Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Books · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Food & Drink · On Teaching

On Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken — and a Giveaway!

Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken

 

My friend Monica Bhide’s novel, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, launches today. She’s doing a sweet giveaway to celebrate the launch, which includes two bracelets I made specifically to complement this book. Go enter! Then, what you should do is go buy the book and savor it. If you win, you can always give the extra copy to someone else as a gift. (Just think of all the good karma that will create! Although I’m sort of kidding about that, more in a moment.)

Monica is a gorgeous writer, as well as a gorgeous person. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know this, but any of students reading this will: when I teach, I always assign one of her essays. I’ve picked different ones depending on what I’m teaching at the time, but one I always return to is an essay she wrote for Bon Appetit called Save Your Recipes Before It’s Too Late, which manages to be both deeply moving and totally surprising, spanning sixty years of history and the distance between Virginia, India, and the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. If you want to know about structure, character and pacing in a personal essay, this is one to read over and over again.

Okay, back to the idea of karma. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the conception we have in the west about karma being a kind of a hall monitor in the sky, doling out tit-for-tat isn’t quite right.

To me, karma means that all of our actions and all of our thoughts have consequences, for ourselves and others, and we’re all bouncing off of these consequences, often in unexpected ways. Generally speaking, you do a bunch of good things and it’s more likely that good things will likely bounce off others and back at you.  You do a bunch of a bad shit, and generally speaking, it’s more likely bad shit will come from it. But life isn’t some kind of karma slot machine, okay? We’ve all seen people who do all kinds of good and get crapped on, and people who do all kinds of deep evil, and seem to keep chugging down the road in the Mercedes he should have never bought and doesn’t deserve. The point is, karma is complicated and the idea that we can somehow control it strikes me as both total folly and not at all related to the Buddhist tradition from whence karma came.

Anyway, if you want to read a good novel that talks about karma — and butter chicken —  go check out Monica’s book. I can’t promise you good karma from it, but definitely you won’t be generating anything bad.

 

 

 

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On Herself · On Psychology

On Unringing the Bell

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Someone I knew quite well during a difficult season of my died this life died last weekend. He was young, and his death was shocking and violent.

We met very soon after I was single, and at a time when I was completely determined not to get involved with anyone who had anything in common with my former husband.

This man seemed exactly that. He was blue collar to ex’s lily white, muscled and handsome, determinedly non-intellectual. in every way he was socio-economically different, not only from the man I’d married at the age of 21, but also from me.

He was very much a creature of routine, who required his ice cream vanilla, his beer, Corona, his bagel plain with plain cream cheese and his pizza from Domino’s. He didn’t know the names of streets in our neighborhood that he didn’t go to, because he didn’t care to.

At the time, friends asked me whether these characteristics were an issue for me, because my friends are smart and they’ve met me, which is to say, familiar with my passion for both a life of the mind, and adventure. But I said the differences weren’t a problem — at first because I didn’t think we were really doing anything serious, and then as it kept going, because I said, look what being in a relationship with someone more “suited” got me.

In fact, I used to say that being with him was like traveling, because although we grew up less than five miles apart, Bronx to Manhattan, and he was six years older than me, our experiences of life were so different that we might as well have been born in different countries. We were forever explaining our worlds to one another.  I learned a lot about standpipes and sprinklers and their proper p.s.i., he learned about studying art — you mean a naked chick just stands in front of the room for everyone to draw? Get the fuck out of here.

And for being as set in his ways as he surely was, he was also willing to try certain new things. For instance, he thought the concept of iced coffee was totally insane, because coffee should be hot, and consumed only in the morning, light and sweet. It was probably a tactical error on my part to have him try Vietnamese Iced Coffee one afternoon. It was too bitter for his palate, he spat it out and declared it nasty, case closed. On the other hand, alcohol should always be cold and so while he would try red wine, he never failed to put an ice cube in it. He’d never had Indian food before we met and he did like that — but I am pretty certain he never ate it outside my presence, ever.

I’m saying these things not because they were the most important; I realize they sound snobbish. But as we’ve now been apart about as long as we were together, these are the details I can still squint at in my memory.

The Art of the Empty Text
The Art of the Empty Text, 2014. Handbound book, paste paper, transfer letters on packing tape.

 

When you’re trying to get away from something, it helps to know if you’re moving on a flat plane or on a sphere. As it happens, I was on a sphere and in the end, I found myself staring directly at the same issues I’d hoped to avoid by choosing such a different man. Of course, it was an error in logic to decide that my marriage ended because my husband and I were from the same socioeconomic group. Just as it would be to conclude that I ended this relationship because this man and I were not.

In a newspaper story about his death, there is a phrase I’ve read a few times: he could not be saved. The reporter was referring to the paramedics, but it was the conclusion I’d come to about him and us long ago.

I don’t want to get into the details of the way we ended, but suffice it to say that although we remained on cordial terms, I consider the relationship a mistake. His death was a mistake too, although to put them together in a single category is rather absurd.

In very different ways, I’m sorry both happened.

On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Herself

On a Curiosity Delay

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Only trouble is interesting*.

Not because humans are macabre ghouls, but because we need to know how to navigate the obstacles that life consistently throws at us. Art of all kinds, but especially literature, helps us to do just that.

In my two decades as a writer, and in my more recent experience creating jewelry, I’ve seen evidence of this over and over again. When I’ve written about my personal challenges, and have felt naked and exposed, I’ve been encouraged by kind feedback from readers about how my dispatches from a particularly shitty road I’ve endured have helped them endure on theirs. And what else could possibly explain the continuing demand for Alison Wonderland Jewelry’s signature “Fuck This Shit” products?

(In fact, the title of this essay, curiosity delay, is a more polite term for rubbernecking that I’ve heard on traffic reports on occasion. There are hard wired reasons why we can’t help but slow down to look at accidents on the highway, one of which is urgent: we need to be able to avoid our own.)

So lately, you may have noticed, I haven’t been publishing that much. I’ve found myself stuck in a kind of writer’s resin created by the truth that only trouble is interesting.

The good news for me as a person is that I have significant joy in my life. It’s been absorbing, and pleasurable, but not much good for the writing. For one thing, I am certain it will yield writing no more interesting or useful than any Facebook status riddled with exclamation marks. No one rubbernecks a vehicle just zipping happily down the highway. Also my partner in this joy is an intensely private person.

The bad news for me as a person is I also have had plenty of trouble. However, the dark side of my life is also one I have not been exploring in my published writing recently.

This is not to say I haven’t been writing — I have, every single day. But I have felt constrained in publishing this writing in a way that I have never felt before.

When I teach, I often share Ernest Hemingway’s advice to “write hard and clear about what hurts,” and have added that it is almost impossible to avoid writing about those things anyway. But for the first time I’ve realized that being constrained in publishing writing in one area of a life can have a deleterious effect on writing on all subjects. (Understand, of course, I’m not speaking here of producing writing on non-personal subjects — that writing is more like journalism, and I’ve been able to still turn that out when required.) But my personal writing, my essays, much of what I share here — that’s been jammed stuck.

Finally  I realized I could get totally meta and write about that trouble, the writer’s resin,  and what led me into it, and how I might find my way out of it. And maybe you’d find that useful, since I know many of my readers are also writers. And so here we are.

I am still not prepared to give a complete field report on My Troubles, but I do want to make a brief explanation now, which will hopefully serve as an apology for the continuing delay, and, to use the technical term, unjam my works.

So here’s what’s been happening.

For the past 21 months, I’ve been the target of a legal bullying campaign by a person that I’ll here call Mr X.  You can read some more of how he lost the dignity of name and title  —  at this point, he neither deserves the possessive “my,” or the word “husband,” even with “ex” attached. In an apparent attempt to score a perfect record of violating every agreement he’s ever made with me, his aim has been to overturn the settlement that ended our marriage — a contract he’s decided simply doesn’t exist.

It is amazing to realize how much of the world runs on mutual consent: that truth exists and is knowable, that laws and contracts and signatures matter. It is sobering to realize how long rich white men can get away with violating these norms — which are after all what keep us from chaos — before they face real consequences. (In roughly the same time period, I have watched the tactics of the Donald Trump campaign unfold, in an almost perfect echo of my private world; the two men could be advising one another.)

Mr X has waged his particular war in several court houses. He’s been losing, badly, having neither facts nor law on his side. And while my victories so far have been gratifying — hearing him described as a “marital scofflaw” by a federal judge was a good moment —  the battle has come with personal, physical and psychological costs.

It is these costs that are the source of the writing which will eventually emerge from this hot mess. And it is precisely these costs I do not want to detail at this moment.

I’d like to be clear that at this point, I’m not waiting for the legal hostilities to cease to emerge from my silence.  Although I’m aware that Mr X hungrily combs my various publications for word on himself,  I don’t believe that writing hard and clear about my experience will hurt me.  I do believe that personal writing on my experience will be helpful to others who are similarly victimized, but who don’t have my resources, which include, among other things, strong family support, undergraduate pre-law studies which render me somewhat more comfortable with legal language, and an ability to do my own research.

But I am still waiting for a certain clarity to emerge from this experience. There’s some information I lack — what he’s actually after in these increasingly futile attacks, for example, when he will tire of fixating on me.

I realize I may never have those answers, so I guess, more accurately I’m waiting for some meaning I can put to the particulars of my experience, some insight that will move it beyond just a mere recounting of what I’ve endured . Until then, on this topic, I will remain in the writer’s resin, on a curiosity delay.

 

And — I hope — I will soon write of other things.

*Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, although it applies to many other forms of literature and art.
On Herself · On Politics

Barack Obama is Not a Person 

Barack Obama is not a person.

I am not a person.

You are not a person, either, if you are involved in any kind of a legal situation. Which, as a member of a society under the rule of law, you are by default, although it won’t become apparent to you unless you are either elected to public office, or involved in a legal action.

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the media has been full of conversation about Scalia’s writing style. When I was an undergraduate studying constitutional law, his opinions were was my favorite to read, although I disagreed with almost everything he wrote so amusingly. I’ve always been attuned to language, and so in these past four years, as my divorce and its aftermath became an apparently endless legal quagmire, I’ve been tracking the use of language in legal documents — motions, decisions, and so on. (It is my opinion that lawyers are some of the best writers not widely read in the country.)

I remember looking at the first court filling in the divorce, which I downloaded on my phone, while sitting on a green lawn at a cheese festival in Vermont. I dwelled for a long time on the word “versus” on the first court filing in my divorce, me versus him, him versus me, how did it come so suddenly to that?

Getting back to Obama. One of the things that struck me immediately about these legal filings is that your name is immediately substituted for that of a character, with the use of parentheses and quotation marks.

A few days before Scalia died, I happened to make a list of the characters I have been known as legally in these past four years of conflict:

Alison Stein MarriedNameRedacted, (“Wife”) (“Plaintiff”) (“Defendant”) (“Priority Creditor”).

This shorthand helps everyone to follow along, and, since our system operates on precedent, it helps future lawyers and judges to strip away the relevant information for future conflicts. But it feels strange to be reduced to a character in this way. Everything I am, my memories, my accomplishments, the jokes I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve loved, the tears I’ve cried, are stripped away. What matters only are my rights, responsibilities and various burdens as “defendant.”

I understand that this a dehumanization is part of justice as we understand it. That by stripping away the particulars of a person, you can extract a principle that you can apply evenly to everyone in a similar situation.

Barack Obama is, of course, a person. A person whom you are free to admire, or despise. But legally, he is not a person, he’s President of the United States, a position vested with various executive powers and obligations, among them: “He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court.” (Article II, Section 2)

It seems to me that the Republican Senators who are vowing to obstruct the replacement of Justice Scalia have forgotten that in this instance, Barack Obama is not Obama, but, simply “President.” And they are not individual people with opinions either. Not, Mitch McConnell, but “Senator.” Whatever their personal feelings about the man, and whoever the man or woman happens to be, the rule of law only works if we all agree to be depersonalized in this way, elected officials especially. 

To struggle against this is to call for a dismantling of our entire legal system, which has older roots than the U.S. Constitution, but includes it. 

To struggle against this is to support a system based on personal favors and favorites, which is to say, to support tyranny.

On Herself · On Politics

Barack Obama is Not a Person 

Barack Obama is not a person.

I am not a person.

You are not a person, either, if you are involved in any kind of a legal situation. Which, as a member of a society under the rule of law, you are by default, although it won’t become apparent to you unless you are either elected to public office, or involved in a legal action.

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the media has been full of conversation about Scalia’s writing style. When I was an undergraduate studying constitutional law, his opinions were was my favorite to read, although I disagreed with almost everything he wrote so amusingly. I’ve always been attuned to language, and so in these past four years, as my divorce and its aftermath became an apparently endless legal quagmire, I’ve been tracking the use of language in legal documents — motions, decisions, and so on. (It is my opinion that lawyers are some of the best writers not widely read in the country.)

I remember looking at the first court filling in the divorce, which I downloaded on my phone, while sitting on a green lawn at a cheese festival in Vermont. I dwelled for a long time on the word “versus” on the first court filing in my divorce, me versus him, him versus me, how did it come so suddenly to that?

Getting back to Obama. One of the things that struck me immediately about these legal filings is that your name is immediately substituted for that of a character, with the use of parentheses and quotation marks.

A few days before Scalia died, I happened to make a list of the characters I have been known as legally in these past four years of conflict:

Alison Stein MarriedNameRedacted, (“Wife”) (“Plaintiff”) (“Defendant”) (“Priority Creditor”).

This shorthand helps everyone to follow along, and, since our system operates on precedent, it helps future lawyers and judges to strip away the relevant information for future conflicts. But it feels strange to be reduced to a character in this way. Everything I am, my memories, my accomplishments, the jokes I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve loved, the tears I’ve cried, are stripped away. What matters only are my rights, responsibilities and various burdens as “defendant.”

I understand that this a dehumanization is part of justice as we understand it. That by stripping away the particulars of a person, you can extract a principle that you can apply evenly to everyone in a similar situation.

Barack Obama is, of course, a person. A person whom you are free to admire, or despise. But legally, he is not a person, he’s President of the United States, a position vested with various executive powers and obligations, among them: “He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court.” (Article II, Section 2)

It seems to me that the Republican Senators who are vowing to obstruct the replacement of Justice Scalia have forgotten that in this instance, Barack Obama is not Obama, but, simply “President.” And they are not individual people with opinions either. Not, Mitch McConnell, but “Senator.” Whatever their personal feelings about the man, and whoever the man or woman happens to be, the rule of law only works if we all agree to be depersonalized in this way, elected officials especially. 

To struggle against this is to call for a dismantling of our entire legal system, which has older roots than the U.S. Constitution, but includes it. 

To struggle against this is to support a system based on personal favors and favorites, which is to say, to support tyranny.

Inspiration · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On New York City

On The Word on The Street

Here’s a form of traditional publishing that isn’t in trouble. 

   
While I confess to writing on my wooden desk in junior high and high school, I’ve never felt the urge to grafitti on bathroom stalls. But I do appreciate the reading material I’ve observed, as I go about my daily life.

I don’t have a photo of my favorite, a piece of grafitti that says “shitfuck,” because I only see it from the window of the subway, as it crosses over the East River.

But I like visiting this one:    
 

I realize these are technically defacements, quality-of-life diminishing property crimes, but I really appreciate these writers and their urge to communicate. That’s such an innate need. It really hasn’t changed very much since humans started writing on cave walls. 

In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Design & Art

On Giving Up on Creativity in Small Fragments of Time

This week is only slightly less frantic than last — as I write, I’m heading to the studio for what will be my longest stint in the past couple of weeks.

Some of what’s been in my way is personal life bullshit, and some of it is a time-sucking-but-hopefully-good-investment-professional-project, but in any event: not much concentrated creative productivity has been happening here.

As I discussed last week, I’ve been thinking about ways to work against my preferences, and to be more creative in the fragments of time that I do have.

My first thought was that I could do some of the “thinking work” of jewelry design outside of the studio. Like, say, on the subway.

I tried this the other day by writing a series of questions and answers in my Evernote journal:  

Finalize design for tiny stacking bracelets.  (But what does this mean? How do I do that?) 

Well, I have to decide if I am making them as stacking bracelets or as an ambivalence necklace. (And/or should I make and stamp more tiny copper strips to have options on hand for both?) 

Both, but I’ll complete the bracelets first, so next steps are cutting chain, attaching the strips via wire wrapping. Deciding on a clasp. Fabricating clasp if necessary. Soldering. 

Efficiency gold star for me, right? I felt great about this clarity, and resolved I would forevermore maintain a list of questions about current projects to consider in odd times.

Except for that I didn’t actually didn’t do any of the things I decided on in advance, because when I got to the studio, and looked at everything, I realized I didn’t like the chain or the crystal I had on hand. Thinking about the project wasn’t the same as handling the materials. I’m a tactile designer, decisions made in the abstract aren’t so useful to me. (I finished them this week instead, ta da.)
    

So I changed the terms of my experiment. Instead of trying to be more creative in short periods of time, I now plan to lengthen my small creative fragments of time as much as possible. In other words, I need to minimize what is getting in between me and my studio time.


Reality, an inventory
 

The first step to increased efficiency is figuring out the exact current situation. A lot of my time is going into the administrative end of my business right now, so I’ve been tracking how long these tasks take. And let me tell you: it all takes much longer than I’d have guessed. 

For example, today I planned to pop a couple of new pieces up on my new site and Etsy. I’d already written a draft of the copy yesterday – I need different text for both sites – so I figured this would take about a half hour, tops.
Well. It took a little over an hour, because for one thing, I’d failed to draft all of the info I needed and I had to write it on the spot. And for another, it just plain took me longer to fill in all the fields correctly, especially on my new site. 

So, I made a checklist for myself of info I need for these listings — some of which I can jot down in the studio– and created a couple of templates, which will make the whole thing move faster in the future. 

Also, I’ll budget more time for this in the future. For me, lot of this is about expectations. I’m frustrated that I’m not in the studio RIGHT NOW, since I planned to be there a half hour ago. I feel like this time is stolen from me, when of course I basically stole it from myself.

Streamline set up and clean up as much as possible. 

The visual arts, in general, require more set up and break down time. They don’t lend themselves as well to creativity in stolen fragments of time as writing does. For example, when I’m making enamels, it takes time for the kiln to heat up, to wash the enamels, to prepare the metal–  and none of this can be done in advance. And since  I have a shared studio space, I can’t leave a mess at the end of the day. Which I wouldn’t want to do anyway.

I’ve been working on minimizing my set-up and clean-up for a while now. One very low-tech tool I’ve found helpful is a studio map.

  
It’s not much to look at, but it indicates exactly where, in each cabinet and on each shelf, I keep my supplies. This minimizes the time I spend on mad supply searches, and makes clean up at the end of the day a snap. (Before I made this map, I was just shoving things into cabinets and hoping they’d stay shut. Which they often wouldn’t. Avalanches are not efficient.)

Also, I clean my workspace in a certain order, so I don’t forget important things, like turning offthe torch for the night — which involves bleeding the lines. It was a real time waster to return to the studio on the freezing cold night I forgot to do this.

Finally, I’ve come up with ways to keep supplies together for projects AND put them away. I use a tray that initially came into my life from the supermarket, where it originally held grapes. It’s the right size, things don’t slide around on its foam surface, and it nests very well.

Finishing isn’t the goal necessarily 

Although I do want to minimize my short studio stints in favor of longer ones, I do have to concede that good comes from those shorter work bursts. On the day I realized I couldn’t work on my tiny stacking bracelets, I ended up working on something else — brass pendants I started in the Fall and left fallow . I completed three necklaces rather quickly.

Cheerful conclusion: maybe it’s moving the ball forward that counts, not the length of the work session. String enough short work sessions together, and at some point, projects will get completed. It’s Van Gogh’s quote that I mentioned last week — great things happening from small things brought together over time.

The trick, it seems to me, is not to let the slow pace of progress drive you insane.