Monday, November 15, 2010

A retreat into the kitchen

I haven’t written in awhile. Not here, not anywhere else. To be frank, I just haven’t felt like it. I realized a few months ago that all my composition was being done in the kitchen—in pumpkin bourbon cake, in potato leek soup, in Brussels sprouts and quiche with roasted beet salad. And that was ok with me. I took pride in my tangible accomplishments, in the compliments at work and from friends. I knew that I was making something of value, something that made people feel good.

Every time I’ve thought about writing, I’ve gotten a little afraid, really. It’s like when you put off that thank-you note you’ve been meaning to send—after awhile, the grotesque lateness of the note completely overrides any goodwill of sentiment, and it becomes impossible to send. Or maybe the only parallel with that example is the guilt, the sense of “supposed to” that just never becomes enough to actually do it.

I’ve been working a lot. In the last six months, maybe nine, I’ve found my place at work, and I’ve been filling it. I’ve been trying to make myself indispensable, trying to line up more people to need me. I work hard and then I come home and cook. I finish cooking and I eat, then I don’t really have much left. I talk on the phone to friends, I watch television on my computer, and I read sometimes.

I make excuses to myself for the writing. I think about how I need to move over to fiction, but I have no characters, nobody alive in my brain except the me me me. I even jotted down some notes on the bus a few days ago. I wrote a little elegy for my grandpa on his birthday in mid-October. I’ve maintained good conversations and I’ve read some great books.

I could turn this bit into an allegory for my dating life. I could pull the taffy of this piece into a two-flavor essay, the fear of writing but also of reopening myself to others. I could paint the scene in a few colors: the dull red glow of both my new humidifier and my clock radio as I can’t sleep, the light of the computer bouncing off my caramel-colored glasses, the familiar grey and purple print of my duvet cover forming a mountainous background to the computer on my lap. The startling loudness of my keys clicking away for the first time in months—it’s all there.

But I won’t. Instead, I’ll define myself in a new bundt pan; the thick, gorgeous cream that forms when butter and sugar are mixed firmly by hand; the most perfect breakfast sandwich with banana pepper, bacon, and an egg cooked just to yolky perfection; a butternut squash lasagna with basil béchamel; beets so sweet they stain my hands; corn chowder with caramelized onion and andouille sausage… Composition so perfect it lasts only a few days, maybe even a few moments. I’ll take it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Purchased and Forgotten

We have the internet now! We've been without since Memorial Day, and here's something I wrote in the meantime that I thought would make a good blog. Title coordinates to the below: I would never forget my internet purchase.

I made it about a block and a half before I realized I’d forgotten my book in the store. I paused, just after crossing under the El, rummaging through my purse and finding it devoid of book.

“Do you need a bag?” the girl had asked after a particularly flustered transaction. I’d spoken softly and dropped the pen and any other number of insignificant gestures.

“No, thanks,” I’d answered, and she set the book on the high counter, next to my lunchbox.

I had simply grabbed my lunchbox, closed up my wallet, and forgotten to sweep the book up. I turned where I stood on the sidewalk, passed again by the bartender having a slow 6:30pm cigarette, by the smelly homeless man who’d murmured something about sex as I’d passed the first time, by the music club where I’d last been with you.

I walked back in the store and a different person was behind the counter, a guy. “I,” I started, “forgot your book?” he finished. We both smiled and I looked down at the book, seeing a new addition. The girl had affixed a yellow post-it to its front.

“Purchased + forgotten,” she’d scribbled in script big enough to cover the whole sheet. Purchased and forgotten.

I had bought the book almost from habit, from necessity. I was taking a trip the next day and needed something to read on the plane. I’d had a long day, a long week, and I needed an interaction with the outside world that felt normal. This used book store feels like mine now when I walk in it, and it’s comforting. I mostly just wanted to do something that felt like me that didn’t remind me of you, but as always that proved impossible.

The book was Sarah Vowell’s “Take the Cannoli,” a collection of essays. I made it about halfway through before I realized she had written most of its contents while living in Chicago, working for Chicago Public Radio. Just like me (if she had been a sales assistant instead of a contributor to This American Life). The first few had me in stitches, but I was sad to realize that a few moments dragged, that every line wasn’t spectacular.

I still don’t know how I feel about the book. Mostly I enjoyed reading it. Mostly I thought she did some nice things with language, with engaging the reader and not making it easier on us. I don’t know, I guess maybe I felt some of it was forced.

This morning, digging for chapstick, I found that post-it on my nightstand. Purchased and forgotten. The book long since finished, I kept the post-it, the accusation of my inability to hold on to what I thought I valued, or to be held onto; the label I felt sometimes belongs on my forehead. I’m glad I read the book, and I’m glad I went back for it. But I’m still not sure it was the right purchase.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Volcanoes and Grocery-Store Tulips

I'm on day 2 of stranded, day 11 of vacation. I landed in London on a Saturday morning, intending for a long week of vacation and rejuvenation with a friend who's been here since 2006. I'd explore London while he worked, then the two of us would scoot to Paris for a few nights for some real excitement. When we met at the train station to catch a train to Paris, we beheld the beginning of the chaos--the volcano had erupted that morning, and flights from noon onward had been rerouted. That was on Thursday, and today is Monday. British airports have been solidly closed, due to a large cloud of volcanic ash invisible in the clear blue skies. My Sunday flight home was canceled, and I found myself, in a pattern developing these few months, with broken plans.

So I sucked it up and stayed in London...sounds tough, I know.

My friend's flat here is large and lovely, with four bedrooms and four inhabitants. The neighborhood is quiet and the backyard is a lovely patio with two benches perfect for grabbing some spring sunshine. The house is a tall, narrow thing, with several sets of stairs. I am sleeping in the living/dining room, on a long red couch from Ikea. The only other communal room is the kitchen, so I feel bad for hogging half of the shared space. While I was vacationing, I wasn't around too much, but now that we are in the holding pattern, I've set up camp with a computer in this living room. Not only am I haunting the common space, but I'm a whole second person that my friend feels responsible for.

Naturally, I decided to make a curry, to try for amends. Not a British curry (Indian), but a Thai curry. I went to the store today to pick up supplies (Thai curry paste is not easy to find in English grocery stores), and saw all the flowers for sale. I always think it's lovely to come home to fresh flowers, so I thought it would be a nice touch. I went for some tulips, a big batch, and carried them home in their special flower bag. I always feel like Mrs. Dalloway when I'm walking home with a bundle of flowers and some festive foods.

I got home and divvied the flowers up in the kitchen and common room. No one had arrived home from work yet, so I was quite pleased with myself, the empty house, and the flowers and curry supplies.

The food went over famously, but standing in the kitchen with three males, all of a sudden, I found my tulips being mocked! They weren't mocking me for buying flowers, so much as teasing each other over the idea of bringing flowers home to men. My friend is American, and the other two are English and French Canadian.

It has been fun being in London, because all the people I've met have represented a fair swatch of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Ireland, France, etc. But standing in the kitchen with those boys, laughing about tulips, I felt like maybe I wasn't so far from home after all.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Work in the Big City

This is why my job is cooler than your job. Today, someone sent out an all-staff email, looking for a lost water bottle. Another person replied with one that said he could not find his John Deere mug ("Really, it's true" he said.) He finished with this:

I guess nothing runs (away) like a (john) deere (coffee cup).

I could not help laughing aloud. On a day where I supremely don't feel like laughing, aloud or otherwise. ("Really, it's true.") This morning, on the train, I hit a new low (or high, depending on who you talk to). I was trying to board, and as the train pulled up, I was a little worried at the number of people around me on the platform. But then I saw that the middle aisles were clear, and so I knew I'd be ok. The doors opened, and the area inside the door was rather crowded. I stood with one foot on, one foot off, waiting for people to shuffle and make room for the new people boarding. But no one did it. I looked down the aisle, still half empty, and finally I yelled, "Move IN!" And they did.

It's 70 degrees and beautiful today. It's supposed to snow on Saturday. I think these extremes are what the lit nerds call "pathetic fallacy."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Check, check

Yesterday, I went to my friend Todd’s house to work on this interminable project for my dad. Dad, who designs crash-prevention radio equipment for airplanes, was looking for some new voice talent to read traffic messages that would play for pilots while in the air.

When my dad gets an idea in his head, he always thinks it will be easy to accomplish. Then, he takes the most circuitous, complicated way of accomplishing it that is humanly possible. That’s why he’s an engineer, and I spend my free time writing my feelings. Anyway, this project seemed easy at first: record my voice, reading several messages, and send the files to Dad for insertion into the program. I had access to recording equipment and a list. Files were recorded, and sent. I was ready for my mile-high fame.

Then, the first set of files didn’t work for Dad. Instead of admitting that he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to audio files, he insisted that I use this specific, ancient software that is a free download and can only be used on a PC. I borrowed a friend’s laptop, and spent a long afternoon shoving my face as close to the laptop’s mic as possible, trying to get the messages to record at a uniform volume. They worked well enough, and he put them in the trial run of the program.

Now, he’s ready to throw some money at this, so I’m ready to re-record. He wanted a male voice too, so I contacted Todd, who has a home studio and enough free time to help me out. Plus, Todd is a teacher, so he’s always up for extra money. I went to Todd’s after work, and he had this giant mic all set up in his kitchen. We were ready to roll.

We recorded our samples fairly quickly, and laughed a lot about messages like “Fail,” which Todd, in his Chicago accent, kept pronouncing closer to “fell.” We got the ones we liked, and then remembered an inspired clip that Abi came up with. I went to the mic for one last time: “One, ah ha ha ha!” Just like the Count, from Sesame Street. Then I laughed a real laugh (hello, the Count is hilarious), which Todd caught on the recording.

I went back to his computer to listen to it, and Todd was laughing hysterically. “Look at your normal laugh,” he said, “it’s perfectly metered.” I looked at his recording software, and saw four blobs, growing slightly in size, but spaced precisely the same difference apart. “Play it,” I told him, so he did, and we both giggled and the sound of my recorded, staccato laugh.

He wasn’t exaggerating. It was strange. It was almost like hiccups, but more precise. I realized something. “Todd,” I said, “we are looking at the graphic representation of the intense energy I am spending controlling every outward motion of my body.” And it was true. Listening, it was almost like “ok, I can laugh now, but hold on one sec, don’t want to overdo it, ok again.” I am so lost in my own head right now that my body has kicked into major social survival mode. Made for a good Count, though.

I’ve always been pretty interested in the way the body and mind interact, especially as someone whose crazy mind is always affecting her body. It used to be that my mind-body connection was specifically a mind-stomach one. These days, I think I’m physically internalizing it all in my head. I’ve had a headache for a week and a half, and I haven’t slept solidly through a night in just as long. And now, I think the sheer force of my stress has left me open for some strange cold. I haven’t been sick since Thanksgiving, which might be a personal record for me. I keep trying to will myself well, but I don’t think it works like that. Laughing is good though, even if it is in staccato.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back and Crankier Than Ever

And now, I pose the question: can one make up for lost time with an obscene amount of words? I didn't think so, but bear with me.

A particular friend of mine has been a good commiserator about our current inundation of weddings and babies (the babies are more her thing, I’ve only got a direct line on one of those). Every time I look at my calendar, flooded with weddings, I feel a little bit of dread. Dread at spending the money, dread at the same old circus with the same old people in the same three churches. But every time I actually attend one of these weddings, I’m filled with joy—these are my friends, people I love, being truly happy and inviting 400 people to share in this happiness. I think it’s safe to say that I’m torn on the idea of weddings, but here’s the rub: I worry that for people my age, wedding is getting thrown above marriage. With these big productions, we forget that these people are having more than just one big day. They’re changing their entire lives forever. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but really, isn’t that what they’re doing?

So for purposes of this discussion, you should be coming away from that paragraph with two thoughts: Beth is afraid of getting married at this point in time, but she’s very happy for her brave friends who are up for it. And in this frame of mind (combined with a somewhat confusing dating life), I received from my friend the following link: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

I guess “grossed out” is safest way to describe what I felt when I read the title and description for this so-called book. I looked it up at the library, but availability was low. Then I realized that I have a list of actually rewarding books I want to read, so I settled on a compromise: the article excerpt, as originally published in The Atlantic. (The Atlantic!?!?)

The pendulum swung as I read. I began angry, became furious, calmed to disbelief, hit depression, quickly transferred that to condescension, found a point of concurrence, and bounced back over to questioning. I came away wondering: who the hell is this written for? It seems that she’s speaking in the voice of a middle-aged mother, lecturing the young and marriageable. Settle now, ladies, before you’re stuck with a sperm donor and no partner to trade off duties with. So first, she’s assuming that we all want kids. [As someone very, very afraid of marriage, I find it hard to admit that yeah, I probably will want to have kids someday, but there it is. I guess you could say that I’m her target audience here.] But I know plenty of people with no interest in children, and I don’t see this changing. Maybe she should put this in her already frightening title: “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough so you can pop out some kids who act as entitled as you do.” With a title like the one she actually chose, she obviously wants the book to appeal to a broader audience than the child-hungry twenty-something. In the article, the only argument she makes is that you should settle so you can start a family. Which still grosses me out.

But let’s get to a dissection of the article, shall we?

“And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.”

Let’s look at her tone here. It’s hard to discuss tone with just a two-sentence snippet (more are below, for other purposes). I read the whole piece in two sittings. It took two because I was just too angry to continue after sentiments like the one above. I think she’s trying to make me, or any single woman, a little mad here. But why does she get to speak for all women? From the scant bio at the bottom of the piece, I can tell that she’s a successful writer, assumably living on the East Coast (I picture Manhattan, but can’t remember if this is true or not). This woman is in no way living a normal, everygirl life. She had the money not only to have a child with one income, but to create that child in a lab, and have it implanted in her body. I don’t think insurance covers that. In fact, I don’t know that most writers HAVE insurance. So yes, I’m angered by her condescension here. (I could also do a stylistic analysis of the prose—the use of first/second person, the interjections via commas, the “joke” and the use of “silly” with “disingenuous,” all adding up to a wanna-be conversational style while still trying to keep the reader down so that she’s the expert. But that would be boring.)

“Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is—look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.”

First of all, the mothers thing. She refers to the wisdom of mothers a few times throughout this article. I suppose that’s not strange, since her message is all about enabling motherhood. I don’t know about you, but my mother has never encouraged me to be less picky about the manboys I date. Because my mother isn’t like all mothers—because all women aren’t the same. Imagine it.

Second of all, how about holding out for self-respect? How can you respect yourself if you don’t respect your partner? This is horrifying. The word is PARTNER, not robot who shares in child-rearing tasks. Another quote:

“My friend Alan, for instance, justified his choice of a “bland” wife who’s a good mom but with whom he shares little connection this way: ‘I think one-stop shopping is overrated. I get passion at my office with my work, or with my friends that I sometimes call or chat with—it’s not the same, and, boy, it would be exciting to have it with my spouse. But I spend more time with people at my office than I do with my spouse.’”

What is the point of having a partner if you’re getting all your passion filled at the office? Just don’t get fucking married. Don’t have kids. I feel like this man is doing his kids a disservice by creating a passionless family life. Why do you have kids if you spend more time at work than you do with your spouse? Gross.

There’s a lot of pop culture in here, from “Friends” to “Will & Grace” to “Say Anything.” I’ll just include the quick note that I wrote after reading her discussion of this stuff: THERE’S A WHOLE PARAGRAPH ABOUT “FRIENDS.” WHAT THE FUCK. She says just two paragraphs above to ignore what our culture says, then she measures behavior by TV shows.

Later, she goes into why her books are different than those other self-help books, where she has the gall to make fun of, to mock self-help books she admits to reading. Because those other sarcastic, plucky books for lonely women are different from this sarcastic, plucky book for lonely women. At one point, she makes the argument that avoiding settling is a further form of the invincibility that you feel as a young person: “Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality.” Yeah, this sounds a lot different than self-help to me. Empower yourself in no longer thinking like a teenager, by facing up to your own mortality. That doesn’t scream lady-filled seminar to me At All.

“Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.”

Let’s ignore the crap around the parenthetical, because Gottlieb finally comes to something that I can agree with. People get confused about ideals and dreams because they can dream about themselves becoming doctors, or writing the great American novel, and (to an extent) can tangibly make that happen. Words can appear on a page, degrees can be earned. But dream people never surface. Maybe it’s because I’m younger than Gottlieb, but I still have the silly hope that when real people surprise me, they’re doing things better than I could dream up. Not just with romantic partners—even my immediate family and my closest friends surprise me in their abilities to love and interact with me.

Last quote, I promise. You still with me on this rant?

“This doesn’t undermine my case for settling. Instead, it supports my argument to do it young, when settling involves constructing a family environment with a perfectly acceptable man who may not trip your romantic trigger—as opposed to doing it older, when settling involves selling your very soul in exchange for damaged goods.”

This whole time I’m wondering, does this woman not have a support system? When I am 40, my mom will be 65. Let’s say I decide not to get married, but at 40, decide I want to have kids. Not only would I count on my parents, but also my three brothers, 2, 6, and 11 years younger than myself. I’d count on aunts, uncles, friends already married and raising kids who at that point will be trotting through junior high. I understand her point that to raise kids, you have to be part of a sturdy family. But I think her playgroups, or wherever she’s getting those bitter-spinster-settler quotes, aren’t providing the “family environment” that I feel now in my simple groups of friends, let alone my actual family. (PS—“Damaged goods?” Hello pot, this is the kettle, you’re black as coal.)

So I think I’ve spent enough words proving to myself that this woman is an idiot, that I’m different, that I’m able to raise a family without some guy who bores me but is stable. If I hadn’t spent so many words on this, I might try to argue a case for women who want conventional happiness (families, husbands, but god, no picket fences) but are smart enough not to read books like this or live lives like the one Gottlieb champions. But I’m betting no one has stuck with me this long, so I’ll call it a day.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The P Word

There’s this habit that I’m really good at—that lots of people I know are good at. It’s such a common thing, almost a joke most times. It’s procrastinating. “Oh, you know me, I never get anything done on time.” “Well, I work best at the last minute.” These lines aren’t even funny, because they’re so clichéd, so overused. We hear “procrastinate” and we think immediately of deadlines, of long nights filled with coffee and blaring screens and the sleepless drunk that settles on a room full of students/workers/creatives when a project is due.

But the procrastination I’m thinking of is a different beast. It’s the supposed-to kind.

I like keeping a blog, or I wouldn’t have started one. I obviously set no specific deadlines for myself. Some friends I know want to post once a week, or three times a month, or even once a day. They set themselves goals and they generally meet them. Sometimes I meet mine. But most times I don’t. There’s this strange self-doubt that creeps in on something so simple as writing a meaningless blog entry (to be seen by, at this point, maybe only five people). Who cares? I tell myself. Why doubt myself on such a moot point? It must be a symptom of something greater.

And indeed, this step-by-step process of excusing the supposed-to’s crops up often in my daily life. I can’t write a blog because nothing funny happened to me today, because I’m too tired, because I have to get ready to go out, because I have nothing positive to say. Each step presents its own logical reason. I can’t take out the trash today because it got too dark and now it’s cold. I can’t apply for that job because my cover letter needs a fresh set of eyes. I can’t finish those dishes because my stressed out body won’t take another second of being on its feet.

The main problem, I’ve realized, is that I ALWAYS have tomorrow to take out the trash, to wash the dishes, to give that cover letter another look. Being unemployed does strange things to people, and this endless wash of time has made me lazier than I’d believed possible. If I’m only supposed to do something, if it should get done today but could probably wait til tomorrow, I’m in big trouble.

Because here’s the thing about procrastinating: once you start, you cannot stop. The trash will sit perfectly well at the top of the outside stairs today because it did yesterday. That job went unapplied for yesterday and another day won’t hurt anything. Then, two weeks have passed, and even though you got the trash in the dumpster, the cover letter still doesn’t exist. And by this time, the job has been posted for a month, and why waste the energy applying for a job that is probably closed by now? Just like that. You are still on your couch, and another job will appear on the website for you to apply for and never hear back from.

I have gotten lucky. I had one interview, then another. A ripple in the routine is always a good shock. And now I have this collection of words, the first one I’ve bothered to create in awhile. I’m lucky on this one because I had someone call me out directly—get back to your stupid blog. (Well, she didn’t call it stupid, but I did. Stupid is OK if it gets you typing.) Now if I could only get back to yoga, I think I’d really be in business…