Monday, April 22, 2024

The Infinite Brisket Project: A Passover Story


I received an invitation from the local Humanistic Jewish group to their Passover seder potluck. "That might be fun," I thought. "An excuse to make a brisket!" So I prepared for a trip to Costco to get a brisket.
Then I received an email from the organizer of the seder asking if I could make either a halal or kosher brisket, since there will be three observant Muslims as guests. Well sure, I can do a kosher brisket in the name of shining some light in the darkness that is the Middle East these days; the question is where I can find one. So I posted on the Triangle subreddit -- "Where can I find a kosher brisket?" It's not that I didn't want to find a halal brisket. And the event as a whole was not kosher. But apparently Muslims can eat kosher meat but not the other way around. And honestly, I go to Middle Eastern markets a lot and they skew towards halal chicken and lamb, and not much beef at all. And brisket isn't really the Official Meat of the Middle East the way it seems to be for Jews of eastern European ancestry. The best answer I got was "Ask Chabad."
So I call Chabad in Raleigh, and they say the Food Lion near them has it. Great! I call the Food Lion and they say yes, we have it. But then I remember that I have been sick since the day after I got home from Florida, and the thought of shlepping to Raleigh makes me want a nap. So I think "Where can I get one online?" And after minimal searching, Goldbelly seems like the most likely bet, and sure enough, they come through via Charm City Kosher. Of course I had to take out a small mortgage and cut off an arm to pay for it, but I was able to order a 5 lb. glatt kosher brisket to arrive Tuesday the 16th.
Then I start thinking: brisket cooks down to nothing, and there will be 40 people there. Even if only half eat brisket, that's still not a lot. And since my motto for feeding a crowd is Go Big or Go Home, I decide to get a non-kosher brisket too, just in case. And I'll label them accordingly. So I go to Harris Teeter and get their last brisket.
The next morning there's an email from UPS that my package from Goldbelly is delayed. "Shit," I think. "It's going to be thawed and ruined when it gets here because it's 80 degrees out, and then I'll have to fight with both UPS AND Goldbelly." I remembered that a friend had told me that Trader Joe's has kosher brisket. So I run over to Trader Joe's and get two 2-lb. briskets.
By this point I have spent spent almost $250 on brisket.
The next day, UPS says they'll be delivering that day. At 2 PM, the box arrives. All the dry ice is gone, but the brisket is still frozen. HUZZAH!! Except now I am here with 13 pounds of various brisket. I start thinking of who I will be able to palm some of this off on.
Thursday I start cooking. I go over my recipe with The Wifely Person to make sure that everything is OK for Passover, because if I'm going to spend all that money on kosher brisket, I'm damn well going to keep it kosher. The ketchup has sugar, not corn syrup, so that's OK. I take a break because I'm wondering what the problem with corn is, and I consult with Dr. Google about kitniyot. 
Via Exploring Judaism I learn that kitniyot are loosely translated as legumes and refer to foods like beans, corn, rice, and others. The major concern of the authorities at the time was that these items could become mixed with the prohibited items and one might accidentally eat something they shouldn't.
But it gets even better, because only Ashkenazic (Eastern European ancestry) Jews are forbidden to eat kitniyot on Passover. For Sephardic Jews (see my post on Jamaican Jewish food) it's OK. But apparently some rabbis have decided that it is OK after all to eat kitniyot on Passover. And now I am thinking that rabbis arguing for hundreds of years about what is kosher for Passover and what isn't has to be the most Jewish thing ever, because if you know one thing about Jewish people, it's that we argue about everything. The most loving Jewish families will argue. It's in our DNA.
Now at this point I have to remind you that I am not religious AT ALL. I didn't grow up religious. I don't sing the prayers because they have tunes and I don't know the tunes so even transliteration doesn't save me. I am like the goy at the shabbos dinner except that I'm supposed to know this stuff and I don't. This tends to give me very strong I Do Not Fit In Anywhere vibes, which is kind of distressing these days.
But I digress.
Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not sure if I would have needed kosher wine, but as it turns out, it doesn't matter, because I somehow remember that Muslims can't even use wine for cooking. So I have to find a substitute, and I really don't feel like running out to a grocery store for pomegranate molasses. I start thinking maybe some beef broth with some vinegar, but I then remember that most vinegar is just sour wine, and I'm not sure I can use that.
I consult various YouTube videos and web sites, where I learn a lot also about halal that I didn't know before. Different sheikhs and other experts on halal agree on vinegar about as much as the rabbis agree on kitniyot, and at this point I am thinking about the Middle East and wondering what the hell we're fighting over because aren't we awfully similar, especially the arguing? And actually, that kind of makes it all make sense when you think about it.
I call two Middle Eastern groceries and ask what vinegars are halal. The owner of one of them says he doesn't know, and the other says all vinegars are halal because they cannot make you intoxicated. And yet some of the YouTube experts said differently. 
Anyway, since at this point I want to be sure our guests can eat this brisket (assuming they aren't vegetarian but one wheelhouse at a time), because far be it for me to make matters worse. So one web site suggests cranberry juice. BRILLIANT! I just happen to have a bottle. So I mix a half-cup of cranberry juice with a half-cup of water, toss in about a teaspoon of sugar, and what I get is a reasonable approximation of cheap pinot noir from Aldi, which is my cooking wine of choice. 
At last I am prepared to make my customary brisket recipe (below, and it works for any pot roast), satisfied that it will be OK for all but the Orthodox, but this seder is for Humanistic Judaism which is kind of Judaism for atheists, agnostics, the intermarried, and other heathens. I make the recipe using the Trader Joe's briskets and four oven-hours later it's done to perfection and lo and behold, the cranberry juice worked!
I made the other brisket the next day, and brought a huge pan of brisket and carrots, with gravy consisting of the pan juices, onions and carrots pureed with an immersion blender, and people commented on how moist it is, which is really, along with cake, one of the rare times you WANT to hear the word "moist."
And you too can make this delicious brisket. Use any pot roast cut you like, it's just as delicious. Cook the onions longer than it says to; you want that sweetness when they start turning a bit brown.
For those celebrating, I wish you a zissen Pesach! And I hope that someday we can all stop arguing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

It's been a while...

 I doubt that anyone still reads this blog. After all, I haven't exactly been edifying in the last few years. I've written some things at Facebook that I just didn't have the energy to port over here, but mostly I just find that the minute I try to opine on this crazy world, all I want to do is take a nap.

October 5, 2023 marked 10 years since Mr. Brilliant departed this mortal coil.  It's hard to believe that it's been a decade. If I look at specific events, I can fathom the elapsed time, but that it is ten years and I am now closer to age 70 than 60 is simply incomprehensible. In these years, I moved to North Carolina, made new friends, retired nearly six years ago, and became eligible for Medicare. The two young cats I moved here with are now old cats, one of them likely on the cusp of hyperthyroidism. It seems impossible that it's been 10 years since I dealt with this with Maggie, and that SHE is gone nearly a decade.

I thought that the 5th this year would somehow feel different from earlier years; as if 10 years is somehow momentous. But the truth is that time is a sneaky thing. 10 years didn't feel much different from 9 or 8. Mr. Brilliant is gone, he's not coming back, and more of his things have been jettisoned every year. What I do notice is that fall, slow to come to North Carolina, has a melancholy feel that it didn't have before Mr. B. died. Perhaps it's because pushing age 70 with a steamroller is the autumn of my own life, and we all know what comes next.

It seems silly to be talking about insignificant things like how I feel about having lost a husband ten years ago when there are people being murdered in Israel and once again, it all comes down to the toxic stew of religion and politics.

I am what I call "culturally Jewish." Perhaps it's dangerous to even SAY the "J" word out loud, given the rise of neo-Naziism in not just the right-wing fringes of the hinterlands, but in the actual Republican Party leadership. Buried yesterday in the news about all-out war in Israel as the result of a suspiciously large assault by Hamas over the weekend, is the news that 23-and-Me data specifically identifying Ashkenazic Jews in the US was leaked on the dark web, which to me is an indicator that the forces of Hitleresque Naziism really ARE on the rise and this time there will be no hiding. They are no longer the fever dreams of paranoiacs like my mother, who insisted that the reason she couldn't make friends in the same town where I built a robust friendship circle after moving here 15 years later is because "they don't like Jews here." Last week there was a bomb threat at the Reform synagogue/JCC here in town, and a number of neighborhoods have seen anti-Semitic flyers distributed recently. Hatred of Jews has come to this liberal enclave in North Carolina.

My particular cultural Judaism is a function of our history, which has created an anxious people, cognizant of the fact that when push comes to shove, we are going to be blamed for everything. It has been like this for 2000 years and there are no signs that it will ever disappear.My Jewish identity is also about food, and the irony and sarcasm we carry within us, best encapsulated as "They tried to kill us, we survived, now let's eat." It's bagels and brisket and matzo ball soup and the mystery of gefilte fish which no one likes but many feel obligated to eat. It's a certain Yiddish-inflected speech pattern made famous by mid-20th century Borscht Belt comedians. It's a sense of humor so dry and often bitter that it's the verbal equivalent of the horseradish used at the passover seder. And it's a feeling deep in our souls that we are part of this long and trouble-filled thread of humanity.

Last night I happened to catch the end of "Schindler's List," a movie I've seen at least a half-dozen times in the last 30 years since its release (can it really be 30 years?). The scene where the film goes from monochrome to color, and then the Schindler Jews who were alive in 1993 and the actors who played them put stones on Schindler's grave just rips me to shreds every time. And I broke into the kind of gut-tearing sobs that I only have when it hits me yet again that Mr. Brilliant is gone and I will never see him again, and those have lessened over time. I cried for those murdered by those people who seem to always exist just to wipe Jews off the map. I cried for the relatives in old sepia home movies who returned to Poland from what may have been a visit, or may have been an immigration, only to die in the camps a few years later. I cried for the dead at the Tree of Life synagogue, and for the countless Jews and Palestinians who continue to die in this endless conflict over a piece of land in the desert. And I cried for our miserable species, that just can't seem to ever successfully harness our better natures on a large scale.

Israel Brum and Chana Jakubowicz Brum
my maternal great-grandparents
Died in one of Hitler's camps


About a week before Hamas somehow breached Israel intelligence and to date massacred nearly 2000 people in their own would-be Final Solution, The Wifely Person told me of her confidence that the increasing number of Israelis protesting the Netanyahu regime would eventually prevail, and that I should consider Israel as a safe Plan B for when, as seems inevitable, the white nationalists take over the US. I've been skeptical about just how safe it would be in a country where the autocratic corrupt leader is allied with religious fanatics as much as the would be autocratic corrupt leader in the US who wants to be restored to the White House is. The reality is, as it has always been, that if you have one drop of Jewish blood, there are always a sizable number of people who want you dead, want your children dead, and want all memory of your existence wiped from history. And I recommend you click the link above because The Wifely Person knows a lot more about the history of that piece of land than I do, even taking the religious aspect out of the equation.

I do know this, however: I know that Hamas doesn't give a rat's ass about the Palestinians. They have done NOTHING for the Palestinians. Using the Palestinian people as pawns and as human shields and an excuse to eradicate the state of Israel is vile. And violence begets violence, as we see now. But when you have babies being beheaded, and women being marched through the streets with blood flowing from between their legs because they have been raped to mutilation -- and then beheaded, and the rest of the horrors we've seen, compassion for people who have been used at pawns by butchers requires a degree of level-headedness that even the most lapsed Jew who has turned their back on the religious part of Jewish being and Jewish life, is going to find challenging.

I know that out of the gate there were those who wanted to "both sides" this; to assume that this was just another incidence of "If you poke the bear enough, sooner or later the bear will wake up" under the idea that it's up to Israel to stop this -- as if they could. As if Israel refusing to fight back when the rockets are fired from Gaza -- as if turning the other cheek, as we're always supposed to do, would work. It never has. The Jews in Germany and Poland in the 1930s tried to turn the other cheek, and look what happened to them. I'm willing to state that most of those who live in Israel would LOVE to live in a land where they don't have to be afraid; would LOVE to not have to worry about when the rockets will hit their home. But the keyword is "live." And that is something Hamas does not want.

Mr. Brilliant worked for an Israeli company for a while in early 2001. He had to go to Jerusalem, where they were headquartered, for training. He would email me telling me of sitting on his balcony at the King David Hotel watching the explosions. A few months after he returned, a Hamas suicide bomber killed 16 Israelis, including 7 children, and wounded 130 at the Sbarro pizzeria where he'd stopped while he was there most evenings for pizza on his way back to the hotel from work. But for a few weeks time, he might have died then. Kind of makes me feel thankful he made it to 2013.

The cycle of violence that has characterized the Middle East for certainly as long as I've been alive, has proven futile time after time after time after time. And I find myself feeling like the exhausted parent who says "I've had it! I don't care who started it, it stops NOW!!! Now both of you, go to your rooms until you can behave!" But there's no "both sides"-ing this. This is not about wayward children or even claims to territory. Today it is about terrorism. It is a holocaust with a lower body count (so far). And let's face it -- it's hard to argue AGAINST the existence of a Jewish state, when the desire among not just the Islamic world, but also the Christian one, to see Jews eradicated, rears its ugly head again and again and again. Whether it's through terrorism or being driven into the sea when Jesus comes back, it's always about the extermination of unconverted Jews. It has always been thus.

After 9/11, Americans rallied behind George W. Bush. I hated Bush with the fire of a thousand suns. I knew all about the National Guard business, and the Roger Stone/Matt Schlapp-masterminded Brooks Brothers Riot. In fact, an explosive Newsweek article about the Florida election shenanigans hit the newsstand the day before the attacks. But I remember saying to Mr. Brilliant, "I know we hate him, but we're stuck with him and all we can do is hope he knows what he's doing." So I can't even be in opposition to those people who were protesting a week ago but now are rallying behind the Netanyahu regime, because they may hate him, but they're stuck with him for now and hope he knows what he's doing. It's what you do when your country is under attack.  The other stuff has to be put aside for now.

It's not easy being someone with a strong Jewish soul but without the religion. I can't even describe what it is, but I know I feel it. But it's difficult, because if it's not about the whole Biblical thing, and about a deity-ordained right to a piece of land, and about the rituals, then what is it. Is it just about feelings and the generational PTSD that manifests itself in free-floating anxiety? Is it just respect for the struggles of those who came before? Or something else? I do not know. But here's what I do know. I know that my heart hurts. I know that I feel disappointed that the world is still doing this. I know now what I always denied when my mother was alive -- that there really are an awful lot of people in the world who hate me and everyone like me. And I know that I can sit here with my non-Jewish last name and my atheism/agnosticism, but that doesn't change the fact that Hamas, and Iran, and yes, the white nationalist Christian Dominionists here in the US, and all those like them, want me dead BECAUSE I AM DESCENDED FROM JEWS, irrespective of my ties to some kind of undefined Jewishness.

I admit that I am a conflict avoider and people pleaser. I spent my childhood desperately wanting quiet, in a home where there was constant fighting and screaming and arguing, followed by years when all I wanted was to avoid having my mother explode with rage over some minor infraction. I am on a break from Facebook and most cable news and have hesitated to write anything about this because the last week has made me feel like that 9-year-old that I was over a half-century ago, sitting under the kitchen stairs hugging my knees and just wishing for the screaming to stop. I'm tired. And I'm frustrated. And I am terribly, terribly sad. And I am, for really the first time in my life, terrified. Because until now I've been able to hide from the reality that a good chunk of the world wants people like me dead. There's no hiding anymore. All that's left is to hope that when they come, they make it fast.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The Movie that Changed My Life

It's hard to believe it was 25 years ago. I'd been one of those Titanic rivetheads since the age of 11, when I read A Night to Remember in the sixth grade. I remember reading the book multiple times, though I can't remember what made this story so interesting to a girl who was beginning to have crushes on boys, who'd just begun wearing a bra, and who was alas, the first in her class to sprout pimples. But it was. Perhaps that was the beginning of my social conscience.That was 1966.

Fast forward to 1997. I'd been waiting for Titanic to come out ever since I first heard that the guy who directed "Aliens" would be directing it, that Kate Winslet, who I already adored from "Sense and Sensibility" and Leonardo DiCaprio, who had already shown serious chops in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, This Boy's Life and The Basketball Diaries (all of which I'd seen) were going to star. Clearly this wasn't going to be just another throwaway treatment.

Like so many others, mostly women, I walked out of my first viewing a blubbering mess. I was 42 years old, I'd been married for a decade already, and I'd never been a starry-eyed romantic. So at first I didn't know what it was about this movie that touched me so much. I knew the background story, I had never believed in love at first sight, so what the hell was it?

In this quest to find out What It Was About This Movie, I became a writer.

The Aftermath, Part I: In Which I Become A Film Critic

When I need to work something out in my head, I start writing. And before I even knew what I was doing, I'd written my first movie review. I submitted that review of Titanic to a now-long-gone site called Virtual Urth that was looking for writers, and lo and behold -- I was brought on a film critic (unpaid, of course, as most internet writing STILL is). That one dashed-off review led to another, and then another, and then an invitation to join the Online Film Critics Society. Through the OFCS, I met a number of other online film critics,, many of whom are still toiling away decades later. I had started designing and building web sites for my REAL job, so I departed Virtual Urth and until 2005, wrote reviews at two of my own web sites, both of which no longer exist, thanks to rising hosting fees and the end of static web sites.  A bunch of us later went off and created the pretentiously-named Cinemarati: The Web Alliance for Film Commentary, which hosted a lively messageboard, held annual awards (which enabled us to get cool things like Academy Award screeners and press passes to film festivals) and showcased the best of our collective work.

I saw Titanic two more times in the theater, and by then I was a regular on all the movie messageboards. And reading what people who might not have read everything they could for the last 30 years about this particular sinking eventually made me realize what moved me so much: It was that photo montage at the end of the movie and what it symbolized. 

Over time, our Cinemarati web host was collapsing, our messageboard software and database proved to be not sufficiently robust, and we'd reached the end of my ability to manage it. So Cinemarati fell by the wayside, and in 2005, so did my nascent career as an unpaid film critic.

 But I digress.

The Aftermath, Part II: The Fictioning

I noticed something while I was reading the Titanic messageboards that bothered me, and it was the number of young women who both truly believed that Jack was Rose's One True Love and that she pined away for him forever. That this was missing the entire point of the movie, even the sledgehammer moment (in retrospect) of the "Madame Bijou" sketch, never occurred to them. Now I hadn't yet dealt with tragedy in my own life, but I was old enough to understand that life consists of a certain amount of Getting On With It. 

I'd always had a certain amount of contempt for fan fiction. I'd never been able to write fiction worth a damn myself. I had no idea how one came up with characters, never mind stories for them. Nevertheless, fan fiction, because of its pre-existing characterizations, seemed a kind of cheat -- something not really creative and a rip-off of someone else's work. I knew that fan fiction was a big thing in sci-fi circles, but in my literary snobbery (and lack of sci-fi fandom myself), I never would have considered writing any.


Titanic was a movie that spawned a thousand fan fictions, and they tended to fall into two categories: "Jack lived and they lived happily ever after" and "Rose never got over Jack and she was sad forever." I was 43 years old and I was long over being attracted to tragic love stories. Besides, this wasn't one of them. There is a short clip near the end of the movie where we see a montage of photos of Rose's life after Titanic. Of course we see her riding a horse with the Santa Monica pier in the background, but there's also a headshot, a photo of Rose in aviator gear next to an airplane, and numerous photos that indicate a life filled with travel. And THAT was the story I wanted to tell. I've always found tragic love stories to be more than a little toxic. There were always girls who had read Wuthering Heights a million times and were madly in love with Heathcliff. That wasn't me. There was a real woman, a real story in Rose and damn it, I was going to be the one to tell it. None of this pining away crap. Rose was going to Get On With It.

r/MovieDetails - In Titanic, Rose’s bedside photos are everything she was going to do with Jack. She ice fishes, learns to fly a plane, alluding to the “Come Josephine My Flying Machine” song, rides a horse like a man, and rides roller coasters until she throws up. There’s a roller coaster in the …

There was a skeleton of a story there already. For me it started in California, because I'd always been interested in the silent film era. So I did research. Lots of it. I wanted no anachronisms and I wanted to include some actual history and actual people. I found a site called Taylorology, which still exists and  that went into excruciating detail about the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the entire scandal-ridden Hollywood of the 1920s. I bought books about Iowa. I included actual shops there that appeared in those books. I included popular songs with links to sound files. And as I wrote, suddenly I was creating characters: Rose's eventual husband was named Charlie and he looked kind of like a young John Cusack. Charlie was a young widower who lived with his much-older sister Margaret who I envisioned as being Sarah Plain and Tall-vintage Glenn Close. And there were more. I'd be out in the yard planting impatiens and suddenly there was a character. It was as if they were unincarnated souls to whom I had opened my mind and they were asking me to tell their stories. And then my mind would "cast the movie," and as soon as I had the actor's voice, I had the characterization.

There were others of us -- a small army of women in their 20s through 40s, all writing our own version of that "and then what happened?" story. And some of us were pretty good. I teamed up with a young woman I'll call Kate, who was also an American social history buff who had the same vision that I did. And we came up with an outline that evolved into plans for a multigenerational sweeping family epic. We took a few liberties with the source material, but what we envisioned was a ripping yarn indeed.She was great at place and setting, and I had a way with dialogue. We'd edit each other's work and it was a truly collaborative effort.

So much of any fan fiction is abysmal, but there were a few of us who had some ability to write. I still have what some of the others from our informal little collective wrote. Some of it is pretty good. And we put it all online. I was lucky that I had a writing partner in Kate who was far more versed in web site creation than I was, and set up a beautiful site for us that was up for a very long time. And people liked it. I would get emails from people who loved what we were doing, and in fact, there is one reader from Hong Kong who STILL emails me every now and then, mostly about politics, but that's staying power.. Alas, not even the Wayback Machine has it anymore. But I do, at least the parts that I wrote.

Of course we never finished it. Just like Rose, Kate got married and had two children, and I got a job where there was actual work to do, and I was being an aspiring film critic, and then a blogger. But there was one original character who came to me and all these years later she is still wanting me to tell her story. 

This character is a young widow, and from the minute she came to me, I knew her. I felt her in my bones. Her husband dies by suicide during the Great Depression, and I swear I felt her grief in my own chest. I KNEW her grief in a very profound and visceral way. And when Mr. Brilliant died nearly a decade after I created her, and I experienced that heaviness first hand from my own loss, it felt oddly familiar. And I will always wonder how. This character is spoiled and self-indulgent and she goes through hell before coming out the other side. There's a lot of me in her, but she's a before-getting-a-lot-of-good-therapy me. Her story isn't the same as mine, but she and I do have this common experience of being widowed. Perhaps we really ARE in a multiverse and I am the alphaverse me, who has been able to deal with what life has thrown at me. She is pre-multiverse Evelyn from Everything Everywhere All at Once, unhappy and stuck. I know her parents' story too. Again -- I have no idea how. I truly believe that I didn't create these people, but that they chose me to tell their story.

The Aftermath, Part III: 25 Years On

Kate and I probably stopped writing together around 2005. She had two children, I had actual work to do at my job, and with people having moved on from Titanic, the readership wasn't there to put the effort into the project. We've now been friends for 25 years, most of it online. We talk every now and then about reviving it, and we even made a short-lived attempt at bringing back the site at one point. .

And now it is 25 years later, and there's a new Titanic 3-D release that opened this week, and I'm having a kind of "returning to where it all began" sense that I should go see it on the biggest screen I can find. This is despite the fact that after all these years of premium cable, I can probably recite every line in the movie at this point as if it were the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But can you go back? Gloria Stuart is dead, David Warner is dead, Bill Paxton is dead, Billy Zane's career is dead (deservedly, after his performance in this film), Leonardo DiCaprio is now a middle-aged, fleshy creep dating teenagers, and what's left of the wreck of the Titanic, like the 9/11 memorial, is a crumbling tourist site. If there were ever a time to bring the site back, it would be now. But I'm guessing this re-release will be gone in a week, given the way the industry is today

The only movie I can think of now that has come close to being the cultural phenomenon that Titanic was in 1997-98 is Black Panther. Yes, James Cameron's Avatar and its sequel have grossed over $5 billion between the two of them, but they don't seem to have had the cultural impact that the first Black Panther had, or that Titanic had in the late 1990s.

Titanic enriched my life in so many ways. Without this movie, I never write movie reviews. I never meet the many other people who also wrote online movie reviews back in the day, some of whom are still at it and a few of whom were able to make a career of it. I never try my hand at fiction writing. I never meet Kate and watch her children grow up. And I probably never start the blog that in its own way led me to what I'm writing here today.

Fan fiction isn't limited to the sci-fi world anymore. Back in 1990s, many of those writing Titanic sequels labored under the delusion that their work could be published, only to find that as a derivative work, even self-publishing could lead to lawsuits. Then a woman named E.L. James parlayed her fan fiction about Bella and Edward from Twilight into a little book called 50 Shades of Grey. In 2017, The Daily Beast called fan fiction "the future of publishing."

When I spun off my original co-lead-character into her own story, Rose was still there, only her name became Ruth and I jettisoned the whole "society girl from Philadelphia" thing. But I left everything else about their interaction intact from its fan fiction roots. Kate and I used to talk about changing our original huge outline to remove Rose's connection to the movie and writing it as its own story. We'd given her a compelling story arc that stood on its own, and surrounded her with fleshed-out, vivid characters.

I'd love to think that young people today will be swept away by the sheer spectacle of this movie once again on the big screen. I'd love to think that an entirely new generation will sit down to write the way we did 25 years ago. After all, if seemingly everyone in Gen-Z can be reduced to tears at Bill and Frank's story in Episode 3 of The Last of Us on HBO, why not this?

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

My Facebook Jail Novel of Eternal Torment

I used to post at least one blog entry every day. From mid-2004 until 2014, I'd grab my coffee, go sit in my office, take a quick look at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a few other places, and my brain would go into writing mode. My focus and concentration went kerblooey after Mr. Brilliant became ill, got worse after he died, and never came back. If in those last days he was off in a Jamaica of the mind with his spirit guides, when he left 20 minutes after they stopped pumping oxygen down his throat, he took my ability to concentrate with him. I don't know what he planned to do with it, but I wish he'd left me at least a little.

Most of my rantings have been on Facebook lo these last few years. Why that's easier than blogging, I have no idea, except that posting links that contain nice photos along with a few paragraphs just seems easier. But that has to change.

I have spent the last 48 hours in Facebook Jail. This is what happens to you when you run afoul of the algorithms developed by the techboy douchebags who decide who needs to be punished for saying things that run against the techboy douchebag ethos, whatever that may be. So what were my crimes, specifically? 

I posted a comment on a predatory real estate company ad that I would burn my house to the ground before I would sell it to a company like theirs. By predatory real estate company I mean deep-pocketed investment companies that swoop into residential neighborhoods, outbid everyone else by huge numbers, waive all inspections and contingencies, and then turn formerly owned houses into rentals. The aggregate result of this is that it locks individuals out of homeownership, which historically is the main source of wealth for an increasingly strapped middle class. Here in the Triangle area of North Carolina, up to 20-30% of homes sold in the last year have been to real estate investors.

Now did I threaten to burn down a house? Absolutely not! I love my house. And when I'm ready to sell it, I hope to sell it to someone who will love it as much as I do. Not only am I NOT a destructive person, but I was referencing this scene in Gone With The Wind


The line I was referencing didn't make it into the movie, but in the book, when Tara's former overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, now essentially a predatory real estate investor, comes by to tell Scarlett O'Hara that she has no choice but to sell to him, Scarlett says "I'll tear this house down, stone by stone, and burn it and sow every acre with salt before I see either of you put foot over this threshold,"

I guess not everyone has a brain littered with bits and snippets of obscure popular culture references. But that's what I was paraphrasing, and you have to admit that it IS an appropriate metaphor.

But the thing that put them over the edge was when I commented on a post about Facebook guilt-tripping. You all know what that is -- it's when someone copies/pastes canned text about suicide, or cancer, or whatever the cause is, and at the end the text is "I'll bet none of my friends share this" or "I'll know who of my friends cares about [cancer/autism/suicide/heart disease/fill in cause of choice here] by who shares this."  

I hate that second one most, because it implies that pasting canned text into a box and hitting "Post" is somehow "proof" that you care about the particular cause in question. I started posting nasty comments about these back when I was driving Mr. Brilliant 46 miles each way to chemo while holding down a demanding and stressful job, and was somehow supposed to believe that because I didn't share canned text, I somehow didn't care about cancer. That I had already convinced Mr. B. that he'd never pass a psych test for assisted suicide because of his depression, that he wasn't terminal, and that foregoing treatment would be agonizing pain until he got to terminal status, was immaterial.  On Facebook, it's "Show you care by copy/pasting canned text." 

I can still get angry about it just typing that, and it may be why I refuse to participate in what I call "performative activism" -- protests and marches that make us feel all solidarity-ish and activisty but ultimately don't really change anything because the Powers That Be don't care about protests and marches. Facebook guilt-tripping is just another form of performative activism. And I'll bet many of the people who insist we show how caring we are by copying/pasting text are the first ones to ghost friends whose spouse or child is diagnosed with cancer. But hey, they care! They pasted some text and hit "Post"!!

So I posted a comment that people who do Facebook guilt-tripping should be beaten with sticks. This too is an obscure reference that I should have known NO ONE would get. It's a phrase that at least USED TO be used by the great Charles P. Pierce, whose politics commentary at Esquire is the ONLY reason to subscribe. The concept of "beaten with sticks" is basically one of mild corporal punishment, much as someone would punch someone in the arm who says something tactless. It is by no means a "threat of violence." But such are the times we live in, and I had the bad timing of saying this the day after yet another angry white boy who left a social media trail o'clues a mile long decided to kill a bunch of people attending a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois. Because the sarcasm of a 67-year-old grey-haired Jewish woman is EXACTLY THE SAME THING. But I'll give Facebook this one. After all, the few days after a mass shooting are always a sensitive time, until the next mass shooting happens and the miserable cycle starts all over again.

Back during the post-9/11 year, George W. Bush administration officials told us we needed to "watch what we say, what we do." It was a time of "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," and it was a direct threat from the then-government that questioning its policies could get you in a heap of trouble. Today we really ARE all under surveillance, not by the government this time, but by a bunch of techboy douchebags who probably identify as Libertarian. These guys write the algorithms that allow medical disinformation, Trumpian lies, the violent fantasies of mass shooters, and threats against anti-Trump politicians to be shared freely, while sarcasm and metaphor must be stamped out at all costs. For six-and-seven figure techboys, who even as I type this are marching like zombies towards my true blue home city, threatening to turn it purple over taxes, only speech that benefits them is allowed.

So seriously, folks. Be careful what you post on Facebook. Twitter at least tactfully lets you know that what you want to post is perhaps not cool:  "Most people don't tweet posts like this," they say. And then  you can go back and edit out whatever curse word is causing the Twitbots to clutch their pearls today. There's no rhyme or reason to that either; a few days ago I responded to Ted Cruz' "thoughts and prayers" about Highland Park by calling him a "craven, cynical monster." I guess on Twitter, you can still tell the truth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

For 25 years people have thought I was a drama queen about this

 I remember a news report from about 25 years ago. It was about another anti-abortion case that was brought before the Supreme Court. The reporter was talking to young women about it, and every last one of them was blithely dismissing the danger, insisting that "they can't make it illegal now" and "they'll never put that genie back in the bottle."

It's been about 15 years since the right to abortion became irrelevant to my particular body. And believe me, it's been tempting to just say "the hell with it; you don't care about your rights; why should I?" But then I remember that every generation rolls its eyes at being lectured by the previous one about "the way it used to be." After all, isn't "You kids don't realize what it was like when an unwanted pregnancy meant shame and guilt and either putting your health in danger by having an illegal abortion or putting it in danger by having a baby before you're even mature" just a variation of "You kids don't appreciate what we did in World War II," as my late father-in-law used to lecture us? Isn't it just another rendition of "both ways, uphill, in the snow"? 

And yet here we are, on the precipice of a country where college women will go back to bargaining with God to bring on their periods, where women with ectopic pregnancy will die because too few people understand that there can be no baby, where women were utter slaves to our own anatomy. Except that this time, it's going to be worse.

My mother had an illegal abortion in 1949. Why she became pregnant, got married, and THEN had the abortion is anyone's guess, but with my father in grad school and her being a newlywed and already suffering from the depression that plagued her for her entire adult life, a baby was more than she could bear at that point. She was lucky. Somehow she managed to find an actual doctor to perform the procedure and went on to have my sister and me. So I grew up in a household that supported women's bodily autonomy long before it was even mentioned.

It's a fallacy that everything was just fine until Donald Trump was able to put Anne Gorsuch Burford's son, a man who is a credibly-accused rapist with obvious anger management issues, and a woman whose faith group has been accused of being a hotbed of emotional and sexual abuse on the Supreme Court. The roots of the Dominion Theology theocracy we are now staring in the face date back to the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, when the Christian Right used abortion as a shield to hide their real agenda, which was perpetuatins segregated schools. A candidate who started his campaign in the very town where three civil rights workers were murdered told them loud and clear that the actor-turned-California governor would be the savior of segregation.

The Christian Right may have lost (at the time) their battle for segregation, but being anti-abortion warriors gave them a weapon that served their agenda almost as well -- putting women back into their place.

I didn't always know that what I was jumping up and down and screaming about for a quarter century was at its core, a theocratic movement, though that's been pretty clear all along to anyone who paid attention. I am not a religious person, at least not in the established religion sense, and especially not an adherent of any of "the big three" religions that came out of the Fertile Crescent. I have never hidden that I have a strong cultural Jewish identity, but as I tell people, I have all the food and all the neurosis and none of the religion. My spiritual system involves "Make people's lives better as best I can while I'm here and not leave too much of a mess when I'm gone."  I don't fault people for being religious. Whatever gets you through what Mr. Brilliant called "this God-forsaken level of reality" is A-OK by me. Just leave me, and leave government, and leave others who do not believe the same way, out of it. And I have never understood why people who profess strong faith need everyone else to march in lockstep with them. And yet, here we are in the 21st century, with robots that have faces and CGI people and phones that play movies and electric cars -- and we're fighting off having a country run by Iron Age mythology.

I needn't go into gory details about what the implications of overturning Roe and sending the abortion issue back to the states are, because much ink and video has gone into it from even the corporate media that have been complicit in the tiptoeing around theocracy that has affected both political parties as well. Of course there are some things that HAVEN'T been covered in detail, such as the implications that affirming "states rights" could have in, yes, the re-legalization of segregation, and perhaps even slavery. (Do you think THAT couldn't happen? Are you still asleep at the wheel even now?) The women who are screaming about child support haven't thought through the nightmare of being tied for the next 18 years and perhaps beyond to the man who raped you, to the ex-husband who beat you, to the father who impregnated you when you were 12. Men who spew sperm into a woman get visitation and custody every single day no matter what their status is in that woman's life. Ask anyone who practices family law in Florida, where "fathers' rights" seem to supersede everything else.

You know what? I'm tired. For 25 years I've voted, I've sent money to candidates, I've argued with people about the bigger implications of essentially deciding that a pregnant woman ceases to be a human being and is nothing but a uterus with legs. I've marched and sent letters to the editor and blogged and stuffed envelopes and canvassed and done all the things you're supposed to do. And here we are. And I'm tired. And I don't know where we go from here.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

"To those who left us....and who brought us together"

I think the worst part of getting older is the parade of departures from this mortal coil moves ever faster. And now I have to write about yet another one.

I'm writing today to talk about Karl. I'm not going to mention his last name out of respect for his family's privacy. 

Two weeks after Mr. Brilliant died in 2013, I joined a social group for widows and widowers. I didn't want to join a grief group. I felt they were all too churchy and I truly did not want to sit in a room full of crying people. Some would say I should have, that I pushed grief away and that is why it's been squeezing out in manageable doses over eight years. 

I also didn't want to join "singles" groups. I already knew that dating wasn't in the cards for me. It had been horrible in my 20s, and I knew that it was going to be even worse for an overweight woman pushing 60  So when I found a group on Meetup whose mission was to build friendships with people who "get it" in a safe space, but by sharing enjoyable times, it was exactly what I needed. 

We've all known people who are like the mayor of whatever the group is. "The mayor" is always someone whose very presence signals that you are welcome. He's the first one with the smile, the extended hand, the "tell me your story" when someone new comes into the room. Karl was that person.  He wasn't hitting on people, he was all about welcoming. I've realized how important this is, after joining a group here after I moved where the men don't talk with any women they're not interested in fucking, and the women seem to see all new women as interlopers. The group in NJ was nothing like that.

Every Wednesday for two years I had dinner with these people, and Karl was always right there, showing genuine delight at being with everyone, and extending that smile, that hug, that warmth, to the new and the tentative. He had an unfailing instinct for where people's boundaries were and respecting them, while providing just the right amount of comfort. And last year during that long, cold winter, I was able to host Zoom calls for the group and see them all virtually. I am now particularly glad that I had that opportunity. I had no idea that the last Zoom I hosted would be the last time I'd see Karl.

I was at one of these dinners when I got the call that my father had passed away. I'm glad I was.

Karl and I shared an enjoyment of jam bands, especially the New Jersey-based Railroad Earth. I went with him and our friend Stacey to see Hot Tuna in Stroudsburg, PA in 2014, retracing the steps and the restaurant Mr. Brilliant and I had traced  a few years earlier for a different show. Karl and I weren't on the same page politically, and to be honest, I'm glad I never had to have political discussions with him during the Trump years. But upon reflection, he really did test my "You can't support Trump and still be a good person" doctrine.

Karl always closed every "widder dinner" with this toast:  "To those who left us...and who brought us together." Our friend Stacey, who has endured far more than her own share of tragedy already, noted today that he has now joined them. Perhaps he will now bring THEM together in an alternate universe version of the camaraderie those they had left behind shared.

My heart hurts today for Karl's loved ones, for Stacey who was such a close friend, for Carolyn and Carol and Bette and Kurt and Susan and Dan and Lynne and Gordon and Elsa and all the others I haven't met in person and who are new, and who I just can't remember right now, for they are the ones who have to face the empty space at the table every Wednesday. His loss makes grieving just that much more difficult for those who will no longer have his smile to welcome them and show that even in the face of indescribable grief, there is warmth and friendship and hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Right Wing Anti Vaccine Death Scorecard Episode 4, or COVID Is Nowhere Near Done With These People Yet

 Today's entry into the death pool is Bob Enyart, Colorado wingnut talk show host and pastor of the Denver Bible Church, who died this week from COVID-19. 

According to the Denver Post, Enyart had refused to be vaccinated because of his concern about abortion, believing the lie that COVID vaccines are made of aborted babies.

The term "Good riddance" certainly applies to Bob Enyart, a man who once read the names of people who died of AIDS while playing Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

So let's give this paragon of right-wing hate the proper send-off, shall we?

Honorable mention: Victoria Wolski, known for posting QAnon banners from bridges and demanding that she be treated with Ivermectin while in the hospital.

Honorable mention 2:  Josh.