30 January 2010

A decade

If there's one thing I could take away from this past week, and only one, it would be that the fire burning within is what we have, and it's up to us to stoke it. I am doing my best to devote time and energy to the work I want to do most, to put off the housework before I put off the writing. Everyone has much to juggle; I have less than many, but one of the tricky things to keep aloft is my own ambition, my need to tell these stories.

It's not easy to spend so much of one's time doing something -- striving for some kind of mastery -- that is largely invisible to everyone. In Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hours concept, if you spend eight hours of every day doing one thing you wanted to master, it would take you 1,000 days of practicing to become really good at it. That's eight hours every day, which almost never happens. So double your 1,000 days, or more realistically quadruple them, and maybe you're talking about 10-12 years to achieve mastery, unless you are blessed with lots of time every single day for your practice. Or you set a specific goal: a novel by a certain deadline, a marathon you want to complete, and you structure everything around meeting that goal. That's how I haven't been thinking but how I'd like to switch.

This practice feeds me, too: I feel so grateful for every day and every minute I can write. And dance, love, walk, be here, be with you.

21 January 2010

I kissed some foot on twitter today

Ruhlman is the what-if-John McPhee and M.F.K. Fisher-had-a-lovechild of our time in his full absorption in all things cooking related, and I'm such a groupie.

I can't help it. I'm a tad aflutter: Michael Ruhlman thanked me today when I paid him a compliment on twitter. I'm reading his latest book, Ratio, and the book pretty much cemented the rock star analogy for me. (He also wrote a trilogy: The Making of a Chef, Soul of a Chef, & Reach of a Chef, good books all. Oh, and he helped Thomas Keller write his cookbook. Amazing. And his instincts are so true, so good; here he's come up with great formulas, great examples, and some amazingly yummy-looking recipes that I have yet to try out. His preoccupation with food is something I recognize; it drives everyone on one side of my family (every last one a gourmet-food seeker, crazy for the stuff).

I am raving about this book because I find it a rare thing, a fine and flexible reference tool in the spirit of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It's more than just a cookbook but rather a liberating way to think about cooking, perhaps even a way to demystify cooking for a whole bunch of people. Once you have learned the basic ratios (and once you've procured a decent kitchen scale with a "tare weight" button), you have a great set of places from which to launch yourself, especially if you are a tinkerer like me who can hardly leave a recipe alone.

In contrast to Ruhlman, who is after some quintessential information about the best ways to prepare food, I keep circling back to what has become something of a new meditation for me: "What if I didn't have the best lunch possible but a good lunch?" What's the difference between best and enough? What does it mean that there is a gap? It doesn't necessarily mean I need to close the gap. I can have a good lunch without making things too fancy.

I heard a great thing -- at least the author of the book where I read it made me feel I heard it: In Beth Lisick's Helping Me Help Myself, Lisick talks about one spiritual guide, one of the people she consults for help in the course of a yearlong life makeover that involves taking the advice of America's most popular self-help gurus, one per month. Irresistible premise, right? I couldn't put it down. It was good, too: She's funny and sharp, if a little mean, which isn't surprising considering her hipster-than-thou life before her grand experiment (even her husband is a super-hipster -- his band opens several shows for Radiohead!) and considering her former disdain for outside expertise of any kind she has a refreshing willingness to submit to the logic of her new 12-pack of teachers. The one that struck me says to a crowd gathered to hear her communicate with people no longer dwelling in the physical world, "A martyr can only nail up one of his hands." I have been chewing on that one ever since I heard it. (And you, dear reader, deserve a prize for most tenacious if you've made it this far without rolling your eyes and clicking to the next big or little thing.)

In other news: The most popular exclamation I hear among the kids at my daughter's school is "What the...?" with equal emphasis on "What" and "the." And today I heard my daughter's schoolmate say "OMG," complete with Valley-Girl emphasis, in conversation. I'm not sure my kid knew what her friend was saying. I wonder whether her friend learned it from older siblings or from TV. I'm guessing the latter. It strikes me as extra ironic because the girl saying it is from a Catholic family. Wouldn't that be taking the Lord's name in vain somehow?

Oh, and there's this little circle thing we do with our knees, where we draw a circle with one knee and then the other. That used to be so hard. I could barely pick my leg up and drag it across my body. It still aches sometimes but today I was thinking, "Where would I be if I weren't doing this?" It's so hard to imagine, I don't even feel like trying.

14 January 2010

Current resolutions

Finish at least one novel
Earn money for writing
Be a better friend
Love more
Kvetch less
Use fewer exclamation points
Go hear some more live music
Make another film
Sing more
Write down lyrics
Keep on dancing

13 January 2010

A teaser from the new novel I'm writing

She'd bombed. Flamed out. Died. Big time.

“Everyone has to do it once,” they told her after, allowing her to bond with them over shared failures. “It's good to get that out of the way early.”

And: “Now you know how the worst night feels. If you can go back out there after a night like that and not take it too personally, you might have what it takes to make it in this hellish business.”

It made Lydia feel better to hear it. 99 percent of people who dream of this probably never ever try it, she thought, with pride. And it's weird but it's a freaking thrill and a half. She was unable to stop the smile from stretching her lips wide. By the end of the night her face had ached from all the grinning. She was high as a kite, soaring over her old life. Plus, she was funny as hell with all those new brothers. If that five minutes was the worst thing that ever happened to her, and she could even stand doing it again, she felt fine about that. If that were true, who knew, maybe she could be the next Seinfeld.

Lydia's secret excuse for her crash-and-burn of a debut was being in disguise. She cut herself a great deal of slack for it instead of beating herself over the head and concluding she was no good. Her material was pretty good, she thought, but it was trickier finding the way to deliver it, while trying on a whole new persona. She couldn't just drop the persona when her set was over like most performers, she quickly saw; if she wanted to snare the bird she would have to keep it up during the bantering-in-the-bar portion of the evening with the comedians' brotherhood after. She had to be Carmen Flame. She liked the joke of having red hair and being named something smoldering and Latin sounding.

It was like trying to join a fraternity suddenly being around all these guys kind of like her, odd balances of Introversion and Extroversion in the Myers-Briggs personality inventory. She hadn't quite figured out who she wanted to be with them yet. She hadn't yet connected well with her audience, or herself, which was making her feel less worthy of connecting with the accomplished fellows in this group, every last one of them (she thought) with more experience in a month than she'd had in her whole life.

Onstage, Lydia had been worried under her false bravado, which of course the audience sniffed out immediately, nosing her jokes as dispassionately as dogs poking around a pile of leaves while she died in front of everyone, afraid her delivery was rushed and trying not hold back from her inclination to be snarky, which she knew could turn an audience on her in a second. Fear made her sweat, drove her on. She dreaded being booed or hooked off the stage. She'd seen one club owner ring a loud bell or buzzer on the performers – they never knew which to expect – that startled each comedian into submission, abruptly ending their desperate not-quite five-minute sets. You could see the stress of wondering on every comic's face a few minutes into each set: Will my sound be a bell or a buzzer?

No mojo that time. Oh, well, too bad, she thought. But she sure liked the electricity and the instant camaraderie of it, and had felt more alive this night than at any time except riding through the country so busy with thoughts of what she might do when she stopped somewhere and started setting down new roots that she hadn't noticed she'd been singing to herself for miles, alternating between “This Land Is Your Land” and “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” the songs' repeating refrains in the background of her mind like Muzak at the supermarket.

12 January 2010

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "Awww!”'- Jack Kerouac

This inspires me and also makes me recoil, all at once. I'm still immersed in judgement about candles that burn bright, the ones who suck all the air out of the room -- you probably know someone, at least one, like that, right? But I also want to be that passionate about my work.

That said, time for dance class!


11 January 2010

All those channels

A Facebook friend had a question: "Does anyone get this cable channel? We don't and we hear we're on TV."

Sorry, can't help, I replied. No cable. We keep a TV downstairs, mostly for movies. I usually have one show I'm interested in at any given time, sometimes two. Now they are "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Glee," which I made a feeble attempt at watching religiously. They have since fallen off my schedule and I rarely remember they're on at the right times.

The Mister of the house likes to say, "We don't get TV," which isn't strictly true, as he's carefully edited our setup to get the most out of the new digital broadcast signal. But even with the new, improved picture quality and channel selection, there's still hardly anything on broadcast TV.

We haven't had cable in about 20 years -- it was still on for a while after we moved into our little cottage on the hill in San Francisco, but after it finally got turned off, after three months or so, we just never opted in. This fact was remarkable if you consider the sheer number of mailings from the cable company we received over the years (I can't count the number of times I thought, "Oh, this looks like a pretty good deal"). Plus I spent some of my formative teen years with a parent who thought cable was a necessity, and there is always the allure of the premium channels on our friends' TVs and on vacations.

But the deal was never good enough to tip it toward entering into a contract. Because like sex, there was no going back. I knew that much. Once we had cable, we'd deem it a necessity everafter.

I recently read that Bobby and Danette Stuckey of Frasca fame don't have a TV, so couldn't watch Bobby's "Today Show" appearance or Lachlan's "Top Chef" episode at home. Is it a trend? Or three parallel anecdotes?

If I had cable I'd be less likely to update this blog. I'd be less likely to make progress on any of my novels. I would be less likely to read as many books, which might just mean I'd be that much less interested in writing one. But lately I've been reading good ones that make me want to tell stories that are this enriching and enlightening: Lorrie Moore's Gate at the Stairs, Michelle Huneven's Blame and Michael Ruhlman's middle book of his Chef trilogy, The Soul of a Chef, plus the usual Michael Connellys and Anne Perrys and such liberally mixed in.

I always wonder when I see those surveys saying the average amount of time people in the US watch television is more than four hours a day, who has that kind of time for TV-watching? I guess if you watch it for an hour in the morning as you ready for your day, and then you have it on in the background and then watch a little prime-time, a news show, and some of the late show, you're there. But that's a lot of noise in your life!

I've learned a few things from television (a topic for a future blog post), but in the balance the box gives back so little of the time I invest in it, relative to everything else in my life. Now that I've written today (earlier I started Book Two, or Chapter 51, of my novel, Time to read--about Fat? Milk? Kenny Shropsin? Best Friends Forever? Heidi Julavits? Haruki Murakami writing nonfiction? Ahh, choices, choices.

06 January 2010

Food and faith

So cozy inside.

There's a storm brewing outside -- it got worse by the minute as I dropped my child at school and returned home after. Nothing falling, yet. And the ground covered with awful ice patches everywhere. Hips will shatter, should snow fall on these lumpy slicks lurking all around.

So: my next writing goal is revising and extending the rest of my current novel. She is poised on the brink of a sting operation, in catching him at his own game. I need to work out the details about her MO (modus operandi is the Latin phrase called out by the acronym).

And then a turning point, where she realizes she doesn't want any part of his game, and mirroring his behavior to trap him at what he will do anyway is not only unfair but also morally wrong and she can't do that another minute or her life might as well just be declared wasted. She has to live her life instead. She can't keep on reacting to his madness; she wastes all her own resources trying to keep up with him. And she never can, because he's miserable with what he's become but can't give up being a bully with all the power it brings him.

That's the emotional plot line. Now to scene-out the mechanics. That's what's next.


It is sad to lose a generation. There is always the death of what might have been for those in a branch that chose to live far from their mothers instead of near. So many stories we never heard, never let ourselves hang around long enough to get to know everyone and be a part of.

That happened before I knew it when my maternal grandmother died a few years ago. But that was never offered. She wasn't accessible in any real way -- she'd just blow into town every few years. Or once we went to see her on her turf, in Barcelona, and she led us to the place listed in our Let's Go book as the most rock-bottom cheap but decent food in all of the city, where you could eat a hearty meal for $4 in the midst of all the hoity-toity tapas bars that line the streets and keep the city humming every night. We ate there with her apologizing for the place but the food was good and cheap and we bought hers. I remember meeting her for lunch at the Emporium, across the street from where I worked in San Francisco, near the Powell and Market cable-car turnaround, back when there was still a Woolworth's with a lunch counter and blue-plate specials. I think I harbored a notion that she would take me shopping, but she had the opposite idea and I bought her a scarf in the end. She'd found the least-expensive thing in there and made me buy her one. I had a job, after all, so I was surprised but gracious about it, if a tiny bit resentful. I got one shopping spree out of my grandparents, but have never had parents or grandparents who blew into town to take me shopping. Sigh; some dreams die hard.

I think of people like my grandmother, who seemed afraid to consume much to stay alive, and how my mother does the same thing now, and how others in my sphere are trying to teach me about self-negation, sacrificing for the good of all. My heart reaction to that is no! I know I have entered into phases of food paralysis, when my ideas about what is healthy change and I see food outside that sphere as something less than nourishing. It is a form of anorexia concerned with foreign or polluting foods. I still have it, when we go to someone's house and aren't comfortable with what they eat. My kid abhors McDonald's and I'm with her.

Not long ago I read and started passing around a funny memoir, Jenny Traig's Devil in the Details, about a woman hitting puberty and entering into a life of scrupulosity, obsessiveness over process and correctness. Traig was half Jewish, and at the moment puberty struck, she dove into her religion, especially around food preparation and bodily functions. She had obsessive-compulsive disorder and this was where she expressed her depth of feeling and commitment: to eating correctly and handling food correctly, in observance of Jewish dietary laws about mixing meat and dairy and keeping a truly Kosher kitchen. (And bathroom.)

There was that Aha! when I read about her challenges; I remembered trying a diet when I was 13 that involved a lot of hamburger and pineapple, and thinking everything else was bad and having a hard time starting back up eating other foods again. And then learning about people's challenges with gluten, I wanted to believe it could help our kid with her mood swings, or could cure me of inflexibility and joint pain. And suddenly wheat seemed to be looming everywhere. We caught out a waitress who said no, hoisin sauce doesn't have wheat in it. We Googled it on our little phone.

But for a while I didn't believe in wheat. Now I am just more aware of it as one grain we eat. I tire of it and have to make something with this blend of gluten-free flours I've developed. I like to take occasional breaks from our monoculture wheat culture. So I make banana bread with gluten-free flour. Crepes with buckwheat flour. Those beautiful panisse sticks with garbanzo flour.

Sometimes with food as with nothing else, it's hard to know what to believe in.

03 January 2010

No sharks allowed

I was in the car listening to a Led Zeppelin song on the radio, loving the intro and how beautiful it was but simultaneously dreading the bridge, which turns the song into something else entirely -- something else, as a woman, to be dreaded. It's that energy that says, "I'm full of lust and I'm not taking no for an answer. You're in my path and I'm comin' at ya, ready or not."

I just thought for the ten-thousandth time how much more I would have liked those guys if they could have done more than a song or two that was simply beautiful and not full of all that pushy "baby, baby" energy.

Then I opened the New York Times Book Review to discover there's a new biography of them that to hear the reviewer tell it leaves out much about the music and rehashes the gnarly details of their decadent rock stardom. There's some hideous incident involving a woman and a shark that I can only imagine. A bandmember pooh-poohed all that, though, saying they'd only done all that nasty business "for a laugh." "The thing I remember most from that time was the laughter," he said. I wonder if all those women remember the laughter the same way. Ick.