Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Writing (the first of many related posts I'm sure)

It's taken me three days to write one sentence. And no, not this sentence (and by that I mean the previous one), but the opening sentence to a white paper I'm writing at work. I've been struggling with its composition, tone, and message. I've looked to other papers for ideas. I've deleted nearly ten drafts of it. And, for the sake of full disclosure, as of this moment I still have not completed the sentence in question.

I find myself questioning the decision to take this job quite often - usually around 4:00 in the afternoon on weekdays, as the late-fall sun sets over Chelsea and my caffeine levels drop - and it wasn't until just moments ago that I was able to understand both the reason and the answer. The source of my frustration is actually the reason I know I'm learning: it's taken me three days to write one sentence.

I don't write about software or business continuity - or about most of my job for that matter - because I enjoy these things specifically, but because the process of writing itself gives me a thrill. I'm a certified control-freak, and the idea that I get to represent any part of our world in permanent ink gives me a (probably unhealthy) amount of satisfaction. (And as I write that, I ask whether I might be refering to the physical permanence of print media or the digital permanence of the internet.)

Our control of language is just as exciting as the control that languages exert over us. In writing, I routinely confront (either accepting or overcoming) the limitations that our languages place on the expression of thought and experience. And I learn new languages to see what limitations change accross borders of translation. I can't translate awkward out of English, but I can't translate unheimlich out of German either. I like that there are limits, and that some words or constructions have more of an effect than others.

When reading Strunk and White curtly dismiss the use of "utilize" in The Elements of Style, I smile. I've never liked that word. And when reading their criticism of my common errors, I quietly judge myself, take note, and do my best to remember them next time I'm crafting a sentence.

And while the art of writing is certainly a craft, it's not a craft that should (or can?) ever be entirely mastered. I don't think we'll ever run out of experiences to represent on paper - or on iphone screens for that matter - and humans are (thankfully) prone to errors.

What are some of my errors? Overusing parentheses. And writing this post instead of that one sentence.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

If you give a mouse a cookie

This year, I'll be spending Christmas without my family for the first time. When I initially made the decision to stay in the city, I embraced the opportunity as a way to confirm my newfound, recent-graduate independence. My brother could easily shake off family Christmas traditions, so why couldn't I?

But, as I started to make plans for a celebration among friends in New York City, I took a moment to consider if I might be missing out on anything. Santa's been out of the picture for a while - it was a snowmobile accident, I was told - , and, as a child of divorce, I haven't spent a Christmas with all members of my immediate family since the early 2000s. I've celebrated the holidays with my uncle's family in Germany a couple of times, and those have certainly been the most memorable in recent years, but I haven't been there enough to consider it tradition. So, I decided, I wasn't really missing out on anything by celebrating in Manhattan. I'll fly to California in February, I thought, and spend time with my family when the flights are cheaper.

But then it hit me, as I was perusing my recipe binder two days before Thanksgiving. The one tradition that's actually been passed down through several generations in my mother's family: the plaetzchen. These German Christmas cookies - and yes, they actually have a separate word for them - are a staple of the advent season. They are generally baked in November, in massive quantities, by wholesome German families gathered together around the fire, drinking mulled wine, and singing O Tanenbaum in perfect harmony. Ok, well maybe they don't always sing, but my 28 year old cousin and his wife
did drive over two hours to my uncle's house this year just to engage in the ritual.

Since I can first remember, my uncle has sent my mother (and thereby me and my brother) a tin of these homemade cookies every year at Christmastime. We generally devour them within hours, while opening our presents by the tree. By the time we get to them, they're usually broken and crumb-y from the long haul over the Atlantic, but that doesn't stop us from fighting over the last bits of our favorite ones (they're dipped in chocolate).

The recipes are so important to my uncle that he's even spent time teaching me how to bake the cookies during my visits to his house in the summer. My cousins had a difficult time understanding the smell of Christmas in July, but we assured them it was all in the name of family tradition. Yes, you're confused, I'm encroaching on your memories . . . have a cookie?

But this year, as I was preparing for the first of the great holiday meals, it dawned on me that I would not be able to savor even one almond-y, chocolate-y Spritzgebaeck cookie on Christmas Eve without flying to San Diego first. My heart sank at the first thought of it. I quickly abandoned the idea of baking my own when I remembered that I don't even have half of the proper equipment to press out the cookie form, and I knew better than to ask my mom to send me some of hers.

So, after much deliberation, I cast aside my long-standing fear of stern German men and sent my uncle a plaintive email, expounding on my love for his cookies and my need to feel at least some family connection at Christmas this year. For some reason, I was expecting a curt response - again, I inexplicably fear the silent wrath of older Germans -, and resigned myself to a plaetzchen-less holiday season.

But, my loving uncle has hinted that he might, in fact, be sending me my own tin of cookies his year. Christmas will remain a plaetzchen-ful occasion. Huzzah! And my happiness is once again secured through food.

Now, if I can only find a Chrismukkah bush and that gospel copy of the Messiah...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mitigating Distraction

I leave my apartment this morning in a hurry, my hair still warm from the blow dryer. Reaching into my bag to check for my keys and phone, I say a quick goodbye to my roommate as I run out the door. Instinctivly, I reach for the buds of my iPod headphones, and select the morning's first song as I make my way down the stairs. I've recently discovered that Led Zeppelin made some surprisingly good walking music.

As I shuffle down the street towards the subway entrance, my hearbeat quickens. I up my pace and glance at the streetlights to make sure I don't cross Clinton on red. I pass teenagers walking to school, mothers taking their children to day-care, shopkeepers waiting for their first customers, and locals chatting on streetcorners, outside of bodegas. I don't actually look at any of them this morning, but I know they're there.

I'm about to break a sweat as I fumble for my metrocard at the Delancy Essex platform of the JMZ. Fighting the crowd coming from the recently departed J, I hop down the stairs to the F train. Though my iPod is blasting an electronic beat in my ears, I hear the familiar sound of the cars approaching, and walk as quickly as I can towards the tracks. In the moments it takes for the train to come to a full stop, I pause for a sartorial examination of the passenger waiting next to me. And as we stand clear of the closing doors, I realize she's the first person I've actually taken notice of since leaving the apartment.

What am I doing, listening to my music all the time? Am I blocking myself off from some part of the world? I don't know what I'd do without it, to say the least. I recently spent time crafting a new iTunes playlist, exclusively for the purpose of commuting, and have been addicted to it since. I can't describe its contents, as it varies from Miley Cirus and Daft Punk to Otis Redding and the Notorious B.I.G. I do know, however, that the songs keep me moving.

So as I'm standing in the F train on the way to our next stop, it hits me. I don't listen to music to distract me from the nasty, brutish and overwhelming energy of the city. I listen to music to prevent myself from getting distracted by it. Because I'm not just an ordinary space cadet. I'm the captain of my own fleet.

When I'm walking in New York, I'm painfully susceptible to wandering, both mental and physical. But by listening to targeted music, I remind myself that I'm going somewhere, and that I need to be there soon. When I'm just walking for fun, I go soundtrack-free, and when I forget my iPod, getting where I need to be - on time - is difficult. I simply think too much to let myself function.

My natural state seems to be distraction, and I'm slowly coming to terms with that. The most difficult project I'm facing at the moment is learning how to sit at my cubicle desk for 8 hours straight without working myself into a fit of existential anxiety at the end of each workday. My bosses are happy with what I'm writing for them, but I spend about half of my day reading anything and everything online, planning the next two years of my life, and contemplating the components of a meaningful existence. So yeah, still working on that whole taking-control-of-my-mind thing...