Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Work and Other Symptoms of Modern Existence

I am a graphic designer. I am, specifically, a typesetter, using Quark and InDesign to lay out law and healthcare newsletters for a Manhattan-based orb in a solar system of book, newsletter, and electronic publishing. If you take a few steps back, my function is fairly mechanical: The jobs come into the inbox, I lay them out, get them to the editor, make corrections in one or more rounds, send the job to press (or to an electronic distributor), and archive the application file. I could teach someone the job in a week.

Most of my newsletters are monthly, 16 pages long, and uncomplicated in layout. We use the same design each time, and when tables or figures are called for, in the interest of speed we scavenge old layouts for recyclable charts and graphs into which we can plug new data. We get plenty of time to design new issues, and other than delays inflicted by the editors or the authors who submit the manuscripts, it's a fairly predictable process.

Perhaps this is why I am bored.

I have been doing this job since late 2000, almost 5 years, after editing in another department of this company for just over another year. Although we are slowly adopting InDesign as our layout software of choice, which will also allow our content to be repurposed (an awful word) for books, online use, reprints, and such and such, this will probably come with a lot of short-term frustration. The department with whom we will make this change in workflow handles such changes with suspicion and reluctance. Technology is not their friend. It will be trying.

Still, I know we will get through it. I will have a new skill on my resume. I will be "more marketable." Lovely, I can now be bought and sold on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange next to the pork bellies. Makes me want to rise in active punching. My great concern is, when this settles in, I will be just as bored. Same material in, same pages out. No opportunity to be creative or to learn the tools (Illustrator, Photoshop) that might allow me to branch out in such a way.

I spent a good chunk of last week thinking about how I got this itch at my last job. There, too, I felt like I had reached the outer limit of what I could achieve. I had mastered the demands of the position. I did not want to be promoted to a middle or upper management position, and I hated being a supervisor (I oversaw a group of four editor-designers) and especially the training aspect of it. That led me to seek out what became my current position. I was finally inspired to start looking after a very frustrating stretch of days that led me to write myself a letter, in which I summarized my reasons for wanting to leave and the emotions that staying in the position inspired in me. I told myself that if I no longer identified with those points when the letter got to my door, I would rethink things and put it down as a triple-negative biorhythm day or something. No dice. I ticked off each point and agreed all the more.

I want no part of managing my department. I was promoted earlier this year, but it was more of a formal recognition of five years of service and a retention move. More pay, but no revised or expanded management duties. Should be ideal, right? At this pace, by the time I'm 65 I'll be making mid-six figures and spend 8 hours a day pressing a single key on my computer like a space monkey. I don't have any interest in the sorts of things my immediate boss now does. She was the senior designer until she got a bump last year — and into a position that lacked both a job description and a formal title! She handles a lot of the newsletter-specific management tasks that her boss used to resolve . . . and that person is in such demand now from dealing with other departments and traveling, that my boss can't get things resolved as swiftly.

Perfect example. The out-of-house editor of a newsletter that has been lagging several months behind wanted to run a survey to determine what the readership (if there's any left) wants to see. She, being new to the publication, didn't know what this entailed. Neither did the in-house managing editor (there's no manuscript editor; I get the raw MSS whenever they drift in). My brilliant idea of having readers return surveys by fax was shot down when I learned the ed's fax machine shared a home phone line and wasn't always on.

Thus began two weeks' worth of wasteful back-and-forth emails attempting to resolve (a) the format of the survey, (b) how postage would be paid for, and (c) where readers would send this survey. Nobody wanted to take a solid position and potentially waste their department's money on postage. My initial design for the address page was rejected, then —when it looked like we might have readers send them back to our office — called back in. This has added a fortnight to the schedule of a newsletter that has been sitting in my outbox waiting to go to press . . . and I have also, since this whole saga began, received, typeset, corrected, and finalized for press the next issue of the pub. Did I mention that both should have gone to press in June?!

I have a strong suspicion that, when my boss finishes design school, she will bail on the company. The head office wants us to promote more often from within in situations like this. I am next in line. For the frustration I have seen befall this woman, I am not interested.

But dig this.

For 3 years, I was the designer on a twice-monthly accounting newsletter with a 2-day turnaround. To get it on press by deadline, I had to come in early, stay late, or both. It was also packed with charts and intricate tables, many of which needed to be crafted from scratch. I would receive files, set all else on my desk aside, typeset like a maniac, and swap proofs and corrections in a frenzy of haste and tension to hit that press time. I crafted pie charts before the sun flared up the glass-and-steel skin of Manhattan. I cursed at a balky computer in an echoing empty office while twilight spread ouside my window. I watched coffee carts open for business in the morning and greeted cleaning staff in the evening. Amid office parties, I put on headphones and blocked out the bleating of my co-workers as I turned poorly formatted Excel tables into well-groomed columns of data. No oversight, no submitting it to my bosses to inspect before press, no contact with my fellow designers, just me, a pile of text, and a tight deadline. It cost me innumerable hours of unpaid overtime and gained me the stewardship of a newsletter with a 1-day turnaround as a parting gift.

Typesetting duty for this title passed to another office at the beginning of the year.

I thought I would celebrate getting my life back . . . that I wouldn't miss it.

I do.

Something to keep in mind in case I flip the switch and let the rusted machinery of the job-search process grind into creaking motion again.

All right. Enough revelations for one evening, especially to myself.

Monday, September 26, 2005

"Henry Says, 'Don't Let the Sauce Stick!'"

I have accomplished the unthinkable. I used to believe I could only make tomato sauce on a weekend, when I had the broad scope of an empty, work-free day in which to tinker and toil and fry and boil.

I have proven this this theory to be false. At 6:53 p.m. earlier tonight, I began opening cans of crushed tomatoes while, on my TV, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci drove along an upstate New York highway with a somewhat-less-than-dead Frank Vincent in the trunk. By 9:20, the film was over, the sauce was simmering — strained and filled with beef, pork, and meatballs — and Al Michaels and John Madden were introducing the lineup for the Denver Broncos.

I had purchased meat from Whole Foods this Saturday, with the thought of making my mighty sauce (as fantasized about here) on Sunday. A few factors conspired against me. First, the Jets game was a 1:00 affair, which was a prime opportunity for me to crank out some time on the aerobics machines at the gym while watching whatever befell to our hapless boys in green. Second, I stayed up way too late on Saturday night — mostly reading on the damn Internet — which led me to wake up later than I would have liked. And I had my usual dinner plans at my parents' house that night, which was going to be combined with doing laundry there . . . so it was in my interest to get there a little early. Checking the Jets' schedule might have served me well. But this is my sauce we're talking about here!! I haven't settled down with a meaty dish of pasta or chicken parmigiana or a meatball hero for a couple of months! No way in hell am I using that jarred shit when I can conjure gallons of scarlet goodness with just a few hours' effort!

By the time I stepped off the train tonight, the only question in my mind was which movie to pop in while I cast my spell.

This turned out to be Goodfellas. I had initially slotted The Godfather Part II, but for some reason my VCR is not cooperating with my TV. This may be a sign to me from the electronics gods to upgrade my Godfather trilogy to disc. Maybe at the next paycheck. I am in no rush; this batch of sauce will last a while. So in the interest of speed, I started the film that SHOULD HAVE SWEPT the Academy Awards for 1990 instead of that Dances With Wolves fuckery, grabbed six cans of tomatoes, and began crackin' em open.

I tend to get the Tuttorosso blue-label 2-pound cans of whole peeled plum tomatoes for my sauce. But the company recently scrambled the colors of their labels, so now the blue label is for crushed tomatoes in thick puree. As long as they didn't crush the seeds into the mix, I figured, I would be fine. My mother once tried to puree the tomatoes after she had let them simmer down instead of straining them, and the seeds got chopped up in the mix and turned it pink. Ugh. Needless to say, this experiment was not repeated.

Fortunately, the puree in the cans featured intact seeds, so I wouldn't be making a suspiciously strawberry-like sauce. In fact, this turned out to be a bonus. Normally, I let the plum tomatoes break down over the course of 90 minutes, then strain them. In this case, 30 minutes to warm them up was all I needed. Once they'd boiled down a bit, I strained them in record time with a fraction of the mess in the form of seeds and pulp. So I was ahead of the game.

One surprising setback came when I broke out the meat. I had purchased two center-cut pork chops, a hunk of London broil beef, and two 1-pound flats of ground beef for meatballs. When I pulled one of these flats out, it was brown! What the hell? They were both in date, and from Whole Foods no less, which I associate with a finer class of meat. Even when I cut into it, it was brown inside as well. In retrospect, I feel fortunate that the meat tilted its hand so early, so to speak. Whatever turned it so swiftly might have been strong enough to survive the relentless frying and boiling to which I subjected the rest of the meat . . . and I have a less-than-illustrious history of food poisoning whose details I shall spare you for now. The other flat was fine, so I diced up the pork and beef, got it browning in some spices and olive oil, and made meatballs with the single pound of ground beef. I did managed to get a good 20 or so out of the package, which with the other meat looked like it would be plenty.

I have to say, I am impressed with the result. I just took some time to ladle out the sauce. Deep red, smooth but thick, with lovely chunks of meat that have spent 90 minutes releasing their essence into the sauce. I got 11 pints out of this batch, which should hold me for a good while. I am waaaay past my bedtime, though, so work tomorrow is going to be something of a death march, Still, considering what I will come home to by way of dinner, it will be worth it. Definitely beats the hell out of the ketchup and egg noodles Henry Hill describes being given at the end of Goodfellas when he asked for spaghetti and marinara sauce in his hick-town witness-relocation exile.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hail to You, Autumnal Equinox

Whether you want to call the season we just entered fall or autumn, all I care about is that summer — my least favorite three months of the year — has given way to fall — my most favorite. We passed the autumnal equinox this Thursday. I took some time at the Hoboken train station, at a sitting area outside, which affords a view from the remaining riverside factories of Chelsea to the new skyscrapers of Little Wall Street in the renascent Paulus Hook district of Jersey City, to watch summer's last hours unfold. I try to take 10 or 15 minutes to sit here each night, weather allowing, and watch the Hudson froth betwen the hundreds of abandoned dock pilings that break the water's surface near the outlook like mute memorials to a forgotten maritime age. Just a little stretch to inhale some fresh air and view the two skylines.

Soon, when Daylight Saving Time begins, these buildings will reflect gorgeous sunsets. The air from the harbor will be cooler and more refreshing, perhaps kicking up whitecaps across the Hudson as it did one day this week. And I may never even get to Hoboken on those nights until sundown, choosing instead to walk through New York City on late fall afternoons and early evenings, crunching fallen leaves along the byways of Greenwich Village, only returning to Jersey when the last rays of the falling sun have melted from the now-sleeping towers crowded along Wall Street.

If I owned a house and chose to give a cookout, it would be in October, high fall, when folks would be comfortable in my yard either catching up with one another's lives, tossing a football, or chasing kids through massive piles of leaves. Not summer, when my guests would be swilling equal parts water and beer to stay hydrated, and cowering in the basement of my house to avoid the pummeling assault of the sun. Not the spring, when my allergies would transform me from perfect host to textbook histamine reaction. And obviously not the winter (although it is my second favorite season, and the idea of barbecuing pounds of slow-cooked brisket and ribs over the course of Super Bowl morning and afternoon for a horde of frothing carnivores to devour during the game has great virtue). No, if I wanted to summon the troops, I would want them to assemble under canopies of orange and yellow leaves and a sky of flawless blue crystal.

Fall as a season of brilliant forest transformation may come early this year, because we received atypically little rain this summer. Early scouts, dropping from trees under cover of night or stiff wind, already have been paratrooping into my parking lot. I have passed curled, crisp maple leaves there, as though Canada had snuck in and left a deciduous calling card. I used to have a view from my desk at work of the southern end of the Jersey Palisades, from the tail of Fort Lee through West New York, and during the autumns I sat there, I watched the cliffs, and the massed trees receding miles into Essex and Passaic County beyond them, burst aflame as if in revolution. The urge to play hooky at these times was difficult to resist. I curse myself for not succumbing.

If I had to choose a season in which to begin a new relationship, it would undoubtedly be fall. In one of his books, Henry Rollins praised the unique way the sun illuminates a woman's face in the fall, so the concept has pierced even his scarred heart. In fall, miniskirts give way to sweaters and boots, making the New York streets a delight. Ideally we might meet in early September, just before fall, so by the time the true turn in temperature had come, we could plan long walks along the Hudson; go on trips for donuts and cider; drive miles along forested highways to watch the spirit of the season burn in the leaves; brainstorm on idle, cool afternoons for Halloween costume ideas; and sleep in each others' arms with the windows wide open, finally needing no air conditioner, just the welcoming caress of autumn night guiding us to carry our affection into our dreams. And with some felicitous grace, I might awaken in the depths of night, to see her face glowing in the moonlight like a Forties film goddess.

That is a movie in which I would star without hesitation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mamma Mia, Ats'a Spicy Hallway!

As I mentioned, I was at the gym last night. I had eaten a serving of All-Bran before heading over, because I knew I would leave the gym in a ravenous state after an hour of selectively abusing various muscles and joints. Some sources advise exercising on an empty stomach. I agree with this rule for first-thing-in-the-morning gym trips, but I know myself: If I returned to the apartment starving, there was a greater chance I would eat crap like a PB&J instead of just the protein/fruit shake I usually chug after lifting.

This proved to be a wise idea. Although I was getting growly in the abdominal region by the time I left, it wasn't as severe as if I had eaten nothing. So I drove straight home, avoiding both the pizzerias in town and the Trader Joe's right next door (oh, those spicy tortilla chips), and ascending to the second floor of my building.

All my discipline was undone when I caught a whiff of my hallway. Someone was cooking Italian food. More specifically, someone had clearly spent a fair portion of the day making fresh Italian meat sauce. It filled my nostrils like some sort of scent-based Sicilian embrace. It had just the right tang, too . . . that sassy, broad flavor you can only get when you let some sturdy cut of beef simmer and break down over the course of sweet, slow hours, flaking and yielding its savory punch with each forkful of pasta.

I somehow tore myself away from this maddening embrace and found my apartment. Mixed berries and protein powder were now looking, by comparison, like North Vietnamese prison rations. I was not without hope, though. Two weeks ago, I had bought a dozen 2-pound cans of crushed plum tomatoes on sale, in anticipation of making a new batch of my own tomato sauce. Plans to craft this crimson potion over Labor Day Weekend never manifested. I will now enact them this weekend. There is no other way.

Though I have no Italian blood, I benefit from having ancestors who hailed from the Bronx. My maternal great-grandmother was sufficiently catholic in her culinary worldview to befriend and learn from Italian housewives in her neighborhood. The recipe I follow had its origins nearly a century ago, and what changes in it I have made, I have kept quiet from my mother. (She likes a thinner sauce than I do; I also prefer not to add sweet sausage chunks to the mix.)

I measure the amount of sauce I make by the number of cans of plum tomatoes I use to produce it. I used to make massive amounts, up to 12 cans' worth. I was one cheesy label away from having a home industry. Now, I just use 6 cans, but more tomato paste than my mom does (thus the thicker sauce). I could probably go as low as 4 cans, but 6 strikes a good balance. Not so much sauce that I have to haul most of it over to my parents' basement freezer to store it, but not so little that I feel like I am gearing up the entire process for a stash that's only going to last a few weeks.

And boy, is it a process. Labor Day is actually a perfect day to produce this red gold. On Sunday, I can get over to Whole Foods and buy the meat. My mother uses odds and ends of beef and pork in her sauce, but then removes it to eat separately once the sauce is done. I prefer to use prime meats — center-cut pork chops and sirloin, both cubed and sauteed briefly in olive oil and herbs — that I leave in the sauce for the entire simmer. I also buy a couple of trays of ground beef for the meatballs.

Here's another difference in my philosophy of tomato sauce that differs from my mother's. Her meatballs tend to be considerably larger than mine. I'll use 2 or 3 pounds of ground beef — I don't bother with the ground pork or lamb that some do; I've already got pork chunks in the mix, and the lamb flavor tends to get lost amid the seasonings. What differs between us is I will make a good 45 or so smaller balls, which I find easier to fry such that the insides get done evenly. She prefers to make a smaller number of biggies, which complete their cooking process in the sauce itself over the simmer.

That's just the meat aspect of things. The tomatoes are another ritual. All of the plum tomatoes boil for a good hour to 90 minutes, depending on how many cans, along with the spices and the tomato paste. Unlike the old Italian women who first imparted this wisdom, though, I prefer a smooth sauce, no seeds or skins. So I grind the entire lot through a strainer, ladle by ladle, until all of the pulp is out. This might be another reason why I make only 6 cans' worth of tomatoes; by the end of the process, my right arm is just about numb! My parents do have a food mill, which my mom uses to separate her sauce. Not my preference; it results in a thinner sauce. I like it to be able to cling to pasta and endure baking in parmigiana dishes without separating out.

So you're looking at a good five hours' worth of prep, some of it just simmering time interrupted by stirring to keep the bottom of the pot from burning. How, then, to occupy my time while the zesty maroon treasure bubbles happily away in the kitchen?

Simple. You throw in a Mob movie.

It is an inflexible rule in this house: Thou shalt not make tomato sauce without Mafia media playing on the television.

The Godfather is the natural choice. If I time it right, I am making the meatballs just around the same time Clemenza is demonstrating his sauce-making skills to Michael Corleone. Considering how much the characters of that movie eat, it's wise to have a little something of my own to nosh on so by the film's credits, I'm not frantically faxing the local Italian deli with "one of each" scrawled across their menu.

Another fine selection for an afternoon of sauce brewing is Goodfellas. Again, the characters in that film eat constantly. If you don't at least have a nice ham, salami, and provolone sangwich handy, you're gonna begin gnawing on the curtains even befofe that hunger-stoking closeup of Paul Sorvino contentedly munching sazzeech and peppah like a Sicilian Buddha. (Note to self: Sneak out of work early and go to San Gennaro.)

This time I might shoot for another star in the Mob constellation (what would that be, "Nicky the Butcher?"), something like Donnie Brasco or Casino. That brings up a whole, separate obsession, though . . . Las Vegas. The rush of having a TV screen full of casinos and a kitchen wafting with fresh sauce is enough to make me pass out and imagine I'm attending a summit of various Vegas operators as they carve up the Strip over eggplant parmigiana and grappa.

So here's hoping for a Biblical downpour to keep me shut in this weekend, surrounded by cans of tomatoes and spices and frying meatballs on their fragrant bed of translucent onions, while I craft a mighty flood of my own, this one to welcome me home on lazy evenings to come, when all I need to do is make pasta and simmer that mighty sauce to a sensuous boil.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Happiest iPod Shuffle in the Universe

I was at the gym earlier this evening, grinding out my 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer while watching the anomalously scheduled Giants–Saints game. Two machines to my left, a woman was going at full pace on another trainer. It was difficult not to notice that this woman had — at minimum — 40DD breasts.

I avoid leering at the women who go to my club — between sweat, inadvertently revealing gym togs, air conditioning, and awkward motion or position on a variety of machines, they might feel more exposed or vulnerable than they'd like. Why rub it in? A quick look to satisfy my werewolf side is enough.

In this case, however, something additional drew my attention. From the corner of my eye, I saw the woman fumbling with her décolletage. When I looked again, she was fiddling with an iPod Shuffle . . . which, upon finding her desired track, she slipped deftly into her ample, exercise-flushed cleavage.

Is it possible to be reincarnated as an MP3 player?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Like a Glacier on a Treadmill

Ahhh . . . Saturday morning. Even though I was away for two days last week, I still feel like I've covered a whole five days at the rockpile. I have plans for this afternoon, not the least of them being a long-deferred shopping trip for slacks and shoes. As you might have gleaned from the last entry, I'm not the most enthusiastic clothes shopper in the world.

I spent all day yesterday waiting to get home to read the entry again. (I avoid reading the blog from work, in case I ever feel like discussing the job frankly.) I was surprised how deeply I reached, and how much I disclosed. I don't regret it. I think it was important to express my discontent in a public (if not widely read) forum. Now it's "out there," and I can hold myself accountable should I falter or doubt my goals.

I did advance toward my not-dying-at-40 goal this morning. I got up early and hit the gym. Historically I have gone to the gym before work, except for the summer. I have to run the air conditioning here for a while to get the apartment cool, so in the hot months, I turn it on after I come home, work out, and return home to an atmosphere less likely to make me hurl in my fitful sleep. But I prefer to exercise before the day truly begins, when I don't have to wait for the weight machines I need, and I can cruise through at speed. Exercising early also allows the metabolic "burn" to last through the morning; and because I tend to eat right after lifting and then follow up with something small and nutritious a couple of hours later, the early shift is better suited to this than the evening. I know eating crap just before bedtime is part of what's killing me, and my evening workout schedule (when I was able to maintain it) may have been fostering the need to eat again later than I'd like.

My concerns are fueled by a real-life incident suffered by a friend of mine. In April 2004, he experienced chest pains and, at the behest of his wife and mother, went to the hospital. Rather than being the backaches he initially had blamed, the origin was a pair of nearly blocked coronary arteries. He spent three agonizing hours having stents installed — for which they strapped him down, threaded a probe through his femoral artery, and guided the devices into his heart without general anesthesia — which was further complicated by the refusal of one of the little fuckers to expand in the site. The doctors told him they were within a hair's breadth of just cracking his chest and going Krusty on his ass.

Now, he was obese, a former heavy drinker and then two-pack-a-day smoker (with a healthy side order of weed), a sedentary video game addict, and a junk food omnivore. He had also spent 2 years in the mid-Nineties under DUI suspension, which kept him even more housebound. Add to that the recent role of being a referee between two high-strung women in the house, and it's easy to understand why he was sidelined. The great fortune of all this was that he had some warning before being felled by a full-scale heart attack, and he has rebounded, still smoking, alas, but somewhat more active, slimmer for having cut out a constant influx of sugared soda, and on blood thinners and anti-cholesterol pills.

Did I mention he was 34 when this happened?

Yeah, it scared the shit out of me. I don't smoke, aside from three or four stogies a year and secondhand smoke when I visit my parents for a few hours every Sunday. I barely drink — birthdays or during my Vegas trips, and maybe one beer out of every three or four poker nights — and when I do, it only takes three tops to get me as tipsy as I wanna be. (I am, in fact, a girl drink drunk.) My real risk factors are obesity, diet, and family history (the 'rents have both developed heart-rhythm problems over time, though not apparently any blockages). I've tried to keep my friend's fate in mind, though, and it motivates me as much as anything else when — as with this morning — I'm able to complete an hour of great exercise.

I've got a lot more to discuss, but I have to get chores rolling. My commute during the week forces me to defer most housework and resupply missions to the weekend. I promise my next entries won't be so "heavy," har har. I still have to talk about Las Vegas. That will keep me going for a week. At least.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hoist With My Own Ramen Noodles

I have just eaten a brick of Nissin Top Ramen. Ramen noodles, the legendary foodstuff of impoverished college students or cloistered programmers. Beef flavor, to be specific . . . though its relation to anything bovine can only be described as tenuous. According to the package, I have actually eaten two servings of noodles. The only reason I can posit for the manufacturers to represent this as a double-serving package is to get away with appearing to say that the flavor packet only has 760 milligrams of sodium. Nobody needs to down this much salt in one sitting outside of marathon runners or deer.

I had the ramen noodles in my apartment as a practical joke. At my last poker game, some of the guys were relating their tales of woe with this foodstuff, and the chance someone might lose all their money and have to resort to this foodstuff until next payday. This gave me a wicked idea. I bought a package of noodles, with the plan of presenting this to the first person at the next game who lost all of his chips. I even affixed a festive bow to this dubious gift.

Those noodles will not make it to the next poker night. I ate them. I am not a college student, or a programmer, or poor. I am a fatass with poor impulse control. They were in the house, I got lazy after work, and instead of cooking something healthful, I boiled them, drained them, sprinkled the brown crystals of MSG and industrial bouillon over them, and ate them while surfing the Net and listening to The Simpsons in the background. As with any tempting tidbit I happen to allow into the house, I ate them, to my detriment and regret.

I weigh 240 pounds, which on my 5'8" frame is at least 40 pounds too much. I have had a sedentary life for most of my years. Though my parents steered me into intramural soccer for most of my grammar-school years, they also rewarded me with food and caved in too easily to this only child's tears when they initially denied it. I know as an adult it is entirely my choice, now, to choose the right foods and not to snack constantly, and to exercise regularly, and the refrain of "It's my parents' fault" holds little water. But I know I sabotage my efforts to keep active, and I use food to ban depression, boredom, or, again, as a reward. Old habits, like clichés, die hard.

I go to a gym, and have been trying to keep up a routine for 5 years, but I easily grow discouraged and let my progress lapse. I will go for 3 weeks, four or five times a week. My cheekbones reemerge from my jowls. My eyes seem deeper in their sockets, more mysterious, no longer shrouded by fat. I can feel ribs again, hipbones, shoulder blades. Muscles swell beneath my skin. Stairs, laundry baskets, and long city blocks become trivial. I am winning. And then I will get a cold. I will work late. I will have a late night and sleep in the next morning. The pattern will be disrupted. I make a promise to myself to resume my workouts. I will break it. My precious muscles will be stripped down, unneeded, and I will limp around like an old man wracked with cramps. I will buy Ben & Jerry's, or a bag of jellybeans, and eat in dejection . . . and promise myself, that this will be it, this Monday or the end of the month or the first of the year, I will get back to the gym tomorrow, right after this metabolic nightmare of sugar and starch, no better than a junkie sweating out a jones in a holding cell.

Gamblers who compulsively play and lose, despite financial ruin, are viewed by psychologists to be punishing themselves, to in fact be getting a rush from the self-destruction of pissing away their life savings and worldly possessions until they are broke. Besides the sugar high, the lassitude that comes from downing half a loaf of crusty bread or pastry, or of blowing through the remaining Oreos after the last poker players stagger back to their cars, am I punishing myself? I have blamed my weight for being single. But I have recognized in myself over the past decade a tendency to use such things as being single as a way to get attention, sympathy even, from others. I wouldn't actually get off my fat ass and meet women . . . just take the safe route, whine to them about being single, and derive some sort of satisfaction from being a victim. Being fat provided an excuse — a target — and more often than not, I would hit it before others got the chance, whether they actually intended to make me a target or not.

I sometimes wonder if I will actually settle down with a woman. Sometimes I wonder if I have just given up. I now wonder if that's just me taking the easy route out again. I met a woman last Thanksgiving with whom I talked for hours, but whom I didn't pursue. I gave the reason of her being a smoker when folks who had noticed our extended chat asked if I had followed up. I wasn't going to be rejected because of my weight, because she was also overweight (though her curves were far more enticing as a result). So why didn't I pursue her? Was I afraid to let my life change fundamentally, to share it entirely with someone who might have been looking for someone just like me? Or was I just lazy, rejecting her because I needed gain sympathy, to set up a situation where I would clothe myself with the familiarity of regret . . . and fill the void with some sort of shitty food that's just gonna make the whole situation worse?

Laziness. Fear of risk. It paralyzed my writing for a long time, and my willingness to be social. My work fosters it. I have an easy job, and it requires no physical effort whatsoever. My ass grows by millimeters each week there. Without the regular inoculation of exercise, and portaging healthful food in from home to prevent me from taking any number of fattening detours in the surrounding sources of temptation, weight gain is inevitable, and with it discouragement.

I'm still struggling with a regular gym routine. When the weather gets as hot and humid as it did today, I find dragging my work bag even a few blocks leaves me puffing for air. This is not an encouraging development. Both of my parents are overweight, and it undoubtedly damages their overall health. It is only a matter of time before that first chronic disease appears — heart problems, diabetes, arthritis — that I will be able to trace to obesity. Then I can look forward to a life addicted to a swirl of medications and making some fucking drug company rich because I couldn't take a stand and exhibit some self-control.

I have the chance to stop this progress, to refuse to allow anyone to divert me from this goal, to fill my life with writing and positive self-exploration and development of my talent . . . to take pride in the mental and physical strength that this blog and my local gym, respectively, will grant me. I have to push past failures and deny depression its claim on my short time on this earth. I don't intend to make this a weight-loss blog, but rather a blog that celebrates my better decisions and works out ways to ensure they keep being made. If I had diverted even a tenth of the energy I spent on saying "no" to opportunities and drowning my sorrows in unneeded food into hitting the gym and writing daily, I would be a published author with high hopes of seeing my eighth decade in high health. I may still have that chance. I should be very selfish about taking it.

For now, though, the next poker night beckons, and I need to buy a new brick of ramen for the joke. Maybe this third one will stay intact.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On Assignment: Wildwood Crest

Thanks for returning to this wee blog. I got back to the apartment earlier tonight. The two days were very restful. I must have needed a good sleep. Eight hours of unconsciousness despite a spine-bending mattress on the fold-out couch.

I wrote the following last night after my parents hit the hay:
I am visiting my parents down in Wildwood Crest, NJ for two days this week. They take a week during June, September, and October and rent a room with a serene ocean view. From their balcony, they can watch waves roll ashore with calming regularity. It's a stark contrast to the blaring horns and packed subways of NYC, one which I will be a little sad to leave behind when I go home Wednesday night.

I used to come down to Ocean Beach with them until my late teens, but I don't think I appreciated the trip for anything more than the chance to binge on boardwalk fudge and videogames. I wasn't much of a swimmer, especially in the ocean, which always seemed most infested with jellyfish and seaweed on the days when I had finally dragged my inflatable raft and my courage to the water's edge. I looked forward to the flumes at Rainbow Rapids in Seaside Heights more than I did the scorching sand and gummy sunblock to be found on the beach.

Tonight provides a different perspective. From the balcony, the black expanse of the ocean is illuminated by a healthy slice of moon. White light shimmers on the water far toward the horizon. On that invisible line, a few dots of light mark fishing boats, enjoying the cool, slightly humid air and breezes that herald the barest edge of the approaching Hurricane Ophelia.

If this were my rental unit, I would sleep with the screen door open every night, to luxuriate in the breeze and listen to the ocean murmur below. I could make up for a lot of lost time as a kid, getting reacquainted with this beautiful coastline. I still am not much of a swimmer, but I could find great peace here, walking along the shore and feeling the rust of stress flake away to reveal strong, gleaming steel.
The morning was a flipped image of the previous night's clear skies. Fog obscured everything past the motel pool. Had I taken a walk on the beach, I would have needed a GPS unit to locate the motel again, and possibly the ocean. It burned off by about 10:00, revealing an overcast sky. The stretch of gorgeous weather between the hurricanes was about to end.

I should return tomorrow evening with more verbiage, so if your Internet connection slows down unaccountably, it's just me posting here. Pat your cable modem on the back until it goes down the right pipe.

I should also note that I am, as predicted, sad to have left the ocean behind.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Coming Up Next . . .

I will be visiting my parents at the Jersey Shore for the next 2 days. I have been thinking all day about this blog, and although I don't have time for a proper entry right now, I have many ideas for what I want to share. Starting this blog has gotten the words growing, like seedlings striving toward the surface.
  • Las Vegas: My vacation destination of choice. As of this writing, I have visited Sin City seven times. Each time it becomes more difficult to leave. I will share my reasons why this is so.
  • Poker: I have been swept up in the recent poker craze. I want to share my introduction to the game, my lessons — both lucrative and costly — and the characters and stories I have met and acquired along the way. Poker is a fascinating lens through which to view human behavior, and I plan to turn it on myself as well.
  • Culture: All manner of discourse on books and media I like. Maybe even some rants.
  • Dating and relationships: For your amusement and Schadenfreude.
  • Degree of disclosure: I am still deliberating with myself how much to share about my friends, my job, and other more personal, identifying aspects here. (Do you find it odd that I don't consider my dating and relationships history in this category? Either there's not much to tell, or I'll do anything for a laugh.) Perhaps some of this discussion will be "public," even if the material itself ends up not being so.
  • Fiction: Again, some might claim the dating category and this one are entirely congruent. Yes, let the laughter out. It's good for the blood pressure. If I manage to create anything either worth sharing or even just salvaging, I'll post it.
All right, time for bed ahead of the drive down the Parkway and a potential stop at Atlantic City. Wish me luck and safe roads.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Sorrow and the Pity: Jets Week 1

I have become a football fan in recent years. I lived under a roof with a father who once had Giants season tickets, and went to a college that produced one of the 1980s' more celebrated quarterbacks, but it never sank in. Only after I spent four years as the roommate of a Jets fan, including the dark years of 1995 and 1996, did I begin to absorb the sport. By the time the Jets had turned things around at the end of the millennium (aka, the thousand-year period between Herman Edwards's ascent as coach and Super Bowl III), I was hooked. I have no deep understanding of the sport, but it is now part of my autumn experience — and autumn is my favorite season.

I spend football Sundays at the gym. I park my doughy ass on an aerobics machine and watch the 1:00 game, which has the questionable effect of improving my health while inviting a heart attack. Such a cardiovascular quandary was in the offing today, with the Jets's season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Thus far, the season should have stayed closed.

Explaining New York's series (thus far; the game is in the late 3rd quarter) of missed opportunities and flat-out foul-ups cannot be placed solely on it being an away game. It's like watching the Jets from 2003, not the team that came within a couple of playoff games of the Super Bowl last year. Fumbles, turnovers, and at least one KC TD that could have been taken off with a review. Aside from Vilma, new acquisition Ty Law, and McCareins, they're acting like they're in training camp.

KC, by contrast, has been on fire. They've been crashing through the bemused Jets defense like Red Army tanks through the smoldering suburbs of Berlin. As if to underscore this, they just scored again. The extra point will be the 27th unanswered point on the board.

This could all be my fault. While on my most recent Las Vegas trip, I bought Felix — the Jets fan cited above — a ticket for the Jets to win by 3. This bet can still win if they lose by no more than 2. Now, at the beginning of the fourth, this would be the reversal of the weekend.

Might be a long season. We shall see. There's always . . . er, what's that sport with the ice?

Seeking a connection (but not that kind)

In a rare burst of ego, I have signed my blog up with SiteMeter and Technorati. No sense in staying isolated.

Of course, there are shades of isolation. I had originally set the Comments section to allow what Slashdot has long dubbed Anonymous Cowards to post without signing in, despite reading on various blogs about comment spam.

Sure enough, after I revised and refreshed the design to include the tracking links, I noticed I had a comment. Oh joy! Not 24 hours old and my blog has a viewer.

Turns out, it's some bot pimping an Atlanta escort service.*

So despite the rather standoffish welcome mat it might represent, I am taking the path of some resistance and requiring registration. Otherwise I'll be spending all day and night deleting random "compliments" that track back to adult offerings that would make Larry Flynt wedge his wheelchair into a confessional and weep.

*I might have let them stay, or even offered reasonable advertising terms, if they were actually offering robot escorts. What's the worst thing that could happen — you chip a tooth?

Blog # 114,272,998 debuts

Greetings all. "All"?! How can "all" apply to a new blog? My readership is exactly one . . . more like .64 if I am caffeine deprived.

I'll be bold and lead the introductions. My name is James. I live in Northern New Jersey. I have lived in this area all of my life, starting with six years in the Bronx, and with a four-year detour for college in Boston. I am a graphic designer, primarily in the field of newsletter typsetting. (Stalkers, you now have some facts, so pick a clean wall and an intact crayon and begin scrawling.)

I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with writing. This blog is an attempt to flick that switch to "on." I have taken writing classes in school and with Gotham Writers' Workshop, and I gave 100 Words a try, but I haven't developed the consistent habit. When I read over the work I created via these methods, though, I feel satisfied with it, and I always feel like ought to return to writing more regularly, to exercise the muscles that I let degenerate for long lapses. Despite encouragement and enjoyment on the part of instructors and friends, though, I haven't given myself the proper time to develop, practice, and write past the junk and begin laying down clear prose.

I am starting small. I am new to HTML, much less blogging, so I am wading in tentatively. The most important thing is to get my ass down in a seat and keep writing. I'm sure this will expand to quoting others, links, even photos, but let's learn to crawl before we walk, or perhaps even undulate before we crawl. More details about me, my likes and dislikes, inspirations and anathemas, as time crawls (or undulates) along. Anything to fuel the writing fire, because that is what I need to let it do: smolder, burn, even flare out of control.

I plan to enable comments, where I hope the waters will be tempting, frothy, occasionally even piping, but not scalding. To quote one of my poker/boardgaming pals, "Let's all be friends now!"

All right. It's damned late and I am ready for sleep. As that eminent English protoblogger Samuel Pepys used to sign off, "And so to bed."