Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ugly Betty and the Amazing Right-Brain File

My television issues

Those of you who know me well are aware that I have a bit of an a-tee-tude about television. Aside from Project Runway, I'm not really into it, have a pronounced aversion to legal and crime dramas (or "legal" and "crime" dramas as I think of them), and really loathe CNN and other pseudo-"news" programs, especially when I they are broadcast at top volume in airports to crowds of slack-jawed, gullible people. Hmm, I guess that's a lot of a-tee-tude.

But today I am changing. I am opening up the dikes to mass media. I'm letting pop culture flow into my Upper West Side classic-five. Because it's the premier of Ugly Betty!

Ugly Betty rules!

Ugly Betty is a show with America Ferrera (last seen in Real Women Have Curves, Spanglish and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants .... yes, I saw it) playing a dorkster from Queens named Betty, who works in a Vogue-type place in Manhattan. Come to think of it, this Devil Wears Prada business is EVERYWHERE this year. And I just got back from Milan -- more on that later. Coincidence? I think not.

Ugly Betty is based on a fabulously successful Colombian telenovela called Yo Soy Betty La Fea and I can't wait for it to get started. There's a great photo of the actress in today's New York Times on the front page of the arts section, where she is undergoing a beauty treatment, Betty La Fea style -- she's wearing plastic-framed glasses, gigantic curlers in her hair and a flowery red and pink robe that looks like it's made of oilcloth. The walls of the salon are hospital green and in the background a red teddy bear decorates the counter among stacks of combs, brushes and vials of nail polish. Love it!

(Ignore, however, the pointless review by tiresome film critic Virginia Heffernan. A sample sentence: "Commedia characterization on pseudorealist television can be exhausting: just as not every rich person has to wear an ascot, not every provincial girl has to dress like a mental patient." Just give it a rest, girl!)

Into the Right-Brain File

This is the kind of article that goes RIGHT IN my right-brain file. What's a right-brain file, you ask? A right-brain file is a file of stuff that for whatever reason triggers your interest. In anything. It could be a news event, an article about a person, an ad for something, a travel brochure, an announcement of a lecture, some barely legible scrawled note you made after a revealing dream, whatever.

Building a right-brain file is a great way to figure out what you really want to do with your life, now or in the future. Creating a right-brain file is based on the truth that finding your true interests is rarely a logical process. Thinking about things harder rarely works. And insights rarely come announced as such. As Herminia Ibarra writes in her must-read book, Working Identity, many visions start out as a tingle, an inkling, a wondering, a twinge of interest. Not as fully cooked, or fully convincing, ideas. The right-brain file is a great way to let these various idea-ettes develop at their own speed.

The trick is to cut out the article (or whatever), toss it in the file, and NOT think about it. That's it. You do the analysis later. At some point, you can go back, sift through, and ask yourself, "what does all this say about me?" It's like making compost. You throw in a bunch of stuff, wait a few months, and then one day your kitchen scraps have been magically transformed into something fertile.

Today, a bonanza of right-brain inspiration!

I am motivated to write this post today because today the first arts page of the New York Times has THREE articles that ALL must go into my own personal right-brain file. One is the aforesaid mention (with glam photo) from Ugly Betty. The second is an article about how Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie about Barot the purported Kazakh is playing in Kazakhstan. The third is a story about Shondra Rhimes, the show runner for Grey's Anatomy. (Another show that makes it through my a-tee-tude, anti-TV screen.)

What do all these things mean? Who knows? Tossing the articles into the right-brain file is all the work I need to do today. Besides watching the premier of Ugly Betty!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Relaxing around the home, Michael Melcher-style

Greetings, loyal audience,

I am not the best person for relaxing. I'm a high-energy kind of guy.

Most normal relaxation-type activities don't really work for me--picnics, watching TV, watching brooks babble by. With time on my hands, I often feel a little panicky. (Or, as my family insistently describes it, "nervous." "You're so nervous," they declare, everytime I shlep across the country to visit one of them. "Why are you always so nervous?")

Mind you, this doesn't mean that I am actually productive all the time. Quite the opposite. It means that during my occasional downtime, I engage in a lot of low-level, completely useless, Hamlet thinking. "Should I go to the movie or do the laundry?" "Should I go the gym or rearrange my closets." "Should I call someone? But who?" I can go on and on like this for hours. And even when I sort of decide things, I can change my mind--I have been known to walk out of my apartment, and back, two or three times within a period of 20 minutes. This does not lead to marital bliss, incidentally, since nothing incites my three dogs to their shrillest, most aggressive barking than when I leave and unexpectedly come back.

However, like anyone, I do need to relax, desperately! Cause I got a lot going on! When I don't relax, I can get kind of...crabby. And confused. And prone to states that are unsuitable to being the Life Coach to the Stars, like feeling put upon, distracted, and pessimistic. It's shocking but true. I'm not proud of my limited ability to relax. No sirree. I hate all the faux constant busy-ness of contemporary life--don't count me on that side.

So how to relax effectively is a theme constantly in my head. And never did I need to relax more than this weekend. I just returned from a nine-day trip to Italy to attend a friend's wedding and try to do some business. And nine days from now I will be zooming off to Hong Kong (by way of Raleigh) and California to do a bunch of workshops. Much time zone changing and evil plane travel. With my mental and physical health in mind, I scheduled a weekend of down time upon my return. However, then the inevitable question arose: what will I do during this critical weekend? Something, God help me, besides checking email, which has got to be as opposite from true relaxation as anything.

The answer came in two parts. First, I lucked out and found a great book to read on my 8-hour flight back from Milano. Paul Auster's new novel, "Brooklyn Follies." Loved it! Oh, the joys of reading. Reading has been something I have counted on my whole entire life, ever since I mastered "Story Wagon" at age five. Yet, weirdly, I often don't have anything good to read.

Why? It turns out that good books, like good food in your refrigerator, don't just pop into your life. You have to do a bit of planning. Research, even. They're out there--but you gotta find 'em. Thus motivated, I went to Barnes & Noble to see what there might be for my upcoming 16 hour trip to Hong Kong. And I totally scored again--a well-written book on Bombay, the new novel, "Calamity Topics in Particle Physics," along with "What's the Matter with Kansas?," (the book that explains how the Republicans have taken over everything and what to do about it), and my most unexpectedly delightful find, "Julie and Julia," a book about a woman who spent a year making every recipe in Julia Childs's classic, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Why? Just cuz it seemed like a fun idea.

This last book, frothy but thoughtful, is awesome. And it brings me to my second form of relaxation... cooking!

Something I've known for years but not always put into practice is that cooking is a great way to unwind from a day, week or lifetime of stress. I can't say it feels like that when you are trooping home with plastic bags leaving welts in your palms from your trek from Fairway, but it really is true. Cooking is, after all, an act of creation. So it's the perfect antidote to the soul-numbing activities of checking Treos and dealing with office politics, paying bills and peering over cubicles. Plus, you get to eat what you create, which is always fun. Cooking at home is almost always more nutritious, delicious and cheap than anything you'd get in a restaurant. (New Yorkers often dispute the last point about cheapness, claiming that cooking at home is expensive, often way more expensive than going out. I will not even honor this with an argument. These people are delusional and probably lazy. Eating at home is always cheaper.)

So I've now spent two entire days in a kind of fugue state between reading about this funny person cooking Julia Childs recipes and cooking various things myself, with occasional forays into minor household administrative activities like doing my Quickbooks and opening mail.

So far I've made (and eaten) the following:
-- biscuits (made with Bisquick)
-- mashed sweet potatoes with lemon and orange zest
-- peach cobbler (made with Sylvia's-brand mix along with fresh peaches and Splenda)
-- goat meat stew with fingerling potatoes
-- lentil salad made with green French lentils and warm vinaigrette, following the instructions on the box
-- and (in a moment), some kind of marinated goat liver dish.

(Okay, a word about the goat meat, in case your wondering. I am a carnivore, but love animals, including the ones I'm eating. So my one consistent philosophy in dealing with this core hypocrisy is to buy meat that was once part of an animal that had a reasonably good life. This means that I will buy anything that appears to have eaten grass in a meadow for a reasonable period of time. This is why I eat beef but almost never chicken. Unless it grew up in the Hudson Valley or somewhere similar. The farmer's market had goat meat so I thought, why not?)

Anyhow, now I feel great! And relaxed! And sort of creatively whole, enough to tap out this little piece.

Plus, I am all bonded with my dogs, Luna, Splash and Jackson. It turns out that dogs are never more fascinated than when you are cooking a series of interesting dishes that they will surely taste. They are there, rooting for you, at every intriguing stage.