Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Conscious Decompress

Brigid Schulte's new book, Overwhelmed, studies our culture of busy. The book also happens to be a thorough investigation of a kind of culture I know firsthand.

One that involves shuttling kids from soccer games to scout meetings. Squeezing grocery shopping in post-run Sunday, before religious obligations, making sure you have time to grab something to eat before half of the family is due to volunteer to help stock the homeless shelter pantry from 2-4.

Track practice starts at 3:45, but it's okay if the kids miss the first fifteen minutes because the homeless shelter is such a good cause and dropping the kids at track means you have twenty minutes to prep dinner, do a load of laundry run back and get them before you all sit down to the family dinner that research shows plays a crucial role in determining the future success of your offspring. 

In the subtext of the previous paragraph, something is hidden that I've suspected for a while.

Busy is a status symbol.

Ms. Schulte's book, Overwhelmed, points out that at some point, busyness became a symbol of high social status, a testament to our personal importance and something viewed as downright glamorous.

It's nice to hear someone come out and say it.

It also makes me wonder, given the research showing we're at our least effective when we feel pressed for time, that this sensation actually shrinks our prefrontal cortex, if it's not a status symbol that's headed the way of the suntan.

Remember the eighties? When golden brown skin, the darker, the better symbolized the financial ability to fund trips to sunny climes and the free time to enjoy them? That was before melanoma became epidemic and men and women alike realized the real key to youth wasn't so much La Mer as it was avoiding le soleil.

Maybe being ridiculously busy is destined to be the golden suntan of the first part of this century.

All I know is lately our weekends have a lot more free time. I'm consciously choosing not to sign my kids up for so many activities. The dinner parties I used to throw on a regular basis have dwindled in both size and frequency. And family dinner, it's easy to prepare and enjoy when I have all afternoon.

Sometimes we're a little bored, but then we discover long forgotten board games, books and crafty projects gifted to us and shoved in a closet. When given the opportunity, it's amazing how good we are at occupying our time or, you know, sometimes just napping.

Maybe the next status symbol to trend will be that of the Conscious Decompress. Look for a rise in Google status's set to 'Dawdling'.

We'll be the well-rested, unbusy few who inspire the anti-time management movement and a whole new series of non-fiction books that giving precise instructions on how to properly achieve our glamorous empty- calendar lifestyle.

Who's in?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Nirvana Phase

An alternate Nirvana :)
I'm at that Nirvana place in my current WIP.

From what I've gleaned from fellow writers, the writing process has a common arch. There's the initial beginning struggle when the world you're creating is tenuous at best.

While I've heard some people rhapsodize about that phase, for me it's the hardest part of the creative process. The place where I have to set defined word goals in order to keep my book from languishing in the land of almosts and could have beens.

The first draft is followed directly by the beastly first edit. The first time I re-read my words and take a fresh look at the people I've been living with on the page, day in and day out. The first draft is ALWAYS, without fail, cringeworthy!!

Somewhere between the first and second edit the book starts to settle in, become something real. That's my favorite writing place. It's also when the book becomes a home away from home. It's a place I can go for refuge. It doesn't matter if my Tweenpod is slamming doors or the men two tables over are talking about politics at a volume that's disturbing everyone in the coffee shop, I can jump into my creation and disappear for hours.

That's where I am right now. There's pleasure in the process. I look at my watch and realize hours have slipped away and I've been inadvertently muttering the words I'm writing out loud, in public, like a crazy lady in the corner on her laptop.

My characters might be dark. Bad things might happen in the world I created. Sad things too, but it still becomes a place I crave, a treasured addiction like chocolate or coffee.

Even though the end of this book has yet to be written, it's in sight. If I stretch out long with my mental fingers I can even feel it. This should be good news, but I have to admit it's exhilaration mixed with the bittersweet knowledge that soon (sooner than I'm ready for it to happen) it'll be time to move out of the safety of this world and into the awkward birth and creation phase of the next one.

Lucky for me I know the Nirvana phase exists and will be there waiting for me with each subsequent book.

What about you? Do you get a little sad when you're in the homestretch of your work in progress?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tweenpod, Defined

The other morning I had to Google Tribbles. When the furry little creatures popped up on my screen I realized they look a lot like a Pygmy Puff. For those of you not in the know, Pygmy Puffs are a favorite pet of house Hufflepuff as envisioned by J.K. Rowling.

It just so happens I know a LOT about Pygmy Puffs.

My daughter is a longtime fan. We have a couple Pygmy Puffs lying around the house, thankfully they don't multiply like Tribbles, but what struck me as I was mentally comparing Tribbles and Pygmy Puffs is I now  have a Tweenpod in the house.

Tweenpod, a phrase coined by my daughter circa 3rd grade, is a teenage Pygmy Puff. During that period of my parental history I was routinely referred to as Mama Pygmy Puff. Maybe, my haste to put my Mama Pygmy Puff years behind me was part of the reason it took me so long to spot my own legitimate Tweenpod Pygmy Puff.

In case you're wondering if you have one of your own, here are my top five signs and helpful hints for spotting and dealing with a Tweenpod.

1. Tweenpods are often found behind locked bedroom doors. They enjoy communicating this way. Try not to raise your voice. This will only anger your Tweenpod.

2. Tweenpods enjoy conversation with you. They want to cuddle with you and sit close to you on the couch. They want to know what you're reading and why. They also want to be left alone. They need their space and they need it NOW! Failure to correctly intuit your Tweenpods mood will result in their hibernation back behind locked doors.

3. Do not say the following words around your Tweenpod. "Breast" "Period" "SexEd" "Crush" You might think saying these words in a different context, such as 'Who'd like the chicken breast?' is fine.

You are incorrect.

Any use of the above words will cause your pink Tweenpod to turn red and your purple Tweenpod to develop an interesting shade of blue.

4. No matter how much food your purchase for your Tweenpod, you'll need more. Double all recipes. Don't be alarmed when your Tweenpod devours your leftovers. Let them. They don't bite. Not usually.

5. Tweenpods don't like scenes.

Scenes are broadly defined. Your unwelcome presence in a room is occasionally tantamount to a scene. Scenes are less broadly defined in other contexts. Slamming doors, growling or cutting remarks are not scenes when performed by your Tweenpod. They are all nonverbal methods your Tweenpod uses to communicate your lack of understanding about their world.

Even though Tweenpods are often unpredictable, they're also often sociable, intelligent, enthusiastic and responsive to logic.

The best thing about Tweenpods is every so often you get a glimpse of the full grown Pygmy Puff they'll be in just a few short years. And that, truly is a treat.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reading as Broccoli For the Mind.

How to get kids to read?

It's the subject of at least a gazillion internet articles and an ongoing topic of preference for educators, policymakers and politicians of all stripes.

Most writers love to read. I'm no exception to that generalization, so you can imagine my discomfort at discovering my children don't necessarily share my passion for the printed word.

That being said, I've come to realize my childrens' world bears almost no resemblance to the one where I grew up.

I was the only child of back-to-the-land ex-hippies living in a rural area without television. Reading wasn't a chore, it was my savior. Better yet, my parents didn't keep tabs on what I read. Stephen King in fifth grade? Sure, why not. The Blue Book of Fairies the next week? That worked too. I read indiscriminately, voraciously and without censorship.

My kids, however, live in a world filled with distractions. They have television, video games and a neighborhood filled with children. There are after-school activities, pets, texting with grandma, instruments to practice and cookies to sell.

Still, despite what seems like the constant forward motion of our lives, the occasional silence will settle upon our house and someone will fling themselves bodily upon me wailing the lament of children throughout time. "I'm sooooo bored. What should I do?"

It dawned on me lately that busy schedules might not be the only thing getting between my kids and their love of reading.

Instead of a simple pastime, something to do to relieve the, sometimes suffocating, boredom of childhood, the rhetoric which now accompanies the act of reading has transformed it into something to be measured out in doses and prescribed like a particularly untasty medicine.

The conversations I hear about reading revolve around quantity (30 minutes a night), leveled readers, award winning books and novels chosen on behalf of our children, after consultation with a trusted librarian. 

All this goes a little way towards explaining why, when we arrive at the library, my children tag-a-long after me asking questions like "Is it okay if I just read a graphic novel? Does it have to be a Newberry Award winner? Can I pick a book from the little kids' section?"

They've picked up on the societal message that reading is like working out. No pain, no gain.

My newest rules about reading are as follows:

You have to pick your own book.

The book should be interesting.

"Check out a lot, as much as you want," I tell them, "If you don't like it, don't finish it. Read what you love."

I'd like to think my new rules are having their intended effect. From Sunday evening to Friday after school, screens go off. There are still plenty of distractions, but more and more the plaintive whine of "I'm bored" is being replaced by the silence of an entire household reading, not because it's mandated, prescribed or assigned, but because it's a pleasurable way to pass the time.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Uncomfortable Nature of Art

The most recent episode of 60 Minutes caught my attention.

It was about an art forger named Wolfgang Bertracchi who paints in the style of well-known artists, not forging existing pieces, but creating new ones that the artist's might have painted if they were still alive.

The focus of the television piece was on the crime: the way it was committed, the use of materials and the backstory, but what fascinates me more than the crime is the way it calls into question our notions of art and authenticity.

Bertracchi's paintings hang in museums. They're good enough to fool art critics and collectors alike. And, most importantly, they are original works, painted in the style of the artist, but not copying another piece already in existence.

There's no question Bertracchi's talented, genius isn't a stretch for someone who can successfully paint in the style of so many varied artists and pass those pieces off as the real thing. Because they're his own creation, they ARE the real thing. But the dividing line, in my mind, between original work and forgery is that he signed other artist's names.

This makes for lots of tricky questions about the art world, specifically, and what we consider great art, in general.

The 60 Minutes pieces made me think about J.K. Rowling's recent crime fiction venture, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. According to an article in the Huffington Post, The Cuckoo's Calling sold about 1500 copies until it's true authorship was revealed. Sales then suddenly jumped 150%.

The book didn't suddenly get better.

The only thing that changed was it became a name brand.
Not so different than a painting that's branded by the name Rembrandt or Cezanne.

Of course, J.K. Rowling already had the name to push her detective novel to higher sales. She worked hard for that name, earned it and it's hers to use. Both artists created original pieces of art.
Both artists' works have been recognized as masterpieces, celebrated in museums, feted by publishing.

The crucial difference is one artist created a legitimate name for herself that is now shorthand for "Really Amazing Book" while the other artist took advantage of established names that were previously established as shorthand for "Really Amazing Painting".

This territory between Bertracchi's forgeries and Rowling's unveiling of her authorship highlights the way we are quick to use name brand artists to classify certain work as great while others slip by in virtual anonymity.

Which brings me back to the nebulous nature of art.

No matter how hard we try to define art, measure its circumference and calculate it's area with geometric precision, it's still undefinable. The same artist has the ability to create great pieces and pieces that, given a different provenance, might lurch along in the realm of middle-tier.

The subtlety of artistic expression doesn't follow a corporate model, which is troublesome for the publishers and galleries that rely upon art to pay the bills.

In the end, I believe it's the need to define and calculate artist's work that is partially responsible for Bertracchi's success. Instead of uncertainty, he sold a name brand and for an extended period of time, everyone bought it. In much the same way as Rowling's readership jumped the minute she revealed her authorship.

It makes me wonder what we would discover if art wasn't pre-selected for us by the people who run museums, publishing houses and the entertainment industry. What kind of messy, unexpected creativity is out there right now, waiting to be discovered? The kind of thing that is undefinable, yet still undeniably great art.