Thursday, September 24, 2009

yippie! hissssssss! hooray!

*note: this blog is messed up in Safari—don't know why!

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing. ~Gertrude Stein

I navigated to my blog from a site about whether shaving makes hair grow back heavier. I had to prove to my husband that it doesn't, that it's merely an illusion because the hair becomes blunted at the ends and because it softens as it lengthens.

I spend a lot of time at the computer. Sometimes I'm looking up stupid stuff like that to tell my husband, who, without it, would probably still believe that hair grows faster after you cut it, or I look up lyrics, a news headline, the source of a quote. Other times, I'm writing or processing photos or chatting with friends, as if they are right in the next cubicle. Only I'm not exactly "working."

I am an artist. Saying that gives me the creeps; it scares me. Because artists, as you know, are unemployable, and it's sort of why I'm sitting here at the computer at 8:07 a.m. on a Thursday instead of getting ready for work.

In between sending out résumés and CVs for jobs like art director and English professor, which are sparse (which means the space between is long), I make stuff. I flit from the camera to the guitar to the manuscript like a butterfly, lingering a time over each thing until I'm satisfied I've sucked it dry, mined it for everything worth taking.

Because my employment frustration could easily occupy my day, I decided to give myself something to do, some artistic diversion to participate in when the laundry was done and the kitchen floor was swept. And that's how I came to win a photo challenge—Survivor: Flickr Island—with five very different photos. I made the best shots of my life. And when that was over last week, I joined a photo class with weekly assignments. Every day, I work a little more on the chapter for my book proposal. I send queries and write poems and songs. I flit.

Last week, I tapped into my home equity line of credit so that I could buy groceries. Because I am an artist.

Right now, I have nothing to do but write and look for work, yet I feel an overwhelming guilt when I try to fill the day with things other than vacuuming and laundry. I rarely pull out my guitar anymore, even for that quick few minutes in the early morning with my coffee. And when I forget my situation and buy a six-dollar t-shirt at Target, I have a panic attack. But when I use the computer for my avocations, it's free. And it's productive. And sometimes it turns into a gig—a photo publication credit in a real magazine (this shot, for the California version of Family), a book review, a portrait job for a friend.

And it feels good. Yesterday, at about 4:30, the wind kicked up outside and began to twirl the rusty pink garden ornament hanging from my Douglas fir. I took 32 stills of it as it swung in the breeze. I stitched them together to make an animated gif and liked it so much that I turned it into a movie. It took two hours, and my husband complained, even though he was gone most of the time, even though I'd stopped while he was walking the dogs to make his dinner salad, cut up veggies for Hendrix the Creature (my daughter's bearded dragon), and would pick up my daughter from soccer. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, he says. I'm always on the computer.

And I'm sure it's not good for me. It cuts down on my attention span and makes me agitated when I'm away from it, like an addiction. It makes me sit far too much. It keeps my house dirty. But it's also just about the only thing I do right now that feels good. I have a sense of accomplishment when I see something through from concept to construct. So even without pay, there's a reward.

While I was making my video, I added some music. And when it was finished, I decided it needed something else—the sound of wind, some whoooosh to run through it as it faded to black. And that's when it hit me that I needed some applause. I tacked it on the second half of the video so that it would linger through the fade to black. The applause made me giddy. Every time I hear the audience clapping, I feel as though they are clapping for this thing blowing in the breeze, this thing I made, and, by extension, for me.

My friend Jennifer asked: what if we had this in our heads all the time? Every time we did something right, the applause would start. Every time we did something we shouldn't—like eat a cookie—the audience would boo. Would it make us think more about the things we do every day?

And what if I'm sitting here on the computer, doing nothing, waiting for the stroke of genius to come? Would they cheer or jeer?

Would they cheer for proving my husband wrong about the hair? Or would they boo, because they thought he was right? Would they clap for me as I sit here this morning, writing an essay in my blog, practicing a craft for which I am sometimes handsomely paid? Or would they blow raspberries at the waste of time?

Would they applaud the laundry and the pile of dog hair swept out the door and the made beds and the chili dinner and the washed dishes but hiss when I pulled out the guitar?

Is it an audience of disappointed, overworked spouses or an audience of artists?

Does the audience have its priorities straight?

Friday, September 18, 2009

happy, challah daze

Before spirituality became contagious, like a yuppie sickness, I considered myself spiritual; that is, I worshipped nature and “frolicked in the autumn mist” and babbled about the sunsets and the sounds birds make. But maybe that’s not because of spirit.

I am religious in my habits: the way I make morning coffee, the way I postpone playtime until my work is finished, how I worship the four-o’clock beer. I adore tradition. Just before Easter break, I pick my Jewish daughter up from her Catholic school early enough that she misses mass, and we have a girls’ lunch—at the same place every year.

It’s Rosh Hashanah, and since I first learned in 2006 how to make homemade challah from my friend, Maya Sprague, I have made it my new holiday—challahday—tradition. I spend the day of our celebration—which is nothing more than a loud dinner with my loud family—baking. I listen to music (today, The Records** and Jim Carroll, which go together perfectly because I have loved them long and well). I take pictures of the dough and marvel at the yeast’s magic and curse the sticky strands that never braid the way I want them the first time.

I love the Jewish New Year because it’s exactly when a new year should be: the kids have settled back to school, I have settled back to writing, and the air has settled—both cool enough to be renewing and warm enough to coax a little red into the last tomatoes. I love that this holiday makes no pretenses, that it’s about sweetness and life. I love the tired joke about blowing the chauffer. I even love the whole phrase, l’shana tova tikatevu: may you be inscribed for a good year. That’s the loose translation. The longer version is, “May God write you down in his book for a good year.” Even though I don’t believe in a supreme being (unless you count Bob Schneider), I do believe in the righteousness of the Golden Rule, which, more than God, is the foundation of every religion on earth. The earliest version is the most beautiful and the most simple: “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.”*

I don’t make resolutions on the Jewish New Year. This is about sloughing off the old skin and returning to the things that make me glow. And it all starts with the baking of the bread.

- - - - - - - - -

Maya Sprague’s Challa, I Love You


2 t sugar
2 pkg. yeast
2 C warm water (105-115°)

6 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 C oil
4 t salt
4T sugar

8+ C flour

1 egg yolk mixed with a little water
2 T sesame or poppy seeds (opt.)

Note: I divide this recipe in half and make it in two separate bowls for two loaves. To one of the bowls of wet ingredients, I add ½ C raisins, 1/8 C cinnamon, and ¼ C honey. Braid the rolls separately.


1. Add sugar to warm water; sprinkle yeast on top; mix with fork. When mixture foams (about five minutes), it’s good to go.

2. Mix the eggs, oil, salt, and sugar. Add foaming yeast.

3. Add flour to wet mixture, one cup at a time, then turn out on a kneading surface dusted with flour.

4. Knead until dough can be handled without sticking, adding flour as needed. (I have never been patient enough to get to that point, so if you find yourself adding more and more flour, just stop and continue with step 5.)

5. Cover dough ball with a dish towel and set in a warm, draft-free place for two hours.

6. Punch dough. Braid. (See Maya's cool video, or braid in three strands.)

7. Put braids on an oiled stone or baking pan; cover, and leave to rise one hour.

8. Brush bread with egg yolk/water mixture. Moisten finger with egg, and press seeds into the challah for decoration (opt.).

8. Bake at 350° until a rap on the bread sounds hollow (about ½ hour to 45 minutes).

- - - - - -

*from "The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 - 110 Translated by R.B. Parkinson. The original dates to 1970 to 1640 BCE and may be the earliest version ever written."

**Singer John Wicks has been doing fabulous things since he's been away from the Records. Check out Rotate; it's superb.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

saving all the dates

We were welcomed to our new neighborhood sixteen years ago with cookies and cards and dog licks and sweet children's hugs. Within a year, we were married, and just about everyone on our block came to the wedding. I remember the little Roesner girls playing limbo and dancing under the tent on the lawn at the Waverly Historic Mansion. I have a photo of Abbey, barely ten, her body bent backward like a yogi.

Lindsay, her sister, was seven or eight then and loved children. She was born to babysit and was always taking care of the neighborhood kids. I will never forget the day I found out I was pregnant. I told her I'd be needing a babysitter soon, and she said OK. About half an hour later, there was a knock at my front door. It was Lindsay. "Miss Leslie," she asked shyly, "Do you mean you're having a baby?" She was overjoyed and checked on my pregnancy often. When I miscarried, she cried. And when I got pregnant again, I waited until I was showing to tell her. She became our best babysitter.

We have shared birthdays and graduations and summer vacations with the Roesner girls. We've been to their ballgames and their recitals and their many graduation parties. I taught them to make mosaics (they're good at it, too!) and bought them books and tools. Once, my husband brought out our black rat snake, and Abbey asked to hold it. The exact moment her father snapped the picture, the snake bit her chin. Abbey was so cool that she barely flinched. We don't have a copy of that photo, but it's on the bookcase at the Roesners' house. The girls are in our wedding album; their graduation pictures are on our refrigerator. Lindsay graduated from Towson University last year and is now a nurse. Abbey graduated from School for the Arts, then Juilliard, then danced with Baryshnikov; she has danced in Canada and New York and all over the world. I wrote about their parents in my book.

These girls are the products not of a village (or a country or a world) but of parents who loved and nurtured them. I stood by and did my job as a neighbor, which was to let them in when it was cold and they'd forgotten their keys; to share cake and steamed crabs and potato salad; to lend books and borrow onions; to approve bedroom colors and ogle artwork, to cheer and rejoice and weep with them. Even so, I can't help but think of them as my girls, as if I did anything more than love them.

Today, I got the Save the Date for Lindsay's wedding, and I am verklempt for her all over again.