Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Cold Blood

All at once the scales were removed from my eyes (as the Bible says) and I can see.  I can see that I have too much stuff.  I’ve been reading about these micro apts. Mayor Bloomberg is having built in NYC that are 300 sq. feet (more about those in another blog). I’m going to pretend that’s all the space I have and “get rid of.” My first divestiture attempt is the overflowing stacks of books I’ve collected over the years. I called a neighborhood vintage bookseller and she agreed to come and look at what I had.  That call was the only thing I did that day that’s how exhausting it was to think of peeling myself away from my belongings.

I dragged out about one hundred books and laid them on every surface of the living room.  I began to get nervous.  What if, like Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest the woman looked at my books and uttered the collector’s equivalent of that bitchy line “What a dump!”

I decided to prepare myself the way mothers prepare their children for a flu shot. 
The doctor’s going to take a needle and prick your arm. 
No, no.  It’s going to hurt.  
It will only hurt for a second and then you’ll get a treat. 

I said: 
Consuelo, what are you hoping to get out of this?
A good home for the books and maybe a few bucks.
Suppose she comes in and says, I’m looking for serious first editions or rare books.  Your books are pedestrian.
She won’t say that.
She might just walk out and that would be the same thing.
Yes, that could happen. 
How will that make you feel?
Ashamed and delusional.
Why don’t you think about it now so you can be prepared.
I thought about it for a minute or two.
Ok. I’m prepared.

The woman came. She filled three quarters of a box with books leaving 95% of the inventory.  She spoke three succinct sentences at the appropriate moments:  Hello.  I won’t need another box.  How about forty dollars? I had the nerve to ask , “Can you make it fifty?”  She nodded and gave me cash.   When I pointed out several books I thought might sell well, she said: “Condition issue.” Hemingway would have loved this woman’s dialogue.  She took two copies of In Cold Blood.  Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays.  Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. The Letters of Virginia Woolf (I will miss those high-strung crazies in the Bloomsbury crowd), Catcher In The Rye, a dvd of Duke Ellington and a couple of children’s books.  I gave her an Annie Dillard galley for free. 

When she left I was exhausted.  I thought it was from nervousness or dragging out all those books but it was something else.  She had broken the spell of “holding on.” I could hardly wait to pack up the rest of the books and everything else I didn’t need and take it to a good home and away from mine.

Friday, January 18, 2013

State of the Union according to Google

The president will soon deliver his State of the Union address so I decided to check the State of the Union according to Google.

Google knows how the citizens are doing.  It has saved all our questions, all our searches, all our subjects and sub categories, We only have to prompt it with a word or two and it shows us where we have been, where we are and where we need to go.

My job is:
killing me
makes me depressed

My wife:
doesn’t want kids
doesn’t trust me
doesn’t love me anymore
doesn’t listen to me
doesn’t respect me
doesn’t support me
doesn’t like me anymore
doesn’t like my family

My husband:
is gay
got a family
cheated on me
is mean
hit me
hates his job

I lie:
about everything
too much
all the time
to myself

My house is:
on fire
making me sick
in foreclosure

I’m happiest when:
I’m alone
Happiness is:
a choice
like a butterfly

My health is:
better in November
not good
going down fast
getting worse

Government is:
killing us
watching us
lying to us

I worry about:
everything all the time
money all the time
my boyfriend
my boyfriend dying
I hate:
my job
my life
everything about you

How do I:
put this gently
get pinkeye

God bless you all and God bless America

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tahini is found next to the Nutella, ironically

By some miracle and a sequence of fragile but connected happenstances I got my broken washing machine to work again.  During the broken period, I was immobilized, like Lot’s wife. I didn’t want a new machine.  I was sure that the only thing standing between happiness and desolation was doing a “system restore” (a time travel maneuver where you take a faulty computer back to a date when it did what you wanted and trick it into being fine again. You say:  hey look it’s May 3rd, 2012 you’re a rock star) and get back to that Wednesday when the Maytag chugged through it’s frill/free cycles like a young pup.

When I got the machine to work, I said, Well, there’s a miracle.  You can get anything you want just by intense stubborn wanting.  But the minute you get what you want something else shows up that you have to have.  This is a big glitch in our makeup because even though I’m hardly the typical human I know I’m not alone in this.  My big mistake is thinking that this sequence is ever going to give way to a reliable untroubled sameness. It’s not.  This morning I solved about four problems that have been stalking me for two days.  I better enjoy my good fifteen minutes.

I wish this “glitch” example wasn’t about my Maytag because appliances today are not made to wash clothes or the dishes.  They are made to break your will to live and also to break on Friday night.  The technology needed to make a machine break on cue should be used to make a trouble free machine but nooooo.  I read in Steve Jobs biography that he could not find a washing machine that satisfied him either.  Or a sofa (another design unit usurped by inmates.)  Jobs spent a long time thinking about what a sofa is supposed to do and couldn’t come up with a good answer.  If by some horrible accident my long-standing sofa was gone I couldn’t buy another. Jobs finally bought a European washer/dryer and skipped the sofa.

Since the KITCHEN now hogs all of the important space and has all the drama and has been shoved down our throats as the most important room in the house and food is now the only topic of conversation (except for placenta cord banking) you could make do with two folding chairs in the living room as Jobs did. Nobody goes into the living room anyway.

I think a fitting end to this whine fest is a good recipe for Baba Ghanoush

Buy a firm smooth, blemish free eggplant.
Bake at 350 to until very soft when you stick a fork in it. (about 40 mins.)
Place on a plate, cut the top so the edge of the skin is visible and peel.  Skin should come off very easily.  If some of the inside comes off with the skin, scrape it off with a knife and keep it.
Take the eggplant innards and put in blender with juice of one lemon or lime and a little salt.
(Doesn't have to be pureed but it tastes better when blended rather than just mashed with a fork although I used to just mash it.)
Place in a medium sized bowl.   
Add Tahini (sesame seed paste) that comes in a jar and can now be found in the supermarket next to the Nutella ironically.  (make sure the ingredients are ONLY sesame seeds or else you will go down a bad road.)
Tahini tends to settle on the bottom and the oily part remains on top.  You have to stir and blend really well.
Add three or four heaping tablespoons of Tahini to the eggplant and mix together.  You might need a bit more lemon or lime if it’s too stiff.

You can add garlic if you like but it’s excellent with just lemon juice and salt.
You can dribble a bit of olive oil on top and some chopped parsley.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ah, Hemingway.

We don’t hear enough about Ernest Hemingway.  If it were up to me, I would talk about Hemingway every day and I would use him as an example of many things having nothing to do with writing.  If you read A Moveable Feast, my favorite book, and the best literary gossip extravaganza, you could indict him every other page for personality disorders but none of that matters BECAUSE it was Hemingway who gave us the thrill and freedom of The Simple Declarative Unadorned Sentence that unlocked the prison doors for writers who had the sense to steal his style.  If you think it’s easy to write this way, it’s not.  We’re verbose, lazy talkers with the notion that clauses, interjections, adjectives and adverbs are necessary to make us sound intelligent.  Pity. 
I came across this paragraph on Hemingway’s writing regime that illuminates his process. Hemingway stood when he wrote.  The typewriter and the reading board were chest-high opposite him.  He always stopped writing when he knew exactly what was going to happen next.  (I probably didn't need 'exactly' in that last sentence.)
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Crash linen. Crash! as in fashion POW!"

During one of my many re-inventions, I wrote advertising copy for a big department store chain. A department store holds everything that you will ever need to create a life except maybe legal documents and an operating room. Escalating up to my writing cubby on the seventh floor, I passed a buff mannequin pedaling a bike, the Smith family of four seated at a lavish fake holiday dinner, a matronly lady demonstrating non-stick cookware and cooking baked ziti and cornbread.   Frankie Laine and Vaughan Monroe (in their aging crooner days) came by on special days.  While I wrote headlines for “The wool coats you want for spring.  Three button closing and generous balmacaan sleeves." I could hear Frankie’s raspy voice piercing the wall. Move em on ride em in.  Rawhide... Keep them doggies moving. Raaawhiddde.

Good copy was also material for our amusement. “Your friends will think you’ve struck it rich,” was a line we used to sell cheap but deep nylon plush carpeting.  Occasionally we would aim at the snob factor. “This spring:  ‘Crash Linen’ Crash as in fashion POW.  At one time only the Pope’s summer vestments were made of this treasured fabric.”
             “Is it true about the Pope’s vestments?” The advertising manager would ask. “Can we say that?”
             “What, you think the Vatican FBI is going to put the cuffs on us?” was the response.

‘Fabled’ was always a coveted headline word especially when the store had their annual European Extravaganza.  “From the fabled hands of Italian artisans...” was a reliable salvo.  “Woven in the Outer Hebrides by fabled Scottish grandmothers...” was good because even though few knew what the Outer Hebrides were or where they were, they sounded very fabled.

On Tuesdays the copywriters met with the buyers who presented the merchandise to be advertised that week. Buyers felt copywriters were invented to ruin their sales, their careers and ultimately, their lives. Here is a typical exchange with Tony Bucciano the budget coat buyer.
             “We’re not selling poetry here, girlie, just say Sale, Sale, Sale in 20 pt. type. That’s all anybody wants.”
“Tony, we’re not going to say sale, sale, sale,” Erica, the copy chief would reply.
“No, of course, not.  You might sell something.  You wanna write poetry or you wanna sell coats?”

There was great camaraderie in the ad department and we all went out to lunch together and drank excessively with little or no impairment. We didn’t order Merlot or Chardonnay.  We drank serious drinks. One young man always asked for Bell’s Twelve and we’d all stare at him. Ooooo! Not only did he drink real whiskey but he had a special brand.

Those years were some of the happiest in my life.  I worked purposefully every day with like minded people and saw the results quickly when the ads were splashed in the newspaper and customers stormed in ready to buy.  Tony had a point.  Sale, sale, sale, was probably all the customers really needed to hear. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

"Very nice, but not for us" The New Yorker Staff

(I began this blog two years ago partly to document my journey into e-publishing. Back then I was stunned by the freedom and the benefits. The landscape has changed partly because traditional publishers have finally come down off their high horse and are trying to muscle their way to dominate this cash cow.  The Amazon ebook review process, once simple and innocent, has deteriorated and many have found a way to game the system.  The tsunami of free books makes it harder to get traction and build sales. Last year I gave a talk at the East Hampton Library on this subject and they have asked me to do so again.  I re-read some of my remarks and thought it was a good idea to remind myself and others, too, of how thrilling e-publishing was and still remains.)  Below is part of my original talk.

I never thought I’d be the one reporting a miracle.  This is not miracle like or miracle-ish.  It is an out and out miracle.  Think of it like this. Suppose you had a manuscript that you had kept in a drawer for several years without any hope of having it published.  Suppose you had been traditionally published but your book or books had gone out of print and the publisher had simply abandoned you.  Suppose you had a college thesis or a really good short story that The New Yorker had seen fit to reject but scrawled - “very nice but not for us” at the bottom.  (What does that mean, by the way?)  Now suppose I told you that there was a way for you to get that story or that thesis or those backlist books in front of millions of people in several countries at no cost to you and that customers could sample your work and then buy it by clicking an icon and that you would instantly see that sale go through in your accounts just as if you ran your own store and rang sales on a register.  And suppose this went on twenty-four hours a day seven days a week, year after year without anyone (not Random House, not Simon and Schuster, not even the government) interfering?

That is the reality of e-publishing.  It is as monumental as the printing press and anyone can do it. Anyone who has a manuscript they believe in and a couple of hours to spare and can follow some fairly straightforward directions.  Are there awful ebooks? Yes, and some of them sell really well but good ones sell well, too.

Here’s where human nature steps in and tries to thwart you.  Especially senior human nature. The brain seizes up, the will refutes ability.  I can’t.  I can’t. Too hard. Too complicated.  Too technological.  I’m afraid of the remote, how can I possibly format a manuscript.   What does digital mean anyway?  What’s a platform?  I know what a loading platform is in a shipping plant. It’s where the boxes wait to go onto the trucks.

There’s a time of day when the mind works best.  Mine is between 7 am and 9 a.m.  Find which time is best for you and venture in.  Since I began this journey two and a half years ago, information on how to accomplish e-publishing is abundant. Put your question into Google and many, many answers will come up.  Getting your manuscript up on the Amazon platform is not the end of the journey but it is an excellent beginning. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"nattering nabobs of negativism"

The other day I was at Walmart. My favorite item at Walmart is the 18 washcloths bundled together for 3.99.  My favorite thing to do at Walmart is to look in other shoppers’ baskets to see what America is buying.  These customers keep General Mills and Kraft and Bristol Myers in business and maybe by being the oddball I’m missing a lifestyle that is far more comforting and reliable than my cotton/scent-free/brown rice/juicing/ way of east coast elitist life. Spiro Agnew called us nattering nabobs of negativism.  Agnew was indicted and had to resign but that doesn’t take away from his alliteration skills.

The Walmart drug and cosmetics department is huge and cheap.  Their house brands are called “Equate.”  Right next to the Neutrogena shampoo is Equate shampoo for about half the price.  I added toothpaste to my basket along with the unbleached coffee filters, The Ricola honey/lemon cough drops,  the Fiskers pruning shears, the corn bristle broom, and the 100% cotton bundled washcloths.   Two elderly women in front of me were cruising the “remedy” aisle, talking amiably.
“What do you take for arthritis?” I ask one of the women.  I don’t have arthritis but in case I get it, I want to take what these women take.
She grabbed a package off the shelf. “This.  Tylenol Arthritis.”
“Does it help?”
“Oh, yes.  Here, this is a good buy 380 tablets for 11.95.”
I waited until they left and put back the 380 Tylenol arthritis tablets. This aisle was a real eye opener because they have differentiated Tylenol for everything.  Tylenol for Back, Tylenol Migraine. Tylenol Pain in the Ass (kidding). What about Tylenol Migraine?  Does it knock you out for three days and you wake up all disoriented but feeling good and minus three pounds?  I’d take that.
At the check out, the woman in front of me had every item I would never buy and yet I wished I knew her.
What kind of person buys this at Walmart:  individual packets of Whiskas, Shout Out, Pringles, Devil Dogs and miniature-sized lemon-scented S.O.S. pads. If you’re picturing overweight and slovenly, forget it.   She was thin as a rail and neat as a pin. I knew this much about her:  she doted on her cat, she could tolerate fake scents, she took her snacks seriously and she didn’t need Real Simple Magazine to give her any bs ‘aha’ ways to get stains out.  This woman had chosen everything in her basket with a purpose and knew exactly what she was going to do with each item whereas my purchases were random and impulse driven.   I wanted to ask her  what was the worst stain she had dissolved with Shout Out and if the miniature S.O.S. pads were a better value.   What came to mind as I waited for her to pay was how appropriate it was for Spiro Agnew to have called us  “an effete corps of impudent snobs” to characterize the East Coast intellectual voting block.   This woman (who might be a Harvard-educated neuroscientist for all I know) was exactly why people like my friend Delores seldom got their candidate elected.  She represented the whole big other section of American life and it’s their America, too.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Your own secrets sucked out of you..."

I wonder which is preferable, to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you're depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin - everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone - and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?  This is from Margaret Atwood

Really?  On first reading I love the idea of this quote but then...?   I'd love to have all my secrets sucked out of me.  Secrets are not all that precious.  The stuff I wished to conceal when I was trying to make my way, I gladly reveal now.   I like to sit around.  I'm an emotional eater.  I am not against lying although I'm recently adverse to stealing.  I have intimacy problems. I'm full of shame sometimes.  Every successful social encounter leaves me feeling filthy. Yes, filthy.  I still talk too much.  So what?   'So what' to everything. I call it my "so what" cure.  

There are still scenes from the past that make me cringe. Cringe as in hunching my shoulders inward and turning to confront myself.  When I write that sentence the scenes become insignificant.  I call this my "state exactly what is troubling you and it will diminish" cure.  
The things that are precious to me, images that I remember with a full heart are not secrets at all.  They are small ephemeral moments that catch someone close to me stunned by life.  Yes, life can stun you, good or bad.  In that moment, there are no secrets - just you and the thing itself.  And you can recover. You can recover from almost anything.
I recently saw The Master, and the best scene in that movie is when Phillip Seymour Hoffman sits very close to Joaquin Phoenix and asks him the sort of questions that I wish someone would ask me.
What is the most important thing in your life?  What do you wish would happen more than anything in the world?  What makes you most afraid?  

The answers are not the answers of old: children, health, accidents. 
The most important thing in my life is the ability to keep on going.  More than anything in the world I wish to know myself better.  I am most afraid of fulfilling my childhood dreams.