Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Panic, Panic, Panic

Have you ever heard of the phrase, "when in doubt, panic?"  An awful piece of advice that I am ashamed to say I seem to live by. When my kids get up late for school, I panic. When my meat sauce starts to burn, I panic. When I send a question to my publisher and don't get a swift reply, I panic. When I'm forced to speak in Hebrew, I double panic.

I remember the first time I panicked. It was third grade and I had forgotten to have my parents sign a homework slip. The punishment was a visit to the principal's office. I remember how my hands grew sweaty and my back stiffened waiting for the teacher to discover my 'crime'. Luckily for me, there was a fire drill at that exact moment and I got away with turning in the slip the next day.

I used to think panic was an important survival instinct; a signal that danger was looming nearby when really all I was feeling was anxiety, plain and simple. I've discovered that anxiety is fear dressed up as logic in my mind. It tells me I'm being, safe, responsible, and cautious by panicking. The problem is, I'm not using logic, but fear to make some of my decisions.

Let's take fire for example. We were all taught as children to never play with fire. The dangers of fire are real and extremely harmful.  Logic tells us to stay away from extreme heat and gases. As a mother, I tell my girls to be careful with matches and the stove. However, anxiety takes that and runs with it, telling me to stay away from anything that could cause a fire, like cooking, lighting the grill, using the drier, plugging in wires, lighting candles, and curious children who are drawn to the dangerous side of life. Anxiety says if we want to be safe, we need to get rid of or stop using these things. I will start with my children; just kidding, don't panic. I overcome the anxiety and will manage to keep my kids, along with the oven, drier, computer, etc.

This past week, however, my panic was in overdrive. There was unrest in Israel, the country I live in, as rockets were fired into the central and southern region. Sirens were going off, and bomb shelters were opened in various cities. My anxiety warned me to stay inside, forget about the shopping and taking the kids to their after-school activities. A siren could go off, and then what would I do?  I knew what I would do, I would panic. Not a very useful reaction to have in such a moment.

Safety is important and negligence can cause serious harm. But panic is not a guide for living through difficult moments. It doesn't have my best interests at heart. Panic doesn't make any situation better, in fact, it pretty much makes everything worse.  So here's to letting go of panic, or more realistically, hoping it lets go of me.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

What Do Birds Have To Do With Bees?

I came across an article recently that discourages talking about sexuality with children and teens, especially girls. It claimed it was “immodest” and “inappropriate.” As a social worker and mother to three daughters, I must take a stand.  I understand the topic of sexuality makes people a little squeamish. So, if this is a topic that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading. Still with me? Let's press on.

What do birds have to do with bees? Just some of the questions I often wondered but never felt comfortable asking growing up. Conversations about sexuality were discouraged or even punishable offenses in my youth. In sixth grade, my school brought in a woman to speak with us about puberty. The woman spoke about life changes, sanitary napkins and the importance of wearing deodorant. We all were squirming in our seats, wishing for the speech to end, but it only got worse. "Girls," she said, "I'm sure you have sleepovers where you talk about boys. This is dangerous. If you speak about boys, it’s not okay, it can lead you to do inappropriate things with them. For the sake of your future, forget boys exist.” I heard one message that day, sexuality is shameful.

This is not what we should be teaching our girls or boys. Instead, a different message should be given -sexuality is normal, healthy, even beautiful, just don't act on it... yet.
I can already hear the gasps. We can't teach our children that. Surely you don't mean what you're saying. Oh, but I do! Delayed gratification is a wonderful concept we teach our children all the time. My favorite example of this is baking a cake. Let's say I've just put a cake in the oven and my daughter walks into the room. She sniffs the air and says aloud, "yummy, I want cake." I respond, "cake, who told you about cake? You can't have cake, you're not ready for cake!  Don't ask again until you’re eighteen. Then we can talk about you eating cake."

Now let's try this exchange instead.

My daughter walks into the room and she sniffs the air saying "yummy, I want cake." And I say.  “Sit down, and we will talk about cake." We sit down at the table and I ask my daughter, "tell me why you want cake?" My daughter says, "because I'm hungry, and it smells good."

"You’re right, it will be good, but the cake isn’t ready for eating yet. Let’s think of things we can do in the meantime while we wait for the cake to finish baking and cool off, so it does not burn us.”

Positive discussions about sexuality will help our children know there is something worth waiting for. Refusing to bring up the topic based on concerns of modesty leads to fear of the subject. People often confuse the concept of modesty and decency. What's the difference? Modesty refers to what should be kept hidden or refrained from. Decency is what is proper. For instance, one wears clothing in public to be both modest and decent. But while it might be immodest to go without clothing in the shower it is most certainly decent. Discussions of sexuality is not a modesty issue.  Modesty is wonderful and it has an important place in our lives, but the connotation of modesty is to cover, hide and refrain from. Framing the reason for delaying sexuality as a modesty issue will stay with our children well into marriage. Do we really want our children to feel ashamed, uncomfortable, or immodest for sharing and revealing themselves to their spouse when there it is a perfectly decent setting to do so? The distinction is important.

Sadly, I’ve read many books on the topic of marriage that don't even cover intimacy. Worse still, I’ve attended a class that was supposed to cover the topic of intimacy, but the speaker began by saying, "I won't be going into any inappropriate material due to the sensitivity of the audience."  I learned one thing from her class; that sexuality is immodest, but I already knew that since sixth grade.

Children can tell the difference between a park and a cemetery, even though both have green grass. Children know that they are supposed to wear a bathing suit at a pool even though they go without clothing in the bathtub. And they can also learn that what is decent between spouses might not be decent between sixteen-year-olds.

We should work to reframe the discussion with our youth around sexuality. We can and should stop the cycle of shame and ignorance. Too many dysfunctional marriages are the result of this approach. I'm starting with my girls. I hope you will join me.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Are You My Character?

Many people have asked me how I form the characters in my books. The answer is somewhat simple, everyday life is my inspiration. I pull from my family, friends, neighbors, teachers, store clerks, flight attendants, telemarketers, waiters,  movie stars, fictional characters, pets; essentially everyone I've ever encountered.

When characters pop into my mind they start out as someone I know, but they quickly morph into their own being. For example, the character may have the same hair color as my friend, my cousin's accent, the flight attendant's smile, and the telemarketer's tenacity. I never let my characters mimic too much of just one person. They usually are a glorious hodgepodge, shoved into a personality blender to create a unique person that only exists in fiction.

I also draw from experiences and memorable situations. If my character receives bad news, I think of a time when my heart was broken. When my character is embarrassed, I think of the occasions where my cheeks reddened.  I recall the time I first held my daughter when I think of love. I envision Thanksgiving dinner when I think of food. Every memory becomes material for a scene.
Something I have learned about my characters through real-life interactions is that people just don't fit 'the molds' we often have in mind. Men can be sensitive and woman can be strong. This isn't simply about breaking stereotypes, it's about being human. Humans have many emotions and reactions. A person may laugh at a funeral or cry at a football game. Both are possible. Someone might receive bad news during the game, causing tears. Someone may make a joke during a eulogy that can bring about laughter. Having characters react in surprising ways is part of the fun in writing and reading.

So are you a character in my story? Most certainly! Or at least part of you is. Here's looking at you, store clerk, calling me an idiot for writing down my new phone number incorrectly.  And the person who told me I look better pregnant. To the girl who surprised me on my sixteenth birthday with balloons when I thought everyone had forgotten. And the man who called two synagogues to locate me and return my purse. You are all in my stories in some form or another.

The good, the bad and the funny, that is what books are made of. If you match one of my characters, remember it's probably a coincidence, as they are usually three or more people combined. You are an inspiration though, each and every one of you; an inspiration that I draw on every time my fingers touch the keys.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Candy Crush

Purim is my favorite holiday. Who doesn't love the costumes, festive meal and all the candy? Bring on the joy and....the calories. I have celebrated Purim in many different ways: Eat every treat presented, eat none of the treats presented, eat a few treats, refrain for a while and proceed to eat a few more because who really can stop at just one yummy treat? Not me. 

I'm sure you have heard the old saying it's not what you eat, but how much. Having a square of chocolate is fine. Having a dozen squares of chocolate is not so fine. Why oh why can't we stop at one square of chocolate? The answer is...dopamine. The pleasure neurotransmitter.

Dopamine is released into our body whenever we engage in a pleasurable activity (ie., eating treats.) What is worse, high levels of sugar in the bloodstream can lead your body to crave more sweets and sugar. So the cycle continues; crave sweets, eat sweets, crave more, etc.

How do we exit the sugar wheel? Purchase a one-way ticket. I take one Purim treat for eating, then place the rest of the candy on a hard to reach shelf.  I can't have three candy bars if I can't reach them. (A perk of being short.)

The second trick is to fill a plate up with treats. That's right, fill 'er up. There is a catch, you knew it was coming, the treats have to be different types. Make one section chocolate, the other fresh fruit, the third popcorn, and the fourth veggies and dip. Yes, veggies can be a treat, especially dipped in yummy hummus or ranch dressing.

There is one last option, it's the best... and worst. Don't get on the sugar wheel to begin with. Your body will thank you, your willpower will increase, and while everyone is complaining of the Purim sugar overhang, you will be blissfully maintaining that healthy stride.

Some  healthy treats include:
  • Nuts:  Almonds, cashews, walnuts, unsalted peanuts, and pistachios.
  • Fruit: Strawberries, apples, oranges, kiwi, persimmon.
  • Popcorn
  • Cut veggies with dip: tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, pepper and baby corn. (Buy the dip, no need to go crazy)
  • Yogurt with muesli, (oats, two tablespoons of raisins, cinnamon) 

These are the ways I found to stay healthy on Purim. One piece of cake, one hamantaschen, have some veggies, eat some fruit. Binge on joy, get high on laughter. Hide the candy from the children (and myself). Start thinking about Pesach. Freak out. Shove some popcorn into my mouth, take a deep breath. Isn't Purim wonderful?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

When Trash Becomes Treasure

Don't throw out your trash! Your word trash, that is. So often as writers, we write whole paragraphs, even pages, and simply discard them because we think nothing good will come out of the draft we have written. We delete it an turn it into rubble. But we're wrong to do this. There is plenty of good waiting to come forth from trashed drafts. Save the rubble in what I call the "rubble writing file." A file I often pull from when writing gets tough.

I began making a rubble file because I became sick of rewriting deleted scenes that I found useful later on in a book. I have rewritten deleted scenes so many times that my wrists hurt. Finally, I got smart and started saving the discarded ideas. Those ideas have become my treasures.

Unlike bagged lettuce and grudges, old stories and scenes can and do get better with time. I've been asked by fellow writers what to do with work that feels like typed dribble. I say; press save! I know your work might read poorly, too many cliches and adverbs might be taking over the page.  Press save and step away. Work on something else.  Make dinner, watch a show, help the kids with their homework. Come back, and take another look at your work. Often, the scene that wasn't gelling, comes together in a carpool run. When your eyes are rested, I think you'll find the work is far from trash.  Maybe the work won't be right for your story or that particular scene.  Place it in the rubble file. You never know when it will be needed.

Writing is exercise.  All exercise is good for the body and all writing is good for a writer. Somedays you will feel like your characters are running away and taking the plot with them. What your characters are doing is writing a story you haven't conceived of yet. Save the work, it might be the beginning of your next book.

Never, I repeat, never, is writing ever trash. If nothing else it is a journey we have to take with our characters; a journey our story had to travel to know the path needed to bend another way. I no longer look at drafts as dribble but as clay to be prodded and sculpted and moved to the desired location. My advice, save your writing "trash." It just might become your treasure.