Monday, August 26, 2013

Everything Under the Sun

Last week my brother and I went to the county fair after work one evening.  For us the fair has a strangely nostalgic feeling.  Both of us were in 4-H for two years when we were little.  I was eleven and skinny, with braids and glasses; he was nine and pudgy, with buck-teeth and red hair. 

This is Sally, whom I loved exceedingly.
We raised two pigs named Sally and Sue during the summer and then showed them over the course of three days, before auctioning them off on the morning of the fourth.  Both of us got two blue ribbons, one for good quality pig, and one for good quality showmanship.  Both of us opened our first bank account afterwards, thinking with childlike innocence that $240 was a huge amount of money.

While we were showing the pigs, we slept at the fair in a tent.  That may seem extreme, but we had to be up at 6 AM to claim a shower stall – not for ourselves, but for our pigs, who needed to be bathed, shaved, dried and oiled.  We also had to treat their cuts with flaming red iodine, since pig-showing is not so much a show as a controlled chaos, interspersed with desperate intervention as fights break out between sows trying to establish dominance.  With the same innocence which miscalculated the worth of money, we little children went into the ring, weighing about 100 pounds in our clothes, and supposed that we were perfectly safe as we wandered after our stubborn, ferocious, 250 pound pigs.   Perhaps that’s why we deserved our blue ribbons for showmanship. 

As you can imagine, with such memories, it’s no wonder the fair is a nostalgic place.

We hadn’t been able to go in a few years, but we seized the chance this year.  It was very enjoyable, but I felt about 25 years older than I actually am, since I found myself saying things like, ‘The animal barns were a lot cleaner when we were in 4-H,’ or ‘Didn’t the exhibits use to be a lot more splendid?’  But in spite of complaining like a little old lady, there were many lovely things to see, and delicious things to eat (what’s the point of a fair if you can’t eat improbably delectable, unhealthy food?). 

I want to ride that camel...
At one point, we were passing casually through the displays of heavy machinery, and we noticed signs for a petting zoo in the distance.  Even well past childhood, I have an inordinate fondness for such things, so I dragged my long-suffering brother with me to investigate.  I was glad we went.  The zoo itself was mediocre, but someone else nearby had brought camels!  I never expected to see camels at the North Idaho Fair.  There was even a Bactrian one; I’ve seen dromedaries in zoos, but the Bactrian was a wonderful new experience. 

That’s the real point of going to these huge community events and establishments, I think – experience. 

I watched a tiny child of six or so, with a shining blonde head.  She sat on the very tall camel’s back, waving with nervous pride at her parents as they snapped their cameras at her.  The camel was completely blasé about the entire affair, but no doubt the little girl will always remember that she once sat on a his back at the fair.  Perhaps that will be as dear to her as my own memory of proudly showing my pig, a big number pinned on my chest to help the judges identify me. 

Later in the evening, another family strolled past while my brother and I were enjoying some kettle corn.  The two children – a boy and girl – pulled at their parents’ arms and pointed at the marvelous, mysterious animals in the stalls ahead.  ‘What’s that one, Mom?’ they cried.  Of course, the creatures were nothing more than donkeys, but I suddenly shared the delight of a child who can still be stunned by the wonder of a donkey. 

It must be delightful to be a parent, too, and rediscover with your child that donkeys are amazing after all.  

I love their patient faces!
The theme of our fair this year was ‘Everything Under the Sun’ (hence the title of my post).  The claim was perhaps a bit presumptuous, but to the eyes of a child, who knows.  Perhaps each barn seems a new world where they can discover yet another race of miraculous beings.  I remember how grand and monumental the draft horses seemed when I was twelve.  One of the reasons I still appreciate those same horses is because of that recollection.  I see the world through layers and layers of experience, and each one adds a new color and depth to my enjoyment. 

It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, it’s childish to do such-and-such’ (visit the fair, or the zoo, or a park, etc.), but each new visit embroiders more splendid patterns upon old experience.  Memory is one of the best elements of our humanity.  We might as well embrace how it enhances even the simplest, most ordinary experiences.  I think we’ll discover that enhancement can inspire a myriad emotions and ideas – the seeds of our inspirations.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Every Little Bit

While I was training for my new job, the Fashionista (my trainer) and I discussed finances and the challenge of budgeting.  She mentioned a book she was reading about the very subject, called Living the Savvy Life.  I then mentioned how the beginning of a new job would mean an overhaul of my own budget.  She told me I should write a blog about it, when I did.  This is the requested post. 

Even Spinoza knows how to balance!
Actually, I take that back.  It’s not quite.  See, in between that training day and now, I also read Living the Savvy Life, and I was surprised and interested to discover that the author’s point is not the necessity of scrimping on every penny.  Instead, she advocates a balanced life.  Your budget is based on an analysis of the things that are important to you, versus those that are not.  By being ‘savvy’ in the latter, you can afford to indulge in the former, but also have savings and pay down debt. 

As you might guess, I was excited because balance is something I strive for in my life. 

So today, instead of talking about budgeting per se, I thought I might look at the idea that has been occupying my mind lately, and how it applies even to finances.  If you’ve read my recent posts, you may have noticed I’ve been talking about how important the little things are – little moments of happiness, little contributions to artistic projects, etc.  It turns out the same idea is a good guide for money, too. 

For example, last Sunday I was expecting to eat dinner with my parents.  I didn’t have anything specific laid out for an evening meal because of that, but then plans changed and the dinner was cancelled.  I had to find something to eat for myself.  Often when this happens, I end up going out for fast food or take out.  In such cases, I can easily lay out $8-$15, since you always end up paying an unexpectedly large amount for the convenience of a take-home meal.  

Then I thought, ‘What would the savvy person do – the person who appreciates the important of little things?’

Fancy, cheap eggs are the best!
The answer was: stay in and see what I can find in the refrigerator.  Might as well get the most out of the food I’ve already paid for, after all!  So then my creativity had to kick into gear.  I’ve always been a big believer in the reflectivity of the creative act.  If you put thought and imagination into making something in one part of your life, your mind will be awake and lively to make something in another part as well. 

Now, I’ve always appreciated an occasional ‘breakfast for dinner’ meal.  In the refrigerator I found a few slices of unused bacon, a few eggs, some leftover cheddar cheese, onion and kale from the farmers’ market.  The kale was just on the edge of turning wilty.  The cheddar cheese was too small of a piece to use for much of anything.  The onion was a quarter left from a Mexican meal.  So I made an omelet, and nothing went to waste.  Moreover, with bacon, cheese, kale and onion as the filling, it was both healthy and delicious.

To celebrate my thrifty accomplishment, I ate my dinner with a delicious screwdriver to wash it down. 

As I was savoring the omelet, I reflected on the fact that if I’d gotten a cheeseburger and fries from Burger King, or Chinese takeout, I’d have probably regretted my choice by the end of the meal.  A noticeable dent would have been put in my budget (currently rather tight as I transition between jobs), and I probably wouldn’t have felt very good, thanks to all the deepfrying. 

Instead, I felt refreshed and revitalized - just full enough – and happy that I’d not wasted
money and that I’d flexed my cooking muscles (something I always enjoy!).  In fact, the omelet was about the best one I’d ever made because I let the pan get hot enough to cook the eggs through without browning the outside. 

Hodgepodges are creative and beautiful!
Often it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, that will be too time-consuming to make dinner for myself, plus what does $10 or so really matter?’  In the end though, putting together something – even just cleverly reassembling leftovers – only need take 15 or 20 minutes, and you can rest easy with the money still in your pocket.  The same principles end up applying to everything.  When a seam splits in a shirt, you can spend $25 for a new one, or you can whip it back together in a few minutes with a needle and thread. 

 I think it’s not hard to feel rather dissatisfied with life.  We wish its quality could be better, and often we imagine that a bigger salary would magically solve everything.  My opinion, though – reinforced by my recent omelet – is that a more encompassing creativity is a better solution.  Instead of seeing every change of plans or failure in some belonging as a downturn which obliges us to spend money to fix, look at it as a challenge.  Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What can we do here and now to fix this, engaging our minds and hands, not throwing money at it?’

The answer will often prove to be something enjoyable in itself – something that wakes us up and gives us greater satisfaction with our lives. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Happy Discovery

When I was in college and dreaming about the ideal job which I’d have when I finished (it tended to involve a quaint bookshop and a stylishly nerdy version of me), the one thing I always imagined was that I’d be able to write during my lunch breaks.  The scenario was that I’d go outside and sit on a bench, eating something suitably sophisticated – not a sandwich.  I’d pull out my notebook (electronic or otherwise) and jot down a page or so in 30 minutes. 

Good things get built in small pieces!
My progress might not be fast, but it would be incredibly steady.

That was the dream at least.  It was a good dream, even if a bit varnished with pretentiousness.  It never came true, though.  I taught and taught, and every lunch I’d have to do school preps.  At best, I’d get out for a walk, but sitting and writing after doing basically the same all day for my classes didn’t hold much appeal. 

It’s funny: as you get older and little teenage or childhood dreams fade away into reality, there’s a tendency to suppose that nothing your younger self imagined will come true.  We smile as fondly at our past selves as we do when a friendly six year old tells us he wants to be a pirate when he grows up.  There’s no rule, however, that all of those little wishes and aspirations have to be abandoned.  Some of them are perfectly legitimate.

I’ve been happy to discover lately that my ambition to write during my lunch breaks is, in fact, legitimate. 

It’s been deeply satisfying to feel that maybe I’ve actually found a version of the place I imagined for myself in college.  Overall I am finding my new job truly enjoyable.  There’s a surprising amount of problem-solving to do, and that offers mental stimulation and satisfaction.  For example, if a woman calls and explains sadly that her pet destroyed several of the books from a recent order, I can only feel happy if I can send her away with a solution, rather than heartlessly charging her for replacement copies. 

That sort of employment has been offering me plenty of interest, and then to top it all off, I realized my 45 minutes for lunch every day gave me a chance to tackle other important things, as well.  No matter how slowly I eat, after all, there’s no way I can make a light lunch last three quarter of an hour.  Not infrequently, I have a whole 30 minutes which at first was just going to waste. 

It may look small, but it has layers and layers!
Then a lightbulb went on in my head, and I realized I could use those spare moments for writing. 

I brought a flash drive to work the next day.  I’m still working on the editing I wanted to complete before starting a brand new story, but in a month I’ve edited three chapters, largely at work.  That’s not incredibly fast progress, but it’s better than nothing.  Not every day works out for an editing session, but when I do have a chance, I can do between a half and three-quarters of a page. 

The benefit of this, too, is that I’ve been too busy for quite a while now to work in the evenings.  I’ve been taking advantage of having some friends in town, since they’ll be leaving again when summer ends, plus July is a month of holidays and parties, thanks to the generally beautiful weather.  Normally when I go out to several social engagements a week, I end up feeling frazzled and harassed, since I can’t write.  Now, though, despite an occasional twinge of regret that things aren’t progressing faster, I’m able to keep my cool.

By just a little creative work of my own each lunch, I reclaim the whole day for myself, somehow. 

Granted, not every form of creativity is equally portable.  It would be hard to take paints and a canvas to work, for example.  You could, however, take a sketch book.  An amateur seamstress could bring some handsewing.  A poet can bring a notebook; a musician an mp3 player to offer inspiration for his performance or composition.  There are quite a few ways to incorporate some small creative act into the daily routine. 

A snail's pace is better than no pace at all!
I’ve always felt that one of the signs of being a writer was happiness with small progress and the ability to seek out opportunities for it.  There’s a tendency to suppose that if we don’t advance by leaps and bounds, we’ll never get anywhere and so perhaps we’d better not try at all.  The famous tortoise in the fable is a better model for our endeavors, though.  He wasn’t impatient with himself, though the hare ran by at top speed.  By continuing with his small, slow steps, in the end he won it all.