Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Living the Vida Low Life

I used to live in a million dollar home. It didn’t actually cost that much to build but I was lucky enough to go bankrupt and find myself forced to sell at the height of the housing bubble. How different my life is today. I live in a one bedroom apartment which could easily fit in the living room and dining area of my former home. I have one tiny bathroom instead of three large spa-like ones. Instead of a thousand square foot enclosed courtyard outfitted with coy pond, waterfall, hot tub and flower garden, I have a 4 by 8 balcony. My home theater is now a TV in the living room.

At night I could look at the stars through the skylights in my bedroom and if it was chilly there was a warm fireplace to fall asleep by. In the morning the sun would filter through the plantation shutters. The thing I loved most of all was the beautiful pink dogwood that stood just beyond the French doors leading out from my bedroom to the courtyard. I really was living the life.

The funny thing is that I don’t miss it very much. It doesn’t take much more than cable TV and a decent internet connection to keep me happy. Food tastes the same on Corelle Living Wear as it did on bone china and you get used to cheap beer after a while. I’m still better off than a lot of people.

Yet sometimes I like to live at an even more primitive level. That’s why I like camping. It’s very satisfying to be out in the woods with not much more than a tent and a Coleman stove. Once again I can enjoy a warm fire at night and wake up to sunlight filtering through the trees. I enjoy the engineering challenge of creating a comfortable and functional living space from no more than what can fit in the back of my little Ranger pickup truck.

You’d be surprised how much can fit in that truck. My tent is enormous; a queen size air mattress takes only half of the space. I use plastic stuff from the dollar store as a dresser and night stand. A throw rug keeps the floor comfortable for bare feet. I also set up a ten foot by ten foot screened canopy which serves as my kitchen. A folding table becomes the countertop on which I place the reliable Coleman stove, a dishpan, and various plastic boxes of food items, plates, cups and utensils. I cover the ground with indoor/outdoor carpet.

Over the past few years my camping buddy and I have been steadily adding to the gear we bring. At first we were practical. We only brought items that made a significant improvement to comfort and enjoyment like the automatic drip coffee maker that sits on the propane stove. Over time we have become more frivolous – a mirrored disco ball, lighted pink flamingo, and a mini wind-up blender (it didn’t work very well).

As I watch my retirement savings evaporate it occurs to me that a further retrenchment may be in my future. Some day I may write about how I used to live in a really grand tent with a queen size bed and a drip coffee maker but now I am just as a happy in a backpacker pup tent. Maybe. But I just saw an ingenious device that converts an ice cooler into an air conditioner using a small battery powered fan. Can a propane powered, inflatable hot tub be far behind? I think I’m going to need a bigger truck.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What a Croc

Mario Batali is a disgusting slob. He’s the one who showed up to meet Michelle Obama at the White House garden for a Food Network special wearing his signature Crocs and shorts. At least I hope he was wearing shorts under his chef’s uniform. You would think that most people would have better taste than to wear shoes made out of the same crap as plastic resin chairs. Your first clue should be that both the chairs and the shoes are sold in the same outlets – Walmart and the 99 cent store.

Unfortunately many people see nothing wrong with wearing the most casual attire for any activity. I’m not some relic from the Victorian era lamenting the fact that nobody wears a tie for dinner at home. But I object strongly to people coming to a Broadway show in shorts and flip-flops. Flip-flops have their place – at the beach or by the pool – but I really don’t want to be sitting next to someone who is exposing his dirty, untrimmed toenails. Not on the subway, not in a restaurant, and not in a $160 seat at the theater.

The problem with the new universal casual is that it reduces everything to the mundane. Nothing is special. A performance by Joshua Bell at Carnegie Hall merits the same sweat pants you wear to lounge around at home. The pairing of Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a Sondheim classic requires nothing more formal than what you throw on for morning coffee. Talented people spend a lifetime crafting their skills, then practice and rehearse endlessly, put their soul into giving their audience the best performance possible. That audience spends all of five minutes to dress as if they were doing nothing more important than popping around the corner to pick up a newspaper.

Casual attire is fine in the right places. I even think that we overdress for some things – sitting at a computer in an office cubicle probably should not require a jacket and tie. But let’s at least have a few events that we elevate to a higher level. Think of it as a preservation project.

If Mario Batali wants to dress like a snot nosed kid at the food court in a suburban mall, I suppose he has that right. I hope the rest of us have the self respect to bring a little dignity into our lives – unless, of course, you’re going to dinner at one of Batali’s restaurants.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To Blog or Not To Blog

I just read the final entry in someone else’s blog, one that I discovered by random chance, Various Observations in Written Form, in which the writer announced that after 1126 posts she was discontinuing her blog. She cited various reasons but the one that struck me was that she felt that Facebook was serving her needs better than Blogger. She stated that “I have more readers there, and they're all people with some connection to me, so I also get more response there.”

Oddly enough I had been thinking along similar lines. I’ve been blogging for just a few months and with only 22 posts, I’m already discouraged. The problem is that I don’t know if anybody is actually reading this. Blogger doesn’t provide any tools to track page views so I’m only aware that I have a reader if he or she takes the time to let me know.

I know that people have better things to do than to comment on this blog, let alone send me a message. Thank god a few of you have done so. Otherwise I would have bagged it after the first month. My greatest motivation has come from the encouraging emails from Laura Zinn Fromm, the instructor of my first writing course at the New York Writer’s Workshop. I am grateful to her and to several others who have taken the time to urge me to keep writing.

It’s possible that I would receive more feedback if I were to channel my writing into Facebook-friendly fragments. You don’t have to do anything special to read my status updates provided that I am on your Facebook friends list; they just pop up when you open your home page. On the other hand, only the people who have already placed me on their Facebook list will see my posts. What happens to the 53 people currently on my email list who are not on Facebook at all? What happens to those who find my blog by links from other web pages or from Google searches. (Yes, it really happens.)

Aside from trying to build an audience, there are more important differences between blogging and posting notes on social networks – differences that matter to me as a writer. It has only been a year since I decided to make a serious effort to become a writer. I began writing a novel and signed up for workshops to further my skill. Writing turned out to be more formidable than I had anticipated and for various reasons the project bogged down. This blog is my way of continuing to write while I sort out what to do with the novel. I felt that the discipline of submitting a weekly article would be good for me.

Having scaled back from writing a book, one that could reach more than a quarter million words, to producing weekly articles of no more than 500 words, it is hard to contemplate cutting back even further to short snippets consisting of a few sentences. That would amount to an exit strategy.

So I will trudge on. I have no idea what I will write about next week; I barely met this week’s self imposed deadline. But it doesn’t matter. The point is to keep writing. So write I shall and with any luck some of you will keep reading. I am deeply grateful to you for that.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What a Drag It Is Getting Old

Last week my optometrist told me that my glasses are suffering from panascopic tilt. That was the most positive thing I’ve heard from a doctor in a long time. At least it was the glasses that had become defective rather than me. I suppose I should also feel buoyed by my dentist’s pronouncement that my oral health is not “too god awful bad”. Apparently my 15 minute nightly ritual of picking, flossing and brushing hasn’t been a total waste of time.

I like visiting my dermatologist. She is pretty and seems so sympathetic that my years of trying to convert fair, freckled skin to a rich cocoa shade has resulted in a lifelong income stream for her. Damn you, Coppertone, and your ads full of beautiful, happy people glowing with a “healthy” tan.

My last primary care physician was less kind. When I complained about swelling of the ankles, he told me I had to expect unpleasant side effects from the battery of drugs he had prescribed to me. “It’s not as bad as a coronary, is it?” he asked me. I began to fret about my long list of ailments that seem to expand with each checkup. I wondered about the combination of pills, potions and sweet smelling lotions I was on. I have pills for blood pressure, cholesterol, low thyroid, acid reflux, and several other ailments I no longer remember. Then there’s the cream that is giving my arms a painful chemical peel to fight the skin cancer that hasn’t even started yet.

The more I thought about what a biomedical cauldron my body had become, the more I worried. Then I began to worry about what all this worrying was doing to my blood pressure. I grabbed my home BP monitoring kit. Still in the normal range. That was a relief, but those normal readings are the result of multiple agents swirling through my arteries so that they are now the size of sewer pipes.

I decided to go to bed. A good night’s sleep was all I needed. So I strapped on the mask of my CPAP machine, fidgeted and fussed with it to try to minimize the hiss of escaping air (the masks are not designed for people with facial hair or, in fact, for people with noses), and waited for the rhythmic pumping to do battle with my allergies. It sounded like Darth Vader was in the room. Sleep was impossible.

So I did what I always do at times of panic; I called my sister. She is five years older than I am. She would have some sage advice. She told me that it wasn’t surprising that my body was falling to pieces. That’s what happens when you get old.

Old! Seems like everything always comes back to that one cursed word. My joints ache because I’m old. I’m tired because I’m old. My allergies are getting worse because I’m old. My teeth are going to fall out, my sex drive is heading towards negative numbers, I have my web browser set at 150 per cent magnification, and I’m getting cranky. Really cranky.

I now understand why those old ladies in the supermarket look so pissed off all the time. After a lifetime of struggling to survive they are rewarded by having to reach for heavy items from a too-high shelf with arms that have become weak and stiff and painful. Then some perky young thing bounces up, grabs the same item with ease and smiles as she tosses it into her cart. Oh god, where are my anti-depressants?