25 September 2011

Some people just don't like to cook, okay?

Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley.
--Mark Bittman, in today's NYTimes
Ugh.  Here we go again.

Don't get me wrong: I love to cook.  It is a matter of great pride with me that I can come up with a homemade, three-course dinner for six with three hours' notice, one trip to the grocery store, and not more than a cursory glance into one of my more well-worn cookbooks.  This photo is from a never-written post about my organic fruit & veg delivery service, and how pleasant it was to make a dinner of pasta and salad using only what I had available.  I consider sitting with a stack of cookbooks and planning a menu or several to be a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

But even I, someone who works part-time, enjoys cooking, and loves feeding people, do not want to cook every night.  Cooking turns into a chore very quickly when you're doing it out of necessity rather than joy.  And even when carefully planned to minimize mess, cooking leads to dirty pots and pans and knives and gadgets--none of which go in the dishwasher--and another 30-45 minutes in the kitchen, after the fun part's over.

Cooking also leads to leftover ingredients.  The blog post about the pasta never got written, because I cancelled the delivery service.  If there's one thing more guilt-inducing than feeling you don't cook enough, it's throwing away organic beets that rotted before you got around to reading the instructions for how to prepare them.  But even if you're buying for a meal you know you're going to make, you're pretty much guaranteed to end up, later, wondering what to do with those other four scallions or that last quarter-cup of coconut milk.  Every now and then I'll make a salad to keep in the fridge, but even buying one head of lettuce and one carrot and one pepper and so on, it usually goes bad before I can finish it.

If I only sometimes find myself able to rise above these obstacles to make a home-cooked dinner, what chance does someone have, who has more responsibilities than I do and doesn't like to cook in the first place?
The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.
Why, Mr. Bittman?  Why do we all have to cook (and, ahem, clean) every night?  Why can't we just have convenient, healthy, prepared food, so people don't have to chose between convenience and health?

I know this can be done, because it's my daily reality.  I haven't cooked unless I wanted to for three years, because I can pick up a healthy dinner from the grocery store on the way home from the Tube station.  Sometimes it's fish cakes and steamed vegetables; sometimes it's microwaveable Indian or Italian or Chinese food; sometimes it's vegetable soup and whole-wheat rolls.  (Every now and then it's pizza and a bottle of wine.)  There are low-sodium and low-saturated fat and low-calorie options available.  I've read the ingredient lists, and they're the same as the ingredient lists in my recipe books:  no preservatives, no fake food.  (You can tell, because they expire after 3 days in the fridge, or about a month in the freezer.)

Now, before you all yell at me: I know this means a lot more paper and plastic is coming out of my house than if I were cooking from fresh ingredients.  Most of it gets recycled.  In any case, waste is an engineering problem, not a physics problem.  Ditto cost, as I do suspect that eating this way is more expensive than cooking--though not if you believe that time is money.

If you read the op-ed, Mark Bittman says a lot of bad things about processed food, and they're all true.  But none of them have to be.  It's the current method of processing food in America that's at issue, not the definition of processing--which does, after all, include "cooking".
The 1998 tobacco settlement limited cigarette marketing and forced manufacturers to finance anti-smoking campaigns — a negotiated change that led to an environmental one that in turn led to a cultural one, after which kids said to their parents, “I wish you didn’t smoke.” Smoking had to be converted from a cool habit into one practiced by pariahs.
But that's the thing, Mr. Bittman: people had to be convinced to stop smoking, or better yet, not start.  They didn't have to be convinced to: spend time planning, drive 10-20 minutes out of their way, learn a new skill, spend 15-60 minutes a night performing that skill, and then clean up after it.  Not starting to do something is generally a lot easier than starting to do it.

Look, I spent a lot of time a few years ago kicking myself for not cooking.  I was pretty much living on take-out while I worked full time and went to graduate school.  On my few evenings home, I popped a WeightWatchers meal into the microwave rather than cook up something from the Moosewood book.  I spent weekends writing, doing housework, and--gasp--relaxing with my fiance, when I should have been making batches of the week ahead's meals.  I was sure this was a moral failing of the first order.

Finally, Christmastime came, and I re-read A Christmas Carol, as I do every year.  I came across the line, Scrooge took his usual melancholy meal in his usual melancholy tavern.  That sent me to thinking about other meals in other books: the bachelor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter arranging to have his lunch and dinner with the diner nearest his boarding house; the many meals botched by Betsy Ray Willard while Joe is at work (and the fact that one reason Betsy can't cook is that her family's always had a housekeeper to do it); Jo's failure to make a nice lunch on Hannah's day off.  It dawned on me: expecting people to come home from work and cook dinner is a pretty short-lived phenomenon, historically.  For most of the history of western civilization, preparing daily meals has been accepted as a perfectly acceptable job to pay someone else to do.

I'm not sure why that has changed.  The world is full of personal tasks that are as perfectly okay to outsource as they are to perform.  I can't imagine anyone sane claiming that everyone, regardless of circumstances, must compost their own waste rather than leave it out for the garbage collectors to deal with for them.  I never worried, in the days when I sent out my sheets and towels rather than spend hours in the laundromat trying to get them dry, that I was somehow letting myself down by not doing every stitch of my own laundry.  Nobody writes op-eds about how important it is that busy people clean their own house instead of hiring cleaners (provided those cleaners are fairly paid).  I don't see any reason why cooking should be any different.

When it comes to food prep, why not give people a chance to do what they're already doing, but differently?  What is it about the chore of cooking that makes some people say, "you must do this for yourself"--against all available evidence?

There's no reason why eating healthfully shouldn't be as easy as eating unhealthfully.  People of America: you don't need to cook more, you just need better non-cooking options.

20 May 2011

Tree, Meet Chainsaw.

I've been meaning to write this post for weeks, ever since the Oxford Literary Festival way back at the beginning of April. I have a really good excuse for not doing it: I've been too busy working on putting it all into practice!

Marking up this manuscript was the most writing fun I've had in years.
Retyping the whole thing is running a very close second,
and may edge out the marking-up process any day now.

I really, really hate writing first drafts. So it's not at all surprising that writing this one took two years. I broke every conventional-wisdom writing rule in the process, too. I didn't write fast (obviously). I frequently stopped forward progress through the draft to go back and make major changes earlier in the novel. I didn't get critique at any point in the first-draft writing process. At one point I decided the WIP was really two books, not one, and having re-organized things to account for that, I spent a good three months doing absolutely anything I could think of (including massively long blog posts on Egypt and Glee) to keep from having to write the ending of Book 1. I am incredibly proud of the result, which if I do say so myself, is one of the most disjointed, self-indulgent 95,000-word monstrosities I've ever produced.

The process of turning it into a coherent, teen-friendly, 75,000-word (I hope) novel began with the Oxford Literary Festival, which for me opened at 10:00 on a Saturday in early April with a panel of "Creative Writing Fellows at Oxford Brookes University on Voice," featuring Patience Agbabi, Kate Clanchy, and Philip Pullman.

You had to feel sorry for Patience Agbabi and Kate Clanchy, simply for the fact that they had to be at the same book-signing table with Philip Pullman while not actually being Philip Pullman. (I ended up buying Kate Clancy's novel in part because I was standing right next to her while waiting to have Four Tales signed for my nephew. Only in part, though--I'd really liked what she had to say on the panel, and I'm looking forward to reading the book.) But on the panel, they all three gave evidence of being excellent teachers of the craft of writing--which is really, as they all made clear, the craft of re-writing. As Kate Clanchy put it, "You re-write to get back to what you meant."

In 10 years of hearing him speak and reading his essays, I've come to accept that Philip Pullman and I differ about as much as is possible in our writing processes. He is outspokenly anti-outline; I wouldn't write more than a first scene without one. He finds writing to music gets in the way of his own sense of the rhythm and music in his writing. I have trouble concentrating without background music, which I put on to distract the non-helpful, interfering voices in my head.

On this particular panel, however, Pullman came up with one of the best metaphors for writing and re-writing I've ever encountered: "the process of writing is like growing a tree. Re-writing is carpentry: cutting down the tree and building something out of it." He went on to compare the parts of a WIP that aren't working as "dead wood," and give the writer permission to read back in the manuscript to the last place where it felt alive, cut away the dead wood, and work from there.

Can I just take a minute here and talk about how freakin' liberating it is to go through your manuscript and draw huge black Xs over entire pages? Through entire chapters, even? No struggling to give the scene a purpose; no tearing my hair out trying to make something work that doesn't. Just cut it away and go from there.

(I highly recommend the Oxford Literary Festival as a day out, by the way. About half of the main tent was taken up by a pop-up Blackwell's Books store, but the rest of the retail space was given over to liquor companies. A nice young lady holding samples of scotch greeted the crowd exiting the panel for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which sent us all into fits of even more hysterical laughter than we were already in, and a lovely person from Hendrick's Gin offered bite-sized gin & tonics to those of us waiting in line to have books signed by Louise Rennison and Michael Rosen. It did make it a little hard to stay awake for the Simon Winchester lecture, but it was totally worth it. Sadly, it did not lower my inhibitions enough to let me tell Michael Rosen that I kind of want to be him when I grow up and in the meantime could I please get a picture taken with him.)

Anyway. Back to the topic at hand. I've made one other huge discovery in the re-writing process for this book: instead of going back through an existing draft and making the changes in my notes, I'm re-typing the whole thing, start-to-finish. This is proving to have so many advantages over my earlier method that I can't believe I ever did it any other way. It seems to me, now, that making changes to an existing manuscript is rather like patching a hole in a piece of clothing; there's no way to make the new fabric match precisely, or hide the stitching. Re-typing, on the other hand, feels like using some existing fabric, and some new, to make something entirely different, and better. I'm so pleased with it I'm hoping against hope that this turns out to be a new Universal Writing Truth--universal for me, anyway--and not something that only works for this one draft of this one novel.

After a long, often-excruciating first-draft process, it's so nice to have this part be fun. I had this horrible worry, all the way through the first draft, that I was going to end up with something so unwieldy that I'd never be able to make it into anything. For two years I had to keep shouting down and drowning out the critical internal editor rolling her eyes and muttering, "oh, this is such crap, you are so bad at this." Now I can finally let the inner editor loose, and force her to help me build, instead of tearing everything down.

28 March 2011

Glee! A Convert's Testimony

Note 1: Here be spoilers--if you're behind on the English schedule, which is about six weeks behind the US schedule. We're up to Season 2, Episode 11 (The Sue Sylvester Shuffle).

Note 2: I would have loved for this to be an all-singing, all-dancing, video-clip filled, multi-media extravaganza. But: I don't have access to Hulu, can't figure out how to embed video from E4 (the source of all these pretty pictures) or imdb, and don't like either intellectual-property theft or the dead links that will quickly appear if I post pirated clips from YouTube. So, sorry for the lack of examples. There are links to videos you can click, if you're interested.

Note 3: I know, I don't even talk about Karofsky. That's a whole other post.

Oh, yeah, and it's really long. Took so long to write I don't have the heart to spend more time cutting it down.

Now, on with the show!

I heard about Glee for a long time before I had a chance to see it. Fox aired a preview episode in the US in May of 2009, and my friends' facebook statuses started buzzing immediately. I guess it was only logical that by the time I saw my first episode--on a trip back to the States in September '09--there was no way it could have been as good as what I was expecting. I didn't expect to hate it quite as much as I did, though.

Part of my problem was, I'm a big fan of realism. The first episodes of Glee--Pilot through Sectionals--are willing-suspension-of-disbelief-snappingly soap-opera-y. I could barely see the TV for all the eye-rolling.

Mostly, though, I just couldn't accept the show's premise that being in show choir is enough all by itself to brand a kid a loser. Glee is still riding this assumption, and it still makes no sense to me. Popularity, it seemed to me in high school and still seems to me in retrospect, honestly did seem to have a lot to do with what a likeable person you were, not whether you obeyed some rulebook about what clubs to join. (When I was in high school, we had Homecoming, Prom, and May Fete Queens from band, drama, and show choir.)

In any case, between the soap opera plot and the show's casual assumption that high school performing artists were losers by definition, I came back to the UK secure (and a little smug, to be honest) in my dislike of this latest pop-culture phenomenon. I wasn't bothered. I never got into American Idol, either.

But... when Glee launched here, I couldn't look away. I watched every episode. (Some of those episodes starred Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, for pete's sake; how could I miss that?) For a while I'd watch while surfing the internet, closing my laptop and looking at the TV only when the music started to play. (And then I'd roll my eyes through the songs, which at that point were little better than karaoke renditions.) But as the weeks went by, I found myself actually paying attention to the plot, and--horrors!--becoming invested in the lives and fates of the same characters I'd initially dismissed as so unrealistic as to be beyond sympathy.

The singing and dancing got good, too. Some producer on that show is still doing horrible things with auto-tune, but the arrangements are a lot more choral, and sound a lot less like something you'd hear a cover band do at a wedding, than they used to be.

After winning me over in the first season, the second season got off to an awkward start. The characters in Season 2, Episode 1 were almost unrecognizable. Rachel was supposed to have spent Season 1 learning the value of being a team player, but Season 2 starts with her trying to recruit an exchange student to the group by telling her, "I need more people to sway in the back and look at me adoringly." Mr. Schuester, the show's adult paragon of virtue, joins the evil villain cheerleader coach in bullying the new (female) football coach, who presents a threat to his already-meager budget.

The second episode, Britney/Brittany, shows off the deadpan and dance skills of cast member Heather Morris and pretty much goes to war against two school losers: Jacob Ben Israel and Lauren Zizes. The episode climaxes (a word choice so unfortunately appropriate that I'm leaving it in) with a pep rally performance of Toxic, during which Jacob and Lauren humiliatingly lose all control of themselves.

The performance was great (though it's one where you have to really remind yourself that the actors are all in their 20s), but the episode left a bad taste in my mouth. The members of the William McKinley High School glee club are all conventionally attractive; Lauren and Jacob aren't. Also, Lauren and Jacob aren't in glee. I couldn't help but wonder if the writers of the show knew how close they were treading to saying, "it's not right to bully people--when they're pretty and their unpopularity is a result of following their socially-acceptable dreams. These other people, the true freaks, they're out of control. They deserve what they get."

But, wouldn't you know it, the show's producers and writers seem to have caught themselves on that score, too. Jacob hasn't had a major part of any plot in a while (so if they're not making up for his humiliation, at lest they're leaving him alone), and Lauren has joined the glee club--and turns out to be tougher and cooler than any of them. When most of the football team quits in protest rather than join the glee club for a halftime show during the big game, the girls step up to make sure they have the enough players: and while the bulk of the plan is for the girls to lay on the ground to stay out of the action while keeping the right number of players on the field, Lauren makes it clear she's coming to play.

So, yeah, okay, the plots haven't gotten any more realistic. And while the musical numbers this season include some that are a lot more creative than in the past (the addition of an all-male, acapella competitor has done wonders), they also involve production values that don't even attempt credibility. One of the things I really liked about the first season was that, although the show completely ignored how show choirs actually work (you don't learn a new, choreographed number every week, that's for sure), they did allow us to keep believing in a public school with a very limited arts budget: the kids might perform a wide variety of songs, but they did them in costumes that could have come out of their own closets (jeans with t-shirts in coordinating colors, say).

This season has stopped worrying about even that little bit of realism, with performances like the "Thriller/Heads Will Roll" mash-up linked to above (click on "halftime show") or a mash-up of Rhianna's "Umbrella" with "Singin' in the Rain", complete with full-stage water feature, performed for no particular reason except that it makes everybody happy.

I'm finding the fantasy easier to take this season, though. It all seems to be in the service of one larger, more productive fantasy, which I really like. After show choir is for outcasts and losers, no matter what, the ethic the show pounds most relentlessly is, when you sing, you're safe. In true musical theater form, when the characters on the show want to really tell the truth about something incredibly personal and/or important, they sing it. They expose themselves through song in ways that would be unthinkable in conversation. And when someone's singing a solo, especially one they've picked out themselves, their peers listen, and nod along, and approve.

In fact, the couple of times performances haven't been well-received by the other members of glee club, it's because the singers were dishonest. In Laryngitis, boy soprano Kurt tries to get closer to his father by singing a Mellencamp song instead of the Whitney Huston he'd been planning on using to show off his phenomenal range. That he does an okay job doesn't matter: the other members of the choir look uncomfortable during the performance, and the director tells Kurt he's hurting the group by not giving the best of himself. When Kurt, frustrated, finally lets loose with his own version of "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy--that's when he finally gets the heart-to-heart, bonding moment with his dad he's been looking for.

The corollary to show choir is for outcasts and losers becomes, outcasts and losers can find a safe space to be themselves in show choir. It's, whatever you're going through, art can help. It's even, expressing yourself through art is worth putting up with all the hassles being an artist brings. This is perhaps not a surprising statement of faith to come out of a TV show, which after all is made by artists and writers and actors and singers and dancers. But it's a belief you don't see on TV all that often, and I'm really glad to have it out there, at least for an hour a week.

12 March 2011

Finally, a post about Egypt (and Israel): A photo essay

One of my favorite activities on a recent visit to my parents was going through my parents' and grandparents' old photo albums. I loved seeing the way certain themes echo through family photos: there's the "Kids Playing Piano" pictures, the "Kids Held Upside-down by Adult" pictures, the "Kids Reading" pictures. First of my father and his brother, then of me and my sister (weren't we cute?), and if you're reading this from facebook you've seen the same pictures of my nieces and nephews.

Then I got to the photo album Grandma Kack put together with pictures of the trip she and Granddaddy Joe took to Israel and Egypt, 25 years ago. There was the echo again, resounding in the pictures I took on a trip with my friend Sarah, in October 2010.

The pictures of Israel looked somewhat different from mine; I think the Old City in Jerusalem has had a little work done since the mid-eighties.

This view of the Mount of Olives from 2010 is much tidier
than the same view in Grandma's 1980's picture.
This archeological-site-that-looks-like-a-garden
looked like an archeological site 25 years ago.

Grandma took a picture of this view of the Garden of Gethsemane, too.
The olive trees, reputed to be 2,000 years old, had grown slightly between
the time she took hers and the time I took this one. Other than that--identical.

Grandma--who was there with her church, after all--
was way too polite to take a picture inside
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
where I snapped this photo of Golgotha while waiting in line.

I didn't go down into the chapel of the Sepulchre itself,
and this crowd they're calling a queue outside the door is why.

But Grandma's pictures of Egypt... those you could mix up in the photos Gino and I took and have a hard time telling which was which. The buildings look the same; the people are dressed the same. The major difference would be that the cars that were old when we saw them, were new then, and the buildings had fallen into twenty-five years' worth of disrepair.
Here we all are in Cairo!

I should have taken a picture of the traffic. Everyone who goes to Cairo talks about the traffic. Several of the pictures in Grandma's album are of the traffic, with labels such as "view of Cairo traffic from the bus" or "more traffic". (I'd show you one of Grandma's pictures--like I said, it looks pretty much exactly the same now as it did then--except that I foolishly didn't force the album into my suitcase when I left. I think Mom's sent it on to my cousin Carrie, the family archivist.) The Lonely Planet notes that "the crowds on a Cairo footpath make Manhattan look like a ghost town," and that's even more true of the roadways. I don't remember seeing a working traffic light the entire time I was there: the cars communicate with each other using a local language of honks and blinking lights, and pedestrians who want to cross the street just... go for it, through breaks in the traffic that wouldn't look like breaks in New York or London.

I don't think Gino intended this to be a picture of traffic,
but it gives you the idea.
Note especially the pedestrians nonchalantly wandering through it.

In fact, looking over my albums now, I realize now that I mostly took a lot of pictures of Important Famous Sights on this trip. Which is great, but it means I don't have pictures of the sights that actually made the biggest impressions on me. I could kick myself for not getting a picture of the cart selling live rabbits and chickens outside the Street of Tentmakers (though if you've watched the Pyramids episode of An Idiot Abroad--and if you haven't, you should, it's on Sky in the UK and the Science Channel in the US--you'll see Karl Pilkington remark on it, too). Thanks to a Cairo-based friend of Gino's, we had a private driver for our trip out to the pyramids, and as we drove through heavily-urban Giza we saw as many herds of sheep and goats as I usually see on a train ride through the English countryside. I didn't get pictures of that, either.

Gino took this picture of the Street of Tentmakers--mine came out blurry.

However, the poverty of Cairo is going to show up in your pictures no matter what else you were trying to capture. There's basically no view of the city that doesn't include crumbling buildings, glassless windows, twenty-year-old cars.

Actually, I guess that's not entirely true.
This view, from the balcony of the our hotel in Zamalek,
show a perfectly well-developed if slightly smoggy modern city.

This photo of the Citadel--which Gino took from the medieval Bab Zuweila--
gives a more close-up view of downtown Cairo,

as does this one, which I took from the same spot,
looking in the other direction.

We visited quite a few mosques while we were in Cairo, and I loved every one of them. I wrote in my journal while I was there that "just existing takes all my concentration." Everywhere we went there was something to watch out for: oncoming cars; aggressive vendors; friendly children. I was never more aware of the city's chaos than when I took off my shoes, entered the sky-roofed, gently-patterned square, and felt so much of the responsibility to pay attention slip away.

Al-Hakim Mosque. Ahhhhhhh.
The irony is, one of the most peaceful places I experienced in Cairo
is named after a despot whose rule was marked by his very creative
methods of torturing his enemies.

The Turkish-style Mosque of Mohammed Ali,
at the Citadel.

While Sarah was staying with expat friends Valentine and Eric in Maadi and being admirably Cairene, Gino and I had more of a touristy experience. We used the massive number of points Gino had built up during his business travel last year to stay for free at the Cairo Marriott, where, as you can guess from the picture of the pool, we did not want for comfort. (Sarah stayed with me there the night before Gino arrived, and our first morning in Cairo was the most luxurious of our trip, involving breakfast in deck chairs next to the pool before the day got seriously hot.) The Cairo Marriott is sort of Cairo-lite: they have a restaurant serving exceptionally tasty Egyptian food, but they have something like eleven other restaurants serving everything from standard Italian to "Midwestern Cuisine." They also have a shopping arcade with tiny branches of most of the stores mentioned in the Lonely Planet, including a bookstore whose main branch is right around the corner from the hotel, anyway.

Our little westernized oasis.

But, as Valentine pointed out, Westerners rarely visit Cairo as independent tourists: most of the other guests in our hotel were there the way my grandparents were, as part of tour groups: with an inclusive breakfast and a coach waiting to pick them up for the day's adventures every morning. They probably didn't spend a lot of time wandering the neighborhood of the hotel. Even in ritzy Zamalek, as soon as you step beyond the security gates of your hotel, you are no longer in tourist-land but have ventured into actual Cairo, with the insane traffic and the crowded, narrow sidewalks and the general sensory overload.

I am not, by the way, knocking the tour-group method of travel. Cairo is huge and busy and not built for tourists. Cab drivers don't necessarily speak English, have meters in their cabs, or carry change. Violent crime is low, but scams and cons are such a significant part of the local economy that they rate mentions in every section (Shopping, Eating, Sleeping) of the Lonely Planet. Everywhere you go, people want to talk to you, to sell you something, to show you a special, secret feature of the monument you're visiting (in exchange for a tip, of course). It is beyond overwhelming. We were accompanied by friends who spoke Arabic and had lived in Cairo for a few years, which kept the stress level bearable--I honestly can't imagine visiting without some sort of guide smoothing things out.

Gino's and my big tourist adventure was to take the Marriott's dinner cruise down the Nile, because I had taken six weeks' worth of belly dancing classes at my gym, and I wanted to see a real belly dancer do it.

The real belly dancer.
You can see her in An Idiot Abroad, too.

The one thing I knew I wanted to do on the trip to Egypt was ride a camel around the Pyramids. I'd read the section of the guidebook that said riding a camel was a good idea, told me where to rent camels, and how much to pay. I thought I was all set. Then, on our last day in Cairo, we actually got there.

These people would like to give you a camel ride.
Or sell you a set of postcards.
Or give you a headscarf.
Or take your picture with the Pyramids.
Or let you take their picture with the Pyramids.
Or take a picture of you riding on their camel, in front of the Pyramids.

Sarah, Gino, and I went more-or-less on our own: we hired a driver who was recommended by a friend of Gino's, but the driver spoke no English. (The Sphinx is not called the Sphinx by Egyptians. We thought we could pronounce Abu al-Hol well enough to make ourselves understood by an Arabic speaker. We were wrong. We got Ahmed to take us to see it by pointing to the picture on the guidebook.)

The Lonely Planet section on the Pyramids includes an entire sub-heading titled "The Hassle." It reminds you that "the Pyramids have been attracting tourists since they were built, and a local was probably there offering them a ride on a donkey"--which I actually found helpful to remind myself when we got inside the complex and the young men fell on us with their postcards, their scarab beads, their headscarves, their models of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The constant attention, the constant negotiations, made it really hard to concentrate on the archeological Wonder of the World right next to us. It made negotiating for a camel ride around that wonder too intimidating to even attempt.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World.
I think Grandma got a shot like this too, come to think of it.
Gino took this one, as I managed to break my camera before we got this far.

Gino also took this picture of the Sphinx,
or Abu al-Hol ("Father of Terror," according to Lonely Planet)

On the way back to our hotel, Ahmed demonstrated the very best style of Egyptian driving by pulling up alongside a vegetable truck. The men inside greeted him warmly and handed him a cucumber with one end cut off, which he offered to Gino, Sarah, and I--a nice change from the sticky, too-sweet Cokes that had been all we could find at the Pyramids. We had time for lunch and another luxurious swim in our oasis of a pool before Sarah and I took the hotel car to the train station for the night train down to Luxor, and the next part of our adventure.

(Of which, sadly, I have no pictures, on account of my camera getting broken at the Pyramids. Oh, well.)

When Sarah e-mailed me back in August to ask if I wanted to go to Cairo, and maybe Luxor, and possibly Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with her, I gave it about twenty-four hours' thought and said, "that sounds like pretty much the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and of course I'm coming." At the time, we had no idea how once-in-a-lifetime it was, but we're both extremely pleased to have made the journey before the Modern History sections of our guidebooks went completely out of date. Our friends in Cairo are fine--you can read Eric's account of pre- and post-revolutionary Cairo here--and excited about the future.

Me, I'm just excited to go back someday.

Next time I am totally riding a camel.

07 January 2011

My own personal NoWriYe

It took going away for a month and then coming back and re-reading, but my last post made me notice something:

I spent beaucoup (that's pronounced "boo-coo," with both syllables stressed equally) bucks and two years on a master's degree, and in the last six months I've dropped most of the good habits that program helped me form.

Years ago, I wrote a lengthy Longstockings post full of advice to beginning writers: to write, if not every day, at least more days than not; to find a community of writers; to read extensively, both the kinds of books you want to write and books about the craft of writing. So why wasn't I following any of my own advice? Why was I disregarding so much of what I'd worked so hard and paid so much to learn?

Fortunately, I am old enough to know that the secret to life is not never getting blown off-course--it's getting back on course once you realize you're lost. And fortunately part ii, my personal revelation came at New Year's Resolution time, when the young (ok, middle-aged) writer's thoughts turn to renewed determination and better work habits.

I checked off my first completed resolution on 3 January, when I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I'd been a member in New York, but let my membership lapse when I moved to London. Fortunately, it turns out they have a British Isles chapter. I'm now a member, and have joined the "11+ Realistic" online critique group (second resolution crossed off!). I'm also looking forward to attending masterclasses and events in their professional series, and meeting some fellow kidlit folks in person.

I have also, over the past few weeks, built a kid/teen TBR pile that is threatening to take over my living room.

All that remains is the part that is most firmly in my power: I have to get my butt in front of my manuscript, as often as possible.

So far, I've managed that in a paradoxical way. I used to tell myself, "you need to write 1,000/1,500/2,000 words the next time you sit down at your MS." A lot of weeks, this meant that I had maybe one good writing day a week, and six days of avoiding writing.

In 2011 I've managed to just tell myself, "you need to write something in your manuscript today." One day it was 30 words. At another time have such a poor showing would have made me wonder, "why did I even bother opening Scrivener?"

But you know what? My excitement level about my WIP has skyrocketed this week. I've found myself jotting down ideas at all sorts of odd times, like out on a date with my husband. I've solved--or at least ameliorated--a couple of significant problems with the manuscript. I'm living with my WIP these days, where for the past few months I've just been working on it.

This is the start of my Novel Writing Year. If my habits improve the way I hope they will, I'll write more than one novel before 2012. Probably not two, but at least one-and-a-bit.

Who else is rededicating yourselves to your art for the new year? What resolutions are you following to make that happen?