Friday, October 15, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Okay, the thing that stimulated this post. I have noted with interest the proliferation of readers of the Stieg Larsson books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. I first read about these books about a year ago, with rave reviews. I have seen many, many people on the subway reading this book. (When multiple subway readers have the same book, you know it's a phenomenon. See: Harry Potter, Twilight.) It's now in magazines, newspapers, was made into a foreign language film and is being made into an English-language film (possibly with Brad Pitt. One word: miscasting.)
I picked up a copy of the first book about a year ago, right before heading on a trip. I had a B&N gift card, and wanted something really good. (I used to be a huge book buyer, but space and money constraints have made me more cautious of late. No more buying books... that aren't *really good*.)
Reader, I couldn't finish it.
I am not squeamish. I grew up in a doctor's household, and gross medical tales at the dinner table were the norm. Our family now has 2 dermatologists and a periodontist, so the gross tales have multiplied. And I love them. I don't mind gory TV, pictures of open, ulcerated, weeping sores...rashes and gashes...broken bones...surgery. The only kind of surgeries I can't watch on TV are surgeries I've actually had--I saw Little Shop of Horrors shortly after having my 12-year molars removed and couldn't do the Steve Martin dentist scene (my periodontist brother now dresses up as that dentist for Halloween); I saw Minority Report shortly after one of my many Lasiks and couldn't watch the eye surgery stuff. But gore doesn't bother me. (Little g- gore. Actually, Al Gore doesn't really bother me, either.)
Here's what bothered me: unmitigated sexual violence. It turns out that the original title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. I think the original title explains it perfectly. There are lots, lots, lots of men who hate women in this book, and all of them take it out on the women in the book. Lisbeth Salander is a powerful woman...after she is raped (conventionally and anally, sorry to be graphic) and tortured by a man in power over her. Really, Reader, after reading this scene, I pictured an author completely turned on by what he was writing, writing it for no purpose than to get himself off. It's titillating, it's graphic, it's violent, it's mysoginistic. Woo hoo! Wow, how deep and graphic and horrible can I go? How badly can I shock? How can I best turn myself on?
And then Lisbeth gets back at the rapist! Woo hoo! She Tazes the tormentor and gives him a giant body tattoo, something like "I am a misogynistic rapist pig." (I don't have the book with me, so this may be slightly wrong.) Now I picture the author saying, But Lisbeth won't take it! She's raped and gets back at him and is utterly unfazed! True, she recovers for a few days in her bed alone, but then she takes control and gets the pig (and for the rest of the book doesn't suffer any emotional repercussions). But...now Lisbeth is a true woman. She's a victim.
It just doesn't sit right with me. Why do we need such graphic sexual violence? Why is it the norm in his book? Disclosure: as I haven't read the whole book, I am not *sure* how it ends. But as I do occasionally like to read the endings of books when I've only gotten midway through (a good reason not to like e-books, as far as I'm concerned), I believe it ends with the missing woman discovered. (SPOILER!) Turns out, all these years she was a sex slave in the basement of one of her relatives. Wow, I'm so turned on right now! Captive women, subjected to the worst torment and torture, physical, sexual, emotional...just keep 'em right where we want 'em! That's all they are anyway...subservient vaginas that exist only for our pleasure!
No, I haven't read the next two. A friend did. She said the second one opens up with a young girl, naked and tied to the bed, having been used, yes, as a sex slave. And it's her twelfth birthday. How can I go even farther? What's more shocking than 20 years as a sex slave? Getting in while they're young! Seeing it from the start! Yeah! Let's get into her head and really feel how subjugated and humiliated and tortured she is...so the other women can feel it too! And the men...can feel how the man feels. Powerful.
Is this feelings-postulating I'm doing a stretch? Possibly. It's possible that Mr. Stieg Larsson, RIP, was a feminist and wanted to wake the world to the horrors and dangers that, unfortunately, do exist. (See Jaycee Duggard.) But they didn't come off that way to me.
Okay, you say, it's one author, it's one series. An incredibly popular (and becoming more so all the time) series, but just one series. Why the big deal?
Well, publishing tends to follow trends, much the same way Hollywood does. (Try selling a drama--or anything that's not bawdy comedy or sci-fi or involving the word "superhero"--in Hollywood right now to a big studio. I dare you.) What's the big trend in YA lit? Vampires, of course! Vampires sell! We have sparkly vampires, vampires that go vegetarian, vampires in Victorian England, vampires that are fat...YA vampires, literary vampires...the list goes on. Vampires have sold huge for Stephenie Meyer, so every YA author and his typing dog is writing either a vampire or a supernatural novel. And they continue to sell. The NY Times gave a great review to Justin Cronin's literary vampire novel, good enough that I reserved it at the library. (I promise, if and when my space and time restraints lessen, I will purchase unused books!) The vampire trend might be peaking soon, but it's still going strong. And this "trend" trend is what worries me about the Stieg Larsson popularity. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of wannabe authors are going to read these books about Men who Hate Women and write their own. Only now Stieg has crossed the first boundary, so we need to make them more shocking! What's more shocking than a 12-year-old girl getting raped on her birthday? ... Let's see...
I'm not even going to provide examples. I'm sure there are things more shocking, more depraved. The human mind has no limits, unfortunately, where those are concerned. More people will write them, getting darker and darker, more and more evil, turning themselves on as much as others. And agents will rep them, even if they find the books abhorrent; just look at how much Stieg Larsson sold! And editors will buy them, because look at how much Stieg Larsson sold! Everyone will be looking for the next Stieg Larsson. Advances will increase, which will fuel more people to write them; look at how much money I could make! The books will get worse and worse. And then, when does society follow suit?
Obviously hypersexualization of children (and women) has been going on for a while now. Little girls who idolize Britney Spears (because her life has turned out so well), dress like Sex and the City women, whose parents buy them sweatsuits with "Juicy" emblazoned on the butt. Noah Cyrus, 9 years old, coming out with a lingerie line. (She's gotta be able to compete with sister Miley, who's turning into a bit of a ...fill in the blank. And how best to compete? Pushing boundaries!)
Not a subject change (bear with me): I did stand-up comedy (on a very amateur level) for about a year, several years ago. I enjoyed performing, working on comedy and refining my material, thinking of new things to make my wry observations on. But I hated hated HATED listening to the other comics. Some of them were funny and smart. And about 90% of them were not. They were simply not smart enough to think of regular observations that would make people laugh, so they figured they would talk abuot SEX. If I can shock them, I'll make them laugh, and that's the same thing as real comedy, right? I noticed a trend: the stupider the performer, the more crass and disgusting his or her routine. And I, for one, didn't want to sit there and absorb the stupid people's (not funny!) observations.
I actually don't get offended that easily. Sometimes I wish I got offended more easily, actually. But the stupid would-be comics offended me on a regular basis, partly because of the blue routines and partly because THEY WERE SO STUPID.
So to take this little offshoot back to my main thesis, I just don't understand why sex is the go-to topic...for comedy, for drama, for shock value. It demeans us all, but most of the time it demeans women (more than 50% of the population!) more. Women have something to give, something to say. Something important. It's coming from our heads, our hearts, our souls. It's born of experience and perception. Not sex. And this marginalization comes NOT JUST FROM MEN. Women are doing it too.
There's an article in this month's Atlantic magazine called "How Women are Taking Control - Of Everything." It's all about social order, more women going to college, more women supporting their families, women adapting to the new job landscape and becoming more malleable, to their own advantage. Why does it feel like we have control of nothing? All you have to do is watch a rap video and see four bikini'd women rubbing their behinds against one fully-clothed man (brandishing money and gold teeth) to know...things are not equal. Or at least, there are a lot of people who don't want them to be.
Do you ever wonder about the women in those videos? The ones who stick out their big round bare butts for photos that end up on magazine covers? What are they thinking? Of the paycheck? Of their allure? Are they supporting families? Or drug habits? Who knows? I wonder why there are so many women willing to put themselves into that situation. Because one video/picture/book just fuels another. It doesn't seem to get better. You hear a lot of "I'm in control of my sexuality," but the moment you put that picture into the hands of another person, you are literally giving up that control.
I'm sure there are people who disagree with me. I'm sure there are people who see no harm in pushing limits, who think any kind of art is fantastic, who don't think there's any problem with sexualizing the world. I just don't happen to be one of them. I don't want to read about subjugation, because I don't want to imagine myself as anything less than a whole person. I am grateful that people are buying books and keeping that business alive; I really am. (Some indie bookstore people are calling the trilogy The Girl Who's Paying Our Salaries for the Next Few Months.) But I am a whole person, and women of all shapes and sizes and colors and creeds are whole people, with intellect and personality and all kinds of different facets, of which our gender is only one. I have talents, likes, dislikes. And I immensely dislike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Yes, I went (deeply!) into Omniscient Third and Close Third and the pendulum and Anna Karenina again. How did I not remember even a tiny glimpse of that? Wow.
But I wanted to write that mostly because I've had a productive few days on the book and it's because I've decided where I want the pendulum to swing. It's closer to Close Third but there is a little narration involved. I don't want to explain more than that. I am a crazy overthinker and sometimes I think myself right out of whatever I'm doing. I am hopeful that I can shut down that part of my brain enough to keep going and finish a first draft. I am continually hovering around 60,000 words right now--I have been revising a great deal but I seem to delete as much as I put in--and am hoping to get to 100,000 (the final goal, at least for the first draft; taking my cue from the agents' and editors' blogs I frequent) by the end of the summer.
Ooh, I just put it out there! End of summer! Can I do it? Yikes.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
My big baking project in Utah was a “Panamanian Roulade cake,” which I made for my dad’s birthday party. It was ambitious, it was grand, it was time-consuming, it was difficult. (It was delicious.) It was a chocolate cake that had layers, but they were vertical rather than horizontal.
I started this cake around 7 pm and turned on my laptop to watch the rerun of the earlier Yankees game. (I like a good distraction while I’m baking. Yes, it has proven dangerous at times.) I ground my own almonds to substitute for pricey almond flour, which isn’t readily available in Utah anyway (and realized that pricey almond flour is nothing besides finely ground almonds, so I don’t have to buy it again!). I baked the cake itself, a big flat layer in a jelly roll pan. It was very difficult to remove from the pan, so I had my dad help and thoroughly annoyed him with my barking directions. “No! Stop stop stop! Okay, go!” I made the frosting and tasted it and it was delicious, but there wasn’t nearly enough to make the cake with. I stared at the directions, hoping for divine guidance, and got it: the directions said to chill and whip the frosting if it wasn’t “fluffy enough.” My frosting wasn’t fluffy at all, so I did that. Lo and behold, fluffy frosting at double the volume! Whoa! I spread the frosting n the layer. I cut the layer into four strips, and then rolled the strips into one big roll that got set on its side. Now, these long strips were extremely fragile and hard to work with, so I had to cut them in half and oh-so-delicately place them against the roll. My fingers and hands were a gooey mess, which I actually hate. I know, it’s unavoidable in baking. But come on, I don’t want to turn on the faucet and get frosting on it because I’ll forget to wipe it down and then the next time I turn on the faucet, with relatively clean hands (even though I’m going to wash them) I’ll get frosting on them again! And forget to wipe it down again! Do you see my problem(s) here?
So seriously, they were bad and it was driving me a little nuts. I also hate having anything under my fingernails, which are long, and dealing with a fragile cake layer and frosting, you have to put the utensils aside and dig in, and you’re guaranteed to get all kinds of crap under your fingernails. I dealt, but it was gross.
Okay, cake rolled. Picture looking down from above at the plate and seeing what amounts to a spiral of cake, held together by frosting. This is what made the vertical layers. It was supremely fragile; the now-fluffy frosting was loaded with room-temperature butter, which we all know (or the dairy-tolerant among us, anyway) is not structurally sturdy. So I gently frosted the rest of the cake with the frosting, and then swirled the top into a lovely pattern. I filled in the dents with more frosting. Usually my cakes are delicious but ugly, but I actually made this one look nice. It was so fragile, but I knew once the butter frosting got into the fridge it would firm up and we would be fine.
So I picked up the plate and walked to the fridge. My parents have a new fridge these days, the two-door kind. But both doors are for the fridge itself; the freezer is the bottom drawer. So I was holding the plate and fragile cake in my left hand, opening both doors with my right. The fridge was packed. I don’t know if it is normally, but whenever I’m home we load up with fruit and restaurant leftovers, and there was an abundance of both. “Hmm,” I muttered, shifting things around. I didn’t want to grip onto the cake plate too hard, because that would smush it against me and get frosting all over my shirt (because who wants to wear an apron at one in the morning?), so I was navigating that angle. Strawberries go….over here. Styrofoam square containers…go over here, one, then the other. All right, the cantaloupe gets transferred over there, and then I’ll move the milk, and then we’ll have a space for the plate and my very fragile cake.
But oh, the errant cantaloupe.
I picked up the cantaloupe with my right hand. It was not whole, having been sliced into the day before, and so it was slippery, but I dug in there (aware of the frosting lingering under my fingernails and regretting the transfer of said frosting into cantaloupe flesh, but there you go) and got hold and put it on a higher shelf. As I was moving the milk, the cantaloupe decided it didn’t like its new spot and tumbled out…onto the cake, smashing the cake into the plate and bottom of the fridge in a big collapsed heap of frosting.
It was one o’clock in the morning. The televised Yankees game had gone nine innings and was over. I was tired and my back ached from standing. I was alone with a mound of chocolate that had to be cleaned up. And the cake…there was no denying it, the cake was ruined.
Reader, I cried.
I had never cried over a dessert before. I’ve made plenty, I’ve nearly ruined some, but I’ve always managed to save them. And this…I just had no idea what to do with this. So I stood over the sink and put my head in my hands and cried.
Now, there was a little more going on than just the cake. I was in Utah because my grandpa isn’t doing very well, health-wise, and he had taken a turn for the worse the week before. I was spending afternoons at my grandparents’ house and there was/is a very real thought that it might be the last time I see him; and if it’s not, he’s not going to be doing any better the next time. I know that end of life is hard for everybody, and I know that if someone passes away at the age of 89, it’s really not a tragedy, especially when that person has lived a full and successful life. But it’s still hard for those left behind, no two ways about it. And seeing this brilliant, strong man operating at about 25% is humbling and disturbing and profoundly sad, and I was shaken anyway. I hadn’t cried about that the entire time I had been visiting, until the cake.
I cleaned up the pound of frosting that was now nestled into the crevices of the fridge with a wet cloth, making repeat visits to the sink to wash it off and return and listening to the “smart” fridge beep at me to let me know it was open. (Thanks! Yes, I’ve got it now! Yep, you’re open! I know! Okay, thanks… okay… stop it STOP IT STOP IT NOW I‘M GOING INSANE SHUT UP STUPID FRIDGE JUST SHUT UP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHUT UP). It took me some time, but I got the frosting cleaned off all white areas of the kitchen. I washed off the troublesome cantaloupe, and then I had to tend to the plate.
What to do with a completely smashed cake?
I ended up scooping it into a springform pan. I knew it was still going to be delicious (and it was) but I was still freaking out. I put the springform pan into the fridge, planning to cover it with whipping cream the next day. (Sorry, lactose-intolerant family members! But there are pills for it.) And I went to bed.
I awoke the next day with a purpose. I was going to make that damn cake again. Springform pan-molded cake was not good enough for my dad’s birthday party; I wanted vertical layers! So at one o’clock (in the afternoon, this time) I started again. And what do you know, it was a lot easier the second time around. Took a lot less time.
So we ended up with two cakes. Sadly, the frosting and the cake were much the same color, so you could barely even make out the blessed vertical layers. And we had two cakes and didn’t even finish one.
But in the battle of Kathy vs the Cantaloupe, Kathy won. This time.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
So I'm going to follow up a little on what I wrote last week. After finishing the spectacular book, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I was on a high. And I was terribly excited because I had brought three, count 'em, three other books with me on my break that was not a vacation and even though I was not on vacation I did get to read. And two of the books were very small and by noted author Ian McEwen and I was psyched. Psyched, I tell you, dear Reader.
Reader, I was disappointed. Oh, so disappointed. The first one, The Comfort of Strangers, had these great blurbs on the back. I quote: From The NY Times Book Review, "Convincing and clinging as a nightmare...[McEwan is] an alluringly gifted writer." From the Chicago Tribune, "An exquisite miniature gothic." This sounded good.
Plot: Mary and Colin are on vacation. They've grown tired of each other. They go out wandering (they may be in Venice, but McEwan never says) and meet a man named Robert, who takes them to his house. He's creepy, as is his wife, Caroline--so creepy that (a) colin and Mary wake up naked, and Caroline says, 'oh, I'm just washing your clothes, and no, you can't have them back until I say' and (b) they realize Robert has a FRAMED PHOTO OF COLIN on the balcony of the hotel and (c) at one point, unprovoked, Robert PUNCHES COLIN IN THE STOMACH and levels him. Colin and Mary leave, have a lot of sex at their hotel, go swimming, and then GO BACK TO ROBERT'S HOUSE where Caroline drugs Mary and Robert kills Colin. The end.
Okay, now really: you didn't see that coming, Colin and Mary? Really?
Here's my beef. Well, there are many. Here's my first: The NY Times Book Review called it CONVINCING. Really? On what planet does someone return to that house? What, did Colin leave his wallet? Some lifesaving medication? No. Even then, if he had, wouldn't he say, "I'll cancel the credit cards and figure out the ID later" or "I'll phone my doctor and get a new prescription"--either way, "No way am I going back there" ??? Please. Second, people, this is Ian McEwen! The writing was fluid and smooth, and maybe I'd even go with the back jacket copy that calls it "masterly precision," but...this is the man who wrote Atonement! Yikes. Did not like the plot, did not believe the plot, did not feel anything in this story was "inevitable" or a tale of "erotic menace"...hmph. Having just finished The Book Thief, when I finished The Comfort of Strangers I threw it on the floor. Bleah.
and then I went to another Ian McEwan book, Enduring Love. Plot (with spoilers, yes): a man named Joe and his wife Clarissa are on a picnic and see a child about to be carried away in a hot air balloon, so he runs to save the kid. He arrives at the same time as several others and they all jump onto the basket, but a gust of wind takes it up and everybody drops off safely to the ground to save himself--all except one man, who holds on way past the time of safety and then falls to his death. Joe rushes to the body and arrives at the same time as Jed Parry, who instantly and insanely falls in love with him. Jed begins harassing Joe with letters and phone calls. Joe erases the messages and the handwriting looks like his, so no one believes him. His wife Clarissa instantly decides he's nuts and she is going to take some time away from him. They go to a restaurant and an anonymous man walks to another table and shoots a second anonymous man; Jed rushes to Assassin Anonymous Man and knocks the gun from his hand and runs away. Joe knows the assassin was meant to shoot him. Police and Clarissa don't believe him. Joe buys a gun (apparently a terribly illicit thing in refined England) and on his way back Clarissa phones and says Jed is holding her hostage. He returns to his flat and shoots Jed with his new gun. Jed is institutionalized and Clarisas leaves Joe. The end.
Again, this damn thing just doesn't make sense. Why is Clarissa so eager not to believe her husband? This is never explored. Nor is it explained why the police just don't care. At a certain point I really wanted this all to be in Joe's head; I wanted the unreliable narrator and a surprise at the end where we find out that he really does protest too much. I was excited that this might happen, especially since Publisher's Weekly called this story "Stunning..." and said it is "Graced with intelligent speculation and dramatic momentum." Sigh.
Now, please know that I am not saying I am superior or I write better stories or there's so much crap out there and I would do x, y, and z somuchbetterandwhyamInotpublished and blah blah blah. I'm not putting myself into a comparison at all. So what am I saying?
Am I saying that sometimes certain authors might get more favorable reviews based on their past work?
Am I saying that writers might become complacent based on their past work and not look too closely at their stories?
Am I saying that even masterful writers (and I do agree that I. McE is) need a writer's group?
I don't know. But I know that I read one tremendous book and followed it with two books for which I had high, high expectations...and I was disappointed. Sigh.
Monday, April 12, 2010
I am on vacation this week, officially. I am in Utah to help out the fam with various crises (I’m only being semi-blasé right now) but the crises don’t seem to be at any peak right now, so I have time to do other things. I am trying to download iTunes on my parents’ ancient laptop upstairs. I had downloaded version 8 about 15 months ago, but my mom bought herself a nano (planning on my setting it up for her—this blind faith may or may not be rewarded) and this new nano doesn’t work on 8, and requires 9. So I downloaded 9 (which took 45 minutes on previously mentioned Ancient Laptop) and then I had to hit “Install” which took another 45 minutes and didn’t work, so I hit Install again and that’s where we stand with that. Whew.
So the real purpose of today’s entry is to tell you to run, don’t walk, either to your local bookstore or library to read The Book Thief, a 2005 YA novel by Markus Zusak. I checked it out from the library last Thursday and finished it (500-plus pages) on Saturday. I could not put it down. It’s a fairly easy read, being YA, but the speed with which I got through it was more because of the author’s skill in drawing me in. I could not put it down. When I did put it down I was disappointed and found myself thinking about it and wanting to pick it up again. I spent all Thursday after work on the couch, reading it, and telling myself that I am actually doing work when I’m reading, because after all I’m a writer and you’ve got to research others’ styles/see what’s out there/fill your creative well, right?
And it was educational. The Book Thief has an omniscient narrator, which is something I’ve been struggling with. I am about halfway through a draft of a new novel, but I’m struggling. I have stopped the forward momentum in order to revise what I have, and one thing that I’m having a hard time figuring out is the voice. For a while I tried to write it in Close Third, because we have 5 different characters whose perspectives will be given. So when I write a passage with the 10-year-old girl, it should sound a lot different than the passages of the grizzled veteran detective who has seen it all, even though they’re not first-person narratives. The passages of the 10-year-old girl are more energetic, generally happy, because the narrator is kind of “sitting on her shoulder” and seeing what she sees. But I don’t want it to be exclusively Close Third. When you’re doing true Close Third, the voice always has to be that character’s voice; you can’t state anything the character wouldn’t know herself, which is really limiting. I decided for a while that I would write in Omniscient Third, and in a fit of learning frenzy I got Anna Karenina, a well-known Omnisicent Third book, to see how they handled it. As I suspected, the different passages tell us what everyone is thinking; there’s one voice throughout (the anonymous narrator). So I tried that, and it didn’t work; it came across as “head hopping,” which is annoying. In another learning frenzy, I ordered a bunch of How To Write books. They are surprisingly helpful. (They are also helpful for making yourself feel like you’re procrastinating when you’re really working—the best of both worlds!) One of the books (whose title escapes me and I can’t look it up, because I didn’t bring it with me) talked about the range of voices and suggested that you don’t have to fall heavily into one category. There’s Omnisicent, and First-Person (“I did this, I did that”) and Third Person (“She did this, she did that”) and Close Third Person (“She did this, she did that, darn it all to heck!” – a shout-out to my Utah peeps)…but there are also shades of gray, if you will. The authors of this book described it as a pendulum that swings between things. You can do Close Third Person and insert the occasional “Darn it all to heck” if that’s what your character would be thinking, but you don’t have to stay 100% there. You can swing out of it occasionally, back and forth; the key is consistency. If you’re going to swing back and forth, don’t just do it once; it has to happen with enough regularity that the reader won’t say, “Where did that come from?” Or so I have concluded.
So this is part of the reason that The Book Thief is so interesting to me: the writer has chosen Death as the narrator. The book is set in Germany in World War II, so Death was hovering over everyone, and saw everything. It’s only logical that Death would know what people were thinking, know their hearts, know what’s good and bad about them. (I have a short story with a different-and-yet-slightly-similar conceit, so this was even more interesting to me...and I'm thinking of making it into a book, so I may read this again just for "research.") Death is telling the story of a young girl named Liesel who is given up into foster care when she’s 10. Her younger brother dies on the trip to the foster family's town, and from then on she has nightmares. Her foster father, Hans, comforts her every night when she wakes up screaming from them, and when he realizes she’s almost illiterate, he teaches her to read. When they buried her brother, Liesel saw a book on the ground, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and impulsively stole it, and that’s what Hans uses to teach her.
This is just the beginning…the book takes twists and turns and gets incredibly deep. I finished it on the plane, glad to be sitting in a window seat so I could turn away from prying faces as I literally cried at the end. I will occasionally tear up at the end of some books, but only very, very rarely do I break down. At the end of this book, I just wept. It was amazing. It was a great lesson in Omniscient storytelling and it was touching beyond belief. If you haven’t read this book—whether you want to learn or just read a good book—please, please, please read it. You won’t regret it.
Monday, March 29, 2010
I’ve come across a couple of problems with this cookbook. Sometimes, um, it’s not edited so well. Pictures are there that are only tangentially related to the recipes. (I mentioned the multicolored/flavored maracons whose recipes aren’t provided.) Equipment gets put in the Ingredients column. Or ingredients…get left out.
I looked at some of the reviews people have left on Amazon. Someone mentioned, in her review, that in a recipe for a genoise cake, they omitted the flour entirely. I checked in the recipe. Yes, sure enough, there’s no flour mentioned in the ingredients column. Bizarre. Over on the next page, there’s a section at the end of the recipe that says, for a 6” cake, use x grams of flour; for a 9” cake, use y grams, etc. But…I don’t know, shouldn’t that be, maybe, AT THE TOP OF THE RECIPE? Or, if not at top, shouldn’t there be a directive that says, “Flour…for exact amount, see page z”? Hmm.
I ran into a similar problem with the lemon cake. It was a cake in a similar vein to a genoise, wherein you beat egg whites separately (not to stiff peaks, happily, given my last experience with that) and then fold the rest of the ingredients into that. It makes for a light and fluffy cake. I was excited. I did everything they said to do, until it said, “Fold dry ingredients—flour, sugar, baking soda—into the egg white mixture.” Um, problem: in the ingredients list, it mentions sugar only once, and then it says that this sugar is to be beaten into the egg whites. So I stared. Do I divide up the sugar? Do I add more? The body of the recipe says to add sugar twice, but it’s only listed once. What to do? I don’t want to risk a sickeningly sweet cake (one other problem with the macarons that I made was they were way too sweet)…hmm.
I ended up only putting in as much sugar as the ingredients list called for. I beat most of it in with the whites and some of it in with the dry ingredients. And then I baked the cake. And it was drab.
Now, the texture was amazing. It was fluffy as a cloud. I couldn’t have asked for a better texture. But a good texture doesn’t make a great cake, obvs. I made a lemon glaze whose recipe I stole from my roommate, and forked the cake and drizzled it over. Then the part of the cake that was glazed was very tasty. And the rest was a fluffy, boring cloud. I was eating a piece and I said, “You know, this would be a great base for something. Like berries and cream.” The roommate agreed. If I had had berries and cream in the house I would’ve gotten them out immediately. But I didn’t, and I never bothered to go buy them. Instead I brought the cake to work on Monday, where “drab” isn’t a big problem; the issue is “free food” and everyone is happy to eat free food, particularly when it’s homemade. I’ve sloughed off some pretty crappy dishes here. Ssssh.
Item number two: the pear tart. This recipe also did not say to use half a recipe of the pate sucree, but since I had half left over from the apple tart I only used half and it was perfect (and, dare I say it?, probably what was intended).
There was an almond filling that was easy to make: almond flour (again the pricey almond flour! Good thing I have that specialty baking shop), sugar, butter, an egg. Maybe something else, I can’t remember. But I mixed that up and then spread it in the crust. Easy.
I poached the pears in a mixture of white wine ($8.50 for the cheapest bottle! It’s a good thing I don’t drink. I can’t afford it.) and apple juice (to make up for the missing bottle of white wine; the recipe called for 2, but a quart of apple juice is only $4) with sugar, vanilla beans, and lemon juice. Boil that together then put in peeled pears and boil them for half an hour. Slice in half, scoop out the seeds and the fibrous center, and you have poached pears.
I then sliced up the pears into tiny crosswise slices and spread them out over the filling, and covered the exposed almond filling with sliced almonds and baked. In baking I experienced my first injury related to this project, as I let my finger touch the hot oven rack, darn it. And then—thanks, reflexes!—I dropped my picture-perfect raw tart on its side and ALMOST over on its top. Had it gone onto the top I would have cried, but as it was I merely let fly a couple of bad words; I just lost the extra almonds, which were easily cleaned up and replaced with fresh ones.
And the tart was wonderful. How could it not be? I got to eat half of one of the poached pears (there was only space for five of the halves) and by itself it was amazing. A poached pear; who would’ve thought? My friends, the ones with whom I’m sharing the excess bounty (I really want not to gain weight with this whole experiment, no matter how much fun I’m having), loved it. One of them said, “This is the best yet.” And I think I agree with him.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
So I did the brioche first. Brioche are usually baked as individual rolls, in this cute little scalloped muffin-sized cup. I chose not to buy the cute little muffin-sized cups because I’m already spending plenty on ingredients (and a kitchen scale, lest we forget) and there was a variation in the book where you could just roll them and put them in a loaf pan and bake that way. The dough itself was incredibly stiff and difficult to work with, and I was honestly worried about my Kitchen-Aid there for a while. It couldn’t mix the dough completely; it kept bumping up and down and making straining noises. I didn’t lock it, because I wanted it to be able to bump if it needed to bump, but it was still unnerving. My roommate came in and, knowing my concern for my kitchen items, kept saying, “Kathy? Kathy?” I didn’t answer—not because I was concentrating so hard on the brioche dough, but because I didn’t know how to answer. She told me I ought to stop and not break my Kitchen-Aid, but I soldiered on. And it didn’t break the Kitchen-Aid, thank heaven (I truly would have been heartbroken). And the brioche was goooooooood.
So it wasn’t complicated, it was just worrisome. I let the dough “proof” in the fridge for four hours, then rolled it into the rolls and let it rise for an hour, and then baked. I burned myself a couple of times getting the rolls out, because I was hungry and impatient and I am a big bread fan. I pulled apart the rolls and stuffed one in my mouth and I just can’t tell you how good it was. Transcendent, really…light and fluffy and buttery and had a wonderful melt-in-your-mouth crust…mmmm. I baked half of the recipe into one loaf, and I was glad because after they cooled down they were still nice, but really just dinner rolls. I rolled them out two or three at a time for the rest of the week to eat them hot. It worked for three days, and then the last day they were heavy and didn’t rise. Sigh. Good eating takes work.
I also did an apple tart, which was delish as well. And it made for a terrific breakfast the next day. I made the pate sucree dough, a whole recipe, just like the tart recipe said to do. It also said to use the whole recipe. The pate sucree recipe itself said it made enough for two 9-inch crusts, but one would think that the apple tart would say, “use half a recipe for pate sucree” rather than “make a recipe for pate sucree.” Ah well. I rolled out the whole recipe and tried to put it in the 9” tart pan and realized the whole recipe would take up the entire pan. Fortunately the pate sucree recipe did say that it freezes well for up to a week, so I cut it in half and stuck half in the freezer.
The apple tart itself was amazing. Very simple: an apple compote with diced apples on bottom, sliced apples on top. The apple compote had apples, water, sugar and vanilla bean and I just boiled them until the apples were soft; then sliced several apples into thin slices and decorated the top. Baked it, then brushed it with apricot jam. Easy. And wonderful.
The bigger concern this week was that my foot started giving me problems. I am assuming it was plantar fasciitis, which is an irritation of the bottom of the foot that makes standing and running painful. This is a problem because I am now consuming huge quantities of fatty desserts. If consuming huge quantities of fatty desserts, one must be able to exercise if one wants to continue to fit into one’s pants. And I do. So I bought an ankle brace that was a semi-torturous device that inflicted more pain, but it did calm the heel enough that I could do yoga on Friday and go running both Saturday and Sunday, when it was gorgeous outside. I hope the pain stays away so I can keep exercising and therefore eating huge quantities of fatty desserts. Because, oh yes, there’s more to come.
Monday, March 15, 2010
My apologies, faithful readers, for missing last week. I wasn’t up to the task, the challenge, the desafío. I wasn’t up to the blog.
My reason has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the kitchen. Strange, yes? Well, maybe not so much. I’m a pretty decent cook, and people have, at various times, given me the very impractical suggestions that I should be a caterer or a chef or open a bakery. [When my life and career were in a particularly noxious stall, my dad once suggested that he would buy a Krispy Kremes franchise in Utah (it would have been the first, back then) and I could run it. I never was able to say an outright “no,” because I felt I would be crushing his dreams, but…how shall I say it?... there was no way in bloody hell I was going to be running anybody’s Krispy Kreme store. I stonewalled and the idea went away (not that he ever pursued it) and for a while, I believe, he silently blamed me for not helping him bring his dream to fruition. Later he found out that in order to buy a franchise, according to official Krispy Kreme rules, you must *already* own and operate a food joint (negative) and demonstrate a net worth of two million dollars (double negative).] These suggestions are impractical for several reasons:
1) While I love baking and cooking, I love writing more.
2) Baking and cooking are an ANTIDOTE to writing. You have an immediate finished product, and people want it!
3) when you make a hobby into a wanna-be career, it’s really easy to leach the joy out of it. And
4) It is HARD WORK, y’all. Have you ever stood in a kitchen for several hours to make one big meal? Are you exhausted by the end of it? Imagine doing that all day, all night, all the next day too…all week…every day…this has got to be a hard-core passion, something where you don’t even notice your aching feet or the passing hours or the sweat running down your chin. Though maybe you should notice that last one, lest it drip in the food.
So. Last weekend I started a little cooking project, which I did continue this past weekend. I got a cookbook, the French Culinary Institute’s new gigantic manual to the pastry arts. !!! Holy cow. It’s immense, it’s got full-color pictures, it’s got how-to sections on everything from the definitions of autolyze and proofing and the difference between pâte sucrée and pâte brisée (and I now know them!) to kitchen first aid. Must say, I’m grateful for two years of college French.
So I wanted to test out my book. It seems to have everything from super-easy to super-hard (and when I say super-hard, I mean, this is going to take seven or eight hours and a lot of precision) recipes.
Now, first things first. The recipes are measured in ounces and grams. I looked at this and said, “Huh? Now what?” Well, now we get a digital kitchen scale. ($40). And it calls for ingredients like almond flour ($5 for 4 ounces) and pastry cream powder ($6 for about ¾ cup) and uses equipment like brioche cups and cake molds. Yikes. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
So last week’s first experiment was ginger snap cookies. I have a Williams Sonoma set of 11 glass bowls, the smallest being only a couple of tablespoons. I got it for Christmas about 10 years ago, and miraculously, all 11 bowls survive. And suddenly they’ve discovered their purpose! Each recipe begins, “Prepare your mise en place,” which means, “measure your ingredients because you can’t just scoop the flour out of the canister in the measuring cup.” So you get a one-cup-size bowl, weigh it, tare it, and pour the sugar (say 250 grams?) into it. Then the two-tablespoon bowl for the one egg yolk. Then the second-largest bowl for the three-plus (again, measured in grams) cups of flour. (It was a big recipe.) Etc. I also discovered that these recipes are incredibly precise (“Bake for 7 minutes” rather than “Bake 7-10 minutes” like the rest of my recipes say) and my oven is not. I preheated to 350. Who knows if it was actually 350? The thing is avocado-colored, meaning, old. I do know the 7 minutes didn’t cook my gingersnaps.
After the baking time was figured out, we sampled. These gingersnaps were divine. Soft, chewy, spicy…mmm. I miss them, now that they’re gone.
And then I attempted macarons. I’ve had macarons in Paris, and they’re amazing…a crisp meringue sandwich and thick frosting-like center. I tried to do chocolate. It didn’t work.
First I underbeat the egg whites. I know better. I know that when it says to beat them to stiff peaks, you have to beat them almost to a solid mass. But I didn’t; I figured, when I pulled out the beater the peak held its shape and that was good enough. Then I folded in the almond flour and the cocoa and put it into a piping bag, and realized right there it wasn’t going to work. I piped it into little circles and baked it anyway. Sigh. They wouldn’t come off the parchment paper. I pulled and scooped with my spatula, and they just tore or crumpled into tiny, sticky masses. I pulled the parchment paper off the cookie sheets and tossed the whole thing into the garbage.
But memories of Paris macarons haunted me. I really wanted to make some of my own. They didn’t sound that hard, and the pictures in the book looked exactly like the ones I love! All day I thought about this. I had another container of almond flour. I had more sugar and cocoa…I could do it.
This time I beat those whites, man, I beat them past peaks and basically into Styrofoam. And then I gently folded in the cocoa and flour…and watched it go poof, deflate. It was the exact same consistency as it had been before. Dammit! I kept going. This time I baked them longer than the 7 minute prescribed by the cookbook (just guessing that the temperature was nowhere near 350, or actually 177 C, as the cookbook said). And this time they came off the parchment paper, as long as I let them rest a minute or two out of the oven. So I had these little meringue cookies….that looked NOTHING like the macarons of Paris. Where real ones are smooth and dark, mine were pale and cracked. Double dammit. And the filling didn’t taste anything like the Parisian filling…and there were pictures of every conceivable flavor of macaron and NO OTHER RECIPES besides the chocolate and a vanilla one with a jam center. Triple, quadruple dammit!
So the macarons were a disappointment. (some of my friends liked them, but I still huffed for the rest of the day.) But the gingersnaps…oh my. I would happily eat some more of those right now. For dinner, a snack and breakfast tomorrow.
More on this experiment as it continues to unfold.
Monday, March 1, 2010
I've had three four-day weeks in a row, and I'm now officially spoiled. I have long been a proponent of four-day weeks, and now it's official. All jobs should change so that the workweek is Monday through Thursday. And no, not ten-hour days. Just regular 9-5 days, and then Friday you do your errands, Saturday you do some work and Sunday you can actually relax. Just my two cents. I wish I were governor.
This particular three-day weekend was unexpected, brought on by the Snowmageddon that actually did (kind of) materialize. I'm sure I could have gotten to work if I'd had to, given that subways are UNDERGROUND and were running, but the office announced they were closed and I was not going to question that. I wish the Mayor had announced it the night before, so I wouldn't have had to set my alarm. But I went right back to bed. And it was nice to watch the snow swirl outside my window. I enjoyed the day very much.
And I was productive, which is better. I finished two projects, two! One is a screenplay I started long, long ago--before the Madame Curie project--and hadn't been able to get to until now. Friday I got it out and started outlining the end, and Saturday I wrote it. About 40 pages -- not too shabby. And then I finished another project, one I had thought up about three weeks ago. When I work that quickly, and it actually comes and it's actually decent, I deem it Meant to Be. What exactly it is Meant to Be is still to-be-determined, but...I still feel pretty good.
And Spring Training season is now upon us. This past year was the first that I really, really got into baseball, and it was surprising how long the offseason felt. I yearn to buy season tickets this year. We will see.
Not much for a post today. I detailed all my awful day jobs already. I'll have to think of a new theme. Until next week....
Monday, February 22, 2010
All right, even though I’ve had many more day jobs than three, I’ve been spotlighting only those that deserved a spotlight. And by “deserved a spotlight,” I mean, “scarred me so badly that even now, all these years later, I feel a need to vent.” I also had some good jobs and good bosses; I’ve mentioned those before. But those make for boring blogs.
So, the worst of all my day jobs gets highlighted today.
It was short-lived. I only went out twice for this particular day job. It was during my time at NYU. I needed some income that I wouldn’t have to pay back; I was living off my loans. I had classes during the day and needed something flexible, at night, and hopefully something that wouldn’t keep me sitting any more than I already was, with classes and the writing. I decided to think out of the box, be creative, try something new and unusual and fun.
I went into catering.
I’m not sure what I thought this job would be; but it really did sound fun. I didn’t think of the practical side: carrying plates, glasses, serving people, cleaning up. I don’t know, I guess I just thought of parties and food.
I signed up with a temp agency that staffed catered affairs. They gave me instructions: call in when you’re available for work, it’ll be evening positions, and you have to buy a tuxedo.
Seriously. A tuxedo.
I went to the uniforms place to pick up my tuxedo. It was the kind of place that has an outfit for every occasion; great for Halloween. They had bellboy outfits, maid uniforms (none sexy, though), doorman uniforms. Tuxedos. For men and women.
It wasn’t expensive: the pants, jacket, bowtie (bowtie! I had to wear a bowtie! In anything other than a real tuxedo, worn for a formal occasion, they can be pulled off only by the most extraordinary man; women should not be subjected to them! A bowtie!!), and two shirts—one with fancy black buttons, one with regular white ones—cost about $60. I was promised I would pay for the tuxedo with one gig. I tried this thing on, looked in the mirror, and flushed red. I looked stupid. Oh, so stupid. I had fairly short hair at the time—not man-short, but collar-length—and somehow the whole combination just did not work. I looked so stupid. Have I mentioned, I looked stupid? And yet I thought this job might be fun, might be some good extra money, so I bought the tuxedo and took it home in a blue plastic bag, still feeling a faint tinge of embarrassment.
My first gig was at a Lehman Brothers (RIP) Christmas party. It was a gigantic open dining area that overlooked the Hudson, quite a nice space. We were instructed to wear the tux pants and shirt, but no jacket. Mercifully, at the venue, they gave us blue smocks to put over the dumb tux. I was relieved. I wore silver hoop earrings, which somehow made the ensemble a little nicer, and was told I had to remove them. “Earrings can’t extend below the earlobe.” Okay.
We were told not to speak to anyone unless spoken to. We were not to speak to each other, even if we were standing next to each other. Even if we were manning the same station, serving roast beef and chicken. Even if we were bussing the same tables. Unless we were speaking about portion sizes or cleanup, we were not to speak to each other. “You will be sent home immediately and not paid for your time,” they said. Somehow the image of two lowly catering personnel CHATTING ABOUT SOMETHING was so awful to them, so unprofessional—speaking about something other than food, while serving people!!—it was a firable offense. Okay. (Now, I do shop at Fairway, where the checkers are so busy chatting to each other in Spanish that they can’t even bother to tell the customer how much the total is. It is annoying to be ignored by someone who’s supposed to be attending to you because s/he is too busy having a personal conversation. But still: “We’ll fire you if we see you talking”? Really?)
My first station was standing as a greeter, holding a tray of glasses of white wine, with an inviting and welcoming smile. “Welcome to the party. White wine?” That was my line. So I stationed myself accordingly, held out the tray, and quickly realized THIS BLOODY TRAY IS INCREDIBLY HEAVY. And a moment later, IF I HAVE TO HOLD IT FOR MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES I’M GOING TO DROP IT. A moment after that, I HAVE MATCHSTICK ARMS AND OH MY GOODNESS THIS TRAY IS HEAVY. So bankers drifted in, happy to have gotten off work early, and I smiled pleasantly and said, “Care for some white wine?” or “Would you like a glass of white wine?” “Welcome to the party. White wine?”
People either acknowledged me or didn’t, and most of them walked past… without …taking … a glass of white wine. My pleasant smile grew strained and I shifted to try to balance it on my hip. It didn’t work, and I went back to holding it out in front of me. “White wine?” I said. JUST TAKE A GLASS OF THIS BLOODY WINE BECAUSE OMG IT’S HEAVY! “Welcome to the party. Care for a glass of white wine?” THROW IT OUT, DUMP IT IN THE PLANT, I DON’T CARE, JUST TAKE IT FROM ME! “Hello, happy holidays! Would you like a glass of white wine?” FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE TAKE A F***ING GLASS OF WHITE WINE.
At last my tray was empty. I deposited it in the kitchen and went to my cleanup station. For a long time, as people got their food and ate, I just stood there. Fellow catering temps were friendly; they smiled and tried to chat. Remembering the firing threat, as soon as they asked what I did, why I had to have a day job, I smiled and fled.
After an hour of standing around, we had to start cleaning up. I was in the least crowded area, thankfully, and I took people’s glasses and plates right to the kitchen. I didn’t have to fight people to get through. More and more people finished dinner and then went to the dance floor (not in my station!) to shake it loose. Picture drunk bankers shaking it, I dare you. (and the poor saps stationed in that area, loading up trays full of very breakable glassware and trying to navigate through them to the kitchen.) I dutifully cleaned their glasses and plates and silverware, and then began cleaning up the tables with the food, skirting the friendly conversation of fellow catering temps.
This is all exhausting. You wouldn’t think it would be; you would think, hey, you’re just taking plates and glasses and silverware across the hall to the kitchen. But you would be wrong. All the standing, all the walking back and forth, all the transporting; within an hour, I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to, of course, because we got paid by the hour, but physically I was ready. I knew it for sure when I spilled a glass of beer. It was half full, and the banker said he didn’t want any more, so I had picked it up and set it on the tray, and then when I picked up the tray I didn’t do it fast or decisively enough, and my matchstick arms, already fatigued from holding a tray of white wine, tipped the tray forward. I dumped the beer. Into the banker’s lap.
Profuse apologies all around, of course. And he was drunk, so he didn’t seem to care. I escaped to the bathroom for a little while to shake. I knew, had someone dumped half a glass of beer into my lap, I’d be pretty darn pissed. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d yelled at me, but he hadn’t. But I was shaken. And very tired. And the evening was about half done.
Everyone finished shaking their booty things and drifted off into the night. I felt that emotional easing as the room emptied out, feeling (against logic) that it was time for me to go home, too. But no, it was time to clean up! I dropped two more glasses in the next hour. None into anyone’s lap, but both shattered.
I started to think maybe I wasn’t cut out for this catering thing.
I had paid for my tuxedo (and did I mention how utterly horrible and stupid I looked, wearing the tuxedo?) with my night’s job. But I needed at least one more. And oh, what a doozy that was.
I got a call to be at the Park Avenue Armory at seven p.m. This is quite late for a regular catering gig; usually you’re supposed to come in at three, because they’re, you know, dinner. But this one was special. We were told to wear our full tux outfits. I put mine on and stared at myself in the full-length mirror, wincing. Can I say it again? I LOOKED STUPID.
We arrived at seven and waited around until eight (this is where I learned that you ought to bring a book to catering gigs; several people had them). I was informed that I would be on coat check duty, and there were hundreds (I mean, hundreds) of coat hangers set up on racks. Hmm.
I began wandering around the place, waiting for the shift to begin. It was fascinating. The Park Avenue Armory is a big, empty floor that you can make into whatever you want to make it into. There was a lagoon set up in a corner, with a real waterfall and pool and tropical plants. Another one in the other corner. There was the food setup area. There were tables set up, though not many. And … there was a bar.
Plastered to the wall behind the bar there were at least a hundred Playboy centerfolds. In their full glory.
I stared at this backdrop dispassionately for some time, pretty much reaffirming my heterosexual status. But I found it very, uh, interesting that it was up in the first place.
“What is this party?” I finally asked.
“It’s the Playboy anniversary party,” they said.
People began arriving. Young women, mostly, all pretty nondescript. They took off their coats and gave them to us, and we handed them their little tag for eventual retrieval. We were right in front of the door, and it was December and pretty soon my toes were freezing. The young women went downstairs, and emerged half an hour later. Dressed exactly alike. Dressed like Playboy models.
Now, they didn’t’ have the regular bunny outfit on. No, I guess this was passé by that time. They wore:
A black shoulder-length wig with blunt bangs;
A black strapless shelf bra
Black tight boy shorts
Black fishnet stockings;
Black knee-length boots
Lots of pink makeup, too.
Wow. It was pretty impressive. I glanced down at my (STUPID, AWFUL, UGLY) tux and was nevertheless glad I was wearing it rather than what the waitresses were wearing.
Guests began arriving. I wondered who they were, exactly; who gets invitations to the Playboy birthday party? I couldn’t tell by looking at them. They were businessmen, women; young and old. Maybe more horny young men, though.
And I spent my night behind the counter at the coat check, greeting people in a stupid tux, taking their coats and exchanging them for a little tag. I watched Pamela Anderson come in (who could be a more appropriate guest?); she was going to jump out of the cake. I watched a young singer whose name escapes me (Ashanti? Maybe) and her enormous entourage; she was going to sing happy birthday to Hef. And I watched Hef come in, too, with five skank blondes. He’s about my height (five-five) and very thin. A small man, whose life has been the mother of all overcompensations. They had his voice on a loop, talking about the inception of Playboy, where he was saying he started it for guys to “have a little fun.” Sigh.
I took a bathroom break midway through. One of the (scantily) black-clad waitresses was sitting in the bathroom, in the corner, in a huff. “All of these men here keep looking at me!” she snitted.
She went on: “They don’t know, I’m not these clothes! I’d rather be at home in my sweats right now!”
Yeah, sweetheart, but you’re not.
Maybe I was in an overcompensation of my own, feeling so very dowdy to begin with, but even more so in this STUPID UGLY TUX next to this girl in a black shelf-bra and boy shorts with a taut stomach. She was very cute, and… I was not.
So the evening begins its windup. People begin claiming the coats we have stashed in the hundreds of hangers on the dozens of coat racks. They try to tip us, a couple of dollars or five. Or twenty. And the captain has us under strict instructions: we are NOT to accept a tip of any kind. We are to say, “Hef is taking care of us.”
The thing is, Hef was most definitely NOT taking care of us. Saying “Hef is taking care of us” implied, somehow, that there’s a big tip waiting at the end, and no, we were earning an hourly salary and that was all. There would be no pajamaed Hef coming around and pressing hundred dollar bills on us in a state of boozy generosity. I watched a parade of drunk people get out higher-denomination bills than sober people would, and I had to turn them down. I was not able to make myself say, “Hef is taking care of us,” so instead I said the next-best thing: “I’m not allowed to take tips.” This angered the captain, who repeated, “You’re not supposed to say that! You have to say, ‘Hef is taking care of us!’” The next man came with a $10 for me, and the captain eyed me as I said, “No, I’m not allowed.” She didn’t fire me, but she did get mad.
One drunk guy came with his friend. The friend was pretty sober, and the drunk guy had lost his coat tag. He was so drunk, he practically had bubbles coming out of his ears. He stood there, half asleep, with a little grin on his face (the centerfolds behind the bar? The waitresses?), swaying back and forth, as his friend begged us to find the guy’s coat. We had no idea what it was, and drunk guy was not coherent enough to tell us what it looked like, other than “It’s black.” Sigh. Semi-sober friend was dying to get him home, but they had to wait a good hour before there were few enough coats that drunk guy could pick his out.
So the party trickles out. It’s after midnight, and now we have to clean up. Cups on the floor, napkins in the oasis pool. Chairs get put away, dishes get done, coat racks get taken three flights down to storage. On and on. It’s now one-thirty, and I’m ready to drop. I caught a glimpse in a mirror, and my hair was flat, my makeup smeared, and I looked tired in addition to STUPID IN MY TUX.
I walked by a man who was probably in his fifties, very unattractive and with Michael Landon hair. He did a giant, over-obvious double-take and said, “You look HOT in that tux.”
I laughed my loudest cackle-laugh and kept going. Methinks someone saw too much of the centerfolds behind the bar, and wanted to go home with someone. And maybe he did. Just not with me.
The Playboy party was my last catering affair. I just hated it too much—and I would have even if I hadn’t staffed the Playboy party. I went back to assistant-type work, sitting at desks and working on computers. Yes, I get injuries from sitting (tendinitis! Stiff back! Bad shoulders! Sore legs!) but they’re better than venereal disease.
The tux hangs still in its blue plastic bag in my closet, a reminder of an earlier time.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
And the series continues! I’ve had a few of them, you see. Day jobs, I mean. Some of them have been great. I probably won’t write about those here.
After I quit working for Jane, I had a long, hard summer. I have always referred to it as the “Summer of Unemployment,” because I’m literal-minded like that. And it was…hard.
The weather was lovely. For anyone who has experienced a New York summer, you know what a crazy statement that is. What? No, New York summer is like walking through warm pudding! Summer in New York is humid and stinky, and no matter how freshly showered you are, the moment you walk out the door you begin to sweat. It’s that not-so-fresh feeling…everywhere, for three months on, men and women alike.
I get what you’re saying, I do. I’ve lived through a lot of them, which is where the above hypothetical comes from. But for bulk of the summer of 2001, the temperatures remained mild and the humidity relatively low. (This comes from an accustomed New Yorker; “relatively low” means anything under 70%. Contrast this to the Utah weather man who announces, with 30% humidity, “It…is…muggy!”) I do remember one solid, steamy week that August with temps in the low hundreds, but besides that, it was delightful. There were several nights that I would get off the subway and perk up at the fresh, beautiful night, and thank the powers that be for such a great summer. Weather-wise, I mean.
So I would walk outside during the day and marvel at what a lovely summer that was. And then marvel at what a crappy situation I was in. I had quit my job with Jane, and I hadn’t saved much money. Seems to me I did get a nice (for me) tax refund that year, so I had that in my account. But the account—and this happens, when you’re taking out and not putting back in—was rapidly draining.
I stayed in a lot. I ate a lot. I put on weight, I got depressed. I watched a lot of TV. I still had the “I want to write” idea in my head, but every time I tried to write something I marveled at my own lack of inspiration, lack of ideas, lack of talent. And I turned the computer off and went to do something incredibly uninspiring.
I had signed up with three temp agencies. None was calling me. This was the end of the dot-com boom, and companies were in one of their many belt-tightening periods. “Wait—money doesn’t just fall from the sky? We can’t put a Foozball table in the lunch room and have all-day tournaments in our pajamas and still make money? What’s that about?” A period of renewed seriousness. And when companies have realized that they’re not making money in their pajamas playing Foozball, they’re not going to be hiring temps. In fact, they might just get rid of the Foozball table.
This summer was such a time.
And we all know what happened at the end of that summer. One beautiful Tuesday morning I awoke to a phone call—I had hoped it was a temp agency—with my friend telling me to turn on the television. I did, and it looked like our world was ending. My thoughts about unemployment went out the window; I knew there would be no temping in the near future. As far as New York was concerned, there may not have been a near future at all.
Two months after that, I got a job.
It was set up by a friend of a friend. I was at dinner one night, sitting by the window, and heard a knock. It was an old roommate whom I hadn’t seen in about five years. I dashed outside and the two of us chatted and exchanged emails. The former roommate, whom I’ll call Robin (I’m not sure why) had started dealing with a self-help group called the Landmark Forum. The Landmark Forum, she said, was revolutionary and I needed to do it. And then she left. So we emailed a few times, and she told me that a fellow Landmark Forum friend was looking for an assistant, I got into contact with him, had an interview, and got the job.
The Landmark Forum works!
The boss…let’s call him Steve…was in his fifties and had experienced the Landmark Forum’s transformational three-part series in a way that absolutely changed his life. I am going to try not to denigrate here, because I’m sure it really did. But…it’s hard…not to be sarcastic. Steve, see, told me that when he was five, his cat ran away. His mother told him to pray for the cat to come back, and it did not. This taught him not to trust pets, God, or people, and he lived the next fifty years with that creed. Until the Landmark Forum came along…and now he has 8 cats and got married and had started this company that was going to be the next Standard Oil.
Okay, he really did have 8 cats. And his wife seemed lovely. The Standard Oil part…that’s where things got wonky.
Again, trying not to be too indiscreet. It was an energy company. An energy company with a revolutionary idea. A revolutionary idea involving something that could reduce the country’s dependence on oil…during the Bush administration. During Enron’s heyday. Since Steve’s real name was not Ken Lay, and he didn’t have any insider buddies, he didn’t really stand a chance.
Steve had received an enormous initial investment in his company. Well, “enormous” to a layperson. To an experienced businessperson, the initial investment was good but not substantial. Not enough to run a startup for more than a year, not with the international travel expenses they were incurring. Not with the high-priced consultants he hired with abandon.
Steve and his henchpeople needed to travel back and forth to Dallas quite often. Steve always wanted me to get the best price, but Steve didn’t realize that I didn’t have a magic in with the airlines. I would get my flights off Orbitz, sad to say. Sometimes I called travel agents, but they had their fee, and Steve would get upset that we were paying that for something I could do for free on the internet. So that’s what I did.
Once Steve decided he had to travel to Dallas with Henchman #2, “Max.” I went to Orbitz and got two tickets for $300ish each. Three weeks later, about two days before traveling to Dallas, Steve decided that Max should not go to Dallas with him; “Dan” should. Orbitz would not let me change the name on the ticket. The airline would not let me change the name on the ticket. I called the airline to get a new ticket, and they quoted me a price of $1800 for the ticket. Steve was furious that I would get such a crappy price—not with the airlines, with me. It was my laziness and refusal to dig deeper that caused him to have to pay this exorbitant fee. I apologized (that’s what sucks most about the assistanthood) and waited for him to make his decision. Ultimately he said, fine, we’ll pay the $1800. I called the airline, and they said that because we were paying such a high price for Dan, they’d put Dan in first. I asked if Steve could also be in first, and they said no. Now, here was my mistake: I mentioned this to Steve. Steve freaked out. He said it was because he and Dan needed to be able to work on the plane ride down; I suspect he was just pissed because he wasn’t the one in first. I again called the airline; they again refused. Steve said they absolutely had to sit together. I said we could downgrade Dan; he said no, he had to be upgraded. The airline said fine, if Steve wanted to pay another $1800 for his ticket and upgrade. Fury all round.
I went to lunch then, and lingered.
After lunch I got a call from Steve’s wife, who said, “What’s this about a three thousand dollar ticket?” I explained the whole situation, ending with “The problem is, Dan is in first class and Steve isn’t.”
“Well, SO WHAT?” the wife said.
“That was my question,” I responded.
She phoned her husband and told him off, and I wished I were allowed to do the same.
The real problem was, I simply didn’t like Steve. Where there were some likeable qualities to Jane, Steve just annoyed the hell out of me. He was brusque (he left notes like “Buy green pens NOW” and “Hang helicopter picture NOW”—the helicopter picture in question, a shot of him in an orange jumpsuit in front of a helicopter, somehow made him feel virile) and a slob. I’d try to tidy up his office, and by the end of the day it looked like someone had just stood in the center of the room with a box full of paper and blown it up and wouldn’t do anything. I needed to file an extension of his income taxes once, and he needed to sign it. I put it in his inbox and told him he had to sign it today. He didn’t. I asked him to sign it when I left, and he said he’d get to it later. I said, “No, it needs to go in the mail tomorrow. Tomorrow is April 15.” He said he’d get to it and promised to put it in the mail as soon as he signed it, which would be immediately. (There was a stamp on it already, because that would have been too much to ask of him.) I went home. And returned Monday the 18th, to find it signed but waiting for me on my desk. I didn’t know if there would be repercussions, but I knew I’d be the one facing them.
Again, there’s so much more to be said about this particular job. Not a lot of it is inventive or interesting or funny—it was dreary. I remember trudging up the subway stairs at the Wall Street stop, every morning, thinking “People do this for twenty, thirty YEARS.” Wondering how the hell I was going to survive.
It was a rough time for everyone, of course. The office was literally across the street from Ground Zero, and for months I had to walk past the stories-high wreckage. I walked past a church that had been decorated with pictures of the deceased, with flowers and stuffed animals and memories. I was grateful to have a job at all. And I hated it. But survive I did.
The job ended that June. I went on a trip with my family, and returned to a note from Steve telling me he only needed me one day that next week. I was getting paid by the hour, not a salary, so this was a problem. The following week, he also said he needed me only one hour. And then he said he had a proposition: I wouldn’t get paid in money, but in stock options. “They could be worthless,” he said. “Or they could make you rich.”
I bowed out of the stock options, figuring that it would make more financial sense to be paid in Monopoly money, since at least that’s good somewhere. Steve had a wife making money to pay his rent, but I didn’t. I started temping again and got a couple of nice jobs. I was relieved.
Steve occasionally emails me, still. He seems to want to know what I’m doing. It’s usually phrased in an order: “Report in.” I never reply; I haven’t told him about the book or any of my writing projects. (Especially not about the blog.) I haven’t heard word one about his company since I left, so I figure it’s good I didn’t take the stock options thing. I remain able to pay my rent.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
I was young, just out of college, and pretty naïve about money. But this was nothing compared to Jane. She was incredibly extravagant and incredibly cheap at the same time. This was the woman who was withdrawing $1000 to $2000 in cash, daily, and making credit card charges on top; since she had sold her apartment, she was staying for weeks on end (six weeks was the longest) at a high-end hotel, for a bill of more than $15,000 at a shot; she was the woman who promised $35,000 to the Met Opera, on top of buying high-end seats for the season, for an additional $35,000. (She had a box, you see, and back then each seat in the eight-seat box was $250. And she was out of town most of the time! I got about $8000 of free opera seats that season, and it was terrific. The only actual perk of that job. Now when I go and have to sit in the nosebleed “Family Circle” I remember the box and sigh.) Am I getting too specific, and therefore indiscreet? I hope not. I’ll just sum up this part and say, I always had an image of someone standing on top of a building and throwing money into the air.
Once we helped hold a big charitable event—we cohosted it with her favorite charity. After it was over, the charity had to store things from the event in our office. Somehow we ended up with fistfuls of pens. Jane looked at these pens like they were gold. A rep of the charity came to our office to pick up the larger items, and Jane mouthed to me, “Hide the pens!” I didn’t—I wouldn’t even have stolen them for myself, on $317 a week—but the charity woman still left without them. Afterward Jane laughed: “I was so worried she was going to take the pens!”
Best guess as to the total cost of these pens: $3.
These “cheap” moments are actually pretty few and far between. I think it’s because she hadn’t figured out how actually to be cheap. I was pretty good at it then (and I’m an expert, now), so I would give the occasional tip. She got an enormous tax refund after I had been there a few months—enormous, as in twice my current gross salary—and needed to figure out what to do with it. She wanted to invest it in the stock market. “What stocks should I buy, Kathy?” I am not making that question up. I told her she needed to find a financial adviser. “Who should I call, Kathy?” (She also had a thing for saying first names in all sentences. Whereas if I were looking right at someone, I might not say their first name with every last exchange, she did.) Now, on $317 a week I wasn’t employing any financial advisers, so I didn’t know. I got my taxes done at H&R Block, for crying out loud. “So what should I do with this money, Kathy?”
I told her to pay off her credit cards. At that point, she had 4 and each one of them had a balance north of $13,000. “Look at the interest,” I said. I pointed out how much she was getting charged each month on each card, and she was shocked. (What was it, $400? $500? I don’t remember.) “How can they do that, Kathy?” she asked.
“It’s interest,” I responded. “There’s an agreement you sign, saying you’ll pay interest on outstanding balances.” She nodded. Maybe she even understood. (“SERIOUSLY?” you’re saying. “SHE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT INTEREST WAS?” And I think she actually did, but this was the first time she had seen it, had it affect her.) And she said that paying them off, now that she knew she was paying interest, was a great idea.
I took her tax refund check to the Private Banking building in Chase (there’s a separate room where you go make deposits; none of this ATM crap for the rich! Or, more specifically, their assistants), and three days later wrote out checks paying off all the balances. I actually felt relieved, as if part of the burden were mine.
Two weeks later she decided she had to buy another season in the box at the Met. $35,000, due by the end of the month. As I said in the last entry, she decided to divide that up among 3 cards, 2 payments per card. Except both payments went on all 3 cards in one month, so in a month she’d gone from zero to $35,000 all over again. And had no intentions of paying it off any time soon.
She went to her high-priced dentist shortly after that to get her teeth bleached. She paid $1000 for this—a full day’s cash withdrawal!—and was angry that she’d been taken to the non-teeth cleaners. She was in her mid-sixties, so her teeth were, you know, in their mid-fifties. I’m sure she had taken good care of them, but they didn’t look great. She came back from her bleaching session and was just angry: they were not white. “Come here and tell me if they look different to you,” she said. We went to the window and she made me study her teeth at close range. For way too long. It may have been a minute, it may have been thirty seconds—or ten—but it was way too long. Her teeth were gross. Any teeth are gross at close range (apologies to my periodontist brother. He sees something that I don’t, obviously. And makes more money doing it, or will as soon as his practice revs up, which it will do, shortly. Hi, Bill.) and the most I want to do is a quick, “No, you don’t have anything stuck.” But here we were at the window, me with a screwed-up face and Jane showing her teeth to me like a horse. Sigh. And for the record: still completely yellow.
So as I said, I made it nearly a year. Walking out of that place was one of the happiest feelings of my life, even though I didn’t have a job lined up, and obviously I didn’t have savings. But it was sweet freedom, at last.
A few weeks after I quit Jane’s establishment, I was waiting in line for an ATM at my local Chase. An older man was standing at one of the ATMs, cursing. “I can’t do this G—D—thing…” he grumbled. He turned around. “Anyone care to tell me how to figure this out?”
He really did look lost. So I walked up to him and showed him where to put the card. He was not grateful. “Now what?” he demanded.
“What’s your PIN?” I asked.
“It’s a special number that allows you to make withdrawals.”
“I don’t know anything about a G—D—PIN,” he said. “I just need my money.”
Suddenly I knew exactly the kind of person I was dealing with. He had money—somewhere!—but how to get it? Where was his assistant? Why wouldn’t this stupid girl here just HELP HIM? I smiled, knowing how angry he was.
“They won’t let you take out money without your PIN,” I said.
“I don’t have one!”
“Then you don’t get your money.” And I turned and walked out the door.
I saw his face as I turned, the frustration. Utter helplessness caused by years of dependence on everyone else. I saw Jane. And when I looked out the door, again I saw freedom.
Of course, I continued to be an assistant.....
Monday, February 1, 2010
Apologies to Jane Austen. But it’s true.
Arts, you see, most often don’t pay the bills—at least not when you’re starting out. The singer needs to take years and years of singing lessons before she’s ready even to start auditioning. The lessons cost *money*, yo, and if she’s gotten a degree (undergrad or graduate) from a big-name musical institution, she has student loan payments to pay off too. A singer’s voice doesn’t start fully maturing until he/she’s at least into her late 20s; more often 30s. What to do during those years of training? Then there are actors, going to auditions. Most actors go to dozens, hundreds of auditions, and get five or ten jobs. And I’m not referring to the breakout “Friends” role that’s going to pave their way to fame and fortune; they’re “Third Dead Hooker” roles that require disfiguring makeup and a talent for lying still. Meanwhile the rent is due and really, it’s good to be able to eat.
Writers are no exception. While writing doesn’t cost money, there’s a lot that goes into it. I like to study. I have a dozen-plus books on writing on my bookshelves, which I consult on and off; in fact, I just got into a frenzy and bought six more, which I’m making my way through as they come. (I am not an “intuitive” kind of person.) The books cost money. Getting a degree, as with singing, costs money. Not all writers decide to get writing degrees, but most of them have a Bachelor’s in something, and again, STUDENT LOANS rear their ugly heads. Writers’ groups don’t cost money—yay!—but there’s rent and heat and clothing and food, and all the caffeine you’ve gotta drink doesn’t drop out of the sky! And then there’s the small issue of health insurance, and trying to put money aside for retirement, to say nothing of the rainy days. Where does the money come from?
I’ve had a series of day jobs through the years. Some were better than others. I’ve mentioned that I temped, and usually the temp jobs were surprisingly good. But some of my other jobs were horrendous. This is a description of my first true “Day Job.” Day Job Number One.
I was a fresh graduate of Columbia University. Not as young as most fresh graduates, but still young enough to be naïve and optimistic. (Sigh.) A friend called me up, someone who knew I wanted to be a writer. She worked for one of the preeminent literary agents in New York. I shan’t give names, but anyone in the business would recognize this name. (Friend told me once that she had deposited her boss’s two-week paycheck, and it totaled more than my friend’s yearly income.) She said that her boss, the big agent, had a friend who ran a small publishing company and needed an editor/office manager; would I be interested? It was part time, so I‘d have time to write. Good Lord, I said, where do I sign up?
I interviewed for this position and I was very excited; it was a tiny publishing company that mainly focused on republishing out-of-print titles. The woman I would be working for—let’s call her Jane, just because of the quote at the top of the page—said, “I’ll be abroad a lot of the time. I expect there will be days that you can just sit on the couch and write.”
Two weeks later I had the job. Celebration. Part-time, so I could sleep in (a night owl needs that…or at least wants it), a lot of down time. Fantastic! As far as a part-time salary, well, I’d been living on the student loans for a while and hadn’t had to draw out an actual budget. I had no idea how much I was living on. Fresh and naïve, as I said.
And the first few weeks were great. Jane was in the final throes of putting out her latest book, which was an English translation of a French how-to bestseller. She usually did only nominal publicity for each of her books—they were out of print books, and, well, books often go out of print for a reason—and I got to copy-edit galleys and witness the production of a real book! Jane had high hopes for this one, too; it had been a bestseller SOMEWHERE, after all.
Some backstory on Jane and her publishing company: For years Jane had been married to a wealthy man. Extraordinarily wealthy. We’re talking, private jet wealthy. Oil money wealthy. She had been raised with money and then married more, so all her life she hadn’t had to worry about it…until now. She and the extraordinarily wealthy man were divorcing—or she was trying to, anyway. She had initiated the divorce four years earlier, and he was contesting, and New York has some archaic, ridiculous divorce laws, so it was dragging out. As far as I could tell, he had been an absolute bastard to her most of their married life, and since she’d left him he had ratcheted it up. Rich Bastard Husband also cut her off financially (until he was court-ordered to give her money) and told their grown children to choose sides. (They chose the one with the money.) Jane had started her publishing company while she and RBH were still married, so she didn’t worry about her titles making money or not; he put money in, she made books, she was happy. But now she had really high hopes that this French bestseller would become an American bestseller and she could thumb her nose at RBH and his bastardly, stingy ways. (one quick anecdote: the Concorde crashed while I was working there. As Jane often jetted back and forth to Paris, RBH’s assistant phoned to make sure she hadn’t been on the flight that crashed. I relayed that to Jane, and she said, “Ha, I can’t AFFORD to fly the CONCORDE!” with enough annoyance that I realized, this was quite an imposition for her.)
Well, it was a bad book. I read through it and was shocked at the awkward prose. I found out that Jane herself had done the English translation, and it was in final galley form, so it was too late to change. Jane hired a publicist (her first, since this was the first book she actually thought would sell) and really expected the publicist to make it Number One. For weeks, maybe years. This is an expectation publicists are accustomed to, but Jane really put on the pressure. Jane, after all, had spent the past fifty-plus years ordering people around and seeing every wish granted, and thought she could do the same with this book. She absolutely expected an Oprah appearance—for the book’s author and for herself (just to translate, bien sur!).
Our publicist did what she could. And it wasn’t enough, because nothing would have been enough, and the French bestseller became an American dead-in-the-water bookstop. And Jane was angry. Angry at the publicist, and angry at me: we hadn’t done enough. Things became tense. It was bad already because of the tension with RBH; I was frequently a relayer of messages between Jane and RBH (via his assistant, actually, a nice woman) and Jane would say, “Did you tell him I already did that?” Well, no, because you told me to tell him that you were going to do that. “You tell him I already did that!” I’m actually not on the phone anymore. That kind of thing.
Jane also had a drinking problem. I didn’t figure it out for a long time; during her stints abroad she would phone in the afternoon, perfectly lucid-sounding, and ask me questions about the dead-in-the-water book and sometimes about me. I’d answer them in detail. And then the next day she would ask me the exact same questions, in the exact same way (and tone of voice) and I would answer exactly as I had the day before. Confused. Sometimes she would remember that we’d already had that particular discussion, but usually not.
Well, as I mentioned, I had a lot of down time, and I spent several days cleaning out the office. Four years earlier, she and her husband had vacated their enormous Fifth Avenue apartment; she had taken a lot of the junk with her to the office. And by junk, I mean unopened mail—four-year-old unopened mail—and documents and things that didn’t matter a bit. No cool furniture or designer clothing or anything like that (that was in storage), just paper. So I spent days and days and days sorting through paper, throwing most of it out, making the office presentable. There was an enormous table in one corner, and literally, it was like a shelf in a sea of paper; there was paper jammed below it, from the floor to the table, and then from the table to the ceiling. There were cupboards stuffed with it. I was putting garbage bags full of paper into the recycling. I kept a few things, most of which were divorce-related documents. I put them in a small, fancy chest which I referred to (in my head) as the “divorce chest,” filed them chronologically. And read them.
A lot was made in these documents about Jane’s drinking problem. I thought this was interesting, because I hadn’t noticed one. Until she spent a few weeks in town, and returned from a lunch reeking of alcohol. She sounded lucid, but she began asking me the exact same questions she had asked me the day before, in exactly the same way, and didn’t react when I gave her the exact same answers.
After the first book came out, there wasn’t any book-related stuff to do, so I was now just her personal assistant. She wanted me to keep track of expenses, which was fine, except that she spent like nobody’s business. She had hundreds of thousands of American Express points and mileage on different airlines (which she kept trying ineffectually to redeem; she’d pester me to try to pay for things with MILES. “What about my MILES, Kathy? Won’t they honor my MILES? Tell them how many MILES I have.” To this day, when I hear the word “miles” uttered that way I shudder. But she didn’t know what MILES actually did. Sad.). By the time I came along she was getting an unholy amount of alimony (or whatever it is when you’re not yet divorced)—I mean, she got per month what I now earn (gross!) per year. Tax-free, and no children to take care of. And she couldn’t live on it. I had to call the bank every day (this was before online banking) and see how much she had withdrawn the day before; it was often in excess of two thousand dollars. (I’d still love to know what she spent it on.) This was on top of credit card expenses; she had 4 credit cards (and applied for one more while I was there) on which she was floating maximum balances, around $15,000. I made her pay them off when she got an enormous tax refund, and within two months three of them were maxed out again. She asked me to get her a debit card and I refused; there was no way I was going to try to manage that one for her. In fact, she didn’t even seem to know how credit cards worked. She wanted to put a $35,000 charge on her cards, but each one had a $15k limit. She said, “Can we just put it on different cards? Two different payments on three different cards?” Unfortunately the $35k balance was due at the end of the month, so those two payments on three different cards all happened the SAME MONTH. Net effect: the same.
I was working part time and netting just over three hundred dollars per week, having figured out exactly what a budget was and realizing just how EXTREME my budgeting needed to be—once I went to Gracious Homes and bought a $2 orange peeler, and I can’t describe how naughty I felt, with that splurge— watching that money disappear into the ether. I was going crazy.
I also wasn’t writing. I had a lot of down time, yes, but I was in that state…that “I want to be a writer but I don’t have anything to write” state. It was awful. There were many days I sat at the computer, staring at the Microsoft Word screen. I tried. But I had nothing.
I made it one year. Truthfully I think I made it that long because she spent so much time abroad. I started looking for a new job in March, but that was just when the dot-com bubble started bursting. Companies were retrenching, not looking for more help. After two months, I found a job on Monster.com, interviewed, got it, and gave notice. Now, the job looked sketchy. I won’t even tell you what it was because that will embarrass me; you would look at it and say, “Really? You fell for that?” (The fact that sixty people came for the interview at the same time—a group interview—and all of us were offered the position might indicate a little something.) I was too happy to look at any real issues.
The funny part is, I was not brave enough just to tell Jane the truth: I’d gotten a new job. I had a perfectly legitimate reason for looking, more than just “I don’t like you”—I could have said, “I’ve realized that I need benefits and a much higher salary.” Instead I made up a completely random, stupid lie and told her I needed to go to Utah for the summer to deal with family issues, and therefore needed to quit. (I have never done that since, I promise. Really.) I gave the two weeks’ notice. Unfortunately, by the time my final day rolled around I had already realized that my new job wasn’t quite real. (Long story…yes, I do take that into consideration sometimes.) I had no job lined up, and no job to go to anymore. No writing that I was doing, no real prospects. It was a long summer.
The following fall I realized I desperately wanted to take a playwriting class. I called the Columbia writing department head, Austin Flint, and asked him if I could possibly do this. I didn’t know how I’d pay for it, but practicality had taken a backseat. (it backfired on me with the job in May, but oh well.) He said yes, and then told me he would give me a fellowship designed for writing majors who wanted to return and take writing classes. I ended up taking the playwriting class for 3 semesters, and paying a total of $180 for all of them. (Back then they would have totaled $9000. More now, I’m sure.) I wrote a full-length play, submitted it to NYU, and got into their grad program.
What was the play about, you ask? Oh, a wealthy woman who’s trying to divorce her rich bastard husband, grappling with money issues for the first time in her life. Who has a drinking problem.