Tuesday, January 15, 2013

California Drivers Suck (and They're Mental, Too)

I am feeling moved to indulge in a whine fest aimed at levering the complete and total suckage of California drivers off my chest, at least until the next time I get into my car.

Said suckage is something I’ve wanted to comment on for a while now.  I delayed while debating whether to expand the topic to California suckage in general, but I think I’ll bring that see-saw down on the side of confining this to drivers and how they illustrate my point that the Golden State is full of crazies, just as you have always suspected (present company excluded, of course).   Apparently, there are folks out there in the ether who share my frustration; in their honor I humbly submit this list as an addition to the growing oeuvre of California driver bashing.

1.        No one uses their blinkin’ signals. 

If turn signals are used at all, they’re generally turned on at the last possible second when they have absolutely no chance of doing what they’re intended to do:  signaling to other drivers an intent to turn. 

In truth, this is but a symptom of a larger California problem, namely that the entire state is passive aggressive.

2.       The decoder ring for what to do at a four-way stop has been lost in a cave somewhere near the Dead Sea.

Remember that scene from the movie L.A. Story where four drivers pull up to a four-way at the same time and graciously attempt to yield the right of way to each other, then all drive into the intersection at the same time and crash?   It’s like that.  Seriously.  What the hell are they teaching in California drivers’ ed courses if not something as basic as this?  How to text while driving?

The lost art of the four-way stop is, too, merely a symptom of a larger California problem, namely the entire state operates under a delusional veneer of politesse that only barely covers a manic dedication to looking out for number one. 

3.        Red lights give people the shakes.

I thought Boston was bad in the red light department.  Basically, in Boston, they were optional. 

But at least in Boston, no one bugged you if you decided to exercise your inalienable option to stop.  In California, if you’re at a red light and there is even the slightest hint that it isn’t working properly, i.e., it lasts for more than 10 seconds, or other traffic directions seem to be getting two turns to your one, Californians will start to blow their horns at you until you are shamed into giving up your option to stop.

Note that this is the only time when it is, apparently, permissible to blow your horn at someone in California without getting a look so filthy-dirty it would require lemon-freshened borax and a sandblaster to remove, even if you’re headed for a head-on collision.

This total inability to sit still for more than a second is emblematic of a massive California problem, namely that the entire state has ADHD.  It figures, when you consider that California has long been at the forefront of the movie, television and computing industries, which together have caused the brain cells responsible for attention span in the collective consciousness to atrophy to the point of becoming vestigial.

4.        The car wouldn’t have reverse unless you can use it anywhere, any time.

I have seen California drivers backing into intersections, including some of the aforementioned four-way stops.  I have seen them back through parking lots against one-way arrows, to snatch those last parking spots away from the person going the correct direction and having the legitimate claim on them:  me.  

I have seen backing at a stop light into an adjoining lane.  Backing up abreast to another car so as to be able to have a little chat through opened windows, while a line of cars grows behind waiting to get by.  But God forbid someone should blow his or her horn -- there is no red light involved.

And I have seen, on more than one occasion, some idiot backing off of a freeway exit-ramp ONTO THE FREEWAY. 

I am at a loss as to what this says about the entire state’s psychological condition, except perhaps a tendency toward the psychotic.  But the implications for the IQ of the average Californian are staggering. 

5.       Tailgating for fun and profit

Apparently, the California version of the driver’s ed class also completely omits the lesson on the appropriate number of car lengths between cars at a given speed.  I have heard an otherwise intelligent person attempt to explain to me that as long as you match the speed of the car in front of you, space between cars just doesn’t matter.  Yeah, until the driver in front of you slams on his brakes.  Which happens all the damned time on the freeways of California, sometimes because the mow and blow guy’s pickup truck has had a tarp or some other item blow onto the road, sometimes because some idiot is backing off the freeway, and sometimes for no identifiable reason at all.

Plus, having a car, or worse, an SUV so close it is basically driving up my tailpipe gives me a really icky feeling.  Sort of like how I felt as a young commuter in New York City when some guy on the subway would take the opportunity presented by a rush-hour crammed car to rub himself up against my butt and hope I won’t notice.

The tailgating addiction is to be expected, I suppose, when the entire state suffers from borderline personality disorder.

6.       Lane changes in zombie land

This is the worst by far, and the reason I first contemplated venting my spleen on the subject of California drivers.  It makes me homesick for New York, where lane changes were not simply announced well ahead of time through blinkers, they often became mini social events.  Drivers and passengers alike would roll down their windows and wave their arms, heads, and sometimes half their bodies to let you know they or their driver was planning a move, and by George, we were all pleased to accommodate them because it meant someone would do the same for us.  It was almost homey, like we were all in it together and would be meeting up for a brewsky or two later. 

Give me Vito or Mohan with his body half out the car letting me know he means business any day over the abomination that is California driver behavior when it comes to lane changes.  In California, if you signal a lane change on the freeway, the car behind you in the lane you want to move to will SPEED UP, preventing you from changing into the lane in front of him or her.  (This may explain why Californians, if they use turn signals, only do so at the last possible second.  Explain, perhaps; not excuse.) 

Not only that, the next car behind them will do the same.  And the next.  While this solid line of cars speeds up to prevent you from getting where you need to go, the drivers will avoid eye contact with you at all costs.  They just pretend they don’t see you and enter some parallel universe in which magical thinking comes true.  You’re just not there to them at all, and since you’re not there, they don’t have to even consider extending a common courtesy to another human being.

Where is it written that the world will come to a furious and fiery end if you let a car ahead of you change into your lane?  New Yorkers, for all their faults and subway groping, don’t buy into this crap.  Bostonians, color blind though they may be don’t either. 

Californians, though, the very same people who will swear to you that if you match speed to the car in front you can tailgate with impunity just don’t get that allowing another car into your lane at constant speed doesn’t make you go any slower.   (Actually, I suspect they do get it, but they just don’t care, which is even worse.)   Even assuming that you’ll get where you’re going a fraction of a second later while you make up that lost car length, is this really going to have a material impact on your life? 

Yes, if you’re a freakin’ narcissist, like the entire state of California.



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading With Trousers Rolled

When I was growing up, my parents were poster-worthy reading role models. My father bought practically every Time-Life, American Heritage, and National Geographic book series that offered itself through a mailing. My mother and I made regular trips to the library.  Every room in the house had at least one book in it, and even those rooms less conducive to book storage, such as the kitchen and bathrooms, often had at least a small shelf's worth.

At some point during my childhood, I realized that whatever he may have read in the past, my father only seemed to read non-fiction -- primarily military history. Though my mother still had her facsimile edition of the Shakespeare First Folio and some random other classics on the shelves, she seemed to read only mysteries and thrillers, and perhaps the occasional best-seller (which, when I got to junior high school, I would flip through looking for the pornographic parts). My own preferred reading material, however, remained literary fiction, with a bit of non-fiction thrown in once in a very great while to mix it up.

It’s by now cliché to wonder when you’ve become your parent, usually when you hear yourself irrationally informing your children that the reason is “because I said so and I’m the Mommy” or when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, "That's Mom." (I am convinced it’s true that I look more and more like my mother. But I am also convinced that is because I didn’t really know my mother until she was in her forties. Now that I’m the age she was when I could formulate a lasting mental image of her, the resemblance to that mental image is undeniable.)  I, too, have done the irrational preaching and the mirror glimpse, but mainly I see myself becoming my parents in my choice of reading material.

For a while now, I have wondered whether this movement away from literary fiction is just my experience, or whether it is a measurable trend in the general population.  A number of months ago, I made a crack on Facebook to the effect that old people only read genre fiction and non-fiction and some of my friends begged to differ.  Even so, though I don't have any scientific basis for my supposition, anecdotally I don’t think it is just my experience. Although he claims to have read mostly literary fiction when he was younger, my boyfriend has, for the past ten years at least, only read mysteries and thrillers. I’ve noticed this trend in other friends as well.

And yes, I can no longer deny that the course of  my reading swerved away from literary fiction some time back.  I just thought it was a temporary shift and that long term, my established tastes would win out.  But now I am forced to admit that the last literary fiction I attempted was War and Peace, over a year ago. I made it 350 pages in. Perhaps there is still hope, though.  Toward the end of his life, my father began reading literary fiction: notably, War and Peace. If I really am turning into my parents, maybe I’ll get back to it in 30 years.

The more I thought about this topic, the more I felt moved to break my more-than-a-year-long blogging hiatus to remark upon it. (I would say that I'll explain the hiatus later, but if I don't write again for another year I'll feel too guilty about the cliffhanger.) I've been pulling my thoughts together on and off for a couple of months, in between genre and non-fiction reads, thinking "Someone should do a study on this.  Seriously."

And guess what?  The next thing I knew, not only did I discover yet again that there is no such thing as an original thought (at least not in my brain), this time I was partially scooped: Salon’s Laura Miller just did a piece on older people turning away from fiction altogether, though genre fiction wasn't specifically discussed.

In any case, if it is in fact a tendency in the general population for older people to turn to non-fiction and genre fiction over literary fiction, I have a few unscientific thoughts about why that might be -- some of which are similar to those Ms. Miller mentioned, others of which will, I hope, add to the discussion. To be fair, some of the fiction/non-fiction gap is also apparently a gender gap.  But age seems to play a part as well. 

1. We realize there’s a lot we want to know about, and we no longer have forever to learn about it.

The non-fiction books I’ve read or bought lately are an eclectic group. I tend to read clusters of books on topics, not just one. My current clusters range from the American manned space program, to child rearing and psychology, to brain elasticity, to the economic crisis of 2008, to mathematics, to chess.

Some of these are topics I feel I need to learn about for practical reasons. For example, I know there will come a day, sooner rather than later, when my children will out-math me. I don’t have occasion to use much math in my day to day life, so I have lost a lot of what I used to know. I’m attempting to refresh my knowledge of algebra, geometry and trigonometry and teach myself the rudiments of calculus so that by the time my kids ask for help I’ll have a clue as to what they’re talking about.

But a lot of these choices have no practical rationale. I’m reading space books because I saw Apollo 13 on television again recently and it piqued my interest in learning more. The same thing happened after I saw Too Big to Fail on HBO; hence the economic crisis books. Cable television sucks me in to all kinds of reading I would probably not do otherwise. See, e.g., Twilight and The Song of Ice and Fire.  Oh wait, I forgot.  I read genre fiction now.  Heh.

Becoming well-versed in a topic provides a feeling of mastery that older people enjoy just as much as younger people do.  Reading permits us to cultivate this feeling to no small extent, and from the comfort of our own beds for an hour or so nightly before we crash.  When we wake up, we know it will be to another long day at work instead of going away to space camp for a few weeks, which is what we might have done had we wanted to learn about the space program years ago. As far as non-fiction goes, while autodidacticism admittedly has its limitations, it is better than not learning at all.

2. We know too many characters too well already.

By the time we reach middle age, we have a pretty good idea of the gamut of human experience: its triumphs and tragedies, its good guys and bad guys, its sicknesses, its perversions, its jealousies and greeds, and its moments of almost inexplicably touching kindness and beauty, real and imagined. Yes, everyone is an individual, and the never-ending variety of humanity continues to be astonishing, fascinating, and even enjoyable when we get older. But the deep, scary, interior of the human psyche and the rawness of experience that are the stuff of literary fiction are -- well, not to put too fine a point on it, enough already. Particularly when you have a family, a career, a home and the late onset ADD that tends to come with being chronically overscheduled trying to do an adequate job at each of these things.

It’s not so much that we lack the patience to get to know the terribly flawed human beings that great literature serves up to us. We don’t become shallower versions of our former selves simply by getting older. Miller's piece referred to a blogger who explained this as "having experienced enough real life narrative and drama such that made-up stories no longer appeal."  I wouldn't go that far, but I think that statement has a grain of truth in it.  I expect I'll continue to read literary fiction because made-up stories do appeal to me, but I have a feeling it will make up a smaller fraction of my reading going forward.

If it's not the lack of appeal, then what is it?  The reasons are somewhat elusive to me, but I think part of it has do with becoming parents.  We’re already spending so much of our own psychic energy raising our own flawed human characters, trying to comfort them and teach them to persevere despite the conflicts in their own stories, that we don't have room for the fictional ones.

Part of it may be that we see our younger, more angst-ridden but also more hopeful selves, both in the characters that populate literary fiction and in ourselves as the reader. Confronting that loss of youth, that loss of the feeling that one’s whole life is ahead and ripe with infinite possibilities, can be wickedly painful stuff. These days my feelings of infinite possibility are pretty finite. As my parents’ generation gets older and passes away one by one, I am increasingly aware of the psychological buffer they provided between my generation and the gaping jaws of death.  To paraphrase Sirius Black, I guess we're the old ones now.

To digress for a moment, I think the same phenonmenon is often reflected in changes in musical tastes. Rock and roll used to be my life, but these days I can barely stand to listen to most of it. For the most part, it isn’t speaking to me in the same way anymore. This fact is actually far more disconcerting than the substantive disconnect between me and the lyrics and beat to which I used to relate so strongly.  It's like what Miller said about novels:  "Once, the struggles of 25-year-olds to satisfactorily arrange [sic] their romantic lives was a fascinating topic to me.  Now, not so much."  Much of rock music is about the same topic, and directed to the same age group.  But what bothers me more is that I no longer find these topics fascinating.  It makes me wonder whether there is a statement in there about my idealism, my passion, and my joie de vivre in general.  Am I over the hill?  Or am I just grown up, finally?

For a number of years now, I've found myself listening to classical music instead of rock. It is timeless, it is soothing, and it is what my mother listened to back when I didn’t look quite so much like her. It doesn’t have words that express youthful yearning, suffering, and passion, which are, these days, largely outside my frame of reference except vicariously.

My boyfriend deals with the same thing in a different way. He's a musical Peter Pan; forever stuck in his youthful tastes, he refuses to listen to anything other than 70s rock, unless it is folk or country. I think the polar reactions he and I typify are fairly common, though I have no data to base my opinion on other than my own observations.

3. We read for escape, entertainment, and information rather than for enlightenment.

To push the previous point a bit further, maybe our reasons for reading change as we grow older. Instead of gathering insights along the path of becoming an adult to aid us in the maturing process, we are now more often reading to place ourselves out of time altogether:  to go on mini-vacations from the routine of work and child-rearing, and in some respects to distract us from fact that we don't have the same level of intimacy we used to have with people outside our family unit.

Although there are exceptions, plot driven fiction or information driven non-fiction is fairly circumscribed. It typically doesn’t tackle the big, deep, and nuanced questions of the human condition (unless it is philosophy). It speaks in broad brush strokes:  good against evil, or the meaning of X event in the context of the broader panorama of Y history.  But the existential questions of meaning, purpose, belonging, and how to be usually aren’t addressed, and if they are, their treatment is superficial compared to the work of good literary fiction.

By the time we hit fifty, we’ve at least started to come to terms with our grand existential questions. Either we have a pretty good understanding of our meaning and purpose, or we’ve concluded there isn't a meaning or a purpose to be understood, or we've accepted that we'll just never comprehend them fully and that’s ok. If we don’t already know how to be, we probably aren’t going to learn in the absence of some religious or other life-changing experience.

Personally, I think the question of belonging is the most difficult as we grow older. Maybe some people have a community they’ve been part of for years that gives them that sense, but I’m convinced as many of us don’t. We don’t have the ready-made pool of friends we had in school, or in our first jobs out of school where everyone was young and single. If we happen to leave the base of friends where we had all those things to move somewhere else, it becomes harder to meet people and spend the sort of time with them that cultivates friendships on anything more than a very superficial level. Most of the people I know now are the parents of my kids’ friends, and though they’re generally pretty nice people, we talk mostly about our kids, the school, activities, and such. Contrast that with college, where we talked about ideas, books, and feelings.  The problem is particularly acute in Northern California, where it seems that everyone is doing their best to build consensus with everyone else and would never risk saying something that might be viewed as divisive.  This is one reason I miss New York so much.

And contrast the mini-vacation experience with what readers expect from literary fiction.   Here's an interesting article that identifies some of the expectations as therapy, life lessons, challenge, and a chance to better ourselves intellectually.  At various times I've looked for one or more of those in a literary reading experience.  But I also read literary fiction for the aestheticism of it -- the sheer beauty that comes from the meter and sound of words coalescing with a thread of universal meaning to make something lasting and memorable.  I don't think we appreciate beauty less as we grow older.  I think, though, that maybe we just make less time to do it in our reading because we get a decent dose of it daily as we experience the beauty of our children blossoming into terrific people.

I have a feeling I'll be thinking about this subject more, and may have more to say after I do.  In the meantime, please be so kind as to participate in my very unscientific poll on this topic, just for laughs.  It's in the top right corner under the title banner of the blog.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lessons from an Invisible Bridge

During one of the many Stanford Continuing Studies fiction writing workshops in which I participated in the early 2000s, the instructor told a story that has stuck with me.

I don’t recall her exact words. Peri-menopause, you know; I barely remember my own name sometimes. My memory may have mangled the story. The gist, as I remember it, is that at various points in her writing career, the instructor had to be talked into taking the next step. Changing majors from pre-med as an undergrad. Applying to an MFA program. Sending a first story to some literary journals. Then another story, and then another. She questioned her readiness to take each step. She questioned whether her stories were ready, or whether they could still be improved.

This story made a lasting impression on me, though at the time we heard it, my classmates and I gave each other incredulous looks. Once we got over the initial soul-killing dread of having strangers read and tear our work apart, none of us had any compunction about sending out stories. We all wanted to be published before we got a single day older. For many of us, this seemed imperative unless we wanted to die unpublished. Many of us were older by a decade or more than the young MFA program students we’d be competing with for spots in the vehicle that typically kicks off fiction-writing careers: the literary magazine. We had to make up for lost time. Preferably, without having to do the hard work of major revisions (which none of us really knew how to do despite talking about it in class endlessly). Revision mystified us. How could we re-imagine something that seemed just fine to us the way it was? Something part of our fiber, like a gestating fetus? Something we were so emotionally invested in?

Besides, publication was everything. It was the first domino in a long line of ego-gratifying events that would all tumble if only the right magazine would bite.

Being published would make us writers. Being writers would make us someone. Everyone would love and admire us (or love and admire us again) including, without limitation: parents, estranged parents, spouses, estranged spouses, lovers, former lovers, total strangers, and of course the famous writers we ourselves loved and admired. Love and admiration, respect, recognition -- whatever personal emotional void needed filling – that’s what we’d fill. (Maybe we’d get a movie contract too, and then we’d make money doing something we loved instead of the unglamorous day-to-day of whatever we currently did. We’d see our names rolling by in credits, maybe get to go to the Academy Awards and sit next to Steven Spielberg… )

It was not lost on me at the time that the person who told this story undeniably was a writer, and just as undeniably, an extremely talented one. When I look back, it’s with the ironic realization that those of us most eager to publish were those whose work, or temperaments, or both, were least ready for it. I count myself among those not ready, though I’m willing to be kind enough to myself to believe that with work, dedication, a room of my own, and enough personal growth to enable me to observe humanity with more compassion and less judgment, I might someday have been. Part of me holds out hope, even now, that I someday will be.

But I wasn’t then. Instead of perfecting my craft, I rushed to publication in obscure magazines, many of which no longer exist. No one who didn’t love me before started loving me. Strangers didn’t stop me in the street. Hollywood didn’t call. Very likely, the number of people who read my published stories is less, in aggregate, than the number of visitors to this blog.

The writer and workshop instructor who told the story about having to be pushed along the path to a writing career is Julie Orringer, who at the time was also running the Stanford Continuing Studies Writers’ Workshop program. I just finished reading her debut novel, The Invisible Bridge. I’m naturally biased as one of her former students, and it is not my intent to review the book here. But if you read one thing this summer, you should read this. The first 400 pages are fine and necessary and have a stately, grand, sweeping, romantic Russian feel to them. The last 200 pages are stunning and have the pace and force of an avalanche.  Apparently, Oprah agrees.

(Nice picture, eh?  I took it while in Budapest a number of years ago.  Same with the one below.  Part of The Invisible Bridge takes place in Budapest, which provided a great excuse to trot out some of my travel photos.)

Instead of reviewing the novel, what I want to do is to use what I learned from its author and the novel itself as a jumping off point to talk about artistry, craft and the creative process. I’d been tossing bits and pieces of these thoughts around in my mind for some time, but reading The Invisible Bridge helped to crystallize them.

First Thought: Writers Should Be Perfectionists

We’ve all heard about famous literary figures X or Y who wrote novels that became classics long hand on legal pads without ever scratching out a word, but I’m convinced the vast majority of great writers don’t work this way. They write the work, and then they let it steep. They rework it. They let it steep again, then they rework it again. They expand it, they contract it, they expand it again. They reorder it. They change points of view, they change tenses, they change words. They change characters – lose some, add some, substitute some, make some that were minor major and vice versa.

They roll up their sleeves, bury their egos, and do the hard work of writing in service to the story, not to what they hope the story can do for them. It isn’t about them, it’s about the work. They don’t settle. They don’t rest until the last overused idea, the last misplaced image, the last clunky sentence, the last inappropriate word, the last baroque darling has been banished. Only then do they let the work see the light of day.

And in the process, they have to commit to the work more than student writers ever do when they generate the first drafts they can see no problems with. Great writers have to live with it. Their attention spans have to be long enough to keep working it until it either truly works, or clearly will never work and has to be abandoned. They have to be willing to abandon their brainchildren who don’t turn out, however cruel it may seem. And they have to be able to tell when to keep working and when to cast a project aside.

I read that The Invisible Bridge took five years to write. I remember hearing, when Julie was still in the Bay Area, that it was expected to take two. I lost touch with her after I dropped out of one of her workshops; I was toward the end of a difficult pregnancy and could not focus on the work of the workshop along with the pregnancy and my day job. Though I’d intended to go back into workshops after the birth, as a mother with a full time job outside the home I soon discovered I had neither the solitude nor the emotional energy required to attempt writing fiction. I can barely find the time to post to this blog, even sporadically. About all I have time for is five minutes here or there to pound out a tasting note on Steepster -- that’s my creative outlet. My fiction writing “career” is on an as yet uninterrupted hiatus.

But though I lost touch with the author, occasionally I’d check the web to see if I could find any news of the book. And finally, fairly recently, I checked on Amazon and found a release date. My copy shipped immediately on release.

One of the things that sets this book apart from some other first novels I’ve read is its degree of doneness. This one can’t be accused of coming out of the oven too soon, of being too doughy, too wet, or with ingredients that have been thrown together and denied the chance to intermingle and develop fully. I’ve read other first novels where the hard questions may have been asked, but they either haven’t been answered or were answered imperfectly. Characters are selfish or otherwise unsympathetic, lack dimension, don’t speak like real people, don’t act like real people. Language is overwrought, anachronisms haven’t been excised. I sometimes wonder whether, later in their careers, their authors will regret having published them in that state.

But from what I know of Julie, I expected nothing less than perfection, or at least as close as she felt she could come to it. As I was reading, I imagined her at work on the novel. I imagined days, and years, coming and going while the manuscript steeped, was reworked, expanded, contracted, was honestly and mercilessly (but with compassion) reevaluated. I imagine her asking the questions she taught us to ask ourselves in workshops. Are all the important questions answered, are all the motivations true? Are all the characters as real, surprising, and complex as actual human beings with free will while being true to themselves and their character? (Free will, in a very Jewish sense, is one of the themes of the book, so all the more important.)

Is justice, to the extent that it can be in a novel of this kind, done? (Fate’s random cruelties and kindnesses are another theme of the book, so all the more tricky.) Is there enough conflict and has it been pushed far enough? Somewhere I have a list of such questions on a hand out from one of my workshops, and though I can’t recall whether these specific ones are on it, you get the idea. I imagine Julie assessing the novel’s readiness over and over again and not being satisfied. And finally, I imagine her being talked into taking the next step and letting go.

It’s not that The Invisible Bridge is flawless. I had a few questions at the end about some of the authorial or editorial choices, and if I set my mind to it I could probably come up with more. What impresses me most about the book isn’t that it is flawless, but that I can tell it is trying to be – that the author has (probably impossibly) high standards for her work, and strives to meet them. It’s so easy to be so blinded by one’s own brilliance as to compromise what should be one’s own high standards, and thereby miss the opportunity to approach perfection.

Second Thought: Writers Should Not Be Egomaniacs

During a particularly dark time in my life, I had a conversation with a friend about happiness. This friend is a self-described Pollyanna type, always smiling, rarely anything less than upbeat. Her sadnesses come, I’m sure. But they don’t last, they don’t drag on. They’re addressed for what they are and she moves on, always optimistically. Until relatively recently, this did not at all describe me.

I asked my friend about happiness. About how to get there. I seriously wanted to know, as I felt it had eluded me for most of my life. Her answer: happiness isn’t an end state. It’s a process. It’s something you work at every day.

“Happiness is a process” has become something of a mantra to me in the years since that conversation. It has become a core belief of mine and has had a tremendous impact on my life in many ways.

One of the great things about this simple statement is that you can exchange a thousand words or phrases for “happiness” and have the statement still be true. And once you do, it’s hard to be a pessimist. Here are a few substitute words and phrases that I think work: Maintaining friendships. Nurturing intimate relationships. Being a good parent. Losing and maintaining weight. Learning a musical instrument (or learning anything, for that matter). Training for an athletic event. Pretty much everything that isn’t instantaneous and temporary. Pretty much everything that is worth doing.

Being a writer is not an end state you get to just because your words show up in print. It’s a process. It requires discipline, dedication, and honesty. Ego gets in the way.

I’m reminded of a story that may be apocryphal and that I heard during one of the Stanford workshops, though I can’t remember who told it. I believe it was about Tillie Olsen, and her application for a Stanford Creative Writing fellowship. Rather than endlessly blow her own horn (what we today quaintly call marketing ourselves), she supposedly wrote something like: I want to learn to write good stories.

It’s so simple and unaffected, and so directed to the goal: writing good stories. Trusting the process, not expecting to reach an end state. And certainly not sitting next to Steven Spielberg at the Academy Awards.

Back when I was in writers’ groups, I was told on more than one occasion that I should try writing a novel. My short stories were usually on the long side, generally too big for the form. I always made some excuse about liking to write stories because it was a less forgiving form, so more challenging.

But the truth was I was terrified of writing a novel. I couldn’t imagine finding any characters interesting enough to want to spend the sort of time with them that writing a novel would require. I was afraid my attention would flag. I’d become bored and restless. In the time it would take to write a novel, I could write ten or more stories, and so have that many more chances of having someone publish something of mine. Being a writer was an end state, and I wanted to arrive.

Now I imagine Julie living with these characters for five years. I imagine her sitting down with them on a daily or almost daily basis. The amount of trust and dedication it must have taken to do that, when I surely would have fallen in and out of love with characters of my own a thousand times. Grown weary of them, and of having to rein them back in when they strayed too far from their roles.

In the end, there has to be a reason for writing, or for doing anything worth doing, that is not about arriving and is not about self-aggrandizement. Khalil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Work is love made visible.” The work of writing, like any work, ought to be done with love for the work itself, not just for the promise of success waiting at the end of the rainbow. It ought to be done for love; because it is part of who the writer is, part of the fabric of the writer’s being.

Third Thought: Writers Can’t Help But Write

Which brings me to the third thought, namely that a writer is one who writes, not one who sits around thinking about writing, dreaming about writing, or dreaming about having something he or she wrote on library and bookstore shelves, and waiting for greatness to be thrust upon him or her.

In The Invisible Bridge, the main character, Andras, is an architecture student who is prevented from continuing his studies. But the fact that he isn’t able to finish his training during the course of the story doesn’t keep him from being an architect. It’s how he sees the world, it’s part of who he is. At various times during the story, he finds himself drawing or analyzing a building, seemingly without conscious intent. When he is in love and enjoying a seaside holiday with his beloved, he finds himself drawing the plans for a house in which the two of them could live. When he learns his first son has been born, but is ill, Andras goes to seek permission from an officer at his labor camp to return home to see his child, and though he doesn’t know where this man’s office is “… he felt his way into the heart of the building, following the architectural lines of force. There, where he would have placed the major’s office if he had designed this building, was the major’s office.” Architecture is how Andras expresses himself, and how he finds his way. It’s part of who he is, whether he’s doing it for a living or not.

It’s the same with writing.

At various times in my life I have written journals, poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction, academic papers, legal papers, gaming walkthroughs, letters, emails, writing exercises, blog posts, tasting notes, and things I’m sure I can’t even recall writing now. But I have always written.

I was going through a box of old papers recently as part of a long overdue project to organize my home, and I found a note I’d received in law school from a (famous) poet with whom I’d done a poetry writing workshop in college. I must have written to him to ask him what to do when I felt I’d reached a plateau in writing.

Here is what he wrote: “… duh, uh, jeez. I keep writing. Always. Even if it seems repetitive or derivative. Other folks take a break: read more, translate, keep a journal, edit. I have faith in you.”

At the time I received this note, I’m sure I focused on that last little bit of encouragement. But the more important part to me now is the advice, which I find I’ve followed even without remembering this note.

When I was taking classes with this poet, and later with Julie, I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized -- I am a writer. I’ve always been a writer. I’m a writer, because I write. Because I feel compelled to write. Because my life isn’t complete unless I write, and because it is part of who I am and how I see the world, and something that I always come back to. I keep writing. Always. Because I have to.

Now, if only I could start being a perfectionist and stop being an egomaniac. Then I might really be on to something.


Friday, February 26, 2010

The Miracle of Every Day

I'm going to break with tradition in this blog and go personal for an entry.  I had a timely experience that queued up in my mind something I felt ought to be communicated, and it just happened to be personal.  So there.

This morning I walked my kindergartener to school.  We had a conversation that went like this:

Son:  Mommy, I really wish I could have known my great, great, great, great grandfather.

Me:  I understand, but I didn't even know him.  He died before I was even born.  But I knew one of your great-grandfathers.  The one who was my father's father.  My mother's father had died before I was born.

Son:  Tell me about him.

Me:  Well, he lived in Russia and he came to America.  He married your great grandmother and they had four kids.  One was your grandfather.  He had the same name as you. 

Son:  I wish I had known your mommy and daddy.  What were they like?

Me:  I wish you had known them, too.  My mommy was such a wonderful person.  Everyone loved her.  I sometimes joked that my friends loved my mother more than they loved me.  She would have loved you so very much.  She was very loving.  She was kind to everyone she met, and she was kind to all living things.  She was also very smart.  You could ask her anything and she would know the answer, or know where to find it.  And she was very funny.  She made people laugh and enjoyed making them laugh.

Son:  What about your daddy?

Me:  He was very smart and loved his work.  He was very good at what he did; he was a scientist, a professor, a writer.  He taught me a lot.  He took me to his lab and I learned a lot just by watching him, so I was very good in science later on.  And he played ball, and card games and chess with me.  I don't think he remembered a lot about how to play with kids by the time I was old enough to want to play, but he tried.  And he came to my plays when I was acting in high school, and all my graduations.  And he wrote me letters when I was in college and law school.  He wasn't easy to be close to, but I know he loved me and he would have loved you.

Son:  I wish I could know them.

Me:  I wish you could, too.  You can't know them as living people, but I have videos of them and tapes of their voices, and pictures you can see.  And I can tell you about them. 

This is the hardest part of being an older parent.  Lack of grandparents.  This is the hardest part of being an outlier from the rest of the extended family.

What's the answer?  I don't think there is one.  And I'm sad about it, but I refuse to view myself as lacking as a parent somehow because of it.  I never knew one of my grandparents, and one died when I was one.  Even though the other two shared a good bit of my life span, they lived far away and I didn't see them much.  So if my kids only have a single living grandparent, and see her sporadically, it is what it is.  It is not optimal, but it is what it is.

But the miracle of every day life is that despite the lack of a continually or even frequently present extended family, my kindergartener is developing a sense of personal history.  He is becoming a person with a history, and that is, to me, miraculous.  May he have a grand and worthy history, that, as he comes to know it and to build it for himself, will serve him well.  I hope that thanks to his brother, he will always have stability and continuity in that history.  Having lost both parents prior to having my own kids, and having no siblings, it was very important to me that mine have at least one other person bound to them through immediate family ties that they could turn to, always.  And the bonus is, I'll have that, too.   


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tea Update: It's Not a Problem So Much as an Issue...

Since when did we decide, collectively, that we were all so perfect we couldn't have problems anymore?  Instead, we have "issues."  Daddy issues, work issues -- nothing is ever a problem.  Problems are things that used to mark us with character flaws, or render us incompetent.  Issues are things that might or might not be problems depending on how we address them (or successfully distance ourselves from them).  Issues are things that our very California-inspired, passive-aggressive collective consciousness can deal with, no matter what.

Perhaps the idea is that language is power and if we call something a problem that will most assuredly make it definitely a problem; whereas if something is a more gentle sounding "issue" it might or might not be a real problem.  We're not sure.  If it is, though, it isn't because of our character flaws or incompetence.  Most likely it's because of somebody else's "issue."  So his or her head should roll, not ours.  I agree that language is power, but the problem/issue thing seems to me, as you've likely gathered, to go way too far.  And, it seems, I'm not the first to have had this thought.  For musings after my own mind, take a read here.

Lest it begin to sound as though I'm in William Safire mode (who also apparently wrote on the problem/issue point though I couldn't dig it up quickly online) today, let me step down from my soap box and talk some more about tea.  Specifically, my rapid evolution as a tea drinker over the last week plus.

I have learned so much in the past twelve days I'm more than a little embarrassed at the naivete I displayed in my February 5 post.  In particular, I have learned how to correct myriad tea problems, or at least reduce them to being mere "issues." 

For one thing, though I went out and bought a ridiculous number of different types of tea bags only a week or so ago to begin my tea tasting adventure, I have now become convinced that I must move on to loose tea sooner rather than later.  To that end, after researching the various methods of keeping the loose tea from becoming dental floss when one sips, I have settled upon the Finum Teeli filters as my initial method of choice.  Tea balls, I've read, compact the tea too much.  One must give the leaves plenty of room to unfurl.  I have also ordered a set of tasting samples to try out my new filters.  I may have reached a bit high for my first try as I went with Oolongs from Upton Tea, but we'll see. 

I've stopped using water from the tap, and have been experimenting with either using the bottled water I have delivered every two weeks or tap water passed through a Brita filter.  Both seem to work better than pure tap water.  And the piece de resistance is my brand spanking new Zorijushi water heater/boiler.  I made (bagged) green tea with it today at both 140 degrees and 175 degrees, and for the first time, I understood the appeal of green tea.  I can only imagine the heavenly result when I graduate to fine, loose tea.

Additionally, I've read a couple of books about tea, which I've added to my Read on the Spot list in the sidebar, and I've bookmarked a number of online tea sites as well as becoming a member of Steepster just for giggles (I've already been so bold as to offer some opinions on teas there as well, where I am __Morgana__ as they don't permit user names with asterisks).  Here are just a few of the sites I've been enjoying browsing:  Upton Tea, American Tea Room, Todd and Holland, The Necessiteas, Harney & Sons, The Tao of Tea, Adagio Teas, and Rishi Tea.

The search for the perfect cup of tea is fast becoming something of an obsession to me, but at least it's a relatively healthy one that adds to rather than taking away from other enjoyments and commitments.  It isn't my intention to inject my novice palate into the already rather crowded world of tea blogging to the extent that Morgana's Spot ends up being completely hijacked, but at the same time I'm enjoying my tea adventures so much that I have a feeling this won't be my last word on the subject.


Friday, February 5, 2010

On the Problem of Tea

Let's begin with a confession.  I am a coffee drinker, and have been virtually since birth.  I was born in Chicago, without the hot chocolate-loving gene.  So from the time I was a wee tot, my mother heated me up on winter outings with my preferred beverage -- coffee.  Cream, no sugar, just the way she liked it and so I came to like it, too.  I acquired a taste for hot chocolate later in life (for all its relevance to this discussion, which is to say, not at all).

From time to time, I've tried to become a tea drinker.  Not to supplant my coffee addiction, but to supplement it.  Typically, the desire is whetted when I have a really wonderful cup of tea and wonder why it isn't a greater part of my life.  Then I remember.  Most of the time, the tea I make has at best no taste I can discern, and at worst, tastes simply like hot water, or the vehicles by which it entered the hot water:  paper or metal.

This begs the question of whether it is simply that my tea-making skills suck.  This could well be.  In my recent foray into tea drinking, I actually read the packaging and discovered there is a preferred hotness of the water (sometimes boiling, sometimes not) for pouring over the bag or leaves, depending on the brew.  And a preferred steeping time, also depending on the brew.  I paid attention this time and I have improved my results.  More on that later.

I should also say that I don't use condiments in tea.  My father drank it with lemon, but most tea with lemon tastes like weak, hot lemonade to me.  Pretty gross.  So unless the tea is a lemon tea to start with, I've passed on the lemon.  In college, I had a roomie who drank tea with honey.  So I tried that as well.  Every tea I tried that way tasted like honey diluted with hot water.  Where was the tea?  And then, being an Anglophile of sorts, I tried drinking tea with milk and sugar for some time.  When I did, I tasted hot water, sugar and weak milk, but no tea.  I stilll drank it that way until my recent foray, though, just to look worldly.

If it hadn't been for the really stupendous cups of tea I happened on from time to time, I might well have concluded that tea was a sort of placebo:  that it deludes people into believing they are drinking something more flavorful than hot water, through various ruses like color and aroma, and a statistically significant group of them claim actually to like it.  One of my major complaints about teas is that many smell wonderful, but the smell doesn't translate into taste -- I know the two senses are biologically related, but I feel it a sorry second if the primary enjoyment I get from a beverage is smelling it rather than tasting it, and often aromatic teas again simply taste like hot water to me no matter how wonderful they smell.

If you are a tea aficionado, you might, at this point, question my tasting mechanism.  Is it possible that seven or so years of smoking, which ended about 14 years ago, dulled my taste buds?  Or that the stronger, richer, fuller taste of coffee has undone my ability to taste subtlety?  (Is tea supposed to have more subtle flavoring than coffee?  I don't know.  It does to me.)  It may be, but I don't think so.  I can taste subtle flavors in foods and in wines.  So why not teas?

Maybe I haven't tried hard enough.  My usual tea phase starts with a decision that I should get to know tea, a purchase of several types, along with some supplies, such as tea balls or strainers.  I taste hot water and clog my drain with tea leaves, so I let it sit in my pantry until the next time I get moved to convert.  If I go back to it, it's probably stale by that time and so not fair to judge.

My latest tea attempt was fueled by my weight loss efforts.  To put it mildly, I'd been drinking a shitload of Diet Coke and chomping a shitload of sugar free gum.  When my consumption went up to about eight 20-ounce bottles of Diet Coke and a pack or so of gum a day, I thought perhaps I was entering lab rat territory on the Aspartame front so decided there had to be some other low cal beverage I could put into the mix that would calm my orally fixated self.  Tea seemed the perfect fit.  I just needed the right tea to start with.  In the past I'd done Twinings and Bigelow, so I got some of that -- mostly the old favorites like Constant Comment, Earl Grey and some herbal ones.  But I was pretty curious about Tazo.  I'd seen it in Starbucks forever, but never tried it.  (And I'm not being paid by any of these companies.  Oh would that it were.  I can use any additional money I can get these days....)

I took myself over to one of my four local Starbucks -- don't get me started -- and found the Tazo section.  I discovered that Starbucks had recently commissioned Tazo to do a full leaf version of its teas in what they call "sachets" (which makes me think of the little do-dads my mother always stuck in my underwear drawer); tea bags that are made of fabric rather than paper.  This was apparently big news when it happened, though I learned of it months later from the 20-something Barrista I'd asked whether the cool-looking tins contained loose tea that would require the purchase of tea-making accoutrements.  I bought a few kinds and went home to try one.

I got really lucky on the first one.  Wow.  With Vanilla Rooibos I was finally able to replicate the experience of an awesome flavored tea at home.  This gave me courage.  I tried Calm, Passion, Awake, Chai and Orange Blossom, and all of them worked to some extent.  In any case, better than I'd recalled with other brands in other times.  The better ones were actually the herbals.  The teas themselves had less impact, but it was still a much better experience than it ever has been in the past.  Though the Bigelow I Love Lemon and Peppermint came out nicely as well.  I still can't really get Green Tea to work, though I've not tried a Tazo version as yet.  The Twinings was disappointingly weak and flavorless.

Why might my tea experience be improving?  First, let me say I am being very anal about tea preparation.  I follow the directions, as mentioned before -- I set a timer for steeping and don't let it go one more, or less, second than it is supposed to.  But it may also have something to do with the state of my body in general. 

I've written about my weight loss efforts before, and I can say now that I have made an honest drivers license of my driver's license.  It says 140, and so I am; give or take.  I was down to 139 the other morning and up at 143 the next, and I just got back from a week long convention-type business trip that is bound to have wreaked havoc with my body.  They even joked during the last session about the week of caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and yes, I was one of those who succumbed.  But I'm still in much better shape than I've ever been and I've resolved to get back on track tomorrow. 

Getting here has been, as Shay of biggest loser fame would say, "a journey."  I'm on month 7+ of weight loss, probably the longest time I've gone where I've really eaten almost no junk and have exercised like a machine.  I'm also older than in previous tea-loving attempts, and probably entering "the change" slowly but surely.   It seems plausible to me that a palate unhindered by too many bad fats and simple sugars, and in hormonal flux, could be a tea-loving palate.  I think about the tea lovers I know, and they are generally pretty healthy folks, and older folks.  Anecdotal, I know, but it's what I've observed.  And tea itself is touted as a healthful beverage.  Coincidence?  Which is the chicken and which is the egg? 

In any case, as you have gleaned, I'm giving tea another try.  I once said to someone I'm willing to try anything once.  Fortunately for me, he did not hold me to that.  Tea has gotten a lot of passes from me on the try anything once front, and somehow I think it will eventually be worth the repeated attempts.  I'm already tasting the difference.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Can't Stop Saab-in'

I never thought I'd be sad to hear of the demise of a car brand, particularly one of a car I've never owned.  But the death of Saab is making me surprisingly melancholy.

I've only driven one Saab, once.  It was about fifteen years old and had had several previous owners, but it was still a powerful, liberating experience.  The feeling was hard to describe.  The closest I can come is to say it is the same feeling I have when I step off a plane in a country I haven't visited before:  one of adventure, of appreciation for something foreign yet familiar, of the potential for something interesting, cool, and memorable to happen at any second.

My dream sports car for years has been a Jaguar XKR, but once I had kids I realized that was likely to stay a dream for a long time given its price tag -- absent a best-selling novel, a winning lottery ticket, or a wealthy, distant relative randomly deciding to leave me everything and then kicking the bucket, all of which are about equally probable (which is to say, not at all).  Next in line was a Saab 9-3 convertible.   Though I bought an SUV when kid number two arrived, I kept my ten year old old Acura Integra since it had (1) been a gift from my mother and (2) no trade in value anyway, with the depression-era thought that in another 14 years or so I could hand over the keys to kid number one, thus saving the used car shopping angst.  Still, I nurtured a secret fantasy that if the Acura ever died, I'd replace it with a brand spanking new Saab 9-3.  Thanks, GM, for dashing another of my increasingly few secret fantasies into teeny, tiny fragments.

Apart from its style and the fact that its cars weren't a dime a dozen even on the luxury car clogged freeways of California, one of the coolest things about Saab, to me, anyway, was its origins as an aircraft builder.  Come to think of it, maybe that's why the feeling I had while driving one was one of descending an airplane into new territory.  And that's probably what the fantasy is all about at its root anyway:  freedom, adventure, and possibility.