Friday, January 27, 2012

Big and Little


When Wally’s upset in the hallway school sometimes I see a teacher gently grab him and say, "Is this a big deal or a little deal?" Dropping a raisin on the floor is a little deal. Not getting to press the button for the elevator is a little deal. Kids learn easily which things deserve tears and attention and which things you just shake off. 

Sometimes I feel I'm able to employ that method. Yes you may feel upset or annoyed, but you can still quantify something as a big or little deal and act accordingly. Scowl from neighbor, exciting project that fell through, cold email from friend who is annoyed you can’t come to her dinner party—all little deals.

I’d been good for a while, keeping perspective, helped along with things like the virtual food drive my sister opted for this year for her birthday instead of gifts*, and Zen sayings that come in Yogi tea like “When eating, eat. When walking, walk” and my friend SB’s reminder about how when volunteering in Haiti you have to bring iodine so you can purify and drink the water. That should be enough right there to put every day in perspective. If you can start your day drinking a glass of water without adding iodine to it to be sure that it won’t kill you, that’s enough. You can stop right there. Whatever else happens that day, you have to keep that as an anchor. My father has been using the expression "First World Problem" whenever tempted to complain about their leaking roof and the enormous sums of money they keep pouring into it (apparently with no sign of progress). 

As an aside, home renovations or repairs as a topic of discussion are off-limits.** This needs to be added somewhere to Conversation New Rules. You can--if absolutely necessary--make passing mention of the fact that you are having some work done on your house but you must end the discussion there! No details about rafters or or sawdust or taking things out of the crawl space in the attic or how inconvenient it is to have contractors around all day not be able to use the 2nd floor bathroom. And not because it falls into the First World Problems category (if I couldn't complain to friends about minor stuff, half the relationships I have would dissolve) but because it is unforgivably dull. You cannot torture people with area-lighting, vinyl flooring, or details about using tarps to cover your furniture.]

Okay, so lately I'd been good about separating big and little, and then last week the "little" started to invade in such a big way. A misunderstanding with other parents at what should have been a fun get-together for the PTA led to people leaving in tears and frustration and stirring about it all weekend and even into the week. I myself left shaken and off balance and unable to stop talking about it the rest of the day and even with friends that night at a Himalayan Art exhibit at the Rubin Museum (free every Friday 6-10!). Staring at dozens of portraits of Buddha in tranquil repose did not help; I could not stop ruminating about the upsetting events of the day. 

To be fair, it wasn't merely uncomfortable like a run-in with a crazy person at Gristedes. It is about Wally's school, and the area of disagreement is still murky, and it has become kind of awkward, even for those of us --all of us I think -- doing our best to "drop it". 

Still, it has preoccupied me and swallowed up good working or playing hours in a way that's out of proportion. And there's one other preoccupation that won’t compartmentalize itself, and that has to do with payment and contracts for freelance writers and editors. This year is really my first "go" at trying to maintain a freelance lifestyle without full-time care of a toddler. In 2010 I came to blows with a publisher over a contract for a book I wrote. Basically, there is a standard contract, and naturally it protects the publisher and leaves the writer vulnerable. For a fee of $1500 or so (and if you’re lucky, a tiny royalty deal, let's see if anything ever comes of it), you agree to unlimited liability for anything bad that comes out of publishing the book ever. You indemnify the publisher against, basically, everything. Even though it could be their idea (in this case it was), and a hot-button lawsuit topic (loading up a classic children's dessert with alcohol), you, the little candlelit writer, making a few thousand dollars a month if you're really on a roll, assume all responsibility for anything that might go wrong. Not the publisher with the insurance or the team of lawyers. If anyone brings a lawsuit against the publisher for any reason--even if it's a "trivial suit" that immediately gets tossed out, you are still responsible for any and all lawyer's fees that accrue because of it. And this is only the tip of the iceberg in what you agree to when signing a contract. But you are lucky to get to write the book, and you're one little person against a big, inhuman machine. (I did "win" that fight, by adding liability cap and “to the best of my knowledge” clause, with help of lawyer friend –okay I admit I am a rather well-connected candlelit writer.) But it was tough and awkward and I only won with the help of my lawyer friend because we were basically already printing at that point.

So that's one thing, and then the other is actual payment. For many jobs I will get the equivalent hourly rate of someone at a desk job making $35,000, which is somewhat fair. I am, after all, able to wear pajamas and eat cake batter for lunch without anyone making snide remarks. But then there are jobs where the pay is less than I would make as a temp receptionist for Atlantic Microwave in Bolton, Mass. Less than I did make 14 years ago when I was a temp receptionist for Atlantic Microwave in Bolton, Mass.
Still this is all okay with the understanding that you are "lucky to have work" and lucky to have a flexible schedule, etc. But it’s still bothering me. Here is this corporate publishing machine squeezing the people who write or design their books by paying them as little as the market will possibly bear. And people will work for little, because it’s relatively fun work and if you wanted to do crappy work and make money you would have gone into Finance or something. But I’m not even talking about making a lot of money. I’m talking about making as much as an entry-level editor. But the corporate machine’s end goal is always going to be the profit margin of the book, not your lifestyle, not what's fair, not what's going to even get the best quality. Just that cold, exacting column on a spreadsheet. The profit margin. 

None of the editors working at the publisher is offering to take a pay cut to get a better margin. Those are separate "columns". They don't intersect. It's a machine designed to--I hate to use the word exploit--that sounds too harsh--a machine designed to take advantage of the people who are in a position to be taken advantage of, the people without leverage, without lawyers, without insurance, without authority. Yes you may do something better or more carefully, but you are competing against others who are cheaper, who will do it less carefully, who will bang it out and not worry about quality.  The publisher will pay you as little as it possibly can and not a penny more. They are big and you are little.
In both cases, the fiasco with the parent group at Wally’s school and the payment negotiations with a publisher, I have felt taken aback by how little I’ve felt. In both cases, I have felt that it is just me, or me and one other parent in the former case—who is speaking out against some nameless entity, against the anonymous authority of “the way things are done”. A tiny voice questioning anonymous autocratic policies, “boilerplate” contracts and standardized fees. Whatever human being you’re actually talking to, it’s never him or her talking back. It’s the company, the organization, the group, the standard contract, the spreadsheet column, the official policy, the way we’re always done it, or “what the market will bear”.

Still, I have to grab myself, stop myself, and say, “Big deal or little deal?” I am not Erin Brockovich. I’m not even talking about taking on Wall Street here. The answer, I know, in both these cases, is little deal. Which is why I'm so annoyed at the air traffic they're generating in my head. 
Yesterday on the way to pick up Wally I read pieces of May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude. I've referenced it before. It is a constant source of guidance for me. In one section - February - she talks about "a day of frustrations and irritating demands". She tries to return to work but "…by then the thread of the morning's work was broken and I never got back to my center." Later, in April, "Just a bit too much of life pouring in lately, so I feel agitated and up in the air." She talks about the difficulty of creating (she was primarily a poet) when there are pulls from other people. "I find that when I have any appointment, even an afternoon one, it changes the whole quality of time. I feel overcharged."

Partly I know that's all that is going on. In addition to these areas of conflict, I have seen lots of people lately, had many (not boring!) conversations, been taken out to drinks by various clients and publishers, met with neighbors, spent more time out in the world because of this ridiculously warm weather. So partly it is just the fact of not being centered enough, focused enough. And then, naturally, because of that, feeling scattered.
I know that these issues - the PTA, and the freelance negotiations, aren't personal. You can volunteer or not, accept a given job, or not. That's the whole point - they're not personal. You're a person, but what you're dealing with, up against, it's not. It's a system. And those are de facto impersonal and unfeeling. So you can't let feelings dominate in areas where you've been warned at the start they're not relevant, they don't matter. Feeling awkward at a PTA meeting, feeling taken advantage of by a publisher - those are just your feelings; they're inconsequential. They're not relevant to a machine that never feels awkward, a machine that always has the advantage. 
But, where May Sarton illuminates here, is admitting that she is not "above it all". Where she admits she may have disappointed someone by being "a far more vulnerable, involved, and unfinished person than she had imagined". That's how I feel this week. Vulnerable, involved and unfinished. May disagrees with a friend who implies that "not to have given up personal life was regression". Talking about a poet she says, "It is his business to write poetry, and to do that he must remain open and vulnerable."
So there you have it. Tranquility comes at a price. It may mean giving up the extreme reactions that lead to headaches, pounding hearts, unsettling days over really pretty minor stuff. But that may also mean giving up the feelings that, when channeled in productive ways, allow you to create. Creation, too, comes at a price. The work for which I sign ludicrous contracts or accept ludicrous pay is not my real work. It is stuff I pummel through to get the chance to do my real work. The PTA is not related to the quality of Wally’s education, no matter how much it can feel that way. I can't let the feelings of frustration that arise out of conflicts in those areas derail me from what's important. Nor can I shut them down completely. They are little, but they are the natural consequence, an inevitable one, of being open and vulnerable.

*Actually I have to credit my mom for launching this trend. She's been requesting oxfamunwrapped for a while now, where you buy things for people who actually need things.

**That transition may have been misleading. Thankfully my parents don't talk home repair. It's just the general anxiety that seeps into their voices because of the leak on the roof and the ice dams. (I have no idea what ice dams are. They sound rugged and Scandinavian.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Let it rise

Where do you find yeast in the supermarket? The active kind. Funny how they refer to it that way. "Active yeast". Isn't that the whole point of the thing? If we were okay with passive yeast we'd have settled for matzoh. Anyway, where is it? I've looked in three supermarkets now, mostly in the flour aisle, to no avail. At Whole Foods, Wally said, "We should ask someone" but I was stubborn, like men are with directions, and preferred to go blustering about, getting increasingly irritated, stripping off my hat, then scarf, then jacket pushing and squatting and craning my head through the aisles dragging Wally behind me. 

I can't remember the last time someone at a grocery store knew where something was.  It's true I sometimes I ask for something fairly remote (vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, although it's likely to be stocked somewhere near the standard anchovy kind), but usually it's something someone with even a barebones grasp of the store's overall layout should be able to locate. But usually you just end up following the person who works there around, wondering whether it's rude after a minute or so to say, "Nevermind, it's really not that important". Like are you locked in, now, because you were the one who initiated the search, or is there a statue of limitations on your role in it? Are you allowed to call it off, or at the very least, withdraw?

“That’s okay, thanks for looking though.”

 “No we have it, we have it.”

“Really that’s okay. I have to--”

“Gimme a second.”

I have still never figured out whether the store across the street from us has tofu but no one knows where, or if they just don't carry it. "I don't think we carry that." You're making it sound like more work than it is. One assumes you carry it when stocking the shelves, but after that, you let go.  

So I haven't asked anyone yet where I might find the active yeast, and I haven't found it. But it's less aggravating to seek and not find than to seek and ask and still not find. 

What prompted the search was that I started to notice something a bit more obvious than mold on a petri dish killing a strain of bacteria, which was that the more expensive, fresh and tasty/healthy a bread was, the faster it got stale. Or I guess I should say, I became more aware of that phenomenon. Maybe everyone but me was already aware of that, just like everyone but me by the age of 20 knew how to make pasta without measuring out the number of cups of water or setting a timer for how long to cook it. And yes - if you asked me, I would have known that fresher bread gets stale faster, but it's never really affected me before. But lately it started irking me that you buy this nice bread and within 2 days if you don't put it in the fridge (which kinda defeats the purpose) it starts to go bad. The cheap, soft package of sliced whole wheat, air and calcium propionate that passes for bread in the supermarket--the kind we usually buy--lasts forever!! Isn't that great? With all the sandwiches I've been packing off for lunches lately, I just started thinking about how gross it is that that kind of bread lasts so long.

Hence my determination to make my own bread even if it may be, as my brother-in-law put it, one of those things that ends up costing more than the store-bought kind and not being worth it. But I can't find yeast, active or even lethargic. So today after playing outside in the snow with neighbors for Squirrel Appreciation Day (yes it really is a day, and it's today - so start appreciating them!) Wally fell asleep on the couch while Alex worked on recording a band in the back room and I scurried around looking for a recipe for bread that would rise by itself. I found one. It is the most amazing thing. 

And it's just flour mixed, oats, the tiniest bit of butter, two teaspoons of sugar, baking soda not to be confused with baking powder (both are used) and yogurt. That's it. Is whatever that active ingredient -- live culture?--that's in yogurt responsible for the rising? I don't know. But you only have to knead the thing fives times and there's no covering a bowl with a towel, waiting 5 hours, then punching it down or any of that high-maintenance stuff you have to do when yeast is involved. I've been having so much fun making stuff lately, inspired by my friend's sister's food blog 5 second rule and the new book she has coming out from Running Press called Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables. She's a great writer, one of those where, even if you're like me you just recently learned how to make instant rice, you still enjoy reading her posts about making stuff you'll probably never make. 

Though I will keep making this homemade Irish bread! Here's the recipe I used. I didn't end up using any milk in mine and I only baked it for 31 minutes. 

So you can keep your Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Calcium Dioxide and Calcium Sulfate (until sometime next week when I am schvitzing and cursing in the most crowded and poorly designed ever Whole Foods, and end up resorting to Arnold or Matthew or Pepperidge Farm. When it's possible, though, when we have time, let's trade in convenience for health, happiness and good taste. 

In the Old Testament, Chapter 6 of The Book of Ezra describes the feast of unleavened bread. The Israelites had a pretty convincing argument for not being willing to slow down long enough to let their bread rise (Pharaoh, escape from slavery, etc.) Our reasons are maybe a little  less compelling. So let’s take a hint from a verse that appears later in the same book. 

“Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it," (Ezra 10:4).

Good advice for almost any goal.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Letters I did send

Sit down. Write. Stop your haphazard folding of clothes, clanging down the elevator with pinot noir bottles for recycling, picking play-doh pieces off the rug.

Stop! Reading – email, the newspaper, Rolling Stone, New Yorker articles, Geoff Dyer essays you got for the holidays, Dartmouth magazine full of profiles of people who just graduated and have already accomplished oh-so-much-more than you. Yes you need to read—lots (see Watcher of the Skies), but you can’t just soak up what others have to say, you have to say something too. You can’t just process what other people are thinking, feeling, observing, tying together—you have to process your own observations, too.

I have not kept to writing here every day. In fact, I have not posted in this new year, at all. Even in the short term, following through on such a mandate came to seem perfunctory. Writing every day is a habit, and you have to do it, and it keeps you in better shape for the writing you have to do and want to do, but people don’t need to listen to you practicing scales. So I wrote, drafts, and left them there that way, did not press send. They’re still there; letters I never sent.

Instead I had an idea—wait ! Even as I went to write this first sentence, I started to write: “I had planned…”. See, already it was not only past, but past perfect. Past apologetic. A non-contiuous verb about past (in)action. “I had planned”, dot dot dot…

What invariably follows such a passive, roundabout, anxious backward glance? “But”…that toxic word looms—something changed, something unexpected happened, I shoulda, coulda, woulda, wanted to, tried to, was going to, had in mind to, had planned to….BUT! Cue the handwringing, unnecessary, meandering explanations, the mea culpas, the plea bargains, the neuroses and multitude of excuses, the tumbling, myriad reasons for why not which are practically my ancestral liturgy. My parents are always beginning a story about something they did do with a lengthy list offering an explanation about why they did not do something else. Sometimes they show mercy on the listener and, realizing at the start of a thinly tied web of cause and effect they are losing their audience, they cut to the chase. Even for them, the sinuous causal connections-- because of having to feed the neighbor’s cat, they weren’t able to get the boxes out of the Gibs’ garage before the Gibs left for vacation, (the Gibs left a day early because of the snow), that meant they weren’t able to send the clock to Aunt Helen in time for her birthday, so they had to call her to explain, and so on—become nearly intolerable to recite. More and more they wave away all the reasons why with a word about the long story it would naturally be, and state what they did do, with the understanding they had set out to do it differently (even if it’s just when they called you back, with only an hour differential between, in their exacting minds, perfect timing and disaster).

Setting out to do it differently is how many of us begin the New Year.

Maybe going through the litany of why you didn’t do something is a way to ensure you follow a straighter path next time. But I think it has a habit of reinforcing a sense of helplessness. I wasn’t able to get you that draft back in time because of x, y and z—all variables largely out of my control. These days I prefer, “I didn’t do it.” And if a sorry is appropriate, that can get tacked on too, mumbled, under your breath. (BTW, my parents, especially my mom, are great at offering apologies, sincere and even eloquent ones, not mumbled under the breath. The barely-audible-as-you-leave-the-room variety is the kind I’ve mastered since childhood. I actually think my parents are too good at —too quick and too good at feeling that they’re in the wrong, hence the need for the elaborate, spiderweb of reasons as to why, if you think about it, what they did (take too long to call back) wasn’t all THAT terrible in the grand scheme of things when really no one thought it was even remotely terrible in the microscopic scheme.) Direct statements, ones that describe rather than apologize, can be empowering. When I began to say, “I had planned…” I was launching into a backstory passage that would be, essentially, seeking permission for not having yet done what I had planned to do. I don’t think I can make it …is that okay? It doesn’t matter if it’s okay with the other person. Get rid of ellipses. Get rid of past perfect when the present will do. Our grammar circumscribes us. Move forward. Start now.

I plan to put pieces of my Young Adult novel The Last Days of Pluto online—in serial form—hopefully 1 section a day until a deadline of the end of January for an “emerging writers” novel contest. It’s an experiment. If I’m going to crash and burn trying to send something out daily, it may as well be for something even slightly goal-driven and worthwhile. I wrote a draft of the novel in 30 days in November of 2009 for something called Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month). So naturally, it’s crap. It’s just stream-of-consciousness stuff and to say it’s all over the place would be a wildly flattering exaggeration. So the trick is how well and how quickly I can revise it into something even resembling a story. I will post the link here, soon. I will.

(Today, January 7, 2012, the light doesn’t match the temperature. It’s that strong winter light—sun low on the horizon—but the air feels like late March or April. I can even smell it on my skin; the beginning of spring. It should feel disturbing, but it's not. It feels generative, hopeful.)

Update*** Monday, January 9 - I've been advised not to post my novel piece by piece. Maybe just the first chapter. The emphatic "I will" had been so full of good intentions.