Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bright Copper Kettles

I'm not sure it counts as a Christmas song, or rather, why it counts as a Christmas song, but nonetheless it seems I hear "My Favorite Things" every Yuletide season. Generally I find the song overtly sentimental and sappy, especially when sung from the seminal musical it derives from (it's not one of those songs that was redeemed in later versions, like "Over the Rainbow" which takes on new poignancy when sung by... by... by that guy who sings it whose name I wrote down and now can't find). However, while I was waiting for the water to boil for some tea the other day it occurred to me I do have a mild attachment to a bright copper kettle.

I'm presuming they meant tea kettle, though of course you can buy copper cooking implements of all kind. I have heard that while they look nice, they are not ideal for serious cooking, so I don't own any. I think simply to boil water in, however, they would do just fine. Plus, they're decorative, so it's a bonus. I don't have one, though I do have a tea kettle, and perhaps it's because mine seems to be falling apart and I am in need of a new one that my thoughts turned to the shiny versions.

I own a microwave, so I am aware I could boil water in about a minute, maybe two. (It's an old microwave and the display is long since burned out.) Yet, in defiance of the rest of the patterns in my life in which I almost always embrace the more modern option, when I need water for tea I still prefer to boil it. Or if I need water for a single cup of coffee. I can't say for certain that it really tastes better – or even different – if I boil it the old fashioned way, just that I think it does. I also think the water out of the bathroom tap tastes different than the water from the kitchen. Yes, I am aware of my issues.

It certainly takes longer to boil water using the kettle, and when I didn't have a stove (back in college) I used the microwave. So it's not as if I have a complete aversion to it. As long as I have the option, though, I prefer the non-tech version. I think it adds something to the kitchen as well, and a kitchen without a tea kettle seems somehow incomplete to me. If I visit someone else's home I confess I am always a little skeptical if they don't have one. If you can't take the time involved to prepare a decent cup of tea, what else have you skimped on, culinary-wise?

I could draw a few cultural and historical allusions to the Japanese Tea Ceremony... but that would be stretching things far out of proportion. I don't have any ritual to the process, just boil, pour, and steep. I even use tea bags. (Because they're cheap, mostly.)

So while I could - and have - gone without a microwave, I think I'd be much more out of sorts without a tea kettle. Even if mine is stainless steel with a black plastic handle.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Twelve Lords Milking?

As the holidays are upon us, it is time once again to dwell upon the mysteries and conundrums of the holiday. Such as whether some new musical atrocity shall replace "Grandma vs the Reindeer" on the "most hated" list. Or where all those camels come from for the live Nativity scenes. Or what we're going to do with the bad fruitcake we'll inevitably get. (Doorstop? Anchor for the boat? Keystone for that new building?)

And, of course, what the heck is the order for the Twelve Days of Christmas?

I figure most people out there can make it up through five with out any problems. Singing it properly, without belting out "Five G-O-L-D rings!" at the top of your lungs and in tune is another matter entirely, but we do all seem to know the carol from the partridge and the pear tree through those rings. (Speaking of which, who needs five gold rings? Given what a gold ring symbolizes these days, one is left to wonder if the male caroler is perhaps spreading a little too much Christmas cheer under the mistletoe.) It's what comes after the rings where the trouble lies.

Which is a little odd, given that every year some of us will be bothered to look it up. There's that joke about the restraining order that makes the rounds, and it's played on innumerable carol programs and sung in countless schools. There are even many picture books devoted to illustrating the carol in fashions both wacky and sincere, and if you have a little child that you read to you've got that reinforcement. All of which should firmly ensconce in our heads what order everything comes in.

And absolutely none of which seems to make any difference, because year after year, Yuletide after Yuletide, we get it wrong. Then proceed to argue about it, debate it, insist that we're one hundred percent sure there are only ten pipers – or is it twelve? – and inevitably be called upon to sing it when we really have no idea what comes after the five gold rings. (I myself only ever manage to retain the song through the coterie of birds. Beyond that I'm lost.)

Which is why we belt it out at the top of our lungs, in the sincere hope that no one will notice we're just mumbling our way through the next seven days.

To that end, as a public service announcement, I present to you, courtesy of the Muppets, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." In proper order.

So that next year, you can look it up here, again, and stop mumbling.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

All I Want for Christmas

I could turn this into a shopping list but, let's face it, most of you don't know me well enough to buy me anything in the first place. Besides, it's been a while since I actually sat down and thought about what I wanted, as opposed to how I was going to get what my little one wanted, that I'm not sure I could come up with a whole lot that wouldn't be filled by family. (You know, like warm socks.) There's probably a few literary gifts out there I wouldn't mind, and a few I'd even like, but the majority of my wants this year are practical and dependent on my getting paid.

Other than a few intangible things that aren't really sold and therefore can't be bought.

None of which detracts from the season. As a public service warning, this is the one time of year I cast off my usual bitter, cynical, and pessimistic self. So if you're expecting some snarky treatment of the holiday, look elsewhere. This is going to be steeped in things like Holly and Misteltoe. (Come to think of it, both of those are poisonous and therefore probably not the kind of thing you should steep something in.)

Christmas is my favorite holiday. Something which is undampened even by the most lack-luster tv holiday special. "Olive the Other Reindeer" is a new favorite book... the hour-long cartoon was a terrible disappointment, not least because they felt the need to embellish the book. Whereas no matter how often I see it, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" gets to me each and every single time.

I listen to "A Christmas Carol" sometime during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Have every year now for the past decade or so, and it's just become a tradition. I have Christmas carols of every sort, and they will play on my speakers pretty much non-stop between now and the day itself.

I like wrapping gifts. I'm even pretty good at it, and it doesn't phase me knowing that big box that took me ten minutes to get just right will be reduced to shreds in the time it takes me to blink. It's part of the fun, and being around kids on the day itself is something I wouldn't want to part with.

I buy egg nog. I even like a decent fruit cake. Last year I even got to try some mead courtesy of my local liquor shop. I'm hoping they have it again this year. And in this final week I will very likely go shopping for everything and anything while wearing my Santa hat. It's not terribly cool, but I don't care.

And not least of all is the general sentiment that pervades the season. Yeah, it would be nice to have the feeling of goodwill towards are fellow human beings all year round, but I would contend most of us who are inclined to give and volunteer do so regardless of the season. Yet there is something a little extra in the air this time of year, and people who might not otherwise do so are willing to part with their time or that little bit of extra change. And do so gladly, and with nary a complaint. Many will do so solely for the chance to spread a little holiday joy where there might not otherwise be so much. Or any at all.

So that's my take on the holiday. If you want to shoot holes in my Yuletide traditions and spirits, you're welcome to try. I'm hanging lights and stockings and setting out that plate of Christmas cookies anyway. Maybe even some carrots for the reindeer.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Personification of the Muse

Amongst the writers and other artists I talk to, there is frequent discussion of the muse. And while I learned the other day that there is in fact no muse for art (though ones for history and astronomy, which made the oversight seem even more strange) there are of course muses for literature and poetry and other such endeavors. I doubt any of us actually envision our muse as the classical version in the toga and sandals, but I have noticed that many do tend to envision their muse in a particular personification.

This may be a practice which is more prevalent among the poets I know. They seem more inclined to attribute their muse a specific appearance. Sometimes I think there's a blurry line between muse and inspiration, because there's been plenty of poetry out there inspired by specific people. Just look at Shakespeare's sonnets. I think the muse can inspire you with regards to having a certain person in mind, which also means at times, if you view your muse as an individual entity, it's probably going to take on the attributes of that inspiration on occasion.

I generally don't see my muse as a person, least not a specific person, but I find it interesting that the past few times I've actually been moved to write poetry, the muse has taken a definite form and personality. I'm not sure why, though I could speculate. And the poems aren't the only thing I have written where I've had a person in my head for inspiration - indeed, the same person who seems to be serving as my poetry muse has inspired some non-poetry pieces. Yet in those instances, this person doesn't seem to be acting specifically as muse, just merely as one of those sources I draw on in my head for my prose.

Maybe some of this has to do with the difference between poetry and prose, at least for me. Poetry has always felt more personal, more emotionally invested. As to why no one else has ever served as a muse before I can't answer. This isn't a scientific endeavor by any means, and as with any art form certain flights of fancy just are, in defiance of a concrete explanation. I could say something was different about this person - but each person we meet tends to be different, even if we form similar relationships with them.

So no, I don't know why, but I do know that now when people talk of their muse as being someone tangible to them, I can nod my head in agreement.

(Would just be nice if the muse would inspire better poetry from me, since that's the form the impulse seems to be taking in this muse's presence. As it is... well, there are reasons I don't write much poetry in the first place.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Exercise of Writing

I've managed to stay on a regular exercise regimen for the past few months, more or less. (You try exercising with a head cold. Not fun.) Part of my reason for doing so is that, well, it's necessary. I had my doctor actually mention the word "cholesterol" during my last physical, and frankly I thought it was far too early to that. I also have a little one who is steadily getting heavier and doesn't understand why this should affect Daddy's ability to carry her up the stairs.

So I've been trying to do better. Lately that has me down in the living room in the evening watching "Good Eats" from the Food Network as I do my thing. Yes, I am aware of the irony of working out while watching a food show. But it's fun, it's educational... and perhaps in it's own way even motivational. Besides, it's 30 minutes and I don't have a clock in the room I exercise in.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Two things.

First of all, it gives me head space. (Even if I'm sort of watching tv. That's what commercials are for.) One of the things I like about the particular modes of exercise I do is that they can be done alone. Mind you it might be more fun to have some company - yoga comes to mind as better with a friend - but by doing so alone it gives me time during the day when I can just be by myself and largely let my mind do whatever it wants. Exercising is all muscle memory, and as the nature of what I do tends to be repetitive, there isn't much else to think about.

I don't always use it to work out writing-related issues in my head, but there have been more than a few plot points solved in that half an hour. Swimming was by far the best for this, but as I don't have a pool either in my house or conveniently close by, that's out for now.

The second aspect of what this has to do with writing is that I have found if I can establish and maintain a routine in one area of my life, it becomes much easier to do so in others. It doesn't directly translate, as it has not imposed a housework schedule on me. That hasn't happened since I moved out of mom's house, though it does get done. But by being able to create a schedule that I stick to, even on the days when I think I really don't want to, it encourages me to know that I can do this.

Writing is somewhat like exercise, only without the need for a shower afterwards. (Usually.) It's something that if you're going to do it, and have any illusions at all about being any good at it, you have to do it as regularly as possible. Someone whose opinion I respect reminded me of this recently, and I mulled it over as I was working out later on that day. This person was right, of course, because writing is a discipline that must be engaged in every day. Otherwise it's too easy to let those writing muscles sag and you add on those extra pounds of procrastination and ... and I think that's as far as I can comfortably stretch that metaphor. Possibly farther.

In my case, it's also done alone, as that's when I work best. Not that I don't have interruptions, but it works best when I can be in my own space.

Though having the tv on when writing does not help at all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stage Fright

I have performance anxiety. No, not that kind. (In case you were wondering.) The kind that comes from having to get up in front of a large group of people. Doesn't much matter what venue it is, either. I haven't been on an actual stage in decades, not since whatever grade it is they stop doing school plays in. I think my last "star" role came back in the 4th grade. It was a musical, as much as that pains me to admit it.

Other than that, there was a brief span of years as a musician. Clarinet, not the guitar or something cool. In a school band, not rock and roll. Which meant I wasn't up in front of people performing solo or anything. Frankly, being part of a large ensemble was much easier, because then you're just another face in the crowd. Your parents and friends can pick you out, and your name will be in the program, but most of the time you're looking at the music in front of you and not out at the audience. Which is much easier, believe me.

Stage fright sticks with me even so. As much experience as I have in a classroom, in all the different venues that I've taught in there's still a bit of nervousness involved on that first time out in front of a new class. I know it will all go well, and that my having done the same thing - more or less - hundreds of times before makes things go that much more smoothly. There still remains something slightly unnerving about walking into a room full of strangers knowing they're all going to be focused on you.

I think some of this has translated to my writing. Specifically the part where it needs to go out into the world and be shown to people. You would think, based on the largely positive comments I've received and a certain awareness of my own abilities that this would not happen to me. It's not like I'm unpublished. Granted, my fiction publications are more limited than I would like, but my name is out there. Heck, I'm a contributor to a book that's actually on Amazon. (Don't buy it, though, they still owe me money.)

And yet... just like walking into that classroom, there's a certain amount of paralyzing fear that grips me before I can muster up the courage to hit the "send" button on a submission. It's different than a classroom or somewhere else where I have no choice and must go on. It's voluntary, and if I don't then no one else will be left wondering where I am and why I haven't shown up. Still and all, there is a price to be paid if I don't overcome that paralysis.

I'm getting better at doing so. Not great, but better, and expect that even if I succeed beyond my wildest expectations, there will always be a trace of that apprehension. Even if I'm sending off the next sure-fire bestseller where my name will be bigger than the title to an agent who's been with me for decades... I'm still going to have that little bit of stage fright.

The show must go on though, right?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ups and Downs of Being Free

Most of the time I like the freelance work I do. It's interesting, I get to learn about all sorts of topics I otherwise wouldn't - such as the Orient Express and Great Lakes lighthouses - and it's something I can of course do from home. A part of me misses having to go to the library to conduct research, though I suppose if I wanted to I could still go and do that. I just don't see the point of being on my computer in the library when I could just stay at home. Unless it's for the ambiance.

Mind you, if something required a lot of research I'd probably still head to the library, but so far I've not had an assignment large enough to require it. Some of that is that I mostly do small articles, and the other part of it is that the last few major assignments I had were for textbook publishers and came with their own books to use. Which was made much easier via the internet, otherwise I'd have several volumes of books I'd never ever use again and a postal carrier who would hate me.

I can't claim to make a living at it just yet, as mostly my freelance work has been supplemental to other jobs. Even that in this current economy - despite the news insisting we're out of the recession - has been rather slim pickings. However, there are times when having that extra paycheck is not only nice but somewhat required. The holidays are, for obvious reasons, a time when extra cash on hand is a good thing.

This is one of the perils of freelancing: getting paid. I've been burned once before by non-paying clients. I made the mistake early on of working without a contract, and needless to say have not been paid. I did get a published credit out of it, and have made attempts to get the money I am owed, but it's become one of those things where it would cost me more to pursue my legal options than it would net me if I was finally paid. I do take satisfaction in ignoring requests from the client to help her publicize the book. (I'm a writer, I think being petty comes with the territory. To some extent.)

That one has continued to vex me for a couple of years, but it was for a small non-profit group essentially run by one person, so I tend to write it off as a failing on the part of that person. At the moment, however, I'm dealing with another client who seems to have difficulty paying me. This one is a university, and despite having billed them back in September I am still waiting. It's been an endless stream of red tape and bureaucratic hoops, all of which I've patiently endured.

Only to be told earlier this week that, in fact, they can't pay me without my fulfilling some sort of banking Catch-22.

I was not amused.

I'm exploring options on this one still, starting with contacting the department I worked for instead of the department that is handling the payment. (I mentioned the bureaucratic nonsense, right?) I know that eventually I should get paid, if only because in this case they are a university and I can't see them flat-out not paying me, no matter what the paper-pusher I've been dealing with is now saying. Also, I think the person I worked for on the project is not the kind of person to let something like that happen, which is why I've turned the matter back over to them.

Still, it's frustrating, and there isn't a whole lot I can do about it other than patiently try and solve it. (And make several phone calls to my bank and send emails to various people.) And I know, having grown up in a self-employed household, that these kind of things happen anytime you work for yourself. I presume it happens even to big corporations, but they at least have lawyers that can be sicced on the offending parties.

It does, however, make me further appreciate the consistency that comes from having a steady paycheck, and not having to file invoices that are, at best, only the first step in the process of getting paid.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Guest Stars Who Ruin the Plot

Maybe it's the recession, but I'm noticing more and more recognizable stars in bit parts on television lately. These aren't huge stars by any means, and for the most part they are people who've mostly made their career in television to one extent or another. They are, however, a step above the usual nameless extra that might have filled the role in days gone by. There are two cause and effect type things related to this phenomena, at least in my household.

The first is the "where do I know this person from" question. My computer is not in the same room as my television, so while I can and do eventually go look up the answer to this question, while I'm watching I am left to scratch my head. This can be quite frustrating, especially when I can almost see a person in the last - or most famous - role I've seen them in. More often than not, the answer kicks in before the show is over, but not always.

The second is more detrimental to my viewing pleasure. It happens when not only do I recognize the person, but realize that the brief two lines they just spoke to the detective (or whomever) was surely not enough to justify the paycheck they picked up for the episode. Which means they're going to figure much more prominently into the plot at some point. They aren't always guaranteed to be the killer - unless it's Law and Order - but watching the show you just know you haven't seen the last of them.

Which kind of takes some of the suspense and intrigue out of things. Granted, you could argue that instead of the "is this person the one" it becomes "ok, how will they fit into this" but I much prefer the first question over the second one. I have yet to see any show take this and exploit it by making the actor in question a red herring, where as the viewer I sit there and think "they're going to be important" and then they aren't. I suspect that's more a question of "we paid for so-and-so which means we need to get our money's worth" than it is a failing on the part of the scriptwriters.

In fact, given that the script is written long before the actors are chosen, that's pretty much a given. So perhaps the fault lies with the individual directors for the various episodes. Or as I said in the beginning, with the recession that leads these people with more famous faces to find work where they can.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

People I Thought Were Already Dead

As we're coming down to the end of the year, it's time once again to remember all those who died during the past 11 months. There will be heartfelt tributes, moving montages, and plenty of weepy moments.

Just not in this blog.

Nope, this is about those people who, when reading through such lists, I discover had only just died, instead of having been long dead and gone as I presumed them to be. Like Andrew Wyeth. Don't ask me why I thought he was dead, because the best I can say is that he's an artist, his pictures hang in museums, ergo he was probably dead. Plus I had this impression that he'd been painting around the turn of the 20th Century, which made it even more likely that he was long since dead. Shows what little I know about modern American art. Or just modern art in general.

Ditto with John Updike. Though in his case it was primarily because as a child I remember seeing the Rabbit books on my dad's shelves - and they already looked pretty dusty and old. If I'd thought about it, I would have remembered that Updike had just published something not too long ago, but again, this was a case of seeing his obituary and thinking, "He was still alive?"

In both cases, it's an instance of having formed certain impressions early on, which were for one reason or another never dispelled. I took an Art History class, I know Wyeth was in there, and I'm pretty sure - though I didn't look it up to be sure - that they didn't list him as dead. Yet, just about everyone else in that book was dead, so at the time it seemed a logical enough assumption.

You have to have just a certain level of celebrity to get away with this. Clearly it was not going to happen with Michael Jackson, even if he'd lived to be a hundred and two. His death would always have been big news (unless in the next fifty years we revamp the way we look at what is and what is not newsworthy... but that seems unlikely). So you can't be so famous that your passing is automatic headlines. It also helps not to go before your time, assuming that's a valid concept to start with. I've always found it to be a bit of an oxymoron, though I get the sentiment behind it.

No, you have to have just the right amount where your passing gets noted, but not with a lot of hoopla, so that someone like me can be forgiven for just assuming they missed the news. You also can't have done anything to attract a great deal of attention, at least not recently. As mentioned, Updike had recently published, but I don't think that was this year. Or even last year. And his biggest claim to fame, the Rabbit novels, were with one late exception mostly penned long before I was old enough to read them. (It would also have helped if I'd ever read them at all. I knew when Tony Hillerman died, after all.)

So it helps to have faded some from the immediate public awareness. Which, although I've never achieved it myself, would I think be a worthy goal for most who do achieve celebrity. You shouldn't have to spend your last years being hounded by the press, and aside from Paris Hilton I don't know of anyone on the celebrity A list who wouldn't enjoy having their private life back.

I suppose there's a certain ignominy in being presumed dead when you are not. Being dead, though, I also suppose they're probably beyond such concerns anymore. It might also help with that late in life anonymity as well. I have to wonder what Mark Twain thought about the rumors of his demise, given the famous quote on the subject. You could probably either be bitter about it, or wryly amused, and which way you went would say a lot about you as person.

I'm sure this coming year will bring a few more people whom I thought were dead into the realm of the actually dead. And I will, as before, scratch my head - metaphorically - and reflect on why it is I thought they were dead when in fact they weren't. Yet.