“The Wedding Plan”: Keeping the faith while searching for a mate

During the decade I spent dating and waiting to meet my husband, my mom and I used to joke that perhaps I should just pick a wedding date, with confidence that Mr. Right would materialize. I never verbalized our inside joke to anyone else, because it was a crazy idea, and not something I would actually do.

In the film “The Wedding Plan,” Israeli writer and director Rama Burshtein imagines the spiritual journey of a woman who takes the leap of scheduling a wedding without a groom.

At the beginning of the “The Wedding Plan,” Michal (Noa Kohler) pays a spiritual advisor to find and resolve whatever is blocking her from finding her bashert. The woman has Michal perform the mitzvah of hafrashas challah (separating a piece of dough to be burned) before sitting across from her and, while smearing Michal’s face with the guts of a raw fish, forces her to be brutally honest about what she really wants.

What she wants is not a fairy tale romance, but a life partner. She is searching for a husband with whom to build a home and host Shabbos meals, instead of being a perpetual guest. After the consultation ends, the film abruptly cuts to a wedding hall, presumably a few weeks or months later, where Michal and her fiancé Gidi are supposed to be tasting dishes for their wedding menu. Instead, they are sitting awkwardly next to each other, straining to make conversation until Gidi finally admits to Michal that he doesn’t love her.

It takes Michal some time to recover from this shock, but when she does, she realizes that she has purchased a dress, reserved a wedding hall and rented an apartment. The only thing she needs is a groom, and G-d has 22 days to produce one for her. How hard could that be?

I must admit that I had hoped the film’s journey from this decision until the chuppah would be more comedic than it turned out to be, but upon further reflection, I was glad that Burshtein raises serious questions about the faith struggle that is inherent in the search for a mate. While Michal prays and puts her faith in the Almighty, she also continues to date, recognizing that she will have to do her part to achieve her goal. Throughout the film her faith vacillates, but she never backs down from the wedding plan, even as the pressure and doubts increase.

Burshtein does not glamorize or make light of Michal’s decisions. At the film’s climax, when Michal is dressed in a poufy wedding dress, seated in the bedeken chair, just before we learn whether and whom Michal will marry, her distress and confusion are palpable, serving as a cautionary tale not to try this at home. But Michal has done it for us – tested the very limits of her faith and the fidelity of her friends and family, who have all shown up to the wedding that seems unlikely to happen.

Despite some laugh out loud moments at the absurdity of the situation, this movie is serious about its underlying subject: a religious woman’s desire to get married. I was delighted that the movie never trivializes the topic, or suggests that Michal should just be happy with her single life.

In the secular world, it is unfashionable to verbalize one’s desire to get married, unless one already has a long-time partner, because doing so smacks of desperation or flightiness. On the other hand, within the Orthodox community, there are those who view “older singles” as being too picky, or being flawed in some way – not attractive enough, too argumentative, too boring, too flashy, you name it. For many people, it is difficult to reconcile their faith in a merciful G-d with the reality that some wonderful people struggle to find their match, and that others never do.

The character of Michal is attractive, confident, quirky, and conflicted. Her life is put together in many ways, but she has flaws, just like anyone else. Despite her imperfections, there is never any question that she is worthy of being loved and finding her match.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Michal, who owns a petting zoo, presents her animal show at a girl’s birthday party. The pre-teen girls are all dressed in pinks and pastels, and she asks if any of them want to pet the snake. Most of the girls recoil at the idea, but one shows an interest and willingness to do so, until she is dissuaded by an adult. Michal unsuccessfully intercedes, and the audience feels her disappointment at seeing the girl constrained by social expectations. The girl is a mirror of Michal: comfortable with who she is and willing to be different from the norm, and like Michal, we want her to stay true to herself.

Michal’s character traits – her honesty, audacity, and determination – unsettle some characters in the film and fascinate others. To some, her wedding plan is an affront to G-d, but others see it as a demonstration of great faith.

While Michal’s wedding plan is larger than life, and implausible in reality, the underlying emotions are very realistically portrayed. Anyone who has been single for a long time struggles to maintain optimism and faith and wonders if there is a point at which they should stop searching, especially when suggested matches seem off the mark.

Michal says early in the movie that she is not sure she can endure any more dates. Except for those lucky enough to marry happily when they are very young, the dating process is fraught with expectation, disappointment, rejection and constant questioning of past and future decisions. It is a cycle with an endless loop of highs and lows. Michal is ready for the uncertainty to be over, but instead of giving up, she invests all of herself into getting what she wants. In the process, she gives voice to other single men and women in the same situation.

Pesach Prepping

A few years ago, there was a reality television show called “Doomsday Preppers,” which profiled families that were stockpiling supplies in preparation for natural disasters and other worst-case scenarios. I never watched the show, but it was pretty clear from the buzz about it that these folks were going well beyond what most people consider to be reasonable preparations for adverse events.

Because preparing for Pesach (Passover) can have its own extreme elements, my husband and I have taken to joking in recent years that we are Pesach Preppers, though the stash of matza, potato starch and kosher for Passover chocolate (necessities, people!) that has been gathering in my basement in recent weeks more closely resembles a well-stocked pantry than an apocalyptic bunker.

The cleaning process we typically employ is not extreme in the least — we focus on removing chametz (leaven) from the areas where it is prepared and eaten, and just making the rest of the house generally clean, checking for hidden bits of food as we go. This process does, however, take time.

While I love it that there are guides for cleaning for Pesach in one day, and I believe it is truly possible to do that, the reality of my home is that it just takes longer. Here are the reasons why:

I tend to accumulate clutter, and procrastinate cleaning and organizing. While clutter is not chametz, I make a concerted effort in the weeks before Pesach to make things more orderly, and to toss or give way things we no longer need. I don’t do this *only* in the weeks before Pesach — we try to do some serious clutter reduction at least a few times a year — but Pesach inspires me to do more, and I am sure this is correlated strongly with the warmer weather and longer days, which inspire many people to clean things out.

I fully acknowledge that much of this cleaning and organizing is spring cleaning and not related to removing chametz from my home. I give credit to those who are more organized than me throughout the year, and therefore don’t end up falling behind. For me, the annual process of going through the house and getting rid of stuff is not a substitute for reducing clutter at other times, but the inspiration to do a better job of managing clutter all the time. There are times throughout the year that I literally say to myself, “I better deal with this now, or I will have to deal with it before Pesach.”

I firmly believe that this accountability has gradually increased my ability to do a better job of managing clutter year-round, not that you could tell by looking at my house right now.

Finally, I do all of this because I want my home to look and feel clean for at least the first hour or two of the holiday, before the dining room table and floor get covered by matza crumbs and it looks like I never cleaned anything. There’s nothing quite like a cleaned and ready for Passover home. It looks good, it smells good, it feels good to be there. It’s the goal that keeps me going.

According to Jewish tradition, one month before each of the major holidays, we begin to study the laws of the holiday and initiate preparations. In this vein, the 30 days before Pesach are a month-long spiritual process which includes planning, shopping, cleaning, kashering and cooking. In a home that is cleaner and better organized than mine, the process may take much less time, but I need a month to gradually prepare for the holiday. During this month, the holiday is always in the back of my mind and, except for the big push to kasher the kitchen in the last few days before the holiday, the tasks are spread out enough that they aren’t too onerous.

I firmly believe that preparations for Pesach should not be so burdensome that they make people resentful of the holiday and of Judaism itself. On the other hand, most worthwhile enterprises in life require significant effort, and Pesach is no exception.

I’ll be the first to admit that Pesach is stressful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and the memorable qualities of the holiday are not tied up just in observing the rituals for eight days (seven in Israel), but in the month of preparation and anticipation.

I don’t clean for Pesach in just one day, because I would find that too exhausting. By spreading out tasks, and doing them gradually, the process for me is less stressful and more rewarding. I realized this year that I no longer feel overwhelmed by Pesach. I know I can do it. I want to do it, and the payoff for all of this effort will be a wonderful holiday which I love and look forward to each year, and which I hope my children will also love throughout their lives.

For an excellent essay about cleaning for Pesach in one day, check this out:

http://outoftheorthobox.com/how-to-clean-for-pesach-passover-in-one/?v=7516fd43adaa

For a good laugh about cleaning for Pesach, check this out:

http://jspacenews.com/the-last-passover-countdown-checklist-you-will-ever-need/

Coal mining’s legacy

I’ve been gushing lately, to pretty much anyone who will listen, about Denise Giardina’s two novels about coal mining in West Virginia, “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth.” Both books have been around for quite a while, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, but I happened to delve into them just after the 2016 Presidential election, in which the anger and discontent of working class and rural whites, including coal miners, became major topics of discussion.

One of the lessons of the election was the folly in dismissing the concerns of a significant segment of the population, which also happens to hold disproportionate sway in the electoral college. The anger voters expressed in 2016 was not just a product of recent economic changes, but was an overflow of resentments that have been building for decades as a result of dwindling opportunities and stagnant wages. Giardina beautifully portrays the generations of hardship experienced in the coalfields of southern West Virginia and gives historical context for the current political climate.

“Storming Heaven” opens in the late 1800s, when large coal companies, mostly based on the East Coast, took control of large swaths of coal-rich land, either through purchasing the land for less than its value, or forcibly evicting residents. Within a few years, coal had become the dominant industry in Mingo, Logan and other counties. (In Giardina’s books, the fictional Justice County is a stand-in for Mingo.) With enormous demand from the steel industry and power companies, there were fortunes to be made from mining. Those fortunes lined the pockets of coal company executives, while the miners themselves were paid starvation wages.

Giardina writes of men and boys, as young as eight years old, working long hours, six days a week, in underground mines where deadly roof collapses were common, and black lung disease was the reward for those who could withstand decades of back-breaking labor. Deprived of land ownership, miners lived in company houses, and rent was deducted from their paychecks.. Their wages were paid in scrip, currency printed by the coal companies that could only be spent in company stores. Hunger and disease were rampant.

While there are clearly some artistic liberties taken in “Storming Heaven,” the historical details are so vivid that I did several online searches while I was reading the book to distinguish fact from fiction, and found that most of the dramatic details in the book were true to life.

Despite the horrible work conditions, at the turn of the 20th century, mining was still the most promising industry in southern West Virginia, and miners were willing to put their lives at risk to support their families. However, over time, as company abuses worsened, and death tolls rose from mine accidents, miners began organizing themselves into unions.

Even though the labor movement was already established in other industries and regions of the country in the early part of the 20th century, the coal companies did not permit workers to unionize, so miners met clandestinely, fearful of being discovered and punished. Giardina writes of miners being threatened and even murdered by armed guards hired by the coal companies, simply for joining a union.

In spite of the intimidation, following a mine explosion that killed dozens of miners, union members organized strikes at several Mingo County mines in 1919. In retaliation, the coal companies evicted the miners from their company-owned houses, forcibly throwing women and children out with no prior notice. Rather than give in, the striking miners organized tent communities in the West Virginia hollows, where they lived for months, subsisting on meager diets.

As a whole, local, state, and federal governments turned a blind eye to the miners’ concerns, often because of graft from the coal companies. However, there were some exceptions. In the town of Matewan, an important railroad junction in Mingo County, the mayor and sheriff sympathized with miners. On the morning of May 19, 1920, they watched as a group of Baldwin-Felts agents, hired by the mining companies, changed trains in Matewan, on their way to evict striking miners from a nearby coal camp. When the agents returned by train to Matewan later that day, the mayor, sheriff and other locals met them with an arrest warrant. Prepared for a battle, miners and other sympathizers were stationed inside storefronts overlooking the railroad tracks, with guns trained on the Baldwin-Felts agents.

What happened next was a shootout that would become known as the Matewan Massacre. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but in a matter of moments, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and three Matewan residents, including the major, were dead. The massacre helped to embolden miners, and fueled the outrage many felt toward the coal companies. (The site of the massacre is now a historic landmark, which I visited on assignment as a college intern for The Charleston Gazette.)

Over the next few months, the miners began literally building an army, collecting firearms from as far back as the Civil War, in preparation for further conflicts with the coal companies. In addition to orchestrating workers’ strikes, they used explosives to damage mining equipment and shut down operations.

Sid Hatfield, Matewan’s sheriff, and others who stood off against the Baldwin-Felts agents in Matewan, stood trial for their involvement in the massacre, and all were acquitted. However, on August 1, 1921, Hatfield and another man, Ed Chambers, were to stand trial in a separate case involving dynamiting a coal tipple, a structure used to load coal onto trains. As the two men ascended the McDowell County Courthouse steps with their wives at their sides, they were ambushed by Baldwin-Felts agents who assassinated them in front of their horrified wives. In “Storming Heaven,” the names are different and various details are embellished, but the overall events are historically true.

Following the courthouse assassinations, the miners’ rage culminated in the Battle of Blair mountain, an armed conflict between unionized miners and armed forces on the payroll of the coal companies. The federal government got involved as well, but not as a neutral agent. Instead, U.S. military planes flew over the Logan County battlefield, dropping WWI era bombs on the miners. Ultimately, the coal companies were able to crush the miners’ revolt, and managed for quite a few years afterward to subject workers to even worse working conditions. The United Mine Workers did not have the right to fully organize in West Virginia until 1935. Eventually, laws required safer working conditions and fair compensation for miners.

Giardina’s follow-up novel, “The Unquiet Earth,” shows the evolution and decline of the coal industry from the 1930s to the 1990s. This second novel is less dramatic but equally reflective about the impact of coal mining on local economies, the environment and workers’ health. Even in the best of times, Giardina’s portrayal of mining is of a dirty, dangerous, back-breaking industry. While the coal industry has at times been a source of sustainable wages for those without higher education, it has always come at a steep price, and the benefits of the industry have been disproportionately in favor of coal and energy companies over the miners themselves.

Giardina’s books portray historical events from multiple points of view, demonstrating the humanity on all sides. Even though I grew up in West Virginia, I was removed from the coal industry, and had not given much thought to the lives of coal miners, with the exception of viewing the excellent 1987 film “Matewan.” Giardina’s books portray the hardships of miners in a very relatable way as workers who sacrificed for their families, took pride in their work, and loved the mountains that contained the coal. The books also made me think about the legacy of the coal industry as I never had before.

West Virginia’s economy has been largely dependent on the coal industry, which is why some politicians continue to fight to preserve it, at the expense of building new, more sustainable industries. Giardina demonstrates that even in its glory days, the coal industry exacted terrible consequences. Today, the consequences are different — working conditions are safer, but modern mining methods, such as strip mining and mountaintop removal, are more damaging to the environment while employing fewer workers. And, as a resource, coal has a finite supply.

All of this has been written about at length in newspapers and non-fiction books, but Giardina’s fiction artfully brings these realities to life. Toward the end of “Storming Heaven,” two characters travel to Charleston, my hometown, where the unions are organizing. Giardina describes the mansions lining the Kanawha Boulevard, built by coal executives. I have always loved the beautiful homes on the Boulevard, but had never stopped to consider who had built them, or how they made their fortunes.

The knowledge that the wealth that beautified my hometown came at the expense of workers’ health, safety, and prosperity, was eye-opening, and made me realize that these historical events are more immediate than we realize, and have ongoing effects. We would do well to reflect upon these long-term effects as our leaders consider changes to economic, energy, and environmental policies.

Balancing the Jewish past and the future in Charleston, WV

When I was growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, I would hear from time to time that synagogues in other parts of the state were closing, either merging with other congregations or simply shutting down, leaving their towns with no operating Jewish institutions. The cities that had prospered with the coal industry had fallen on hard times and most of the Jews who lived there had moved away, or assimilated.

Charleston, on the other hand, still had a vibrant, active Jewish community with two thriving congregations, B’nai Jacob Synagogue and Temple Israel, known colloquially as the synagogue and the temple. Unfortunately, the factors that are taking a toll on Jewish communities throughout the United States – secularism, inter-marriage, and older members dying while fewer children are born – have continued to erode Charleston’s Jewish community. Now Charleston’s two congregations are discussing how they can consolidate into a single facility while preserving the rituals of the more traditional synagogue and the more liberal temple.

I see the wisdom in sharing resources and working together to sustain a Jewish presence in my hometown. But it’s still painful to see the decline of the community that helped nurture my Jewish identity. And, it’s hard knowing that an institution that was so important to my family’s history will be changing in dramatic ways.

My family, on my mother’s side, arrived in Charleston in the late 19th century and was always very involved in the synagogue. My great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of the congregation, one of my great-grandfathers was the president of the chevra kadisha (burial society) and another served for a few years as the congregation’s chazzan, mohel and shochet. My grandfather was a regular at Shabbos services, and sometimes at weekday services as well. Not to minimize the contributions of the women in my family, my great-grandmother was a leader in the chevra kadisha and other synagogue groups, and my grandmother and her sisters were active members of the chevra kadisha who sewed tachrichim, the traditional burial garments for the deceased.

As a child and teenager, I would sit with my grandfather in services. He always had hard candies in his pockets to give to me and my sister. We enjoyed sitting with him, singing the songs from the service, and walking home with him afterwards.

The synagogue is located on a residential street in Charleston’s East End, just a short walk from the state capitol building. My grandparents lived on the next street over, the 1500 block of Quarrier Street, which we were told was the longest residential block in the United States. Zayde, especially in later years, walked slowly, and the journey home with him was almost more important than the destination, as he would stop to admire spring flowers or fall foliage, and regale us with stories.

The synagogue describes itself as “traditional.” It is not affiliated as either Conservative or Orthodox, and is somewhere in between – most members drive to Shabbos services and men and women sit together, but most of the regular services are not egalitarian and incorporate all of the traditional liturgy.

My memories of the shul, I realize, are very much colored by my personal and familial experiences there. My family instilled in me a love of traditional Judaism, and the synagogue was the place outside our home where Judaism was practiced. To me, the main sanctuary was truly a place of holiness to connect to the Divine. And, it was also a place to connect to community, family and our history.

Judaism walks a fine line between revering the past and dreaming of the future. Too much emphasis in either direction can be detrimental. When there is too much focus on history, too much nostalgia on what used to be, or the ways things have always been done, then the relevance to the present and future is often sacrificed. On the other hand, a focus only on what is new and enticing is doomed to be ephemeral and rootless, without the foundation of tradition and history. Like Tevye and the Fiddler on the Roof, we are constantly on the precipice, bridging the gap between what was, and the unknown of the future.

Charleston’s Jewish community is still deciding what shape its future will take. It pains me to think that the synagogue building might not be part of that future. In a city in which Jews have always been a small minority, the synagogue is a building that is proudly Jewish, and was designed to accommodate Jewish rituals, from the wooden bima in the center of the sanctuary, the full sets of the books of the prophets and the five megillahs on hand-written scrolls, to the two kosher kitchens, and the mikveh down a dark hallway in the basement.

As ritual observance in the community has declined over the years, these facets of the congregation have become less used, and probably under-appreciated. I understand that, from a purely financial perspective, preserving them might seem decadent, but the real tragedy is to not understand their value and how these relics are not archaeological curiosities, but cornerstones of the Jewish future.

I feel incredibly blessed that the seeds of my Jewish future were sown in Charleston, and I am wistful sometimes that I don’t live there now. The synagogue, standing at the corner of Virginia and Elizabeth streets, has always been a comforting presence to me, and it saddens me to think that it might not be there someday.

I hope that Charleston’s Jewish community makes choices that are built upon its beautiful past, and not without regard for the importance of tradition and history.

Thoughts about Poverty, Opportunity and Race

Recently, as part of my job, I read the book “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. Published just a couple of years ago, the book profiles various schools and supplemental programs that are teaching children and teens, especially those who live in poverty, to develop character traits that are correlated with success in school and later life.

Children living in poverty face considerable obstacles to success, including exposure to traumatic experiences, lack of mentors in their immediate family who have successful careers, and schools that are not equipped to prepare them for long-term success. One of the characteristics that is critical to whether students will succeed or fail is grit, the ability to persevere at long-term goals. Children growing up in poverty need extraordinary amounts of grit to graduate from high school and move into post-secondary education and jobs with decent wages. Recent research suggests that while some people are naturally “grittier” than others, it is possible to develop this ability.

Throughout “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough makes multiple references to impoverished, primarily black, neighborhoods of Chicago, where high school graduation rates are extremely low, and where teachers, principals and various non-profits are working to turn that around. Tough also repeatedly mentions a book I have had on my shelf for years, but had never taken the time to read, until now, “There Are No Children Here” by Alex Kotlowitz.

Published in 1991, “There Are No Children Here,” is an intimate portrait of two brothers who live with their mother and six siblings in an apartment in the Henry Horner Homes, a complex of public housing high rises (a.k.a. “the projects”) in Chicago that in the 1980s was in deplorable condition after decades of severe neglect by the Chicago Housing Authority and was overrun by rival gangs. The book depicts several instances in which brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 12 and 9, and their family hunker down in the hallway of their apartment, fearful that they will be hit by stray bullets when gangs are battling outside.

Henry Horner no longer exists – the complex was eventually razed – and public housing in the United States has undergone improvements to make it safer, and more integrated with surrounding neighbors. For example, in many cities, low income high rises have been replaced by smaller apartment buildings and townhouses, and often “below market rate” units (the parlance used to describe low income housing) are intentionally built alongside market rate units to create more economic diversity and avoid segregating the poor away from everyone else.

However, the portrayal of poverty in the book remains relevant today, even if the specific details have changed over time. (I am not knowledgeable enough about the current state of public housing to comment on whether changes have led to significant improvements in safety and quality of life.)

During the year I spent in journalism school, “There Are No Children Here,” was often cited as an example of high quality urban reporting. Over a period of two years, Kotlowitz spent significant time getting to know the Rivers brothers, visiting with them at their home, in their neighborhood, and at school, as well as interviewing their family members, teachers and neighbors. Reading it now, I am amazed at the thoroughness of the reporting, and the elegance of the writing, which flows like a novel. I regret not reading the book sooner, but I also wonder if I would have appreciated the book in the same way all those years ago.

Over the several days I spent reading “There Are No Children Here,” I found myself mesmerized and depressed by the story of the Rivers brothers. They are depicted as bright boys who are determined to stay out of trouble, but they face constant obstacles in the form of despair that their family is stuck living in the war zone of the projects, the absenteeism of their father who is only in their lives sporadically, the trauma of friends and neighbors dying because of gang violence, and the pressure from friends to engage in petty crime or gang activity. More than 20 years after the book was published, a Google search reveals the brothers both are still living – overcoming their fears that they would die before reaching adulthood – but both have served time in prison and have struggled to escape the cycles of poverty and crime that were endemic in their childhood neighborhood.

“There Are No Children Here” doesn’t propose any grand solutions to the problems faced by children like the Rivers brothers. The purpose of the book, described in the preface, is to raise public consciousness of the reality of life in poverty.

As I read the book, I was fascinated to learn about these two boys who in real life are close to my age – one older and one younger – who had so much adversity to overcome at a time when I was living a comparatively idyllic childhood. The point of comparison was further driven home by a brief mention in the third chapter of the book that their maternal grandmother had been raised in my hometown of Charleston, WV, where her father was a part-time preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a name I recognized. It is entirely possible that I went to school with distant relatives of these boys.

It is eye-opening to realize that the poverty in our society that is so often not talked about is at most a few degrees of separation away from all of us – it is our neighbors who are struggling, whether we think of them that way or not. And yet, addressing poverty in a meaningful way is so elusive. “How Children Succeed” reveals that the challenges faced by the Rivers brothers remain rampant today, including multi-generational poverty, drug abuse, and urban violence. (On the bright side, the teen pregnancy rate, while still high, has improved significantly in the last 20 years.)

It seemed fitting that I read “There Are No Children Here” in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. day. The book gave me an opportunity to reflect on the inequalities that remain in our society, and which are so institutionalized that we hardly notice them, as well as the very real progress that has been made over the years.

In the preface to his book Alex Kotlowitz relates that LaJoe, the mother of the Rivers brothers, when asked about childhood in the projects replied that, “There are no children here.” The degradations of poverty, the exposure to violence, the lack of hope, all served to rob children of their innocence. La Joe and Kotlowitz both hoped that publishing the boys’ story would lead to greater acknowledgement of the problems they faced, and would perhaps lead to changes for the better.

More than twenty years later, it is clear that whatever changes came about were too late to give Lafeyette and Pharoah the protections and opportunities they needed. However, it’s not too late for many others, with help from schools and supportive programs, to develop the traits needed to build a better future for themselves.

 

 

Reflections on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

When I was 12 years old I first experienced Harper Lee’s brilliant storytelling. My family had recently become enchanted with the ability to rediscover old movies at the local video store, and my mom brought home a VHS copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck. She told me it was a film she had seen years before, and loved, and she wanted to share it with me and my older sister.

I wasn’t used to watching black and white films, but I soon understood the charms of this particular film which so beautifully captured a child’s perspective on the segregated South. Recently, in doing a bit of research about Harper Lee, I learned that she felt the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel she had ever seen.

A few months after first seeing the movie, I ordered a copy of the book from a Scholastic book catalog. At the time, some of the Southern expressions and dialect were difficult for me to follow, and I was bored by long passages about the Finch family history and details about the town of Maycomb, Alabama, but overall, the book resonated with me just as much as the movie.

I loved the adventures of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill as they try to lure recluse Arthur “Boo” Radley out of his house, and felt the sting of their pain and disillusionment when justice is denied a falsely accused black man. I also deeply admired the courage and integrity of Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus Finch, who represented the falsely accused black man in a rape trial in the deep South in the 1930s.

In the years since then, I have reread the book several times, and it continues to move and inspire me. It is a wonderful snapshot of childhood, both whimsical and darkened by normal childhood fears and the growing understanding of injustice in the segregated South. As a writer, I have come to appreciate Harper Lee’s remarkable skill in weaving together this beautiful, entrancing story, which lays bare racism and hypocrisy without sounding pedantic. Lee’s writing is simple and straightforward and, occasionally, poetic.

Like many of her fans, I was disappointed to discover that she had never published another book. It turns out Lee, who hailed from a small town in Alabama similar to the fictional Maycomb, was so overwhelmed by the public recognition of her first book that she decided not to write again.

However, earlier this year, publisher HarperCollins announced it was publishing a book Lee wrote prior to writing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” titled, “Go Set a Watchman.” This book also centers on Scout (whose proper name is Jean Louise), now an adult in the 1950s, as she travels from her life in New York City back to Maycomb for a visit.

Soon after learning about “Go Set a Watchman,” I pre-ordered a copy, despite qualms that perhaps the elderly Lee was being exploited by her attorney after decades of avoiding publicity. In the end, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which I rationalized with the thought that Lee, 88, was perhaps willing to have the book published now, when she is old enough to be excused from responding to interview requests and other publicity.

The new book shares the same delightful writing “voice,” of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and includes descriptions of favorite childhood haunts, such as Finch’s landing, the family’s ancestral home outside of Maycomb, which are consistent in content and tone with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Scout still has her tomboyish spirit and spunk. However, some of the other characters from her childhood are more complicated than she recalls.

While in Maycomb, Scout is disturbed by heightened racial tensions between black and white neighbors who, ostensibly, used to get along, at least at a distance. Most of all, she is devastated that Atticus, her father, is resistant to movements to desegregate schools and promote voter registration among blacks, which he views as interference from activists from the North for which the South is unready. The man she so admired for his bravery in standing up against racial injustice has become an old man who fears change. She is thoroughly disgusted. Scout spends much of “Go Set a Watchman” coming to terms with how her hometown and its inhabitants have changed, and whether she can ever return there.

As a book, “Go Set a Watchman” is much less polished than “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it was never fully completed for publication. Some characters, like Atticus, seem dramatically different between the two books, and it is possible that Lee would have reconciled differences had she been able to revise “Go Set a Watchman.”

On the other hand, one book is a reflection of a child’s view of her life and the people in it, and the other is a young woman’s view of the same people and community at a later time, in different circumstances. Often, as we age, we begin to understand that the people we once admired are more complex. And, older people, like the geriatric Atticus, are often less willing to take bold positions on controversial issues, as the circumstances of aging and health concerns make it less palatable to be at odds with one’s neighbors. These considerations, for me, softened the blow of Atticus’s racist positions.

“Go Set a Watchman” gave me a sense of closure, to learn about the direction Scout’s life would take. Like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its writing is straightforward and beautiful. Knowing that the book was not a fully finished product, I read it with an eye toward appreciating Lee’s writing style, and learning about racial attitudes in Alabama just before the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Just as the older Atticus is disappointing for not being the civil rights activist he might have become, Lee’s depiction of white southerners’ attitudes about desegregation show that many feared the changes that were in store, and this humanizes them. Change is difficult, after all.

As a fan, I am grateful for the opportunity to read more of Lee’s writing, which gives me a sense of knowing more about the writer herself, since Scout is an extension of Lee. “Go Set a Watchman” also shows how Scout’s (and Lee’s) moral conscience grew from her father’s influence, and bloomed into her adult sensibilities as a result of her own experiences and thoughts.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is poignant for its ethical insights, but it is delightful reading because of its vivid characters, especially Scout, a whip smart tomboy growing up motherless in a time and place where women were supposed to be perfectly composed and dainty. “Go Set a Watchman” revisits many of these wonderful characters, and shows how they have changed, for better and for worse, with the times around them. Like a visit with relatives who live far away, I was glad to see them again.

Analyzing my Addiction to Mad Men

I was a latecomer to “Mad Men,” the much celebrated TV series about Madison Avenue advertising in the 1960s, which ended in May. When the series premiered in 2007, I recall hearing NPR radio spots about it, and being intrigued, but never actually finding the time to watch it.

It was a year later, shortly after getting married, that my husband got me hooked on the show, which I found compelling for its depiction of a bygone era, but depressing for its rampant adultery, promiscuity and other destructive behaviors. I quickly learned that there were no fully “good” characters in the series – everyone was painted with streaks of greed, lust, jealousy, and corrupting ambition. Drawn in by the complex characters, glamorous wardrobe, and fabulous writing (there were so many perfect one-liners) I couldn’t seem to stop watching the show, but frequently after viewing an episode, I found myself feeling restless and down, depressed or frustrated by various plot twists.

This tension is one of the celebrated features of the show. Mad Men was never supposed to have good guys and bad guys – the characters are all realistic in that they are complicated mixes of likeable and detestable traits. I get that. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to know any of them in real life.

I suppose it is unsophisticated to admit this, but I like shows that have good guys, and I really like it when the good guys win. To be fair, I probably would not have liked most of the real people who worked in advertising in 60s, and it is part of the brilliance of the show to depict these characters as deeply flawed but still sympathetic. Even though Don Draper was a serial adulterer with a drinking problem who was rarely present for his kids, I wanted him to overcome his demons. I wanted him to be happy. For heaven’s sakes, a guy with classic Hollywood looks should have a happy ending because that’s how fiction works!

I got so disillusioned with the show that I skipped the whole sixth season and much of the seventh, but, and this reveals the extent of my addiction to the series, even though I wasn’t watching I regularly read the TV Club analysis of the show on Slate. I couldn’t bear to watch, but I had to know what was happening.

I tuned back in for the last few episodes of the series, with the usual mix of fascination and frustration, which lasted right up until the end. I applaud showrunner Matthew Weiner for staying true to his vision while wrapping up the story with measured doses of happiness and hope for the central characters. Just as in real life, there were no definitive resolutions, but there was clarity of purpose for Don and other characters and that was significant, and probably the most a cock-eyed optimist like me could hope for from Mad Men.

Through my obsessive reading of reviews and recaps of the series, I found a lot of commentary that was spot-on, and helped me understand why I was so drawn in by the show. Here’s a summary of some of the analysis I liked the most:

From the start, the show was a celebration of the creative process. One of the most-remembered scenes is a pitch by Don Draper at the end of season one for the Kodak “carousel,” the wheel to show slides on a projector. Don riffs on the word carousel in his ad concept, showing that the new device is not merely a useful technology, but a gateway to nostalgia, as it takes viewers on a circular ride through happy memories.

Moments like these, when Don or his colleagues have a creative epiphany, are the high points of the show. In a later season, Don advocates giving his writers and graphic artists the space they need to work, and “getting out of their way.” At the time that episode aired, I was working in the marketing department of a big company, and the marketing director referenced that line in a staff meeting, making me feel like my job was connected, however remotely, to the glamorous world of Mad Men, and that my creative input was valued. (Unfortunately, there was nothing glamorous or inspiring about my job, which didn’t actually want or need me to be particularly creative, but that’s another story.)

The decade from 1960 to 1970 has been celebrated, eulogized and imitated in countless films and television shows, most of them extremely nostalgic. Mad Men took the tribute genre to a new level by being scrupulous about historical details and favoring realism over nostalgia. In Mad Men, in the early 60s, women get treated like chattel in the work place, people of color are relegated to jobs as janitors and elevator operators, families go to the country for a picnic and leave their litter all over the ground, alcohol consumption at work starts before noon, people smoke like chimneys everywhere (the office, in doctors’ examining rooms, restaurants) and newborn babies ride home from the hospital in their mother’s arms (no car seats). Despite the high fashion façade, Mad Men makes clear that the 1960s were not the good old days.

On the other hand, I loved the way major news events (assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the moon landing) were woven into the stories. It was fascinating to see characters’ reactions to these events (I watched clips of scenes from episodes I did not watch in full). Life doesn’t come to a standstill, but there is pause, shock, fear, and, in the case of the moon landing, hope and celebration. I loved these moments of seeing what life must have been like as people were coping with major historical events.

Finally, Mad Men offers a wonderful depiction of office life – the pressure, the competition, the comradeship, the ordinariness and the potential to do something great. Mad Men was noted for the slow pace of its plot lines, in contrast to fast-paced dramas that are more popular these days. Like real office life, things unfold slowly, days are often long, and petty disputes get blown out of proportion. But when deadlines loom or crises unfold, people band together and rise to the occasion. While the atmosphere of Mad Men is more intense than anywhere I have worked, and the characters are much larger than life, there is a lot about the culture that feels familiar, and that is what makes the show most compelling, and what I’ll miss the most.

 

Rethinking the creative process

My childhood dream was to become a writer, and in my youthful fantasies I fully expected by now to have published at least a book or two. The problem is, far from publishing a book, I haven’t even written one (yet).

In the process of consoling myself for not actualizing this dream, I have realized a few things: 1) While it is not easy to find the time to write “for fun” (any writer knows the process is not fun), the only way I will ever reach my dream is to make it happen, even if it takes me 10 years to write 100 pages; 2) I have to believe that my goal is important enough to prioritize the time to reach it; 3) “Success” might look different now than it would have in my teenage dreams, i.e. the odds of writing a best seller are not in my favor, but perhaps I can at least write something that will have lasting value for me and my family. (In my days of writing for a Jewish community newspaper, I used to joke that I was a household name … in my own home. That’s sort of what I’m aiming for here.)

Even with this much more modest goal in mind, I still have the momentous task of decisively buckling down and doing the actual work, and I was searching for some inspiration about how to do that. So, over the last several months, I read a few books that touch on aspects of the creative process, and the work styles of successful people, from which I have gleaned bits of wisdom.

A few years ago Jonah Lerner wrote a book called “Imagine” that talks about the creative process. I first heard about it in an NPR clip about creative breakthroughs often coming when people took a break from what they were working on. When they were walking or driving or doing something relaxing, all of a sudden, they would get a creative burst, or the solution to a complex problem would suddenly dawn upon them. All of the efforts of many hours of hard work and concentration would pale in comparison to this dawning revelation that happened without even trying.

I really liked this idea because it was the perfect justification for one of my favorite vices: procrastination. How great is it that not working can actually help you work better?!

As cool as that bit of information is, it’s only part of Lerner’s book, which, incidentally was later discredited when it was discovered that Lerner fabricated some information in the book, including quotes from Bob Dylan. I picked up a copy of “Imagine” from Amazing Books, our wonderful, local used book store, and read it with a grain of salt, knowing not to trust Lerner too much, but on the point of procrastination I think we can believe him because he also offers some seemingly conflicting advice that I think is also very sound.

Often, people have creative breakthroughs only after days, months or years of regular, steady devotion to honing a craft or working on a problem. Yes, the buzz kill to the procrastination high is that you actually have to put in the hours to get any work done, and creative tasks are serious work. (Darn it.)

In “Imagine” Lerner also writes about the digital animation studio Pixar, which designed its headquarters with centrally located bathrooms to force staff to physically bump into each other several times throughout the day to feed the creative and collaborative processes. (Presumably folks with smaller bladders would have even more opportunities for this!) So, for some types of creative work, interacting with other people is important, but when I read about that, I wondered how I would function in an atmosphere that emphasized interaction so much. My next reading choice helped with that.

Susan Cain’s “Quiet” talks about our very extroverted culture and how the emphasis on being outgoing and gregarious puts introverts at a distinct disadvantage. “Extrovert” and “introvert” are terms that get thrown around a lot, and there are various definitions, but the one that makes the most sense to me is that extroverts are energized by being around other people and exciting stimuli, and introverts are energized by being alone and reducing stimuli.

Introverts want and need to connect with other people, they just need recovery time afterwards, both at home and at work. Cain writes that work environments can be structured better to create optimal working situations for introverts. I felt vindicated by her unequivocal statement that open office plans (no offices or cubicle walls) are bad for introverts.

“Quiet” helped me realize that I need to cultivate a comfortable and quiet writing space for myself. The book also talks about “flow,” the state of being so immersed in a task that one loses track of time. The environments preferred by introverts are also conducive to flow, such as minimizing interruptions and background noise.

My third reading choice helped me think about another obstacle to writing: time. In “168 Hours” Laura Vanderkam notes that many of us are afflicted by the knowledge that life is short, and extremely hectic, and it’s hard to find time for all the things we want to do. It’s easy to say, “I can’t do X because I don’t have the time,” but Vanderkam points out that we can accomplish more than we think in the 168 hours we are all apportioned each week.

She writes about the American Time Use Survey, which is a government survey of how people spend their time. Using this model, Vanderkam profiles several real people, whom she asked to chart their time for a week, revealing ways they could use their time better. Vanderkam herself is a mother of four who has published several books, blogs daily, runs marathons and used to sing with a choral society. She also sleeps 7 to 8 hours a night. It’s tempting to dismiss her as a superwoman overachiever (or just hate her), but she is honest about how she makes it all work.

Vanderkam focuses on her “core competencies,” the things she does best and on which she wants to spend the majority of her time. Everything else gets minimized or out-sourced. So, she hires extra childcare to ensure she has time to write and exercise, simplifies meal preparation, relaxes her standards of household cleanliness, and knows how to say no to obligations that will drain her time.

“168 Hours” made me realize how very different I am from Vanderkam. She has reached a balance that is right for her, but which would not be right for me. For example, while writing is my professional priority, I have other “core competencies” which are important to me, such as cooking Shabbat and holiday meals for family and friends and being involved in communal activities. These things don’t pay my bills, but they enrich my life.

So, in addition to the realizations I mentioned at the start of this entry, my recent reading has helped me to crystallize some other thoughts about my personal creative process: 1) writing is not the only way in which I am creative, and other outlets (such as cooking and event planning) are also important to my personal development and expressing creativity (and may even be the source of writing ideas); and 2) more than ever I need to be cognizant of how I use my time, recognizing that I am making choices which can facilitate or interfere with reaching my goals, but that even if I am never the writer I dreamed I could be, I can still be a successful writer by my own definition, and achieve other goals that are important to me.

Gilbert and Ehrenreich: Two books, two journeys

Several months ago, by coincidence, I happened to be reading two books at the same time. At home I was reading, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the popular memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she travels to Italy, India and Indonesia as she emotionally heals from a divorce. At work, in my spare moments, I was reading “Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting by in America” in which Barbara Ehrenreich recounts her experiences trying to live on minimum wage in three different American cities. (I felt justified in reading this at work because it gave me some context to understand the challenges faced by clients of the social service agency where I work, and it was recommended by a colleague.)

If I had not simultaneously been reading these two books, it is unlikely that I would have ever seen a connection between them, but since I was, there were some obvious similarities.

Both books are written by women who immersed themselves in experiences that most readers either would not choose voluntarily, or would not have the means to choose. Both traveled alone to three different locations, leaving behind the trappings of their normal lives and careers. Both were profoundly affected by their experiences, and especially by the people they met along the way.

On the surface, that is where the similarities end and the differences begin.

Barbara Ehrenreich worked variously at being a waitress, a housekeeper and a retail store clerk in Key West, Portland, Maine and the Twin Cities. For her one-month stays in each of these locations, she lived in the type of housing that minimum wage workers could reasonably expect to afford, which included cheap motels, trailer parks and budget vacation style rentals. (Longer term rentals usually require security deposits, which are often beyond the means of minimum wage workers, who literally live check to check. Ehrenreich writes of coworkers sharing hotel rooms or living out of cars because that is all they could afford, despite working full-time hours.) Her work was often physically demanding, with exhausting, long hours, and she went “home” to spare living quarters whose comfort, privacy, safety and cleanliness were often questionable.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s epic journey was on an entirely different scale. In Italy, she rented a cozy apartment, from which she could easily walk to the numerous restaurants where she indulged in Italy’s finest wines, pastas, pizzas and other notable dishes (including some that would repel more pedestrian consumers, such as, ewww, lamb intestines). In India, Gilbert secluded herself in an ashram, where she practiced the art of meditation, and experienced spiritual transcendence. In Indonesia, on the island of Bali, she rented a spacious vacation home and developed a network of colorful friends and, eventually, a romance, when she wasn’t studying with the medicine man whom she had come to visit. In short, her year-long journey was saturated with physical, spiritual and emotional pleasures, the likes of which most average Americans can only dream.

And yet, to me, there is a deeper similarity between the two books. Gilbert leaves behind an affluent life in a posh suburb to heal from intense emotional pain, and to develop a deeper, more spiritual appreciation for life itself. Ehrenreich illustrates how work utterly consumes the lives of low wage workers, offering them no relief, no breaks or benefits, and no promise of upward mobility. The American dream, of working hard and pulling oneself up by one’s boot straps, is just not accessible to the lowest rung of society, most of whom live in poverty for generation after generation. The parallel illusion, that the wealthy have it all, is also challenged by Gilbert’s deep unhappiness at the start of her journey, though certainly her healing was enabled by her affluence, and this is a point she openly acknowledges.

To me, both of these books illustrate the human necessity of having emotional space, and respite from the daily rush, to enjoy life, savor fine flavors, focus on our connections to the Divine, and build relationships. These experiences should not merely be the province of the rich, as most of us can find pleasure in less exotic flavors and experiences than those experienced by Gilbert. But those who labor at full-time jobs should be able to live a life that is not just a constant survival game, and sadly, that is an elusive dream for a significant segment of society.

Incongruous writing styles

During the second half of my year in journalism school, as my classmates and I went on job interviews, professors advised us that editors would likely pose the following question: “Are you a reporter or a writer?” The correct answer, we were told, was to say “reporter.” The critical difference was that a reporter was focused on content, on asking the tough questions, on being relentless in pursuit of the facts, while a writer would focus more on the style of writing, on being a wordsmith, a master of prose. Hard-boiled editors need reporters who can be aggressive in pursuit of the facts and smart on their feet. No flouncy prose for them.

The problem for me was that the writing part was my strength, and the reporting was where I struggled. Toward the end of my year in journalism school I participated in a small group discussion about the newspaper business (now almost an anachronism) with Clifford Teutsch, then the managing editor of The Hartford Courant. He said that when he made hiring decisions, he was looking for strong writers, because you have to be really smart to write well, and it’s much easier for a good writer to learn about a particular subject or field (a beat, if you will), than to take someone with loads of expertise but no writing talent, and teach that person to write.

Armed with these somewhat conflicting snippets of advice, on an interview, when I was actually asked if I was a reporter or a writer, I said writer. I still got the job.

That, however, was just the beginning of the journey. Reporting and writing are both broad categories of skills. In my brief years of newspaper reporting, I was mostly assigned to cover community features, and usually had two to seven days to develop each story before the deadline. However, a handful of times, I had to track down a source on a very tight deadline (less than two hours), extract the necessary information through brief phone calls, and then write up the story very quickly for an impatient editor. I struggled mightily with this, especially on one occasion in which the television news was already reporting the same story and the person I reached was not interested in repeating what they had just told the people with the fancy cameras and lights. Not my finest moment. But, as my experience grew, my general reporting skills improved, and I especially thrived in the sort of situation where I could sit down with a subject for an unhurried hour and have a fully developed conversation. I learned over time to be more critical, to ask probing questions and to react to what was said with follow-up questions, not just to stick to a prepared list of questions.

Still I was, and am, a writer at heart. The thrill for me is not just in delivering the facts, but in the crafting of the phrases, of enhancing the copy to be more than a straightforward recitation of information, but also a pleasant, and sometimes memorable, reading experience.

There is, of course, a time and place for everything. I laugh when I think back on my attempts at writing fiction in high school and college, and how very wordy and saccharine my prose was at that time. Good writing, according to the advice of Strunk and White in the iconic “Elements of Style,” is straightforward and spare – no superfluous words, no unnecessary flourishes of language. And yet, good writing is not merely utilitarian. Language is beautiful and fluid. Writing well is a careful architecture, not merely a cobbling together of words. It is placing the decorative cornice just so, not overshadowing it with a mawkish gargoyle, but also not leaving the cornice out altogether because it is not essential to the function of the building.

For a bit of fun, and to exercise my writing skills, below are two examples of styles that are incongruous – purple prose that obfuscates meaning where facts are needed, and spare copy that misses essential nuances. Yes, folks, I wrote badly on purpose.

Victorian novelist wannabe reports on a fire for a newspaper

The conflagration overtook the first and second floors of the edifice, sweeping through with fiery wrath. Sirens tore through the night as firefighters raced from their quarters to the scene. They stormed the charred doors and drenched the home with torrents of water. The unharmed inhabitants stood trembling beneath dim street lights, watching as dancing flames gave way to billows of smoke. Clutching blankets around themselves, they were overcome with emotion – relief that they had not been harmed, despair that their home was lost, fear of what was to come. Quickly, neighbors gathered around to offer comfort and assistance. By morning’s light, the family had found temporary shelter. (In other words: Home destroyed by fire: family placed in temporary shelter)

In deference to the late Robin Williams, a terse summary of “Dead Poets Society” (my favorite of his movies)

Private boarding school hires unconventional English teacher, who leads students on a series of antics, including standing on desks, while invoking a phrase in Latin. The teacher is fired due to disapproval from administrators and parents. (Totally misses the emotional nuances and deeper meaning of the film)

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer susanjablow@gmail.com

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