the queen and her attendants onto the frames in the top of the hive.What happened next astonished me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I’d read that queens sometimes ‘toot’ or ‘pipe’ loudly to their subjects, but I never expected to have a chance to hear it firsthand. It was a startlingly loud and clear ‘Whooooo-Whoooo-Who-Who-Who-Who!’ As she piped, the queen pressed her midsection against the wooden tops of the honeycomb frame, serving to amplify her high-pitched, staccato calls. It sounded a bit like a kazoo being played by a teakettle.”
Any writer who can come up with a phrase like “a kazoo being played like a teakettle” is my kind of writer. She’s actually anyone’s kind of writer if you’re interested in bees and like your facts wrapped up in engaging prose.
Enlisting Susan Brackney as a beekeeping resource was as easy as plucking her book off a sale rack. But my real beekeeping knight in shining armor (okay, so his shining armor is a flannel shirt, but who’s counting?) is Andy Hemken.
Then, when the Mann Lake order wasn’t here but the bees were going to be, Andy told me not to worry. We drove out to his place over the weekend with every bee thing we had, and he looked it all over. He suggested we paint the box, and gave me a new bottom board and a top (Jeff was using a slab of something that wasn’t a beehive top). When we asked how much we owed him, he said $10. It seemed like way too little, especially given how reassuring it was to have someone treat as pretty much routine that we’d be fine making a go at this beekeeping thing.
Then, yesterday, we picked up our bees. Andy had said anyone who wanted to could put some of the package bees into one of his hives (“I have 500 packages to install. Every one someone else does is one I have to put in.”). It was one of those rare “something in it for everybody” situations – Andy wins because he has a few less packages to install, and we baby beekeepers really win because we get to practice installing bees into a hive under the guidance and tutelage of an expert.
I had my vintage bee veil and a pair of spa gloves. Andy’s wife Cheryl handed Sweetheart a bee veil, and the three of us headed out to the bee yard with a five packages. I was pretty nervous trying to remember the proper sequence for what I was supposed to do when, but by the third package, I pretty much had it down. Here’s a 12-step program for Bee Package Installations:
Take top off hive, put it on the side of the hive.
Take out three middle frames, put them in front of the hive.
Using hive tool, pry can up from inside bee package. Quickly cover hole from can with square of wood so bees do not fly out.
Take hold of small metal piece protruding from top of bee package. Lift piece and slide it toward the covered hole. Uncover hole with hand not holding metal piece, shake it as you remove the tiny wooden block to which it is attached, because it will be crawling with bees who need to stay in the can.
Turn wooden block over and peer in at the queen. Make sure she’s alive. She’ll be pacing back and forth in her mesh-covered cage.
Pick up a mini marshmallow and a small knife.
When the queen is pacing away from the tiny wooden stopper at one end, use the knife to remove the stopper. Quickly plug the hole with your finger. Put down the knife and plug the hole with the marshmallow.
Now, if you don’t have stray bees clinging to the queen cage, you can put her in your pocket to keep her warm. I had stray bees every time. So I just put her nearby where she was safe.
Pick up the can, quickly remove the wooden top and turn it upside down. Tip the box from side to side, tapping on the side that’s angled down so that the bees fall into the hive. When most of them are out, set it down.
Gently replace the frames, making sure you’re not crushing your new colleagues.
Now, using a hive tool (if you have one, which we did not), make a space between two of the newly-replaced frames. Place the queen cage there, mesh side down. Hook the metal perpendicular to the cage, so it doesn’t fall in.
Close up the hive, and make sure the opening in the box with the remaining bees is facing the hive so the stragglers can find their way to their new home.
We came in from the bee yard. I picked out a package from the hundreds there – the sound of all that buzzing was something to hear. Sweetheart wrapped the package up in my jacket and put it in the top case of the motorcycle. We got home as the sun was setting.
We had just enough light to install our package. I had my bee veil on, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a bee down the back of my pants. (I didn’t.)
It turned out when we got inside, though, that Sweetheart had picked up a hitchhiker. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator when it happened. He slammed the door shut and shook like a dog that had just been sprung from a bathtub.
We couldn’t find the bee. Then, a few minutes later, Sweetheart opened the fridge again. She was sitting there, shivering. He picked her up and took her outside so she could find her way to her 8,000 sisters, a few brothers and Latifah, her queen.
I’m a little late on this week’s blog post because I’ve been too busy doing things and not busy enough writing about them.
Tonight, 12 people are going to sit down at my dinner table and take a trip from Flyover Country to Egypt. Then we will flee from slavery there.
I’ve been listening to music all day and cooking, and it has been paradise. Cooking is one of the most relaxing things in the world, and little makes me happier than the prospect of cooking for people I like. I will only cook for you if I like you. You can pay me to write for you, but you cannot pay me to cook for you.
Some things are not for sale.
In the “things for sale” department, however, my most recent Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle story is out in the world. It’s about Amanda Miryam-Khaye Seigel, who grew up in Madison and now lives in New York. She’s this delightful singer/songwriter in her 30s, and she sings in Yiddish. She has this pure soprano voice and the expressive range of a whole theater company. So even if you don’t know a single word of Yiddish, you still have a pretty good idea about what she’s singing. Hard-core Metallica or Nas fans might want to skip it, but if you like show tunes, this will be right up your musical alley.
Anyway, back in the “things not for sale” department, here is what my Seder crew will be tucking into so far: halved and roasted Brussels sprouts with some olive oil and Brady Street Sprinkle from The Spice House, carmelized beets tossed in some espresso vinaigrette from Oro, chicken soup with matzah balls, veggie soup with matzah balls (for the vegetarians) gefilte fish, prime rib (which, when I saw how much it cost, thought, “We are eating my children’s inheritance for Seder dinner!”), eggplant parmesan (for the vegetarians), potato kugel, green beans and a salad (made by my wonderful Milwaukee Mom and cousin Carol).
Dessert is pignolis, chocolates made by the culinary arts students at Large Midwestern Technical College – those students make the best-tasting homework ever – and fresh fruit.
I’d like to stick around and tell you about Wednesday night, when my friend Rick, Sweetheart and I went to see Judith Claire Mitchell read from her amazing new book “A Reunion of Ghosts.” She read from the book, but she also gave us a look behind the curtain at the life of Fritz Haber, who synthesized chlorine gas, and his wife Clara, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in science in Germany. Her dreams of doing cutting-edge (or any) research got washed away when she married Fritz.
Anyway, it’s time to head back into the kitchen. Those apples and nuts are not going to turn into charoset on their own.
So, last night was Book Group and my turn to host. Ever since my Facebook pal Chase recommended “The Orphan Master’s Son” and I read it, I had wanted to talk about it with other people.
I thought I’d have to wait until August, but then Gail went AWOL (she does tax prep and is probably buried until after April) and a slot opened up. I grabbed it because it was a great opportunity on two fronts. The first was no longer having to wait months and months to talk about the book. The second was getting Sweetheart to join Team Clean the Landfill We Call Home.
I adore Sweetheart and never want him to be upset. He works hard every day at a job that’s physically and mentally demanding. I haven’t yet figured out how to get him to see cleaning as a reward in itself and to take joy in the doing of the thing. I also haven’t been able to convince him of the extra joy in doing it together. But somehow, the prospect of having people over seems to work as a trigger for getting things done.
So, by the time Sally, Regina, Betsy, Karen, Ann, Krys, Tria & Pam showed up last night, the downstairs looked better than it has in ages. I spent the day in the kitchen, deep-cleaning the floor, the dog feeding/watering area, the corner where the recycling had piled up (sub-zero temperatures are not conducive to taking that stuff out), and a place near the basement stairs where store-able things had collected.
Then, I gave myself a big reward. I got out the brand-spanking new gluten-free cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen that Sara had told me about. I followed the directions to mix up a batch of all-purpose flour, and then I made a lemon pound cake.
I made one small loaf pan. For the rest, I used individual flower-shaped cups, except for three. Those were in the shapes of a scary skull and a grim ghost. Edible flowers play a role in “The Orphan Master’s Son,” and I couldn’t find any in the store, so making flower-shaped cake was my compromise position. Also, it’s kind of grim, so the skull and ghost made sense. (There was a bat-shaped lemon cake too, which I made because Ann and I have a shared history involving bats, but that one was just to send home with her, not to serve.)
Canned peaches also play a prominent role in the book, as does ice cream. So I served cake with peaches and ice cream after the discussion. During the discussion, I served cheese and crackers. And it’s not Book Group unless we demolish at least a couple of bottles of wine. Some of us drink white and some of us drink red. Some of us (not me) stick to water.
Before we get into the book, there’s always talk about what’s going on in various lives. Regina was just back from Chile, and Karen had had surgery. So we talked about that, and about spring finally coming, and discussed some of what Regina had told us in detail about her travels via our book group’s listserv.
We were particularly interested in hearing more about the different levels of coffee shops, where scantily-clad women (depending on the level of coffee shop you are visiting) either simply serve you coffee, or serve you coffee dressed in even scantier attire, or are willing to expose various body parts.
After our “other things” yack, we got into talking about the book. Everyone agreed it was a tough read, but worthwhile. Karen made it through 50 pages before stopping, because she said it wasn’t a recovery book. No disagreement there. Betsy said it was a little too violent for her, so she stopped. But that’s fine – we’re like that. You don’t have to read the book to come to book group. You just have to be ready to either talk about it or listen to other people talk about it. Sally read it in three days. Krys and Regina both said their Sweethearts expressed versions of “You’re not really enjoying this book, are you?” watching the way they’d read for an hour and then walk away.
That was kind of the way I had to read it, too. We talked about various aspects – the brutality of life in North Korea, the role of the individual, whether the main character had a sense of right and wrong and how, if at all, it affected his decisions. We also discussed the disconnect between and possible reasons for the unremitting descriptions of harsh reality in the beginning and the near-magical-realism toward the end.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).