life

Okay, okay. I was wrong. I need a portfolio, and here it is.

Admissions of error are easier swallowed with a donut.

Admissions of error are easier swallowed with a donut.

After writing an entire post about not needing a portfolio, I made one. It’s a bit sparse right now, but it will grow as things get pushed out over the next few months.

There you go, haters. Now I’m off to smell the rain that has gloriously touched down in California today, curl up with a cup of tea, and forget all of you.

(Except those of you who need a writer. I’ll listen to anything you say.)

On another note, I’m currently enamored with this artist. Suits the rain quite well, or a drive at night on a lonely road.

In photographs: An eerie glimpse of urban life… right before mobile phones

I came across these photos today in PAPER magazine: images of New York City, taken by Gregoire Alessandrini in the 1990s. (Alessandrini was, according to his website, “a film student and a young writer/photographer in the 1990s.”)

Christopher Street. All photo credits: Gregoire Alessandrini.

I remember New York during these days. I grew up 3 hours from the city, and visited with my mother who lived there in the 80s with my dad, while she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and he the Culinary Institute of America. My mother knew the city well, and I’d tag along on trips while she picked up fabric or whatever (I was a pre-teen, so everything she did was boring).

I still visit New York sometimes when I’m on the East Coast, and I’ve noticed a big change during the time gap: Manhattan now feels like one single flashing television screen, blasting things into my face. The place offends me.

These images remind me of a quieter time in that city. But why do I feel like it was quieter?

Unknown location; some people might remember these gas prices.

Because while I loved looking through these photos, something struck me.

Lafayette Street.

Location unknown; New Yorkers stand on street corner.

Nobody is holding mobile phones. No faces are obscured by people holding up iPhones to take photos or videos.

In fact, people are actually reading papers. Real ones.

East Village.

Location unknown.

Not even just phones – our experiences of, and the ways that we encountered music, were so different. Because the iPod wasn’t invented until 2001. In the 90s, New Yorkers walked down the street to the sound of the city and their own thoughts in their heads. (Unless they had a Walkman.)

Location unknown.

As I scrolled through the images, I wondered about how the people passing through them entertained themselves without a squawking Bluetooth or streaming podcast to do it for them.

Location unknown. But does it matter where it was taken? How many of these same people would be holding phones if this photo were re-staged and re-taken now?

The world has changed a lot in just a few years, folks. It’s a little eerie to look back. And I’m turning off my computer now and opening a real book. I’ll probably have to dust off the cover.

Before you do the same, visit Alessandrini’s original archive. It’s a journey – make sure to get all six parts.

How a sandwich changed my life, or: Why we avoid making big decisions

You know the mistrust of heights is the mistrust of self, you don’t know whether you’re going to jump.

Janet Fitch, White Oleander

The other day, I was spreading mayonnaise on a slice of wheat when I realized something: Sometimes you have to jump.

Nearly everyone (except maybe very, very rich people) has something that makes us unhappy. An unfulfilling job, stale relationship, strained family dynamic. If it has bothered us for a long time, we may convince ourselves that The Thing is unchangeable. Some people even go so far as to say The Thing is this way for a reason.

This way, we avoid doing anything about it. We stay comfortable in our discontent.

In my life, one such issue has bothered me daily for months. Every day I’ve tried to calm myself by saying that The Thing is “this way” for “those reasons,” and I just have to deal with it. (It didn’t make me any happier though.) The other day, I was talking to myself while packing my lunch. I picked up a slice of my homemade wheat bread and plopped some mayonnaise on it.

“It’s going to be this way for awhile,” I said. (Yes, I talk to myself out loud.) “I can’t do anything about it right now.” I dipped my knife into the mustard, lifted it out—

And stopped. I was lecturing myself. I hadn’t given myself permission to make a conscious decision. I hadn’t allowed myself to climb up and see whether I would jump.

As I stood there, mustard dripping onto the table, I started a different conversation.

“What if I stopped telling myself what to think?”

I dipped my knife into the mustard again. “I would say: then it won’t be this way anymore. I’m going to change it.” I finished packing my sandwich and went to work. As I bit into the sandwich at lunchtime, I realized that the only reason why my life hadn’t changed was because I hadn’t changed it. And very soon, that’s what I’m going to do. 

Sometimes the best thing to do is jump–I’m about to do it myself. Best sandwich I ever made.

As Harriet Lerner put it:

It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.

PS – I’d love to get an email if you have had this experience.

How to create meaningful art, or: Why I don’t want (too many) followers on my blog

If you are a creative type, you are probably disillusioned with the way the world works. Because the simple, accessible content that you create will become very popular, whereas the layered stuff will go almost unnoticed. We live in a world where Kim Kardashian’s butt has a Twitter feed and a video about cats jumping off tables get 25 million views and news articles written about it, and a tour de force novel is pressed out in the author’s blood-ink to an audience of crickets.

But as a creative, you will also find that the process of creating the most unpopular content is what will satisfy the deepest part of you. Because it’s the real stuff.

In my writing education, it’s been pounded into me that the most personal things are the most universal. To create things that are personal and universal, you must notice things that are real and have meaning. You must notice your surroundings, your own reactions to normal and unusual events, and what’s going on between the lines of everyday life. You must question why things happen.

Those observations and thoughts prep your brain for the creative process. And when you end up hitting that nerve of creativity and start speeding down tunnels, there is nothing like it – it’s the crack that will remind you why you were born. No cat video comes close to that, and I’d wager that Ms. Kardashian has never felt it. If you only focus on gaining an audience, you will never hit that nerve. Your audience will leave scrolling comments on your videos, exhibitions, blogs, and you will wonder why you do not feel fulfilled by your own creation.

It’s because real art is created without any audience in mind; it is created to satisfy the artist’s desire. This kind of art is rare and dangerous, because it has a high probability of containing original thought. And the entire world fights against that originality by pumping out more and more stupid, distracting content.

Like I’ve said before: Find artists who ignore their own fame. They are the ones who make art that you have to gaze into for a long time before figuring it out (if you ever do figure it out), and music with lyrics you can’t understand without listening three or four times. That is time spent, not wasted. You’re processing all of the layers, and it will teach you about the world or yourself. You are one step closer to creating things that are real.

And when you create things that are real, people will find you – whether you want them to or not. It will just take longer.

Beethoven said all of this even better. This is directly quoted from Project Gutenberg:

The world is a king, and, like a king, desires flattery in return for favor; but true art is selfish and perverse—it will not submit to the mould of flattery.

When Baron van Braun expressed the opinion that the opera “Fidelio” would eventually win the enthusiasm of the upper tiers, Beethoven said, “I do not write for the galleries!” He never permitted himself to be persuaded to make concessions to the taste of the masses.

And unless you post funny cat videos for a living, you shouldn’t either.

What baking bread is, and what it isn’t

Recently, my dad taught me to make bread, that most cliché territory of romanticized domestic life. For many people, the idea of baking bread means baguettes in France and living on the frontier and going back to a simple life when people had time to spend at home making their own food. The contact of hands on dough, kneading back and forth across a table, and all the sensuousness of that image. Food is sex, it’s life in tactile form. It becomes part of you on a daily basis. Bread, the most basic of all food in the West, is what fell from heaven when there was no food in the desert. It is sensual, requires time and patience, and we eat it almost every single day in some form or another. When you have nothing else, you have bread.

This was one of my first loaves.

But all of that romance isn’t part of my experience learning bread. I don’t particularly care for France, or baguettes for that matter, and living on the frontier sounds like unwashed, frigid hell. For me, bread has changed the way that I experience food, the way I think about my dad, and the way that I see myself.

After ruining a few basic loaves, I respect food just a little bit more, particularly the people who have created it for me. Those people are usually forgotten, even though they  put work and time and thought toward creating something that keeps the rest of us alive. It’s not such a simple thing as we have come to expect, the creation of that food, but we have made it so by buying fully-made frozen burritos at the grocery and ordering takeout on Friday night by hitting the speed-dial. We forget that each thing in that burrito had to come from somewhere, and that it had to be changed somehow and given to the other ingredients to make it into food that nourishes us. I order soup from the Vietnamese place down the block from my office and I wonder how they made the broth and how much time it took. How they learned and who they learned from, and what that knowledge means to them.

I am also beginning to see my dad not just as my father who went to a famous culinary school, then ran a bakery for fifteen years and became known in our town for his pastry and dough, but as a master who practices a complex art that I never had the maturity to respect until now. I am humbled that I was so close to someone who has a knowledge this deep and rare, and that I never bothered to explore it. “My dad bakes,” I would think. Bakes. I had no idea what that meant, how much he had to know just to make three of the things that he filled his sheet pans with. I’m ashamed that I took it for granted and never asked him to teach me. Most of all, I’m grateful that I am learning now.

This was one from the next round.

Because I now see myself as a student of that art, and every time I pull a new bread out of the oven, I feel a sense of power that I have created something that never existed in the world before. It makes me think I can learn and do anything. Because every time I put flour, water, salt and yeast into a bowl and plunge my hands in, I put myself into a classroom of one. The entire rest of that night, I engage in a conversation between me and the bread, me and my dad, and me and the yeast. We are all working together on this thing, but I am the only one who can make it the right way or mess it up. And just because it rises doesn’t mean it’s made right. I close my eyes to feel the structure while I’m kneading and I think about the bread while it’s rising in the pans. Until it’s baked off and I consume it, it consumes me.

“You make bread?” Someone says. “I made bread once. Making bread is fun!” I have to just smile, because it would take too long to explain. Any housewife can dump four ingredients into a bowl and glom them together, let the thing rise, and stick it in the oven. Poof, it’s going to be a bread in the technical definition. That’s what the ingredients want to become. But that housewife will never know bread, and I am not standing above a mixing bowl for the same reason she is. It’s not enough for me to be able to impress dinner guests for the rest of my life with “homemade bread.” I want to be able to make a ciabatta in the morning and a brioche in the afternoon, to be able to control the texture and the rise and the growth of the yeast. When I get good enough that none of my loaves have blisters on the crust and all of them have unique and complex flavor, then I will know that I am good enough. Bread is so much more complex than I ever thought, and if I can master it, then I can do anything. But mastering it will take a long time.

That one came out the best.

And that is what makes me think that I am falling in love with it. Not bread itself, but that process of putting myself into a classroom. Of knowing very little and having a sense of being very small, and being hungry for more.

This is my brain on bread. This is my brain now.

Rediscovering something you love

When I was fourteen and in ninth grade, I wrote a love story about a girl in love with a boy named Connor. In high school, Connor got cancer. The love story continued after his diagnosis, but Connor didn’t make it. He died at the end, and the main character went on with life, forever changed. She named one of her kids after him.

I barely remember writing the story, but I remember reading it years later and being surprised that I had written it because it was actually not stupid. It was not a story of a fourteen-year-old girl pining for a perfect boyfriend. It was about friendship, loyalty, and moving on. Sitting among my old journals and scrapbooks of cuttings from old magazines, I read it with no memory of writing it. When I read the part about Connor dying, tears welled up in my eyes. I cried at the end of my own story that I had written when I was fourteen years old.

I do remember one thing that happened after I wrote that story: a specific ninth-grade English class with Mrs. Reinfried. She was an older woman with short, curly hair and black-rimmed glasses. Your archetypal English teacher in high school. I waited until class was over and walked up to her desk. We didn’t really have a close relationship, but she always said I was one of the best kids in the class. I figured she’d be honest with me about my story.

“Could you read a story that I wrote?” I asked her, handing over the stapled pages.

“You wrote a story?” she said, a little surprised. I had done my homework and sometimes raised my hand in class, but that was about it.

“Yeah. Can you just read it and tell me if you like it?”

“Sure,” she said. “Thank you for asking me.”

The next day during class, Mrs. Reinfried kept looking over at me, and it seemed to me at the time, a little oddly. After class, she approached me and handed back my stapled pages. “Did you really write this?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, confused. Why would I tell her I had written it if I didn’t? It wasn’t for an assignment. I had nothing to prove.

“This is very, very good,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Jena, it’s very good. I have a hard time believing that you wrote this.”

I looked at her. “I wrote it. Last week.”

She stood there for a moment, looking at me, her eyebrows furrowed. She seemed confused, and I didn’t understand why. I wrote a story and asked my English teacher to read it. Big deal.

Looking back, I wish she had told me to submit that story. But we lived in a small town, smaller than a town where people submit stories or get published. We lived in a farm town, where kids go to 4-H after school and enter their sheep into contests. Not their stories.

I’m approaching thirty now, and I’m remembering all of the times that I was told that I was a good writer. I’m a passable cook, an okay friend, and a work-in-progress romantic partner. I’m a sometimes-good Samaritan and a loving, if sometimes politically incorrect dog owner.

But I’m realizing that I’ve always been a writer, and I forgot somewhere along the way. It’s something that I’ve loved since I could read – I wrote 5 chapters of a novel in third grade, about a girl who ran away to Rochester, New York. When I was 22, I wrote another 5 chapters of a novel about a girl in love with an enigma of an Indian boy. Now, I’m coming back to it all and remembering how much I loved it. This vortex of a blog that nobody reads is a blessing in that I can write mostly without editing. There are other avenues opening up slowly, though, and I’m glad.  

I’m remembering that I’m falling back in love with the first love I ever had – this practice, which I find to be almost as sacred as meditation. So when I go back to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I’m going to dig up the story I wrote when I was fourteen, about another girl’s first love, and re-read it.

She had a point.

San Francisco has a lot of homeless people. They’re everywhere, screaming on corners, sleeping in doorways, and pooping on sidewalks. They have cavernous faces, and are often in varying stages of being undressed and unhinged. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk past one, or when one approaches you to ask for money. I have lost all sympathy for them over the years, and they can tell. So I don’t get approached anymore.

Or at least I thought. I was waiting for the bus today on an empty sidewalk. A few people walked past here and there, but for the most part it was tranquil. That’s why I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye, because it was moving straight toward me with no obstacles in the way. I looked over to see a limping, caved-in woman with gargoyle eyes, fixed directly on my face. I clutched my iPhone and put my other hand on my bag.

She stopped right in front of me and pointed at my face. Her own face was grey like crinkled newspaper, and folded in at the mouth. She spoke using her lips as she would use her teeth, if she had any.

“I know you’re a police officer,” she said.

I wondered whether I looked like a police officer, with my sneakers and bright green sweater. “Uh.”

“You’re going to arrest me. But you gotta like the job you do.”

I laughed out loud. “Yeah, well.”

“You gotta,” she said. “Because if you don’t show up for five days, you lose it.”

I’d never heard this pitch before as a request for money, so I didn’t back away. Yet.

“You LOSE IT. Then you go to the unemployment office and you tell them you want to retire. They put you in a psych ward.” She was still pointing at my face.

I nodded. “Okay.” Right, sure.

“That’s how you get free food and free room and board. Forever.” She changed her focus and her finger, pointing toward the intersection closest to us. As she walked off, I actually smiled.

I smiled. And I thought, You know what lady, you have a point.