On Journals and Being a Moron

This May marks my 99th month of keeping a daily journal electronically.

Before this, and ever since I graduated from college, I used notebooks for this purpose (college ruled, five subject, I’d tear out the dividers). There are boxes upon boxes of these in my uncle’s shed upstate. Someday, I’ll need to revisit them and see what needs to be kept and what needs to be destroyed.

I started to keep my journal on the laptop when I started traveling a lot, and didn’t want to lug a paper notebook around the world. Keep your expectations low, but here’s the beginning of my very first entry:

 March 22, 2007. In Nanjing, I wake up. This town –city, really — has never seen the likes of me, or at least not often, men almost fall of their bicycles staring at my chest. Women stare too. I look weird here. I feel weird here. I feel a long away from home.

I immediately took to journaling on the laptop. The benefits went beyond lighter luggage. At home, I had to concede that I was running out of storage space for all my whining incredibly valuable literary raw material. Also, I can type much faster than I can write by hand, and the ability to search my journals for keywords has proven very useful indeed.

Excited by all the upside, I stopped keeping notes on paper and exclusively went electronic. I started taking my field notes on my phone – a BlackBerry at that time. I felt smart, modern and efficient. I loved that my notes were already typed up when I got home, no more transcribing!

The new system worked well until a few days into my trip to India, when a waiter carrying a tray of panipuri tripped, spilling an entire bowl of tamarind-infused water on my phone.

This created an intermittent short circuit which could not be repaired. For the rest of the trip, the phone sometimes work fine, and sometimes typed random letters, numbers and symbols all by itself. I bought a small notebook to use while Shiva took possession of my phone to make his own notes. (Which is what I’d concluded was happening, obviously.)

When I got home, I was able to compare the quality of notes I’d taken by hand and with a keyboard, on the same day. I was struck by the difference. My handwritten notes were more lyrical and thoughtful, my typed notes more matter-of-fact and brief.

I think the difference has to do with the speed, unlike with an interview, where you really do want to just go as fast as possible, with certain kinds of observation going slow is a virtue.

Kyoto Travel Jewelry Journal
Here’s a recent sketchbook page. The keychains had nothing to do with the images, I just liked the way they looked.

Since I prefer the word “and” to the word “or,” I decided not to make a choice, and to keep notes both electronically and on paper.  And in the past couple of years, as my interests have shifted and I’ve started to study visual art, I still keep my daily journal on the computer, and I have almost 2,000 notes on Evernote, and I also now carry around a sketchbook, which also functions as a scrapbook.

So given all that, you’d think there would be nothing of significance in my life that’s gone unchronicled. But here’s my big duh moment.

As I’ve hinted at around these parts, I’m in the process of launching a new enterprise, a jewelry business — about which I’ll have much more to say another time.

In the past year I’ve put myself through an intensive educational experience – In 2014, I took 32 classes, at six different art and jewelry schools in New York City; this year so far, I’ve hit a cool dozen. As you might imagine, I’ve been making a lot of jewelry, and of course I’ve been taking some notes along the way.

One day not long ago, in my enamel class, a far more advanced student (and a professional jeweler) generously allowed me to take a look at her sketchbook. This woman had kept track of each piece she’d ever made: her inspiration for it, the exact steps she took to make the piece, what worked, what didn’t. And, being a thorough sort, she’d also pasted in a photo of the finished product.

I immediately felt like a total moron.

Because, in addition to all I’ve said of my own note-taking behavior above, any student who’s taken a writing class with me knows I make a giant, all-fired fuss about journal keeping. I mean, I’m tough about it. (“Write it down. I mean now. I’m not kidding.”) But when I stepped just a few steps away from my familiar writing ground, I utterly failed to make the connection between the creative process I’ve spent my entire adult life practicing, and my new endeavor.

Just think of it: I was blithely going around investing serious time making things, while taking only the skimpiest of notes recording my process — either digital or actual. What the serious fuck? What could I have been thinking?

I’ll have to take a look back in my journals and find out.

Fuck This Shit — Bronze Key Ring

KeyRing1501

There’s nothing more important than a positive mental attitude, but let’s get real: you can be both pissed off and positive. So due to popular demand — from people who don’t even know me! — I’m making this small bronze key ring available for purchase. All relevant details are below.

I have been thinking about the fact that among the few pieces I’ve posted on Instagram, it’s the one with profanity that’s gotten the most response. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised: I’ve previously written about my appreciation of the F-word — among my favorites in the English language. Forget diamonds, forget pearls, you see the word “fuck” on something and you just covet.

Marc Jacobs figured this out also, with this gym padlock that says Don’t Fuck with My Shit. And there are some very lovely Fuck Cancer pieces on Etsy.

I considered making this available in a G-rated version, but fuck that. When I put it on top of things that trouble me — like this giant snowbank outside my building — I feel so much better.

FuckKeyRing

So here are the details:

Your Fuck This Shit brass key ring measures 1-1/4 inches in diameter. It will not add much to your load. (It’s 24 gauge, if you know your gauges. If you don’t, it’s light.)

This piece is hand-made, hand- hammered, and hand- stamped, which means that it doesn’t look like a machine made it, because it didn’t. It’s $9.99, which includes sales tax and shipping inside these United States. Please allow seven to ten days for delivery, which will start the moment you click the button. (Or just click here, because the fucking button doesn’t always work.)
(Seriously, that button doesn’t always work — because PayPal is determined to drive me insane –so if you get an error message, you can just email me at alisonstein at gmail.com and I’ll send you a PayPal invoice.)
Fuck it, you know you want to.

 

"Buy

 

Pacific Time — Worth, February-March 2015

“The East Coast is just a rough draft for the West Coast.”

This is something I started saying about fifteen years ago, because, like the pioneers, I was totally enchanted by the idea of better living on the Pacific Ocean. In California, my troubles would be more manageable, since things could be sorted out in New York before I was even awake. Also the light would be nicer, the wine, local, the weather, better, and then there was also this: it was the only place on the planet where I wasn’t chained to my desk.

At the time, I was just starting out as a writer — and as an adult human — and since I started freelancing right out of college, I was not aware that I was allowed to take vacations.  I thought if I turned down any assignments, I would instantly lose all my clients and my writing career. Without an academic calendar for the first time in my memory, and without a boss, there was no one to tell me it was okay to take a break. And since this was the era of the dot com boom, and because I had an amount of hustle that I marvel at now, I had more work than I could handle. I was writing so much that everything literally hurt.

So when a dear friend had a wedding in Sausalito, it was the first break I’d taken in about three years. The wedding was at a beautiful boutique hotel, and I made excursions to wine country, and to Muir Woods. After that, I made several pilgrimages back, to the exact same hotel. It was like the Bay Area was the only place on the planet that had the magic to free me from my self-made work prison. (I hear your hysterical laughter, Silicon Valley people.)

Eventually, though I figured out that I could take vacations in other places, too. I just had to decide it was okay for me to do it.

Fast forward to now, here’s this story I’ve written on travel to California, for Worth Magazine. It marks my official return to commercial writing, from which I’d taken a sabbatical. (Who gave me permission to do that? Why, I did.)

In part, this sabbatical happened because I was recovering from my brutally fucked up divorce. But mostly, I wanted to figure out another line of work to complement my writing, which meant going back to school. I’ve done that, those plans are well underway, announcement forthcoming, dontchya worry.

But it seemed appropriate to officially return to writing with a story on luxury vacations in California — the state where I learned that vacations were actually possible.

On Weak Men

Wikimedia Commons
Selma Protest Massacre. Wikimedia Commons

I saw Selma last night, and have been reflecting on an early scene, in which a white clerk refuses to allow a black woman to register to vote. (As an aside: Oprah plays the woman, and it’s always hard for me to suspend my disbelief when she’s on the screen, even though I think she’s a very fine actress. I kept thinking: doesn’t that fool know he’s fucking with Oprah?)

That early scene encapsulates the personal nature of the power differential that plays out throughout the movie, on both a large and small scale. The woman is entitled to vote, the man keeps coming up with reasons why she can’t, and the system is corrupt and protects him and he wins.

In that scene, the white male clerk seemingly is strong, and the black woman is seemingly weak. But that analysis only applies in that very moment: in reality, the woman is stronger, because she is entitled to what she seeks. It’s self-evident that she is equal, and endowed with unalienable rights, including to have a voice in her government. Simply speaking, she is right.

And the clerk, and the white police officers who murder, and the guy who wraps a club with barbed wire to beat black citizens, they are weak because they are afraid. It is self-evident that they are not entitled to attack others, not entitled to ignore the rules of the land or of basic humanity. Simply speaking, they are wrong.

That’s the zoomed out view, but up close and in the moment, absolutes of right and wrong don’t matter that much. Selma does a good job of showing how dangerous a weak man can be, which seems to be a theme of current events lately.

Just choose your favorite injustice, and I guarantee you will find at its heart a weak man (and it is most often, still, a man) who blames his failings on others, who does not take responsibility for managing his fears, who acts aggressively when someone has the temerity to point out that the world does not exist solely for his own pleasure and comfort. Who feels humiliated – as if he is asked to bow – when asked to follow a simple agreement, a contract, as it were, that protects the rights of another. (No, you may not live in a system that gives you more privileges than another. No, you may not live in a world where the laws bend to your will. No, you are not entitled to more than your share.)

A weak man experiences the rights of another as an erosion of his own rights. He experiences reminders of the consequences of his own bad actions as an intolerable personal threat.

Such a weak man is dangerous because he will do anything in that moment to defend what he knows, on some deep and probably unconscious level, that he’s not entitled to have.

And perhaps the system is corrupt, and perhaps he will win a battle or two or more. But he won’t win the war. Because he is afraid. Because he is wrong. And because he is weak.

On Turning 40

“You’re going to lose everything,” my then-husband said, while we were eating lunch one winter weekend.

I readjusted my roast beef sandwich, the contents of which were about to spill onto my plate, and said: “how about now?”

This was seventeen months before our marriage ended–which I know with precision because I’d recorded it in my daily journal.

It seemed an especially ominous way to refer to errant lunch meat, a moment that signified something, although I didn’t know what. And even now, when hindsight makes his comment seem like a warning, I’m still pretty sure that P. was actually trying to facilitate a more tidy dining experience, and not issuing a forecast of a gathering storm.

I took special note of the exchange then because although he was not at all given to morbid thoughts, I’ve always entertained them with gusto. I dwelled on the broader implication of his observation of my sloppy sandwich, which struck me as entirely correct: I would lose everything eventually, as all mortals will. But since I was then 36, the losses I anticipated seemed decades away.

The losses I did not anticipate followed the next year. Some were permanent: my home; my name; my understanding of the character of the man I’d spent my life with since age 17. The rest of the losses proved temporary, although I had no way of knowing that as they happened. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate, I didn’t eat much because my stomach was lurching, I lost all faith in the basic order of the universe.

All of this was more or less restored to me in its own time and pace. And I can now say that in the bigger picture, what I’ve gained from the divorce has exceeded what I lost. But if P. had said “you’re going to lose everything,” on the night he walked out– or in the months of chaos that followed– I would not have argued.

Hand Embroidery by Alison Stein

But how about now? Now I’m days away from my 40th birthday, so I’m dwelling on a different addition to my list of lifetime losses: my own dewy youth.

I’m mostly kidding about that — I don’t see aging as a loss, considering the available alternative. But this is arguably the moment where I leave any behind any claim I might have still had on a younger adulthood and enter middle age. It’s a reminder that the pool of potential time I have left in this life – which is of uncertain size anyway – is definitely diminishing.

It’s also obvious that the shape of my life is radically different as I leave my thirties than it was when I entered them. And while I still know that I will lose everything eventually, my understanding of the nature of loss has changed.

I now believe that the central problem of life is not loss per se. The real trouble comes from the process of change that follows a loss, or a gain, or really anything that alters the course of life significantly.

I’m studying metalsmithing now, and have been introduced to a phenomenon called work-hardening. Basically, when you bend or manipulate metal repeatedly it becomes stiff. This is sometimes good – like when you’ve gotten a piece into the shape you desire, and you don’t want it to change anymore. But if you need to continue to shape the object, a work-hardened piece will break if you continue to manipulate it.

Malleability is not infinite.

This is exactly the opposite of how I’d always thought things worked. I imagined that metal would become more pliable as I manipulated it, that basically the molecules would get used to being rearranged, would just give up, go limp and say: bend me, lady, any way you want.

Likewise, I thought that the more change I experienced in my life, and the more loss, the better I’d be able to handle it. I could radically reshape my life, without breaking, or breaking down.

What I’ve learned is that radical reshaping is certainly possible, and survivable –but change never comes easy for humans. Nor does it for inanimate objects.

In a bookbinding class not long ago, my teacher said that a piece of paper, folded into the signature of a book “remembers” its life as an unfolded sheet. To forget its original shape, it has to sit with a heavy weight on it for a period of time. Wire “remembers” its life on a coil, before it becomes a drop earring or a toggle. It often requires hammering, to be educated on its new role in the world. And metal, once its become work-hardened, needs to be put into fire – a process called annealing – which will restore its molecular lattice and allow it to bend once again.

Reshaping doesn’t require painless repetition as much as it requires brute force and time.

This makes intuitive sense when it comes to difficult changes: divorce, death of a loved one, loss of any kind. In fact, those changes are often described as feeling hammered, getting hit with a brick, walking through a fire, taking time to adjust. It’s less obvious that this also applies to positive changes — a new relationship, a new job, a new opportunity. But changes of any character employ the same brutal techniques of life reshaping.

It just takes a lot of energy to change a life, in any direction. It takes time.

When I was in college, my favorite political theory professor wrapped up an otherwise abstract and cerebral conversation by telling me that only two things in life were true: This too shall pass; and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Time has certainly proven her correct, not that she needed me to say so. But what I didn’t realize when I first heard her say it, over twenty years ago, was that these two principles were intimately related.

Everything changes — and change will inevitably extract its price.

On Jewelry Made from Human Remains

A tiny tooth is embedded in the center of gold ring.

It’s set amid sparkling stones, so it’s not immediately apparent that the cream-colored fragment is, in fact, a child’s tooth. The idea behind this ring is not grotesque, but sentimental –- a semi-precious bit of a little darling.  And the child didn’t bite the ring to set it as the centerpiece, but rather lost it in the normal business of growing up.

These “milk tooth” rings were popular in the Victorian era –in fact, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were all about the combination of dentistry and jewelry. Many of Victoria’s jewels were adorned with the teeth of her children–and of hunted animals.

And while we can have a laugh at the peculiar tastes of wacky monarchs, we all should confess right now that we are hardly unfamiliar with dentine as a decorative element in jewelry.  After all, ivory is animal dentine.

In fact, it’s animal teeth that set the stage for whatever jewelry you now see on an earlobe finger, wrist or neck near you. Jewelry communicates both individuality and belonging. Eighty thousand years ago, or so, a hunter draped himself in boar teeth to show both his own individual courage and hunting prowess, and his affiliation with other hunters. (More: 25,000 Years of Jewelry. ) You say you like classic jewelry design? Then you better like yourself some teeth.

Still, when I saw the milk tooth ring at Doyle & Doyle’s Vault show about sentimental rings,  I did immediately find it rather gross. It reminded me of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia  where I saw a glass jar filled with a peculiar material, golden, ranging from translucent to creamy. At first I thought the stuff rather beautiful —  until I learned that this material was human skin, the results of dermatillomania, an obsessive compulsive disorder in which the afflicted pick off their own skin. (In this instance, the jar was filled with skin flakes collected by a 23-year-old Caucasian woman.)

Gag, right? But why should this be, really? We easily find beauty in the cast-off skins, nails, bones and hair of other creatures, so why is it so difficult to find not just utility, but beauty in human detritus?

[–]

I’ve been interested in jewelry made from human body parts ever since I saw a bracelet which incorporated a hunk of hair, at a museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years back. It was worn by a widow, if I’m remembering correctly, and the hair belonged to her late husband.

Up until then, I’d thought of an objet made from human parts as purely macabre, the territory of Nazis. Leaving aside dermatillomania, I’m sure it’s hard to procure quantities of human skin or bone in a way that doesn’t involve desecration of graves or crimes against humanity. But we living folk do produce a great deal of material that we shed and replace painlessly –- like hair. And so why not upcycle?

I’m not seriously asking this question: I realize that the answer has something to do with our cannibalism taboo. We eat other animals but not humans — generally, we adorn ourselves with the parts of other creatures but not with ourselves. But must jewelry made from human body parts always be a little disgusting?

Lately I’ve been working this question into my conversations – I’m always a delight to have at dinner parties – and my entirely unscientific answer to this question is: for a modern audience, hell yes. Human body parts as jewelry? Yuck.

But it was not ever thus.

For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its holdings a bold necklace, early 19th century, Hawaiian.  At its center is a huge whale tooth, suspended on a thick coil which is made of 1,700 feet of deep brown human hair. It’s worked in tiny braids, and, like the Victorian milk ring, you can’t immediately tell that the fiber originally grew on a human. This necklace was a seriously powerful talisman – “hair was a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana [supernatural powers] of the necklace and its noble wearer.”

In other words, this was a statement necklace, not an everyday piece, and it was only to be worn by a chief, not a commoner. So while I don’t think the fashion critics of the time found this necklace gross, per se, it was certainly meant to be intimidating.

Hair necklace

In contrast, the latest exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Death Becomes Her,  an exhibit of mourning attire from 1815-1915, which includes mourning jewelry, also known as memorial jewelry. Starting in about the 18th century, it became fashionable to incorporate hair into brooches and bracelets. This was accomplished either through weaving and braiding, or by chopping or macerating the hair and mixing it with a binder to a create a kind of hair paint.

Now, in every other way, this memorial jewelry would be considered understated, perhaps even demure, by the fashion standards of the time. But think about encountering someone wearing these pieces. The sparkle catches your eye, and then you drawn in closer, and spot a tawny braid in the middle of that brooch. Met Museum Mourning Jewelry

Doesn’t it force a sharp breath? Doesn’t it lead to so many questions? Whose hair ? Why is this person wearing it? There’s a story to tell, a question that wants to be asked, an answer that wants to be given.

And this, I think, is the point. Jewelry is always is a symbol of something, but its components are, on their own, neutral. We project the meaning on the metal, the value on the stone. Most of us are accustomed to mentally jogging away from assigning deep meaning to the parts of other animals. But bits and pieces of humans, our remains – these can never be a blank slate on which we can project any meaning we’d like, or take purely on the basis of sartorial value.

So, here’s my contention: jewelry made from human body parts can indeed be beautiful, and maybe, perhaps, not necessarily disgusting. But never neutral, always arresting, and always at least slightly shocking.

On Sensory Pleasures, Writing in the Air and also William Blake

If you see me walking down the street, and you are very observant, you will notice two things: I’m gently frowning (this is something that I will need to work on as I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday; it’s definitely going to stick that way); and my fingers are subtly moving, as if they are on a keyboard.

This “air typing” is a dead giveaway that I’m composing in my head.  In fact,  I often don’t realize I’ve made the shift from non-specific fretting and planning to something more creative until I notice my hands doing their little keyboard dance.

[N.B. I really want to emphasize the delicacy of this movement. When my fingers are doing this maneuver, my hands are where they naturally fall at my side — not poised  in front of me bunny-like. I really do try to avoid looking like a total maniac when I’m out and about.]

The connection between composing words and moving my hands across a keyboard is now hardwired in my brain, although this wasn’t ever thus.  As mentioned, I’m about to turn 40, and so I’m a member of the last generation who did not start and end every piece of writing by tapping on a computer keyboard.

When I started my writing career waaaaaaaay back in the day when there was  this thing called “paper,” I composed first on a legal pad, with a pen — and then I moved to the computer.  (I did use an actual typewriter in high school for term papers, but that’s because I was a deprived child. Many of my peers did have word processors and computers.)

It took me a few years to get comfortable with composing rough and first drafts on a computer, but that was a long time ago, and now I really can’t do it any other way. I do sometimes still write on paper, but that’s because it forces me to slow down — it takes me at least twice as long to write a sentence with a pen than it does to type it.

And also,  I enjoy the feeling of a writing implement on paper. When I don’t write on paper for a long while, I miss it. There’s something that has always seemed strange to me about the sensory deprivation of contemporary writing — no scent of ink, no sound of an eraser, no feel of the tooth or gloss of the paper,  even after a piece is published.

I’m not saying I would trade those tactile pleasures for the inconveniences of writing in a pre-computer age — I’m really quite  happy that I’ve been able to rearrange the sentence you’re now reading three or 12 times without having to retype the whole thing. But over the past year I’ve become aware that I really do want to feel more of a connection between creativity and an actual, tangible, physical something.

If you think about it, there really isn’t that much of a sensory difference between typing in the air and typing on a keyboard — especially if that keyboard is a piece of glass, as it is on iDevices.

Stein Drypoint Plate

I’ve been studying visual art for the better part of this year. I’ve tried my hand at silverpoint and collage, I’ve painted with acrylic, oil, watercolor and gouache. I’ve made boxes, I’ve made books, I’ve learned to make paper from a t-shirt, I’ve operated a letterpress, and a solder torch.  This is all so different from the work I’ve done in my adult life, which has really been about using a keyboard to arrange pixels around a screen in exchange for money.

I’ve found myself drawn most to art forms that provide the most haptic feedback — etching into a piece of plastic with a scribe for a drypoint, gouging out a woodcut, pulling a threaded needle through fabric. It all just feels so fucking good.

But as I’ve spent more time on the visual arts, I’ve realized that there’s a certain experience that writing provides me, that no other art form has been able to replicate. This is not a sensory experience, per se, but it does produce a certain feeling that does seem almost physical, whether I’m typing on a keyboard, or using a pen or pencil.  When I’ve gripped onto an inchoate idea that I’m trying to render in words that another human will read and understand, I’m mentally pushing against something that feels like an entity. And entity that resists, until it yields.  And when it gives…it feels extra fucking good.

(Dirty minded readers are reminded to lift their minds from the gutter at this time.)

And so after due consideration, I’ve decided that out of all the notable figures in literature and art, it was William Blake who really had it right. Poet and printmaker, writer and visual artist. He wrote:

Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?

Okay, he wrote that in an entirely different context. And I will agree that I can no longer be fairly said to “burn with youth.”  (Maybe I’m still slightly singed?) But what I’ve decided he’s saying here is this: there’s really no need to choose one good thing, whether it’s the haptics of visual art, or the deep thought of writing. I’m choosing a life where I can have both.

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