Kombucha in the Urals: A Month of Memories

kombucha_zme science

(ZME Science: Image of Kombucha, Colorado State University)

The first time I tasted kombucha I was throwing up in a trashcan in a mountain town in western Siberia known for its natural anthrax growth and for being that last remaining gulag stronghold. I had what was called “the Russian flu,” at the time and my friend, a Russian native, insisted that this stuff–that tasted like a mixture of warm spit and cherry juice–could “heal my bones.” And because my bones ached like they’d been crushed by the violent and rickety wheels of the Tran Siberian Railroad, from which we’d embarked only hours ago, I drank it down. The homespun vodka he’d laced it with helped me to bypass that unique kombucha flavor–the feeling of something lumpy that had already been digested by someone else–and I just kept drinking until the fizz died down and the bits of fermented brown mushroom disappeared down my throat. If it isn’t lumpy and warm, it isn’t really kombucha. Not the Russian standard, anyway.


What’s weird about this memory (besides the fact that it’s totally disgusting) is that it was sunken deep inside the forgetful part of my brain until another friend, in a mountain town in eastern Pennsylvania, dug it up about 20 years later. I was no longer a 16-year-old American, hiding my wishfully clandestine MIG photos from the tiny inept KGB officer that was assigned to follow our group around in the drippy, humid Siberian air in a trench coat. I was 30ish now. The June heat in Pennsylvania didn’t keep the sun aloft until well past midnight like it just halfway between the Arctic Circle and the Black Sea. It was dark by 10pm flat, I had four children now, a husband, I had owned two homes already, I went to college, I had written my first novel. I’d been a writer for more than a decade, in fact. Something I’d promised my Russian friend I would become as soon as I returned home to the United States. Russia tells so many stories, he told me. Just choose one and dance with it.

I remembered a lot about Russia, but I didn’t remember the taste of kombucha until my farmer friend, the one with dirt always under her fingernails and who thought hair brushes were for sissies, shoved a tinted glass mason jar in my face. Try this. Tell me if it’s authentic.You’re the Russian expert. Am I?

The foam from the greenish mountain fungus floated to the top, spilling over the ridge. The scent of sour feet singed my nostrils. Once again, I was sickened, but something inside me was also curious. It was like slowly recognizing an old relative at the family reunion. Something about this encounter made me clutch the jar in both hands and bring it to my lips. This is familiar! I said, cocking my head to the right. I know this!

And that instance, there she was. Russia. She was standing in front of me, smirking, laughing. You’re still a wimp. I drank it down. I threw  up. I was home.

This is generally how I run into her again. Not the friend. We’re actually not even friends anymore. Politics took care of that. But Russia–we’re connected. Friendship has nothing to do with it. It’s all about family reunions. It’s about where my ancestors came from. Where my ancestors fled from, if you want to know the truth. It’s about why I get recognized by Slavs a mile away. Not because I smell like authentic kombucha (I’d have even less friends), but because like the mushroom, Russia sprouts in my life and makes connections at the weirdest times. Family reunions.

So, since I’ve spectacularly failed at my own monthly blogging challenge, friends, I wonder if I might be able to deflect from my failure by demanding a challenge from you: Write about a sensory memory that draws you back somewhere far, somewhere you’d thought you’d left behind long ago. What smell, touch, taste, smell, sight draws you back? Let’s make what’s left of January the Month of Memories.

Write and share, and drink your pansy American kombucha. But that pretty little fizz ain’t remotely authentic enough to change anything. Sorry to break it to you, tough hippies.

Tricky Dick and the Man in Black

Image result for johnny cash cigarette

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison


So, I wrote this whole Day Two blogging challenge post thingy and I really hated it in the end. It was about politics, and I don’t want to talk about politics on Shabbat, the night when we’re all supposed to sit together and eat fattening twisted bread and thank G-d for his many blessings. I want to talk about the documentary I watched today instead.

It was the last day of my week off, which wasn’t much of a week off for a few million busy reasons, but I decided to sit down and watch some Netflix. If you know me you that I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan (Okie here), and I saw that there was a documentary about Johnny and Nixon called Tricky Dick and the Man in Black. 

The documentary begins by showing how patriotic Johnny was, how he “never disrespected the presidency” that this was something he believed firmly in. Then, comes the thousands of deaths in Vietnam, then comes protests in the street. And in the street protests, Johnny sees young people on the hunt for truth, not lies neatly packaged in apple pie. He slowly starts to move away from this idea that if you burn the American flag you deserve to be shot (something he’d announced at more than one concert in the past). He started to think that maybe Americans were being lied to, and only the youth were catching on to this.

So, he’s asked to sing at the White House, because the Republicans believe that country music is teeming with pro-America/pro-Nixon people. Richard Nixon is actually the first president to begin tying Southern culture directly to the image of patriotism and Americanism. The president wants to use Johnny Cash to turn the doubters towards him, just when his popularity is beginning to wane.He believes all they need to do is here a little honkey-tonk and their brains will shut off. The youth also have an affection and trust for the guy whose best selling album was recorded at a California federal prison. He understood something about being authentic, something the emerging Baby Boomer generation was aching for. The president understood this as well.

He was told to sing whatever songs he wished, but told also to include the offensive “Cadillac Welfare” song  and the anti-hippy “Okie From Muskogee” to appeal to Southern bigots. He agreed to, and then, instead sang a song called “What is Truth?”. It made Tricky Dick mighty uncomfortable, and revealed that Johnny knew something, even then, about what a liar that piece of crap in the oval office was. I don’t want to give away everything (though it’s a documentary and not a thriller), but let me just say you should see it. It’s so relevant to say that even presidents can be the worst of people and guys who visit the prisoners can be the best and protesters are exercising their American right to challenge the powers that wish to blind them to reality.


Why Do You Write?

 Cup Filled With Coffee Near Book

It’s been a while since I’ve sat at my writing desk and composed something other than class notes and lesson plans. For a few years now, I’ve been teaching English and Civics to newly arrived immigrants and work skills to the unemployed. I absolutely love my job, but in between getting ESL certifications and going to meetings about how to best reach my students, I’ve neglected my literary muscle. So, in an attempt to create something fresh (so that The Embers of War can finally get finished this winter), I’ve embarked on a 30 day blogging challenge. I hope I don’t forget about it tomorrow.

I know, I know, blogging is on the wane (or pretty much dead), but this isn’t as much about the industry of blogging (is it an industry?) as it is about me making time to remember how to type for creative purposes. If you wish to subscribe, I promise to write something interesting every day. So, here goes:

Person Writing on Red Notebook

Day One: Why Do You Write?

I write because I have something to say. Whether it’s a world that’s being invented inside my head and it needs to come out, an idea that I feel needs to be shared, or just a really good wave of prose that I want to roll out onto the computer screen. Sometimes, the words just come, and since writing is what I did nearly as quickly as I started talking, this is how I express myself. After three novels, one nonfiction book, and a host of articles, marketing materials, short stories, essays, and poems, I can’t just stop writing, because I’m doing something else as well. It’s my breath, really, this writing practice. I breath in reading and exhale script. The day the pen or the keyboard ceases to be my voice is the day the world ends, at least, for me, because before all else–before beloved husband and children, before teaching and learning, before houses and mortgages, before churches and synagogues, I was writing, and it’s who I am. And all of those beautiful, most important people mentioned above, have entered into my writing in the deepest ways now. People say you aren’t what you do, or that your profession is not your identity. Yes, it is. Don’t be stupid. Everything you do is part of your identity. I have written great stuff and real crap. All writers have. I hope to keep up the tradition of writing everything until something good rises to the top. the grit to keep writing is what makes writing successful. Why do you write?

Creating Authenticity in Your Characters


It’s no secret that Hemingway is my favorite writer. From the very first day, during my freshman year of college, when the sun was shining clear and warm through the English department window and I was waiting for my grumpy, eczema-encrusted advisor to give me advice about dropping my “lame duck degree” as he called it, I had decided Hemingway was “it”. He understood things. He said them in a way that sounded like they were coming from my own head.

I was bored and there were no cell phones then, so I picked up my Norton’s Anthology of American Lit and it fell open to “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and I started to read. I knew that my professor didn’t like Hemingway and I loved my professor. She was wonderful, and she encouraged me, every time we spoke about literature, to “always keep writing.” But the minute I began to read Hemingway, I knew why she didn’t favor him over Tennyson, which she had us read often in class. She didn’t favor Hemingway, because he wrote from his brokenness and Hemingway was very broken. But he expressed his losses, his sadnesses, in such beautiful words, and I found that I would read the same line two and three times just to get the feel of the sentence on my tongue. This is how you know you’re reading a writer who writes the way you think: The words compel you to study them and read them over and over, to look for that “thing” that’s capturing your attention so. You know, without a doubt, that you’re finding yourself in there somewhere. Maybe not even in the setting or the characters, but in the cadence of the writer’s voice.

My life was a pretty broken one, too, even though I was a good kid who didn’t drink, swear, or sleep around. Still, something about Hemingway’s words lodged inside my writer brain and stayed there. I wasn’t partier, like Hemingway, and I certainly am not a risk-taker, like he was either. I didn’t hunt large or small game, or brag. Pride has never been a talent of mine. But I was not like the other students at my small Christian college. I realized that immediately, when I discovered that most of them had never been the designated “bloody Mary mixer” at the family Christmas party when they were seven years old. They all spoke quieter, too, with soft Southern voices and did their nails every night. I had a Southern mother who did her nails, but I grew up in southern California, where beauty was cultivated by the sun and good food, not from lacquered nails. The goal was always to wear make-up so that it looked like none was there and that you were healthier than everyone else in your company. I had four parents, each from a different culture and religion, and I had lived in five states by the time I was 18, and I had family who were alcoholics and religious fanatics, so yeah, I came from brokenness, too. Weird, beautiful brokenness, that I would not trade for anyone’s else’s perfection or quietness or lacquered nails. That’s all just a form of brokenness anyway. I’m glad that I know how to mix Bloody Mary’s better than most people I know. It’s all muscle memory now.

I still have brokenness. We all do. This is something that Hemingway understood from the time his mother dressed him in little girl clothes and made sit for family portraits that way.  He understood that he was broken even more when his leg got all shot up in Italy during the Great War, when he loved an older woman while he was recovering, a nurse, and she rejected him, because he was young and didn’t know anything and couldn’t possibly take care of her. And unlike so many other writers of his era, he knew that he couldn’t do anything about changing that broken past, so he used it to carve out good writing. People were drunks. People had affairs. People were depressed. People prayed. People hated and people loved. But the sun was still shining and the weather split through the humanity of all that. Just when he shocks you with a characters’ addictions, he lets the sun shine through the arguments and conversations, and he reminds you, me, and him, that the world still spins despite our human recklessness.

“They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe’ and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind” (Hemingway)

See how he makes the wind enter into the story and he creates shadows and light with it? He reminds us that Nature is bigger than we are, even as much as we believe we can control all things. I love how he did this. I have learned that if you can bring the wind and light, rain and fresh mountain air, into the movements of your characters, they will take better shape. The sun will give them their size and the crunching autumn leaves will give their walk rhythm and your reader will hear them coming.

So, when you’re writing something new, after you’ve finished the general narrative, stand back and look at it. Literally, stand up. Get out of the seat. Print a few pages. One chapter, maybe, and read out loud to yourself. Where is Nature missing in your piece? How are your characters’ senses effected by their natural surroundings? That will make all the difference in how you describe them. It will give them life just as Nature is literally giving us life at this very moment. That’s reality entering your fiction and allowing the reader to identify with it. Then, the brokenness of your characters, and their redemption too, will have more authenticity and won’t just look like you’re trying to affect something real. They will be real, just as you, who writes them, is real.



Characters Matter


A couple months ago, I announced that I was going to quit writing. Some of you don’t care (so, why are you even reading this?) and others wonder why. I know it probably sounds, to some, like I’m a bit erratic, that I’m sudden in my creative movements. But I’m really not. There was a reason, and it was a long time coming. However, I’ve started to write again, because honestly, it’s part of me and what I’ve been doing (paid and unpaid) since 1996.  The world has gone kind of crazy, too, so I feel like I have to say something about that. As a teller of tales, how do I exactly stay away from big stories–good and bad?

Even though I’m “back” now, I’m back kind of reluctantly. Not because I’m reluctant to write. I love writing. It’s what I do. Even the very day I decided I was to “quit writing” I went out and bought a huge notebook and it’s filled now, along with two others, with notes on things I was thinking about. I’m sort of like a turtle. My shell is quite tough; you can even run over me, and I’m likely to be remain intact. But, I have to bring my head in, from time to time, to protect it. I bet even Nora Roberts takes a vacation, even though rumors say she doesn’t.

I get punched (mostly by family, long time friends and fellow writers), and I take it all in, all the guilt and all the shortcomings. They’re all my fault (even when they’re not), and I embrace them, but I embrace them within myself. I stew there and return when I’ve cut away some bits of me of that bring me discomfort.

I have endured some pretty virulent attacks from writers at a former publisher I worked with, because I challenged their “unique” approach to publishing. It wasn’t working for me and most of their hundreds of writers. I posted a pro/con list. I was, essentially, blacklisted. I was called a liar and a lot of other things by people who knew me and didn’t. There were some terrible things said, friends who still had my back told me, but I left right away, retreated into my shell early, so I don’t even know what the worst things were. That made me delete several hundred social media contacts in self-preservation. I shaved a good portion of my personality and left it on the cutting floor. It’s blown away by now. I’m really not sure how else to deal with such things. It seems the best option, the quietest way to stop the noise.

A cousin of mine had words with me over the summer about a post I wrote about parents raising their kids to be bullies, or at least, not dealing with their children who are bullies. My children are only half-white. My daughter’s bullying experience was because she was not white, and I expressed this. My cousin shot me down. She said I was wrong. Bullying has nothing to do with racism, all kids–especially mine–needed to experience a little more hardship. She said this even though we’d never met in person, even though she’s thousands of miles from me.  I stewed, but I didn’t say anything more about it. I retreated.

The presidential campaign happened. The same cousin made her thoughts on “the other side” quite clear. If you disagreed with her, you were just an unreasonable, nasty person. I stewed. A lot of people disagreed, because they felt they hadn’t been heard.

The election came, she made a statement that hurt me, though it was aimed nowhere near me. I took it personally, because I chose to and because it related to how I felt about the election results at the time. I unfriended her. Not because I didn’t want her around anymore, but because I assumed she would be better off without me. She’d made it pretty clear for several months, that I was no longer part of her inside circle, that I was on the opposite side of her fence. She didn’t appreciate that assessment from me, “If you’d come down off your high horse, you’d realize that no one cares what you think. Your words don’t matter.”

There was a lot more, but that last line I took inside with me to my shell, and I went silent. I had no desire to write anything. I don’t mind defending others. I have no fear, whatsoever, about that, but I hate coming to my own defense. She’s right, and I knew it. No one cares what I have to say. I’m not important, but I don’t pretend to be or think I am either, so I didn’t get sad. I just didn’t have any feeling about any of it anymore, and I quit writing.

I have a degree in Cognitive Studies. I have several years of experience teaching, tutoring and offering behavioral therapy to people with autism (mostly on a volunteer basis). I figured I could do that from now on and leave the writing to people whose words are important. However, I have a neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis, so leaving my house consistently is, also, not practicle, so guess what? Guess who’s still inside her shell, but inside with her laptop? I can handle critics and reviewers. I love a good editing from someone who wants to shape my story well, or who has good advice on what scenes and characters to cut, but I don’t handle personal attacks well. I don’t usually fight back, but I do lose some of myself each time. I can’t help it. I was just grown this way.

Yes, for the seven people who care, I’m still writing and I’m still submitting and I’m still trying to figure out how to customize my personal Facebook page so sharply that it prevents about 80% of my readers from seeing what I’m saying. My existence offends people sometimes, and I’m kind of tired of that, so those who know me in the flesh will see less of me. And those who know me online will see some of me. But those who read my stories will see more of me. It’s there where you will find me, and that’s probably how things will stay. This election year has taken a lot out of me, and a lot of other people I know, too. After a time inside the shell, I’ve realized that I’d much rather write than talk, and I definitely don’t enjoy posting at all, but I will do that sometimes anyway. After all, social media is where everything is now, like it or not.

I am finishing up The Embers of War series, my prose is in a new Feminine Collective anthology called Love Notes and I have a new women’s commercial fiction piece that I will be submitting to a couple of agents soon enough. It takes place in the land of my childhood, southern California, where my imagination wants to go when I need warmth and free smiles. We shall see what becomes of it. Thank you to those who have stuck around. My characters have much to say, and they’re grateful for the attention.

The End.

Free Webinar: How To Make a Living As An Online Freelance Writer, Part I


A lot of people have asked me over the years to guide them through their freelance writing careers. I’ve been doing this since 1996, so I’ve learned a lot of tips and skills for making a living as a freelancer. If you’re interested in learning more about it, as well, register for my webinar below. Bring all your questions, doubts, and a good pencil, because you’ll walk away with more notes than you imagined.

Please register for my FREE webinar next Wednesday, How To Make a Living As an Online Freelance Writer Part I: Using Services Like Upwork, Guru and Fivver on Jun 8, 2016 7:00 PM EDT at: 


Have an MFA or a degree in English? Sick of your non-writing day job? In this webinar Amazon bestselling author, and 20 year veteran freelance writer, Tiffani Velez, will reveal some very important tips for launching a successful work-from-home Writing Career.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Brought to you by GoToWebinar®
Webinars Made Easy®

Do You Miss LA?


Downtown LA

(Fan Pop)

To answer the question I’ve been asked three times this week, “Do you miss LA?” No. I miss California in the winter, but I never miss LA. It’s a wonderful place to be from and to be at, but I don’t miss it. Also, I was from Ventura Country. That’s not exactly LA. It’s southern California 100%, but not LA. Any Angeleno will confirm this immediately and loudly if you ask.

What I do miss is the South. I miss Texas sometimes, Tennessee, and Georgia. Places where my people are from. No one related to me is from LA. I don’t miss Oklahoma, but I think on it with affection, my birth state. I remember its red dirt and its wide open spaces, and all the Indian names. Chickasaw, Okemah, Broken Arrow, Ten Killer Lake. While California wins with exotic Spanish saint names, and  I don’t have any difficult feelings associated with southern California, I just don’t miss it.

I miss Napa and the Ventura foothills on occasion. I miss Santa Barbara and even Santa Paula, with all its dusty orchards and winding mountain roads leading to Ojai. I don’t miss Ojai. That place was weird in a Salem, Massachusetts sort of way, and all the “gift stores” smelled like spiced pot and French soap. I miss driving past the ranches of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria. I even miss Oxnard strawberry fields and careless afternoons watching pretend surfers wrangle the baby waves at Silver Strand. Don’t miss Long Beach (who does?) or Anaheim or Westlake (again, why?).

I have good, messy childhood memories of Thousand Oaks, though, when kids from southern California still played in roving bands that ran around the cul-de-sac barefooted on the their bikes. I don’t know if Thousand Oaks is still like that, but my memories of it are that way, and I think of the summer and fall I spent there, before we moved to Oxnard, as lovely. Dirty and sunburnt and lovely.

I don’t miss any of the freeways or Hollywood or any of that. But, God help me, Pennsylvania winters make me want to puke, and nothing in California ever made me feel that way. Except North Hollywood and Tarzana. Those can be a puke-worthy place. So, if LA became its own country, I’d be fine with that. If I never drive on another LA freeway, I’d be fine with that. If I never saw another sunset over the Pacific, I’d be sad. There’s nothing else like it. But I’ve settled here in the Appalachian foothills and they’re fine, too. If I wasn’t literally allergic to the cold, I would die in this Ugly Old Farmhouse as an old lady, with a book in my hand and a dog at my feet.

I plan to move South as my children age. I need the sunshine and the warmth. I break out in anaphylaxis when it gets below 40 degrees. When it gets below 50, really. I blame all of that on my Southern birth and my southern California upbringing. The sunshine raised me. The dry desert air and the subtropic humidity of the low plain states. I just can’t handle the pressed-down molecules of winter in Pennsylvania anymore. Still, even the possibility of dying because I ran outside to get the mail and I didn’t wear enough wool, doesn’t make LA tempting to me. California, yes. LA, no. So, to answer your question, those who’ve asked. I don’t miss LA. I miss year round sunshine though. But when Pennsylvania gets over her obsession with freezing rain and blizzards and lets the spring break through, this is the view from my living room window. It’s almost like Bougainvillea, right?



My Pennsylvania Dogwood Tree

(courtesy me, Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

The Gate


Berlin, Mauerbau, Checkpoint Charlie


(Photo of East German guards reviewing passports at Berlin Wall. Courtesy: Bild Budesarchiv)

I have been working on, The Gate, the next installment in the Embers of War Series for several months now. It will be done soon and made available shortly after that. I can’t tell you, my dear readers, how different this books is from A Berlin Story. Yes, it’s dark, all that gray/brown of the Soviet era, but it’s intense and nonstop. The people just never stop running. So much hunger. I love these characters. Slices of Russian and German spill out into all the margins, where the Cold War has pushed itself to the center of the story and new terms appear–Air Lift, Stalin, the Wall. I can’t wait to share it with all of you soon.

And the whole series is getting a new cover, thanks to designer extraordinaire, Gayle Hendricks. More info to come. I’m pushing Mitya and Annalise forward daily, and they’re both at the edge of nervous breakdowns, but controlled ones that just simmer madly at the surface, because anything more would land them in Siberia.

If you haven’t read A Berlin Story, catch up before The Gate comes out!


Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑