Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The One Thing I Would Never Say to My Daughter...If I Had One

"Solve for E,"
Courtesy Aaron Parecki
My dad died in 2010. Three years later, I wrote a song about him. Here is the refrain:

An absence greater than zero,
The square root of negative one,
An unimaginable number,
From this there is no sum.

You see, there is no zero greater than zero; the square root of negative one is an imaginary number, therefore, impossible to imagine...like life without someone who has always been there. And once that person is taken away, they cannot be added back.

As for my hero and stand-in dad Pythagoras, an amazing theorem, which actually makes rearranging furniture in my poky old house a lot easier, is named after him. Seriously, it's like the universe's gift to people who live in small spaces.

A2 + B2 = C2.


In some sort of myth I created for myself, Pythagoras was accused of hubris for demonstrating that the geometry of the universe was imperfect: if a2 + b2 = 2.16666 repeating...what the hell? There is no precision in that! Hence, "Pyth" and his school had to disperse, and he most likely died of starvation hiding in a cave. Except records of the time indicate he died of natural causes at the age of 75 in his hometown after having served as something akin to mayor. Still, it's a good story.

But back to imaginary numbers.

Multiply a positive real number by itself, and you get a positive result. Multiply a negative real number by itself, and you get...a positive result. So the square root of both positive and negative numbers is always positive. But electrical engineers and physicists need negative square roots. I could discuss the position of a particle in space...and snowplows...but I wouldn't know what the hell I was talking about. I think the gist is imaginary numbers make solving equations more elegant in the way that the colon (as used in writing and not pooping...although...sometimes writing is pooping) replaces a whole lot of words.

I know a lot about math.

And if you are willing to look up my second-grade teacher and explain that to her...for me...I would gladly stand behind you, peer around your shoulder, and nod my head, with my lips pursed, in complete allegiance.

Because I still can't subtract. Twelve minus eight? I use my fingers because I can't remember.

I'd like to believe this has something to do with my philosophical embrace of optimism: it is simply against my nature to negate.

The truth is, it's because of a blue crayon.

Also, I'm not philosophically optimistic. I could theoretically subtract some people from this earth for their actions and/or ideology if it weren't illegal (and against my conscience...because I do have one), and that doesn't really indicate an optimistic bent.

But back to the blue crayon.

We learned to add in first grade, we learned to subtract in second grade, we learned to multiply in third grade, and we learned to divide in fourth grade...all the while "practicing" the skills we had previously learned via worksheets filled with numbers that became increasingly longer. We had calculators in the 70s; I can only guess my teachers thought they were a passing fad. But, even as young as I was, I completely understood the concept of "work smarter, not harder" and wondered, really, what the point of all the worksheets was. I'm an educator, and I still consider all that busy work a weak attempt at scaffolding.

My second grade teacher, let's call her Ms. Break-It (which is actually an awesome play on her real last name...but I'm protecting "the innocent"), decided to try something new.

A million bad ideas have been born out of a desire for novelty, so this was not the first of its kind: we would grade our own subtraction worksheets...with the crayon color of our choice. I will never see a pedagogical value in having 2nd graders score their own work, but maybe I missed something in one of my education courses. Whatever. Black has always been, will always be, my favorite color, but it was not an option...the little weasel, a chubby boy with a handsome face and dirty blond hair, who turned me in probably got to it first. Blue was the next best thing.

We all completed the same worksheet, so Ms. Break-It could call out the correct answers. We, using the crayon-color-of-not-my-choice, marked our incorrect answers. We had been instructed not to erase. On problem number 5,678, I noticed my numeral two looked like a "Z." Because my brain is so big, I was anticipating algebra before I even knew what it was; I could not let the "Z" stand because we were subtracting, not "solving for." I used my bla...I mean...blue crayon to make the "Z" more clearly into a two. Then I realized I had "corrected" a correct answer...Ms. Break-It would be confused...she would take points off a problem I had triumphantly and with great effort gotten right!

I erased.

Goddamit, I tried to erase the crayon without erasing my answer, which is physically impossible, but I irrationally held on to the belief it could be done.

And then the weasel pointed at me and shouted, "She's erasing! She's erasing!"

I remember being called to Ms. Break-It's desk and everything goes blank after that.

Flash forward and Ms. Break-It offers us this crumb of wisdom: "Little boys are better at math and science, and little girls are better at writing and art." I guess that was supposed to make me feel better. I don't know. I wasn't the only girl in the class; there were quite a few of us...I'm guessing we made up 54% of the students? So why Ms. Break-It felt the need to proffer her newly gleaned knowledge, I'm not exactly sure.

But I was a precocious child. I remember "teaching" my mom about socialism with a chalkboard and drawings in the dining room of our home...how hard it must have been for her to hold back the laughter every time I said, "the means of reproduction." But I got it: our work is our life. To value some work as worth more than other work seemed unfair to me. The ditch digger makes clean running water possible, without which there would be no surgeons and CEOs. (Full disclosure: these lectures were prepared with the aim of increasing my allowance.)

I also knew that I couldn't name a single famous woman author or artist sitting in that classroom on that day. Every artist and writer I knew about was a man (Michelangelo, Shakespeare, KISS). And I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "If that's true, if little girls are better at art and writing, where are all the women artists and authors? I want to know about them," but I didn't know how to ask that question.

At that time, the only famous women I knew were models and actresses, and I can't even remember who they were. There was no Sally Ride, no Hillary Clinton, no Alice Walker, no Tina Fey, no Madonna, no etc. There were only a few women, like Madame Curie (Mrs. Curie), who seemed to pop up in history and then fade away as some sort of anomalous event.

So, yes, my first brush with patriarchy came when I was seven or eight years old, and, while I didn't have a name for it, I understood its message: "Women have never accomplished very much." And I figured I wouldn't either...especially since I could not fucking subtract. (Sorry, Mom.)

"Can't subtract." I feel certain this was written on my 2nd-grade report card, and I have allowed it to characterize me for 40 years of my life.

"Can't subtract." I was revising a 50-page grant a few weeks ago and I ran into a table that basically showed we intended to increase the rate of X by 10% each year over five years. I looked at it and looked at and looked at it: "That's 50%." I did the math: "We're going to increase the rate of X from 57% to 93%? That's going to be challenging. Actually, I don't think that's possible." So I knocked it down by half, still challenging but at least do-able. As I finished revising the table it dawned on me: I recognized a statistical conundrum, and I solved it. With math.

"Can't subtract." The one thing I would never say to my daughter, the thing my dad would have told me wasn't true, the thing I've said to myself a million times, is the one thing I haven't said so far, and I'm not going to say it.

Instead, I'll say, "I'm good at math. I may need my fingers to subtract, but I know how to do it."

And to all the daughters out there I didn't have...don't ever let someone else define you or what you can do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lessons I Learned from Family and Friends #1: The Wedding Cake

Courtesy earth_photos on Flickr, 2003, some rights reserved.
My friend (actually one of the most eloquent, elegant women I know and one of my undergrad profs) and I were in stop and go mode in rush-hour traffic after the second day of a workshop on race and social-justice consciousness raising. We had left about the same time the day before and were sure our moment of departure was the perfect window for avoiding traffic. Alas, we were not aware it had been storming during the workshop. We walked out of the building...the rainfall visibly evaporating from the parking lot asphalt as we walked to her car.

We left the Central High National Historic Site's visitor's center exhilarated and exhausted. We had been surrounded by young people of many races, religions, creeds, and it was exciting to know they had volunteered to be part of this experience. But opening up, telling our truths, being put on the spot...even though we put ourselves there...was scary. My friend and I, representing a project about the desegregation of Central High by the Little Rock Nine, are pretty white. She confessed that growing up in SoCal was hard because she couldn't spend more than five minutes in the sun. I confessed that rather than trying to tan (i.e., getting a sunburn), I sat in the windows of my parents' Victorian house identifying birds with binoculars. Both our families hail from middle-class Indiana, where "corn rows" has never been used to refer to hair. Telling black people, Asian-Americans, Jewish people the story of my life seemed silly. While I may be a woman, which gives me some insight into the "savage inequalities" Jonathan Kozol discusses in his book of the same name, I'm still the color of privilege. Why should anyone "of color" care about me? Of course, that was the whole point of the exercise: be uncomfortable until you find a place of comfort with the group you will spend this time with, recognize each as a person and not as somehow a representative of a color or a belief or a generation or a place.

But when I'm tired, I can't help but grouse: I wanted my pajamas and my K-dramas, and some slow-moving moron, jerk who refused to learn merging etiquette, or inconsiderate speeder caught by a cop were keeping me from my routine.

So my friend told me a story.

When my friend's older sister became engaged, she decided to have the wedding on her fiancée's farm in the Hoosier state, and she enlisted my friend, who was in college studying *mumble something that will give her identity away* to bake the cake. My friend had never baked a wedding cake in her life...but I could have easily guessed this part of the story: she researched the subject like the scholar she is, studying piping, stacking, accoutrements, mixes, recipes in the months leading to the production of the masterpiece.

The morning of the special day turned out to be warmer than usual. So when my friend set out to bake the cake...in the kitchen of a farmhouse...with no air conditioning...it didn't take long to realize the "icing on the cake" would be problematic. Calls were made (I imagine, having grown up in that time and close to that same place myself, on rotary phones), and the baked parts of the cake were moved to the home of a relative who had air conditioning...in the living room only. I can imagine my friend running back and forth to the kitchen as she stacked and piped, her fresh sunny face full of optimism and confidence.

But then she had to transport the finished cake back to the un-airconditioned farmhouse over several miles of dirt road.

She told me how she drove five miles an hour, clutching the steering wheel, scouting for every pothole while checking the cake's safety in the rear-view mirror.

She and the cake made it, and that's a story of true sisterly love. But it isn't the moral.

That person in front of you? The one taking up all your time, annoying you, making you question the intelligence of humanity?

The saying goes, "Every one of us has a burden to bear." We nod and believe we understand. But when that "burden" becomes tangible...a cake, a bad tire one can't afford to replace, cancer treatments that cause dizziness...when the reason is real, only then does the saying become truly meaningful. The person's race, ethnicity, age...none of it matters...just the burden.

So from now on, I'm going to believe there's a teetering wedding cake, loving months in the making, in the backseat of that person's car. I don't want to think about the other possibilities, and being angry for trifling reasons never gets us anywhere.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dead in D.C.

It's a little-known fact (or maybe a well-known one) that a lot of people die on the toilet, Elvis Presley being, possibly, one of the most famous examples. I know this because I am a dry cleaner's daughter and was intrigued by an article in the New Yorker or the Atlantic (can't remember which) about the real cleaners...the companies that specialize in taking care of the messes left by the dead. By the way, getting smashed by objects falling from high rises is also not that unusual in New York City, and I imagine that kind of cleaning takes a special sort of skill set I do not possess.

At any rate, I went to Washington, D.C. for a conference on Tuesday.

D.C. isn't really a high-rise sort of place, so I wasn't on the lookout for falling pianos. I also wasn't paying attention to possible airborne pathogens, but they're a lot harder to see. And I'd had my flu shot. So when I developed a cough Friday afternoon, I was sure it was from smoking a cigarette with a friend after dinner and a couple drinks (don't scold, I maybe smoke once a year). When I woke up Saturday morning to fever, chills, and muscle aches...well, you can't blame that on half a cigarette. My thought was I needed to get home ASAP. So I picked up my phone to call the Hubs regarding my condition when I noticed the tiny blue dot was blinking, indicating I had a pending message.

What could it be?

Yeah, flights cancelled.

Thanks, Obama.

So I went downstairs and extended my stay by one day, telling the front desk person I was sick and preferred just not to be disturbed.

At the Sofitel (where they answer the phone, "Bonjour, you have reached le Sofitel"), "Do not disturb" means something quite different than at the Super 8. At the Sofitel, it means call Ms. Le Nom to make sure she doesn't need towels, tea, orange juice, sparkling water, oatmeal. And ring her door bell (yeah, the rooms have door bells) to see if her mini-bar needs restocked. (Seriously, Nikita [names changed to protect the innocent] and I are on a first-named basis now; I have half the hotel management's business cards.)

That was extended day one. Flash forward to extended day number three (EXD#3)...that's six cancelled flights...and I don't know whom to thank ironically because the weather problems were in Dallas and Little Rock, not D.C.

I know the good people of Sofitel were truly concerned for my welfare, and I appreciated the complimentary trays that kept coming to my room. But I was starting to feel like I was in the hospital...a super pleasant-smelling hospital where all the food (if you actually feel like eating) is along the lines of steak tartare and escargot and no one sticks you with needles...and you feel like you are never going to get better despite how lovely the place is (some of you will get that allusion).

Begin TMI Statement::

At 3:00 a.m. on EXD#3, I awoke hacking so hard I nearly coughed up a lung. That lasted about 10 minutes, and then I decided I needed to pee. It's no surprise, really, after all the tea, coffee, orange juice, grapefruit juice, San Pellegrino, and Perrier that served as the hotel equivalent of an IV drip...and the obvious pressure coughing would put on my bladder...nature would naturally call. So I got up, went to the bathroom, sat down, finished. And then I kind of looked at my reflection in the glass shower door and thought, "I think I'm going to throw up."

I haven't thrown up in a long time, so I had kind of forgotten the feeling...I reflected on this looking at my reflection. But then when the water came to my mouth, I was like, "Yep, flush, pull up the jammies now: this thing is happening."

I barfed twice.

End TMI Statement::

And then I sat back on the cool marble floor (the hotel is next door to the White House, what do you expect?), sweaty and exhausted and waiting to see if I should expect another round.

That was when I realized I had run out of toothpaste the day before.

You would think life couldn't get any worse at that point.

Wait for it.

So I flossed and rubbed my teeth with my finger and went back to bed.

And then I had a little bit of a dream. Because I read so widely and variously.

I dreamt that I died in "le Sofitel" sitting on the toilet.

My body was hauled onto a gurney by a bunch of people I didn't know dressed in white who threw around words and phrases like "stat" and "Valsalva maneuver" (another good reason not to use Wikipedia as a reference), while the hotel staff...Nikita, Raj, Abdul, Djeynaba**...cried over me because I was such a wonderful guest. As everyone looked on, I worried I had never completely pulled up my jammies.

My body went off to wherever bodies go in D.C., but my soul stayed on at "le Sofitel."

And I had to wrestle with every new occupant over my rightful place in the king-sized bed (right side, next to the windows) over and over again. Sometimes I had to give in to couples and lie at the foot of the bed on the scratchy carpet with the extra blanket and no pillow. Other times I shoved the two chairs together to make a bed and used the cotton robe for cover.

I would make a great ghost.

This went on and on until I woke up in a sweat at 5:00 a.m.

I checked my phone.

And then I checked the bathroom to make sure I wasn't dead on the toilet.

Thankfully, I was not.

But when I came back around the corner, the clothes I had stripped off earlier when I went to bed looked shockingly like a dead body. I got down on my hands and knees and nervously went about feeling around for myself.

My hands felt nothing but cloth.

And the only reason I'm telling this story is because I'm sitting on the divan in my own damned house watching my two cats fight over who gets to sit next to my stinky feet.

That is the only way to be 100% sure I did not die on the toilet at "le Sofitel."

*Photo courtesy of Earthworm via Flickr's Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
**While I did change the names of the staff I came to know at the Sofitel, I tried to retain their cultural identities. Before I got sick, we had some fabulous discussions about life in D.C., coming to the U.S. for new opportunities, and learning to embrace difference. I wish they had a position for a tech writer.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Shiny Happy People


I use the Internet.

I use it a lot.

In fact, I don't think my current job would actually exist without it.

So this post is about a trend I see happening on the Information Superhighway, specifically the street that makes up social media. (I'd like to explore which part of the Internet is not on Social Media Street these days, but that's a blog for another day.)

The trend has already been the subject of at least one research study, so I'm not alone in seeing this pattern of behavior.

The trend?

Everyone out there is so damned happy, it makes me want to open an artery...several arteries, in fact. (I promise that's hyperbole.)

On a daily basis friends and strangers alike (it depends on the particular social medium) post articles, memes, motivational "posters," suggesting that the key to happiness is being in the present, being mindful, slowing down. They brag about their five-hour meditation sessions or the retreat they took in the Rockies.

I don't mean any disrespect. I know it's well intentioned.

I also know that much of this is the curation of life that social media inspires ("Look, World, here are pictures of me with all my skinny, smart, beautiful friends!"). I started curating my own when we (and, by "we," I mean people few of us actually know) called it the ARPANET (yes, in all caps). That is, back in the 70s when I moved from my tiny girl bedroom into my much larger teenager bedroom and made all my own choices in furniture and decor straight out of the pages of Vogue, which was an excellent source of photos I could cut out and tape to my closet wall, photos of couture Lady Gaga wishes she could wear and major works of art I could only dream of one day seeing in person.

Yes, I am the original Pinterest (as were most of us...I won't tell who fell asleep at night gazing at Twisted Sister...I was totally into the Pet Shop Boys...so we're even).

But all this damned, curated happiness, this museum of bliss, is depressing me.

Okay, that's not what's depressing me.

My thyroid is out of whack. That's what's depressing me.

The doctor who originally diagnosed me (and for that I am thankful...the major symptom...the absolute lack of saliva production...isn't the one used as the "go-to" for suspecting hypothyroidism) stopped practicing medicine and sent me a polite letter two months after refusing to refill my prescription for the drug that treats it, levothyroxine. The pharmacist's guess was that the doctor felt I needed to be tested again, but I knew better: the final letter was the sixth time I had received communication about a reduction in the care being offered, and I had been tested the previous year with no changes to my TSH levels. (Yeah, I should have been more proactive.) I went on a search for a new doctor, and six months later, I now have an appointment. And I'm being treated in the meantime by my university's health service.

Unfortunately, it's still too little and too late, and I'm smack-dab in the middle of a thyroid-induced depression. The other symptoms (lack of saliva, weight gain for no reason, and complete exhaustion) just exacerbate the irrational sadness, the hollowness of everything, the "certain slant of light" that doesn't go away after winter solstice.

I've been through this once before. Two months before my diagnosis, the Hubs and I moved our bed into the living room so I could be close to the furnace (intolerance to cold is another symptom) and so the sounds of his getting ready for work could gently wake me up. Be still he had to bring me tea and pull me by the arms up away from the pillow. I didn't have the energy to do it myself. After treatment, I realized just how sick I had been to have made those kinds of adjustments to my life and routine. So I know this road.

But that knowledge cannot change what I feel. When people say, "Be present in the moment," I want to respond, "You be present in my moment for one minute and get back to me on that." When I hear, "Be mindful," I want to ask, "Of what? I know all about Buddha's 'right mindfulness.' How do I achieve that when my body is doing everything it can to conspire against me?" And when I'm advised to slow down, I want to yell, "That is the most unrealistic thing I have ever fucking heard; you've got to be kidding me right now. What life do you lead that makes slowing down possible?"

My reasons for this line of thinking are numerous.

First, I include myself among a line of thinkers from Nietzsche to Derrida (and probably well before...if one reads Plato ironically) who believe there is no possibility of being completely in the present. They would argue that the developments of language first and writing long after add two filters to our experience. Human thought is shaped by language (for example, many languages have words for phenomena English speakers are unfamiliar with and must, therefore, borrow...,and I'm not talking about the debunked myth regarding Inuit words for "snow," but words like "hominy," which is Powhatan for a particular type of processed corn you love, hate, have never experienced, or have never heard of). For Derrida's money, any thought possesses the potential for being written down and, therefore, must be maintained in the mind (a good reason for memory remaining one of the canons of rhetoric despite Plato's frequent admonitions...hence my ironic reading). In other words, we are in the constant process of interpreting our experiences rather than actually experiencing them. Maybe animals have a being-in-the-presentness, but given my cats' complete nightly freak out at 6:40...exactly 20 minutes before supper time, I suspect they can see into the future and think of it with craving...and without thought about being in the present. I've queried them, they've yet to comment. The Hubs says he has come close: climbing 14ers in Colorado, where every step in high altitude required utmost concentration. But he won't go so far as to say "always present." And before anyone jumps in with an explanation in the comments, I'm very familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh's "telephone meditation," an exercise in acknowledging the thought but letting it go as a state of being in the present. Still, I wonder, what's the difference between my not thinking about it and answering the phone immediately and my trying not to think about it and delaying answering the phone? Which action is more "present"? Honestly, if you know me, you're in my contacts list: I know who you are and, most likely, what you're calling about when you ring me. So again, which is more present? The ring tone? Or the actual conversation?

Second, why are unhappiness, sadness, anger, frustration...all the "negative" emotions...why are they now wrong? And understand I'm just interpreting what I get from media headlines and the posts I see on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram...all the social media I visit frequently. I'm not saying this seems to be the new wave of psychological understanding. In fact, some of my friends over in the psychology department at my university (as well as our friends in biology) are dumbfounded by the pseudoscience people are betting their health and well being on. Emotions serve a purpose. Case in point: I am working really hard to fund a project that will tell the story of an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Without anger, conscientiously directed anger, that event would never have occurred. In fact, the whole movement would not exist. And, hey, sometimes sadness leads us to do things to forget our sadness...like writing blog posts. I think happiness as some sort of desired constant is a bit overrated...and unrealistic.

Third, if you're feeling blue because someone close to you died or you didn't get a job you really wanted or someone took you to task over something that seemed unimportant to you, meditation may very well help you feel better. But if you have thyroid disease, insomnia, are taking certain types of medications, or are truly suffering from "clinical" depression, it probably isn't going to help you...it might, but "might" is the key word. Yet I get the feeling, especially after a day-long drive down the Superhighway yesterday, that if it doesn't work, it's because I'm not doing it right...because, if I do it right, it will ALWAYS work. Y'all, if you're doing something to improve yourself in some way, and it doesn't seem to help, please try something else. And I'm not saying this because I hate yoga pants (only when they're worn as outerwear and not actually for yoga). I'm saying this because I often feel pressured by well-meaning people to participate in activities that work for them: "Jazzercize saved my life!" That is so awesome, but I'm still imagining Olivia Newton-John's video "Let's Get Physical," and I'm actually just creeped out right now. It may work for you, and I don't mind the suggestion, but when you extol its benefits with hyperbole (the usefulness of which is limited to extraordinary circumstances, like my own) and ad nauseam in that sing-songy way people do, my mind (which suddenly becomes very much oriented to the present) is taking inventory of my arsenal for getting away from people. It's the reason I paid for the premium version of the Fake Call Me app I installed on my phone.  

So this is my manifesto: I do not owe it to anyone to be happy.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beautiful Dragons

The perception of what is small is the secret of clear sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is the secret of strength. --Lao Tzu

When I was very young, my mom read to me every night, and when I started first grade, she taught me to read. In essence, she gave me the gifts of life and literacy, yet while I have certainly enjoyed the former to its fullest (thanks, Mom!), I never became the "reader" I should have become. Don't get me wrong. During TV commercials and at the kitchen table I would read the newspaper, the dictionary, Encyclopedia Britannica, the TV manual, my dad's collection of off-color jokes, etc. I simply had no interest in age-appropriate fiction or poetry...even as a lit major in college, which is kind of embarrassing: I probably owe a huge apology to all my English professors for having read, at most, 20% of the literature assigned (and I'm being "generous" in my estimate because I'm a terrible person). This kind of begs the question of why I graduated with a degree in English in the first place, and the answer is because I thought that was how one becomes a writer.

I'm a little slow sometimes.

The truth is, though you might never catch me with my nose in a book (fiction or poetry, anyway), I love a good story. It's just that when my mom decided it was time for me to take over the bed-time ritual, I discovered that I preferred making up the stories in my head. It is a habit I have practiced nightly to this day. 

Usually, it begins with a dream I find particularly compelling. As I lie in bed recalling the dream the next night, I work out its cast of characters, how the story should begin, and how it should progress. I am always the hero, and no story ever ends...it fades away when a new dream sparks a new story. That way, I can pick up an old story if I think of something new to add to it.

These days I'm Lin, dragon slayer. Except that's just my cover. See, back in the day, humanity saw the majesty, power, and intelligence of dragons and honored them with gifts, thinking this would bring them good luck. The dragons thought the gift giving was utterly illogical, wasteful even, because they had no use for gold, diamonds, crowns, or necklaces too small for them to wear. But they accepted these presents because it would have been rude not to. 

Unfortunately, good luck doesn't actually exist, so when Jack lost his ass on a bad investment in a seed company and Peter's crop of peppers failed (the only thing he planted that year because "they were going to be huge!") and Hansel and Gretel were arrested for burglary and capital murder, they were a little nonplussed. Naturally, none of their problems were actually their fault. Oh, no, it must be the dragons, and just why were they expected to give dragons treasure in exchange for luck, anyway? Something had to be done. 

So they began a smear campaign, and the persecution of dragons commenced. 

That's where I come in. Admittedly, I haven't done much work on the back story (gotta leave gaps to fill in for tomorrow night) so I don't know how I got entangled in this mess, but I know right from wrong and I deplore injustice. So I went in search of the legendary Xpthxzyphnmcz to hatch a plan. Dragon language is unpronounceable to humans, we lack the proper vocal muscles, so you can call him Hughes. 

Hughes is an electric dragon...his defense is lightning which strikes with surprising accuracy, and his serpentine skin pops and crackles with static. His strangely orange, soulful eyes are home to solar systems, and you can see them when he's curled up resting and at human-eye level to marvel that other sentient beings might be alive on the planets that dot his irides (sorry, can't go back on my Latin roots).

But plans are never easy in fairy tales. First the hero has to descend into the underworld because stigmatized dragons aren't very trusting. They want proof you're legit. I had to do things...things you don't want to know about...things you shouldn't ask me about (yeah, I haven't made up that part yet, either). 

I've got mad skillz. So once I had the dragons' trust, I turned them all into house pets and hid them from vengeful humans forever...right under their noses. How brilliant is that?

Hughes happens to be an orange and white cat. If you want to see the dragon come out, step on his tail. Actually, don't do that. And don't pet his long fur while you're sitting next to the furnace in the winter because you'll see what I mean by electricity. 

In exchange for protection, the dragons pay me a tithe every year, and I spend three months collecting it from their various lairs all over the world, which leads to all sorts of adventures. In one, I had to save all of y'all from a horrific creature far worse than a basilisk that was going to turn you into stone. You're welcome. 

Lin is basically me: keenly fashionable but with messy hair, kind to animals, loyal to friends, and quick with a defense when wronged. But for a long time, Lin had something I thought I desperately needed.


She could hop on a dragon, fly all over the world, collect adventures like they were jewelry, slay demons, rescue kittens...all while I lay in bed in the safety of my little room thinking it all up. 

I couldn't do the things Lin did for one simple reason.


For 28 years, I couldn't get on a dragon or a plane, take the elevator above the 10th floor, step foot in a glass elevator, look out the window of any room above the 5th story.

I had lived that way since I was 19 and took my last flight from Cincinnati to Indy, vowing, during a short and uneventful trip, that I would never do it again. I don't know why.

Okay, that's not true. I DIDN'T know why. Today is my birthday, and the beauty of growing older is that we get smarter (well, most people do). I understand something I didn't understand mere months ago.

Fear is a choice.

Case in point. Several years ago, the Hubs and I were in a head-on collision. I remember every detail vividly. I saw the look on the other driver's face as he slammed on the brakes, causing his car to fishtail before it crashed into us. Bracing my elbows against the back of the seat. Thinking, "This is going to hurt." The feeling of the air bag punching me in the chest. My vision obscured briefly by the bag's fabric. The acrid smell of the smoke emitted from the dashboard. Rolling backward into a ditch. Quickly unlatching the seat belt. The man banging on the cracked windshield, telling us to get out because he didn't know where the smoke was coming from.

In all of that, I did not at any time experience fear.

I didn't experience ANY emotion because I didn't have time to.

See, I've come to think that emotions are like orchids that need a lot of tending: if you ignore them, they die.

On the one hand, that's a bad thing because if you forget to take care of your love, it can fade away. On the other hand, if you want to kill your fear, all you have to do is stop watering it.

And I should know.

I am no longer afraid of flying. It helped that I wanted to go to South Korea so bad that I was willing to do anything and that my university employs several personal counselors whose services are free. But, ultimately, what it really came down to was deciding that I wasn't afraid anymore.

So, thirteen flights later, I'm planning my next trip to the country I fell in love with, and I'm thinking about the beautiful dragon turning away from the terminal, firing up her jets, racing down the runway. And that miraculous moment when she leaves the earth...she has left fear behind, she has left what is known behind, she has left all that could weigh her down. She is in the sun rocketing ever closer to the future, to what can be.

Her name is Jennifer.

She is a dragon.

And a writer.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Own Private Arizona

My Version of a Post-It
My nearly next-door neighbor is a private college with a mission to promote its newly minted four-year degree status. With that in mind, they've taken an "if you build it, they will come" approach. And building it they are. Two academic buildings in two years and now a dorm. As required by the historic-district rules that govern my neighborhood, they issued a meeting notice to discuss construction of the all-men's dormitory which The Hubs and I figured would be built across the street because they own those properties. I mentioned to a friend that Hubs and I were concerned about declining property values (because "men" and "dormitory" and let's face it; they actually mean "boys") and were considering approaching the college about buying our property at current market value and moving elsewhere in Old Town. Her response was "You won't get anything out of that house." And her demeanor suggested that she was more than happy to share her opinion with me. So I mentioned my dilemma to a mutual friend and got pretty much a similar opinion. I understate. It was actually word-for-word what the other friend had said.


I watched my dad make life choices out of a sense of obligation and then out of a need to remand the commitments he made to his sense of obligation. I have, as Exhibit A, a prime example. Dad became a dry cleaner because my grandfather told him to. No, scratch that. He didn't just tell him to. He pulled my dad, first, out of the Navy, and, then, out of college because he needed him back at work. Later, Grandpa "sold" the cleaners to my dad; Dad agreed to pay a certain sum to his parents every month until they both died.

Books and Other Paper Storage

Dad began dreaming of selling the business and moving to Arizona when I was 16. But my grandma had moved to be near us because of her poor health. After my parents finally sold the cleaners and later divorced, Dad ended up in Florida because his oldest brother needed him to start a new restaurant. (I think I see a pattern here.) Within a few months, the brother didn't need him anymore (let's just say he found something better than a business partner). So Dad pawned his Masonic ring (gold with a 1/2 carat diamond and two sapphires...he never took it off) to get back home...which was never Arizona. About six years ago, my uncle gave my dad $10,000...enough to cover (but not recover) the ring and not at all what my dad was owed, in my opinion. In 2010, I inherited that money and used it to pay for my father's funeral. As I wrote the check, I wished he had used it to spend some extended time wandering around the Grand Canyon.

I consider myself lucky that my "intelligence," which I've never considered innate, consists mostly of two skills: 1) a gift for rote memorization of facts and 2) the ability to extract the moral of others' stories, so I do not commit the same mistakes. (By my own humble reckoning, most people have to live the mistake before they actually learn to avoid it. Which is a good reason to pull one's head out of one's ass.) From my observations, I learned that our only obligations in life are as follows: 1) do our best to stay alive for the people we care about (you know, obtain food, shelter, clothing, and water when the going gets tough and avoid problematic behavior such as sticking our fingers in light sockets or sitting on the couch eating potato chips all day every day), 2) be kind, 3) make yourself happy every day (and it's an act of will...not a state of being).

Office and Art Supplies
That's it.

I think if my dad had lived up to this set of obligations, he would have finished out his service to his country, gone to college on the GI Bill, and spent the remainder of his life practicing law. And his dad would have been pretty proud of him.

When the people we care about are happy, we're happy, too.

So when I turned 18, I filled my '76 Buick Electra with all my stuff and took off across the country to the place I wanted to be (not Arizona). I went to a university my parents thought was a bit sketchy, eloped with a guy they barely knew, refused to have children, and generally did whatever made me happy. And my parents were (are) pretty proud of me.

From the picture above and the one here, you can see that our walls are composed of wood boards of varying widths milled from old-growth pines before 1900, when the house was built. They had originally been wallpapered, as was traditional at that time. Of course, the tongue and groove gaps meant that holes in the paper developed over time, so someone got the bright idea of throwing up particle board paneling (and I doubt the person saw the irony of the skeuomorph). We stripped it all several years ago. When we got down to the original layer, we were sort of "Hmm. What do we do with this?" Then we discovered that we liked the wood, especially the holes where knots have fallen out. I decided I'm going to put a coat of polyurethane over the new moldings because I like the chalk markings the lumberyard used to mark them, which remind me somewhat of a cross between graffiti and Dadaist collage.

The leather-topped desk you see has a story: My mom and I answered a classified ad and took a trip to Indianapolis Southside (a neighborhood you never want to visit, trust me). The house was stuffed to the gills with old crap and children. A man sat in a recliner in a darkened corner contemplating us with a bottle in his hand. After we had packed it up and took off, my mother grumbled, "He could feed his kids for a month with that $100, but I guarantee it's going straight to the liquor store." The giant "thing" that holds my office and art supplies is a homemade job (the dividers are cut from a tin sign). I bought it because I liked it, not finding a purpose for it until a couple years later. I'm pretty sure it's standing on its side.

We bought the place from my Great Aunt Jewell (her spelling) in 1995 when she was 84. I spent summers with my mom and my second cousin here. I remember the corner grocery store that's now demolished, the concrete posts that served as street signs, the Dog and Suds at the corner of Oak and Harkrider...across the street from Hiegel Hardware with its windmill, still intact but closer to us now.

When we were in the process of buying the house, I single-handedly painted the underside of the carport as per the bank's requirements for loan approval. It took five days, and I was covered in paint and mosquito-bite welts the size of Gibraltar. The day I finished, my aunt boiled a chicken...with the skin still on it. I was a picky eater back then, and the chicken looked revolting as it stewed in the pot. But I was so tired and so hungry and my aunt had done this thing for me. So I sat down in the dining room (which is now the study in the pictures) to a meal of boiled chicken and plain rice, took the first bite, and wept (my aunt had a peculiar habit: she would only eat standing up in the kitchen, so she never knew). Every bite was pure joy, the celebration of a little fat, a little water, a little chicken, a little rice, and my aunt's love coming together to soothe the mosquito welts and sore muscles.

Things I Love
When I made the 600-mile trek to settle here, people asked me where I was from (which is, for reasons I will never understand, more important to people than where one's heart is, but I'm sure it all goes back to that obligation thing...be true to your school). When I answered, they gasped in wonder, "What on Earth are you doing here?" Making myself happy every day.

By the way, that's the chair from my dad's study. My mom's dad bought the typewriter, used, when he went to business college. The phone's number is 317 UPtown 3 3144, which translates to 1-317-873-3144. The drawing is an original by Ken Gardner, a friend, titled Adam and Eve. Below the Magritte print is a picture of one of my great-grandfathers in a Bowler hat.

The Hubs and I decided against selling: it turns out my collegiate neighbor owns the whole block and is constructing the dorm on another street, the university where I work has plans to develop a retail, restaurant, housing corridor five blocks west, and the city will be establishing a high-end shopping center five blocks east.

"You won't get anything out of that house."

I've already gotten quite a bit out of this house. It is a provider of shelter, memories, and psychic warmth. It is one means of my personal expression. It is MY Arizona.

Yes, I think of cobwebs and dust as decorative accesories.

I don't vacuum much.

The shower needs to be ripped out and the kitchen completely remodeled.

But I only have three obligations: dusting, vacuuming, and renovations don't currently fall within their purview.

My bad.

I only have one question (and I direct it especially at those who offer negative unsolicited judgments).

How's the weather in Arizona?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Word of the Day

Today is my birthday.

I turn 46 officially at 11:04 p.m., which is uncharacteristic because that's way past my bedtime.

Last year I made a Facebook goof and threw a lavish party.

This year I'm spending a little less. My present to myself is this.

Right here.

A chance to sit down in a cafe on President Clinton Avenue and write for myself.

My mom will probably call any minute now to tell me the story of her martyr...I mean...of my birth. She will tell me how, when told it was time to go to the hospital, my dad jumped in the shower...because...you know...that was important. She will recount how, unlike most men of his generation, he waited in the hospital during the three hours of my delivery. That he hoped for a daughter and cried when the nurse brought out a baby girl. She'll remind me that she weighed 93 pounds that day in '67 and that she was supposed to have a C-section if I weighed over four. And she'll wonder what the hell I was thinking by clocking in at 8 lbs., 10 ozs. and 19 inches tall. Because it was clearly my fault. She'll talk about the number of stitches (over 100...and not across her abdomen, either...sorry if that's TMI). The three weeks of not bonding. The doctor who told her to stop waking me up for feeding because it's fairly senseless to feed a baby who clearly isn't hungry.

I'll say, "Mom, I think I was born on a full stomach."

And she'll laugh and say, "Yeah, I guess you were. And I don't regret any of it. You are so special to me."

And I'll cry a little bit as she tells me she loves me and hangs up the phone.

So many miles.

Several years ago I had a curious experience. I had a student who made it his mission in life to make mine miserable. It was a shortlived relief when he disappeared for 18 straight days.

Then out of nowhere, he showed up in my office wanting to know what assignments he needed to make up in order to pass the class. I wanted to ask him if he had completely lost his mind, but, instead, I explained that I had dropped him from the course to save him from getting an F and told him to meet with his advisor, which I had to look up for him because he had no idea who that was.

On the first day of classes the next semester, a different student walked into class 20 minutes late. He was the spitting image of that other student. They were twins! And he was clearly on the same mission as his "brother."

I was hopping mad, so, after the next class period, I made him sign a contract stating he understood being so much as five minutes late counted as 1/3 of an absence and that he would fail the course if he kept up this "pattern" of behavior. He explained to me later that he had gotten lost and apologized that he did not tour the campus to establish where his classes were (which was not something I had suggested he should have done). Over the course of that fall, I watched this young man write six pages when I asked for two, find self expression through the written word, pun (!), and blossom as a campus leader.

On the day of the final exam (my birthday, by the way...it never failed that I had to give an exam on my birthday) I could no longer see a resemblance between him and that other student. Nothing. No similarities at all. And I looked pretty hard for them as he wrote his final essay.

A year later, I spent the day I turned 30 in bed crying with my cat, Bart, and a box of tissues. Bart was actually a beautiful, loving, kind human being who happened to exist in a cat's body. He knew when I was down even when I wasn't in tears, and he comforted me all day long.

I miss him.

During my 30's I watched myself in the mirror as the first wrinkle limned my face. The first grey hair sprouted. And how dare the hair on my head become thinner and sparser and turn grey as I started sprouting hair on my chin? Why wouldn't it all just stay where it as supposed to? I was shocked and horrified and angry.

Really angry.

Really, really angry.

My face wasn't perfect. My body wasn't perfect. My life wasn't perfect. I didn't know who I wanted to be, how I wanted to be, what I wanted, or how to get it. I had a work self, a student self, and a personal self, and I didn't like any of them. I just wasn't me. And those damn lines kept creeping across my face to remind me that time was wasting.

Then I turned 40 in 2007. I celebrated it somehow because the Hubs gave me a pair of Tiffany blue turquoise earrings from the famed store. But it was, otherwise, unremarkable.

And now it's 2013. In six short years I've seen a lot of change...some good, some bad. I became the assistant director of my university's writing center, a job I loved. My dad, my cheerleader, my best friend, died in 2010. My mom underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor in 2011. Factions in the department I taught in declared civil war, or so it seemed to me, in 2012, so I Ieft the job I loved for a new job I also love. Then, someone I trusted and believed in...actually cared about...betrayed me (and many others) this year.

More wrinkles. More grey hairs. Rosacea. Near-sightedness.

But I'm not spending the day in bed.

I looked in the mirror a few days ago, and I liked what I saw.

I'm getting jowls, and I can kind of see where's that's going in a few more years. I've got a turkey neck.

But I think I'm kind of lovely.

I learned from the experience with the two students that what you see in people's faces is a reflection of your feelings about them. And, therefore, a person is made attractive or unattractive by their words and actions.

People's faces can become terrifyingly ugly in a single moment.

It is the same for your reflection in the mirror.

When I turned 30, I thought I was over the hill, getting old, past it, no longer cool. I know many of those feelings were handed to me by a Photoshop-happy U.S. media, which I have mostly abandoned. But I think, too, that I was not the moral and intellectual self I was striving for.

All of the loss and change I experienced in my 40's has revised my perspective. It has made me a better person. It has made me a happier person.

My face is full of flaws, but I like it...especially my smile because it comes so easily. In the mirror I see the reflection of someone I like, and so she is lovely to me.

You can love and be loved all of your life.

You can be lovely at any age. 

Just lovely.