Being a Jew on Christmas

December 22nd 2013

When I was a kid, Christmas was the most boring day of the year. Of course, everything building up to Christmas was great. Making holiday decorations in school (My second-grade teacher gave us the option of decorating a Ziggy cut-out to either make him look like Santa or a rabbi, depending on your religion, before hanging them up on the corkboard outside the classroom. Try doing that now.); watching Frosty the Snowman on television; eating candy canes; Hanukkah! (it usually came before Christmas); and our school holiday party. All that holiday stuff was awesome.

And then came actual Christmas day. What a yawn fest. You see, for a little Jewish girl, there was never anything to do. My mom was a nurse (still is) and she always volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas. After all, we didn’t have a party to go to or church to attend and she got time-and-a-half (still does). So my dad stayed home with my brother and me while we surfed the basic channels for something, anything to watch that wasn’t the Twilight Zone (although that usually won out). All the stores were closed. None of the other kids were available to play, assuming they were opening gifts somewhere. Our Hanukkah toys lost their novelty. The weather felt cold and drab. My dad was probably in charge of dinner, which couldn’t have boded well for us kids. Even my grandparents went to Atlantic City every Christmas, leaving their bored grandkids behind.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood what us Jews actually did on Christmas. Chinese food and the movies?! I want in. That sounds fun. Better than Twilight Zone marathons. How do I get in on that? It’s not like I didn’t grow up with other Jewish kids. I was raised in the NYC metro area. But while other Jewish kids in my neighborhood were seeing the latest movie at the Metroplex, my brother and I were stranded at home without a way to get there (at this point, my father also worked Christmas).

Perhaps, it was all those Christmases feeling left out of the fun that I started to fantasize what Christmas must’ve been like for all those people who celebrated it. As a kid, my best friend’s house became a gingerbread wonderland. Her mom made popcorn balls and always embellished our hot cocoa with candy canes. I imaged her family went to festive parties where everyone wore snugly sweaters, drank egg nog, and sang carols around a piano. You know, a Hallmark movie.

In college, my then boyfriend invited me to his house for Christmas. Finally, a chance to get in on this magical holiday. You should’ve seen my surprise when they spent most of Christmas watching TV, only to then split immediately after dinner for the movies. Wait. You’re allowed to do that? On Christmas? Apparently, people were breaking some Christian-Christmas rules I had made up in my head and it was ruining my idolized version of the holiday.

Years later, when I was dating my now-husband, I got to experience an Italian Christmas. But then this too threw me off. Their big celebration was on Christmas Eve. And they ate nothing but seafood, until midnight when they produced a plate of sausage. I think the biggest kicker was that my inlaws did not wrap their gifts. Why? Because Santa doesn’t wrap gifts, a tradition passed down from my mother-in-law’s childhood. What’s a Jewish girl to think?

Now that I’m a grown-up with an interfaith family of my own, we get to celebrate Christmas the way we want to, the way I want to and I’m not gonna lie, I aim for some Hallmark-y things. Bob plans the seafood menu a year in advance, making adjustments and tweaks as he sees fit. (The man is passionate about food.) We hang our stockings on our mantle and for the last few years, we’ve gone out and cut down a tree. We light a fire in our fireplace and stuff our selves senseless. The boys have matching Christmas pjs this year too. And we wrap our gifts because I want to see my kids tear into the paper. (I love the suspense). After the kids go to sleep, we all take a turn opening our presents and oohing and ahing. Then the following morning, we wake and have a big breakfast. The kids open their Santa gifts and then we all get gussied up and drive to Staten Island for more celebrating.

But our celebration is no Normal Rockwell painting. We don’t always get around to hanging Christmas lights, especially this year with the weather. And this is the first year, I’ve ever bought egg nog and I’ve been drinking it in the morning before my coffee. Not very festive-like. And we don’t have a piano and I never play Christmas music.

Maybe this post should be titled ‘Being This Jew on Christmas’ because my experiences are obviously unique to me. As a kid, I never got to celebrate the Norman Rockwell Christmas, but who does? As a parent, I’m establishing traditions unique to my interfaith family. Depending on when Hanukkah falls, it could mean having latkes with our rice balls. Or egg nog with my Manishewitz. And when my kids are teens, it could mean a matinee after presents. Whatever. It’s all good because it’s ours.

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WHALE: POD as ???!!!

December 9th 2013

So my very smart, straight-laced hubby is applying to a doctoral program and despite already having a master’s degree, the poor man needs to take an entrance exam. Either the GREs (which are too long and *waaa* require remembering math n’ stuff – says the engineer) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) which are only an hour-ish long and require nothing more than a decent knowledge of ……trivia. I’m simplifying things, obviously. The exams assesses knowledge of everything from art to philosophy to mythology and their relationship to one another. It’s not an easy test to take, especially for a man who doesn’t read anything except sports blogs and the occasional article in The Federal Times. *salutes love of my life* Good luck with that.

Here’s a test example I remember best: (I’m making up the answers except for the right one)

POD : WHALE :: (      ) : CROW (to be read as Pod is to whale as (blank) is to crow.)

a. school

b. murder

c. flock

d. herd

The answer……tada…B – Murder. Yeah, baby. And who knew that? This girl. (And a bunch of my writerly friends that I asked.) Because I read and I remember stuff that I read. Of course, ask me what I had for dinner last night and I probably need 10 minutes to recall. Ask Bob what we ate and he’ll recall the ingredients and the amounts.

I had a lot of fun reading Bob’s practice questions. I was proud at how much ridiculous knowledge I have stored in my brain — knowledge gained from being a voracious reader. Truthfully, Bob will do very well on the MAT test because my husband is crazy smart and manages to just be that guy who does well on all things. I kinda wish I could take the test too just to see how well I’d do. Because I’m pretty sure I’d wiped the floor with him and there’s not too many things I can say that about.

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Act 2 — the writer worries

December 6th 2013

So I’m currently editing Act 2 of my debut novel and it’s slow going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m making progress, but I feel like my Act 1 edits were a cake-walk compared to all the rewriting I am doing now. My editor pointed out some major romance flaws that I am slowly improving. I feel like I’m cooking a complex recipe in that I need to beef up the romance and leave out the cheese. And while I love to devour cheese of all kinds in real life, I hate to read it. Cheesy romance makes me want to gag.

My editor is encouraging and critical and the story is levels above where it was. But I worry about the time. I’m 18 weeks pregnant and I don’t want to be (to paraphrase my friend, Stephen) knee-deep in edits while I’m pushing out a baby. It’s also the holiday season which means things slow down considerably. One of my boys isn’t in school as much as I’d like and impending Poconos snow means school could be closed anyway. I wrote this novel during nap time and I’ve been revising it during nap time too. I guess I’m going to have to forgo my nightly television routine in order to finish my edits because it took me 2 days just to revise 15 pages!

I think I’m just super anxious about all the fun stuff that comes with getting a novel published. The cover design. A release date. Bookmarks! So, I’m like, “Come on, Kim. Hussle.” Also, this fetus keeps growing and has an expiration date. It will want out at some point, book or no book.

Any writers out there? How long does it take you to edit? And is your Act 2 always the hardest part to revise?

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Crit’ing someone else’s work

November 24th 2013

I just finished critiquing my CP’s fantastic historical fantasy novel and I don’t know who to be more proud of — Leandra for writing a very clever and heart-racing piece of spec fic, or me for using my child-induced-mush-brain for pointing out some slight characterization flaws and inconsistencies. No…definitely Leandra. She did write a splendid work of fiction and she’s a mom too and she works full-time. I give her all the credit in the world. In fact, I give chocolate and teddy bears to anyone who writes a novel while trying to balance work and family and life. Because damn, this writing shit is hard. Especially when your brain only functions on six hours of interrupted sleep and a meager cup of coffee.

It truly is an honor to critique another author’s work. Not only does that author trust you enough to read their baby, but they actively seek your opinion. Admittedly, sometimes I don’t think I am the nicest CP. My comments probably come across as harsh, especially when I’m saying things like, “Nah-uh. No way. Take this out” or “delete. delete. delete.” But Leandra was a great sport and a true talent and I am very much in awe of her.

I also channeled a lot of my Red Adept editor when making notes. I found myself writing things like, “unpack this.” (Thanks, Kris!) And I kept pushing for more emotional digging. How does everyone feel?

The glory of being a CP is that you automatically write better yourself. It’s really hard to make mistakes you’ve pointed out to others. So anyone who wants to be a serious writer, please find yourself a good writing buddy and read and comment on their work. Doing so is crucial to the quality of your own work.

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The accidental sleuth

November 12th 2013

Lately, I’ve been on a hunt for YA historical mysteries and coming up….well, sort of empty-handed. After reading The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, a suspenseful YA historical mystery about a girl uncovering the reason her mother’s grave is encased in a cage, I’ve been wanting more books like it, but I’m struggling. I’m sort of fussy, I guess. The reason I loved The Caged Graves so much was because it mixed my favorite elements of a good mystery — an unusual premise (caged graves?!), a headstrong heroine, third-person POV, forensic science, and an accidental sleuth.

There is something about a protagonist stumbling upon a mystery, a character completely unprepared for what’s ahead of him/her, that I find to be so compelling. I love mysteries, but I’ve never enjoyed the detective story. I don’t have a penchant for a character whose job is to solve crimes for a living. I am much more interested in the protagonist (usually women because they are often underestimated, especially in historical contexts) who tries to puzzle out the mystery because of her proximity to the crime or because a resolution to the crime is important to her own well-being.

Some of the books I’ve read recently are: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee — a YA historical mystery set in 1850s London with a strong female protagonist and a devilishly handsome romantic lead; The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman — a YA historical mystery set in Victorian London featuring multiple POVs and truly wicked villains; and A Place of Confinement by Anna Dean — an adult historical mystery set in 1807 England with a spinster-in-the-making protagonist whose role as companion to her crabby aunt allows her to investigate a woman’s disappearance. Aside from A Spy in the House, these books have accidental sleuths — women who get thrown into a mystery and who must use their smarts to solve a mystery for their own benefit whether it’s to save their own skin or the life of someone they love.

The book I am editing now for my publisher is a mystery and, depending on your opinion of the 1990s, could be considered historical. It’s also, at its core, a romance. I also have two WIPs in the queue that are mysteries. One is set in the 1950s and the other is set in present-day — both with historical elements and all with accidental sleuths.

So, can anyone recommend some excellent historical mysteries (preferably YA) with accidental sleuths and a giant wedge of romance?

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