Wednesday, November 29, 2006

sweat in the city

After a couple of years doing the marionette thing, happily bending words behind the curtain, I’ve again been seduced by the allure of the byline. Along with Community News features, beginning in January, I’ll be writing a column for the regional magazine, The Northwest Women’s Journal.

The premise for the column concerns my quest for balance. Mitigating the hours and hours I spend kneading language into conceit. So, in desperation and because a business opportunity presented itself, I began Pilates classes, hating every minute for a solid month. Who knew I was that crooked, that weak, that flabby?

Because I have to grope every experience I have into philosophical bullet points, I naturally began to write about my frustration at being so completely out of touch with my body. A month into the classes, though, something shifted. A body memory thing that had nothing to do with my noggin. I have begun to understand that illusive aphorism about “listening to your body.” Even though I’ve been writing a yoga studio’s newsletter for a year, that crap always sounded like New Age gobbledy-gook. I never absorbed it, scoffing instead: Bodies don’t talk! That’s a fallacy!

Surprise! Yes, Virginia, your body does talk! It’s just that my brain has been bossing my body around so long, I was unable to hear it. So now I listen, and I hear these lovely quotidian whispers which translate into tiny actions: Instinctively sitting up straighter when my shoulders start to burn from too much writing. Being aware of slouching, standing crooked and leaning on my hip to indulge my slight scoliosis.

So I’m going to be writing a column, and the column will most likely be called Sweat in the City. It’ll have that Keep Portland Weird regional flavor, of course. Each month I’ll investigate movement opportunities, Pacific Northwest versions of exercise—stuff we all have in access to in this fecund, young, and somewhat outré metropolitan region.

Look for the column starting in January. Better yet, pick up a copy when the December issue of The Northwest Women's Journal hits the stands. It’s available free at most public libraries and various outlets around town.

Monday, November 27, 2006

money money money money

There is the faintest dusting of snow this morning. A skin of white on the roof of my garage. Branches are bare. Gray is the pervading color all around. The smarter of the squirrels have foraged and now sit fatly wherever it is squirrels hole up in these parts. The dumber of the squirrels check their bank accounts hourly online, hoping that their supply of acorns will last through the week.

And so it goes.

I’m a dumb squirrel this winter. Juggling various accounts, hoping to avoid major credit card debt. My income comes from a pastiche of sources. The only dependable part just barely covers my myriad mortgages. Everything else trickles in here and there like faucets turned to drip during a cold snap. An editing job here, a writing job there. Occasional project management. The journalism I do pays roughly seven cents a word. Translated to an hourly wage parking meters make more money than I do.

Strangely though, (and I’ve heard this from many starving yet tenacious artist types) just when I’m down to husks, a check or an opportunity arrives. A fat editing job or a grant. Hardly a windfall, but miraculous, none-the-less.

And at 3 a.m. money woes seem to loop ever more prominently. You wake up for no apparent reason, and before you can sink back into your dreams, the black tape of hell binds you, jerking you into cul de sacs of doom: the what-if machine with lead boots and empty pockets. You slip down the hierarchy into Maslow’s inferno. No longer reaching for that crag wherein lies self-actualization, no, it’s down to the basics. Food, shelter and so on.

Luckily the doom loop sleeps during daylight hours. (Like a vampire.) Financial strategies present themselves. Belt-tightening that looked tortuous in the middle of the night morph into obvious solutions.

As a writer, I’ll never be wealthy. And as a dumb squirrel, I’ll tend toward modest piles of acorns. But most important is the gift to see money for what it really is: abstraction once removed from a thing in and of itself. I know how to find it if I have to. I know how to work. I like the view from the high branch though. Especially now that the flurries have picked up.

Friday, November 24, 2006

thanksgiving in whoville


One of my favorite holiday programs is the Grinch. I know I’m not alone in this. Seuss’s redemption of that miserly, lonely, avarice-ridden hill-dweller is everything you need from a parable. Holidays offer a glimpse at the measure of a heart. They can act as electron microscopes and cosmic telescopes, both.

As in musical composition, capacity for crescendo is informed by emotional and artistic preparation. And by artistic preparation, I guess I’m edging into the territory of one’s particular talent for reality.

The better one’s talent for reality, the better able one is to mitigate the mundane with nuance, joie de vivre, what-have-you. And the more able one is to put oneself into the provincial task of daily living, the less likely that person will be to dive off the board during a party, or leave one feeling bereft.

I’m not a naturally social person. I have more than one quality in common with the mean old Grinch on the mountain. It’s not that I begrudge, it’s more like I expect disaster. I anticipate failure. This often leads me to a brand of inertia that looks like misanthropy. I have often worried that I might pass this tentativeness onto my children.

That’s why I invited a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. With Sam and Maggie now living elsewhere, the stakes are higher. I can either claim them during these sorts of occasions, or risk losing them to households with better socially functioning people.

Now past the initial post-divorced months, I’ve been experiencing a heightened sense of reality. I am finding myself, as they say. Rediscovering a capacity for fun, for imperfection, for texture.

I’m a sap, by the way. I save weird stuff: pregnancy sticks that culminated in the birth of my kids, reconnaissance maps from childhood spy games, my college ID. I have my two degree-announcing graduation tassels obscuring a small snapshot of my first wedding—a Catholic affair complete with a crucified Christ as backdrop—sitting just above my line of vision as I type this. My environment is replete with stock. That I love, have loved, will continue to love is three-dimensionally manifest.

So, the sentimental mommy puts it all out there for a big, old-fashioned secular bash, jams the house full of people. Beloved people. And the energy is rich, textural, human. My children are engaged, all three of them, in being with people, eating hearty fair, being grateful, in their way.

What I’m getting at is this. I now have overwhelming evidence to suggest that my children are healthy, reasonably happy, and not given to addiction born of deprivation. They are comfortable in their skins. Thanksgiving helped me see this, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

But more to the point, I am comfortably moving into my life as a single woman, a mother, a writer, a hostess—whatever. So, bring on the holidays. Get me some mistletoe.

Monday, November 20, 2006

eavesdrop of the day

Overheard at Pioneer Square. Dreadlocked young man with several buddies:
“I have a policy not to date anyone with the same name as my sister.”

Laughter from compatriots

“And it sucks, because, like, I have a lot of sisters.”

Sunday, November 19, 2006

epistemological roulette

Seems that everything I’m reading these days, and all the films I’m viewing, have chaos as their subtext. Of course, if you’ve been following the posts on this blog, you’ll note that chaos has been a recurring theme for yours truly as well.

On Friday I eagerly ventured downtown for the first showing of “Little Children,” the Todd Fields movie based on the novel of the same title by Tom Perrotta. Much of what resonated for me in this film had to do with the notion of desire and boundaries. Not just sexually, either.

When I think about moving forward, whether in romantic conquests or professional ones, there is always this foggy middle ground where projection, myth, presumption and fear reside. So many of our obstacles are visible only to us. We tell ourselves stories to keep from falling off the ledge.

Last weekend I found myself at an impromptu party: small space, lots of warm bodies, free-flowing wine. Set up for moral depravity, if ever there was one. The collective of folks in attendance were all, seemingly, at huge crossroads, considering personal epistemologies. Out of nowhere a snippet of George Eliot found its way into my hands. A Xeroxed copy of a passage from The Mill on the Floss. Something about “the great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty.” Going after what you want, versus remaining duty-bound to that which you have pledged.

At the party, truth looked like, “Who I am is someone who lives life on her own terms, in defiance of maxims and in defiance of the common script.” But by Sunday (always the Sabbath we review and regret) small tendrils formed and reinstalled the framework. The cast of characters returned: projection courting fear building to resignation. Life on one’s own terms is fine, long as the kids have their cereal, and the leaves are raked into piles, and all the recycling is out at the curb by garbage day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

when worlds collide

Here’s a stunning example of genre-bending, and the surrounding conversation. This Portland writer I know, Yuvi Zalkow, submitted a first-person prose piece to an online journal with an other-than fiction focus. The reason he did so was that the piece read like nonfiction, in that it was filled with declarations and facts that touched on the subject at hand. That, and he's an admitted submission slut! Seriously, though, he thought the journal's audience would give him a good read. His gamble paid off.

The comments on his piece touched off a spirited discussion of craft vs information. Most commenters made reference to the trial of the protagonist (who was female) and critiqued the form in which Yuvi (who is male) chose to present the story. If you have a few minutes, read the piece and meander through these postings. One caveat, the subject matter is, er, sensitive.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

the numbers

Number of cities I’ve lived in 10
Number of dwellings I’ve lived in 24
Jobs I’ve had where I’ve received a regular payroll check 9
Pounds of manuscripts in my basement right now 28
Novels I’ve written at least two drafts of 3
Novels I’ve published 0
Short stories I’ve written 38
Short stories I’ve published 11
Degrees I have 2
Money I’ve made in my whole life from writing (in $) 91,528
Money I’ve made in my whole life from non-writing (in $) 58,263
Money I’ve spent on my education and writing-related endeavors (in $) 101,600

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

the d word and the e word

To continue in the solipsistic vein I seem to have established, I need to visit a quality that’s always eluded me. Ever since I was a pixie-haired youngster, I’ve dodged discipline in favor of the sly sprint.

With writing, I’ve often abandoned the page for weeks, only to hole up, spending a weekend in obsessive wordsmithing. Which would be fine, I think, if it weren’t accompanied by grandiose plans—calendarized promises: if I keep up this pace, I’ll have a manuscript by Christmas!

A month ago I popped one of my daughter’s abandoned Ritalins, thinking maybe the chemical imperative therein would keep me on task. The resulting effect was several hours of meth-like monkey mind, plunging with great resolve into the mundanist of chores. It was counter to creativity, but I did, finally, vacuum out the minivan!

My ex-husband (and yes, I know he’s reading this) perpetually accuses me of fickleness and erratic mood swings. Like anyone confronted with labels that tend to invite dismissiveness (e.g. since I’m erratic he’s not accountable for his behavior because no matter what he does my response will be dictated by biochemistry) I balk. True, he often got the worst of me (much like a parent gets to absorb their child’s tantrums while the teacher sees only an earnest, well-behaved kid), but I’ve come to conclude that my lack of resolve has merely become more transparent due to that good old Second Law of Thermodynamics. That’s the one about dissipated potential--you know, entropy.

Pardon my lapse into empiricism—it’s a symptom of my affliction—but entropy accurately describes the tendency of matter to achieve chaos. In other words, it gets harder and harder to pull off the successful sprint when 90% of the time I’m going with the flow in my bumbling, make-it-up-as-I-go-along way.

This morning, for instance, as I poured a packet of instant oatmeal into my son’s bowl, I wondered about all the people I know who would read the directions on the packet and employ a measuring cup for the exact amount of boiling water to add to the mix. I could only really confirm one person (the sister-in-law of my first marriage, a military wife), but it got me thinking about the fact that last month I billed 20 hours to a company who hired me to project manage the inclusion of how-to-make-instant-stuffing videos on their website.

Not only do I not measure water into oatmeal, I’ve never measured coffee, soup ingredients, laundry detergent or oil when I’ve had the occasion to dump some into my engine. Me, who holds a Bachelor’s in Food Science, prefers to wing it with muffins, pancakes, enchiladas and the Thanksgiving turkey. I suppose that’s why I’m only sometimes a good cook. Like when Mercury isn’t in retrograde or during some other metaphysically favorable condition.

So now, at age 45, I’m inviting intention into my life. No, not inviting. That would be the old Suzy Vitello. I’m painfully choosing (not always, but often) routines that fight entropy. I, the most phlegmatic chick on the planet, have engaged in twice-weekly Pilates sessions for two solid months. And they’re hard! And now, I actually look, well not forward to them, but toward them; my body has developed Pavlovian expectations that must be fulfilled. That, and I’m eating salads every day and miniscule portions of a variety of saltless foods. I’ve lost ten pounds, and that’s good; high blood pressure runs in my family (more evidence of the second Law).

And what about writing? What about writing and not answering email and not doing billable hours writing, and not allowing my mind to wander into the stinky cage of the monkey mind? I know the answer to that, and it’s even harder than Pilates.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

the uncrackable code

The first thing I remember writing, ever, was a prosaic poem in the third grade. It was a sing-song one-off tribute to spring, something I popped out like an after-supper burp. Actually, I don’t remember the actual writing of it. What I do remember was the critique and the attention. The critique came from my mother, who was in the midst of acquiring a low-residency Goddard degree, and therefore attuned to the vagaries of art.

She was accurately disappointed with my poem, pointing out the dangers of cliché and received text. Only where I attempted a little onomatopoeia [tip-tap of raindrops] did my mother issue a nod. “Explore this direction a bit more,” I think is what she told me.

Conversely, my teacher Mrs. Engle (or was it Angle?) read my banal verse in front of the class, showered me with praise, and crowned me poetess of the year. Go figure.

Thus began my acknowledgement of the range of subjective consideration of the written word. And still, three decades later, I’m wrestling with notions of “good” and “popular” when it comes to production.

I hesitate to write the next thing here, which might come off sounding a tad sour-grapey. If I express it in its raw form it would come out something like: “Yeah, I can write crap people will eat up, I just choose not to.” Considering this a bit more thoroughly, I realize it’s not true. I have come to a point in my life where I simply can’t tap into the expectations of the normative world. I am at a loss to understand, for instance, the popularity of inane television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.” The wholesale white-washing of emotional complexity, reduced to tired, predictable tropes. That’s what America craves, apparently.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve delved back into writing community news. I need to consider audience more than I have been. I must face my arrogant notions of art every time I tap my keyboard. And, acknowledge that if I was as deft at my craft as I need to be, I would have an audience, but, alas, I do not. It’s sobering. Very sobering.