Saturday, October 31, 2009

Good, True Stock of Separatists

This is my mother, Carla Emery.

The picture captures her very well, from the broad and very practiced smile to the misspelled tag that accompanied the download, "calra-home."

I'm on a winding path right now, but it seems that no matter where I think I'm headed, I keep on running into my mother. Amy Chini was in my house one evening, shortly before Stella was born, just as I was beginning to realize that my confusing, painful separation from the theatre world -- which appeared to be a side effect of having babies -- was also creating space for me to write. I wasn't any clearer then than I am now how best to apply that knowledge: whether I can break into academia like the rest of my new hometown of Boston, or put out a chapbook and live proudly as an unknown poet, or continue to write selfishly for my own clarity of thinking and peace of mind. Destination Unknown. But when Amy Chini was in my house that night, we started talking about writers and writing, and suddenly realized that we had spent an entire cup of tea on the subject of my mother.

I'm the youngest daughter of Carla Emery, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book -- a book that is big enough to wear that long of a title -- and who trumpeted frugal living and the homestead lifestyle with singular commitment for more than thirty years. She died on the road, touring the country with her husband and a van full of books and pamphlets, sleeping where her people would keep her, and preaching the gospel of sustainable living: Get out of debt. Live free. Teach your children. Work for yourself. Think for yourself. And don't be the one left unprepared when the natural resources run out.

Like any self-respecting young adult, I didn't take my mom too seriously. The message was too strident, too scary, too much in opposition to the world we live in. And she hardly ever cited anything. Her truly formidable knowledge was specked with figments, scientifically unfounded visions of conspiracy and of impending doom.

But lately I've found myself drawn to her memory, not least because October marked the fourth anniversary of her death. I occasionally read her website, which is still up in its entirety, remembering with a shudder the intensity in her eyes and hands as she warned her audiences of dire consequences, disasters to come, and sighing as I look at that familiar tag line which I once found so embarrassing: "Ask Carla. Carla knows."

I hail from good, true stock of separatists. In my own wobbly orbit of Planet Carla, I have visited the barter fairs and the militias. I've met the Biblical contingent and the free love contingent, eaten with the skinny dippers and the puritans, participated in the late night drum circles and the early morning prayer circles. And, full disclosure, they sort of run together.

Today -- writing to you from a warm house in the city complete with slippers and cat and cup of coffee -- I am not the one who will go off the power grid. I am not the one who will grow my own food. But I am able to go off the communication grid. And the passion that I have to do this, and to talk about it, is something that I owe, at least in part, to my mother.

I have one copy of "the Book." It's the very shiny, modern 9th edition that feels like it doesn't have enough illustrations. I gave the other ones away, not realizing that I probably could have sold them. I watched my husband make bread last weekend, for the first time ever, and although I didn't actually open my mother's book, my thoughts darted affectionately to a line drawing illustration of her that appears in the chapter once titled "Grains." She is elbow deep in bread dough, with one child helping, another child enthusiastically offering up his teddy bear, and the baby (would that be Sara?) playing with a chunk of bread dough at her feet.

Here's bread and gratitude to my mom, on Halloween instead of Mother's Day, but deeply felt.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Open Space

The second person I talked to about my Year Without Internet was my big sister, Dolly. As big sisters sometimes do, she started organizing me. "You'll need some criteria for deciding what you can and can't do," she said. "What are your criteria?"

Internet, no. Cellphone, no. Land line, yes. Ability to dial 9-1-1 if one of my kids chokes on a penny, yes. Computer, yes. The ban is on digital communication. Only, wait, that isn't accurate because land line phones are digital now. No, the ban is on portable, instantaneous communication. Walkie talkies are right out.

"You'll have to decide what you're going to do for entertainment," Dolly said, "besides the kids. Otherwise you'll go crazy."

I disagreed. I disagreed so much that I interrupted. "I don't think so." I think the entertainment IS what makes me crazy. Addicted and crazy. Addicted to being crazy.

I remembered my Aunt Mary's complaint regarding the half day drive with my dad from Boise, Idaho to their mother's nursing home in northern Utah (pictured here). "He doesn't like to talk," she said. "And he doesn't like to listen to the radio. So I'm sort of..." She grimaced and made a twiddling gesture with her hands.

I'm with my dad on that one. I like the drive across Kansas, and would prefer not to have it interrupted. Are we built differently from other people? Born under a different star? Made fit to tolerate silence? Or has there been some grain of separatism in the mechanism of our lives, behavior patterns that we acquired somewhere off the beaten path, that have taught us this aptitude for stillness? I don't mean to stray into nature vs. nurture here, but I wonder: Is this a trait? Or a practice?

People occasionally try to save me from my puritan tendencies. One beloved friend (and you know who you are, lady) tends to encourage me to let my toddler watch videos. I do sometimes let him watch videos. An example is our adventurous drive from San Diego to Boston, during which I gave exactly as much brain space to charging the DVD player as I did to keeping my gas tank full.

"There's nothing wrong with it," my friend says, meaning television, "and it can give you a bit of a break." She may be thinking to herself that I'm a perfectionist (which I am) and a control freak (which I am) and I just need to be reminded to relax.

But for me TV is not relaxing. Even the sound of it in another room tends to affect me for the worse. It's just too emotionally loud, too effectively geared to manipulate, for me to let it fade into the background. I know this because my resting state is without TV. And I'm here to test a muddy hypothesis that internet is doing the same thing.

It might go without saying here that my sensitivity to informational noise is informed by the struggle to generate art. I won't go into the chicken and egg question of whether my sensitivity came from trying to make art or trying to make art came from the sensitivity, but clearly I have both.

Theatre folk know well the first couple of sentences of Peter Brooks' book The Empty Space:
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged.
I think (hope?) I'm creating an empty space.

Do other makers of pictures and manipulators of ideas out there find that your creative state is adversely affected by informational noise? Magazines, advertisements, talk radio, calls from your mom? Or maybe you find the opposite: it's difficult to get moving on a project without some good internet-style instant feedback. Like, say, you might want to blog for a while -- a month or so, maybe -- to kick up some ideas for a book?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Card Catalogs

The first person I floated this idea to (not counting Sam) was my husband. It affects him rather closely. "I think I want to do a year off line, partly because I really want that kind of life and I may never have this kind of a chance again, and partly as a stunt that can organize some writing."

In typical Nick fashion, he considered it for a while before responding. "Here's my question," he said. "How much research will you need to do for this book? And how will you do the research if you can't use the internet?"

Question: Do card catalogs still exist?

Answer: Yes. You can use them for storing spices.

Cut to a vision of myself walking the stacks of the Harvard libraries, reaching out my hand towards a mass of musty hardcovers and praying for guidance. "Please, let my hand fall on a book that is lively, informative and concise, and also relevant."

Is that what we used to call "browsing?"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This is What Mommy Blogs are Good For

When you have something wonderful to celebrate and you're the only adult in the house and it's still too early for it to be light outside, let alone to call a friend:

Milo just said, "B is for Book." I've been working on B is for Bunny, and B is for Baby, but we haven't done B is for Book. Unless he learned that phrase from my niece -- who is apparently related to me because she teaches language skills as continuously and with as much enthusiasm as I do -- he has made the letter-sound connection!! Pointing to the letters on the keyboard, he says, "B, buh buh buh, B says buh, B is for Book." You know it!!

Now he's saying, "don't touch my letters," which I think means that I should stop typing for a while and celebrate. How should we celebrate? Clearly, we should read some Books.

I'm glad I had a mommy blog today so I could share that with you. To be filed under "things I will miss."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How ARE you going to do it?

This whole thing started a little more than a week ago, when my husband and I cancelled our cellphone service. We did this for financial reasons, although I will admit to letting certain people imagine it was in the spirit of simple living.

The customer service agent's name was Sam, and she sounded concerned. "Can I ask why you're considering cancelling your cellphone service today? You know, there are a lot of things we could do to lower the cost on this. We could drop it to a single line today and that would substantially lower your monthly payment."

I decided to try to be funny. My husband was home. My husband is funny, and when he's around I often try to be funny, too. "Sam," I said, "I'm writing a book about how to survive without a cellphone for an entire year. This is my research."

I grinned at my husband and pointed at the phone. See how I'm getting out of this sales pitch?

Sam's tone changed completely. "That is so cool," she said. "I would totally read that book." Then she hesitated, and her tone changed again. "How are you going to do it?"

I wish her enthusiasm had made it any easier to drop the cellphone service. We had two more phone calls ahead of us, and although I think their customer service is a little more endurable when you try to cancel your plan than when you sign up for it in the first place -- the least motivated agents seem to go to customers who have already decided to buy -- it was still a royal pain to get ourselves disentangled.

That evening, as I practiced juggling in the kitchen and listened to my two-year-old son's bedtime ritual with Daddy, I remembered Sam's incredulity. I've heard that tone before: As a home-schooled teenager starting college at age 15, "Wow, you must be really smart." As a young adult, "You don't have a TV? Don't you get bored?" As a pregnant woman choosing home birth with a qualified midwife, "Isn't that dangerous?" And recently, from the ComCast employee who installed our internet service, bundled with digital phone, "How are you going to do it with two kids and no cable?" When I told him that I didn't actually like TV, I mean really like TV, at all, he had shrugged and waved at my two year old. "I bet he does, though."

It's true. My kid does like to watch television. He also would like to eat macaroni and cheese for every meal, go all day without having his diaper changed and follow a seagull into the Atlantic Ocean. There are certain things that we don't let him decide.

Of course I'm not suggesting that purchasing cable TV service is like letting your child drown. There are no similarities as far as I can tell. What I am approaching is this question: Who made that decision? And if you think you made that decision, are you sure?

Since my encounter with Sam I have been obsessively observing which lifestyle choices I think of as choices, and which ones I don't think about at all. Is it really more difficult to live life without a cellphone? Does it adversely affect the life I'm actually living, or is it left over from another time and place? And while I'm thinking about it, What Is My Deal With The Internet?

This is the question I'm setting out to answer, for one year, with a pledge to journal the whole experience -- but without a way to post that journal for instantaneous feedback. It's partly a year of growth and introspection, like self-guided grad school. It's partly an effort to spend this finite time completely focused on my kids, who seem to get older very suddenly whenever I look away. And it's partly self-source psychological research. (ha ha!) Will I be different once I've had some time free from the internet? Will I think differently? Would you?

And maybe I will someday roll this experience (with your thoughts!) into a book, in which case I'll call Sam back and tell her where to buy it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Year Without Internet

I'm going off the internet.

(insert sun burst here)

Having recently learned how to live without my career, how to live without a workplace to organize my sense of accomplishment, how to live without daily performance assessment in person and in print, and -- most relevant -- how to live without my own source of income, I realize that I may never again have this opportunity.

So in December of 2009, just in time to devote the extra free time to celebrating Christmas -- yes, that holiday again -- I'm going off the internet.

And because I am a creature of rituals and containers, on the way to spending a year without the internet I am going to spend a month WITH the internet. A month? I know, I know, but I want to take a nice long goodbye, like the last twenty minutes of The Return of the King. Does that not sound healthy? Well, I'm not sure it is. That's why I'm calling it The Internet Binge.

Encouragement, discouragement, sage wisdom and rants are welcome, here: