Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

My Compact Year

About 5 months into the Compact, I dreamt that I was at Crate & Barrel buying lamps and furnishings I didn't need, paying for them and walking out the door. At which point I thought to myself, "Oh no, I'm going to have to confess my purchases to the Compact Group." Thankfully I woke up.

I joined the Compact when the San Francisco Chronicle published the first article on the group, a month after the original "yuppies" conceived the idea of not buying anything new for a whole year. I joined because I, too, had made a similar New Year's resolution. The publicized group also had the allure of a movement and it was local to the Bay Area so I felt a kinship to the founders.

I followed the groups' criteria to the letter for half the year, before finding a loophole to exploit and late in the game I fell off the wagon entirely for a toaster oven. Yes, a mundane kitchen appliance. The Compact, however, was much more than not buying new stuff. It was about rethinking our consumer habits.

I also challenged the premises of the Compact. For instance did the rules forbid going to see a first run movie? No one answered that question, but a few days later someone did talk about being an avid user of Netflix. So renting movies was supported over buying DVDs, but first run movies were sort of a gray zone. Despite being a resource intensive, consumer driven industry, it was not, after all, a physical item.

The permitted new items included underwear and socks (utilitarian and not taken to excess), as well as household cleaning supplies, consumable sundries and safety items. Locally made artisanal items were permitted. We could also keep our magazine subscriptions, but not buy single magazines. The loophole I exploited was the category of health and safety items, under which I could justify bike lights, a pair of bike gloves, wrist friendly handlebars, a specialized backpack to "safely" transport my sparing gear to karate class by bike, sunglasses, reading glasses, a first aid kit and earthquake supply items that I decided to stock up on, including, yes, possibly, an excess of LED flashlights and a battery operated lantern.

I also made some shady exchanges by deciding to discontinue two of my magazine subscriptions, but buying 6 magazines over the year and 6 new books from independent publishers and Kepler's, our last, local independent bookstore.

My main motivation for joining the Compact was that I was spending a substantial amount of time, many evenings a week shopping online. Buying clothes and products was not even the time wasting part; it was the looking at stuff. Even if I couldn't afford or didn't want a new Timbuk2 bag, I still wanted to look at it just to keep up with the product line. Suitcases, too, attracted me. So much so, that I carry a tape measure and a list of the measurements of all the suitcases I own just so I don't spend too much time sizing up a suitcase in a store. It was likely to be exactly the same size as one I already own.

Joining the Compact put an instant stop to this constant hunting. The time I spent not shopping I replaced with time spent reading postings by Compact members and following up on links and resources. But it was a worthwhile exchange. Many of the posters were already experienced Compactors who were familiar with pioneer skills, had books to recommend, recipes to share, and in general, reinforced values that embodied a holistic eco awareness I craved.

These values and ideas were already taking the Compact beyond the vision of the original group. We were not, for instance, required to make our own cleaning supplies, but doing so was a source of much discussion. I was eager to try it, but then I realized I would have to go out and buy a bevy of plastic squirt bottles to put my concoctions in, when I already had a years supply of bulk cleaning spray at home.

What I did do was make my own shampoo using a baking soda paste followed by a rinse with apple cider vinegar diluted in water. The results were remarkable. My hair was squeaky clean, shiny and befitting of a TV commercial. What's more, I did not need to wash my hair nearly as often as I did before, only once a week in fact. This was a revelation to me. Shampoo companies had basically brain washed the public into thinking that its product is not only essential, but desirable for everyday use.

As it is a detergent, shampoo stimulates your scalp to produce grease in order to stave off the drying effect of the detergent. Thus shampoo creates the very conditions it was advertised to combat. What a scam. And then you have to switch shampoos after a while because the build-up renders it less effective. It is no wonder that when I organize a client's bathroom, I am likely to find six banker's boxes worth of sundries, most of which are hair and skin products. I also learned that petroleum based products, like baby oil are not absorbed by the skin, but sit on top, clogging the pores. Now I just rub on olive oil, after a shower, and have noticed much less drying of my skin.

The toothpaste industry, too, had suffered a misguided redirection in purpose. Where once toothpastes were meant to clean and disinfect the teeth, mouth and gums, a difference of opinion among dentist, over a new antibacterial ingredient, caused the dental association to change the requirements of toothpaste from "decontaminating of pathogenic bacterial biofilms" to merely "aid in removing food particles". As a result, the toothpaste industry changed its focus from effective cleaning of the teeth to enhancing the appearance of the teeth, thus opening the door to whiteners that actually dissolve enamel, plus sugar that makes the toothpaste taste better. Ugh.

But Compactors had a solution with another baking soda recipe. This time mixed with glycerin and a pinch of salt, made palatable by a few drops of mint. I was eager to try it, particularly since I had just learned that my favorite, family owned, natural ingredients toothpaste, Tom's of Maine, had been sold to the corporate behemoth Colgate.

The toothpaste recipe took a little getting used to because of the salty taste, but the graininess of the baking soda and salt made my teeth feel like they had been polished. Plus the baking soda, when dissolved in a solution, kills all "motile microorganisms" on contact, while the glycerin halts the "motility" of said organisms. After six months use, I couldn't wait to see what my dentist would say. Her only concern was that my recipe did not contain fluoride, but otherwise she felt that the cleaning job I was doing was so effective, she wouldn't want to change anything. Score another Compactor lifestyle coup.

When it came to gifts during my Compact year, I had the brilliant idea of introducing my friends to my Compact lifestyle by putting together gift baskets with samples of the toothpaste, ingredients for the shampoo and accompanying recipes that included using baking soda as a deodorant. Nor could I buy birthday cards, so I made my own, using photographs of each friend taken earlier that year. The results were not only personalized, but unexpectedly more personal in the message I ended up writing.

Following the Compactor regime allowed me to think more consistently in terms of ecological impact. For instance, sewing had long fallen by the wayside for many home sewers because clothes could be bought so cheaply now (due to lowcost labor overseas) that it wasn't worth the time. Now, I could justify the time I spent sewing because I was saving on the transportation and manufacturing costs to the environment of buying new clothes that were then shipped to me. And because I was at the thrift store, more often now, I got lucky and found some attractive fabric another sewer had donated, thus saving it from going to landfill. Sewing my own pair of pants added a unique item to my wardrobe and made me think about other things I could make from salvage material, instead of other things I wanted to shop for.

When I started coming home from the thrift shops with nice shirts and nearly new items, such as a thermos bottle just like the ones selling at Starbucks, Catherine wanted to come with me to buy clothes for her niece. After an hour at Savers, I looked for her and found she had filled a shopping cart full of clothes for herself as well.

"I had a revelation in there," she reported later. She had been intently studying her financial health and had realized that where she might normally drop several hundred dollars on clothes for work at Nordstrom's, here at the thrift store, she had spent a little over $50 for a cart full of clothes that included several wearable work items. Considering all the perfectly good clothes I had helped clients haul away to the Goodwill, it wasn't surprising that there would be clothes there that looked better than what was in our own closets.

Not only that, but there was no packaging in the presentation of items sold at thrift stores, apart from the occasional generic plastic bag for small items grouped together. (So why, one might ask, did I fall for a toaster oven, complete with Styrofoam packaging and giant cardboard box? I don't know exactly, but I was in Mervyns shopping for bras and I saw the small convection toaster oven for a very low price. I had long wanted one because they use less energy than conventional ovens. Once I bought it, I was going to take it back, but I kept taking it out of the box just to try it one more time. Finally I realized that using it would mean I could dispense with the microwave as I had become convinced that microwaves deplete the nutritious value of foods, especially the very foods that are supposed to be good for you, like broccoli.)

When the Christmas season loomed, Catherine and I decided we didn't want to buy a tree, because they were sprayed with so much pesticide. Then we made the radical decision not to buy each other any gifts to go under the non-existent tree. This was a category in which we tended to go overboard. Catherine warned all her work people that she had decided to eschew the material traditions of the season and would not be buying gifts.

We watched ourselves as our stress level dropped and we decided to host a party, on Christmas Eve, to fill the house with friends and food. On the day of Christmas itself, Catherine and I slept in and then sat in bed reading our books. Around ten a.m., I turned to her and said "Happy Christmas". We looked at each other for a delicious moment, then congratulated ourselves for having the audacity to convey our love without the aid of a single material object.

As the anniversary of the Compact approached, articles were published, in all kinds of publications, following up on how we had done. Apart from some specialty hardware items, the Compactors interviewed had largely stuck to it and we're renewing their vows. Inspired by the example of these first year Compactors, membership jumped from the 1,000, that had pulled the group along for most of the year, to over 7,500. It sure was looking like a movement, and an international one at that.

Published concurrently at energy bulletin

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

About a Book

It's time to tell the story of the upcoming publication of my book (sometime in this new year), so that I may rise to the occasion. This was the book that was supposed to make me somebody. It was my American Dream book. The one that would catapult me from obscurity to fame like Amy Tan, who's first published story was discovered by an agent. Said agent then called her up and urged her to create four more characters in the same vein. The resulting book was The Joy Luck Club.

When I decided to write Diamonds In My Pocket nearly twenty years ago, I did not have such lofty visions. I simply wanted to lay down the stories of my childhood for those who might be interested in visiting Thailand. It took me nearly ten years to write the book and when I was ready to send it out to agents, I hit the Joy Luck Club window just right, and several wanted to see it immediately, but in the end the agents were of the opinion that the writing wasn't as strong as the material. I knew it to be true for my friends had already told me so. My readers could see the story in beautifully rendered description, but they could not feel it.

As far as my subconscious was concerned, the language of my Western education did not allow my emotions to connect to the page. English, with its multiple levels of psychoanalysis, intellectual theories and identity politics, was a language in which to hide in broad daylight. How much easier it was to find my feelings in the simple present tense, kitchen Thai of my childhood. What I needed was a hip-hop, broken English, raw emotion, queer manifesto right of passage, but there was none to be had.

Memoir wasn't even considered a legitimate art form in the literary world of fine fiction that informed my fellow writers. I had no feel for fiction and now agents were telling me I had no voice to tell my own story. The irony of this did not escape me. I had begun to see my life in headliness, much like the journalist in The Shipping News, a work of fine fiction popular at the time.

"Agents Go Wild for Query Letter", I scribed, followed by a report on my failure to sell my book. The vehicle for these "news" stories was The Wang King News, a one-page newsletter I created in the visual style of the Wall Street Journal. I sent it to my friends and family. Only a few understood the reference to the British term "wanking"—slang for masturbating.

The never quite objective, third person narrative of straight journalism amused me. The absence of emotion could render my life in quite horrific terms. "Gato Killed In Hit and Run", I wrote reporting the death of my cat. "Whitney Ex-lover Goes to Group Home" was the headline when my lover tossed me out of her life. And my favorite, "Woman Grows Bigger Brain", to describe my continuing education. If I couldn't manage a defining writer's voice, I had found a fitting irony in not having one. This detached perspective gave me the lens to see my life for the drama that it was.

When my grandmother, who was a major character of my book, died, her funeral brought together all the other characters of my extended family into a neat package and there I had my rewrite. Within the frame of the funeral I was able to sever every extraneous detail from the unwieldy 300-page manuscript I had first tried to sell. What emerged was a spare, wry narrative that kept the charm of the childhood stories and unloaded all the ex-lovers and a ponderous search for self. Now I had the book I thought was worth reading. I decided to go to the Maui Writer's Conference in Hawaii to try to interest an agent in person.

Through a connection with an organizer colleague who was an event manager at the conference, I managed to work passage as a volunteer. I sold tickets to aspiring authors with a book to sell. The $40 tickets were for a ten-minute interview with an agent, during which time you were to pitch your book. In the process of facilitating these transactions I was able to meet and briefly interview scores of writers.

Most of them had written memoirs and like dog show contestants who look like their pets, these writers looked like their books. "Overcoming disability with joy and clarity" one writer told me was the theme of her book and she smiled one of those "God is whispering in my ear" smiles as she hobbled away on her crutches. And then there was the man dressed, for the duration of the conference, in camouflage fatigues. "Your book wouldn't happen to have a military setting would it?" I asked him. "How did you guess?" he asked, then added, "I just tell them read my book or I'll kill you". He bought tickets for six agents. Later I picked up, off the floor, a sample page of somebody's book. It was just about the worse piece of writing I had laid eyes on. No wonder these agents were so aloof.

I bought my ticket too, and polished up my elevator speech. The marketing skills I had learned from my organizing colleagues went a long way to sprucing up my presentation. When it came my turn to meet my agent, I strode across the room with such confidence emanating from my person that this most hard-boiled of New York agents stood up to greet me when I was still ten paces away.

When she found out that all I had was yet another memoir she seemed disappointed and asked what I did for a living. When I told her, she was hopeful that I might have written an organizing book. That was what the market wanted - more how-to books for the voracious American appetite for self-improvement. I was just like the other 800 hopefuls at the conference clutching their life stories. I too, looked like my book. In the end she invited me to send her my first 50 pages, because of the exotic locale, she said.

Her response was similar to the other agents I had approached from the conference. The book was well written, but she was not confident that there would be a market for the story. Now that the book had enough of a voice, the market had disappeared. Dang! If my book was going to find a home between covers, I would have to forget about the American market altogether, forget about friends and acquaintances seeing my book at their local bookstore, forget about meeting strangers who had read my book, forget about being interviewed by Oprah.

I knew where a ready-made market existed; it just seemed so small fry. But on my next trip home to Bangkok I asked around for the names of local English language publishers and got some hopeful leads. Once I got home, the pressure of working my more lucrative organizing business took priority and I never got around to contacting them. Then came the blogosphere and my writing could be launched directly to a Googling audience. Astonishingly, I soon met strangers who had read my work. The direct feedback I was getting in the form of comments left at the blog and e-mails from readers was so interactive, my writing grew into the passionate, polemical, queer eco-activist voice that I had been seeking. Who needed publishers?

One day I got an e-mail from my cousin's husband in Bangkok. Raja had retired from his job as a vice president for Anderson Consulting and was going to use his business acumen to start his own publishing company. Would I consider allowing him to publish my book? I'd forgotten I had even mentioned it to him though I remembered his idea about starting a publishing company. I didn't think he was serious.

"You better read it first," I wrote back and sent him the first 50 pages.

"It's a very intriguing story and I am still interested," he wrote back.

"You better read the rest of it then," I told him. His wife, you see, was a significant character in my book, a foil for my own character. She was everything that I was not, immersed as she was in the details of late model Mercedes and designer handbags. He would have to know this incestuous truth if he was going to publish it. He wrote back saying he was still interested and never mentioned my characterization of his wife.

He sent me an advance of $5,000 to bind our commitment. I did not dare spend it for fear he would change his mind. He got an editor to work with me, a young man in Malaysia who had grown up in Canada. Raja thought he would be able to relate to the material. Raja himself was a Sri Lankan, British educated and living as a foreigner in Thailand. He prefaced each of our conference calls with insights on American politics and how we might get rid of the Bush administration.

After we had worked through the first pass of corrections, Raja hired a design team and talked nostalgically of pen and ink illustrations. I went to the website of the design company and was floored by the extent of their corporate accounts. Raja didn't want just a common book designer; he wanted a product designer. The same design company that would soon create a beautiful slip covered gift book about Thai gemstones authored by his wife, my cousin the aspiring jewelry designer.

The first thing the art director, who was British, said to me was that he thought my book was very good and even if he didn't already know bi-racial people and their issues, he would still find it interesting. A stranger, a professional marketer of products, thought my book was worthwhile. This gave me pause.

Suddenly a whole world beyond the dictated tastes of the American public opened up to me. The design team is located in Singapore, a major city of a newly globalized Asia. Here was a highly mobile, multi-cultural, population of Europeans working overseas much like my mother had done. Their local Asian counterparts were often educated in the States much like my father had been educated in England. And like me, the new generation was swept up by the opportunities of the West while still emotionally tied to the simpler way of life that had been the East.

From all appearances, my Asian peers had forgotten what they had left behind and were now feeling the isolating affects of living in nuclear family formation complete with pedigreed dog, high above the ground in those "sky" condos. They had filled their lives with high tech gadgets and in their air conditioned cars driving from underground parking lot to multi-story parking garage, they need never set foot on their own soil. And while safely inside the air-conditioned shopping malls and office buildings, they need never breath the heavily polluted air. These city dwellers and the corporate ex-pats working with them were my audience. How I longed to tell them the West did not have all the answers. In its own offshore way, this whole book thing could be really big.

The book would be distributed in Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore. Raja wanted me to do a book tour. Picturing a reading in my hometown where my relatives had maintained their lifelong goal to lead a respectable life, I began to feel like a freak. It was one thing to be a personality in the West where personalities are appreciated and expected. Thailand was where I went to disappear from myself. Now, I would have to perform myself in the role of eccentric American transplant. I was beginning to feel panicked by the thought of this exposure. Why was I doing this? Was this my calling? Did this audience need me? I had been touted, on the website of the Post Carbon Institute, as a featured writer of the Energy Bulletin. I was on a tear to save the planet, or at least make sense of it as it was going down. What did a tame childhood memoir have to do with anything? The destiny of the diamonds in my pocket, it seems, was calling me anyway.

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