Friday, March 29, 2013

The Devil Wears Sub-Zero

 (This is a re-run.  Originally titled "I want to kill the kitchen.")

I read on Yahoo that the home of 2015 probably won’t have a living room. Builders expect the living room to merge with other spaces or vanish completely. I’ve written countless times that the living room is a useless place we’ve been told is necessary. My living room starts at the front door, it’s hard to miss but I hardly use it except as a corridor to the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom.
Here’s a recent conversation I had with the living room.
“What are you doing in here? Is the pastor coming over?”
“I don’t have a pastor. I feel I should use you more."
“Why? There’s nothing to do in here. No media. No computer. You don’t even know me that well. You never really look at me.”
“I look at you.”
“You look ahead when you walk through me.”
“Do you think you have any purpose?”
“Years ago they called me ‘the parlor’ and people ‘paid calls’ and sat here and had tea. It was a little phony but everyone was polite. Today everybody goes right to the ‘oink, oink’ kitchen. That hog, has taken over everything. It doesn’t have a door anymore. It’s creeping into the whole house. It is the whole house! Soon the word ‘house’ will die out. You’ll buy a kitchen.”
“How did that happen?”
“Good p.r. The kitchen was sold as a touchy-feely cozy place that you could visit in your pajamas. Ooooh the kitchen inspires confidences. Blah, blah, blah. Everybody was sucked in. Oooh this is my safe place. Is marble cozy? Is Sub-Zero cozy? Is stainless steel cozy? Exactly. The devil wears Bosch.”
“But the kitchen is necessary.”
"Really? Does anyone cook anymore? Uncle Ben makes perfect rice in a bag. Store-made rotisserie chickens are reliably tasty. Salad comes washed and cut up in a container. No waste. No dirty pans.”
“You think we’ve been duped.”
“Like lambs to the slaughter. I want to kill the kitchen. I've made a song about it to the tune of Imagine.
Imagine there’s no kitchen,
It’s easy if you try
No hellish food to tempt us
The fridge has gone bye bye
Imagine all the women
Living slim and free...
Imagine there’s no butter
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to fry or whisk up
And no pesto too
Imagine all the women
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope all fat girls will join me
Let’s kill the kitchen. Bang, bang. Done!

“So living room, I guess this is good bye.”
“What are you going to do with my space?”
“Probably open it up and expand the kitchen.”
“Why did I even bother? Yeah okay goodbye. Whatever.”

I became lonely when it was about to end

I'm in my review clothes today for the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I don’t know what to make of this book. Let’s see if I can deconstruct why I liked it so much.  The set up grabbed me because of its ordinariness: a family with two grown daughters is struggling in a poor economy and one of the daughters, (the one no one has faith in) gets a weird job that will save the others from slipping into poverty.  Oh, and it takes place in a small English village which raises the interest level for American readers by a hundred.

As in life, the likeability factor played a big part in my total interest in the outcome. Did you notice I said “total” interest?  I wanted to get back to my reading and I became lonely when it was about to end.  Yes, lonely.   The major and minor characters were endearing and when unlikely events began to infiltrate and better their lives it was within parameters that were believable and satisfying, not life changing (although life did change as it always does).  The last part of my deconstruct has to do with what we call a “love story” and how we yearn for someone right along with the main character.  I yearned right along with Louisa Clark and that’s as much as one can ask for in a book.

(Will blog again later with my own ramblings.)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Less = happiness? Define less.

 The N.Y. Times had an Op-Ed piece by tech multi-millionaire Graham Hill who had an awakening:  he once had a fondness for stuff and lived large and now he doesn’t want the stuff and lives small. How small? 420 sq. ft.  On first reading, your head starts singing “Oh happy day. Oh happy day. When Jesus washed. My sins away.”

Mr. Hill heads a firm LifeEdited that designed his tiny apartment as a prototype to coax us into joining him in his newly calibrated life.  The renovation that transformed an honest 420 sq. ft. of lovely undifferentiated space into 8 possible rooms cost around $300,000. The 8 rooms are made possible by a multitude of hidden, stacked, double-duty load of high-tech preciousness including a moveable wall that holds some of the rooms in suspension, a collapsible table that seats 10 ($15,000), a desk in a drawer, drop down bunks for guests and a full-size media room/home theater achieved by moving the magic wall all the way to another wall. 
 Mr. Hill wants to persuade us to edit the way we live and consume because possessions are the problem not the solution. But instead of torpedoing our old perversions in his prototype, his stupido apartment has glorified our stupido old habits that made us feel empty in the first place. We wanted to get away from our media room. Wasn't that the point?

The master plan of the apartment is to cleverly hide all the stuff we need to live there behind inscrutable cabinets.  Life becomes a freak show of premeditation.  You have to hunt for and unstack the induction burners to cook.  Un-telescope the table to eat. Get your desk out of the wall to work. Push the freaking wall to get to the television.

I like to read at a big table and I like to sort out stuff on a big table and I like to put a small appliance (toaster/toaster oven/electric teapot all on the table or a trolley nearby. I need the table available all the time. The designers should have spent a day with their mothers and watched how they live.    They would then skip the bs moveable wall and the drop down bunk beds and the cleverness.

I could live with a small bed, a table, a big easy chair, a flat bottomed bowl, a cup, a sharp knife, a spoon, two good sweaters, three tunics, a half dozen leggings, a knit hat, two scarves, a down vest, a towel and those 18 washcloths from Wal-Mart that cost 3.95.  For cooking, I would have a deep frying/sautéing pan and a two-quart saucepan for rice, oatmeal, spaghetti, a blender or small chopper for smoothies or soup.  I would LifeEdit my food intake, too.

Many comments were left by other readers of Mr. Hill’s essay. Here are a couple I liked a lot:

“'Not enough' is the soul-grinding, joy-crushing truth for very much of this world's population. We'd do better to tend to that rather than fetishize our ability to more elegantly calibrate our own abundance.”

“I'm 82 and live on and with the barest of necessities, for the less I have, the better I feel. I regularly go through my small house wondering what else I can get rid of. Minimalism is soothing, aesthetically appealing. I sometimes fantasize about living in a cell like a monk - a cot, a table, and a window. “

"If I had lots and lots of money I'm quite sure that I'd quickly learn to buy freedom and 'experiences' rather than stuff, too. That's what this article is about.

“Knowing what I know now, if I had my life to live over, at the age of 18, instead of sitting around devising plans for a cluttered life, I would put a knapsack on my back and with my dog I would leave the house and just start walking.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Taking care of business

In the honeymoon period of e-publishing, I was completely in its thrall. After decades of cowering under trad pub snobbishness, crushing rejections, marketing laziness and worst of all taking a year or more to publish a book, writers got a fairy godfather in the form of Jeff Bezos (Amazon) who offered a fabulous alternative.

Jeff Bezos turned the ether into the best bookstore in the world and this bookstore didn’t yank your books after two weeks or put them on a high shelf.  This bookstore kept your books on display for as long as you wanted.  Jeff Bezos said: “Here, this is for all of you writers.  It’s free.  It’s inclusive.  It’s global. I’ll sell your books for a tiny fraction of what the big six charge and you get to control everything. Instead of getting paltry royalties twice a year and never earning out your advances, you can set your book price, put your book on sale, change your cover, tweak your blurbs and experiment with marketing.  And you can do any of this in a matter of minutes.  You can track your sales 24/7. Instead of rejection notes, we send congratulatory e-mails.  Is there any writer out there who doesn’t see this as a miracle?

Fast forward to 2013.  The e-book business is still the best marketplace however the landscape has changed, In the old days (2009-2011) a price of 0.99 was a sure way to drive sales and you could count on volume to justify the low price.  When that ploy glutted the market and dimmed as a marketing tool, the “free” maneuver came to the rescue.  If you let your book go free for a couple of days and got enough sites to mention the free book, a gush of sales followed when the book went back to ‘paid’.  It had to do with something called algorithms that enhanced your book’s visibility.  (Sales are all about visibility.)  Free downloads became so popular that actual sales slowed. Free wasn’t working as well.  Newly re-configured algorithms reduced the book’s visibility. In the last half of 2012 sales sank for many e-books.  In early 2013, I went to my favorite forum, The Writer’s Cafe, and noticed several people were asking about advertising and seeking reliable sites for their ad dollars. 

I am, by nature, frugal.  The idea of paying for advertising took some mental adjustment but when I saw several books shoot up in the rankings after an ad on BookBub, I decided to give it a go even though it could cost hundreds of dollars that I might not earn back.   BookBub has an editorial review board that sometimes turns down requests for advertising.  They check out your oeuvre on Amazon, reviews, etc. to see if the title will fit their model for a successful run.  They want you to earn out the cost of the ad.

My first ad with BookBub was for Nothing To Lose.   I had asked to advertise 100 Open Houses but they “advised” me to choose something else. The editors at BookBub placed NTL in the Women’s Fiction category and charged me  $130 (currently $180.)  I was so pleased with the results of this ad I scheduled another for last Sunday.  This ad was for Daughters and it cost $280.

The first ad was very successful selling almost 1800 books and sending NTL up the ranks to #134 (from about a million books.) I had made back my money three hours in.  The second promotion was even more successful selling over 4100 units and placing Daughters as high as #23 in the Kindle 100 and as high as #10 in the Nook 100.  Both books went to #1 or #2 in their genre category and with Daughters, my rank as most popular author rose to #62. Again I made back my money before the day was half done. Most of these lofty rankings begin to slide after a day or two but sales linger.

In the future, ads might fade as a sure-fire way to produce sales or ad prices may become prohibitive. Something else will come along.  I could just do nothing and be satisfied with reduced sales.  The important lesson is that when necessary, I know how to put on my big girl shoes and take care of business. I am finally a grown up.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

We used to need irony because the reality of everything was masked.

Last night Delores said, “I can’t live in a town that doesn’t have a shoemaker.” Delores tells me for the fiftieth time that she will be selling her house and moving elsewhere. “What are you supposed to do with perfectly good shoes?”   I can see her point.  This swank village is over the top.  This is the kind of celebrity party/photo/gossip caption you read in the Hampton magazine:  Princess Amanda Borghese and Prince Francisco Borghese at the Italian Trade Commission’s 'Young Friends of “Save Venice' dinner at Bergdorf Goodman.
I once went into Bergdorf to kill time and asked to see a handbag in a case.  The major domo patrolling the floor told me pointedly that it cost 1500 dollars.  “Is it ostrich?” I persisted.  “Yes,” he said and finally invoked the retail rule that states:  don’t judge the wealth by the outfit.  He opened the case. I made him show me three more bags before walking out. 
Delores is a published poet and an ironist.  We used to need irony because the reality of everything:  marriage, childbirth, parenthood, government, the natural bent of human nature was masked and sentimentalized to keep the citizens in the dark and maintain social order.  Literalness is now so darn interesting that you could really do away with irony.  There’s a shop near my house called The Irony. I went in once just to see what the heck was going on. No iron or bon mots in sight.  They make decorative fences, gates and objects out of metal. 
Delores is always giving me the details of writing contests that I can enter.  Sometime back she gave me the Granta deadline and the Chicago short fiction rules and some drama contest in South Carolina.  She said I should take my one-woman show and turn it into a short story and just send it out.  Just send everything out and see what comes of it, she says.  It’s about getting things out there.  So in a flurry of activity, I dug out several things and sculpted a couple of stories and sent them out.  The only response I got was a handwritten note from Esquire with the following message:  Ms. Baehr, I enjoyed reading your story.  I found the big-muscle-little-muscle speach (sic) especially amusing and the story as a whole insightful and rather clever.  Sorry we can’t publish it. - B
Once I got a note from Gordon Lish who was the Fiction Editor of Esquire and created the minimalist effect that slashed one of Raymond Carver's stories to half its length. Lish published Carver, Kundera, DeLillo among others.  When he sent me the note, he was responding to an Op Ed piece of mine in the New York Times.  You could tell his note had been written with a real fountain pen because it was  smudgy and scratchy.  Here's what it said:
Dear Consuelo Saah Baehr,
I do the poetry editing here and should very much like to see yours.  Please mark PERSONAL on envelope if you do choose to send, a prospect I heartily encourage,  Thrive, Gordon Lish
He wrote all of that on a piece of paper the size of a Post-it, using both sides.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A funny albeit cranky survivor gets 4 stars

Before the last two feet of snow shut me in forever, I had got my favorite lamp fixed and found a good throw for my one-and-a-half chair.  (This is a chair that allows a short person - me - to scrunch sideways in perfect cocoon comfort.) I had my Kindle and a new book to review:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes a bestselling Irish author.  The words Mercy Close had already zapped me with a yen to sell everything and move to the Cotswolds because who doesn’t want to live in a thatched roof cottage and send out address cards marked 43 Mercy Close.  Well, Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t. Btw the book is set in Ireland not the UK   I keep thinking it’s still 1899 in Ireland but apparently, they also have cell phones and the Internet.

The best thing I can ever say about a book is that I want to continue reading it more than I want to do most other things (that includes watching Shark Tank.)  The next best thing I can say is that I can read it on the elliptical machine and not be aware that almost an hour has slipped by.  This was mostly true of this funny, noir in a good way, noir in a bad way P.I. driven missing person mystery.  Helen Walsh, P.I. is a long list of contradictions: suicidal but competitive, despises phrases like  “good to go” but has a soft spot for Michael Bublé and his “chunky thighs.” (I went immediately to U-tube and listened to Bublé sing The Best Is Yet To Come and it put me in a good mood.)

Helen is suffering from a mental malady of unknown origins and resistant to solutions. (Aren’t we all?)  She can’t sleep.  She can’t eat anything except handfuls of Cheerios and has twice in the past  (in a clumsy way) tried to commit suicide. Just as she’s entering a good period the economy brings her down.  She loses her flat and her clients and has to limp back to her old bedroom in her parents’ house. To the rescue comes her ex, Jay Parker, a promoter who is producing a reunion of the boyband Laddz and needs her to find one of the Laddz who has gone missing. Helen has a past with Jay that did not end well but he’s offering cash and a job. Helen wants oblivion but remains engaged by her work ethic and a developing simpatico for the missing Ladzz. The fun of this book is not so much in the mystery but in the reveal of the main character, a funny albeit cranky survivor who is just barely holding on but whose thought process remains reliably interesting.

My quibble with The Mystery of Mercy Close is the lengthy multi-page acknowledgements up front.  We don’t know these people, we don’t care how much help they were to the author.  We want to dive into Chapter One straight away. (After reading the words bum for booty and boot for car trunk and petrol for gas, I’m already saying straight away for right away like a wannabe Brit.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Living on "love and the good will of others" Ugh!

When I see a story that begins: “How this family lives with no money,” my mind  jumps around like a toddler on a sugar high.  Yes, yes, I want to try that, too.  I found out that Mr. & Mrs. Fellmer live in Berlin on nothing but “love and the good will of others.” First, I could not live on love because then you have to be involved with people (some of whom you don’t know).  I could not live on “good will” either. Because of some deficiency in myself, I am not attracted to “good will” people. When Hayden Panettiere was all upset about the dolphins and whales and was riding on one and crying I wanted to say “Just shut up. Come home and go do a movie or something.”  The PETA people scare the heck out of me. Living on the good will of others would be off limits for me.  I can’t even accept a birthday gift gracefully.
I’m thinking I was meant to admire this family but they are not passing my sniff test.  The wife is getting a little something from the government for her child and the husband is doing it because “money is hampering our dreams.”  I have never had money hamper my dreams.  My craziness hampers my dreams.
This couple lives rent free with roommates in Peace House in exchange for odd jobs and organizing work.  This would not work for me. Roommates?  I can hardly willingly have guests for more than forty-five minutes. The most impressive thing I read was that they managed to get a dentist to fix their teeth for free. The one thing that scares me - it used to be the plumbing bill - it is hands down the dental bill.
Maybe they raked the dentist’s yard in exchange.  I would have to have a lot to drink before I went into my dentist’s office and offered to rake his leaves in exchange for a veneer or two. (still it would be interesting to see his facial expression). Fellmer admits his lifestyle is radical, explaining that it’s to get his message across. “Not everybody needs to do this to such an extreme. This is for protest. We want to inspire people to think about changes they can make. There are so many tools out there, so many ways to reduce one's carbon footprint.”  I have never fully understood the phrase “carbon footprint”.  I know carbon paper was what you used to make copies before the invention of the duplicating machine.  And I know carbon dioxide is a silent, odorless killer that comes stealing in like the fog on “little cat feet” when you leave the car running in a closed garage.  Something tells me it is probably black....oh heck I’m going to look it up right now.
A carbon footprint has historically been defined as "the total sets of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person."[1]
However, calculating the total carbon footprint is impossible due to the large amount of data required and the fact that carbon dioxide can be produced by natural occurrences.
Fellmer is a full time activist on waste and overconsumption. He says too much food gets thrown away.  Now that is absolutely true.  When I buy a big pork loin, I know I’ve made a pact with society to cook that piece of meat and to do it to the best of my ability.  When I get it home I begin to wish I had left it in the case with its brothers rather than have to get out the roasting pan and peel some carrots and apples and onions and sear the meat in a hot frying pan before transferring it to the roaster and finishing it off in the oven. I could have just defrosted a pizza without all that other stuff.   About two o’clock the next day, I am tired of eating roast loin of pork and dream about getting a pizza but then I think it’s wasteful to throw this meat away and Fellmer isn’t around so I can foist it off on him.  You’d think I’d stop buying meat when it winks at me in the case, but then stop spraying me with subliminal “buy” incense when I enter the store. We are programmed to buy too much and over-consume.  It’s not our fault.  Why doesn’t Fellmer protest about packaged produce.  I buy the ready washed salad greens in the plastic tubs even though it’s like a shell game to choose one that is free of slimy parts. So, yes, I throw the good parts away with the slimy parts.  Mr. Fellmer will be happy to know there are cans of black beans in my pantry with expiration dates that have long passed. Whenever there is a “pantry” drive for the needy in my neighborhood, I don’t like what I see in the basket.  Usually it’s carbohydrate-laden stuff that nobody wants to eat: canned vegetables or canned ravioli.  I’m thinking if I was given this basket filled with packaged mixes for corn bread and canned string beans or lima beans, I would shoot myself.  Give me a fresh rotisseried chicken or Dover sole almondine or a medley of freshly steamed broccoli and cauliflower with butter/garlic sauce. 
Okay, I’m done with this story.