Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When Worlds Collide 2

Latterday pilgrims in Canterbury, Sunday, 31 July.
(Hmm...Which will they visit first: the cathedral or the Starbucks right next door?)

After the beach walk and head-banging finale (see Aug. 26 & 27 posts), long-lost cousin Cyril #1 (there are 3; also 2 Mervins, 2 Laurences, 2 Dans & 2 Howards--all cousins of varying degree to each other & very confusing to keep straight) took me, Enid & her daughter to the cemetery of the Margate Hebrew Congregation. Founded by Cyril's father, it's tucked into a little corner of the Thanet Crematorium and contains maybe 200 graves.

Sad to say, this was the largest Stander gathering I'd ever attended. And these were the only family graves I'd ever seen, apart from my father's at Forest Lawn Glendale ( is a blessing and a curse). Apparently the latest deathly fashion in England, for Christians as well as Jews, is to fill in the grave surround with glass (stone?) chips in a bright bluey-green that contrasts hideously with grass--and anything else found in nature.

I remarked upon the headstone of Sadey G., who had the same unusual last name as the Texas descendents of a long-ago Stander. "Oh," said Enid, "she was Howard's godmother." Great: Even more loops in the family tree to track down.

Cyril at the tiny Margate Hebrew Congregation cemetery.

Cyril at the massive gateway by Canterbury Cathedral.

From the ultimate Jewish place of repose, Cyril then took me to the ultimate center of English Christianity and commerce: Canterbury. Along the way we passed a road sign in a roundabout proclaiming, "Minster-in-Thanet, A.D. 670." A few miles further on was a sign for "Fordwich - Smallest town in England, established 1066." America suddenly felt very new.

Which is not to say that there are no modern innovations in Kent: Outside the 16th century Flying Horse Pub in Canterbury is a signboard announcing "Lap Dance." And the area adjoining the old market in central Canterbury is as mallified as Freeport, Maine, with faux-old paving and a jumble of outlet stores. God forbid you should go anywhere and not be able to shop at Gap, Clinique or Laura Ashley. Or, worse yet, not find a Starbucks.

Even the houses are looking askance at the changes in Canterbury:

But I get ahead of myself. Before we visited central Canterbury, we had a typical Sunday dinner (roast lamb, roast beef & Yorkshire pudding) at The Phoenix, a typical Kentish pub that prides itself on serving real hand-pulled ales. Their charms were lost on me, as I loathe and despise beer, but I know that others feel differently; hence the photo below. (Note obligatory decoration of Kentish hops.)

Not a bad way to while away a Sunday afternoon...

Old school:

Canterbury College, a public (i.e., private) school for boys.

View from the front of the school:

That's the cathedral and old city wall, mostly built of that old Kentish standby, nasty sharp flints.

Detail of exterior wall, Canterbury College:

Trust me, you don't want to fall--or worse yet, be thrown--against this wall with bare arms. Or bare anything.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Frum Here to Eternity

"Are you frum?," British cousin X asked me the first time I phoned. "I'm...uh...very, very Reform," I responded carefully, having been warned that X might reject me out of hand because my mother is a shiksa, even though I'd officially converted years ago.

Literally, frum means "pious" in Yiddish, but colloquially it means strongly observant. I suppose it's a sign of how un-frum I am that I'd never heard the word in conversation until I got in touch with my UK cousins. (One of them joked that my response to X should have been, "Yeah, I'm frum America.") I consider the UK cousins who keep kosher and go to shul regularly as being frum. But to them, that's just run-of-the-mill Jewish practice. The "frummies"--always spoken with a bit of a sneer, even by their doting parents--are the ultra-Orthodox in the tieless black suits and big hats (men) or wigs/scarves, long sleeves & skirts and high necklines (women). They keep strictly kosher (even when going out for Chinese food!), strictly observe shabbat, strictly segregate the sexes and have very strict notions as to who is really Jewish (themselves) and who isn't (everyone who is less frum, including yours truly).

As I kept hearing till I thought my head would explode, the UK bet din (rabbinic court) takes a dim view of Reform conversions. But wait: I had a Conservative conversion. Oh, those too. In fact, it seems that any conversion outside of England doesn't pass the sniff test.

There's a big brouhaha going on over a woman whose Orthodox conversion in Israel was declared invalid. Her kid wasn't allowed to attend a London Jewish school--or maybe he was kicked out; my ears started to glaze over--because she was deemed not frum enough. Now she's threatening a lawsuit because one of the rabbis is on record as having been prejudiced against her from the get-go.

To which I responded, "Oh please." At least I did in my head. Out loud, I said to X and spouse, "I'm with Moshe Dayan, who said something like, 'A Jew is anyone crazy enough to consider himself to be one.'" That went over like a lead balloon with them, and also with another relation to whom I later recounted the conversation. Though they were too polite to say so, they'd accept me as kin, though not as being fully Jewish. (Thankfully, not all my UK cousins were similarly minded.) I wanted to yell, "I don't care what you think! I am so Jewish!"

Lest others think that this is strictly a Jewish concern, it applies to other groups as well. An opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, "What's Not on My Coffee Table," touches on "the question of black Americans' identity--most often framed in terms of whether one is 'black enough'..." An attendee at one of my workshops apologized because her first novel wasn't intellectual enough.

And so I'm wondering: How do we remain true to ourselves, and resist being pigeonholed as not [whatever] enough?


I just discovered that yesterday Booksquare, one of my favorite blogs, had a post entitled "The Secret Life of Apostrophes," with a handy-dandy link to "Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots," available at the Official Bob the Angry Flower website. Maybe I'll carry extra copies in my purse to tape to offending signs. That will really help me to win new friends while traveling!

Monday, August 29, 2005

What Is Success?

Recently I consulted with a new author whose first novel came out last year. She confessed that she felt as though she was a failure--this despite that the book :
(1) got good reviews in major media;
(2) sold around 15,000 copies in hardcover;
(3) had just been picked up by a major national retailer.

The author wasn't whining, either; she genuinely felt as though she was going nowhere. I told her that selling 15K of a first novel in hardcover is fantastic, and that many authors would kill to be in her shoes.

This led me to think, What is success? How do we know when we've achieved it? And where do we go from there?

It seems that no matter what we do, the bar for "success" keeps getting raised. We think, "Oh, if I could just finish writing this book, I'll really be happy." Then the book is finished, and we think, "Oh, if I could just get an agent, I'll be OK." Then, "If I can get a publishing contract, I'll really be happy." Then the book is published and we think, "If it gets good reviews, I'll really, REALLY be happy." Then the reviews come in and we worry about sales. Then we worry about maintaining sales, and then we worry about the paperback publication, and paperback sales. And then we start worrying about the next book: Will I finish it? Will it be any good? Will anyone publish it? Will anyone buy it? And there we go again...

How to stop the madness? I don't have any hard and fast answers, but here are two writers with the right attitude.

From "The Perils of Literary Success" by Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the bestseller Prep)in the summer fiction issue of The Atlantic:

...[the NY Times review] forced me to realize that I had to be the one who decided whether my novel was a success or a failure; if I believed that only a publication or another person could legitimize my work in a way that felt permanent and satisfying, I'd be waiting a long, long time.
From a current discussion on "Writerville: A Coffee Break" on

Basically, I realized just how incredibly fortunate I am to have had a book published, to be working on another one that (God willing) will be published too. And I thought it was small of me to be obsessed with how the book is selling, and what the next thing is. I need to give myself permission to feel good about what I've accomplished, to feel as though I've actually done something worthwhile.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Apostrophes: They're Ev'rywhere

Overlooking the sea in Westgate, Kent.

Having conquered the US, errant punctuation is on the march across the UK. The first sortie was on a blackboard in a florist's in Cockfosters (do you love that name?), North London. When I pointed it out to cousin Dan S., he quickly erased it. Turns out apostrophobia is another familial trait.

A butcher's stall in Carlisle, Cumbria (obviously not on the Yiddisher Britisher itinerary; also obviously near Scotland):

I was afraid to ask what "White Pud" is. (We bought lamb chops.) I can't see tripe (top of pic) without thinking of the arresting opening line of the short story "Blonde Mink" by Damon Runyon: "Now there are many ways of eating tripe." However, my enjoyment of that organ--or whatever it is--remains purely literary. And I'll leave haggis (oats 'n' offal!) to the Scots and their neighbors.

A flower shop in Haltwhistle, Northumberland (bonus points for misspelling):

The biggest example of all--POLICE CAR'S painted in letters 3' high--is across the street from the Bristol home of a cousin who's a retired college professor. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a shot because it was a Sunday and the police car' were parked on top.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

By the Sea

Care for a dip? (Me neither.)

After visiting my long-lost cousin Judi in Sandwich, I went to Cliftonville, Margate, just a few miles away in distance but light years esthetically & socio-economically. I got there on an overcast Saturday afternoon, when a seaside resort shows its true colors. And they weren't pretty: a cacophony of screeching pastels, peeling paint and crumbling brick splayed over a mishmash of once-proud Edwardian villas and cheap 1960s-era boxes. One sad old house was covered in lurid purple stucco. Tatty signs proclaimed the faded attractions of "Dreamland," an amusement park so old that cousin Howard's great-grandfather, who died in 1947, worked there.

Howard's recently widowed mother, Enid, lives in a building of little flats for Jewish retirees, the last testament to what had been a thriving Jewish resort. Enid proudly told me that in 1946, there were 42 Jewish hotels in Cliftonville; her parents ran the Balmoral Guest Home. She pulled out one of her many photo albums to show me dozens of neatly arranged snapshots of herself, family & friends: all nattily dressed, smiling, swinging tennis rackets, romping by the pool or on the beach. What a sad contrast to what lies outside her front door now. When I announced after dinner that I was going to take a walk down to the waterfront, a mere 200 yards away, Howard sternly told me that it wasn't safe for me to walk anywhere, and to stay inside till morning. Arguments about having lived in New York City proved futile. I pouted, but ended up staying put.

I got choked up taking this photo of Enid with her parents' wedding photo, ca 1925. (Just learned they were cousins too. Oy.) She's holding her mother's headdress and veil.

My first honeymoon was in a little village on the Cornish coast. All my memories were visual (the scenery! the rainbows! the fluffy sheep! the snuffly cows peering in our car windows!). But the next morning at 4:30 I quickly I remembered how incessantly loud English seagulls are, and how infernally early they wake up. They're a lot bigger than American gulls too. (London pigeons are also much bigger than NYC ones.) I got to see any number of them up close and personal when Howard & Deborah fetched me a little after 8:00 for a brisk and extremely breezy walk along the coast.

Not surprising for a chilly & stormy Sunday morning, the only other people out were dog walkers. I remarked upon the profusion of what appeared to be little garden sheds along the waterfront. Howard told me they go for some $20,000--twice that in more popular and upscale resorts like Brighton--and people actually spend a lot of time in them. Go figure.

A cozy beachfront, Westgate:

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Sign I Should Have Minded

Why are these historic home dwellers smiling?

Because they can stand up straight everywhere inside--unlike yours truly. (Top: Cousin Howard & partner Deborah, 17c cottage, Monckton, Kent. Above: Cousin Judi, Old Guild Hall, Sandwich.)

Way down below I commented on the sign "Mind Your Head" in the breakfast room at my first London hotel, and noted that it was good advice for life in general. Well, it turned out to be excellent advice in particular for tall people like me (6' in flat shoes) who are swanning about Olde Englande. News flash: People in olden tymes were shorte. And they built correspondingly low doorways and ceilings, with nasty thick beams. I should have worn my riding helmet indoors, not just when on a horse.

Along with having endless tolerance for leaks, creaks & eccentric wiring, the key to living happily in a centuries-old house is to be no taller than 5'6". The women above are maybe 5'3"; Howard is 5'8", and even he has hit his head on the doorway behind him. (The arch is the original 17c doorway; the current door is the shorter, diamond-paned one inside it.) Of course, he didn't tell me that till after I'd cracked my head so hard that I started crying. Once inside, I had to stay hunched over like John Cusack in Being John Malkovich to avoid the ceiling beams.

My head was sore for a week. Just when it had finally stopped aching I banged it on a beam in the sloping ceiling of another cousin's 18th century farmhouse--while I was putting away my riding helmet.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Signs of the Times (Sandwich)

The docents and other civic-minded citizens here in central Virginia take great pride in the antiquity (more than 200 years old!) and preservation of Thomas Jefferson's homestead, Monticello. Darling Child's new U.S. History teacher extolled it as a universally recognizable icon of America, on a par with the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids. I'm wondering if I should tell her that most--if not all--of the Europeans I spoke to on my trip responded to my mention of Monticello with a puzzled look, and only when I added, "Home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd president of the United States" did they say (none too quickly), "Oh...yes..." One even said, "Who?"

All this is put in perspective by what I saw in Sandwich, a perfectly preserved medieval town in East Kent, whose heyday was some 500 years ago. It was a thriving seaport for centuries, but when the harbor silted up during Elizabethan times so did the local economy. There was hardly any new construction beyond that engendered by an influx of Protestant refugees from Holland and France in the mid-1600s. (They were made to live outside of town till they were found to be commercially beneficial. Some things never change.) Above is Fishergate, erected 1384, a remnant of the wall facing the River Stour.

Sign on Fishergate. (Note first restoration date!)

The wall is built of napped flints, which in their unpolished state are flaky and murderously sharp, and were used in making arrowheads.

One of my long-lost cousins and her husband live in the remaining half of the old Guild Hall, which was begun in the 14th century. The "new" Guild Hall (below) was built in the 16th century, and is still in good working order, with offices and a bus station.

Flemish-style wall; not every sign survives:

Facing signs in an archway:

Note how the above ties into the Yiddisher Britisher Tour; also that the word "Jewish" is conspicuously absent.

Extra credit for Darling Child's U.S. History class:


If I lived & worked in such a tiny cottage, I'd write incendiary pamphlets too. I sure hope Paine wasn't tall like his pal TJ; those low doorways are killers. One crack on the head & I'd be storming the barricades. But don't get me started! More on those *#%!!! doors in a separate post...

When Worlds Collide

Kielbasa tacos? Pierogis with mole sauce? The mind boggles.
Actually, this place in Shepherd Market is owned by a Canadian(!)
and is called L'Autre (French for "the other"; how appropriate).
Better yet, it's "Mayfair's Oldest Wine Lodge"! I will forever
regret not taking a close-up of the menu. However, much to my
disappointment, the specials on the board alternate between
Polish and Mexican, rather than combine them; e.g. "Polish Style
Roast Lamb," "Mexican Style Paella," "Venison Goulash"
and that old standby, stuffed cabbage--no doubt without even
a hint of jalapeno. (SIGH...)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Signs of the Times (London)

In the Underground:

A relation reported seeing this on her way home after work. (Image forwarded by Darling Spouse, who anxiously kept up on British news while I was away.)

Makes you think...

In front of a church on King's Cross Road:

Blurb above title: "The nastiest, most savage and
brutal movie you could ever want to see."
(My blurb: "Or not!")

No false hopes here!

(On Kings Cross Road, just down the street from the church.)

My all-time favorite:

(In Edmonton Cemetery)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

No Child Left Awake*

Darling Child went back to school yesterday and came home with a sheaf of papers for me to sign. The below letter was on one of them. I read it to Darling Spouse in my perkiest early-childhood-educator voice; he threatened to fwow up.

Dear Parent or Guardian:
This year we will be getting to know your son or daughter as a learner and as an individual with special interests and learning needs. This school year you will see or hear about the teaching ideas we are using to better the needs of all of our students. Students will be learning in a variety of ways. Sometimes we'll all be working together; at other times, students will be working in small groups, with a partner, or on their own. For group work, they will sometimes choose who to work with and what project they want to tackle. Other times, we will form groups and assign projects based on what students know, what they need to learn, or how they prefer to learn. All students will be offered challenging learning experiences and all will be actively involved in their learning.

Our goal is to provide opportunities for all students to be successful and to enjoy learning. Students of all levels love both variety in learning and taking on new challenges. They learn at different paces. And they all have preferences about how they like to learn and how they like to show what they have learned. We will be doing our professional best this year to attend to differences among students, trying to ensure that each student is a successful, confident learner.

Now guess what class this is for...


Advanced high school Chemistry lab, with something like 25 students age 16 and up.

Gosh, I can't WAIT to go to "Back to School Night"!

*phrase coined by marvelous YA author Chris Crutcher

Monday, August 22, 2005

Helpful sign in the floor of a medieval church in Sandwich, Kent.

Back Home (Alas)

A 4-day sojourn in the South of France baked out the rest of my notions of keeping up with the cyberworld while abroad. I realized that I had to choose between living my life or blogging about it, as I need too much sleep to do both. So over the next few days I'll do a more-or-less leisurely recap of my trip, with the aid of the more-or-less copious notes I took in a battered Spell-Write Steno Book.

Going back to my lunch with Howard Jacobson on my first day in London...he shared some sage advice he'd gotten from Paul Theroux years ago. Namely, when traveling to write one hour at the end of every day; e.g., "I went here, I went there, I saw this person, heard that, etc." Jacobson said, "You'll think it's inconsequential and banal, but when you go back to it later, that's the real stuff. Six months, a year later, you won't remember a turn of phrase or a little something you saw, but it will be in your notes." He said that he used that method to good effect for his 1988 Australian travelogue, In the Land of Oz.

I was all set to do just as I was told, but with all the running around I was doing, I fell into bed every night too exhausted to compose my thoughts & pick up a pen. However, I made sure to take notes as I walked and rode around, and wrote at greater length while on planes & trains. (I was on a lot of trains.) In re-reading my notes the other day, I saw that I'd already forgotten some of the telling details I'd jotted down, so I'm glad I heeded the masters.

Naturally our lunchtime conversation turned to publishing & the business in UK vs US. Jacobson said that in the UK, your publisher takes you on for life. "They publish your next book even if they don't like it." (Is that charming, or what?) That's changing, however, and the Brit publishers are becoming more like the Americans. Well into lunch, he confessed that after writing for two years, he'd printed out his just-completed new novel for the first time the other day. His new wife (#3 for those keeping track) will be the first person to see it. He said it's his angriest novel yet, and very Jewish. Jacobson is a Big Deal in Britain--an awed-looking young man expressed admiration of his writing as we were on our way to lunch--but isn't well-known in the US. One reason for that, he observed, is that American publishers want an "English" novel, not a Jewish one, from an English writer; American writers already "did" the Jews. We'll see what happens with this one...

Friday, August 05, 2005

En vacance

We interrupt the Yiddisher Britisher Tour for this special announcement:
Ms Stander is in the South of France and has 'gone native', i.e., she is dispensing with mundane matters such as time of day; having the marvelous local white wine, Picpoul de Pinet, with lunch (dinner too, if truth be told); going on horseback rides through the nearby vineyards and hills; and above all, finding blogs--and business communication in general--a pointless bother. Furthermore, she is challenged by the keyboard on her Swedish hosts' laptop, which has รค where ' should be and ¤ where $ should be, " instead of @ and God only knows where the question mark is.

Priez d'accepter mes meilleurs salutations...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Tour Continues

I thought I'd be happily sending posts every day from my shiny red laptop. Silly me! Only my first hotel, the lovely if cramped Best Western Phoenix on Kensington Square Gardens, had wireless internet. The more commodious though Spartan (no clocks, tissues, etc.) Travelodge Islington only has dial-up service through their phones, which are on a separate system with usurious rates. Consequently, I've also been exploring the wilderness of London internet cafes, call boxes (phone booths) and phone cards.

Getting around London these days. Some tube lines are closed (2 just reopened today--hooray!), yesterday the King's Cross rail station was shut down minutes after I'd taken a subway out. Police are EVERYWHERE: Bobbies two by two, by two, by two... in bulletproof vests, not on bicycles as in the old song. Nearly had an impromptu radical mastectomy yesterday when I leaped onto a subway car as the doors were closing. In NY and DC they pop right open if something comes between them. Not in London, as I discovered to my great pain & embarrassment. After I was released and got a seat (plush!) I saw a notice pasted on the inside of the doors: 'Obstructing the doors can be dangerous.' I'll say!

Seems like every rock I turn over, I find more of the mishpocha. (Stander descendents: They're everywhere you want to be.) More about that later. Off to the cemetery!