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Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

Choir Videos

            One of the more nerve wracking parts of my summer has been the process of rehearsing for and recording choir videos. Since my synagogue will be all virtual for the high holidays, and singing in a group over zoom is a non-starter, the cantor and the musical director came up with a plan to create ten choir videos to add to the Zooms, cutting together individual videos of all of the singers and musicians. This means that I listen to a guide track on my headphones, and sing at my computer screen, day after day. It is awful.

“Oh God, she’s singing again.”

            I hate looking at myself. I look like Mrs. Potato Head, but when I tried to look just over the computer screen to stare at the wall instead of at my face, the videos came out disturbing. I deleted one attempt after another until I finally decided to ask my mom to help me decide when it was good enough to send in (because left to my own devices it was clearly never going to be good enough).

            The first song took twenty rehearsals and ten to fifteen deleted videos, the second was not that much better, but by the third, maybe because we were finally singing just the Alto part and I could sing along with the head Alto on the guide track, I did the video in one shot. Three days of rehearsal leading up to it, of course, but even with the Mrs. Potato Head thing still going strong, I was happy with my vocal and willing to send it in.

            We’ve been having zoom rehearsals every two weeks, to familiarize us with the two or three pieces we need to perform before the following rehearsal, and to review the technological issues, like accessing the google drive folder where all of the music is hiding, and how to send in the oversized videos. I was so proud of myself after I finished the first batch of videos, and even had two days to go back to ukulele practice before the next rehearsal, but then, of course, the next set of songs were harder than the first.

            My favorite pieces are the ones where I can sing along with the head Alto, both because it’s comforting to hear her voice and because I can focus on the best parts of my vocal range. When we sing along with the cantor I’m usually singing an octave above him, so the notes that are easy for him are tough for me, and it feels more like harmony than unison. There’s something magical about singing the exact same note as someone else, as if there’s a sort of “ding” that goes off in my head that tells me I got it just right.

“Ding!”

            We won’t be doing much communal singing this year at my synagogue. During a normal year we would have a choir rehearsal every other week, just to hang out and learn new music, but with the average age of the choir members in the seventies, and the extra danger of passing Covid while singing, we’ll be staying on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which means we can learn a song, but we can’t sing it together. So I’m trying to make the most of the singing I get to do this summer. There’s some small sense of community from the Zoom rehearsals, but the real power comes from singing along with one other singer and the piano on the guide tracks, and knowing that, eventually, all of the voices will come together, somewhere in the cloud. And if that means I have to sit in front of a computer and stare at my potato head for minutes at a time, so be it.

            Cricket and Ellie have been kind enough not to laugh.

“It’s hard work.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

I want to be back in the classroom in September, not on Zoom

            The staff of the synagogue school where I work is spending the summer, just like every other school, planning for the unknown. We’re doing curriculum development and lesson planning, for every scenario, and we’re building our technical abilities, and looking for ways to re-interpret our current ways of teaching for a two dimensional world.

            But it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

            I mean, I’m grateful that we’re doing all of this preparation, so that it won’t feel like we’re being dropped into a sea of ice cold water, again. And I’m grateful that the technology exists, both to allow us to work together from afar all summer, and to build up our online classrooms into more interesting places. But I want to see my kids. I want to hear them; without one person’s microphone blocking out everyone else’s, or all of their voices coming at me through a delay, or some of the kids not coming through at all because their internet connections are spotty or because every member of their family is online at once. I want to be able to talk with one of my kids privately, if they seem upset, without everyone else noticing or listening in. I want to be able to make eye contact with the quiet kid in the corner who thinks he’s invisible.

“Can you see me, Mommy?”

            Zoom, even with all of the bells and whistles, and integration with other apps and games and videos, is not the real world. I miss being able to talk to my students and forget what I look like, or what I’m wearing, or how silly I look when I’m trying to dance. I miss seeing all of the other kids in the hallways, and catching the eye of another teacher as we silently ask each other “are you okay?” And I miss being able to shut the door of my car at the end of the day and feel the transition from work to home starting to sink in.

“Be quiet. I’m sleeping.”

            But I really miss being able to close the door of my classroom and knowing that it’s just me and the kids for a while, with no one looking over our shoulders, or recording our conversations, or judging each move we make or each word we say.

            It’s not that my classroom is so awful that it can’t withstand the scrutiny (I hope), but there’s something intimidating about having so many virtual doors and windows open at all times, and not knowing who’s listening in or watching from two feet out of camera range.

“Is somebody watching me?”

            Zoom is so public.

            We had a Zoom class just before Mother’s Day, and I was helping the kids create blessings for their mothers (and fathers, since school was going to end before Father’s Day), and one of the kids started miming at the screen, and then messaged me privately that she couldn’t answer with her mom in the room. Up until that second I had no idea that her mother had been there, just out of range, for the previous forty-five minutes.

            I can be silly with kids in a way I can’t with adults, at least adults I don’t know. I can play the role of the-one-who-knows-things with the kids, whereas with other adults around I’d be more self-conscious, recalibrating each time a new person came in. Just like I would feel different, and probably act differently, with my boss in the room.

I’m the boss.”

            And the kids are different too.

            A lot of the things the kids would have said in the classroom could barely even be thought when they were at home; not because they were unsafe at home (though I don’t know), but because they are different people at home than at synagogue school, and they are much more aware of being overheard, and of being their home-selves; being the big sister, or the good kid, or the chatterbox they are presumed to be when they are at home.

            In the classroom they can try on new behaviors, and say things they wouldn’t say with an audience. At home, even with Mom and Dad in a separate room, their internal censors are on and they are much more careful.

            I don’t really care if I ever step into a shopping mall again, and while I miss movie theaters, I actually like the variety and control and cost of streaming better. I do miss going to synagogue in person, but the alternate-universe-Zoom-synagogue has been a pretty good substitute. But, I miss my classroom, and my kids.

            And it sucks.

“Harrumph.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Emotional Contagion

There are no bombs falling, no explosions or fireworks. The world looks pretty nice, actually, and everyone I can see looks healthy, even with the face masks. There are no workers in Tyvek suits walking the streets spraying for errant Coronavirus droplets. At least, not yet. So, while doing the right thing, and staying home, I feel a bit silly. It’s hard to trust the experts on television instead of what I see with my own eyes. The President clearly struggles with this, too, but those images from Italy and Spain are hard to ignore (the horror stories on Facebook, about monkeys in Thailand starving for the bananas they used to get from tourists, and pets in China dying while their people went into quarantine, and dogs being euthanized because people believe – incorrectly! – that pets can spread the disease, are too much for me to take in).

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“People suck.”

I’m also feeling guilty because my life has not been disrupted as much as the lives of other people. And I feel guilty for being so comfortable with this social distancing thing, and I worry that I will revert to my old levels of isolation and not be able to get back out of it once the threat of infection is over.

Mom was getting cabin fever every day for the first week of the shut down, and looking for any excuse to go out and do “essential” errands, but by the second week she started to settle in and feel the pressure to stay home (from me, mostly). Now, she’s focusing her excess energy on gardening, and sewing, and sitting in on Zoom sessions at Noon each day with the clergy from our synagogue. Her biggest source of anxiety is my brother, who is an emergency room doctor. He’s been downplaying the risks he’s under, but at least he’s been in touch and letting Mom know that he’s still okay.

The more pressing contagion, for me, is being created on social media. There’s this idea that we should be making the most of our time at home, by writing novels, and learning ten languages, and reading hundreds of books, and virtually visiting all of the museums in the world. I don’t know how parents are managing the pressure to homeschool their kids, with every kind of free and not-free educational resource being advertised everywhere, with the implication that if their kids don’t do three years’ worth of school over the next three weeks they will fail life forever. Earn a Ph.D.! Build a robot! Learn how to make a Coronavirus vaccine in your own basement!

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“I won’t be doing that, Mommy.”

I think people might be overestimating how productive this time at home can be.

The instinct for community seems to be strengthening though, even at my synagogue, where we are all about community building, all the time. This crisis has brought out even more awareness that we need each other; that we need to see each other. And it’s so important to us that we’re all learning how to manage Zoom – though a lot of the seniors forget to mute themselves, so while we’re trying to listen to the rabbi’s lesson on census taking leading to plagues in the ancient world, we’re listening to couples arguing about toast, or answering their phones. Sometimes I’m not sure they know they’re on screen, let alone audible.

Ellie and Cricket have been able to go to all kinds of synagogue services and committee meetings and Judaic classes now that synagogue is online, but they’re not sure what to make of it. Zoom, especially, seems to unnerve them.

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“I am never unnerved. I am completely nerved.”

We’re posting our synagogue school lessons on the website instead of doing Zoom conferences with the kids, though the idea of being able to mute my students at will is certainly tempting. I didn’t realize how much I missed my students until a parent sent me a picture of her daughter holding up her class assignment. The sudden thought that I may not get a chance to see them again this year almost broke me.

Another issue during the shutdown has been the disorientation. Reality keeps changing every five minutes, after a phone call or a press conference, and I can’t process it fast enough. All I can do is eat my popcorn (I’m on a new version of Weight Watchers that allows unlimited air-popped popcorn) and watch the news. I’ve been listening to a lot of music too (Yo-Yo Ma is an incredible comfort).

The supermarket has been the most obvious sign of the apocalypse, with empty shelves where eggs and yogurt and chicken and pasta and frozen vegetables used to be. When did Almond milk become such a popular commodity? And frozen spinach? And oatmeal? The toilet paper thing has been disconcerting to everyone. I thought it was just a Facebook joke until I went to my local supermarket for my first Coronavirus-shutdown-shopping trip and saw the empty shelves between the tissues and the paper towels for myself. People are weird.

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There’s some relief to being in a shutdown, as opposed to the state of confusion we were in for the weeks leading up to it, when we were getting mixed messages from the President and the doctors and the news and social media; the constantly changing research about who would be impacted, and which measures could work to slow it down, didn’t help either. It’s a relief to at least know what’s expected of me now, though I still worry that people are looking at me funny when I go to the supermarket without a face mask (where are people getting all of these face masks?!).

Most of the time I feel okay, and prepared, but then someone will say something that makes me worry that I’m not thinking far enough ahead, and the worst is yet to come, and people I know will die, and food will run out, and the financial hardships will last for years in the aftermath of all of this. People are really good at creating disaster scenarios that I’d never have thought of on my own.

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I’m worried for my brother and his kids. I’m worried for the elderly people in my life who are so vulnerable and so important to me. I’m worried about the impact the stockmarket will have on Mom’s retirement fund (an important source of income for our household). And I’m worried for myself, which seems selfish and petty when other people are in so much more danger. And I feel guilty, all the time, for all of my good fortune, and so terrified that it will go away.

I’m still angry that we didn’t get out ahead of this in January, when news from Wuhan, China was so devastating. And I’m angry that we didn’t have testing in place when other countries did, which meant that the virus was able to spread undetected for weeks, or months. I want to feel peaceful and Zen and accepting of my fate, and sometimes I do, but sometimes I really don’t. And it sucks.

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Acceptance is a myth, Mommy.”

My rabbi, who is hyper-rational and proud of it, was brought to tears seeing all of us on Zoom for his class about the concept of the Death of God after the Holocaust, because he does believe, as I do, in the I and Thou of God, the extraordinary Godness of community and togetherness, and how sitting in our separate homes we are still able to come together and learn.

Here’s hoping that as time passes, and the virus passes, we can catch joy and meaning from each other as easily as we catch fear. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

Fingers crossed (from at least six feet away).

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Or closer.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?