In Praise of the Revised-Draft World

I'm catching up on the sections of the Sunday NYT I somehow never manage to finish until weeks after the fact (namely the Travel section, the Book Review, and the magazine). Book News from April 20 (yes, April) has a short article about the poet Laura Sims, who struck up what wound up being a years-long correspondence with the experimental-fiction writer David Markson. Markson's side of their correspondence wound up in a book, Fare Forward.

I'm not familiar with Markson or his work, and I'm not really one for experimental fiction any more than I am for experimental art, but I loved this tidbit about his reaction to the online world (and yes, I see the irony of posting this here).

"Markson may have lived on the cutting edge of fictional technique, but he happily lagged behind in the world of technology. In March 2004, Sims offered to print out and send pages from several blogs that praised Markson's work. Markson, unaware of blogs, reluctantly agreed to take a look. When the materials arrived, he found them riddled with errors and omissions.
'Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff, but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up,' he wrote back. 'I bless your furry little heart, but please don't send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don't have a computer. HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?' Later he wrote: 'I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket and torn them into even smaller pieces.'"

(From "Fan Letter to Pen Pal," by John Williams, NYT Book News, April 20, 2014)


In Which Otis and I Issue a Plea to MC Hammer

Emily Wilska posted to Michael Richman

Hammer, we're asking you very gently and politely: please strongly consider not hurting 'em.

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Michael Richman

The world is a dangerous, endlessly violent place, Hammer. Perhaps it's God's plan; perhaps there is no God. We will likely never know. What we do know, Hammer, is that adding pain to an already painful existence is not the Peaceful Way as Buddha describes it. Ergo, if you should be considering the act of hurting 'em, Hammer, won't you please, please think again?

Emily Wilska

May we suggest perhaps putting on a nice comfortable pair of loose-fitting pants, say, and engaging in some relaxing and rejuvenating dancing rather than hurting 'em? We will uphold our promise to respect your wishes that we not touch this.

Michael Richman

We know, we know. You've toured around the world. From Mother England to the San Francisco Bay area. And while it might be frustrating, everywhere you go, that "It's Hammer go, MC Hammer, Hammer, yo! Hammer!" and the rest can go and play we request respectfully that you simply consider all of these souls to be as much a citizen of the world as you are. Hammer? Are you listening to us, Hammer? MC Hammer? Yo? Hurting 'em doesn't solve anything. Regardless of your latitude / longitude. It's about going and PLAYING, Hammer. Not - we must repeat - NOT - about hurting 'em.

Emily Wilska

Know what, Hammer? You--no one else, just you--have the power to redefine Hammer Time, to take it back, to remove the smudges and the sting. Do people think that Hammer Time, by its very nature, involves hurting 'em? Maybe. Maybe they do. But that doesn't have to be the case. Rise up, Hammer. Heed the higher call. We know you have it in you.

Michael Richman

Hammer, you're a better person than 'em. 'Em are just trying to get a **rise** out of you, Hammer. And you know, what? If you hurt 'em, Hammer, you're just going to GIVE 'EM WHAT THEY WANT. Don't give 'em the satisfaction, Hammer. 'Em aren't worth your time. You know what **is** worth your time, Hammer? Serving God. That'll take the better part of the next decade or two. Why not start now? Or? What about medical school, Hammer? Ever thought of MD Hammer? Now, that has a ring to it, doesn't it?

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2010 Hunger Challenge, Days 4 & 5: In Praise of Distraction/Life Interferes

Day 4 (Wednesday)
There's a fascinating thing that happens on occasion when I'm with a client and we're deeply engrossed in work: no matter how hungry I might get, I'll reach a point at which I'm so far beyond hunger that I can go for hours without eating. Even once we've wrapped up for the day and I've left, it sometimes takes a while before I realize that I haven't eaten for many hours and am, in fact, ravenous.

Unhealthy as this is, it's actually fairly handy: no need to interrupt the flow of the work I'm doing and no weirdness or worry about when, how, where, and what to eat when I'm in someone else's home or office.

I didn't particularly intend to invoke this hunger legerdemain yesterday, as I was home (which usually means that I get unignorably hungry on schedule) and was working on my own admin stuff, not a project for a client. But somehow it happened. I had a quesadilla (one Trader Joe's handmade wheat tortilla, about an ounce of cheese, and salsa--45¢) in the late morning, and then set to work weeding out, digitizing, and reorganizing my business files.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I had an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie from the batch I'd made on Saturday (15¢), along with some water.

And then it was 7.30 p.m. My friend Mary called, and as we chatted, I realized that I hadn't eaten for hours and was bound to go downhill fast if I didn't make myself some dinner. 7+ hours on a single quesadilla and a cookie=cheap, yes. Recommended, not especially.

Thanks to the grocery center stipend of free produce, the only part of my meal that actually cost me anything was the pasta (32¢) and the feta (25¢); the roasted potato, carrot, and onion that went with them were "free." Total for the day: $2.12. (After I tallied that late in the evening, I ate another cookie in celebration, bringing the sum to $2.27.)

This get-beyond-hunger-by-working phenom reminds me of a saying my high school French teacher taught me: Dormir, c'est manger, or To sleep is to eat. Lose yourself deeply enough in something else and you might forget that nothing of substance has gone in your mouth for hours.

But that forgetting, of course, can't last.

Day 5 (Thursday)
Can't last, and doesn't. I woke this morning, 45 minutes before my alarm, hungrier than I've been all week. Normally I can find myself at least a few hours into my morning before I'm truly hankering for breakfast, but today, no such luck. I was so distracted and miserable that I had to eat a bowl of cereal just to function.

I went through the day today knowing that this evening I'd be going to a networking meeting for which I'd already paid, and at which there would be appetizers. I wrestled with the Hunger Challenge protocol here: since I'd paid weeks ago, wouldn't it be foolish to go and not eat anything? Also, how much of what I paid for the meeting went toward food, and how much toward the general meeting expenses? Finally, how guilty should I make myself feel for veering off the path here yet again this week?

I decided on a compromise, sort of: I kept the rest of my food expenses today to $2.23, bringing me to $4.50 total for the past two days. To balance that out, I decided I'd let myself eat sans guilt at the meeting tonight.

And then I blew that compromise by buying a glass of wine. It was completely overpriced event wine, and chardonnay at that, but sometimes these schmooze-y meetings are just easier with some vino.

Which brings me to this: so much of my life, whether personal or professional, involves food in some way. With friends, I go out for dinner and drinks, or we gather at someone's house over wine and tables crowded with things to eat. When I network, nine times out of ten a meal--or at least a beverage--is involved. With colleagues, we meet in taquerias or cafes to swap stories and offer support, or we show up at each other's doorsteps with a bottle of something, a plate of something, and then sit and talk and laugh and eat. And eat.

But what if I couldn't? What if I really were subsisting on $28 a week, plus rations of produce from a grocery center? What if every time someone asked me to join in a meal or a drink out I had to beg off because I couldn't afford it? I would, I admit, be totally adrift.

This week, life has interfered with my ability to be completely faithful to the Hunger Challenge. It's jarring to realize the reverse: just how much being hungry and in need would interfere with my ability to live the life I'm used to. Damn if I don't take that for granted.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 3: My Cheating Heart (and Stomach)

Day 3, a Day Late
I admit: last evening I knowingly and intentionally fell (well, leapt, really) off the wagon. In the second of my two planned social outings for the week, I went with my friend Dana to 15 Romolo for cocktails and bar bites, both because--theme alert!--I had a voucher for same, and because I was sorely in need of a cocktail.

All told, the evening cost us each $20--which, for two drinks each, three shared appetizers, and one shared dessert, was not a whole lot (thanks to the aforementioned voucher). Of course, $20 was ridiculously far above and beyond my food budget for the day. It was also worth every last guilt-inducing cent.

In my everyday life--that is, even when I'm not intentionally aiming to eat three solid meals for $4 per day--I tend to be fairly frugal when it comes to grocery spending. A few times a year, I'll splurge on something special, like the Meyer lemon olive oil I bought from a very sweet man at the Castro farmer's market a few weeks back, but I'm generally inclined toward the cheap(-ish): I buy a lot in bulk, stick with pretty simple and inexpensive produce, and resist the allure of the fancy cheeses at Rainbow in favor of the basic cheddar and ricotta salata and Bulgarian feta that are a fraction of the price. (Yes, I realize this is a wildly bourgeois definition of frugal grocery shopping.)

But it's a different story when it comes to dining and drinking out. Since I'm already laying myself bare here, I will admit that I shell out $9+ per cocktail on a pretty regular basis, even though that same $9 would buy me, say, a hunk of cheese that would last all week, or some handmade ravioli, or some other non-essential but lovely foodstuff that I probably wouldn't buy because it seemed too expensive.

Hello, my name is Emily, and I'm penny wise and pound foolish.

I'm also someone who thrives on being around other people, especially when that communion involves food, and doubly especially when that communion involves food and a cocktail that comes with its own back story, as did those Dana and I drank last night. So while there's a big part of me that feels like I should be engaging in some (more) self-flagellation today--after all, people who are really living on food stamps cannot simply decide to take a night off and belly up to the bar at 15 Romolo--there's also a part that's OK with having savored last night: the bar, Dana's company, our conversation, and, yes, that final sip of stout ice cream milkshake at the tail end of our meal that left me feeling, for the first time all week, completely and delightedly full.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 2: What $4 (Plus 2 Potatoes, 1 Apple, and a Cucumber) Looks Like

I woke up this morning realizing that part of the crazy-ass dream that filled my sleep (once I finally fell asleep, that is) last night had me in Spain with some friends carefully deliberating whether to spend $2 on a glass of sherry or $2.25 on a glass of red wine. For the record, I went for the sherry, not so much because I was in a sherry mood but because, hey, 25¢ can buy a decent snack. When I finally pulled myself fully awake, I was both baffled by the dream in general--it was insane--and vaguely alarmed that food price calculations have already filtered into my subconscious.

It is literally and existentially exhausting to have to think all the time about what every single bit of your food costs. I've only been doing this for two days and already I'm tired of it.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a rundown of what I ate today, and roughly what it cost.

  • Coffee with milk and sugar: 40¢
  • 1 small and 1 medium potato, roasted as home fries: free (I'm counting these as part of what an individual in SF would get from one of the Food Bank's grocery centers; see yesterday's post for details)
  • 2-egg omelet with cheese: 55¢
  • tortilla: 21¢
  • 1/2 cup orange juice: 13¢
  • (Technically, I should've counted the ketchup I ate with my home fries, but there comes a point at which laziness takes the day; this was that point.)
  • PB&J on whole wheat: 45¢
  • 1 small apple: free (I'm substituting apples for pears in the Food Bank's sample list)
  • 1/2 veggie banh mi: $2 (I'm guessing; I ate it at the board meeting I went to this evening)
  • 1 mini and 1 fun size Milky Way: 15¢ (I made the mini last for 4 bites and the fun size for 6--not an easy [or fun, frankly] feat)
  • 1 medium cucumber: free
  • 1 small homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookie: 12¢, give or take
Grand total for the day: $4.01! Of course, without the "free" potatoes, apple, and cucumber, I'd be hosed.

This list reads to me like some kind of crackpot diet plan: enjoy one (more or less) normal meal in the morning, and then go slowly off the rails throughout the day until you find yourself so hungry in the late evening that you're unable to resist the siren song of a cucumber and a cookie (which, let's be honest here, are not exactly packing my stomach right now). The fabulous results? Lingering hunger for most of the day, followed by a gradual descent into loopiness, accompanied by longing for things like avocados and cheese and toast lousy with butter.

Dammit. I'm hungry.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 1: Chocolate Is Not Lunch

Because it was so fascinating (if very literally painful) last year, I signed on again to the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, entailing a week of attempting to eat for no more than $4 per day. (If you missed my posts from last year's challenge, start here and work your way through.) Today was Day 1 of the challenge, and already I have--completely consciously--blown my food budget.

First, a little background: $4 per day, or $28 per week, is the average amount a food stamp recipient in California gets. Trying to eat on this budget, as the hunger challenge suggests, gives you a starkly real sense of just how limiting it is, even if you opt for super-cheap foods like dried beans and inexpensive (read: probably conventionally grown) produce. Every bit of food and drink you consume (with the exception of tap water, salt, and pepper) counts toward this total, whether it's stuff you've paid for or stuff you've been given by others.

This year's challenge features a new wrinkle: participants can supplement their $4-per-day stash with food that represents what a family or individual in San Francisco would receive each week from one of the Food Bank's neighborhood grocery pantries. As an individual, here's what I'd get around this time of year:

Potatoes--1.2 Lbs per Person
Cucumbers--1.1 Lbs per Person
Pears--0.9 Lbs per Person
Carrots--0.7 Lbs per Person
Tomatoes--1.1 Lbs per Person
Stone Fruit--1 Lb per Person
Onion--1.1 Lbs per Person
Honeydew--4.5 Lbs per Person

Having done the challenge last year, I can appreciate (immensely) the difference a few pounds of produce can make in terms of stretching a week's food budget. In fact, I'm about to have a peach in an attempt to quell my rumbling stomach, and am very happy that peach won't make today's budget overage any worse.

Because here's the thing: one of the biggest bummers I discovered during last year's challenge was that there's not a whole lot you--or, more to the point, I--can do socially that doesn't somehow involve food or drink. Even with an event that's not food-centric--watching a movie at home, say--food so often comes into play: you make popcorn, or have a glass of wine, or go to Walgreens and buy gummy-somethings to eat during the film. Last year, because everything that passed my lips counted against my $28 for the week, I gave up several social outings, or whimpered through a few that were, sadly, just painful--viz. my friend Nir coming to my house with a burrito from the Little Chihuahua while I downed a salad and then watched longingly as he ate.

I can deal (if complainingly) with the hunger I know I'm bound to feel while trying to eat on $4 per day, and can deal with the required hyper-consciousness of the cost of every single thing I consume, along with the knowledge of everything I love eating that's off-limits this week because it's too expensive--most cheeses, the walnut baguette from La Boulange I want like crazy, a coffee and breakfast burrito at Arlequin....

But what I couldn't face for another year running was saying no to social events, or giving friends the brush-off for most of the week, or more salad-vs.-burrito showdowns. So I gave in and planned two outings, the first of which was today: a visit to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival with my friend Maria.

Insane as it sounds to go to a chocolate festival on day 1 of a hunger challenge, I had a coupon that gave us a big discount: two 15-taste passes for $10, working out to about 33¢ per taste. I had 8 tastes, for a total of $2.64. Not bad for fancy-ass chocolate, except that 1.) it did not exactly (or, really, at all, in any way, shape, or form) make a meal, and 2.) $2.64 is more than half of my daily budget. So even though breakfast worked out to a petite $1.18 and dinner to $1.37, I'm still over budget by $1.19.

Could be worse, but peach or no peach this evening, I'm going to go to bed hungry, because I haven't had enough protein or--chocolate samples notwithstanding--fat today. Neither of those, you'll note, is on the free-from-the-food-bank list for an individual, and I'm not going to exceed my budget any more than I already have.

It would be too facile to say that there's a necessary trade-off between socializing and eating on a strict budget; I could, of course, have had Maria over for something super-cheap at home and spent just as much time with her as I did waiting in line for toffee samples. Nonetheless, it's jarring to realize how much of my time with friends is spent out over food, and how much I love that combination, and how impossible it would be if a single burrito or a few pieces of chocolate truly did undo my eating budget for an entire day.


To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (San Francisco Version)

Wear thee ye summer clothes while ye may,
Warm weather is always fickle-y:
And these same temps that soar today
Tomorrow will be sickly.

(Sorry about that, Robert Herrick.)