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Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Zen and writing.

In The Book, Uncategorized on March 31, 2009 at 3:01 pm

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I know that if I spent as much time writing fiction as I spend reading books about writing fiction, I would be much further along in my currently non-existent writing career. But it’s so much easier to read about writing than it is to write, I can’t help myself. Plus, whenever I read something good about writing, I feel completely inspired to….well, okay I should say “write,” but it’s more like I feel inspired to be a writer, which does absolutely ZERO to improve my page output.

However, I don’t think it’s a total waste of time. I do learn things about the craft. And sometimes something even better. My most recent something better was from a book called The Intuitive Writer by Gail Sher, a Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist and poet. I bought it years ago, but picked it up again recently when I started my 5am writing thing to see if there was something in there that would inspire me to actually get up and not hit the snooze button. I read it little by little during my bath each night (it’s a little book with tiny chapters, often only a page or two long) and found this passage particularly helpful in my current (perpetual) angst of feeling like I’m not creative enough, that every story has already been told by someone else and/or that whatever story I dream up is only vaguely interesting, even to me. Anyway, here’s the passage:

“Despite its reputation for descending in spurts, unannounced, in ill-begotten flashes, geniune inspiration is very ordinary. Actually, becoming inspired is not something that you do. Through patience and self compassion, it is something that you allow to happen. It comes from settling down and accepting your blankness, which is not shameful…Our enemies are not stupidity, lack of talent, dullness (though these may be their facades). Hesitation and disinterest are the true obstacles to clearly hearing ourselves and our world.”

Hesitation and disinterest. Yes and yes. Ouch.

So what I’m trying to do with my little morning writing time is to show up with my novel open on my laptop and cultivate not just an interest for my work, but a love for it, even its flaws and shortcomings. I think if I could fall in love with my work (and with the blankness that I sometimes bring to it), I could start making progress. I’ll let you know.

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Cook’s Illustrated.

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2009 at 2:44 pm

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I received my last issue of Cook’s Illustrated yesterday. Though I really, really love the magazine for all its food geekiness, they pissed me off recently by using an old-school technique (a la those cheesy “Rockin’ Hits of the 80s” music clubs): they sent me a cookbook that I hadn’t ordered and didn’t want, along with an invoice asking me to pay for it. I straightened the situation out, but was so mad that their “we’re just regular folks doing some cooking up here in Vermont” schtick was a sham, I wrote the editor, Christopher Kimball (he hasn’t written back) and did not renew my subscription. Anyway, this last issue was so full of juicy little tidbits that I thought I’d pass a few along.

•Baking soda does absolutely nothing to deodorize your refrigerator.

•When marinating meats, longer isn’t better. “Because marinades don’t penetrate deeply, a lengthy soak is pointless. Furthermore, too long a soak in an acidic marinade can weaken the protein bonds near the surface so that they turn mushy—or worse, can no longer hold moisture and dry out.

•Even a tablespoon too much or too little flour can have an impact on cookies. The dip-and-sweep method (dip measuring cup in flour and sweep off excess with butter knife) is a good way to measure correctly.

•In their test of cookware sets, a Wal-Mart brand, Tramontina ($144.97), came in a close second to the perennial and super-expensive favorite of at-home chefs, All-Clad ($699.95).

•Our local chocolatiers make the best-rated chocolate chips: Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

•Precrumbled cheeses (blue, feta, etc.) cost 50% more than their non-precrumbled counterparts.

There’s also a recipe for what they call “Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies” that I’m intrigued by because they say the cookies come out “crisp at the edges, chewy in the middle, and full of rich toffee flavor.” Doesn’t that sound, well, perfect? I’ll report back.

Disappointment.

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2009 at 6:19 am

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When I saw the word “despair” in the title link to Paul Krugman’s latest column in the New York Times, I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. And after reading it, I felt exactly what Paul Krugman suggested I would: I was disappointed in Obama and it didn’t feel good. My immediate response after I finished the article was that I needed to send it to Obama and show him the error of his ways, suggest he admit he made a mistake with Geithner and get someone new in there, quick. Though ridiculous, my gut response shows how weird and layered this relationship I have with Obama is. Rather than feeling like he’s the leader (father) of our country, he feels more like my child right now. I feel at once protective of him and like I need him to always do the EXACT RIGHT THING so I don’t feel disappointed in him (and, of course, so that the Republicans have absolutely no ammunition). Also, as a side note, I’m wondering how he has time to go on ESPN and pick his brackets for the NCAA tournament? Anyway, I’m hoping it’s just the extraordinary times that are causing me to feel so strangely maternal about the president. I look forward to when this fiscal crisis is over and I can start thinking he’s smart and hot again.

Moving.

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm

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I counted it up and I have moved 24 times in my life. Let me repeat: 24 times. And I’m getting ready to move again. We’re moving for very good reasons: we’ll be saving $700 a month. Our daughter will have a tree swing and a full-size bedroom. Did I mention the $700 a month? Anyway, it will be fine in a few weeks, but right now, as I sit here at 8:15 pm and look at my dining room full of broken down boxes waiting to be tape-gunned and filled, I can’t quite make it happen. I know it needs to happen, and I know I just need to get in there and get shit started and it will happen, but right now I’m feeling a bit paralyzed. I hope this passes. Soon. In the meantime, a few tips for moving:

1. If you must pack yourself, Trader Joe’s is a great source for boxes. Call in the early afternoon, ask for the “closing manager” and tell him or her how many boxes you need (or rather, tell him you need as many as they can set aside, all sizes, especially the big ones that toilet paper and paper towels come in). If all goes according to plan, when you arrive the next morning at 9am (that’s when they open and that’s when you should get there), the boxes will be waiting for you.

2. Don’t buy your packing tape at one of those UPS or FedEx Kinko’s stores. I stopped in the UPS store this morning trying to save time and they wanted $8.49 for a single roll of packing tape. What? I went a few blocks down Telegraph to our local hardware store and got them for $3.29 each.

3. Be ruthless in your purging. I passed on the Warren Buffet quote the other day, but even beyond that yardstick, just really be honest with yourself: Are you saving this long-untouched thing because a) you’re too lazy to gather it up and take it somewhere to donate it or otherwise get rid of it; b) you think you’ll need it someday; or c) you’re not sure you’ll need it someday, but it seems wrong to get rid of it? Here’s what you do if you’re at all ambivalent: get rid of it. Just do it. And if you live in San Francisco, here’s a woman who can make it really easy for you. I promise that you will feel better without the stuff.

The word from the Fed.

In The Outside on March 18, 2009 at 9:57 pm

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My husband and I just got back from a talk by a senior economist at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, Mary C. Daly. It was titled “Understanding the Current Economic Crisis,” which is a lot to promise for an hour lecture, but the woman held her own. The big takeaway? Most of our previous recessions have been “v”-shaped: a sharp drop in GDP followed by sharp rise. The current recession is looking more like a big, shallow bowl: a long, slow descent down (bottoming out at the end of 2009), followed by an even slower rise (not picking up significant steam until 2012). While the thought of this strife continuing in full force for another 9 months isn’t pleasant, it was somewhat comforting to see her dotted line actually start inching upward when so many people are feeling like there’s no relief at all on the horizon. As we handed over the $25 to the babysitter when we got home, it felt like we were doing our part to keep the economic engine churning, albeit ever. So. Slowly.

Language.

In The Girl on March 17, 2009 at 8:38 pm

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I’ve read—and am constantly rereading—books about parenting. I’m a tad obsessed with the topic as I was raised by a strict father who had zero tolerance for “foolishness” and even less for challenges to authority. I’ve long ago come to terms with this, as I know he was doing the best he could given his own upbringing and raising me and my brother (basically) as a single parent. I don’t want to raise my daughter in the same way, but as she gets older, more verbal, and more mischievous, I find myself at times feeling a little bit of Charlie Scholes bubbling up under the surface and I know that by the time she’s old enough to ask the “why not?” question (i.e. “Don’t bang the door, please.” “Why not?”), I know it will be hard to suppress the Charlie Scholes’ standby answer: “Because I told you not to.” Modern parenting has much better answers to “Why not?” than he did, so I’m trying to learn how to burn them onto my brain’s hard drive so the more evolved answer to my daughter’s question comes out as easily as “Because I told you not to.”

One book that has a permanent spot on my desk is called The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg. It was given to me by Bernadette Kramer, my dear friend Susie’s mom, and it is not only full of wisdom, but it is gloriously written as well, a book you want to savor (which is quite different from the more modern parenting books full of bullet points and sidebars to help speed you through the material, which, with a baby or toddler, definitely has its place, too). Here’s something I read from the book recently that resonated with my newly talking toddler:

“Words substitute for human acts, and the uniquely human achievement of control of body urges, delay, postponement, and even renunciation of gratification are very largely due to the higher mental processes that are made possible by language….In fact, the moral achievement of man, the whole complex of factors that go into the organization of conscience is very largely based on language.”

She uses the example of a toddler who, before being able to speak, could not resist picking the flowers in a neighbor’s yard when on her daily walk. Once the toddler starts to be able to put words with objects, she no longer insists on picking the flowers, but instead stops in front of the flower, points to it and says to her mother, “Fars! Pitty!” (Flowers! Pretty!) and then continues on her walk, satisfied.

I’m watching to see if this theory translates to my newly chatty daughter so I can relax a little. Stop worrying about turning into my (much loved, sorely missed) hard-ass father.

I am glad I have a husband.

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 at 8:12 pm

My daughter is a delight from head to toe, but doing the evening routine without a partner is exhausting. I know that your life morphs to fit the circumstances, but I really don’t know how single parents do it every single night without wanting to rip their hair out. So as I watch my little daughter on the video monitor, already fast asleep, I am ever grateful that she thrives on routine like I do and for having a husband who is normally here to share the evening hours with.

How to be a warrior.

In The Inside on March 14, 2009 at 6:47 pm

s-4261-22I started studying Buddhism while living in, of all places, Montana. I had moved to Missoula to go to grad school to study fiction writing, which sounds uneventful except for the fact that I was 36 at the time and had already been working for 15 years, work that I was pretty good at and which I put on hold to study something that I wasn’t very good at. So what I mean is when I got to Missoula, this hard, beautiful place that was as at once familiar and altogether strange, I had no identity and I kind of felt like I could or should start from scratch. I had tiptoed into Buddhist thought with a couple of books—Going on Being and Thoughts Without a Thinker, both by Mark Epstein, MD, and had like so many others been intrigued by the Dalai Lama’s straightforward and charming books targeted to a Western audience. So when I saw a flyer on a telephone pole one day about a weeknight course called something like “How to be Happy” at a local Buddhist center, I decided to give it a go.

I ended up finishing that course and though I am a certified “non-joiner,” ended up signing up for a more intensive one. I want to say it changed my life, but that sounds too dramatic and is probably not true. However, I do know that my time studying Buddhism (and maybe more accurately, the combination of studying fiction while studying Buddhism and not really having a job so I could spend a lot of time pondering both) gave me a sense of centeredness that I had never had before and that I’ve sought since.

When I moved back to New York after grad school, I started going to dharma talks and meditation sessions the Shambhala Center. I didn’t get into things as intensely as I had in Missoula, but it was a refuge of a sort—at least every Thursday evening. I’ve read lots of good texts based on recommendations I’ve gotten at Shambhala, Pema Chodron’s chief among them. But the essential text is Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, which is as good a handbook to enlightened living as I’ve ever found. Its thesis is that the key to “warriorship,” which in this context translates to “being brave” is not being afraid of yourself. Because, as it goes on to posit:

“If we are willing to take an unbiased look [at ourselves], we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings. Unless we can discover that ground of goodness in our own lives, we cannot hope to improve the lives of others.”

I’m thinking about this right now as I try to go back to fiction writing after having my daughter. I want to keep that “ground of goodness” alive by continuing to pursue something that was once so important to me I stopped my life to learn more about how to do it. I hope that by reconnecting to that, I’ll have even more to give my daughter, and my husband for that matter.

I’ll send along more bits from The Sacred Path of the Warrior along the way.

Purging.

In The Outside on March 12, 2009 at 4:11 pm

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My friend Gong Szeto (husband of longtime friend Bonnie Schwartz) posted this Warren Buffett quote on Facebook today. I’m reposting it here because I wanted to remember it.

“If you don’t feel comfortable owning something for 10 years, then don’t own it for 10 minutes.”

I’m getting ready to move and I think I’m going to apply this theory to the purging process: if I don’t want this for the next 10 years, I’m going to sell it or donate it to someone who might need it.

Good morning.

In The Book on March 12, 2009 at 5:42 am

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I’m trying to write fiction again. To do this, I’m getting up at 5am, more or less. Usually more. My alarm is actually set to 5:04am because that seemed a little gentler. Right now I’m working on my novel outline, which is something I’ve never done before. For all my need to be organized, I’m not an outline person, never have been. Not even for papers in grad school. This may explain a lot of things.

Anyway, I’m trying to plan this novel better than my first one and that’s harder than it seems.

I’m using the Snowflake Method to do this and I like having a guide to follow, but it’s still hard.

I’ll keep you posted.