Algorithms, Measurable Outcomes and the Value of a Reliable Recipe


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I’ve been spending a lot of time of late trying to quantify things, such as which marketing actions translate into actual books sales; which high school curriculum will enable Daughter #1 to have an interesting and challenging education, get into college, graduate and be self-supporting before she’s 40; and how much value our two bathroom renovations will add to our house and to our lives.

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(I almost entitled this post Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can’t underestimate the value of providing bathroom space for two girls to straighten their hair at the same time).  When not searching online for a 42 inch vanity with an offset sink, I’ve been writing articles about the benefits and detriments of standardized tests in our public schools and other education-related conundrums.

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All this examination of data, marketing campaign statistics, shower stalls, tile samples, paint chips, vanity tops (we decided to have one custom made) cost-benefit analyses and discussion of measurable outcomes has my mind reeling. I’m overloaded with information yet, when the decision-making rubber meets the road, like Whitney Houston, I find myself wondering “how will I know?”

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Luckily, a few shining lights have guided me.

Though it had been an exceptionally busy week and I was on the verge of coming down with the nasty cold/flu that knocked me flat by Sunday, I’m glad I made the effort to attend a meeting of Book Publishers Northwest, where the featured speaker was Laura Pepper Wu, self-described entreprenette and book marketing guru, whose website 30 Day Books offers a wealth of valuable information for independent authors.  I haven’t yet purchased her pdf book Fire Up Amazon (at $4.99 it’s a deal), but I plan to.

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I followed a few of the tips she offered for optimizing your book’s Amazon page (turns out, it’s all about the algorithms, baby) and lo and behold I had some, dare I say, measurable outcomes.

There were more measurable outcomes to come.

I love my husband, I really do.  But we don’t usually follow the same path when it comes to house projects, which is why our kitchen wallpaper was half torn down for a number of years.  Up until now, our philosophy has been, to quote Bob Dylan, “most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.” If one of us is invested in a project, we run with it (shelves and anything to do with the garage – him, turquoise kitchen walls and any other cool painting project – me.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

When we have to work together…. well…

Here's what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

Here’s what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

But these bathrooms.  Maybe it’s the chance of escape from the vicissitudes in mood of our teen and tween that had us companionably scraping wallpaper from the master bathroom for hours one Sunday (because you know the t(w)eens aren’t going to offer to help) and trolling for tiles on a Saturday afternoon.

I know that’s what drove us to the custom vanity place not once, but twice this past weekend and then off to a lighting fixture store after that.  Imagine my surprise when we managed to agree, not only on floor and shower tiles, but also on style of vanity, counter top (that was big), faucet style and finish and drawer pulls, but also on unexpected new bedroom lighting.  I’ve been worrying about us as empty nesters. Now I see our bright future.  We’ll become renovators.

(Anyone who knows me is snorting right about now and perhaps uttering that evocative British phrase “Not bloody likely.”)

Exhibit A.  Note the lack of doorknob.

Exhibit A, still-unpainted.  Note the lack of doorknob.

The promise of a new vanity that would soon need to be picked up led me to get my act together and finally repair the broken trunk lock of the Famous Minivan. I have yet to deliver the bags that have been sitting in said trunk to Goodwill or to remove Daughter #2’s end of first term project — it’s term four now– but I’m on a roll, so watch out, world.

The nasty cold/ flu bug had knocked me flat just as the high school deliberations started intensifying and, deprived of my usual moxie, I was looking for a sure thing. I found it in a recipe.

If you like to cook with recipes, you know that there are certain people you can rely on to never steer you wrong (Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazen, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz and, my current gastronomic crush, Yotam Ottolenghi) and other Julia-come-latelys who have to earn your trust.

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If you like to cook at all, you know that there are certain ingredients that are magic together and techniques that are nearly impossible to screw up.  Like stew.  I’m a big fan of stews, tagines and any sort of one pot mash-up.

So when I saw that the ingredient list included chickpeas, preserved lemons, dates, saffron, plus lamb and that nice exotic lamb sausage, merguez, I put down my tissue box and perked up.  I hadn’t felt like eating much over the past few days (but had managed to produce chicken adobo and a Mexican tomato soup with fideos.  I may not be timely with household projects, but, as my friend Donn likes to say “Damn, the bitch can cook).

It came from The Garum Factory, one of my favorite foodie blogs, which perks up my inbox each Friday morning with its clever combination of history, culture, technique and interesting food.

On the way back from picking up the now-repaired Famous Minivan, I zipped over to store, bought the ingredients, slapped them in the pressure cooker and in less than an hour was tucking into a divine tasting and beautiful looking lamb stew.

Sometimes it’s nice to forget about algorithms.

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And sometimes it’s a relief to have a recipe for success.

Thin Mints

The Things We Do For Love

This week’s Modern Love opens with the description of a woman enduring a rugged backpacking trip with her husband, kids and in-laws, braving mosquitos, the lack of running water and flush toilets and endless card games.  She comes to the conclusion that love involves sacrifice.

Yes, we all know love involves big gestures. In a few weeks I myself will make such a sacrifice, driving for eight hours in a cramped car with my family to a ski resort in Canada, where I will have the pleasure of being cold and slushy, cooking three meals a day with limited food and kitchen supplies and washing and drying endless pairs of wet socks for a sport that (pardon the pun) leaves me cold.

I would much rather be lounging on a beach somewhere with a reliable supply of tequila, or feasting in as -yet-undiscovered Paris bistros or eating quinoa and kale and doing yoga at a Napa Valley spa.

The big sacrifices, at least those made for spouses, carry with them an implicit tit-for-tat, as in, I’ll make you stir-fried peanut chicken on Oscar night and do the dishes too, if you let me watch basketball for almost the entire month of March.

Sounds like a fair trade to me

But the little things and the every day things and the things you don’t have a choice about  are less quantifiable and there’s not necessarily a corresponding tat.

Except for the daughter who spontaneously gives you a hug one evening because you spent the day doing girly stuff with her and sharing stories about your adolescence while you are driving together side-by-side (still something of a novelty) in the minivan.

Or the daughter, previously surly and unappreciative, who comes downstairs to apologize, sporting false eyelashes.

Or the cats who, like Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, have trouble grasping the concept of a weekend, yet unexpectedly let you sleep in on a Saturday morning.

As mid-winter sets in, so does the drudgery of the things we do for love.  Sandwich generation friends I’ve spoken to have complained that their days off from work are spent shepherding aging parents to doctors appointments, everybody’s tired of making lunches, making dinner, monitoring homework and piano practicing and, especially, driving.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Some say one reason we aren’t thin and we are frazzled is because we aren’t French.

Apparently, their secret (in addition to lacy lingerie), is to go after what they want and not let anything stand in their way.

Once in a while, this approach backfires

There is a not-so-quiet revolution currently underway in the publishing world — a French revolution, if you will.

Writers, frustrated by the gatekeeper mentality of the traditional paths to publication, are taking matters into their own hands.  They blog, they share via social media, they create their own alternative forums (check out Modern Love Rejects) and more and more, they are self-publishing their books.

The other day I was at Aster Coffee lounge, where my friend Ingrid held an information session for a parade of neighborhood writers, all of whom are at various stages on the path to self-publication.  They spoke knowledgeably about Kindle Direct publishing, free Kindle downloads, Create Space, author pages and rankings, things I was previously unfamiliar with.  Though nobody was sporting a scarf tied just-so, there was a frisson of electricity in the air.

You can ponder the merits of self-publishing, the future of books and independent book stores and the You-Tubization of a world in which it is increasingly easy to have one’s fifteen minutes of fame.

You can have heartfelt discussions with your spouse about how much time you should spend on creative pursuits versus the practical ones that add to the family coffer mindful that you both wish to avoid leading lives of quiet desperation.

The writers I know aren’t necessary expecting to get rich or famous or to receive any other tit-for-tat, other than the satisfaction of putting their work out there and hoping it resonates with somebody. They write because they love to write and they’ll do it even if it means waking up at 5 a.m., sneaking off to coffee shops, hiding in their bedrooms to avoid the demands of family members (as I am doing now) and constantly jotting down story ideas in notebooks or on iPhones.

I’m pleased to have joined the Ballard Writers Collective, which, in partnership with our neighborhood independent book store and library, is fostering the work of local writers.  Like the Jacobins (though not nearly so bloodthirsty), we meet in cafes and community centers to plot different ways for our voices to be heard.

Next month, while I’m on that ski trip in Canada, in addition to cooking three meals a day with limited food and kitchen supplies and washing and drying endless pairs of wet socks, I’ll also be polishing my manuscript Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small to get it ready for publication sometime in 2012.

These are the things we do for love.

Who knows, maybe at the end of a satisfying day of skiing and writing, I’ll even manage to whip up Coq au Vin too.

If you are looking for some good reads, check out Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story, my friend Ingrid Rick’s riveting tale of escaping her fundamentalist Mormon upbringing and Jay Craig’s irreverent The Scottish Buddhist Cookbook, which saved me from going over the edge during Snowmageddon, when the kids were out of school for a week.

If you live in Seattle, Ingrid and Jay will be reading at Secret Garden books on February 15.

Finally, check out my friend Jennifer D. Munro’s funny book The Erotica Writer’s Husband and other Stories, available free today (January 29) as an Amazon Kindle download.