Posted: 04/15/2014 5:15 pm EDT
This year for Pesach, for Passover, I find myself in Southern California for the retelling of an Exodus story that celebrates renewal, promotes the do over, praises reinvention. In my travels around the cities near dessert and along the water's edge I have found so many people who came to this land seeking those same freedom to reinvent themselves and restarts their lives.
When the Jewish people entered Egypt, they were only Jacob's family and things were good so they stayed for a while and added and multiplied. Soon, they became a people. This was followed by a series of unfortunate events caused them to cry out for a change. Exodus tells us that God offered Moses the job of getting the Jews out of Egypt. Moses was a risk taker. So much so that he declined the offer. Saying no to God didn't usually go well in the Bible, but he made it work for him. Eventually, Moses took the job and whoever was bold enough, had had enough, or was willing to risk enough, followed him out of Egypt. With the Red Sea in their rearview mirror, the journey became one of renewal and the opportunity for a Do Over. This nation of slaves wandered the desert until they became a free people.
The Angelino histories, the SoCal family stories I've heard are about a rugged, adventurous folks who were passed over elsewhere and came here to join a community of risk takers seeking to remake, to reinvent themselves. They would rather go big and fail than stay home. I am told that Los Angeles County is a place where it's okay to fail. I plan to test that assertion.
Numerous studies warn that the U.S. is trending toward becoming a risk-averse people. This is disturbing, but hardly shocking. And while I'm not sure there was ever a time in our history that this trend would not be troubling, I am certain that there could not be a worse moment for this trend to take hold. Any setting that discourages risk taking will not cultivate talent. And, the need for talent has never been greater -- that is not hyperbole, but a cry heard from every sector of society.
Rather than embrace risk, we stigmatize mistakes -- even those that were based on sound practices. Instead, we must see failure as a slice of success. We must once again embrace risk as a catalyst for innovation, insight, creative problem solving, change. And maybe even a bit of happiness. Surely we could use a bit of that right now.
Like the Jewish people who wandered the desert without a GPS, we don't ever really know where we are going till we arrive. So let's make up with risk, give it a hug, and embrace it as part of the journey. On this holiday that celebrates the journey to reinvention, I raise my glass to SoCal's default setting of risk taking.
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03/24/2014 3:35 pm EDT I have traveled a great deal in Northampton, MA. Love and friendship, imagination and wonder, progeny and family -- they happened there. But I never planned on being in one place forever and when I checked the clock, decades had passed.
I love road trips. They're full of possibility; they suspend time like a baseball game and exist just outside of reality. My bags were packed and I looked to the West.
The trip counter counted my way through MA, CT, NJ, PA, MD, VA, as I avoided weather. Then, in Tennessee, I shifted onto I40 and was westward bound. In Nashville, with moonshine and music, I toasted the road ahead.
In the car again, I crossed the mighty Mississippi in Memphis and then made my way through Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle -- which, by itself, is double the area of MA. The final push through New Mexico and Arizona brought the California border and a sense of urgency as the Pacific beckoned.
State borders rise up as natural topographic dividers that offer entry into wonderful new worlds of dialects, dishes, vegetation, music, accents, architecture and more. But they also create unnatural barriers between US the people. State by state variations in tax codes, speed limits, licensing, all categories of regulations, turn neighbors into outsiders. My official Massachusetts self became increasingly less official the further I got from home. Sure, there are no checkpoints to pass through, but freedom of movement is curtailed by paperwork barriers and local regulations. State rights have merit, but shouldn't our U.S. citizenship have equal value in all of our united states?
Three thousand miles. Fifteen cups of coffee. Four time zones. Nine refuels. Thirteen states. Winter to not winter. Atlantic to Pacific. Northampton to Santa Monica. I kicked off my sneakers and waded in the water. I had left seasonal chores behind.
After 48 hours behind the windshield, I opted to explore the coast on foot. I walked and jogged the snow free streets, watching. And what a show. The 3rd Street Promenade, Dogtown, Santa Monica Pier, muscle beach, the Venice canals, the Santa Monica stairs, and of course, the beachfront bike and walkway. Hipsters and hippies, tourists and druggies, boomers and techies, street dwellers and artists shared the streets and it mostly seemed to work. The Santa Monica/Venice community is totally walkable. The rest of LA, well, sure, that's walkable too if you drive.
Between the weather, that walkability, the miles of beachfront walkways with plenty of restrooms, significant crowds gather at all times of day. This is a welcome antidote to the national fear and mistrust that inhibited our ability to gather for no reason, to lean against lampposts waiting for no one. Public spaces that once encouraged community have become less comfortable. I say this as my home state boldly prepares to host the 118th running of the Boston Marathon in the shadow of last years horrific bombing.
Santa Monica has a wonderful public library system, as does LA. Branches are open and friendly and have many public events. But I can't take a book out because I don't have a local utility bill. The library staff is wonderful but I'm reminded that I am less than a full citizen here. Why can't I leave a credit card on file? I just want to read a book but I don't want to buy a book because then I'll have to buy a bookshelf for the book and then I'll have to buy a house for the bookshelf and I might want to go to Seattle or Denver of Austin.
But first I have lots more discovering to do right where I am. And with MLB's spring training coming to an end I'll be in baseball paradise. The Dodgers, Padres and Angels all play close by and my Mets are scheduled to visit each of them. And with the new season comes hope and promise, even for my Mets. For now, anything is possible.
Recently I was shaken and stirred from my sleep by a 4.4 earthquake. As I opened my eyes, I had no idea what was happening. This was followed by even more moments of having no clue what to do, so I just hung on.
I can not wait for what's next.
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In September of 1969 the NY Mets were in second place, the Vietnam War was raging out of control, and Blind Faith released their self-titled album with a naked girl on the cover. And I was walking along 67th Avenue, across Queens Boulevard, past 108th Street, on my way to my first day at Forest Hills High School.
In history, the teacher put me and this kid who also had those old-school, Coke-bottle-bottom glasses together in the front row. Henry was even younger than me. Being the youngest kid in a grade lost its appeal the moment girls decided they liked older guys. Henry was young for 10th grade because he did 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in two years, having tested into the SP class. I pretty much just started kindergarten early and moved on from there. That made Henry officially smart and it made me, well, just young.
When the Miracle Mets won the World Series, some of the summer's optimism generated by the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock returned. But then Lieutenant Calley was charged with killing 109 civilians at My Lai, the Chicago Eight went on trial for being annoying, and all around us sides were being taken, lines were being drawn, stakes were being raised. We stopped cutting our hair, started going to protests, and looked to rock and roll for meaning. When the baseball coach told Jimmy to cut his hair or get cut from the team, Jimmy proclaimed the situation a mockery and walked off.
I started hanging out at Sage schoolyard with Henry and Jimmy and Ritchie and Sam and Freddy and others. Except Freddy never played ball at all. Freddy could talk and Freddy could drive. He was the first one of us to get a car, even though he was not the first to get a license. Our energy was focused on consuming greater quantities and varieties of drugs, playing ball, and trying to get girls to like us. If we couldn't get them to like us, then we tried to get them to have sex with us. Equally unsuccessful opportunities.
One evening, sweaty and tired from basketball at Sage, we walked by Tung Shing Chinese Restaurant when it was down by Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone. The door past the main entrance was open, revealing a tiny bar and a table filled with complimentary appetizers. With no bartender in sight, we ducked inside and began stuffing ourselves. The bartender entered and we ordered beers. Instead of laughing and tossing us out, he set us up with a row of drafts. Sure, the drinking age back then was 18. But we were 14 and 15.
In those pre-cellular, pre-digital, pre social-anything days, that tiny bar became our information hub. It's where we gathered before heading out and Eddie could always tell you where each of us were. And on more than one occasion, we accepted a ride home from Eddie when walking was going to be an issue.
Nixon's draft lottery was introduced that December, and while we had a few years till our blue plastic lottery capsules would be drawn, the draft cast a shadow over everything. For the guys who "won' the lottery, their lives were changed instantly. It seemed that the more we learned in school, the more confusing the world looked. By then, Henry had figured out that formal education held little value for him. That's how smart he was. Me, well I knew that I wasn't smart enough to be smart without school.
Forest Hills had an open campus at the time -- or at least we thought it did. The school was on triple session and students were always coming and going so Henry and I would head over to one of the deli's on 108th Street for lunch. One day, we got into one of those deeply focused, intensely clear conversations that reveal the secrets of the universe, and nothing at all. It wasn't until we got back to school that we realized we had never even got our check. While laughing hysterically I noticed I felt comfortable.
I'd always been an outsider, a first generation, oddly named, child of Holocaust-era parents who mixed three languages into most conversations, with thick accents that I never heard. But none of that mattered as much my eyes. Their desire to focus one at a time meant it was impossible for me to look people in the eye. If I looked right at you, you would think I was looking past you. And I couldn't figure out a way to adjust my head to compensate. Think girls here. Think teachers. Think job interviews. But mostly think girls. The doctor called the condition unusual but not uncommon. He was wrong. It made me unusual and uncommon. The only advantage it ever provided was when I was quarterback at Sage. The defense had no idea where I was looking.
I'd gotten used to being an outsider, hanging out on the margins. But Jimmy and Henry and Sam and Ritchie and the others, they were not outsiders. They were amused by my eyes when it was funny -- and did not hesitate to laugh -- but mostly they didn't give a shit. Jimmy maintained that our bond came from not having brothers. Jimmy and Henry didn't brothers, but some of us did. What none of us had, were brothers-in-arms, blood-brothers. Calling someone your brother was a thing back then, but for us, it was about family. All families begin with strangers and we had formed our own. Together, triumphs were made sweeter, and defeats were softened.
And then I went to college at SUNY Binghamton while the rest of the guys either went to a city college or didn't go at all. After college -- my college, Henry only took six credits -- Henry and I rode my motorcycle across the country. The guys sent us off with a long night at Tung Shing where someone thought it was amusing to sign Henry's name to the tab. After LA, Henry returned to the city and put those six credits to better use than most MBAs, and I returned to Binghamton where Nisa was finishing her degree. When she was done, we headed to LA, then DC, finally ending up in Northampton, Mass. and I saw those guys less and less. They spread out a bit but stayed connected to NY and each other. My parents left Queens and I started a family and years passed without any contact.
And then my mother died and I was in NY sitting Shiva. I was outside, taking a break with my boys, away from the well meaning guests, when I heard a booming voice call out, "It's a little Elan."
Henry was looking at my son Ezra, who he had never seen. Didn't matter. Sam, who was a member of the same synagogue as my mom got the Shiva call and thought Henry would want to know.
Henry got me invited to the next big gathering and I saw everyone. There was no reason for them to take me back in. We had all changed. We had all become different people but different still didn't matter. It turned out that nothing any of us had done had altered our DNA. It turned out that our trust did not come from having history; our history came from having trust.
We held reunions at Tung Shing, which had moved west on Queens Boulevard. For a while, our families met there the day after Thanksgiving and then played ball at Sage. When Tung Shing closed their doors a few years ago, the pre-cross-country-motorcycle-ride tab still remained unpaid.
If someone called a Boys' Night Out, I answered. If someone called an Emergency Boys' Night Out, or if something was an accusation rather than a proclamation, or a declaration, well, Jimmy ruled on those. If you weren't sure of the rules, you saw Jimmy. But first, you show up.
And showing up turns out to be almost everything. May not be the only thing, but it's a big thing. I reconnected with Jeff and Larry and the group picked up some worthy stragglers like Steve, but the core remained, self selected by showing up. There's been some stints in rehab, some surgeries, some arrests for heroine, one death by overdose, another after a short and one sided battle with pancreatic cancer, and one was banished for betraying the trust. But Henry's limitless capacity for fun remains contagious, and Jimmy continues to mock time by playing on two different softball teams at the Great Meadows -- hair, no longer being an issue -- and we all keep showing up and doing new things.
In this small group we have a Nisa and a Nilsa and a couple of Denise's. Coincidence? Who cares? It's cool.
I spent much of the '60s and '70s looking for a revolution and instead I found friends. I really had no idea how rare that would turn out to be.
There's no formula or prescription for why it works, but the result is outstanding and it guarantees that I can't get rid of these guys.
When George Harrison died, I lost one more connection to a magical time, but I didn't mourn. Harrison's death wasn't sudden like Roy Orbison, or accidental like Buddy Holly, or tragic like John Lennon, or shocking like Marvin Gaye. I had known of his battle with cancer for some time. Besides, it's hard for me to be sad for someone who got to be a Beatle for 43 years. In reality, I know little about George Harrison, the way I know little about Toni Morrison, or JD Salinger, or Bob Dylan, or Sandy Koufax, yet they've all had intense influences on my life. So, when I heard the news that day, I didn't mourn for Harrison -- I left that to his friends and family.
But, while I did not mourn, I was struck by the loss of another of my generation. I wept gently for the passing of one more member of a great generation -- Phil Ochs, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Kennedy, Janis Joplin, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Allen Ginsburg, and the list goes on. I was saddened by the loss of yet another piece of the foundation of how I see myself and how I would like to see the world. I feel slightly more outnumbered now. I imagine that World War II veterans feel similarly about the passing of anyone of their generation.
The Beatles did not hit the beaches at Normandy, they did not liberate the concentration camps, or crawl their way through the Pacific. They fought their battles with dreams and hopes and vision. The commitment to make the world a better place for everyone is a struggle that is noble and difficult and often dangerous. It is a struggle against single mindedness and close mindedness. Most people who participate in that struggle do not receive the rewards that Harrison did. But most people who achieve the success that Harrison had, do not make the commitment to spiritual and social searching that he did.
Is it naive and simplistic to think that music can make a difference against terrorism? I know we can't sing away anthrax. But without music, without art, we don't have a soul, and without a soul we have nothing left to defend. Music has the power to inspire social change. George Harrison, as a Beatle and on his own, proved this over and over.
I grew up in New York and in many ways I never left. I love the sounds and rhythms of New York City streets. My boys feel that part of their identity comes from that city and we all felt the events of 9/11 personally.
As we had done for several years, my family and I went to New York City for the Thanksgiving weekend to visit family, friends, and watch the parade. It was our first visit since September 11.
As I drove over the Throgs Neck Bridge from the Bronx into Queens, I got a clear view of the Manhattan skyline. I was looking for nothing and I saw it. The space that had been the World Trade Center was part of the crisp, clear November horizon. Later, when we emerged from the subway at the World Trade Center site, that empty space came into view. I was not prepared for the incomprehensible pile of debris and devastation at Ground Zero.
Since September 11, I have often turned to music to remind me of what is important. I am inspired by new bands that do their part to promote community and compassion over consumption. When I was teenager, Harrison came to town to tell the world about tragic events in Bangladesh. It was the kind of benefit concert, that's directly linked to the Concert for New York City that Paul McCartney organized to give aid to the victims of the attacks. I watched that concert on TV as police, rescue workers, and firefighters sang and swayed along with the music and I am sure that spirits were refilled.
It's still a pity, that we cause each other so much pain. Very serious minded people with ultra-serious jobs like to laugh at the dreamer and their dreams. Fortunately for so many of us, George Harrison never let them stop him. Because in the end, as another British rocker, Elvis Costello once sang, "What's so funny about peace love and understanding?"
Originally aired on WAMC, Albany on December 12, 2001
Searching for my Role with the Great Eight
A couple of weeks ago I got to put on an authentic New York Mets uniform and played baseball at the Mets’ training facilities in Port St. Lucie, Florida. I did this as part of a program that the Mets run where participants play on teams that are coached by former Mets players, many of whom are still active in baseball. I spent five long days collecting bumps, bruises, aches, and pains in every part of my body and my ego and I loved every moment of it. But I didn’t go because I am a Mets fan, which I am, having grown up near Shea Stadium in Queens. And I didn’t go for the baseball, a game that I love. I went because it was a chance to play ball with some good friends I’ve had since high school, friends who have always understood the meaning of teammate.
Still, anyone who knows me, knows that I am baseball crazy. My whole family is. I take pleasure in what the game offers: the lack of a clock, the time of year, the pace, the thinking. I love the superstitions, the rituals, and most of the statistics.
When we arrived in camp, we met our coaches. Clint Hurdle, who is the current hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, acted as commissioner for our league. When Clint formally introduced each of the coaches, he read their Major League stats. For pitchers this included games. For hitters, this included the number of major league at bats they each had. In any field, in art, in business, in sport, it takes a lot to bring your game to the next level. Simply getting drafted by a Major League Baseball Club is worthy of praise. But if you manage to make your way through the minors, from Single A, to Double A, to Triple A and then finally to the Majors, and then in the Majors you somehow stick around for a while and play enough to get at bats, that is a beautiful thing.
During our first morning the coaches set up different stations on the six practice fields so they could get a look at us. We chose where we wanted to go, by where we hoped to play: middle infielder, corner infielder, outfielder, pitcher and catcher. Everyone took a turn hitting. I pitched for a while and then went to shag fly balls hit by a cigar smoking Howard Johnson who stood near second base. While we ate lunch, the coaches went off to draft teams. The eight of us wanted to be on the same team so at night we would have more to laugh about. We gave Clint a list with our names and he made no promises, though it was clear that no one was worried that we were trying to stack a team. We did play together, but it cost us. We were teased and then fined for asking to be on the same team. After the draft, our team was referred to as the Great Eight instead of its assigned Mets minor league team name of Kingsport. We were grateful for being placed on the same team and wanted to do our part, so we at every opportunity we provided Clint with new material to poke fun at.
It seemed that Clint’s main goal was to keep us loose. Partly so we’d play better, partly so we’d come back, but mostly because you don’t get as injured if you play loose. Clint had a list of offenses that he fined players for and he read off the fines each morning. Fines were a dollar and payment was optional, though he reminded us that he knew where our lockers were and that we had to be at the fields but he didn’t. Fines were given for things like missing a belt loop, showing up late, whining, not curving the rim of your hat correctly, or for just being stupid. One guy got fined for doing a Michael Jackson because he was out on the field and wearing one glove for no apparent reason. The Great Eight led the league in fines.
The fields that we played on were incredible. Infield hops were true, the outfield grass was smooth, and the pitchers rubber was level with the mound. None of this made us play any better, but we were safer. Our coaches were there for support and encouragement. It was possible to pick up some tips, but there wasn’t enough time to really change anything about our game, or lack of. We were there to play, to have fun, and to listen to stories about clubhouse antics and baseball history.
I started out playing left field. To say I had a hard time picking up the ball as it sailed skyward would be a compliment. Turns out that practicing with a guy hitting from second base doesn’t get you ready for a fly ball from home plate. I could barely see the batter. Using my years of experience, I quickly developed a strategy. My plan was to listen closely for where the ball hit the ground and then run as fast as I could to get the ball and throw it in. I called this the sonar approach to playing outfield.
But then I got to pitch and I pitched a complete game. For seven innings, I was in my own world on the mound. Most of the time I didn’t know the score, just the count on the hitter and the situation in the field. I lost the game, but the team that beat me went undefeated for the week. They had all the young guys. I didn’t walk a batter till the last inning, I got a few strikeouts, and I came inside a lot getting batters to hit soft pop-ups off their bat handle. Unfortunately, a lot of those soft fly balls dropped in for hits. Some of them were just dropped. On one of those soft hits, Jimmy almost made a spectacular diving catch. Instead, he landed hard on his elbow and broke it. As Jimmy walked off the field with the trainers, Clint Hurdle turned to us and said softly, “and then there were seven.”
Hitting proved to be a roller coaster. I hit, I didn’t hit. I was relaxed. I was tense. I choked, I panicked, I recovered. I went through it all: bliss, embarrassment, anger, disappointment at letting my team down. There are moments in sports, as there are moments in life, where we find out that we can do more than we once thought possible. For most of us at Dream Week it was a matter of doing much less than we were once capable. A lot less. As a coach and as a teacher, I have seen the solitary struggle of players and students whose success was measured in getting back up, in dusting off, and in stepping back in the box, even if only to strike out again. These are the moments when we challenge ourselves and success is not measured in hits or runs or catches, but in effort, in concentration, in finishing.
The morning of our flight home each team got to play a couple of inning against the coaches. Instead of the practice fields that we had been playing on, this game was held at Thomas J. White Stadium, where the Mets play their spring training games. I got to pitch there. It was a great feeling standing on the mound, looking up at the almost empty 7,160 seats, hearing my coaches call out encouragement from the dugout, listening to the chatter of my teammates in the field. While I was soaking it all in, Henry, my friend, my catcher, my teammate, was wondering out loud to the next batter, about whether the coaches had all lost their skills, because, he’d been there all morning and he had not seen one ball leave the park. I got set, wound up, and threw the ball toward Henry’s target, and then turned quickly to watch the ball hit the scoreboard.
Just for the record, the Great Eight got the bronze medal. We finished strong to take third out of the six teams. If we had only had more time, who knows? We had made it though Dream Week. We came, we played, we survived.
Originally aired won WAMC, Mets opening day 2002
HuffingtonPost Blog June 13, 2013
In June we recall the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, when an unorganized group of gay men, drag queens, trans women, and their friends at the Stonewall Bar in Manhattan's West Village refused to go along with another one of the chronic and scripted shakedowns on what should have been simply their night out. Some eyewitnesses claimed it was a "New York butch" who threw the first punch. Others claimed the riots began when a trans woman retaliated against a police officer by smacking him on the head with her pocketbook. None of the witnesses who sprang into action in support knew their names. But these strangers knew that standing up for the dignity and rights of others is the only way to insure dignity and rights for oneself.
Forty-four years later, as we wait for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage equity and DOMA, it's easy to forget that when the riot police descended on the West Village that night, it was illegal for men to dance with other men -- though women were allowed to dance with each other. It's worth repeating: It was illegal for men to dance with men. This was in 1969: 11,780 U.S. troops would die in Vietnam that year; the voting age was 21; the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and the SDS were all making a case for revolution; Apollo 11 would land humans on the Moon; upstate New York would be overrun with hippies at the Woodstock music festival; and the New York Mets would go on to win the World Series.
Forty-four years later and many, many people have stepped up. Many of those who stepped up were never beaten by the police at a bar, were never relegated to the back of any bus, were never denied the vote, were never told who they could not marry.
It's good to pause to celebrate victories, toast accomplishments, note loss, mark milestones. It's important, necessary, and well-deserved. And as we celebrate, it's also important to remember that celebrations are like monuments, erected to point out what happened at a place, during a time, to a people. But monuments are no more than a snapshot of a moment, and moments are not isolated events. We may mark time as before and after the Stonewall riots, before and after Rosa Parks sat where she pleased, before and after Jackie Robinson stepped over the foul line onto Ebbets Field, but those moments were made possible by the vision, courage, and sweat of the many, many, many named and unnamed people who came before.
So when the celebration ends, we don't linger; we get back to work. And when we pass some strangers struggling to roll a log up a hill, we find a spot and push for however long we can and with whatever strength we have. It's how we keep moving forward. It's how we get by with a little help from strangers.
Follow Elan Barnehama on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@elanbarnehama
Elan Barnehama is the author of Finding Bluefield. Spanning the years 1960-1983, Finding Bluefield chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking a child and family, find themselves navigating unknown and dangerous territory during a pivotal time in U.S. history.
Barnehama has taught writing and literature at several colleges, led community based writing workshops, been a high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, a radio news announcer, a speech writer for a university president, and a cook. His commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, online, and in newspapers.
What was your favorite part of writing Finding Bluefield? The greatest challenge?
I enjoyed dropping my characters into the 1960’s, a loud, idealistic, and divisive period with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy 50’s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to find itself in one serious identity crisis.
And the having my characters within arm’s length of some of those great moments was also the greatest challenge, since I wanted those events to be a supporting cast and not compete with the main characters. I wanted the novel to be Barbara and Nicky’s personal and not political story.
What inspired you to write this novel?
While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and ’60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was “rumored” or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.
What was your process for writing Finding Bluefield? Getting it published?
Writing the novel turned out to be easier than getting it published. First there was the wrong agent who wasted my time. Then there was the well-meaning small press who took the novel but ended up shutting down due to the publisher’s medical issues and the economy. There was a lesbian press that was interested in the novel until they found out I was a straight male.
But then I found a wonderful home for Finding Bluefield with Bold Strokes Books, which “offers a diverse collection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer fiction.” Their focus is on the story and not the author. They were happy to read the novel and they’ve been wonderful to work with.
Why did you decide to make your main character female? Do you recommend writers try writing the opposite gender?
When I set out to write my novel, Finding Bluefield, I didn’t expect my main character to be a female, much less for her to fall in love with another woman. But there I was, a straight man hooked by these two characters, Nicky and Barbara, and their voices, and their story.
The thing is, most novels have male and female characters, they have characters of various races and nationalities. So we’re always writing about folks who are different than us. So I wouldn’t say that I recommend having one’s main character be the opposite gender, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend against it.
In what ways does article writing help with your fiction? And vice versa?
The thing about writing for other people—whatever the assignment—is that you don’t have the luxury of staring at the blank screen. You just start writing. And that’s a good habit. You also have to grab the reader right away and keep them engaged. These are all things you want to do in fiction too, but you have less time to accomplish this in an essay or article.
For me, fiction is about letting the reader make connections and this has improved my articles in that I have gotten better at presenting ideas and letting readers make their own connections.
Additional advice for fiction writers?
Humans are storytellers by nature and by necessity. As soon as we’re born, we are told stories. As soon as we can speak, we start to tell stories to anyone who will listen. We need to tell stories to place ourselves in the world. We listen to stories to understand how others place themselves in the world. There’s no limit to how we can tell a story. And when we spend time with the written word, we are connected to one another. When we read, we are never alone.
And revise, revise, revise. Get some beta readers. And revise some more.
What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started writing?
Actually, I wish I knew more than I know right now. And I also wish I knew everything I know now, then.
But, I guess I have gotten a lot better at trusting the process, at trusting my characters to find the story. Because, the story I set out to write is not the story I end up writing. And I’ve learned to let the real story happen.
FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2013, ReadingThePast
Guest post from Elan Barnehama, author of Finding Bluefield:
With Elan Barnehama's guest post for today, we move much closer to recent times: the colorful and turbulent 1960s, as experienced by a lesbian couple. If you believe history only encompasses events from the distant and untouchable past, or focuses mainly on well-known names, read this essay and think again. Many of the sentiments he expresses below resonated with me, and I hope you'll enjoy reading his post also.
My debut novel, Finding Bluefield, chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking love and family, found themselves navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous. It is a multi-generational family saga spanning the years 1960-1983 and set against a background of segregation, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the JFK election, Woodstock, the South, the Moon Landing, and the Sanctuary Movement.
The 1960s were loud, idealistic, and divisive with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy '50s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the US to find itself in one serious identity crisis. And that was where I wanted my characters to begin.
I’m interested in what happens below the surface, away from the spotlight, inside the crowds. Great events are as much about the leaders as they are about the participants. Individual stories contribute to the moment and add up to a movement. We all collaborate to create history. It’s a team sport.
Finding Bluefield is located within arm’s length of some of great moments. As the nation searched to find its footing, Nicky and Barbara were finding theirs. Kennedy’s victory, which included winning Nicky’s home state of Virginia, inspired her to act. She already had courage. The election victory gave her hope. She thought it gave her cover.
Later, Nicky attended the Martin Luther King March on Washington—where Dr. King shared his dreams with the world—because she wanted to see history. The DC Mall and huge crowd provided a venue and an opportunity for Nicky to anonymously sleep with a man in order to have a child in this pre-sperm donor, pre-in vitro fertilization world. But the scene’s main purpose was to highlight that Nicky’s rights as a lesbian were not on the agenda. The march was not for her. It did not have her back.
After Paul was born, Nicky and Barbara planned to raise him in the Bluefield home that bore Nicky’s family name for two hundred years. But, once word spread that Nicky was a lesbian, it turned out that two hundred years was not nearly long enough for Nicky to maintain her local status, her insider membership. Sure, change was going to come, but Nicky’s dream for her child turned out to be premature.
While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and '60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was "rumored" or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.
Change, it turns out, is slow and messy. It often stumbles. And there are always casualties. Sometimes the casualties are caused by friendly fire. Many people grew frustrated with the pace of change in the '60s and became disillusioned. Others simply burnt out. I wanted to create characters that avoided the “loud and proud” megaphone, in-your-face lifestyle that was so much a part of the time but were in it for the long term.
author Elan BarnehamaNicky and Barbara never apologized for who they were, and they never pretended to be straight. They didn’t go to elaborate lengths to cover up who they were. Their focus was to create a life together and have a family. They kept their lives to themselves and shared it only with the people they cared about. They were trying to get from one moment to the next safely, with grace, integrity, and love. By doing that, they became the role models they lacked. When their lives became other people’s business—like Carol Ann, Nicky’s sister—they were at risk.
Blending stories into the study and contemplation of the past has the potential to turn history into the active experience that it is. And since fiction must be believable, what the characters did, how they acted, what they thought, the decisions they made, all had to have been possible. The reader has to think it could have happened that way.
Everyone enters the world in the middle of great events—not all of them good. We can choose to embrace our lives or whine loudly about our circumstances. Or we can muster the courage to imagine a different life, a life that has yet to exist.
Posted: 04/10/2013 12:11 pm
Given a choice, I always choose funny. As a rule, I prefer to laugh so as not to cry. If funny isn't a choice, I add it. When nothing is sacred, everything becomes sacred. Seeing the funny, that makes my day better. As long as shaming is not the intent, I'm in.
I credit, others blame, Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton and J.D. Salinger and Toni Morrison. And the Smothers Brothers
, The West Wing
, The Wire
, and China Beach
. They all have some serious funny. Just the stuff I need to get by.
But lately I've been finding it all less funny. It worries me that I could be running low on irony. That absurdity has become absurdly commonplace. That satire is turning tired and tiresome. It's not their fault. It's ours.
When a Southern Carolina couple puts their 16-year-old daughter up for adoption because she is gay, I'm not laughing. When Michelle Shocked goes on a homophobic rant in the middle of her concert, or when North Dakota gives legal protections to human embryos but not the women whose bodies house them, I can't even muster up a smirk. And when North Carolina declares that it has the right to establish Christianity as the official state religion, or when twenty percent of Republicans claim that President Obama is the anti-Christ, confirming that the U.S. is in the midst of a religious war, I can no longer find a laugh.
These behaviors are the newest normal and they are far too commonplace to keep on being funny. While I am a fan of Jon Stewart and of Steven Colbert and of all their writers, I really wish they had less material to work with. I wish their jobs were a lot harder.
There are many issues facing us globally, nationally, for which there is no wrong or right answer. Instead screaming immoral and slinging insults at those who have a different opinion, why is it not possible to muster even a little cultural respect for those who believe differently then us? If we do not find a way for all sides to recognize that each choice is imperfect and each choice can be difficult then we will not have to worry about vanquishing the enemy without as we, the enemy within are becoming a formidable enemy of everything this nation was founded on.
The Founders understood that they couldn't predict the future. Luckily, they were more than capable of drafting a living document that allowed for a vibrant society in which differing views could and should coexist. They did not expect everyone in the union to be the same, live the same way, or think the same way. But they did expect that each member of these United States be united by the common interest of the nation's well-being. And that interest was best served by freedom of information.
So, my funny wants to know: When did we become afraid of information? When did options become obsolete? When did we abandon the freedom to learn?
My funny may not be your funny, but all us deserve to laugh.Follow Elan Barnehama on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elanbarnehama
The Writer's Dig March 5, 2013 | Guest Column Writer's DigestI wrote a novel whose two main characters are lesbians. This confuses some people because I am not a lesbian. Because I am also not a woman. And because I am not gay.
When I set out to write my novel, Finding Bluefield, I did not expect my main character to be a woman, much less for that woman to fall in love with another woman. But there I was, a straight man hooked by these two characters, Nicky and Barbara, and their voices, and the story they wanted me to tell. As I ventured into unfamiliar-for-me- situations, my characters, Nicky and Barbara, found themselves in 1960’s Virginia navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous.
I couldn’t be more different than Nicky. Nicky was a seventh generation Virginian whose family had farmed the same land for over 200 years. For my part, I am a first generation US, born and raised in New York City by parents who spoke with thick accents and gave me a name other kids found impossible to
pronounce. Add to that a vision condition that alienated others, and I was a poster child for “the outsider”. But my character Nicky went abruptly from insider to outsider, harshly felt the rejection of her community, the unexpected exclusion from her family, and there we found common ground. But, while both Nicky and I were angry, a bit surprises, and understandably frightened, she was never ashamed of who she was. As a child, I was. But if I had given any weight to specific details of what happened to me as a child I would never have let Nicky have the correct response for her and for the novel.
I’m not sure who started encouraging writers to “write about what you know”. At first glance it seems to make sense. Why not write about what I know when I know so much? When I’ve done so much? When I’ve seen so much? But the writing process disproves this theory because the story is always better served by the narrative that could happen, that should happen.
At the same time, writing about what I don’t know doesn’t mean I can’t use what I know. I loved watching the first moon landing and there’s a scene in Finding Bluefield where Nicky, Barbara and their son Paul watch the first moon landing with their neighbors. It took me a couple of passes to forget the
details of my memory and create something new. Something within the reality of my characters. Something I didn’t know.
In Finding Bluefield I wrote about characters who are different from me by gender, race, background, and religion. There’s that risk of getting everything wrong. But isn’t that where the fun is? Making things up? Finding the truth in the unknown? It’s not always easy or comfortable, but I’ve learned to trust
my characters and I’ve learned that the story truth is found in writing into the unknown.
In an early draft of the novel, I wanted Nicky to name her son Leroy, the name of her co-worker who told her about the bus tickets to the March on Washington—which is where she got pregnant. It seemed like a fitting gesture, a noble tribute. But it was a really bad idea and Nicky would never have thought it, let alone considered it. The mere hint that Leroy, a Black man, was in any way connected to her pregnancy in 1963 Virginia would have been had very bad consequences for Leroy and Nicky. Naming her son Paul after his grandfather was really the only name Nicky would have considered because she wanted her son to be accepted as a member of the community she grew up in.
When I trust my characters to decide what must happen, I give myself opportunities to stumble onto the unexpected truth, the accidental truth, the story truth, which is so much more interesting than my memory truth. It doesn’t always go as planned. At one point, I wanted Nicky to ask her friend Andy to marry her and raise Paul with her in order to allow her stay in Bluefield. Andy would have done it if I insisted. Clearly, this would have been a betrayal of Barbara and of Andy of Paul, and most of all, of Nicky. The novel would have been a different and it may have worked but it would not have been Nicky’s story. Instead, in that scene with Andy, Nicky portrays her panic, her naiveté, and her unconditional love for Andy.
Maybe the real distinction, and I imagine this is true for many fiction writers, is that all my writing is autobiographical—in that it comes from me—but it’s not biographical, because it’not about me.
In the end, if readers are able to connect with Finding Bluefield, it’s going to be through the essence of my characters’ humanity and the truth behind who they are and where they are going.
The obvious question is how do I know what I don’t know? The answer is that I don’t. I just write into unfamiliar territory and see what happens because I know that’s where the answers lie. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I get sidetracked. If I’m lucky I find my way. But the journey, yes the journey, is
always worth it.