Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Project Gift

I have been very angry. It's a weird wiring system that I have, that when I am sad, I get frustrated, and when I am angry, I cry. So I have been very angry for almost two months. And so, I have been crying altogether too much. I feel picked apart and put upon and just generally that things are out of control. Let me rephrase: things are out of MY control.

There are lots of things about class systems that do not make sense to me. Most of all, why it is necessary to continually punish the very people who need the most help. This makes me a Socialist, you say? Why, yes. Yes it does. I do feel that there is a responsibility, as humans, to watch out for other people. To make sure everyone has a equal starting point. This does not mean I house homeless people in my apartment or that I do not buy new shoes in favor of donating money to charity. I am not a purist. I simply think that there are some things we should all be entitled to as citizens of a responsible country. Like quality education. And health care. And protection against the assumption that because you do not have very much money, you must be a moron.

I don't think I am a moron. In fact. I'm pretty sure that I am an anti-moron. I seem to be in the minority on this, however. My credit card apparently thinks I am a Grade A Imbecile because I think that raising the interest rate to an ungodly amount makes the opposite of sense. The unemployment office thinks that I am profoundly stupid for thinking that they intended to pay me the amount of money that I was actually making at my job, and not the amount of money on which they arbitrarily think I should be able to live. All of a sudden, I have met an inordinate amount of people who find me to be massively dumb.

I am trying to see this as karma that I am paying for in advance. I am hoping that I have a windfall coming to me and that for the universe to balance its karmic ledger, it just has to suck for me for a while. I am ignoring the possibility that I did something really awful, because I just cannot think of anything that measures up.

So under the assumption that I didn't do anything wrong, I also cannot fix it. Short of yelling into the phone, "STOP TREATING ME LIKE A SECOND CLASS PERSON. I AM REALLY SMART," there is not a lot of recourse. And yelling generally indicates some crazy anyway.

This lack of control and inability to fix my life has led to two realizations over the past two months.

1.) I am sick of crying.

2.) I am using projects as an outlet to gain control.

Mostly my projects of late have consisted of cooking and baking. Baking in particular has always been a source of satisfaction for me in times of chaos. I love taking separate ingredients to create something entirely different in shape, form and texture. I like the bowls and the wooden spoons and the act of mixing. I like putting on an apron and the yummy smells and standing in the kitchen for hours. Plus, following recipes means there is structure and if you read well enough, failure is rare.

This is why many of my gifts this season have included food. My most recent project, though has been my Christmas gift for my mom. This project, while food-related, is not edible. It is a calendar of sorts, detailing the freshest ingredient for each month of the year.

I have mentioned my obsession with Bon App├ętit before, but I'm not sure I fully conveyed how much I rely on this perfect little publication. Last year, my friend L gave me a subscription to BA (as they call THEMSELVES, I didn't make this up,) for Christmas. L and I have exchanged several cookbooks and recipes and general food advice for years, but this may be the single best present anyone has ever given me. When I receive my latest BA edition, this is what I do: I read the magazine cover to cover. I bookmark every page that contains a recipe that I would like to try. I go back through the bookmarked pages with two different colors of Post-Its. I place a purple Post-It on all the pages with recipes that I would like to try this month for M and I. I place a blue Post-It on all the pages with recipes that I would like to try this month to give as gifts or bring to parties. I make a list of ingredients to buy at the store to make these recipes in order of how I will make them. Does it surprise you that my life feels out of control?

Also in BA is a section called "At The Market," in which they identify one ingredient "at its seasonal peak" and what to do with it. They show pictures of it, they list how to pick the freshest version and they include three or four recipes for it. A few months ago, I told my mom that I made Striped Sea Bass with roasted fennel and potatoes, and how it was amazing. I also mentioned how I had never even had fennel before. My mom said she had lately been going to the local organic market to try new vegetables for the first time. Like turnips. And so my project began forming itself in my head.

I decided to take the At The Market sections and turn them into some kind of calendar. But, as I get overwhelmed trying to make all the recipes I want to make each month, I decided not to include dates or weeks on the calendar so she can reuse it for as many season as she wants. I knew that if I copied the recipes, they needed to be separate so she could move around the kitchen with the recipe in hand or take it to the store to shop for ingredients. And, I knew that the print in the magazine was too small to make a useful calendar. So, I decided to plan for legal-size cardstock.

I started by taking black Post-Its and marking each At The Market section for each month. In looking at the pictures, I knew they wouldn't photocopy well, so I decided to draw each ingredient myself. I took out my sketch book, propped up one BA at a time against the arm of my couch, and drew a version of each vegetable and fruit in black ink. I wrote the name of the food and the name of the month where it belonged beside the picture. Then, I took the assorted magazines and photocopied all the pages I needed at Kinko's. I used plain white copy paper and literally cut and pasted each month's picture and text. I cut out the recipes and formatted each on an index card.

I searched for library pockets everywhere and had to default back to the teacher store, because apparently only teachers know the value of paper pockets that are self-adhesive. (Seriously, these are the most versatile office-related products you could ever own.) I went back to Kinko's and copied each month's page onto legal-size cardstock by enlarging my original pages by 120%. The only large cardstock they had was white. So, I copied the index cards onto multicolored cardstock. The library pockets I bought had stripes on them in five different colors, so I chose those five colors of cardstock and copied each month's recipes on an alternating color. I used the paper cutter at Kinko's for so long that I removed three layers of clothing. I left the large sheets of cardstock with my friends at Kinko's to have them bind the sheets at the top.

Finally, I picked up the bound calendar, affixed each library pocket to the bottom right corner of each sheet, slid each month's recipe cards in each pocket, and wrapped the whole thing. (Not all the cards fit, as my "formatting" was a little shoddy, so I had to do some trimming before that step was complete.) I found some mini kitchen tools at Crate and Barrel, like a powdered sugar spoon and a bamboo pot scraper, and a pretty recycled glass jar to put the tools in. All in all, this gift cost very little money. I was, however, basically living at Kinko's.

Anyway, my mom loved it. I know because she cried. The funny part is that she gave ME a calendar for Christmas -- made of photos she took in France two years ago. (This a common event in my family. We all give each other the same things.)

The best part about this gift is not just that it gave me something to do, something to control. Or that it made me feel smart and useful. (Although it DID.) The best part is that I was able to use a gift that I LOVE to create a new gift that my mom loves. It's like gift karma.

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