What should I write about tonight? The cake I baked today known formally as the Test Cake, a dry run for Damianís upcoming birthday party. Also known as the ďShould we order an expensive cake from Sweet Lady Jane or should we save the bucks and dump a bunch of butter and flour into a mixer?Ē cake.
Or should I write about an interesting article I read online, an interview with the head of USCís screenwriting department? In the first half he talks about writing and his overall career and later he discusses the specifics of how heís currently adapting a book from a series Iíve never heard of before but Iím sure you all have (The Three Investigators).
The cake may be more fun to contemplate, though. It wasnít easy today, finding a good yellow cake recipe. It took a while, much Google searching and cookbooks strewn about the guest room, before I found a likely candidate. I chose it because it included almond extract as well as vanilla, and Iím a sucker for almond anything. I also chose it because it instructs you to separate the eggs and beat the whites until peaks form. I hate beating whites, even with a mixer. Iím terrified Iíll overmix and make mush. But I love the results in cake. Lighter, almost airy. I wanted something that would stand out as Someone Made This, Isnít That Impressive? Because after all if youíre going to go to the trouble, it should be brag-worthy, right?
On the other hand, the interview with David Howard struck an unexpected chord for me. In it, he talks about an enlightening workshop he took with Frank Daniel that changed the course of his life (exciting him enough to make him want to write scripts). He says, in part:
DH: One of the most important things I learned from Frank in the first hour (and throughout our years of working together) was that a story is about the experience you are creating for the audience. Like many beginning writers, I thought all I needed to do was figure out my characters and the world and the conflicts and then the story was done. I didn't realize that is only part of the process. The "telling" in storytelling is consciously striving to have an intended impact on the audience - to give them an exciting and meaningful experience through the lives of the characters. To create that experience we make thousands of decisions about what portion of the lives and world and conflicts we reveal when, in what order, for what impact. That's true storytelling.
I think itís very true. So many writers Ė and here Iím thinking of aspiring screenwriters but also novelists and even bloggers and journallers Ė donít seem to pay attention to this simple principle: youíre not writing in a vacuum. You write to be read or itís just mental masturbation. And if you write to be read, you do need to be aware of your audience, of how your words will affect them. You need to craft your story for the reader, to satisfy (or intentionally leave them unsated). To provoke a laugh or a sigh.
And yet itís not that simple after all. Because you can go too far in the other direction. I know I did. I was so concerned with my readers, with being liked, with seeking approval, that I wasnít writing from the gut. I was second and third guessing myself. I was choosing my story ideas for cleverness rather than personal resonance. Only when a story resonates with the writer does it have enough creative juice to sustain the reader as well.
Back to today and my cake baking exercise. You must understand, this was a serious endeavor. Involving at least four bowls and four sticks of butter (two for the cake, two for the icing). Also much sifting and stirring and folding. Also some questions about proper form: Should I really put the wax paper in the cake tins? Wonít the cake get wrinkly? And: will this work as well if I use regular flour instead of pastry flour? What about the sugar? Am I really supposed to sift it? Itís sugar! How fluffy will it get? And is the icing really supposed to be this hard to spread? Ah, more milk. That's the secret.
When I bake, I feel like a chemist mixing proper amounts of this and that. Though I may use a knife to level the tops of measuring cups instead of a scale to weigh the liquid in beakers, Iím still mixing careful proportions of various elements so they can combine and interact and ultimately transmute under heat into something altogether different and new.
Dare I say it? This process, itís not altogether unlike writing. The work, the disparate ingredients, the careful but ultimately unpredictable melding and of course the outcome. Does it taste good? Is it enjoyable on the palate, in the brain? Is it a good read/a tasty treat? Once again it comes back to audience. The passion of the baker, the enthusiasm of the chef, does it translate?
Dan and Damian came home to find a cake on the table with one piece already removed. The authorís own reread, if you will. They cut their own slices. They declared it a success. Damian had another piece for dessert later. He ate nearly all of it, which if you know Damian means he loves it. Heís not a cake person. Which goes back to why I worked so hard to unearth just the right recipe to lure this birthday-boy-to-be to relish his own birthday cake. A slightly eggy, very buttery yellow cake with a moist crumb, with chocolate icing like frozen waves and strawberry filling between the layers. Apparently this audience, my most important judge, gave it a thumbs up.
Though he did tell me that next time I should make a whole cake, not one with a bite already taken out of it. Not too hard to accommodate. My stomachís so full of cake I donít think Iíll eat any of the next iteration. Just as there comes a time I can no longer reread my own story, I apparently have my cake limits as well. Anyone want a piece of delicious homemade cake? Itís on my dining room table waiting for its moment in the limelight.
In the comments (I do love comments) on my wrap party post, some people very kindly reassured me that I have nothing to be ashamed of telling people I'm now a stay at home mom, that Iím doing something important and should be proud of that. And they/you are right. I know that. I didnít always, but I do now. But itís a complicated thing for me, and not ever easy. Even now I look at women who tell me theyíve decided to leave their high powered jobs to stay home with their kids, to be there during the formative first years and I think ďThatís amazing, what a gift youíre giving your children, but how do you keep yourself sane?Ē
I love Damian, obviously, I love him truly and deeply but I also feel restless when I spend too much time being a mom. I need to work. I need to feel like Iím doing something important for myself. For me this means writing. Itís a compulsion and a need. But even if I didnít have that, Iíd still need something. When I left editing, I was so tied in knots about losing my income-producing dignity, I got a series of debilitating migraines, something like half a dozen in the space of a week. For months Ė no, years Ė I walked around feeling like half a person. I had had such a hard time with the concept of marriage, the ancient echoes of woman as chattel, woman as servant, woman as owned object. And now here I was, not only wed but financially dependent.
Itís been hard, these past years. For a long time, I thought financial success from my writing was just around the corner. In retrospect itís fairly obvious I was never really meant to be a screenwriter and even if Iíd been suited for the craft, itís next to impossible to break in Ė at least the way I was going about it. Like winning at Lotto, as Toni said to me today. And that was hard and even heartbreaking. Because I want an identity for myself thatís not just parenting.
This is what it comes down to in the end, I think. I choose to be a mother. With time the role has become integral to my sense of who I am and what I have to offer in the world. And because of Damianís issues, I know my time at home has been of tangible value. Iím more at peace with it these days, which is why I was able to tell those high powered producers and directors that I stay home with my child and leave it at that. Iím so grateful that our finances have allowed me the freedom to shepherd Damianís development in a more hands-on way than I could have as a working mom. It has indeed been a gift. But it still doesnít fit with my self-identity, it still doesnít quite work. And thatís the crux. I know thereís far more widespread acceptance of this path now than, say, twenty years ago, when you were seen as turning your back on everything your feminist mothers worked so hard to gain for you. But I was a teenager in the seventies when feminism was new again, and those are the values I absorbed. And this stay at home mom thing? Itís not an easy fit. Better now but never wholly natural.
I told myself when I started this blog that Iíd write about every movie I saw and every book I read as a way of keeping track. But then I see a movie like School of Rock and Iím not sure why I made that promise to myself. Because really what do you say? Itís silly and light and dumb and fun. But it makes absolutely no sense, has virtually no nods to anything resembling reality, and ends with a predictable, formulaic climax including angry parents becoming proud parents. (Did I spoil the movie? Whoops. But really, letís be serious. This is not a movie you can spoil.) So what do you say?
It does raise some questions, though. Why do we see movies? What appeals? Why did this bit of fluff with the bare bones of a story but a lot of rock Ďn roll and even more of Jack Blackís eyebrows, why did it do so well? Does story matter so little? Do characters drawn so broad theyíre caricatures tickle your fancy? Is it just the filmís delicious topsy turvy jab at uptight schooling, does that bring back memories of boring days in classrooms and how much fun it would have been to have a rock Ďn roll teacher instead? (IE: your basic wish fulfillment fantasy.) Or is it that other perennial of comedy, the fish out of water, juxtaposing this grungy rockster with the dark wood and scrollwork halls of a snooty prep school?
Donít get me wrong, it wasnít a bad movie. It was enjoyable enough. Especially the climax, seeing these ten year olds perform their, um, final project. And various sequences along the way, as Dewey Finn (Jack Black) draws complex diagrams on the blackboard to illustrate the history of rock and analyzes concert footage, treating this outrageous topic with the seriousness that normal teachers devote to math and history and social studies. And itís even satisfying to watch as Dewey has the inevitable character arc wherein he grows into his role and becomes an adult. But it never felt like a real movie to me. It never surprised me, never let me under the surface. Do I ask too much of a simple comedy? I think I donít. I think it never got there because Black and Mike White (yes, deeply amusing, the writersí real names) never treated their scenario with respect. Did they have to? No, of course not. But in return I donít have to care after I turn off the TV.
Sometimes I think back on my life pre-Damian, when I actually went to see movies in the theater. At least twice a month, often more. How did I have that much time to waste? I remember it, though. Paying my money, slipping inside the hushed foyer with its red carpet, picking out the perfect center seats, waiting for the lights to dim and the movie to transport me. Most never did. But like a woman with a series of blind dates, I always hoped the next one would.
This one would have been one of the misses for me. Nice enough guy, not exactly marriage material. Made me smile a little, thatís all. Is that enough? It should be, I guess. It isnít.
Hot today. One hundred degrees in the shade. Hot yesterday too. Ninety seven degrees at four p.m. Yo, Weather God! Itís APRIL! Get your hand off that dial! Turn the heat down! Man. You must be new at the job. Read the directions! Weíre not supposed to bake till July. Sometimes even August. Septemberís bad, usually. But not April! Get a clue!
Hot today. The kind of heat that seeps into your bones and makes it impossible to move. The kind that saps the water from your body and makes it hard to swallow even though you just drank a tall glass of ice water. The kind that weighs you down, makes you old, makes you melt.
Hot today. Pulling into the driveway, shutting off the car. Car interior turns warm in seconds. Getting out of the car enveloped by heat, like stepping into mid-summer misery. On into the house, cool a few hours ago but now swirling with hot molecules, the air infested with heat like a virus. Contagious. Invasive. It attacks your body first, then your mind. Or maybe itís the other way around, Iím too hot to care.
Hot today. So hot. Our bedroom windows are wide open, sucking in whatever bits of cool night we can grab from outside. Also sucking in the sounds of neighbors hacking up phlegm, of phones ringing, of footsteps on the walkway. We live amidst apartment buildings, Iím sure Iíve said this before. On a night like this, I canít escape that. Itís like living in the apartment complex itself, but not by choice. But itís either that or bake to a crisp, or is that a crumble? Four and twenty Damians baked in a pie. We canít put in window a/c units, not in these windows. So weíre stuck with fans and noise and heat.
Hot today. And now we know with certainty that the money weíre foolishly about to spend on central air (theyíre coming Monday! Itíll be done by Wednesday!) is wise money. Is peace of mind, of heart, of soul money. Itís our way of saying yes, we live here. In this house, with all its virtues and oh yes, all its faults. We may be here for a while. Maybe a long while, given the insanity of the local housing market. We therefore need to own where we are. Just as we pay the mortgage every month and that lays claim to the property, so in this too we lay claim. We change our environment, we give ourselves peace and closed windows on hot nights and cool air that allows us to think, to act, to enjoy.
Hot today. Oh yes.
I'm in a good mood tonight. I also no longer feel like eating the house. Sane once more.
I finished the first draft of my new story. I'm no longer in that world, inhaling that person back into my self. I'm my adult, mature self with the knowledge and strength I've gained in the intervening years. It was valuable reliving that time. I know now I am in fact not her, not anymore. You can shed a skin, move like a snake beyond your former identity, but you have to find a mirrored pool somewhere to look in and know yourself anew. That part's important, as much as as the shedding itself.
I don't consider this story to be therapy. I see it as perspective with a twist of fiction. The fiction part is easy. It's the perspective that's hard won.
The white tents up ahead so bright in the sun. All those booths. Not too many people yet. This is going to be fun.
Tiny Coconut is a great panel-going partner. Extremely compatible.
Boy, there are a lot of people in LA who read. Who knew?
Boy, these people donít look like Hollywood glamour pusses. Whereíd they all come from?
At the short story panel:
Sherman Alexie is charming. I must read his short story collection. Soon.
People really do write from their own experience even when it doesnít seem like it. Seeds of ideas are everywhere. We all steal from bits we see, overhear, read. Itís what we do with it after that that makes it our own.
When we read a writer giving us the flavor of city life in Russia or Japanese suburbs in the forties or life on the reservation, it looks exotic to us and we somehow see that writer as a spokesperson for that world, a travel guide of sorts, but to them, theyíre just writing from the life around them or inside them and it can be annoying when you want to write something more universal but you end up getting tagged as a (insert ethnicity here) writer.
Itís not just me. Short stories are harder than novels for a lot of people.
Conversely, theyíre easier. You only spend a month on one, you can afford to experiment, fall on your face. You havenít made the same kind of investment.
With short stories, you jump right into the meat of the thing. You have less time. You can write from/about a single image.
And by the way, itís extremely annoying when a panelist watches the ceiling the entire time heís talking. Even if he says interesting things.
At the truth in fiction panel:
Why are there all women on this panel? Do only women admit how close their fiction is to real life?
These women are funny.
Ayelet Waldman just hit a home run. Profound. Must read her new book. It sounds like a kick in the teeth but in a good way. When you write from passion, I want to read it.
An awful lot of authors do write from real life, thinly fictionalizing their own experience or their parentsí or their dentistís, but mostly their own.
How do they manage to get enough distance from the subject when they do that? How do they shape the story? Maybe next year a panel will talk about that part.
Apparently if you want to cast a real person as a villain, the best way to do it is to simply describe. Lose the adjectives. Without modifiers that give away your feelings, that person will read the bare description and approve of their portrayal just as they approve of their own actions in life.
Sometimes if you write about people and they read it, they start remembering what you wrote as if it really happened even when that part is made up.
At the creative nonfiction panel:
Why are there all men on this panel? Why are they all going on and on and on about their books? What makes this a discussion? For that matter, what makes these books creative nonfiction? From the descriptions, most of them sound like journalism with perhaps more of the first person POV but not really that much.
Again, why am I sitting here listening to authors sell their books to me? I wanted answers to perplexing questions or at least a bit of self-reflection. Itís the moderatorís fault. He told them to talk. They did. Then again, TC points out that when the women in the Truth in Fiction panel were asked to talk about their books, they did so but also tied what they said into the salient issue of the panel. These men? Not so much.
So what is creative nonfiction anyway? Is it just journalism with more of an I to the writerly eye? I thought it was much more fluid and personal than that.
On the other hand, the PR job kind of worked. Iím now interested in Hampton Sidesí book (Americana, full of stories of fascinating people) and Martin J. Smithís (Poplorica, a look at the origin and oddities of popular cultural phenomena like the suburban lawn). But still. Iíd have preferred a real conversation.
At the memoir panel:
Theyíre reading from their work, this is good. This is fun. This is kind of a waste of time because I can just get the books out of the library. On the other hand, it does remind me what exactly a memoir is. So personal, these people sitting up there on the stage revealing glimpses of their childhood pain.
Memoir has apparently become hot lately. I guess this is true, isnít it? Vivian Gornick posits during the panel that the reason is that since World War Two, people have felt a need for testament. Later, someone else calls it testimony. Itís an empowering, a statement that the ordinary life can be important enough to read about.
Memoir is apparently a political statement. Politics keeps coming up. Nuala OíFaolain says the fact that she, a middle aged Irish woman, can write this and have it read and recognized is a kind of political statement. Michael Datcher has a theory that we live in such a segregated society, we read memoirs as a safe way to learn about other cultures. I think this is horseshit, that heís got an racial/social agenda and sees everything through that narrow lens, but whatever. I do agree that the personal is political. Vastly so.
Oh, now theyíre arguing about whether memoir as testimony necessarily means memoir is not literary. No answers there. Is literary defined as good writing, turns of phrase, or does it lie somewhere else?
Nobody talks about how they shape their lives for the page though Vivian Gornick says she conflates events and gives people pseudonyms.
At the science writing panel:
Weíre here because TC is a science writer and also knows some of the guys (yeah, all men) on the panel. Iím fine with this. It could be interesting to hear about. I have no idea how one writes about science for a general audience.
Apparently the way one writes about anything else that fascinates. Something sparks your interest, you have a seed of an idea, you do the research, you talk to people, you get deeply involved in the world, you write.
How is this different from creative nonfiction? I mean, I believe it is in actuality, but from the descriptions on each panel, it isnít. There, the men did research, wrote about something they didnít already know from their own experience. Here, the men end up with an emotional investment in what theyíre writing. Of course they do.
Chandler Burr describes the way the scientists of smell turn away from him while heís doing the research for Emperor of Scent. They canít stand the idea of this altogether different concept of how we smell. Itís interesting the things that divide people so deeply. Not always what youíd expect. Other scientific fields, on the surface more fraught and important, are less divisive than this.
It can be a handicap to come into the field of science writing from a background as a scientist. One of the editors (Philip Hilts, I think) describes a cub science reporter who got scared when it was time to go cover something in biology. He thought it would take years to gain the knowledge heíd need to walk in the door. But reporters are reporters in every field: you dip into the subject, you gather your bits of knowledge, and you run the facts past some experts before you run the piece.
I like this panel. I love learning about things altogether different from my own experience. I can understand the allure of the field.
Outside, in the heat and the crowd:
Wow, itís like Time Square at rush hour. A veritable sea of humanity.
Books for five bucks. Cool. Here's Seabiscuit. Cool. Some good kid books too, half price. Cool. Bag now feels like I'm carrying around a bunch of rocks. Not so cool.
The guy at the Paris Review booth says they accept about sixteen stories a year out of thirty to forty thousand submissions. And I thought it was hard to get into Harvard. He says with those odds, why not submit your story everywhere at once? He has a point.
The woman at the Tin House booth says a story gets three reads Ė three different readers, that is to say Ė before it gets to her. And then if she likes it, she sends it on to New York, where an editorial committee all has to like it. So if that committee consists of five people, a total of nine jaded, tired, overworked and underpaid readers have to love your story for it to get published in that magazine.
On the other hand, they just have to love it, not to see it as a movie with Julia Roberts in the lead. Not so hard. Just write a kickass story. And then write another.
Itís hot out here.
Why did I park so far from the center of the fair? My blisters are getting blisters.
Where did I park the car exactly? TC goes one way in the garage, I go the other. We scout out the elusive vehicle. We sink into the seats. We head home. Ready to write.
Entry on LA Book Fair half done. Can't finish tonight. Too tired. Am toasted. Instead I leave you with this:
Yesterday in the car on the way home. Damian said, "Mommy," in this worried little voice. I looked in back. His fingers were covered with blood. My heart froze. Then he pointed to his nose. Blood coming from nostril. Ah. My heart resumed a normal rhythm.
He sounded a little panicky. I reassured him, handed him a tissue and told him to apply pressure to his nose for a few minutes, that this would help the bleeding stop.
About two minutes later, he asked for the fifth time when the bleeding was going to stop.
"Soon, I think."
"Will I still be alive?"
The mind of a nearly-six-year-old. Blood is pouring out of me. I must be dying.
I reassured him that he still had plenty of blood and this was absolutely not going to kill or even weaken him.
He then posited that the blood coming out would make more blood (to replace itself, I guess) and that's why he'd be okay. Interesting theory.
But as soon as I told him the nosebleed was in fact not fatal, he turned from anxious to calm. A fascinating glimpse inside his mind.
If you donít look forward to something, it always turns out to be enjoyable after all. (Well, except for dental work.) Itís like Murphyís Law in reverse.
So yes, the party was fun. It was fun to watch the younger cast members enjoying their bits of limelight, mostly with refreshingly little affectation. It was fun to sit with the post-production folk and hear about their world which used to be my world. It was fun to talk to a guy who shared some former employers with me, to trade gossip and snide comments about these ghosts from my past. It was fun to watch the gag reel and hear the crew guffaw at their lives onscreen. It was fun to meet the show runner, an extremely talented man, and tweak him just a little. It was almost fun to meet the show creator, except that I forgot to say how much I love the show. Um, oops. Next time?
But really three encounters made the evening for me. Each in different ways, but ultimately all in the same way. First Dan and I made our way to one of the stars of the show, someone whose work as an actor Iíve admired for a long time. Heís gone on record as the father of a high functioning autistic child. Naturally, that made us want to talk to him, to touch base, acknowledge that other part of our life. And so we did. He responded warmly and appropriately. Very present in the conversation. And that felt good, that reminder that even in this shallow, self-involved world, some people are solid and real.
(If this paragraph makes you want to run to Google and figure out who and what show Iím talking about, email me instead. Iíll tell you.)
As we threaded through the crowd a bit later, Dan nudged me. ďThereís someone over there you know.Ē I looked. It took me a moment. But yes. And oh. And we went over. It took her a moment too, until she got that click. Itís been a while. More than a decade ago, I was an assistant editor on a show Iíd loved since it premiered. It was a good experience, partly due to this woman, a director/producer on the show, who treated me with respect. She has a knack for cutting through the chitchat and really talking. I loved seeing her again in that place, a reminder that Iím not so far removed from this world after all. We talked about working so hard together the day after Christmas that year, fixing a just-fired editorís mistakes. I was her hands, hers and the directorís, and I learned so much that week, seeing the editorís disastrous mistakes and then seeing how these two brilliant former editors fixed those mistakes. She said what Iíd done was a mitzvah, but I remember feeling lucky.
When she asked what Iíve been up to, I said something I almost never say, because it makes me feel like Iím admitting to being a second class citizen or, worse, living some retro-fifties antifeminist life. But this time I went ahead and said it: ďIíve been staying home with my son.Ē She beamed. She told me that was great and that was important and that was a gift to my child. It was clear she meant it and also that she understood itís not a forever thing, this mom at home business. And we talked a bit about children and the teen years (her children at the moment) and I ended up telling her about Damianís diagnosis and his progress, which I hadnít intended to but felt right, and she gave me a hug.
The third encounter was less profound, maybe, but still had an impact on me. Remember when I visited Dan in the cutting room a while back? When I saw the star of a show I once worked on? And decided not to say hello? Well, this time I did. Went over, introduced myself and my subterranean relationship to him on that series. And you know what? He was nice. A little chatty, even. We talked a bit about that show and the producers and then segued intoÖ our children. Being parents. In this case, the decision to have only one and the odd pressure to have more.
Yep. Once again. Children, the common bond. And I didnít need to Be Someone. Just to be.
That, to me, was the lesson of the evening. I used to want to impress. Hell, Iíd still prefer that. Iím human, after all. (And a Capricorn.) And maybe someday I will impress with my latest book sale or what have you. But what Iím learning is that sometimes nobody cares about that stuff, nobody but you. And if you stop caring about your lack of resume, you can just be who you are and that really truly can be okay. Even in Hollywood, land of the status symbol. If youíre comfortable in who you are, it shows and others will be too.
Though apparently it helps if youíre a parent.
Hereís the irony: for years, practically since Damian was born, I hated the fact that an invitation to a party, a play, any evening event, had to be answered with a regret instead of a Yes! and a See you there! Because Damian was too young and then he was too sensitive, too needing of our attention, too afraid, with us the only surety in his life. And so we mostly stayed home and we certainly came home before his bedtime. After a while Ė a long while Ė he got better, more confident, and he could probably handle the stress of a baby sitter at bedtime with equanimity but then we had no baby sitter. And so if Dan was invited to a wrap party, a production holiday party, a work gathering, and needed to go cement relationships, I inevitably stayed home with the kid. And I hated that and resented it and felt like the mommy with no other life.
Well, guess what? Tonight weíre going out to the wrap party for Danís show. And a baby sitter is coming, the same one who came Saturday night when we went out to dinner. Sheís sweet and kind and Damian knows her from school. I trust her and I think he does too. So now itís okay to go out and probably even okay to have her put him to bed, though Iím still a tad nervous about that part.
So finally I get to go out like a grownup to a party. And I donít want to. I donít really know anyone, I donít really have anything to say, nobody cares about me. Iíll just be a wallflower and ogle the showís stars, maybe smile at the producers. Oh, Iíll get to meet Danís bosses and coworkers, put faces and personas to his work talk, and that makes it worthwhile. But if I had my druthers? I think Iíd stay home and cuddle with my kid. After all the buildup of those years without the option, I forgot that I donít really like this kind of party.
See what I mean about irony?
Iíve been in a light reading mood lately. So I picked up Jasper Ffordeís sequel to The Eyre Affair at the library and dove in. So to speak. No actual book portal was involved. I merely read Lost In A Good Book, I didnít experience it.
And in a way that was the problem. It was a fun read, just like the first one. And just as shallow. Fforde isnít trying for rich characterization here, nor is he aiming for emotional resonance or even thematic thoughtfulness. Heís just going for clever with a dollop of satire. The corporate mentality he portrays in this parallel earth and the ubiquity of the lowest form of pop culture, itís clearly a barbed description of some of the worst aspects of modern society but it feels heavy handed and makes me squeamish. Aside from that, though, I delight in Ffordeís imagination: the details of his wild world, with a time traveling father on the run from his branch of the government and a pet cloned dodo (model 1.2, very rare) and delightful secondary characters like Spike Stoker whose government job is eradicating mythological creatures like vampires and werewolves and who therefore has a hell of a time getting girlfriends to stick around once he reveals his line of work to them.
All of which of course is just background for the main storyline about Thursday Next, the agent who jumped into Jane Eyre and inadvertently changed the ending. In the sequel, she discovers a whole world of book operatives, most of whom are fictional characters who step outside their own fictional worlds to fix other books. This is a lot of fun just as it was in Ffordeís first novel, glimpsing the characters when theyíre off duty from the story, so to speak. The behind-the-scenes fix-it stuff works well in both the material world and the world of books, and is the most amusing part of the worlds Fforde creates. The problem, though, is that he doesnít really have much of a story. If you donít focus on character or theme, all you have is plot. In which case, that plot better damned well be good. Which this wasnít. There were three or maybe four plot threads, most of which never (or barely) met up, some of which never got resolved (I smell sequelitis), some of which just got resolved through last minute dues ex machina interventions.
Sometimes Iím in the mood for texture and depth. Sometimes, I admit without shame, I prefer something less challenging. Shallow is fine and yes, even silly is good. But I always want to put the book down and feel like I read a coherent piece of fiction someone cared to think through while writing it, that amounted to more than mere sleight of hand. Lost in a Good Book is a cotton candy book. Sweet air. Not terribly satisfying though it does make you smile from time to time. It feels like a near miss. If Fforde had pulled the plot threads together, if heíd worked a little harder at structure and even, yes, theme, he might have had something wonderfully frothy. Heís clearly got the chops; heís bright and witty and can create a unique world. But I donít want cotton candy. If Iím in the mood for dessert, Iíd rather go for chocolate or custard, something more substantial, something I can sink my teeth into.
On to the next book. This oneís already back at the library.
I got jittery today. Anxious. Eating compulsively, fretting even more compulsively. Convinced that the projects Iím waiting on (among them, a short story lingering at two high profile literary magazines for twice as long as usual, this is usually considered a good thing) are all going to turn to shit. That nothingís going to work out. That no news is bad news. That the charter school people who visited Damianís class today saw him at his worst and will now reject him, thereby decimating our safety school option (all this because the teacher told me, ďHe was pretty much himself, just a little quiet in circle after handwriting group.Ē) That weíre never, no not ever going to be able to move from this house where weíre surrounded by noisy renters on every side. (Even though we chatted with the very responsive landlord on the north side, who will help us with the old lady with her loud Russian TV.)
So yeah. That was my day. Ms. Negativity, thatís me. Ms. Anxious and Depressed For No Reason.
Coincidentally I started writing a new short story yesterday and worked on it more today, getting into the meat of the piece.
Coincidentally, this story is making me extremely uncomfortable. Itís based on a real incident Ė two, actually Ė and it hurts to even think about. So why am I writing it? Because good stories come out of pain. Oh, not necessarily, not for everyone. But for me? I think yes. I think my best stuff, at least my best short fiction and maybe the longer material too, comes from tapping into some deep-seated and extremely uncomfortable emotional issues. Sometimes they're transmuted into completely fictional scenarios, sometimes they're closer to my remembered reality.
The trick is to shape the latter so theyíre not just thinly disguised therapy, unsatisfying to anyone besides me. And though I know the essentials of how to tell a strong tale and I know the kinds of thematic resonance that can achieve this, I donít really have any idea when Iím in the midst of it whether this one (whichever this one is) comes anywhere near that. I just have to trust. And know that if I donít make it this time, I can toss the story and nobody has to know. But if I do, then Iíve written something with some emotional punch. Maybe. If Iím lucky. If the muse is with me and if I have enough clarity to see past my own reaction to the raw material.
Thereís this voice in my head, it started up last night. It says ďWhy are you writing this? Everyone writes a story about this. Itís one of those rites of passage sorts of stories, I bet every magazine editor from Alaska to Florida has read one of these this week. And I bet every magazine editor from Alaska to Florida has rejected twenty of them this month. Why should yours be any different? Why not just abandon it now? Youíll never succeed, this will never get published, it doesnít deserve to be published,Ē (this based on the two pages Iíd written yesterday) ďitís trite and overwrought and melodramatic and ridiculousĒ (did I mention? two pages?) ďand an unworthy follow up to your last home run of a story, just put it down and walk away slowly, youíll never amount to anything, youíre a one hit wonder Ė assuming that other one even gets published, because even if that one is good, one of your best, that doesnít mean it measures up to the other stories out there because youíre just not that good, certainly not as good as you think you are or someone would have discovered you already, come knocking on your door and riffling through your files, because that's how people get published, not all this send it out and wait nonsense. You're doomed, face it.Ē
I recognize that voice, though I havenít heard it in years, not with this intensity. It comes from the time this story takes place. It comes from the pages of the story itself, a frozen insecure painfully eager to please but sure she canít self. A much younger self.
I write this story partly because itís good fodder for a piece of fiction, partly because itís time. But writing it is hard. Ghosts lurk here. Nasty, slimy icky ghosts.
Now I just have to figure out how to work them into the story.
The inside of my mouth tastes like caramel. I still have the remembered sensation of soft custard sliding down my throat. My belly feels warm and full.
We went out tonight. We had a babysitter for the first time in about two and a half years and we went out for an amazing meal.
It felt strange walking down the street without Damian. It felt strange walking into the restaurant, the one year old Sona, a sleek modern room, gray and stone with rippled frosted windows and a skylight, with a flower head floating in water at every table and square plates. An upscale place with waiters in black and busboys who serve your meals in synchronicity: one came from the right down the row of tables, the other from the left, they met at our table and placed the plates in front of us with a solemn flourish. Dan said they were the Matrix busboys.
Maybe it felt odd being adults in such an adult room. We were among the youngest there. This wasnít a beautiful people crowd, this was a rich, self-important crowd. For us, itís a special occasion restaurant. For them, I think, it was another high end restaurant to add to their collection of matchbooks. Well, not for everyone. I caught one couple in their seventies, sitting side by side on the banquette, holding hands and leaning in toward each other. For them, a memorable and romantic evening out.
For us too. The food, the service, the ambience: impeccable. One of the best meals I can remember. Usually when we go out to a nice restaurant, some dishes are good, maybe even great, but others fall flat or everythingís pleasant and good but not sublime. If I feel like I can make it at home, I feel cheated of that transcendent experience of being in the hands of an inspired chef. But at Sona tonight, there were no missteps. Not a one. Do you know how impossibly rare that is?
So. The food. First a busboy brought over a tin of breadsticks, each as long as my arm. I selected one, then the man brought them over to Dan for his choice. It felt like choosing a cigar, only considerably more delicate. Tasted good, too. Cheesy. Crunchy. Fresh. The breads came on a wide metal tray, the bread carrier put them on our table with tongs. Sourdough rolls but not too sour (my nearly ubiquitous complaint), with a hard thin crust and a deeply moist center. I bake. I can appreciate the skill it takes to achieve that combination. Also foccacia studded with bits of green olives. Good too. And to accompany them, a square of butter dusted with salt and pepper. Iíve never seen that. A classy touch. But it was that kind of place. All the details both original and just right.
Then the amuse boche, usually a tiny taste of something to whet your appetite but in this case a tray filled with five tiny tastes, a kind of miniature bento box. First the duck eggroll, meaty and crunchy and dense. Then smoked seafood Ė eel? sable? I didnít catch it Ė on a delicately marinated cucumber slice. A perfect bite. Then pickled cauliflower on a paper-thin slice of radish. Pungent and strong in your mouth, a wake-up sort of palate cleanser. Then the pepperiest smidge of hummus on a square of celery. Unusual if not amazing (but then Iím rather fond of my own version of hummus). And finally, beet puree on a tiny toast triangle with a dollop of the creamiest, gentlest dollop of goat cheese I can remember.
What I loved about the selection was the way it went from a meaty bite to strong flavors and then finished with a bite of something both savory and soft. A complete meal sensation in five bites.
But of course that was just the tease.
My appetizer was lobster risotto. I was a little worried: would there be too little lobster? Would it be fresh enough? Iím not a huge fan of risotto. No worries here. The lobster claw was generous (and yes, fresh), the risotto was perfectly cooked and drowning in buttery lobster sauce. So rich. The lobster so gently sweet and flavorful, the rice chewy and the sauce a rich blanket melding it all together in your mouth. I also had two bites of Danís fois gras with Asian pear slices. Intensely flavored, the dark with the lightly sweet.
For an entrťe, I thought about the king salmon confit but ended up going for the braised beef short ribs. Wow. The meat must have been slow cooked, so tender it fell off the bone and tumbled into your mouth the moment you looked longingly at it. So succulent. On a bed of braised red cabbage which in turn rested on a bed of creamy-soft pureed potato which in turn nestled among a drizzle of wine reduction. Haute cuisine brisket. Mmm yeah. I had one bite (he didnít want to share) of Danís lamb medallions with gnocci and some other meat (also lamb?) wrapped in grape leaves. Tasted good too. Very good. Sharper flavors, more distinct. Excellent.
Then dessert. I chose crŤme caramel tart. The custard sat on top of an almond cookie, basically, and had a crŤme brulee hard caramel shell. It rested in a pool of dark berry sauce ringed with slices of starfruit and blood orange and mango and came with a small oval scoop of freshly made fruit sorbet; Iím not sure what kind Ė pomegranate, maybe? Something you wouldnít expect but was sharp and sweet and tart and a perfect foil for the eggy softness of the custard. Dan had chocolate waffles with some French name (should have taken notes, I guess), accompanied by homemade peanut butter ice cream. I had just one taste of the combination of cold nut butteryness and warm waffle but it was good too.
Then the final treat. The waitress brought over two tiny boxes tied with ribbon. Inside each was a final amuse, though Iím sure thereís some other name for it. But just like the five treats to start our meal, these were five little treats to end it. An orange gel with crunch bits of sweetness coating the outside. A similar raspberry gel. A nougat, marshmallowy mortar for the nut bricks. A coconut macaroon. And finally a raspberry meringue cookie; it looked like a miniature pink hamburger bun (the ďburgerĒ was raspberry jam) and tasted like heaven. A suitable ending to an extraordinary meal.
This kind of meal out always makes me feel like Iíve stepped outside my normal life, like Iím living in a fairy tale for the evening. In the past, itís always made me long for the time when it could be part of the fabric of my life rather than a special occasion stretch-the-budget evening. This time I didnít feel that way. Maybe because itís been so long, but the special occasion out-of-time element became part of the ambience for me. Itís important to occasionally treat yourself to something decadent if you can. Itís also important to keep it feeling special.
I grew up in what they call a prewar building, which I think means built before World War One. One of those stately buildings with gargoyles and cornices that line West End Avenue on the Upper West Side. The building had an elevator man to operate the old fashioned elevator. I knew all their names, of course, and they asked about school and my friends as we went up to the ninth floor. They were kind of like a set of uncles, always smiling down at me.
In retrospect the apartment feels huge to me though at the time it was just right. A hallway that went on forever, with rooms on either side, an eat-in kitchen with a pantry and a maidís room complete with bathroom (but no live-in maid), a heavy swinging door from the kitchen to the hall, the door the servants used once upon a time to bring the food to the big dining room down the hall. A echoingly big living room. Three bedrooms in the back half of the apartment. Sunlight streaming through onto the hardwood floors. Quiet above the traffic, quiet above the tiny people walking their dogs, stopping to gossip, holding hands as they went into their buildings lining the side streets. Quiet above all that life. I used to gaze out and make up stories about all the people I saw, imagine the intrigues and heartbreaks of their lives. My bedroom looked out on rooftops and windows. I watched pigeons and tried to see into rooms. The kitchen and the back bedrooms looked out over the Hudson River and the green Palisades mountains. It seemed like another country out there. The wooly wilds of New Jersey.
Itís a long time ago now. Iím forty two years old. My father gave up that apartment when I was around sixteen. An eon ago. But I still remember it so vividly I can see the dust rising in the sun and the way the fruit-decorated tiffany lamp looked over the claw-footed kitchen table. I can see the lavender color of my bathroom walls and the pale blue in my bedroom. I can hear the steam burble through the radiator and feel the squeaky softness of the old black leather armchair in the living room. It still feels like home. My home. As if I can turn the page and walk back into that life, sit at that kitchen table and invite my whole family over for dinner.
Whatís stranger than the fact that I canít is that I canít afford it, not in my wildest move-back-to-New-York dreams. If a two bedroom nine hundred square foot apartment in a not quite as desirable a neighborhood is worth a cool million, my childhood home Ė that $400 a month rent controlled apartment in one of the best parts of town Ė must go for what? Two million? Five? It stuns me. It makes my childhood feel impossibly far away. Unreachably far. And that makes me sad.
I have a longer entry half written but instead of finishing it, I spent the last hour watching the first half of Seabiscuit with Dan. So far pretty good if a bit studied. I can no longer watch or read anything where a child dies or is in danger of dying, though. Fortunately, that was a blip on the screen this time. But boy do I hate that. I never quite understood when parents said that. Now I do. Man. I can't help it. I imagine it for myself and there's literally nothing worse. Nothing.
Anyway. Like I said. Tiny part of the movie. Thankfully. I remember watching the opening of Terms of Endearment years ago, snickering as Shirley MacLaine's character checked on her baby several million times. Not so much with the laughter now. In fact, I'm going to go watch Damian sleep for a few minutes. Just, you know, breathe in and out, hugging Agent X, his stuffed tree frog. Just sleeping. Peacefully. That's all.
Called third time's the charm?
Here's a preview: the answer is yes.
So our reverse googlebomb seems to have done the trick. The Wikipedia entry is now the top site that comes up when you Google "Jew." Interestingly, Google now has a disclaimer of sorts at the top of the page when it displays these particular search results. I understand their point. The ACLU would concur. It's still disgusting that a hate group could do such a thing.
It also upsets me -- and I write this knowing certain friends will think I'm talking about them, and maybe I am -- but the only people I've seen actually follow suit and link to the Wikipedia entry are also Jewish. I know plenty of people who read my blog who haven't honored my request. They're coincidentally all gentile. So I have to ask: does this feel like a minor thing to you? Too much bother? Because to me, as a Jew, it's rather more.
And then there are the nights you intend to have baked yam slices with your meal but just before dinner you discover the bottoms of the slices are nice and juicy (that doesn't sound quite right) but the tops are desiccated and wrinkly looking and altogether unappealing. You flip the poor things over, shove the tray back into the oven, and go off to eat with your family.
A couple of hours later you declare that those items heretofore known as yam slices shall henceforth be referred to as yam chips.
Yes, still in the oven.
Not bad for all that. Kinda tasty, even.
I followed Dianeís link to Rance today. (No, Diane, I hadnít heard about him either.) An anonymous celebrity blogger. Not just any old celeb, either, but the kind that ends up on magazine covers and gets award nominations and has paparazzi swarms follow him on occasion. A movie star, in other words. A self-reflective, appropriately ironic one who writes well. Not bad reading.
The question pops into your head immediately, doesnít it? Is this guy for real or is he just someone in the biz who can fake the talk and fudge the walk? Itís clear from his blog that he runs into this skepticism all the time. He seems amused by it. Which strikes me as the appropriate response.
It comes up a lot, I find. Is this person for real or is this another Kaycee Nicole, faking a dramatic life for the attention it garners? It came up last week on Teresa Nielson Haydenís blog, a discussion about another intriguingly positioned blogger and whether she was the real McCoy. Maybe itís the nature of blogs and online journals, that we can create ourselves however we choose, our words are all you have to judge us by Ė not our faces, not our voices, not our parents or even our pets. If I put up a picture of my cats, say, whoís to say that's not a shot I lifted from somewhere in an effort to have sexier felines and therefore seem hipper/cooler/dorkier myself?
I remember a wonderful writer, Acanit, who posted an online journal in 2001 as a former TV journalist, an Iranian living in America. The photos on her site showed she was a knockout. That right there made people suspicious, I think. And she wrote about difficult things and also about sex (which of course garners attention). Her stories were almost too perfect, some people said. As if they were written rather than lived. Created from someoneís imagination. And then one day she pulled her site down and she was gone. She had reasons, a love affair she didnít want to talk about, but a lot of people said her cover was about to blow and so she got out quick.
I always wondered. They all seemed so certain, her critics. But what if they were wrong? How would you feel to have your existence doubted? And why? People get so passionate, so intent on debunking bloggers/journallers they think are making it all up. And yes, itís important to know if youíre going to enter into a friendship with that person, if, in the case of Kaycee Nicole, you're going to send care packages and cry at a manufactured death. But in this case? If Rance isnít really a movie star, who does that hurt? He tells a good story, he gives an intriguing glimpse into that life. We want to see. If heís imagining instead of living the life of a movie star, itís still a fun read. No harm done.
But thatís not quite true, is it? Because people would feel Ė as people have felt Ė duped. Tricked. Even betrayed, as silly as that seems. Nobody wants to be the brunt of a joke. And when you read a bloggerís account of his life, you feel a kind of intimacy that feels real for all that itís virtual. If it turns out to be a fake, youíre left with nothing. And so people analyze word choices, suss out authenticity in the choice of story material, and try to protect their hearts or at least their dignity. I understand that, I do. But I think sometimes, as with this guy Rance, you just have to shrug, smile, and go along for the ride.
And thatís okay too.
Tonight as I chopped the onion and let it sizzle in the Dutch Oven, as Damian and I fed Wasa crackers into the food processor to make breadcrumbs that I then sprinkled with basil and oregano, as I sliced into the perfectly ripe, amazingly buttery Fuerte avocado and peeled the still-hot candy cane beets, slicing them into quarters to show off their narrow pink and yellow striping, as I laid the buffalo cube steak flat to pick up its layer of tan crumbs, as I chiffonaded the dinosaur kale Ė so delicately laced, like ice on a window Ė and then tossed it into the Dutch Oven to melt into a puddle of green, as I splashed olive oil and balsamic vinegar onto the still-warm beets and so-smooth avocado and tossed them together with a wooden spoon, I felt happy.
I love cooking. I love the busy concentration of it, juggling seven things at once as you rush carefully toward an inevitable conclusion. I love working with my hands, chopping and slicing and turning and stirring. I love the smells: the onion juice on my fingers, the sharp tang of soy sauce, the sweet bite of vinegar and the earthen musk of the beet tops. I love the tastes, the surprise of flavors mixed. I love the alchemy, I love the thinking-not thinking nearly Buddhist mental state. I love the way Damian carries his stool around the kitchen, watching intently and asking so many questions. I love sitting down to a meal that I prepared Ė or better, that Dan and I prepared together, with an assist from our son Ė and tasting the final product, enjoying the experience for itself, the taste of good food on the tongue, the warmth in my belly, but also enjoying the fact that I did this, that pride of an accomplishment, that knowledge that this food is healthy and tasty and made from scratch by a chef who loved her work.
Dan and I used to cook all the time: coq au vin, mousakka, wild mushroom soup, rosemary bread, wilted spinach salad, smoked salmon pizza, custardy flan. The only food in our freezer was either for future food prep or stored leftovers. We never stopped in the frozen food aisle. Now? Well, cooking more than steamed broccoli and some hot dogs is occasion for celebration. I know how it happened. Child, work, exhaustion, who has energy to cook? Cooking as chore, not pleasure. Eating, therefore, also chore. Or hey, letís eat out! Hey, letís spend money! Hey, letís forget the pride and satisfaction of a home cooked meal! Itís inevitable, maybe, given our life. It also feels wrong. It feels like a habit now more than a need. It feels like something I want to change.
It feels like rediscovering myself. Cooking a full meal, trying something a little different. Fancy that.
Tonight when we got home from dinner, Damian was first pissed that I'd gotten into the house before he did (he was still playing with his Leap Pad in the car) and then outraged that the heater wasn't on when he plopped down beside it. We told him he was tired, that's why he was getting so bent out of shape, and that it was time for bed.
Of course this made him angrier. We had a round of "No, I'm not!" "Yes, I think you are." and so on. Then I left the room and when I came back, he announced to me, "It's my body and I can decide what I want!"
When did he become a teenager?
A hate group has googlebombed the word "Jew" to link to their site. Basically that means a bunch of their hate-cronies have linked to their horrible nasty site (it lists the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith, Simon Wiesenthal Center and the ACLU as "Jewish hate groups") and so Google is listing it at the top of their searches when you type in the word "Jew." So Melanie and others and I ask you to link the word "Jew" to the Wikipedia definition. All you have to do is this: Jew. If enough of us do this, we can knock them off the top spot on Google.
And people still argue that anti-semitism no longer exists.
If you have a blog or any kind of personal website, please do link the word "Jew" to Wikipedia. This is ill. Worse than ill.
I recently finished reading The Boy Who Loved Windows, by Patricia Stacey. The bookís subheader says it well: ďOpening the heart and mind of a child threatened by autism.Ē Iíve been debating whether to post my thoughts on the book here or at Hidden Laughter, which is pretty much wall to wall autism talk, though mostly about Damianís development through and beyond the diagnosis. The separation between the two sites isnít quite as neat and tidy as I thought I began this blog. So Iíll post it here. Itís a book review, after all. And MT is easy to use. And Iím here.
So. The book. I was looking forward to the read: itís currently the only parent-written book looking at Floor Time, the therapy weíve used with Damian. Staceyís son Walker was severely impaired from birth, his sensory system so hypersensitive he was overloaded by a simple walk around the block or even a well-lit room and his body tone so low he couldnít sit up on his own at one year. Through intensive intervention, mostly Floor Time and occupational/physical therapy as well as dietary changes, Walker recovered and is now a happy, interactive child mainstreamed and warmly related.
Itís a hell of a story, and extremely well told. Stacey hits all the emotional beats with an honest, self-aware tone, and gives helpful, accurate descriptions of the various therapies. She was obsessed with her son, with helping him progress. She gave of herself until she was wrung out, sacrificing just about everything else in her life. Itís a miracle her marriage survived; it almost didnít.
As I was reading, I kept thinking, ďI couldnít do that. I couldnít give that much of myself.Ē But then I was telling Tiny Coconut about it, and she laughed and said sheíd often thought exactly that when reading Damian's story as it unfolded in Hidden Laughter. That she couldnít have done what we were doing with him. But she probably could have (which she then said). Just as I may well have been able to do what Patricia Stacey did for Walker if Damian had needed it. You donít know until itís your child. And then you just do it, whatever you have to, to make things better. To make his brain work.
What I didnít find in Staceyís account, which disappointed me, was a sense of familiarity. Because her son was so very different from mine Ė and different from most children on the spectrum, certainly those on the higher end Ė I read her account with fascination but not identification. Much the way someone who hasnít gone through this would read any parentís book on the subject. An unusual experience for me.
When I read Catherine Mauriceís book, Let Me Hear Your Voice, about ďrecoveringĒ her two children, I recognized the emotions she described, just as I did here. There I also recognized the pre-treatment child. Not my own but echoes of my own. What I didnít recognize was the Pavlovian style behavioral intervention, so alien to my own approach. With this book, I had the opposite experience. I found little congruence in Walkerís pre-treatment state but I recognized just about everything in the treatment itself. The particulars were different because Walker had such a different sensory makeup, but Staceyís overall approach mirrored ours, and in that it was incredibly satisfying to read. This stuff works, you know? Damian is living, breathing proof of that. Now I know Walker is too.
On the way home from school, Damian needed to pee. So I found an easily accessible Starbucks and parked around the corner. He carefully placed his milk box in the cup holder and hopped out, trotting off with me to Starbucks.
As we got back into the car, Damian picked up his milk box. Took a sip. Hmm. "There was milk in here but there isn't anymore. Maybe it evaporated." He thought about this. "If it evaporated, it might start raining milk in the car."
Guess we better start bringing a small umbrella into the car, huh?
After reading posts like this on Apartment 11D, Iíve realized that, duh, Los Angeles isnít the only huge urban center thatís still in the midst of an absurdly inflated real estate boom. And this article in The Washington Monthly (link via Scalzi) confirms it: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Los AngelesÖ prices are out of control. The question that still hasnít been answered anywhere: is this a bubble? Will it burst or keep going up and up and up until only millionaires will be able to afford even one room shacks and everyone else will be relegated to rentals? But if it bursts, what then? It sounds so simple: wait until prices settle, buy then. But if prices go down, thereís one reason for it: rising interest rates. Which means youíll have the same outrageous monthly mortgage payment, only more of it will go toward interest and less toward principal.
So what, right? At least itís no worse and maybe itís better, because less money is, after all, less money. Easier to come up with a down payment, easier to handle things like property taxes, which are proportionate to the cost of the house. But thatís looking at the micro, the individual. You. Not the bigger picture. The us, as it were. And the us here is about to be in big trouble. We went to see our tax guy for our yearly appointment two weeks ago. He said heís making sure he refinances his house to lock down a fixed rate before November. Because he Ė along with everyone else Ė says rates are not going to rise before the election. But after? Well, nobody knows for sure, but itís been artificially low for so long, yeah, probably so.
Hereís the thing. I read an article in the LA Times shortly after the one I linked to. This one was about how people are managing to buy those overpriced houses. How? Theyíre grabbing the lowest interest rate around, a/k/a adjustable rate mortgages. They're taking zero down mortgages. They're playing with numbers and praying it all works out, that rates stay low and prices keep going up. I'm not one to judge. We did it ourselves three years ago. Zero down, the whole deal. And we got lucky.
But for these people? What if the market really is at the top now? I can't see it going much higher and I can easily see interest rates soaring, and soon. These people can just barely afford the payments on those $700K thousand square foot bungalows as it is. Whatís going to happen when those payments balloon? They say rates go up faster than they go down. What happens when your bill goes up by fifty percent and your property value simultaneously plummets? It means your equity floats away on the wind so you canít even recoup if you sell and you certainly canít obtain a credit line Ė and even if you could, how would you pay it?
Add to that the huge numbers of folk who have refinanced to take money out of their houses, to cash it in while the cashing's good, and who therefore also probably now have ARMs instead of fixed rates and who have bigger monthly payments because that extra money they took out? Not free. And then rates go up and they too are underwater with minus equity because they spent it already in the expectation of continually rising prices. What happens to those people?
What happens is foreclosures here, there and everywhere. What happens is an economy even more in the toilet. What happens is ugly. We moved to LA a month before the Writers Guild went on strike. The strike lasted months, delayed the TV season, scuttled dozens of film shoots. People foreclosed, people went bankrupt. And not just in the film business. Restaurateurs. Hairdressers. Accountants. There's a ripple effect when large groups of people who are used to having -- and spending -- money don't and can't anymore. Imagine that on a national scale, and no strike settlement on the horizon to fix the problem this time.
Scary stuff. Weíre refinancing this month, locking in a fixed rate mortgage. I want to sleep at night, yíknow?
At five thirty every afternoon, the cats (known as Da Boyz around here) always begin to proclaim that they're famished, starved, withering into skeletal felines. They get fed around seven thirty, so this gives them plenty of time for histrionics, abject pleading and fainting spells. It's amazing. They'll be snoozing all afternoon but when the clock ticks over from five twenty nine to five thirty, boom, they're on me like fleas on a dog's back.
What amazed me more? Today the cats started staggering around acting like they hadn't been fed in weeks at, yes, five thirty. Even with the time change. How? How did they know? Have they learned to read clocks?
Lizbeth could have been reading my mind this past week. Single mom, yep, that's me. Work around the clock spouse, yep, that's Dan. Workplace that doesn't give a rat's ass about family life for daddies? Yep yep yep. Dan got home somewhere between nine thirty p.m. and one a.m. every night this week. Do I hate it? Of course I do. The only difference between my situation and Lizbeth's is that Dan hates it too.
But they build these impossible deadlines into the TV schedule and there's no leeway. The episode shoots on a given week and airs on a given week and as an editor, you have the time in between to cut the dailies together, sit with the director, implement notes by the producers, studio, and network, and lock the show so the sound crew and color timers can do their stuff. If the schedule gets squeezed -- and they always do -- then you have less time and therefore work more hours. Beyond that, though, people always keep you waiting. Producers try to do too much and always run behind and don't see the editor as a fully formed human being who has a fully formed life, therefore they don't usually call down to the cutting room and say "Go home, I'll see you in the morning." And so Dan works his butt off for two weeks and then sits in the cutting room and waits on someone else's pleasure.
It's insane. He could do much of his work at home on his computer if the show runners were willing to switch to Final Cut Pro (some are, some aren't) and if they allowed their editors to telecommute (most wouldn't, I suspect). But even if he did, chances are he'd just be home and working his butt off. Somewhat better but still not ideal. I hate the fact that this, like so many industries, demands so much from people and yet gives so little back. But if you give less of yourself, you're out on the street next season.
And so I'm single mom chauffeuring my child and playing with my child and feeding my child and doing the laundry and buying groceries and making dinner and trying to squeeze my own work somewhere in the cracks in between. And I don't love that, but I would hate not being here for and with Damian. I used to work in film/TV editing too. Can you imagine Damian's childhood if I hadn't left? Two parents coming home at eight or later every night. Nanny = Mommy? That's why I left. Well, that and I love to write and wanted the chance to build that into a living. Could we have worked it the other way around? Could Dan have left and I have stayed? Absolutely and I would have been the absentee one and Dan would have been the stay at home single dad much of the time. We didn't because I wanted to write. This works as well as anything would in this situation. We don't have the freedom to do it differently. So here we are.
Are there other choices? What kind of career can you pursue these days that's satisfying and well paid with opportunities for challenge and creativity or promotion that also gives you time to have dinner every night with your family? Is there anything like that anymore? In this get-ahead world, someone else will eat your career for supper (or, more likely, a midnight snack at the office) if you leave it alone for a second. How do career-minded daddies or mommies get off the treadmill? Is it possible to have quality of life as well as quality of work? Why does it have to be so hard?
Tears literally welled up when I opened Dawn's blog today and saw that she'd brought home her new baby girl. I'm so very glad for her. I've found myself thinking about her situation, about J. and what she must be going through, and about adoption in general on and off all week. Someone I don't know personally, I only know through her words on her webpage, and I feel emotionally touched by her experience. This is the power of the blog world.
Coincidentally, I was reading some of the archives at Apartment 11D today and saw Laura's commentary on why women don't write as many political blogs. (Her thesis: we do, but they're more of the personal-is-political ilk as opposed to analyses of current events, partly because of our bias and partly because we don't usually have as much time.) I think there are a whole host of reasons, and that Laura is right about some of them. And of course she's dead-on right for herself. For me, well, time enters into it. I can't do a link-filled exegesis because I don't have that kind of time. If I have extended writing time, it has to be about career-building work, not blog-building play.
But frankly, for me, itís about something far simpler. I prefer to read personal accounts than I do someone pontificating about current events or ranting about how screwed up the world is becoming. For me, yes, the personal is political but also the personal simply touches me more deeply. As Iíve read Dawnís story over the past months, Iíve thought for the first time about the toll giving a baby up for adoption must take on a birth mother, about the benefits of open adoption but the costs of it too, the delicate balance that must occur so the birth mother doesnít feel overly pressured to make that irrevocable decision based on someone elseís overwhelming desire. Dawnís grace and thoughtfulness through this has amazed and informed me and has deepened my understanding of the human condition. How is that less respectable than Atrios blogging on Bushís latest idiocy or Boing Boing linking to yet another snippet of fact?
Personal blogs, usually written by women, are considered lesser in this blogoverse. That's fucked.
I have more to say about this, but thatíll do for now. I have to go be a mom right now.
(And Mazel Tov, Dawn. She's beautiful already!)
I'm burned out. Hollow. Brain has turned to mush. Body wants to follow suit. Or maybe it's the other way around. Too fried to tell. So naturally I found myself on Jennifer Crusie's website this evening, preparing for some enjoyably lightweight reading.
I'm partway through reading her FAQ, which is mostly serious (well, more or less) and definitely interesting. What caught my eye, though, was:
4. Do you research your sex scenes? Yes, but it's a hassle because I always have to keep one hand free to take notes.
Maybe it's just because I'm bleary-eyed and doped with fatigue, but this cracked me up.