Whose Idea Was This?

When I was a kid, my room was a mess. I’ve always been a packrat, and every treasure – every rock, twist-tie, shell, scrap of paper, plastic gewgaw – ended up somewhere on my floor. And since I spent a fair amount of time outside, I was always tracking dirt into my room.

There were four kids in my family, and none of us was any great shakes at cleaning. And since my mother was a single parent with a full-time job who was also pursuing her bachelor’s degree (and therefore only able to fulfill her duties as cook, chauffer and nurse, but not maid), not only were all our rooms a mess, but our bathrooms, kitchen and dining room were a mess as well. The only reason the living room wasn’t a disaster was because we never used that room for anything. We came and went through the kitchen door.

When I got older, I became conscious that there was shame attached to having a perpetually sticky kitchen table  or socks hanging over the chairs. I tried to keep tidy, but when one acquires slightly more stuff than one’s living arrangements can accommodate, it becomes difficult. Still, it became my obsession. At one point, I had convinced myself that the hallmark of maturity was having a house that was always company-ready.

When I started grad school, my husband quit his job so that I could devote all my time to the work I would have to do. Except that I didn’t set myself a schedule for writing, so I relegated it to the time between chores. As a result, my first semester I didn’t do as much new writing as I had hoped. When I got back from my second residency, my husband sat me down and said “I’m going to be handling things. You’re to work and nothing else.”

For a week and a half now, I’ve let my husband take care of the housework. There are dishes on the kitchen counter, unopened mail on the kitchen table, things everywhere that could stand tidying. The place isn’t in squalor, by any means, but let’s just say that the Queen would not be impressed. I came out of my office the other day and noticed the stuff on the kitchen table and thought to myself “Why did I think it was so important to keep this place spotless?”

Obviously, my husband doesn’t base his opinion of me on whether his socks stick to the floor. My children didn’t think I was a bad parent when the kitchen table had to be cleared of unopened mail and other stuff before we ate dinner. If my mother were to come over to my house right this second, she wouldn’t love me any less if there were dust on all my framed family photos. So, why was I always so wound up about this?

I think it’s high time to consign this obsession with tidiness at all costs to the heap of stuff I’ve outgrown and no longer miss, along with my need to keep twist-ties, scraps of paper and plastic gewgaws.

Solving the World’s Problems

I’m in Baltimore right now, having spent 9 hours in transit from San Jose (the closest airport to my mountain lair). Here’s what I love best about travel: everyone approaches it a little differently. Some folks are infrequent travelers who dress up and act like the airport itself is an adventure. Some folks are more frequent travelers and so see the journey as secondary to the destination. For me, travel is stressful because it forces me into society where I may, at any moment, have to interact with strangers.

What would be the ultimate mode of transport? Of course, a private jet would be ultimate, but nowadays the sorts of people who are privileged enough to have such accommodations are vilified. To be sure, a private jet is hardly the most ecologically sound mode of travel. The amount of resources used to carry a single person to and from a destination are absolutely out of all proportion.

I might suggest, then, a mode of personal travel for the extravagantly rich that would be non-polluting, sufficiently opulent, and have the added benefit of solving the increasing problems of both unemployment and obesity. The Greeks had a ship called the trireme, which employed three rowers per oar to speed the ship through the waters. Let us imagine, then, a craft that combines the form of a trireme – a long bodied craft with men supplying motive power – with the mechanical advances of the steam engine – gears that convert the turbine-turning power of steam into the locomotive power supplied to the wheels.

I believe that the mechanics of locomotion would be easily adapted to the mechanics of rowing. A set of three cars – sleeping, baggage and dining – could certainly be pulled by 60 rowers (10 “oars” on each side of what would otherwise be the engine car). Using the existing rail system, if each rower were paid a fair wage, would likely be no more extravagant than the current cost of maintaining a private jet and crew. There would be no fuel costs, no need to maintain the expensive motor workings of an engine, no expensive insurance, since rail travel is less fraught with peril than air travel. To be sure, travel would not be quite as expedient between places, but is that so terrible? Modern life moves at a pace that I personally find unhealthy. People need time to relax, to ruminate, to reflect. Perhaps if travel were a bit less immediate and convenient, people would make more of an occasion of it. Perhaps they might dress up, perhaps they might be more conscious of their impression on their fellow travelers, and perhaps travel might be what it once was. And then, perhaps, they might leave me alone.

What I Do When I’m Not Writing

Lately I’ve been looking at my To Do list and feeling pretty amazing. It’s only midway through the month and I’ve already finished all the work that’s due by the 30th, leaving me time to work on a bunch of outside projects as well. But you know what they say about all work and no play. Besides that it makes you disciplined, rich and insufferable. Sometimes, a monkey just needs to blow off some steam.

Back in early November, my mother came out for a 3-week visit. As usual, while she was on the plane from Phoenix, she browsed the SkyMall catalog and was so riveted by what she found that she was unable to put it down, and she brought it home with her.

Normally, I LOVE SkyMall. It’s the easiest thing to mock I’ve ever seen. How can you resist snickering not just at the Isometric Meal Replacements, but at the sort of person who would buy such a thing. And is it the same sort of person who would buy the Fashionable Magnetic Bracelets? How could you resist when they offer you “potential relief from aches and pains”? And how about Cat Scat? The description promises that it “smells really bad to cats…but it’s only mildly noticeable to humans.” And what do you think that “mildly noticeable” smell might be? Could it be…cat scat?

What caught my eye, though, was the StreetStrider. I danced around just looking at the full-page ad devoted to the several available models, each one of which looked like the coolest thing I had ever seen. A couple of years ago, the Pirate and I had gone to the Maker Faire and had seen a prototype of something like this, and I had dreamed about it for months afterward. I love elliptical trainers because my knees get unhappy running after a while, but I can spend hours on the elliptical trainer I had in the basement. I say “had,” because after going through two sets of the metal skis that hold the foot pads, we could no longer get replacement parts. The whole thing was beginning to get really creaky after several years of faithful service and had to be retired.

Well, the Pirate is no fool. What did I find waiting for me beside our sparkly red fake Christmas tree but an enormous box that said StreetStrider on it. Once back from our trip, we wasted no time in ripping open the box and taking out all the twisty, hurty-looking metal bits that make up the StreetStrider. The DVD included in the box had a lot of shots of a guy with his hands entirely obscuring everything he was doing, but we got it all together anyway.

See those crazy happy smiles on the faces of the people on that website? They’re not real. What’s real is the grimace of effort, that “yikes” face you make when you’re not sure that you’re actually going to make a tight turn (the turning radius on these things is, I have to be honest, atrocious), and the mouth-wide-open look you get when you’re praying that the brakes will actually have some kind of effect at the speed you’re moving. But I have to say, I am crazy happy smiling on the inside. Oh yes. Crazy happy.