Category Archives: Judaica

The Way We Live Now; or, The Year of Living Autobiographically, Part III

From October 2011 to October 2012, I wrote The Year of Living Autobiographically; four years later, from October 2015 to October 2016, I wrote a kind of sequel, which for the nonce I’ve been calling The Year of Living Ignominiously. (As I wrote here and here, it’s on a back burner.) And right at the moment—eight years after the first project, four years after the second—I’m in the middle of writing what I guess will be the third part of a trilogy.

I’ve been telling my students in the past few weeks—in our last in-person classes, which all ended on Friday 3/13, and in a few test runs I’ve set up with my students using Zoom this past week—to observe the world around them as it changes, and to take notes. Social media can be a good way to stay in touch with friends, and it can be a good conduit for accurate and trustworthy news from reliable sources. But social media, I’ve tried to remind them (this is nothing new, obviously), can also be a firehose of rumors, and it can be a crutch—one that so thoroughly reinforces our performed, public selves, that we forget or neglect our private selves. Take private notes, I’ve said. Keep a diary, a journal, a notebook, James Comey–style contemporaneous notes, whatever you want to call it. Think Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”; think Nora Ephron’s mom’s mantra that “everything is copy.”

Emily and I are trying to do good where and when we can; we’re trying to teach our students, and raise our sons, and be useful citizens if we can—of this town, this state, this nation.

And I’m trying to follow my own advice. In case you’re curious about what the work that might eventually be called something like The Years of Living Autobiographically: Book III is going to look like, here are the 21 entries I’ve written over the past few weeks. I’m following my same absurd self-dare as before: for one year, write one status update per day that’s precisely 420 characters long—no more, no fewer. (See previous posts on this: The Year of Living Autobiographically; Praise; More Praise.)  This time, though, for reasons that I can’t explain other than following instinct (and perhaps borrowing from my friend Jessica Anthony in her brilliant new novel Enter the Aardvark), it’s all in the second person.

Sat 29 Feb 2020
Do you want to see how I know there’s a hole in my dishwashing glove? you asked Emmett. Of course he did. You folded back the cuff, made a seal with your lips, inflated it with your breath. Then you gently squeezed, aimed a wobbly yellow pointer finger at Emmett’s nose. A small hole at the tip; enough to flood them with water, enough to pinpoint air. Toby needed to feel it as well. What a marvelously dad thing to do.

Sun 1 Mar 2020
“Why do we wear a kippah?” asked the rabbi. “Because it’s cool,” one girl said, to the rabbi’s delight. “Because you can,” said Toby. Emmett’s morah: “That’s my favorite answer so far.” “That’s a serious answer,” the rabbi said. “I don’t know if you even know how serious an answer that is.” It’s a reminder to be humble, she said. “I wear it to remind myself to be humble when I’m doing something that I think is holy.”

Mon 2 Mar 2020
An overheard fragment, a student’s phone conversation—”your arteries, your heart, a lot of pressure around your heart, so you can suffer complications from that. But I was on an Internet forum, and a lot of people were saying”—was she talking about COVID-19? Remember Rabbi Bunim: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.'”

Tue 3 Mar 2020
Your hands are dry from frequent washing. It’s tough, in these early days after the shortest month, to twist the knob to advance the date on your watch. A cold rain turned to steam as it hit the walkway by Warner. “Journey of the Magi”: a convert’s midrash on “We Three Kings”? Your students, unversed in Matthew. Rain at sunset; rainbow in the east; a tornado-yellow sky; then hail, gone before you could photograph it.

Wed 4 Mar 2020
Your friend, on leftist rage: “The horse you ride to victory—you don’t keep stabbing it in the eyes.” Later, you asked your students if they were doing okay, or afraid—you meant COVID-19—and one mentioned Biden. What did she mean? Biden has dementia, she said. She learned this on Twitter; it’s an open secret. She’d been proud to cast her first vote for Clinton, even though, your student said, she’s a “lizard person.”

Thu 5 Mar 2020
Your student, a “Bernie bro,” said she had you pegged as a “Warren bro.” Senator Warren, today: “If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘whiner.’ And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, what planet do you live on.” You want not to cry; you want cookies for dinner; you want to torch the subliminal civilization-scale erasure of the very idea of matriarchal power.

Fri 6 Mar 2020
Last night at the Feve, Emily introduced you to one of her students. He reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice for Coronavirus. “Do you have it?” he said, his voice a bit panicked. No, no, you said, but we need to practice social distancing, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to put one’s hands over one’s heart in greeting. He liked this idea; this was what you both did.

Sat 7 Mar 2020
In office hours, a student yawned almost every time you spoke. He also picked his nose. As he got up to leave, he reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice alternatives. There’s putting your hands over your heart, and then there’s this: you held up the priestly blessing. He didn’t recognize it as Jewish, but Vulcan. “Live long and prosper,” he said, “I like it.” “Live long and prosper,” you said.

Sun 8 Mar 2020
As she introduced the Purim Shpiel, the rabbi encouraged everyone to eschew shaking hands. Later, a fellow Hebrew school dad reached out to shake yours. You proffered an elbow. He bumped it begrudgingly. “You must be from Oberlin,” he said, with a dismissive smile. Meaning, presumably, that taking science seriously requires leftist inculcation. L’esprit de l’escalier still hasn’t arrived. “It’s true, I am,” you said.

Mon 9 Mar 2020
Part of Emmett’s homework: “Explain how the unfair laws described in the introduction of the book had an effect on Thurgood Marshall’s life.” His answer: “He was soper mad at the white peapole ho did not alaw brown pepole to go to thar restrants.” True. Fair enough. COVID-19 is now in Ohio. Three cases, Cuyahoga County. Not yet a red dot on the Johns Hopkins University map. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Tue 10 Mar 2020
Outside your office, a coughing fit, then hawked-up sputum, then quiet. The U.S. has 971 confirmed cases. You sent Emily a Crimson lede: “Harvard Moves Classes Online, Asks Students Not to Return After Spring Break In Response to Coronavirus.” “Holy shit,” she replied. “Crap.” The list of Ivies charting the same course grows: Princeton, Yale, more. Then an emergency confab, and Oberlin, after break, will follow suit.

Wed 11 Mar 2020
Your children’s bus driver says the schools might close. Someone’s been swiping hand sanitizer dispensers from Peters Hall, the building manager said. Probably selling them on the black market, he joked. Word of mouth: hoarding toilet paper; student riots in Dayton; a Facebook group for unsanctioned spring breaks. The cause of your sacroiliac pain, your chiropractor determined, is your unconscious fear of turning 50.

Thu 12 Mar 2020
Cuomo: Broadway ordered dark. DeWine: a three-week “extended spring break” for all Ohio schoolchildren, starting next Tuesday; Oberlin students gone by then too. Tom Hanks infected; baseball delayed; Disneyland closed. One receptionist at your doctor’s office: “We’re gonna have to start making our own toilet paper!” The other receptionist: “Ew.” Driving home, a cheddar-cheese Combos bag, empty, scuttling in the wind.

Fri 13 Mar 2020
You stopped by the Boys & Girls Club, looking for Toby. They’re also shutting down. Our lives are upended, “but I really think it’s the right decision,” you said. “It absolutely is the right decision!” said one of the teachers, wiping down tables. “We gotta stop the spread!” Faculty and staff are pulling together, but in ordinary times, a dean told you, “there’s usually a pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion going on.”

Sat 14 Mar 2020
“I have the sense of being unmoored from responsibility,” Emily said. “It’s like a storm with no storm,” you said. “It’s like waiting for a tornado,” she said. “Exactly,” you said. Emily: “I guess I’ll put on some socks and do some knitting? That sounds like a pretty good plan, right?” It did. Spain joins Italy on lockdown; first case in Lorain County; patient surge “threatens to swamp U.S. hospitals”; at dusk, snow.

Sun 15 Mar 2020
California: all seniors must shelter in place. Ohio: all restaurants closing, except for take-out. Your knuckles now sting when you wash your hands with warm water. Cleaning the natural keys of your loaner Steinway, using a non-bleach disinfecting wipe, is easy, but what about the sharps? “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Amazing Grace,” up and up, octave by octave. Pope Francis walks the Roman streets alone.

Mon 16 Mar 2020
France on lockdown. DC shuttering. San Francisco: everyone must shelter in place. First case of COVID-19 on the Oberlin campus; an employee in the dining hall, who last went to work on Wednesday. Your department chair: “Everything is radically unmoored right now.” No atheists in foxholes, no libertarians in pandemics. Your sister, on the phone: “Are you hoarding toilet paper and pasta like all other white Americans?”

Tue 17 Mar 2020
Cemetery ramble: Toby in-line skates, Emmett scooter. In the IGA, you sidled toward the granola bars; a woman who’d been a yard from you stole even further away. Was the man behind you at checkout, the one buying a case of ramen, wearing blue scrubs? Italy: “morgues are inundated, coffins pile up.” President Ambar shared a poem: “What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath—/ the most sacred of times?”

Wed 18 Mar 2020
You parked on Main, but the Feve’s front door had a note: pick up all takeout at the kitchen entrance. You drove around back in the rain. A chalkboard sign pointed the way. You entered, approached the bar. A man was ahead of you, also picking up takeout. He held up his hands to protect his face. “Stay away from me!” he said, then he relaxed. “Just kidding,” he said. “It’s all good,” you said, stepping out of his way.

Thu 19 Mar 2020
“One of the things we can do for each other is extend each other grace,” President Ambar said, closing the remote faculty meeting. “Even as we do this difficult thing. We will all be the better for it.” President Bacow, in an email: “The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world”; when we’re through this, “there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved.”

Fri 20 Mar 2020
National Guard deployments; U.S. land borders closed to nonessential travel; Italy’s death toll exceeds China’s. These headlines are written by a child mimicking the opening montage of a crap disaster flick. Breakfast: margarine on Triscuits; lunch: Laughing Cow on Cheez-Its. Emily at IGA: “There is no fucking toilet paper, flour, bread, or pasta sauce.” The joy of “Seven Nation Army,” you on piano, Toby on trombone.

Intercalated Days: A Novel

A stack of Intercalated Days manuscripts; the top one is looking for a home.

Following up on “Some Updates on My Status Updates,” from March 2019, and “A Note on Notes, an Update on Updates, a Work in Progress,” from September 2017:

I finished a draft of Intercalated Days, a novel, this past summer. Then I showed the book to Emily. She gave me edits. Which I finished responding to in October.

If you happened to have read what I wrote in March—”Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter”—that is what I did this summer. Following Instructions is the primary text, which is surrounded, or accompanied, by a secondary, contrapuntal text. In the margins, or perhaps in the gutter, depending on how you look at it.

In other words, I finished the novel after about two and a half, or maybe five, or maybe six years, depending on what I’m counting from: six years since I started writing; five years since I started editing; and two and a half years since I realized what the final thing would or could be, and began climbing the Heartbreak Hill of shaping it into the thing it has now become.

The current manuscript is about 125,000 words long, or about 300 pages. It’s already cursorily laid out in InDesign, which I realize may annoy some agents or editors, but since it’s in this kind of Talmudic – Pale FireEncyclopedia of an Ordinary Life structure, there’s no way to actually read it in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages.

It could still be accurately described, as I wrote two years ago, as “an autofiction wrapped in a writing dare wrapped in a false document” or “John Cheever meets Anne Lamott meets Sarah Manguso meets Jenny Offill.”

Here’s how I’ve rephrased those ideas in my current query email: “The elevator pitch for the book, I think, might be that it’s a John Cheever – Anne Lamott hybrid, or an autofiction enveloped in Oulipian saran wrap, packed into a false-document breakaway suit.”

Which is to say, the query emails are going out! Although I feel like I also understand more than I ever have how a manuscript, even one that takes years and years to write, can just end up in a drawer. Even if the writer thinks it might be good: I think I understand better how you could just never want to think about it again.

I’ll write updates in this space, if there are any!

Wish Intercalated Days good luck.

Here goes.

Purim Saves the Day; Or, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Mezuzah

batman and darth vader take out the trash and the recycling

I look forward to the day when the time change in the spring must happen, according to the American candy lobby, before Purim, because Purim will have become completely assimilated into the wider corporate American culture, as candy and costume manufacturers (and drugstore chains and large retailer chains etc.) will have realized that it’s a readymade Halloween II, almost perfectly spaced on the calendar (give or take a lunar month), and that it really doesn’t have to just be for kids being raised in the wonders of the Jewish revival of early twenty-first century; it doesn’t have to be just children dressing up as Esther and Haman and IDF soldiers and beyond (the beyond is key to the assimilation and corporatization, of course). Like gentile kids who go to school with Jewish kids being raised in the marvels of the Jewish revival of the early twenty-first century, corporate America will widen its eyes with wonder at the news that yes, even more marvelous than getting presents for eight nights instead of one morning is the fact of a whole other Halloween, a spring Halloween, with all the candy and all the sugar and all the sugar crashes. There will be confusion over the timing—when is the time change this year, it seems like it’s early this year, that’s because Purim is early this year and the American candy lobby (at least, in secret, or at least, in secret according to myth and Purimist conspiracy theories) controls when the time change happens because of all the money they make now on trick-or-treating for Purim, also known as Halloween II. That dastardly candy lobby! But all of this will be good for the Jews, and will wither the nasty, jealous rage of the anti-Semites whose awful power is currently on the rise in America, because it will be as if Judaism regained the power it once had, centuries ago, as a proselytizing religion: this is a rigorous club, not an exclusive one; you, too, can be a part of it; in the meantime, you and your family can participate in this rediscovered and syncretically reinvented holiday; you don’t have to figure out yourself exactly which weekend the time change is going to happen, because the time change (and Purim, and Easter, for that matter) is on your smartphone’s calendar; and also, while we’re at it, everyone needs to stop toppling headstones at night, like a bunch of racist cowards, please. We are all stronger together, not divided, like the troll farms and their authoritarian overlords would like us to be. Purim, like Esther, can save the day.

Abraham Joshua Heschel's mezuzah

PS Look, I wrote a blog post! That felt good. Although writing this, I realize it may become a part of an essay I am hoping to write. Topics touched on may or may not include and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s office-door mezuzah at the Jewish Theological Seminary, shown here in this picture I took on December 5, 2016 (quoting Emily’s and my ketubah, using text that appears in the ketubah template in the back of Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now, “as we customarily count time“). The essay may also reference Arnold Eisen’s talk “The Blessing of Assimilation—Then and Now.”

PPS See also the Danny Trejo monologue from Reindeer Games (which is hilarious in context, but isn’t really at all funny taken out of context): “It says here the retail industry does 50% of its business between December 1st and December 25th. That’s half a year’s business in one month’s time. It seems to me, an intelligent country would legislate a second such gift giving holiday. Create, say, a Christmas 2, late May, early June, to further stimulate growth.”

PPPS See also: “The daylight saving time debate makes headlines for a few days each year, but I’m skeptical that there’s enough political will to modify the system that has largely been used for decades (a few tweaks to DST start and end dates notwithstanding).”

Chag Sameach

I was walking out of Phelps Hall after teaching my Reading Fiction for Craft class. An Orthodox Jew—a Chabadnik, a Lubavitcher, I’m guessing, since he was doing outreach—approached me with a lulav and an etrog. Excuse me, he said, are you Jewish? I am! I said, Chag Sameach! During the brief time that I was both a Jew and a Brooklynite, I never really wanted to deal with these guys, but tonight, I welcomed it. Chag Sameach, he said, you have time for a quick mitzvah? I do! I said. He put the lulav in my hand. Repeat after me, he said, and we said the lulav blessing. Halfway through the prayer I realized out of the corner of my eye that he had a partner who was also asking passers-by if they were Jewish. Then he put the etrog in my other hand, and we said the Shehechiyanu. The Chabadnik seemed like a happy teacher when I caught up with him in the prayer, when I wasn’t just repeating after him. I thanked them for the mitzvah. Now my right hand smells like etrog, like I’ve been holding a lemon, except something different, more exotic, something sweeter than a lemon. I don’t want to wash my hand.

My Losing Limerick

I wrote the following for a holiday limerick contest on Facebook. Alas, it lost:

Christmas lights on an evergreen tree,
A roaring fire, drinks après-ski.
A ham in the range,
Plus presents exchanged.
Wait, we’re Jewish! Quick—order Chinese!

Unexpected Houseguests; or, Tablet, River Styx, P&W, Fence, Cincy, WBSSSC; or, a Good News Omnibus

Goodness, I feel like I have houseguests whom I maybe should have expected were going to come over, but for whatever reason did not.

What I mean is: this Web site, my personal site, usually gets about one or two visitors a day, according to Google Analytics. This is somewhat by design: as you can see if you know how to read the source code of a Web page, I’ve got my Robots meta tag set up according to the Robots exclusion standard.

<code><meta name=’robots’ content=’noindex,nofollow’ /></code>

So it’s surprising and wonderful that 52 unique visitors stopped by last Tuesday—all but one linking from my bio at the bottom of “Memorial Day,” the essay I wrote for the wonderful Tablet magazine.

Even the two days after that were record-breaking for tomhop.com, at least in recent memory—17 visitors on Wednesday, 7 on Thursday.

I’m delighted by the response to the essay. I’ve gotten so many kind and thoughtful notes from friends and family who’ve read it. There may be thoughtful responses elsewhere, but given how personal the piece is, and given the sort of trolls that like to lurk around tabletmag.com, I’m determined not to read any of the 18 comments that have been posted to the piece since it was published.

Also interesting, and perhaps unsurprising, is the fact that suddenly my “Judaica” category of posts got very popular last week.

So here’s one big way in which I’m unprepared for unexpected houseguests: I’ve been neglecting to post all kinds of good news about recent publications, not just about Tablet:

—My story “When the Immigrant Is Hot,” which was a finalist for the Schlafly Beer Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction Contest, is in issue #85 of River Styx, which came out this past spring;

—I wrote an article called “Network: How to Use LinkedIn to Connect With Your Community,” which is in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers—the full article is readable online;

—My story “What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird” is in the current issue of Fence—you can read it either in the print version (v. 14, #1-2) or online, on Fence’s excellent new Web site;

—My stories “Our Libretto Conundrum,” “The Songs Our Local Birds Always Sing,” and “Catching the Rollers” will be in the next issue of The Cincinnati Review (I’m just reading the galleys now);

—My story “The Coat My Mother Gave Me,” which was a finalist for the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest, will be in Southeast Review v. 30, #1, which I think will come out next spring (I just signed off on galleys earlier today).

Phew!

And if you’ve never been to my site before, and you came here for the first time because you read my essay in Tablet, or any of the above articles, welcome, and thanks for visiting! The digs are modest, but I’m awfully glad you stopped by.

The Wind Chime of God

Do you know the book Bagels for Benny (by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dušan Petričič, Kids Can Press, 2003)? It’s really great. Benny helps out in his grandfather’s bakery; the grandfather tells Benny that his customers shouldn’t really thank him for his bagels, but instead should thank God, since God made the wheat from which they’re made; to thank God, Benny starts taking bagels and secretly putting them in the ark at their synagogue every week, where they promptly disappear (Benny and his grandfather eventually discover that a homeless man has been eating them; it’s the mitzvah of anonymously helping someone get back on his or her feet).

When the grandfather discovers what Benny’s been up to, they have this conversation:

“What are you doing?” Grandpa bellowed.
Benny spun around.
“Grandpa!” he gasped. “I’m thanking God.”
“You’re putting bagels in God’s Holy Ark!” cried Grandpa.
“But he likes the bagels,” insisted Benny. “Every week He eats them all.”
“Oh, Benny!” Grandpa laughed. “God doesn’t need to eat. He doesn’t have a mouth or a stomach. He doesn’t even have a body.”

The last time I read the book to Toby, when we got to this line, Toby said, “God does have a mouth!”

I told Toby (and I’m paraphrasing myself here), “No, he doesn’t—God isn’t a person. God is—well, the idea of God means different things to different people. He’s—”

Toby interrupted me. “He’s a monster,” he said. “He’s a kangaroo. He’s a blanket. He’s a yogurt. He’s a crown.”

I quickly jotted those things down. Then I asked Toby what else God was. “He’s a wind chime,” he said. “He’s a giraffe. He’s a cup of tea.”

All of which, I believe, is—from many, although not all, theological vantage points—entirely correct.

Notes on Mug’s Games

1) From last week’s New Yorker, from David Remnick’s lead Talk of the Town essay (“A Man, a Plan,” on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu):

Psychobiography in politics is ordinarily a mug’s game.

2) Which sent me to Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, which is where I remember first encountering the phrase; he mentions it in “Bourgeois in Bohemia,” an essay that I think started out as a review of the first volume of The Letters of T.S. Eliot:

The public Eliot who emerges at the end of these letters is a survivor—wise but disillusioned, socially astute but cold, stiffly middle-aged at thirty-four. He saw literary life as petty and sordid. ‘Poetry is a mug’s game,’ he once remarked in the British English he gradually adopted (a mug being a dupe). By 1922 Eliot had resolved to be a mug no longer. He negotiated lucrative deals for his books and plays. He grew modestly wealthy by giving readings and lectures. And he advised every youth who would listen to avoid poetry as a career. He knew too well its emotional cost. The Greek Nobel Prize laureate George Seferis recounted that when Eliot heard about a young man who wanted to dedicate himself to poetry, he remarked with unenviable authority, ‘He’s getting ready for a sad life.’

3) But where and when did Eliot write “Poetry is a mug’s game”? The answer is out there on the Web, but I tried to get to it the wrong way: I looked up The Letters of T.S. Eliot on Google Books—which is there, but its content, unless I’m missing something, is not searchable.

4) So I looked in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th edition, pre-Justin Kaplan), and got this (from p. 809, quote 19; the citation is from the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism):

As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

5) So it’s British English idiom—but what meaning of “mug”? Emily wanted to know. So I looked in her compact OED. From page 1129, from the fifth meaning of the word mug:

1.a. A stupid or incompetent person, a ‘muff’, ‘duffer’; a fool, simpleton; a card-sharper’s dupe. slang.

And:

b. mug’s game, a thankless task; a useless, foolish, or unprofitable activity. colloq.

6) From the next paragraph in the Gioia essay:

Much of the difficulty Eliot faced in early adulthood came from his inability to distance himself from his parents’ bourgeois Republican values. Although Eliot wanted to become a poet, he never expected to give up his comfortable standard of living. While Pound contently accepted an existence at subsistence level, hardly worrying about next month’s rent or this week’s groceries, Eliot could not bear even the possibility of economic uncertainty. What Pound saw as la vie bohème, Eliot viewed as squalid poverty. In his twenties he already worried over life insurance and retirement savings.

7) You should see Barney’s Version. Toby’s wonderful babysitter came over this past Saturday night; Emily and I went to see it at Upstate Films over in Rhinebeck. It’s really good.

8) I searched for the phrase “blogging is a mug’s game” on Google; yes, unsurprisingly, more than one person has written this on the searchable Web already.

9) From my phone interview with Edward Albee five years ago; this, understandably, didn’t make it into the article I wrote for Poets & Writers about the Albee Foundation. This wasn’t off the record, so I think it’s okay to reproduce it here:

Albee: February […] is the cruelest month in Montauk. Where all the suicides take place. All the fishermen kill themselves in February.
Me: That’s terrible.
Albee: It’s the cruelest month. What did Eliot know.
Me: He was over in London, he had no idea.
Albee: But he was from America. You’d think he’d remember about February.
Me: Maybe it was somewhat different out in the Midwest, where he was from.
Albee: I suppose, yes. Where was he from?
Me: He was originally from someplace like southern Illinois.
Albee: Oh was he? That’s pretty bad. Oh well, that’s practically in the South.
Me: So you can see why he ran away, I guess.
Albee: Yeah. Boy did Ozick try to damage his reputation.
Me: Who did?
Albee: Cynthia Ozick tried to really damage Eliot’s reputation by hitting hard on that specifically British anti-Semitism of his.
Me: He’s got a lot of detractors.
Albee: I know—but just read the poetry.
Me: You’d hope that it would stand separate from the person.
Albee: If we only liked the work of nice writers, we’d be nowhere.

10) Thinking about the conflict between bourgeois values and bohemian values makes me think of something Walter Mosley says at the end of the first chapter of This Year You Write Your Novel:

Straightforward procrastination is an author’s worst enemy, but there are others: the writer who suddenly has chores that have gone undone for months but that now seem urgent; the diarist who develops a keen wish to write about her experiences today instead of writing her book; the Good Samaritan who realizes that there’s a world out there that needs saving; the jack-of-all-trades who, when he begins one project, imagines ten others that are equally or even more important.

Forget all that. Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls.

But we own, Mr. Mosley! What will peeling paint do to the resale value?

11) As I’ve written elsewhere, today is the birthday of Matthew Broderick, Bridget Jones, and me.

12) I don’t quite know where I’m going with all this, but I do think I need to take a break from sending out short stories to literary journals and contests. Maybe a year off. Which is, I’m guessing, not an idea for an “I did X for a year!” book.

But it might buy me back quite a bit of time.

See also: “Something versus Nothing,” “Only Half an Hour.”

Nu Mettle

(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, four of five.)

From The Finkler Question, p. 177 in the Bloomsbury paperback: Julian Treslove is the protagonist, who, at this point in the novel, although not born Jewish, feels like perhaps he is Jewish; Finkler and Libor are two old friends, both born Jewish, both men Jewish in very different ways (Finkler very British, I think, and self-loathing, and a famous philosopher; Libor much older than Treslove or Finkler, and their former teacher, and a former film critic, and very Czech). Hephzibah is Treslove’s new girlfriend, also born Jewish, and Libor’s great-great niece by marriage. Here, Treslove has recently moved in with Hephzibah, and Libor and Finkler are coming over for dinner:

When Libor arrived, Treslove truly felt outnumbered. Hephzibah exerted an unexpected influence on his two guests—she dissolved their Jewish differences.

‘Nu?’ Libor asked of Finkler.

Treslove wasn’t sure if that was the way to report it. Do you ask ‘Nu’ of? Or do you just ask, transitively? ‘Nu?’ he asked. And is it even a question in the accepted sense? ‘Nu,’ he said. Would that have been better? Nu, meaning how are things with you, but also I know how things are with you.

So much to master.

I like how the work of the writer and the thoughts of the protagonist blur there momentarily in wondering about how to attribute the quote. I like what follows, too:

But the surprise was that Finkler answered in kind. When there had been no Hephzibah he had castigated Libor for his Jewish barbarisms, but today he twinkled like a rabbi. ‘A halber emes izt a gantzer lign,’ he said.

‘A half truth is a whole lie,’ Hephzibah whispered to Treslove.

‘I know,’ he lied.

Too Cool for Shul

(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, two of five.)

Walking up the stairs to my office at my new job the other day, I walked past two boys talking; I couldn’t say for sure how old they were (nine, maybe ten?—I’ll understand these nuances in 2018; in the meantime, I know very well the differences between, say, 21 months and 24 months, 15 months and 12):

I mean, I will have a Bar Mitzvah. And I read Torah every once in a while. But I’m not religious.