So have I told you how I've rounded the corner on this food-tracking madness and begun tracking what I eat using three separate apps? Let's take a brief tour into insanity here:
So have I told you how I've rounded the corner on this food-tracking madness and begun tracking what I eat using three separate apps? Let's take a brief tour into insanity here:
If you are going to read books about how awesome urban farming is (Spring Warren's The Quarter Acre Farm) or how wonderful it is to live off what you raise (Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral), then I think you should skip the next sixteen "How I, an urbane lady who loves Sephora, came to grow my own food/teach inner-city children what kohlrabi was/find intense life lessons in agriculture while keeping all my upper-middle-class cultural capital and privilege so I could sell a memoir" recommendations Amazon will give you, and skip straight to Josh Kilmer-Purcell's The Bucolic Plague.
Here is the book in a nutshell: Josh and his husband Brent buy a farm in upstate New York. Then they spend their lives doing one of three things:
1. Working grinding, high-paying jobs in Manhattan so as to afford the farm and its attendant mansion.
2. Taking trains between Manhattan and Albany.
3. Working 18-hour days at the farm. On their weekends. Before doing #2 in order to do #1.
It all sounds hellish and pretty much is, until in the final chapters of the book, personal growth is had, the reader is reminded how handy it is to have friends in high places in the New York media world, and the boys keep the farm.
(You may or may not also recall that later, the guys finally get to release Kilmer-Purcell from his 1-2-3 grind by dint of going on the Amazing Race and using the stealth strategy, "We only need to come in first once." The prize money paid off the mortgage on 1802 Beekman and now they're empire-building. If I give in to the temptation to buy some of their goat-milk caramel, I'll do a full taste test.)
... Or why I should never try to read William Gibson on an airplane.
I'm traveling for work right now, and this trip has been more disorienting than any six-day trip has any right to be. I never really adjusted to east coast time, so my sleep cycles and stomach have been in limbo, crashing or clamoring at odd moments. Several times, Phil and I would be getting lunch at 2 p.m., as waitresses were washing down tables and wishing us gone, and I'd be thinking, "But it's not even lunchtime yet!" And several times, I'd try not to look at the clock while reading in the middle of the night; if I don't know it's 2:15 a.m., then I won't despair when I do the math and realize how little sleep I'm getting.
But one of the realities of being on a getaway-cum-business trip is that a substantial quantity of hours were freed because I am not chopping fruit for a school lunch, or playing the theme from Hair while trying to shampoo a three-year-old, or sliding my assorted responsibilities around my day like the tiles in a puzzle toy, trying to make all the pieces fit together in a harmonious picture.
(At left: A visual metaphor for how I reconcile my to-do list against the limits of 24 hours in a day.)
So I read. I read Overwhelmed -- about which I will be talking for a very long time, I think, both about what that book has to say and what it doesn't.
I read Nina Planck's Real Food, which seemed to me to be exactly the kind of book that someone who read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or Mark Bittman's Food Matters would enjoy, mostly because it's many chapters of imploring people to maybe eat food that doesn't have a shelf life best described as "a presidential administration," and to pay attention to how that food is produced.
(One side effect: After the chapter on the merits of grass-fed animal products, I managed to talk Phil into agreeing that we're buying half a grass-fed cow and calling it a year on animal flesh. Between that and the fish CSA, we'll be good, I think.)
I read Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, Raising Steam, and thought about how sometimes old age makes one more reactionary, and sometimes it makes one embrace progressive ideas and the notion of rapidly accelerating change.
And tonight on the plane, I finally started William Gibson's Zero History.
Now, I love a lot of William Gibson's work. I can remember reading Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive through college and graduate school, and just thrilling to the details of the word Gibson built in the Sprawl, the teeming, seamy polyglot culture. What I particularly appreciated was the way Gibson used material goods as shorthand for the cultural milieu in which his characters lived. To describe one character's coat as being made of "tissue-thin leather" is to convey a wealth of inference and detail in one phrase.
(Later, when I read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, I detected a lot of the same effect. Coupland would take a consumerist detail and turn it into a sestina on the nature of society.)
I was also fascinated by the future-casting that took place in Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties, mostly because I could see him warning about the radical wealth stratification that boxed in people and created tremendous waste ... and I worked with people who were like, "The technology he describes is cool and I want to live in those cool luxury billets." I read the Bridge Trilogy, as it's called, shortly after moving to California. In a desperate attempt to get my cultural footings so far from the east coast, I gobbled up the Armstead Maupin "Tales" books, the Bridge trilogy, and Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends. Maupin's work honestly felt the least realistic to me, and bear in mind, he was going up against vampires and pop stars who dated AIs.
But these later books ... I don't know. Part of my antipathy stems from my perception that Gibson's prose has become as precious and semiotically opaque as the art boxes one character makes in Count Zero. There are a lot of sentence fragments that could double as Tumblr copy if the Tumblr poster were obsessed with Rick Owens clothing and pictures of European manhole covers.
Part of it that Gibson is unnervingly good at pinning down a sense of disquieted isolation and keeping it wriggling beneath the surface of the story with little relief. There is a wonderful passage early in Pattern Recognition where he takes on the sheer weirdness of a trans-atlantic flight:
Her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.
And that's a wonderful description of business travel in a nutshell.
There's a Marriott commercial playing on a loop in this airplane, showing enormous uninhabited lobbies, and patios that open onto perfectly manicured lawns, tables that are set with white linens and a blue-tiled pool with one beautiful woman swimming in it. And I thought, The armies of silent people working to fill water pitchers, to make the beds, to buff the lobbies ... they're all I can see because I see their labor. The entire commercial is profoundly disconnecting the same way the notion of your self flying behind a plane is: The labor lags behind, but you know it's there because the absence of the laborer is noticeable.
So is it with the Blue Ant trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) -- the characters move in their isolated bubbles and are coddled by armies of invisible laborers. And let me tell you: Sitting in a metal tube that goes 500 miles an hour, my soul presumably lagging behind on the eastern seaboard, doing my best to screen out a commercial that sells a fantasy of uninhabited cosseting ...
... Not the best place to read Zero History. It's doing a number on me right now and so, I think, I had better wait until I'm back on my porch (that needs a good scrubbing) and grabbing an hour to read before picking up my daughter or resuming work. I can't take reading about disconnected people when I'm so untethered myself.
I read Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, and I wanted to wait a few days before I wrote about it because I spent an unseemly amount of time on Saturday texting or emailing various girlfriends with various iterations on the message, "You need to read this book!" When I'm that uncritically enthusiastic about anything, a small voice in my brain kicks in and says, "Give this a day and see how you feel."
So. I read Overwhelmed on Saturday and here's what has stuck with me:
I whipped through two dubious time management and decluttering books yesterday. I don't really need any help with decluttering, as I am generally very good at keeping my physical environment under control, but I am always curious to see if there is some simple and effective way to manage the flows of stuff or time that I don't know. Never rule out the possibility that someone has thought of a better way to work or play, I say.
I'm not mentioning the useless books ... well, mostly because the man who wrote them is the kind of self-promoting blogger who is likely to find this via a Google search and then try to engage me, and one effective time-management tip is: Don't argue with people when you don't have to.
Just know they were useless books for one reason: They were written by a dude whose entire attitude about the complications of life was, Just say no to stuff you don't want to do or you don't want to look at.
Well, consider this, guru: I don't want to look at the Fisher Price Little Superstar Sing-Along Stage, but it's my kid's favorite toy and her preferences count. And I don't want to wipe down the bathroom surfaces every day, but someone's got to do it to maintain a borderline level of sanitation.
In other words, my gender-filtered experiences and expectations were smashing up against his.
Nowhere in either of his books did this man ever mention how to streamline the mental work of running a house, parenting a child, maintaining the family social calendar, or planning and executing the holidays. His life gets to be simple because somebody else (his wife) does all that while he gasses on about the joys of decluttering and prioritizing.
I would love to read the book by someone who's married to a self-appointed time management and decluttering maven -- and get their take on how uncluttered and unharried their family life is.
After deleting both books from my Kindle -- look at me, decluttering! -- I realized that those books actually provided an excellent clarifying question on time management: Question why you're the one who "has to" do anything at all -- or why you're the only one who does it.
In a way, these books did do me a favor: They renewed my commitment to the idea of dividing mental labor fairly. But why should I have to do the work of crafting my own useful meanings in reaction to two mediocre reads? Why is the "women's work" of mental labor so invisible as to be noticed only by its absence in a book ostensibly aimed at everyone?
Today, I got up early (like, six a.m. early, which is ridiculous when it's the weekend and you're 3000 miles east of the person who usually wakes you up on Saturdays) and went down to the hotel gym, where I began reading Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. I finished the book this afternoon, and my head is spinning from all the insights she gleans from researchers, and from how I can fine-tune my own interior and external lives. THIS is a book you can hand to any adult at any stage in their lives and say, "There's a chapter or three in here I think you'll find really useful."
I'll write more about that later. But for now, I wanted to point out that perhaps, one of the biggest problems in time management is not appreciating the impact other people have on your time -- and vice versa. The two books I refuse to name don't work for me because they act as if other people are useful only in how they let you live your best possible life, unencumbered by anything you don't want to have or do. That's no way to live.
As I start this, I am winging my way over Wyoming. One timer on my desktop is ticking down the minutes I have left on my three-hour block of Gogo InFlight service; the other is measuring out my selah. Whatever, haters. At least I'm not carrying around a kitchen timer shaped like a pomodoro. Yet.
I'm online only because I had a few lingering work to-dos to wrap up and I didn't want to do them tonight after I land. Most of the time, if I am not responsible for keeping a small human from becoming the complaint every other passenger has on a flight, I am flying like it's 1990: I start reading the minute I sit down and I stop only when it's time to deplane.
Packing for a trip is a ten-minute chore for me. Selecting my reading material is a whole other matter. I have rules, and so the reading material has to comply with my criteria:
Do not read mainstream women's magazines, aka "service" magazines. I'm talking your Self, Glamour, Allure, Redbook, etc. Those magazines exist because of their healthy ad sales, and they're basically a hundred-plus pages of introducing you to problems you did not realize were problems until someone said something.
You do not need to rile yourself up and/or manage the anxiety/irritation/self-loathing spiral that comes from realizing that you just crafted a to-do list based on directives issued by people who think phrases like "a nude lip" or "a cropped pant" or "a pop of color" are not degrading our language and therefore our thought processes.
Do read magazines that are like dispatches from a strange fictional land. I really like Vanity Fair for this, because they clearly have a dozen writers on the "obscure members of royalty and their difficulty in doing anything other than having scandalous marriages" beat.
Also, sandwiched between articles on movie star erotomaniacs of yesteryear and Cheryl Tunt-level insane rich people of now, you'll find a devastatingly incisive and well-reported piece on foreign affairs or the financial markets.
That said, Vogue is also an acceptable runner-up. I still recall fondly the flight where I was reading the house tour and the writer rhapsodized about the down-to-earth people who owned a five-story brownstone in Manhattan, and how they liked nothing better than swimming laps in their turquoise-tiled pool in the basement, then swaddling themselves in clean, snowy white robes before taking the elevator to the balcony garden to enjoy the snow. You know, as the humble do.
(Oh, for the glory days when Julia Reed and Jeffrey Steingarten were raising that magazine's IQ.)
Do know your reading pace and pack books accordingly. The happiest flight I have ever taken was the San Francisco to Honolulu jaunt where I read approximately half of Cryptonomicon. I actually saved the back half of that book for the return leg, so that I could repeat the same delightful experience of reading without the niggling fear that I'd run out of book before we landed.
This pacing rule is the reason I once went through security at Logan twice. I realized that I had no interest in spending an entire flight catching up on reading that felt like homework, and the only decent bookstore (for an airport range of "decent") was outside the gate. And that is how I came to own a hardcover copy of Under the Dome, which I finished five minutes before landing.
This story brings me to my next two points ...
Research what you bring, bookwise. The three worst flights of my life did not involve turbulence, medical emergencies or the side effects from my daughter's twelve-hour nursing strike. One is linked to my horrified read of John Shirley's Wetbones -- I had thought, "I loved City Come A Walkin', so surely I'll like this?"
The second was a flight to DC where I made the error of picking up a Jodi Picoult book and loathing everyone in it PLUS the twist at the end. (Subsequent flips through other Picoult books has confirmed that she is not the author for me, because of that formula. I can't even recall which book I read, only that I loathed the adult female protagonist and despised the last two chapters even more.)
The last one is linked to reading Sarah's Key, because when you are a pregnant lady reading about children dying thanks to grown-ups' cowardice and brutality, you end the flight muttering, "I hate everyone and this is why I stick to sci-fi and fantasy whenever I get tired of nonfiction."
Manage your mood with your reading. Think about it: You're locked in a metal tube for however many hours. Your ability to do anything other than sit and eat and read and write is really limited. So maybe an airplane isn't the best place to crack open anything that's going to make you really upset or amp you up to the point where you've got a fifty item to-do list organized into three levels of subtasks. Airplane reading is the "I've been meaning to get to that!" reading, not the "Crap, I've had that on my to-do list" reading.
Do not ever rely on an airport bookstore or newsstand. Because that's how you end up with Jodi Picoult or Tatiana de Rosnay.
Once I finish this up -- I'm over South Dakota now, because that is what happens when you go 544 miles per hour -- I'll wrap up my background research for a meeting I have, and then I'll crack open my Kindle. I know, I know -- I said I like to fly like it's 1990. But let's get to the last rule ...
Never hesitate to use whatever means necessary to bring the reading material you need.
Happy flying and happy reading, everyone! See you on the ground.
It's still a habit: Before I go to bed at night, I check the front door to see if the cat needs to come in.
Zito has been dead about three months. He fell victim to a drug-resistant staph infection shortly before Christmas and by the second week of January, three veterinarian's visits and $900 later, he was a box of ashes. We still haven't picked up the cremains, mostly because we don't know what we'd do with them.
The cat's mortal remains are in the vet's office, but his memory lives on in a dozen routines at home. I still close the glass door to the shower every morning to prevent him from tracking in tiny, filthy footprints. I pause before throwing green strawberry caps in the compost bucket. (He would stand on his hind legs and nibble them from my fingers.) It is still strange to roll over in the middle of the night and not feel 20 pounds of furry weight pinning down my calf.
I sense Zito's absence everywhere: on the front porch where he used to sit at night, on my legs when I stretch out on the couch to type, under my feet when I'm cooking.
It was like this when Isabel died in 2009, too. She had been a noisy little thing -- nine pounds to Zito's 20 -- and I had been her human, and for months after we put her to sleep, I'd imagine catching her tail rounding corners, or I'd hear the absence where her inquiring merps and trills should have been. It's the emptiness I always find unnerving.
Every time a cat leaves your household, the result is a little less daily lunacy. This is too bad, because life is generally short on ridiculousness of the harmless kind, and the very act of living with a cat automatically guarantees a modicum of absurdity. They are freaky little animals.
Have you ever thought about how fundamentally weird it is to have a pet in the first place? You are sharing your living space with a whole other species on purpose. It always amazes me that I will let a deadly predator sleep on the bed like it was no big deal.
(At left: The aforementioned deadly predator, when he still outweighed the defenseless baby.)
To be fair, cats benefit from looking adorable. When Isabel opened a door, I was all, "Aww! She's exploring her territory." When I saw footage of a giant yellow boa constrictor doing the same thing, I was all," Noooooo. No no no no no no. No."
Strange though pet ownership is, I find it vital to living mindfully in the world. I don't think it hurts to be regularly reminded that we share our planet with other species, and those other species have personalities and feelings and basic biological needs like we do. Pets are a wonderful reminder that animals belong to themselves; they're not extensions of our personality or people in little furry coats. They are what they are, and it behooves us to respect the autonomy of other species.
We still miss Zito. We're still not ready for another cat -- or two. But I think we're getting there. We're now talking idly about what the next cat will be named. Phil wants two cats he can name Stu and Hendu. I think we should get another big orange lunatic and name him Zito Two, with the intention of seeing how many Zitos we have before a Zito buries us. Trix is confident our next cat will be named Pale.
It's still too soon. But the oddness of not having Zito anymore is beginning to mutate into the oddness of not having a furry little serial killer around the house. I suspect that by this time next year, we'll be adjusting to Stu and Hendu, or Zito Two, or Pale. Feel free to laugh if we're adjusting to all of them at once.
Prior to beginning this Lenten practice, I had fallen into the habit of spending an hour or two every night just staring at my screen, either trying to get to Zero Items in Feedly or spending an hour clicking on page after page in Buzzfeed and telling myself it was all mindless unwinding before bed.
I know -- there is a growing body of research that links sleep disruption to screen time at night. It's thought that the light from the monitor (or television) throws off melatonin production and that, in turn, makes it harder to get restorative sleep. Lord knows looking at Buzzfeed wasn't helping me sleep any better. It was just making my brain sort of numb.
And one night, I thought, "Holy carp, I am just a consumer here. I'm not doing anything constructive or productive with what I'm taking in. It's just ... empty."
Out of deference for the Long Winter that everyone east of the Rockies seems to have endured this year, I've avoided talking about how effing weird it was to live in northern California and have it be dry, sunny and seventy degrees through the entire month of January.
(At left: Facebook photo from a friend or illustration of the pioneers' winter hellscape? Why can't it be both?)
When the cherry blossoms exploded before February first, it was disquieting. The blooms frosted over the warm limbs of the trees and I read the Zadie Smith essay on mourning the seasonal markers that have disappeared in the swirling currants of new climates. And I wondered: What happens now?