Monday, November 30, 2009

Exit, Pursued by Letters

You can write to me at:

Esther Emery
62 Holyoke St.
Quincy, MA 02171

I will write back to you. (Holiday cards count. Postcards count.)

I am closing comments on all the posts except for this one. If you would like to talk to each other, please do so here. If you'd like to talk to me, all you need is a stamp.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Apples and Apples (Envy)

I've been saving this topic. This is my most personal reason for taking a year off the internet. It isn't metaphysics or philosophy. It isn't a plan to write a fascinating book, or to contribute to feminist theory, or even to build a beautiful argument for a simpler way of life. It is simply me, and what in this life is hardest for me.

I presented a thought experiment a while ago, in which I mentioned my "creative drought." That really happened. You might also call it burn out. It started on a Sunday in February, built gradually for almost a year, and then, one day, it overcame. The cause was not really motherhood, and it certainly wasn't the internet. It was more complicated, and less: this strange, deep conflict between working and living that I have spoken of here in so many different ways. At that moment, my work wasn't very good for my life.

I am an accomplished person. I excel. I understand that to be a verb, as in, "to show superiority; surpass others," and it is a practice that I have cultivated. Upon entering any arena, any field, I perceive the definition of success and I chart a course towards it. I take the advantages that I am given, shrug off the failures and, "just keep doing 'til it's done." Historically, if I thought I was not going to be able to succeed in something -- or if I didn't want it badly enough -- I wouldn't particularly try.

This isn't my favorite thing about myself. But it is the quality that has built my resume. It is a quality that makes me who I am. And it is the quality that burnt me out. Even without my practice of excellence -- which, depending on the mirror into which it peers, can also name itself perfectionism, workaholism, ambition, or OCD -- my art is one that slides easily into vanity. With vanity comes envy, and with envy comes distraction, and distraction, when you're trying to make art, is crazy-making.

This morning, sitting down to a post-Thanksgiving breakfast of pumpkin pie, I trailed my two older brothers to an Idaho summer about twenty-five years ago, when we lived for a short time in the basement of a soft rock radio station. We discussed some damage once received by that radio station's satellite dish, wondering if a poor, innocent woodland creature had received undeserved blame. And Jacob and I team-told our favorite bad kid story, about how we once pulled a couple of darts out of the remains of a car wreck on the highway, and Jacob accidentally sunk one about an inch into my thigh, and we worked together, brilliantly, to make sure that no adults ever found out so I wouldn't have to get a tetanus shot. (Never before or since have our unique motives been so precisely aligned. It taught me the definition of politics.) And then I remembered Jacob's records, which he loved, and then he remembered that I had taken one of his records, which he loved, and smashed it with a hammer.

I didn't remember that.

"You were jealous, I suppose," he said. "I really liked that record."

I don't like this memory. I'm taking immediate steps to re-forget it.

And that's why this post is personal. Envy is not digital. My envy is not digital. I have sisters, too, whose very existence has been a frail excuse for my most dangerous mirror-gazing. My sister's body is exactly like mine, except... Whether that is vanity creating envy, or envy creating vanity, it is a sure way to become distracted from whatever you care for most.

My sister in law, Daiquiri, once gave me permission to share her stories, because, as a blogger, she shares them herself, and today I'm going to take her up on that.

Daiquiri is married to my husband's brother. The first time I ever visited their home, I was 18 years old, and Daiquiri must have just turned 24. This now appears to be relevant. But at the time, the difference between us didn't seem to be explainable by something as insignificant as age. There is a Norse myth in which the Norns are said to spin and cut the threads of men: a gray, coarse thread for the laborers, and a finer, colored thread for the craftsmen, and every once in a while, a thread of pure gold for a king.

Daiquiri seemed to have gotten a really good thread.

When I was 18, like one third of college women, I had disordered eating behavior. I couldn't cook myself spaghetti. Daiquiri was hosting Christmas dinner. I had just dropped Organic Chemistry and was mourning the death of my future as a scientist. Daiquiri was a Mechanical Engineer. I was struggling hard with money, bouncing checks and barely staying in school. Daiquiri lived in a house, decorated like a catalogue, with two cars in the driveway. She was beautiful. And she was good at Christmas. And she was blonde.

She was blonde, and I was green, and dinner was not yet on the table when I said something unkind. Daiquiri told some version of these events on her blog more than a year ago, and, with her characteristic generosity, she indicated no fault on my part. But my ability to perceive the human heart is given, not learned, which is to say that I knew what I was trying to do then as well as I know it now. I spotted a weakness, and made an offhand remark, and watched it land. A similar effort to cut someone down a size has occasionally been helpful in the rehearsal room, but I do not recommend it around Christmas. I have deeply regretted it since.

There's a unique relationship, between sisters in law. We are not blood. We did not grow up together. We did not choose to be friends, but we are family. And Daiquiri and I are apples and apples. Even before I began to realize the sort of stunning degree of similarity between us, we were of a kind. Our husbands are like different shuffles of the same deck. Even our courtship stories are similar. It's almost impossible to keep from drawing the comparison.

Ten or twelve years later, I think I would have grown out of that comparison, or at least gotten over the sting, if I hadn't started reading Daiquiri's blog. "You mean," I said to myself as I read about twenty posts in one sitting, "she's also a writer?" And I'm thinking now of my friend Amy Chini, who is similarly competent in everything that I do, and many things that I don't. She's a playwright and a poet, and a very skilled painter -- much better than I am -- and crafty as hell, and she also is a musician whose recording of Hallelujah is treasured in our house because Milo and I both love it, and...oh, yeah, she also cooks. It might be nice to be angry at her for all this, but there she is, in perfect humility, just loving the hell out of me and my imperfections, so there's nothing left for me to do but to survive it, and allow my ego to be obliterated by her talent. In the end, there's no better feeling than that. That's the best part of friendship.

Theoretically, I feel the same way about Daiquiri. And, as long as I'm in a strong place, meaning that I'm already feeling good about myself, I do feel exactly that way about ultra-talented, inspiringly humble Daiquiri. But she also writes a blog. And my ugliest moments -- the moments of deepest insecurity -- are often the ones in which I find myself reading blogs. Lisel mentioned this phenomenon in a comment very early in our blogging month, so I know that I am not completely alone in this. If administered (in)correctly, the tonic of mommy blogs can make you feel completely terrible about yourself. All the other moms sound so smart, and so talented, and they always have these great ideas, and even though they're clearly human in the sense that they have the same experiences that I do, they are inhuman in the sense that they recover neatly from their traumas and wear them like pretty jewelry to their best advantage. I have problems. These other women have beautifully written, blog-sized moral tales.

When I'm feeling alone, I want friends. And I go to blogs. And blogs are not really my friends, even when they are written by my friends.

And here, some of you are saying, "Wow, she has some imagination, thinking blogs are her friends. They're just pixels on the computer screen."

But just as many of you are saying, "Blogs are my friends. She isn't using them right."

We know that blogs do not live or die on the social impulse alone. Daiquiri is a good writer. There's no other reason that I would have kept reading, since her conservative point of view has been a sore thumb in my liberal blogroll, and on half a dozen occasions she has said things that really, really got me steamed. And here it may feel like I'm headed to a revelation about jealousy -- that I'm going to find that my addiction to her blog is actually an expression of the envy itself, but, as always, it's more complicated than that...and simpler. I keep reading her blog because she's a good writer. She's a real writer. Like me.

But we are not only writers.

This is such an elementary lesson, about the dangers of oversimplification. We are not apples and apples. We are people. Daiquiri posts little slivers of herself, for her own entertainment and mine, and for her own edification and mine. Her words have purpose. But they also have virtual life. I can get confused. I can think we are actually talking to one another.

Daiquiri knows from reading my comments on her blog that I can debate politics, and I can. I do. But in person, Daiquiri brought up one of our differences and I almost burst into tears. She doesn't know, from reading my carefully composed words on her computer screen, which issues I can talk about with confidence, and which ones make me panic and fall apart. She didn't grow up with me. She isn't really related to me. What makes us think we know each other? Where did I get the idea that this was real?

This is the point in a post where I usually say, "The internet didn't create this problem. This is human nature, and digital media only expresses it." And then I link the other posts where I've said something to that effect. Except, I can't say that here. The internet did create this problem. The internet is this problem. The strange phenomenon of the virtual serial confessional and her virtual audience IS the phenomenon of the internet.

We are not apples and apples. Mommy bloggers, sisters in law, politicians, actors, directors. We are not equal units of humanity to be categorized and compared. We are people. And we are in great need of one another -- not just the knowledge of one another's traits to go in the little black book of who has what -- but our living vulnerability to one another: our precious ability to be affected, to forgive and to be forgiven, and to share the growth, and change -- and some would call it Grace -- that makes us human.

And there it is. This is the most personal reason for my Year Without Internet. Mommy blogs make me jealous, and I have a problem with jealousy. And now I am at home with these two babies, and it's the hardest job I've set out to do so far. As I face the challenges of full time parenting in a time and place that isn't especially appreciative of full time parents, I need every resource I can get. I can't afford to lose a single real friend to digital envy.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Deep Cuts, Trk 2

Early in this blog month, I gave a post the title Deep Cuts. That title was meant to be a reference to the compilation albums that are 0h-so-helpfully created for me by iTunes Essentials: The Basics, The Next Steps, and finally, the Deep Cuts, where you'll find those lesser known gems and prized oddities that are only known by the lucky bastard who goes deep, preferably staying on iTunes as long as possible, double clicking on 30 second sound bytes of songs until his bank account balance drops by the double digits, seemingly entirely of its own accord.

On November 26, just a few days before I unplug, it feels like the right day to add a track to that compilation album. It has a 90 second drum solo, that only a purist could love, and that's the telephone. It doesn't offer the total anonymity of the internet. And it doesn't offer the soul-calming ease of being with someone face to face. It means listening to hold music. It means keeping track of phone numbers. It means practicing being a generous listener with the phone in one hand while Milo is threading figure eights around my legs.

And I'm not good on the phone. If I were to take one of those fun quizzes that test, "What Kind of Learner Are You?" -- and I am bravely resisting the impulse to do that, right this second -- I am certain that it would define me as a visual learner. Unlike the parrot I have for a son, I have a hard time remembering -- or even responding correctly to -- things that I hear without matching visual cues. After several years of racking up a mess of phone call slip-ups in which I spoke the wrong date, name, theatre company, or even play title, I actually made a point to move my professional interactions into cyberspace.

In that light...what I'm doing right now is crazy.

But, here I stand, with a goal and the will to achieve it, and I have many more reasons to leave the internet (for a while) than I do to stay. Prime among those reasons is the realization that the type of interaction that I've been having, even on this blog, is completely accessible to me through other means, if I'm willing to make the effort.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Toast to the Turkey

I'm a Thanksgiving person. Like there are cat people and dog people, I'm a Thanksgiving person.


I think very fondly of the years that I sat at a table spread by Adam and Ben, who probably will read this at some point, and toasted our gratitude so elaborately that we might have fallen off our chairs before we ate. And I think very fondly of that one college-era Thanksgiving of "tequila rapido," with our friend Forrest's mom, who observed in the wee hours that I was too drunk to keep playing her games and so administered cold turkey, instead of letting me go to bed. And let me be clear that this isn't an alcohol thing, although those two vignettes are obviously from the days before pregnancy and breastfeeding. There's just a pure spirit of celebration that comes with Thanksgiving. I've successfully separated it in my mind from any historical events, and I celebrate it as ritualized gratitude for gratitude, in which you eat and give thanks and eat and give thanks until you can't eat and give thanks any more.


This year, I'd like to toast the turkey, and...

The chef, who is never me.
The many friends with whom I have reconnected.
All the forgiveness that I didn't deserve.
That I have someone in my life who actually believes that turkeys say, "gobble gobble."
Hot cocoa and every part of the distribution chain that brings hot cocoa to me.
That my husband stole a flower for me on the way home from work today.
That my husband came home from work today.
And...

Your blogs.

If you are a blogger, and you are reading this, I do mean YOUR blog. Even if I don't comment, I read it. And even if I don't read it very often, when I do read it, I tend to read back to the place where I left off when I read it before. And, just in case you still don't think I mean you, if you have told me something in conversation that I already knew from reading your blog, I probably didn't let that show.

Tomorrow, in my post-turkey state of regret and resolution, I will post about how reading blogs is bad for me. Given my particular weaknesses and imperfections, which include gluttony -- and there's the real reason why I love Thanksgiving -- that is true.

But today is the day before Thanksgiving, and I'm celebrating gratitude.

Today I'm saying thank you to all of you for letting me read your personal thoughts, and your poetry, and your rants, and your prayers. I'm saying thank you to all of you for letting me know that I'm not alone in so many things that I'm not alone in, like...injured kids, and sleep frustrations, and poor housekeeping, and work stress, and obnoxious theatre patrons, and being inspired to laugh by your baby for no apparent reason, and crying on your kitchen floor, and being deeply concerned about the world, and having a love/hate relationship with Starbucks, and WalMart, and Disney princesses.

Thanks for writing to me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Some Bullet Points on Memory and Learning

Although I am not yet off of blogging (as you can see) and I am not yet off of Facebook (as most of you can see), I have begun to change the way I access information. Right now I'm observing how changing the way I access information affects how I store information. It seems like I'm going to keep more of it in my brain. Here are a few observations clustered around that idea.


1. Telephone Numbers. I have to dial them. They are written down, and then I read them off the page and I dial them. If I were to be lost, without my address book, there are now several people whose numbers I could dial from memory...if I could only find a phone.


2. Directions. My map doesn't tell me what to do. The only way to choose between Mass Ave and Storrow Drive is to know the difference. As a result, I am more quickly developing a map of the city in my mind. I am my own MapQuest.


3. Books. Technically I can still search collections of books, by walking up to a human being and asking for help. But this is not the path of least resistance. Instead, weaning myself off of AbeBooks and Amazon, I am starting to browse. This takes a long time. The side effect of reading rows and rows of titles and authors is that you learn titles and authors. The advantage here feels counterintuitive, since my search engines organize the information so neatly according to my wishes that they could almost be writing me a personalized textbook. But, as countless college students have learned, textbooks don't do you any good unopened on the floor next to your bed. Learning only happens if I study.


4. Addresses. How many times have I asked you for your address? For those of you who know me -- my siblings in particular -- it's probably a lot of times. There's a change in energetic principle, here, from the back-end impulse in which I obtain the information from the source every single time I need it, to a front-end impulse in which I obtain the information from the source only once and write it down. I think of my stepmother and her address book, which was overflowing with information about her peers and her contacts and her loved ones. She never went anywhere without it.


5. Cooking. I am beginning to get all my cooking information from the same cookbook. It's a standard, Better Homes and Gardens. And to make this point I have to confess that I am historically very uncomfortable with cooking.


I can get the cooking done in a way that I couldn't have done five years ago, and I'm grateful for that, but it has remained a psychological strain. All the Epicurious recipes that I have found and then forgotten -- with that back-end energetic principle, like the addresses -- have not made a dent in my insecurity. I still don't know how to cook. I don't know those recipes. I don't remember how I did that crazy pineapple-duck for Christmas that one year. I don't even remember how I did the potatoes.


The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is doing something different for me. It's always there. It's always the same. I can put my hands on it, and open it in the same spot on my kitchen counter. And as a result, I recognize that I am doing the same cooking activities over and over. The book has little insets, that function for me like a security blanket. That's how you pre-cook the meat, and how you defrost it, and how you chop the vegetables. And as I learn these stable guideposts, I'm starting to make a map in my head, not unlike my mental map of Boston.


I'm pretty comfortable with driving directions, to the extent that Nick and I do a little negotiation before we drive together: Is the hard part of this trip going to be the parking, in which case Nick should get into the driver's seat, or is the hard part of this trip going to be the navigating, in which case Esther should drive. I hadn't imagined that I could navigate cooking like that. I never thought I could relax in my kitchen, knowing that if I miss the turn to Leverett Circle I can just get off at Copley Square.


This hasn't happened yet. Please, don't invite yourself for dinner without giving me at least 24 hours to prepare. But I can see now, with no distractions and no excuses and no searchable Epicurious, I could actually learn how to cook.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Who Took My Five Minutes?

Aside from Fuzzy Bear and Ben Bear, Milo's favorite toy is his Little Touch Leap Pad. It's a pink, bean-shaped, plastic thing, and when our friend Missy gave it to us, I was skeptical. I'm the sort of person who would go a Year Without the Internet; I'm also the sort of person who is suspicious of electronic toys. But, for many months now, this interactive book has been Milo's favorite -- and sometimes only -- solo activity. He turns the pages, and he presses the green "Go" circle, and in return, his pink, bean-shaped friend tells him stories.

His favorite of the books that go with this favorite toy is A to Z Adventure. It's been missing for more than a week. They're pamphlets, really, that you change out along with a corresponding cartridge, and it's a miracle that I haven't lost them all. But Milo is unforgiving. Once every day and sometimes twice, he tries to crawl up onto my lap -- even when I'm standing, in the way that toddlers do -- and says, "A to Z A'venture? We find it, mama? We find it?"

And I answer with my best Sympathetic Mommy voice, "I know, honey, it's missing. That's too bad. When I get some free time we'll do a big search, and I'm sure it will turn up. How about Animal World?"

On this Monday morning, reentering the weekday routine, I set out to find his precious book. I brought my full attention to the task, imagining that I might have to move every single toy he owns, only to find that A to Z Adventure was in a basket with his other books, pretty much right where we usually put it. I had forgotten that "lost" means something different to grown ups than it does to toddlers. Milo's book wasn't lost at all. It was behind something.

All this inspired me to do some math. The search took about two minutes: one minute for getting myself focussed, and another minute for flipping through his book baskets. Avoiding the search every single day of the last week? That was more than two minutes.

I've been meaning for a while to collect some scattered thoughts on time and technology, since I've been living my bare bones social life now for four weeks without a cellphone. I'm thinking today about the preciousness of a Five Minutes, and to whom that Five Minutes belongs, and how best we should try to protect it.

I met D.W. Jacobs a few weeks ago at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is the oldest garden cemetery in New England. The poetry of a garden cemetery under fall colors is too obvious for me to do it justice here. You'd have to go yourself, to feel that it is almost impossible to exist in that place without imagining -- at least in a fleeting way -- that life is meaningful after all. At least, there is a deep interconnectedness between the life cycle of the human creature and the corresponding cyclical grandeur of something larger than ourselves.

D.W. travels a lot, and it has happened before, while breezing through the town in which I live, that he has suggested that we make an appointment for coffee. On previous occasions, we relied on our cell phones.

"I'll call you when I'm in the neighborhood."

"Okay, I should be around."

D.W. and I have in common that we are both thoughtful people, which sometimes manifests itself as daydreaming, and (in the recent past) both freelance theatre artists, which demands a certain kind of slavery to our work. And I'm no better at keeping personal appointments than I am at keeping personal friends. It has happened more than once that D.W. and I have missed a connection.

But this time, we had set an inflexible time for our meeting; without a cell phone, there is no other way to do it. And I was late. D.W. would have liked to hear that I was late because I had been lost in meditative contemplation under a poplar tree. In fact, I had forgotten to replace Milo's car seat after having made room in my car for a guest the night before. But either way, just after 11:00 am on Friday at the grave of R. Buckminster Fuller, we did not miss each other.

I can't help but wonder if the impression of awe that I carried away with me that day, which has caused me to feel unqualified even to post pictures of the cemetery with this writing, could have stood firm against the usual flurry of digital communication. "Don't wait for me; Be there in five; What grave are you at? Oh, there you are. I think I see you."

It's a beautiful idea, to live without being plugged in. I think most people would agree. But it only works for casual social engagements in garden cemeteries. For anything more pressing, we need our cell phones. In the business world, in particular, time is money, and cell phones keep us from having to waste time waiting for each other. By saying "call me when you get there," you are saving precious time. At least...your time.

When discussing letter writing a week or so ago, I almost linked Lewis Carroll's Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. I didn't, ultimately, because the misogyny is a little distracting. You find yourself wanting to say to him, "Are you aware that institutional higher education for women came to exist in the West in the 19th century, contemporary with your clever little jabs? Do you think that, perhaps, the comprehensive failure of the female sex to adhere to your arbitrary set of rules has something to do with not having shared the handbook?"

But Carroll's five-part essay on letter writing is engaging and on point. He writes:
Here is a golden Rule to begin with. Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, “I do it to save time.” A very good object, no doubt: but what right have you to do it at your friend’s expense? Isn’t his time as valuable as yours?
I save my time at the expense of yours. Zero Sum Game, Part One Hundred and Eighty Nine: Selfish Communication = Failed Communication. If I cheat, you lose.

As I compare our present-day misbehaviors to those of Carroll's contemporaries, I begin to see the cell phone scheduling dance as a game of poker. The cards are the amount of value we each place on our face-to-face interaction, and the currency is one another's time. "I don't want to show my hand," is my unspoken subtext, as I announce that I'll call again when I am a couple of blocks away. "Something more important (better?) might appear while I make the drive."

I'm not at all draconian about my time, and have always thought that I kept my appointments flexible for purely considerate reasons. I want to protect my companion's time from things I can't control, like traffic and parking. But when the cell phone option is off the table, you also think a little differently about those supposedly uncontrollable factors. Knowing that there may be traffic on I-93, if I want to be on time, I have to leave sooner. I have to give up a little bit more of my time, in order to protect yours.

If time is money, consideration for others could become very expensive.

All this negotiation takes on a crueler face in the mechanism of electronic dating, which I have personally, very thankfully, escaped. I have listened, open mouthed, as single friends and relatives have recounted to me the labyrinthian procedures of "getting to know one another" via text and cell. Every decision is to be guarded, including when you call, when you don't call, how many times you call, and how much information you reveal.

The resulting power position -- created by veiling your romantic desires so skillfully that you might eventually have trouble revealing them even to yourself -- may press your opponent to lay down his measly two pair, telling you that he will wait, in which success you will have dominated the game. Your prize? Well, mostly the domination. A date? Maybe, but probably not. You have to stay strong in your advantage.

"Do you actually want a relationship?" I ask, in exasperation. Spending your precious time negotiating over which party will be the first to say, "I want to!" doesn't sound like very good preparation for sharing one's life.

Again, I don't imagine any of these impulses to be created by technology. That has been a recurring thread in this blog. I don't imagine that targeted advertising created corporations, or that reality-based internet entertainment created our appetite for watching train wrecks, and I certainly don't imagine that text messaging has introduced cruelty and superficiality to the mating game.

But technology is intended to give us what we want, and in that, I'm afraid, it is fairly successful. In this case, it offers us a way to avoid the challenging path of forthrightness, that one terrifying, self-obliterating moment when a person of any age has to say, "Hey, I think you're cute." My concern is that, if you've never had to look someone in the eye and say, "Hey, I think you're cute," how can you ever look them in the eye and say, "I do?"

If I set a firm appointment and leave five minutes early out of respect for my companion, and my companion doesn't do the same for me -- or maybe she does do the same for me, but any one of a million different things about life intervenes and she is late anyway -- are those minutes now lost to me forever? Isn't that a terrible waste of time?

Except, I suppose, there is always the world there for me to look at. Some days it is prettier than others, but it is always there. And aren't we always bemoaning the lack of stillness in our crazy, busy lives? If only I could get a moment to stop and think! So when that moment comes, why don't I take it? Why am I always so unprepared?

I begin to feel that my lack of preparation is a matter of being otherwise engaged. The more I plan my time, the less I use the unexpected pockets of time when they appear. Maybe the best way for me to have the time is to keep from guarding it at all.

"Tackle uncertainty," says a billboard on the I-93, just before I reach my exit on the way home from Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The advertisement is for life insurance. And I find myself thinking that, philosophically, that isn't terribly good advice. I've yet to met the man who tackled the specter of death and came out standing, regardless of the magnificence of his insurance plan.

But then again, maybe that isn't what the advertisers meant. For this day only -- I have no promises about tomorrow -- the message going up on my cork board is "Expect uncertainty." I don't know that it will ease every one of my anxieties, but it might help me to recover my Five Minutes.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stop Moving

It was almost impossible for me to get to the computer today. The binge is working. I don't want to blog anymore. A Year Without Internet sounds like a wonderful idea.

Nick stopped me this morning. I don't remember what exactly I was doing. It might be that the task seemed too urgent to allow itself even to be named, or maybe there were so many tasks intertwined that I couldn't distinguish. I've sung a few sad songs here to the effect that my husband works too much (and what is too much?...etc, etc.) but this last week he has actually been in tech, and everybody here who does theatre is nodding sympathetically, "Oh, yes, tech, the time when production departments start work at their usual time in the morning and then don't stop until until sometime in the early hours of the next day."

Yes, tech.

This morning I had one small window, squished between events, during which I was not the primary caregiver for our babies, and every domestic, personal, interpersonal and intellectual pursuit clamored for preferential treatment.

"Pick me! Pick me!" That's the laundry. "You're going to be late." That's the clock, counting down the minutes to my next obligation. "Yoo hoo!" There's my car registration, who is apparently in character similar to a yodeler, reminding me that it will save time in the long run if I can just get ahead on all my paperwork. The hardwood floors are reminding me that Stella is going to crawl any day now -- she's already mobile via rolling and wiggling -- and under the radiators is disgusting, and those three books I just ordered are sitting on my desk, probably gathering dust, because I'm not much with a dust cloth, and...Oh! I have got to get on the phone because Thanksgiving is practically tomorrow and I haven't even asked what we're supposed to bring.

And Nick stopped me. I guess it was for a hug, or just to get me to notice that he was home, which is the rare event that started the whirlwind in the first place. And for a moment, I stopped, and the world seemed very simple, and manageable -- if only for a moment -- and I thought, how powerful this is: the gesture of stopping. You can, just stop.

I'd love to tell you that when I started moving again all those pressing concerns were magically gone. They weren't. But, then again...I don't know. We made it where we were going on time. Stella hasn't started crawling yet. I still need to take care of the car registration, but the paper pile didn't combust, or even grow.

"Stay put."

So says the angel, America, to her unwilling prophet in Part Two of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Halt the mass migration, she demands. It is causing tremors in heaven. Your constant, incessant movement is disrupting the fabric. There is no continuity. There is no zeitgeist. You must find a way to stop moving.

If you could, would you un-invent the automobile? Would you undo the industrial revolution? Would you return to an era pre-Enlightenment?

Well, sure, if it didn't also mean I would lose my right to vote. And my washing machine. And American democracy.

We can't stop the flow of progress. There's been quite the campaign, for as long as I can remember, asking Time to (please) reverse directions. We just can't seem to get that bill to the floor.

But we can use these imperfect instruments, ourselves, as best we can, to keep discerning our direction. And artists are a part of that, as storytellers are. We are the mirror -- not James' mirror now, that cold piece of glass, but Shakespeare's living players -- aiming, with the highest level of our consciousness and the very best of what it is that makes us human, "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

In my case, this means that I have to stop talking long enough to hear what I have just said. I have to catch the self-conscious preening, or the invective, or an unsupported statement like, "the American work week is getting longer and longer," by which I mean that my husband's work week is getting longer and longer, because the next show is about to open and he is in tech. I found all three of those mistakes in Thursday's post and then fixed them, feeling strongly that I had worked on it for a too-short period of time and with a too-cloudy mind.

You see, this is what a bunch of blogging does to me. It makes me sloppy. Experiment over. Can I go?

But this is also my directive. Blogging, for me, is an experiment only in the sense that I tend to look at everything as an experiment, because I am an ongoing learner and passionately interested in cause and effect, particularly in the field of human motivation. As much as it might tempt my theatrical imagination, this is not Woyzeck and his diet of peas. There is no Doctor, paying me to do dangerous things to myself so that he can take notes on my gradual descent into madness. This is not really an experiment. This is my life.

And, more specifically, this is my work. I've created no unnatural impulse here. I have a certain set of skills and impulses that lead to this. Whether on a blog, or in the theatre, or someplace else I haven't been yet, this is what I do.

The above is my explanation -- for you and for my tired self -- of why I don't get to take a day off. And why I'm here, even though it is barely under the wire, and it is night, and I am tired, and I risk making more mistakes. As my husband very kindly offered, it is a matter of discipline.

Stop moving. It requires an act of will. Stop moving, and look around.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ten Ways to Simplify Your Life

It's a little out of character for me to do a list like this. But I've looked at many, many versions of this list in my recent journeys. And so it happened naturally that I came up with my own.

Here are Esther's ten tips for simplification. These can serve you (and me) whether we're working on the carbon footprint, or the monthly budget, or creating space for more spiritual pursuits.

1. Let Yourself Run Out of Things.
The day that you run out of ziplocs is the day that you figure out how to reuse the bread bags. And, on the day that you are running out of dish soap, you may find that you use only half as much.

2. Write it Down. Say it Out Loud. Hear Yourself Saying It.
"Purchased hot beverage...four dollars, seventy-five cents."
"Purchased hot beverage...one non-recyclable paper cup."
"Purchased hot beverage...9 minutes driving, 6 minutes in store = 15 minutes."

3. Do the Math.
Cost/Hourly Wage = Value in Work Hours

4. Use Your Imagination.
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. "My life without this object/habit/distraction looks like..."

5. Share.
Kim and Rick share their car. Elaine shares her house. It's generosity and simplicity at the same time. Or, you could say, free storage for your things when you aren't using them.

6. Take the Challenge.
Some people do crossword puzzles. Some people do Sudoku. Some people come up with creative ways to simplify their lives.

7. Make Tiny Changes.
Failure isn't fun. Don't set yourself up.

8. Keep the Chaos, Lose the Container.
Every kind of chaos can be contained...in the appropriate container. If your stuff won't stay where you put it, you might need to change where you put it. If you can't get yourself on time, you might need to change the schedule. If you keep the container the same and try to change the chaos instead? You might make yourself very tired.

9. Don't Have Stuff You Can't See.
If you can't see it, you don't use it. And if it isn't a part of your life, why is it a part of your life? See Item #4. Are you going to need it later? See Item #5. But you really, really, love it? Then bring it out and let it make you happy.

10. Keep a List of Things You Don't Want To Do, But Are Going to Do Anyway.
Avoidance wastes resources. Admit that you don't feel like doing it. Pout for as long as you need to. And then get it off the list.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Man In The Mirror

There is a screen shot of me in the Now post that is about as accurate as portraiture can get. There I am, with my hair uncombed, wearing the reading glasses that hardly anybody ever sees, not because I think that they're unattractive, but because my value system reveres clear vision to the extent that I dislike seeing myself using technology to augment mine. I'm 20/20 or bust, in metaphor and in life. I do eventually have to wear my glasses, or I get a headache, but that it isn't how I present myself. It's private. It's like looking at myself in the mirror.


"Mirror, mirror, on the wall...Who is the fairest of us all??"


Move over, Disney. I have the most interactive mirror in the world.


There's a Bible verse that has followed me all my life, in and out of religion. It's James 1:23, and my intention here is not to start a conversation about the Bible. There are many other places where you can go to have that conversation. Rather, I recognize this verse to function as well in isolation, rendering a simple truth of the human condition. Warning the reader about the difference between "hearing" and "doing," James draws a figure who looks at himself in the mirror, and then walks away and forgets what he has seen. I have a hair trigger response to hypocrisy, as we all do -- ironically, that sensitivity exists only when we're looking outside of ourselves -- and I recognize this figure from a thousand real life interactions. In the personal, the political, and the personal as political, people simply cannot remember what they look like. And the logic follows: if you go to the mirror to cleanse yourself, it is likely that you will end up with some very shiny glass.


At the age of ten, I was a better Bible scholar than I have been since. Ten-year-olds have a way of being sure of things. And, like most ten-year-olds, I didn't understand pop music. I did like it, but I didn't understand it. Who needs nostalgia before you have lived long enough to lose anything? And this -- this particular blend of wisdom and ignorance -- is what led me to to have a disagreement with Michael Jackson.


A Facebook friend linked this youtube video shortly after he died: Michael Jackson at the Grammy's in 1989, bringing the house down -- come on, sing it with me, now --"I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways." When I watch it now I think, "What an amazing performer he was!" On that giant stage, that whole choir full of passionate voices just disappears behind him. They can't compete. He's terrific.


But in 1989, I had a better idea of my own intelligence. "Michael Jackson, you may be the most extraordinary performer I've ever seen. You may share with Jack White and Chita Rivera the ability to put off your skin, to sing your vocal cords right out of existence so that the audience can see through to the beating heart within. But, Michael Jackson, this will never work. You see, I know this one. You can't change yourself by looking at your reflection."


Eventually I turned eleven. And then I turned twelve, and so on, and I guess I forgot. I certainly didn't have that wisdom when I was fifteen and trying to fit into a certain pair of jeans, by looking at myself in the mirror. I didn't have it as a director, trying to get to be a better artist, by looking at myself in the print reviews. I didn't have it as a parent, trying to raise better kids, judging my parenting by what it might look like to other parents. It will never work, Michael Jackson. It's a genuine, heartfelt, beautiful desire. But it will never work.


I mentioned this last night to my brother Jacob, as we were driving down Mass Ave, taking Beth back to her dorm room with a new-to-her microwave in the back of the car. Jacob is nothing if not thoughtful, and had an intimidating supply of salient points on the subject. "Have you had a chance to look at the research," he asked, "that finds that people are actually more productive when there is a mirror in the room?"


I hadn't.


"It's a function of self-awareness," he said, "and the construction of the exoself." It's a little challenging for me to quote Jacob, because in the hierarchy of intelligence as measured by knowledge, which I dislike and find false, yet also recognize to be observable, Jacob is smarter than I am. But there is one point that didn't escape me at all:


"The image of yourself keeps you motivated, because it allows you to to compare what you are doing with what you should be doing."


We all know a little something about that.


Desiring maximum productivity, Jacob has strategically placed his mirrors. I thought briefly about moving the big mirror from the hallway a little closer to my desk. But then I remembered that my desk is currently wearing a book called Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which I don't have the time to read. Unlike Jacob, I don't have a job. And I don't want to be productive. For this one special, magic year when my kids are still babies and I'm not yet tired of New England, I want to just live.


The growing awareness of the conflict between productivity and life is like a rabbit hole, like Neo's red pill. The more I stop working, the more I realize how much life there is to be led, if I only I could stop working. And the only way to stop working is to stop desiring success, and the only way to break my love affair with success is to try to tear my eyes away -- like Narcissus -- from my own pretty reflection in the pool.


These are not original ideas. Those lilies of the field... They toil not, neither do they spin. Neither do they spend too much time looking in the mirror.


Aside from the issue of personal spirituality -- that loss of open space -- I've been beginning to address the effect of 24/7 media access on the locus of control. I've written a half a dozen posts about how I want my decision-making back. I want to decide how I hold the people I love. I want to decide how to spend and save my money. I want to decide how to be a feminist. But all the while, I keep wanting to know how I look. How does this feminism look on me? Does it make me look fat? How about this Christianity? Does it make me look stupid? How about this quiet of the soul? Does it make me look like a lazy housewife?


I'd better go check the mirror. I'd better check my image in the mirror against this full-scale bitmap of the world.


I don't imagine it to be conspiracy, that keeps us in the thrall of our own reflections. I don't imagine it to be conspiracy, either, that makes us work as hard as we do. We're all too smart for that. We wouldn't fall for it. No, this can only be happening because we want it to happen. But why is that? Are we over-performing for our omnipresent mirrors? Is this nonstop drive to accomplish only another facet of our nonstop, every-second-of-the-day awareness of ourselves from the outside in?


"Mirror, mirror, on the wall..."


I am concerned about the repercussions that our mirror-watching may have on our mental health. I am concerned about the extent to which we already live outside of ourselves. We split our identity from our attributes and work the two against each other.


"I hate my body."
"I am not in control of my anger."
"I don't feel my pain."


Are we trying to live our entire lives in that mirror?


It will never work, Michael Jackson. It makes a great pop song. It's a beautiful, true impulse. But it just won't work. We can't stare our bodies into imagined states of perfection. We can't live our lives without experiencing anger. And even if we hide our faults from everyone -- including ourselves -- they won't just go away.


And this brings me to the edge of it; in these concerns, I am officially out of my league. I probably shouldn't even have brought it up, since even my Year Without Internet is not the training that I need to address that kind of darkness. Maybe I will someday get that kind of training.


In the meantime, I will keep listening to my Michael Jackson, understanding now what nostalgia is, and how that might apply.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is She Still Talking?

I can't blog today. I can't spend another minute listening to my own voice. And the book that Kirsten recommended, Three Steps on The Ladder of Writing, has arrived. As Milo would say, "Bye bye, mama."

But I am here to fulfill my posting obligation. For anyone who comes here because these posts make you think, here are a couple of topics to think about, on the subject of writing. And, if anybody else wants to talk for a while? Please, feel free!

1. Can I Get An Editor in Here, Please?

Hurrying to get dinner started, I felt like yesterday's post went out before it was finished. Then, reading it back, realize that it is too personal for me to be able to tell. This is like my experience with playwriting; at some point it gets too close for you to be able to see it anymore. I'm not comfortable with that. It seems like an editor would be of use.

And...I didn't mention this at the time, but about a week ago I had a very strange typo. I think I tried to make up a word. Nobody said anything, and I noticed it and fixed it a couple of days later, so you can't go looking for it now. But I wondered: Does anyone notice these things? Or do you assume that I know what I'm doing and that it was just a word that I knew and you didn't?

2. The Second Impulse For Fiction.

I talked in Exit, Pursued By a Bear, about the impulse to fictionalize in order to entertain the reader. Now I'm feeling an impulse to turn to fiction to satisfy the writer. To put it crudely, now that I've used my mother's death, on the 18th day of my blogging month, I might have just run out of material.

What I'm preparing to do is not fiction, but it isn't documentary either. I'm accepting that I need to be at home with the kids, so if I'm going to practice the craft of storytelling, the available subject is me. And I'm organizing me into something that is interesting enough to write about. On the page, this looks perverse. Why do I have to do experiments with my life? Why don't I just write fiction?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"How Addicted Am I?"

I've just come in the door from doing my grocery shopping. I've gone to three different stores, and Stella is starting to get fussy in her carrier. Milo has dirt on his shoes and would like to "help" me put the groceries away. There is milk getting warm on the counter, and chicken in the grocery bag. What do I do?

I turn on the computer.

In one 24 hour stretch not too long ago I received two personal confessions, almost identical in content. "Sometimes," these two perfectly functional, unquestionably sane people told me, "I find myself sitting in front of my computer, just refreshing my email page. Just hitting the refresh button, over and over again."

A few days before that, when I was just starting this project, my friend Liza sent me a Facebook message. She has no internet at home, and controls her media intake via a Netflix account she manages from work. And she likes it that way. But then she goes on to say:

I lost my cell phone last weekend...I don't have a landline...and got extremely anxious because I was completely out of touch with the world...amazingly though, I got through a list of things I had put off because there was nothing to distract me.

There was something to distract me from the dozen tiny things that needed done when I got home from the grocery store. And there was something to distract my two desk-working friends who caught themselves behaving like bar-pushing test monkeys, looking for their serotonin reward. But there wasn't anything to distract Liza, just as long as she was completely isolated from the world.

But which is healthy? I'm finding it hard to address the question of "how addicted am I?" without noticing that the disordered behavior and the sane behavior look an awful lot alike.

Nick and I cancelled our cellphones on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, Nick was home and parenting, so I opened up the blinds and got a cup of coffee and sat down to read my blogs. One of the first ones I go to is Daiquiri, who commented here the other day. She's my sister-in-law. Towards the bottom of a post full of beautiful pictures of her beautiful children, I read this:

(Besides, Thomas has developed quite the cough and runny nose...please pray for him. AND Luke's grandma is in the hospital tonight with heart problems. Please REALLY pray for her!)

And I put down my coffee. Luke is Nick's brother. "Honey," I said, "have we told your family that we cancelled our cellphones?"

We had not.

She's okay, their grandma. I'm watching my mailbox for a letter from her as we speak. But the feeling that I had that morning -- before I learned that Luke had also sent us both an email, which I had not immediately received because he sent it to my old email address, and my forwarding has a delay -- was nothing less than Panic.

"What if something had happened? And I didn't know? What if nobody told me?"

My first point is that it isn't fair to treat the internet like it's only made of pixels. It's where our people are. And any discussion of disordered internet use -- which undoubtedly does exist -- needs also to be a discussion of how we hold the people we love.

But my second point is that this Panic, which I depend on the internet to alleviate, is also maintained by the internet. Learning something about the health condition of someone you care about in parentheses near the bottom of a blog post does not inspire confidence. In turns I am grateful that I happened to read that post, because otherwise I wouldn't have known, and very sorry that I happened to read that post, because otherwise I wouldn't have known.

Nick wasn't fazed. While I was experiencing Panic, he was doing his thing with his family in his own way. Although he didn't say this to me at the time, I think he probably noticed that there is a time difference between Idaho and Massachusetts, and making a panic-stricken, predawn phone call isn't really how Nick does things.

"Okay, Mr. Sane, whatever. You obviously don't spend enough time on the internet, thinking you can wait for a piece of information."

But Nick was sure. Whether Daiquiri mentioned it in her blog or didn't affected nobody in this house but me. I went to my Saturday ceramics class -- which comes just in time, every week -- and Nick talked to his brother later that day, and everybody is fine.

But I still find myself feeling nervous. And, sometimes, I find myself feeling scared.

"What if something happens? And nobody tells me? What if nobody cares enough to tell me?"

I didn't have my phone on, when my mother died. There was an illness, but she was previously completely healthy, and the transition from ill to dying wasn't something I was able to see on the approach. It was 7:30-something in the evening, and I was at work, getting ready to run the deck for Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. The half hour call had just come over the paging system, and I was about to collect valuables, which is an age-old ritual, undoubtedly of great psychological significance, in which an assistant stage manager collects personal belongings from the actors in order to keep them safe during the show. My family called Nick. Nick called Christian, a union stage hand who could be trusted to be carrying a phone, and Christian called me over headset to meet him at the back door. I don't know if Nick had communicated the urgency of the situation or if Christian simply knew. During the half hour -- that designated time during which theatre folk put away the outside world to commit fully to the business of building our own reality -- no insignificant matter would have merited a call. I heard the words "flat-lined, twice." And I handed back the phone, and I went downstairs to the dressing rooms, and I collected valuables.

And I'm telling you that story here because this is the only way that I know how to forgive the Panic. This is how it happens that we worry. Because people are so precious. They're so greatly and undeniably worth worrying about. And love is not the part that is either reduced or expanded by the internet. That isn't the part that any of us stands to lose.

I haven't counted the number of times that I check my email in a day, mostly because I don't really want to know. Especially now that I'm maintaining this blog, I think it's a lot of times. But I recognize that to be a function of being human. We want contact. We check for new contact. When we get the new contact it feels good. So we do it over and over again.

We want contact particularly in moments of weakness. When I'm coming in from the grocery store, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of fulfilling half a dozen tiny needs, and I'm facing the likelihood that none of those tasks will provide me with a feeling of accomplishment, that's the time that I most want to know that I'm not alone.

That's why, apparently against my will, I keep finding myself looking at the computer just at the times when I know I really shouldn't. When I'm feeling insecure, I find myself on the websites of people who are more talented than I am. When I'm feeling lonely, I find myself on the websites of people who seem to have an awful lot of friends.

It's possible that I am particularly at risk of this unwanted internet use -- what you might call addiction -- because of the features of my personality. I am a writer and a communicator, and I am passionately involved and aware. I've tried to quit discussing politics on comment threads more times than I ever had to try to quit smoking.

And I am a bit of a hermit. Shy doesn't seem like quite the word for someone as intense as I am, but the end result is similar. I let myself get lonely. The computer screen offers me a safer, gentler way to be friends.

In the past I have kept on top of my internet use by making containers for it. I never get on the computer before breakfast, or in in that rare, precious time that both children are sleeping. And my computer automatically sleeps at 11pm. For one important stretch of time my computer went in the desk drawer whenever Nick was home. And there have been several times -- especially while working, and most especially while writing -- that I have restricted email contact to only once or twice a day.

All these things have worked for me. They've kept my addiction from becoming a problem. They've kept me from getting to a place where I stop brushing my hair, or stop relating to real people, or go an entire month without vacuuming, or -- scariest of all -- stop feeding myself, or my kids. I believe that this sort of reasonable restriction would continue to work for me, as moderation works for people who work in moderation. In the constellation of people, I am not the one who is moderate. That is not my function.

Which statement brings us back to a place we've been before. In my life, at this time, the internet is not where I want to go in search of solace. It is not where I want to go when I feel weak, or when I feel lonely, or when I feel afraid. I don't expect those feelings to go away. And I don't expect my need for other people to diminish. I hope it never does diminish. But I don't choose to believe that the internet is the only way -- or even the best way -- to reach them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Save Money, Really (The Money, Part 2)

Swallowing the frustration and sense of powerlessness associated with this entire conversation, I'm digging one more layer into the mystery of personal finance, in search of the place where decisions are made.


I, like most of my generation, am poorly educated in financial matters. I remember my older sister, Becca, teaching me how to balance a checkbook, but when the time came, I rarely actually did it. It takes too much attention. It's too hard. Now, as I rescue stationery and birdhouses, and use Freecycle in both directions, and otherwise conserve resources in a hundred different ways, I often feel like I'm doing penance. I think of my six weeks on a pink contract for Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, earning fifteen hundred dollars a week. Was I living rich for those six weeks? Was I living happy? And what did I do with all that money?


When you're working those hours and under that much pressure, you don't think about it. You don't have time. And if you haven't trained yourself to think about it, you don't think about it. You don't have the skills. It takes such an act of will these days, to stop the train -- to get control of your money. There are so many other forces, people, faceless people, who are offering to do it for you.


The banner on the front page of my banking website says, "Spend less time banking and more time living." Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Financial Institution, but I want my banking back. I don't want it to be psychologically divided from the essence of living. I don't want to imagine that control over my finances, my livelihood -- the relationship between working and surviving -- is some kind of an inconvenience that I should get through as quickly as possible so that I can hurry back to more important matters. So I can hurry back to... to what? To spending more money? To giving more of my money to someone else? Like...you?


I think of myself at a very young age, deciding how to spend my fifteen cents, or whatever small amount I first got into my grubby little hands. Should I get two lollipops? Or one lollipop and two tootsie rolls? They were excruciating, those decisions: delightful, all consuming. At what age did the power of deciding how to spend and save my money get to be such a drag?


Well, when I lost control over it, that's when. My 18-year-old niece asked me a question about money the other day, and I found myself tumbling over my tongue to answer. Please, don't make the mistakes that I made. Don't go at it blind, the way I did, the way so many people do, the way the world expects you to. And, most of all -- I told her to call my brother -- please get your advice from someone other than me. I am utterly unqualified.


It isn't my value system that I blame. I don't regret my trips to Europe. I'm not sorry I've seen Paris. I'm not sorry about the many, many dollars in resources and time that I have donated to small theatre companies making thrilling pieces of art. Sometimes it hurts that Nick and I didn't buy property while we could, and are now looking at continuing to rent, maybe for a long time. But we did have other things to do with that money, things that were in line with our value system at the time. Why spend money on a space that you don't really live in? Because for a long time, loving what we loved, and wanting what we wanted, our house was nothing more than a place to drop our stuff.

And, seriously, we dodged a bullet. We are just the sort of people -- untrained in money matters, unsure of our long term goals, and categorically uninterested in fine print -- who would have foreclosed.

I would like to pay more attention.



I realized, recently, in the same session of banking in which I bought the checks with stubs, that my bank has provided me with an overdraft line of credit. I don't want it. I don't want my debit card to be converted into a credit card. I have credit cards. And that is, actually, the one small stroke of luck in my financial history. Even though I have been blithely clueless, I have never fallen to the credit card hatchet. I am cheap, and I am stubborn, and a hard sell is to me like a bad rhyme. It causes temporary deafness.


Is it possible to get a line of credit without being asked? No, of course I was asked. There's my signature, right there on the form in my welcome packet. I couldn't possibly have signed for something I didn't want. Milo and Stella were with me when I signed those papers, so maybe I was distracted. But Nick was there, too. In fact, it's really his bank account. One of the other dramatic changes associated with my hard swerve from career-lady to house-mom has been letting go of my individual account, which is a capitulation that tempts me right off this unyielding topic of financial responsibility, and into another post's worth of musings on gender and family and power. But yes, of course, that was exactly the distraction! Now I do remember that we discussed the overdraft line of credit. And by force of will, I bring this back to the point at hand.


Am I really this practiced in ignoring things? That I can forget a financial decision even when it was discussed in person in bright sunlight with the most relevant party and the bank officer?


I am that good at ignoring things. I have to be, in order to survive my life in the information age. I ignore hundreds of items of information every day. The billboards. The banner advertisements. The user agreement and the privacy policy. I am very, very good at ignoring things. I would like to be a little less good at ignoring my money, particularly the movement thereof from my bank account into someone else's.


As per the MasterCard slogan that is burned into all of our brains: Fulfilling basic survival needs without the internet...20 some dollars per month. Actively making decisions about how to spend and save...priceless.

How Much Does It Cost (The Money, Part 1)

My Year Without Internet is not free. I post this early cost analysis with some trepidation, because personal finance is personal, and these details reveal more about me than a hundred essays about my spiritual yearnings. But in the interest of "follow[ing] the money," here's an expanded view of the inside of Esther's cupboards. Don't get bored.

Nick and I unwittingly began this adventure by dropping our cellphones. This is the simplest math in the whole post. Within a single field of technology, if you want more, you pay for more. Our three phone lines, with internet, cost between $160 and $170 a month. One phone line, with internet, costs us $62.69 a month.

The resulting savings, of $100 per month, would not have been available to us if I hadn't stopped working. As a freelance artist, lost calls are lost money. In order to compete with other freelance artists, you need to be at least as easily reachable as they are: therefore, carrying a cell phone was my job. The same has been true for my husband, who has had a salaried job but only recently stopping taking freelance gigs as well. This is an equation pair that appears frequently to the parents of small children: Not Working = 0; Working = x - Py, where "x" is the additional income, "y" is the additional expense, and "P" is the variable factor of Poor Decision Making, because you are crazed by your busy, busy life and don't have time to think about it.

At least for the moment, I am Not Working. And that's the end of the easy part.

I had very much hoped that I could tell you that dropping our internet service, opposed by a few incidental costs of life without internet, would result in a net balance. Wouldn't that be pretty?

Going without internet in our house saves us $15 per month. I could get the monthly cost down further by changing service providers, but would then have to pay fees associated with the change. I could cut out or restrict long distance service -- Nick and I have not been, historically, in the habit of calling people anyway -- but then I truly do risk isolation, and that isn't the point.

$15 it is. That buys 34 stamps. A whole lot of you would have to write to me to cause me to need more than 34 stamps in a month.

It seems tidy, and somehow scientific, to draw the relationship above, in which I equate the information transfer cost of Internet with the information transfer cost of direct mail. $15 each way. Done deal. But it's completely fictional. The internet brings a million more things into my home than direct mail ever did. Cutting out the internet creates the impulse to replace all those things. That cost is potentially infinite.

The bad news, I'm discovering, is that there is a cost to rejecting the dominant technology. Or you could say, I am punished for rejecting the dominant technology. The good news is that my husband and I have total individual control over that cost. And we have to think about it, which is healthful, like drinking castor oil is healthful.

Here are some of the things we've had to think about:

News:

I know I said that thing, about the dark wood and no path, but in the light of day I have no intention of completely depriving myself of news articles. A subscription to the New York Times, 7 days, is almost $15 per week, although they entice you by offering you half price for the first three months. At the other end of the spectrum, there are local free papers. There's a commuter paper that Nick reads on the way home from work. I bet Jacob could supply me with yummy day-old papers from the Harvard campus -- and by yummy I do mean doughnut stained. Or, in the spirit of humility, I could ask Marcella and Melissa and Terri and Kirsten -- the Facebook friends whose article links I read every day -- to occasionally hit "print" instead of "link." Small print, double sided to save on postage cost? I could send SASE's.

With the assumption that I will find other ways to supplement my diet of topical nonfiction, Nick and I are going Boston Globe, Sundays only, for $3.50 a week, half price for the first 12 weeks. This gives us a fat pile of news articles, the Sunday Opinion section, the coupons, and the classifieds, for $13.42 per month over a year.

Personal Finance:

Checks. I had to buy checks. I have used online banking for years, so this is a change. I got the kind with stubs, so basically I write the check twice: once to inform the entity receiving my money, and once to inform myself. This is all related to a concerted effort on my part to be more mindful of my spending, which impulse came originally out of necessity -- from two incomes to one income is a harsh drop -- but is now becoming a preciously guarded choice. We are realizing that we can live on less. Less money. Less stuff. Less trash. Less anxiety.

I spent $34.31 on 150 checks with stubs. It's reasonably a year's worth of checks, since I only have to use them to send money to places I can't go in person. And there are fewer of those transactions than you might think. Fudging a little because I can't currently find my crystal ball, the cost of personal finance by mail can be estimated at $2.94 in checks plus $2.64 in stamps, or $5.58 per month.

Entertainment:

If I were a single woman, this category would be a very round and attractive little zero. My entertainment is covered by reading, writing, baking, long walks on the beach...etc, etc. (And bird watching.) My husband, however, likes a little small screen entertainment, and going without that is a lifestyle change he doesn't want to make. We discussed the possibility of reinstating our Netflix, which we cancelled because I always felt bad about so rarely wanting to watch anything, and Nick was satisfied with Hulu. Reverting to Netflix, one movie at a time, would be only $8.99, and Nick could update his cue using the internet at work.

But so far we don't seem to be choosing to go that way. Instead, we've decided to use the libraries. Boston is a reader's paradise, and all the libraries are huge. I go to the library at least once a week because I love my son and he loves books. (Do you know that he actually sleeps with his books? Like the upstairs neighbor's kid sleeps with stuffed animals?) Nick has access to the Harvard libraries as well, so if we feel like it, we can get really obscure movies. We can even get obscure, educational movies, which Esther might actually watch.

In the end we did get our attractive little zero: replacement entertainment cost, $0.00 per month.

Correspondence:

With stamps at $0.44 per letter, and rescued stationery at $0.10 per letter (as long as the 10 for a dollar bin at Boomerangs can keep up with my habit), fudging again because of that constantly misplaced crystal ball, I might expect to write thirty letters a month, approximately one a day. That's $16.20 per month. My plan is not free.

Summary:

This little scheme will cost us, at this very conservative estimate, $20.20 per month. Depending on whether you are of the mountain school or the molehill school, this could be negative, or it could be negligible.

Or it could be that I need an entire additional post to address it. See Part 2.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Refund??!!!

You can now get $15.99 back from Disney, in return for each of up to four Baby Einstein DVD's, less postage.

I'd love for everyone I know to do this, if you happen to have any unused Baby Einstein DVD's in your life. I'm tempted to go hunting for some in the thrift store/Freecycle world just so I can have the pleasure. We all need the money more than Disney does.

Here's the research that led to the Federal Trade Commission complaint that led to the offer.

The New York Times covered the refund in late October, but I missed it. I guess I have been under a rock.

I heard about it this morning on On The Media, which follows only Radio Lab in my long list of weekend radio pleasures.

Do you think I could fit any more links into this short post? Enjoy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Where There is No Path

I had planned this morning to write you a post about information. I thought I might title it, "A Shout Out to People Who Know Things," and I would, in my usual meandering way, discuss the intellectual honesty that is coming to my house as a not-so-welcome guest of my experiment. I am preparing to lose the ability to look up any piece of information anytime. This is to say that I am preparing to lose the ability to pretend I know things. Without Google, I can't casually list the number of legislators in the combined houses of Congress, 535, as I did in an essay-post last week. Without Google, I can't resolve a dinner table disagreement over whether it was rampion or arugula that Rapunzel's mother so fatefully craved from the witch's garden across the wall. I can't finish the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle. And I can't instantly learn how to get a white heat ring off of my dining room table. (Iron, wool setting, through two layers of white t-shirt, presto, thank you internet!)

What will I do without my ability to look up wonderfully useful items of information like that? Have to watch where I'm putting my coffee in the first place?

It's Saturday today. And, like last Saturday, I'm feeling overly earnest, and exhausted. I keep drifting away from my discussion of Wikipedia, in which I'm trying to endow the phenomenon of user-generated encyclopedia with a degree of influence that it may not particularly deserve. "What does it all mean?" I hear myself asking. "How can I make this mean something?"

And I'm trying to find a way to fit in a picture of a handmade birdhouse, which Milo and I rescued from the thrift store along with our mismatched stationery and forgotten postcards. The picture doesn't do it justice. Someone made it. And painted it. And I found it at the thrift store for 3.99 and fell in love with it, and am now learning (from the internet) how to use it to attract a mating bird couple to our front yard.

And I'm tamping down a very small but creeping sense of dread.

This may not work.

This is not, please -- not at all -- a fear that I can't do my Year Without Internet. For God's sake, I can do it. But I am a little bit afraid that it won't help.

As I mentioned, it's Saturday, and that means my husband has been gone all week (and is asleep right now.) And I'm feeling like little Milo, who woke up too late to see Daddy before work a few mornings ago -- which means that he wouldn't see him at all that day -- and ran like a dramatic heroine to the front window, crying, "No working, Daddy! No working!" It was exactly the same tone of voice that he uses when I refuse to let him have a second cookie. But I don't care too much about cookies, and in that case when he cries, "I want it, I want it!" he isn't speaking also for my heart.

We can't explain this yearning away by saying that I don't have community, because I do. My brother and my niece each come over at least once a week, and they also babysit. I am not housebound. I have hobbies, I have a couple of interest groups, and I have a church. Yesterday I dropped the kids off at Jacob's house and went to Mt. Auburn to meet D.W. Jacobs and a couple of folks from Arena Stage at the grave of R. Buckminster Fuller. It isn't that I'm bored.

But I have space in my life. That's what small children require of you. They force you to make space for them, and then they don't fill it. And as much as I've adulated open space, it is also terrifying. It is often lonely. And it's silent. And sometimes, I think, it gives you knowledge of yourself you didn't really want to have.

I've been making a brave stand here against the big bad wolf, the internet. It's going to be SO hard. I'm going to be SUCH a hero. But my personal journey has very little to do with the internet, in itself. Can high speed information access really make a difference to whether you stand firm in your loneliness or run away from it? Can the absence of it really teach you to stand firm in any and all of your imperfections? Can turning off the computer possibly teach you to stop running away from your life?

In the hero's journey, growth always begins with a pilgrimage: like the Grail knights, into the darkest part of the wood, where there is no path. In the context of my real SAHM life, I think Jennifer described it well as, "My Year Under a Rock." In this modern era, that is where the darkness lies -- the quiet of the soul. It's under a rock, and I'm going to look for it.

The question is, in a year or so, when it isn't so eminently sensible (or even possible?) for me to stay at home with the kids, can I return to the world/internet/workforce with a greater sense of balance? Can I return with a greater appreciation for humanity and humility and spirituality and personal journey and all the little details of life that I forgot because I was glued to the computer, constantly scanning cyberspace for a quick ticket to resolving the inherent difficulties of this one great difficulty, life?

In this way I have an appreciation for accountability, in the sense that I won't always have access to a myriad of experts to help me fix my careless errors. And I have an appreciation for humility, in the sense that if I don't know something I will have to ask. I will have to raise my hand in class, as it were, and say to another person, "You know that. And I don't."

No epiphanies. No miracles. Just a lot of work to do to change my habits, with some short term consequences and, maybe, some long-term rewards.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Yes, I Will Write Back To You

I haven't managed the PO Box yet, and am not feeling quite up to posting my actual physical address, but in the meantime, I would like to let you know that

Yes, I Will Write Back to You.

As soon as I have an address where you can always reach me, I will put it here. If you are concerned that you are going to miss me when I'm gone, I invite you to write to me, and I will write back. I'm not really going anywhere. I will continue to exist. And if you ever find that yourself craving some piece of tangible proof that the world perseveres without the internet, feel free to drop me a line, and I will send you that proof.

I have a friend from high school who is an amazingly prolific and talented visual artist, who has a few times referred to his impressive body of work as the "detritus from my overactive drawing hand." I have an overactive writing hand, and will be happy to put it to good use.

I'm starting to draw a character here called the Letter Writing Lady. I think she wears purple, and has a bird feeder outside her window. Maybe some extravagant hats. Any costume designers want a piece of this? How about this one?
No? You don't think? Yeah, maybe not my color. Or maybe it just doesn't work without the bird feeder.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hilda the Hippopotamus

Here's a thought experiment, of which neither part is precisely historical.

Let's say that I find myself in a period of creative drought. (Okay, that small part is precisely historical, although not current.) In my frustration and sadness over this, I go looking for a culprit. Who can I blame? The obvious answer is my children. The babies are the thing that is new, this must be their fault -- or, rather, my fault for having them. Motherhood is an intense distraction that has made my thinking less clear and therefore affected my ability to make good art. And motherhood is important to me, so I choose to prioritize that over the art, with which it appears to be in conflict. Either way, I'm going to have to starve a part of myself. I can't have both.

What if I believed that babies are a normal and unavoidable part of the work as a creative being with ovaries -- maybe even used that big word, "necessary" -- but that the internet was optional, and a distraction? What if I heard people saying, "Lots of people who do theatre do just fine without internet. There are things that you just have to give up in order to make it in this very competitive profession, and internet may be one of them. You need to concentrate, and you may have to clear your life of distractions like internet. It's your choice, of course, but if you're going to go and have internet, then you just have to accept that it might be damaging to your career."

I'm going to rename this blog The Question Binge, because, apparently, the only thing I like better than expressing myself in long form is asking open ended questions and then changing the subject.

My husband told his office yesterday about our plan. I didn't hear about this until after bedtime -- what you might call pillow talk -- and I was fighting sleep to hear him talk about it. Actually I found myself thinking, "is he still talking? does he really have more to say about his feelings right now? Because I'm going to have to get up with the kids in about five hours."

And I have to share it with you just like that (no offense, Nick) because these are the revelations that become available to us as women become equally prominent as dramatists, storytellers and social critics. We find that the experience of wanting to selfishly fulfill your own physical needs at the expense of your partner's emotional needs is not associated with masculinity. Women do it, too. (I know, right?) I can only hope that this sort of revelation can wear gradually at the Mars/Venus map of mysterious, planetary-sized gender differences, which I find leads us in all directions away from the hard slog mix of accountability and forgiveness that it takes to actually succeed in our relationships.

But that's a side note. The story is that my husband was proud of me. As I was fighting sleep, Nick was telling me that he was proud of me. He told me that his coworkers had been impressed. They had assumed that this bold feat of A Year Without Internet was something we were attempting, and that we would discover on the way whether or not we could actually pull it off. Nick had corrected them to the effect that when Esther decides to do something, it will get done.

Thanks, honey.

Now that it's morning -- and I am exclusively a morning person, yet another reason, I'm discovering, why theatre directing maybe isn't exactly the best career for me -- I'm realizing that the kind of conversation that my experiment sparked in Nick's fast-paced, high-stress work place is precisely my goal. I do have a real desire for personal growth. There's nothing like having a couple of kids to let you know how much growing up you have to do. But I also have a strong impulse to publicize this experiment, and in that, I'm asking one great open ended question. One person says to another person, "I know someone who is going a year without the internet." The other person asks, "Why?" Mission accomplished. One person says to another person, "I know someone who is going a year without the internet." The other person asks, "How?" Mission accomplished.

Those two little questions, given even a tiny bit of real attention, can have more impact than all the meandering explanation I can possibly do here on this blog. We are such powerful creatures, we humans. We transform our environment. We make moral decisions. It can never be a bad idea to remind ourselves of our strength.

During our usual Tuesday library date this week, Milo brought to me a book by Richard Scarry, in which an unusually large playground monitor named Hilda -- I think she's a hippopotamus -- learns how to manage her own very special gifts. However, she doesn't gain this wisdom until after she rips down a couple of doors and sends the playground merry-go-round spinning down into a hole in the earth.

And, you know, it is a riot here on this spinning merry-go-round. It's going very fast. But I am not the first one to suggest that it is helpful, every once in a while, to see out of the corner of one's eye that someone else is trying to get off.