Tuesday, March 31, 2015

From One Writer to Another

After we'd left all of our bags and coats in a locked room, they led us into a windowless classroom inside the library where a large screen featured the catalogue search page.  I was there with a group of students for a session on archival research; I thought that perhaps we'd see a presentation about how to find things.

Instead, they brought out an original Nuremberg Chronicle.  Invited us to touch the cloth pages, see where the bookworms had eaten through, touch the brass bosses that kept the book off the table and away from damp surfaces.  Without gloves on.

I'd been to university archives before, to look through old papers (for the history section of my dissertation), but never had I touched something this old with my bare hands.  It was astonishing to imagine the history, not just of the work itself, but of the people who had worked on this particular book (which took three years to make), who had held this copy of the book, who had read the book that I now touched.  People for whom the beginning of world history was Creation story, and for whom the end was the Apocalypse.  Something about the act of touch dissolved the boundaries between today and yesterday and hundreds of years ago, as if they'd been false all along.

There were other things.  A letter from Isaac Newton to Samuel Pepys (this in a thin plastic sleeve).  Navajo playing cards from the 19th century.  First full drafts of novels, with corrections and marginalia.

Marveling at correspondences between authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garciz Marquez, I felt a sense of loss, too: what rich exchanges will be irretrievable, now that those conversations are digitized?  Yes, we can save those things (because as we all know, the internet's memory is long, indeed), but who will?

I used to write long letters to friends, sending them by post.  Now, I dash off email, connecting and disconnecting.  I think about the email I've written to my author-friends, knowing that though I can't speak for them, sometimes the things we say to each other are the beginning and endings and interstices of what I write.  The conversations tell a more complete story about writing.  How will the archives trace those conversations, if at all?

What about the multiple drafts of novels, or other documents, whose revisions can now no longer be detected?  How do we tell those writing stories?

Do you still write anything longhand?  What's the oldest document you've touched?
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Monday, March 30, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: The Things I (Now) Hate

We were coloring (not drawing) with markers.

Despite the stockpile of crayons in all 96 colors (and more, given the slight variations in color depending on brand), and the fact that the markers were half-dried-up anyway, requiring smaller-than-usual strokes and frequent breaks, like tired workers, that's what she wanted.

I hate markers.  I can't even tell you why, exactly.  I can speculate that I find them wasteful, or frustrating because they're either too inky or not inky enough; I can admit that I often find myself trying to clean the marker lines that were the continuation of lines made on the page, which found themselves unexpectedly (though too predictably) on the table or the counter.

But I also know that I loved markers when I was a kid, too.  Was it because they were contraband?  Because my parents hated them, so I had to love them?  Because they were bright?  Because the color came so easily and could be distributed so evenly with such little effort?  Because I marveled at the power of the ink to bleed right through the page?  Because of the smell?  (Yes, definitely the smell.  Especially the Mister Sketch markers scented markers from elementary school art class, which came in 12 different fragrances.)

We're often told that we'll learn to like things as we grow older, as our tastes become more refined.  But at what point we decide, as adults, to hate some of the things we loved as children?  I don't think it has to do with having children (because I know childless adults who feel the same way I do), but I also can't pinpoint another moment when things changed.

What things do you now hate that you used to love as a child?

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Out of Time

Driving over the hill, I had to shade my eyes from the sun; the light was all wrong.

It was mid-day, and I'd taken the morning off to stay with my daughter, who had been running a fever of 106 (no, that is not a typo) during the previous two days.  I hadn't known that it was possible to run a fever that high and still be alive, but apparently my daughter, death-defier that she has been since her conception, thought nothing of the challenge.

My husband had come home to swap sick nurse duties with me so I could go in for a while.

Halfway to work, I ran into a detour that hadn't been advertised the day before. It looked like it had just been imagined that day, signs posted on cones placed haphazardly in the street.

Heads, I thought.  Heads.  Heads.

Have you ever found yourself somewhere, in what you know, instinctively, is the wrong time?  Not the wrong place, but the wrong hour of the day?  And not because anything terrible will happen, but just because you've created some unexpected wrinkle in the space-time continuum, and now feel a bit like you're looking at a 2-D world with 3-D glasses on?

I went the long way to work, thinking that this was the way I used to go, before I realized that there was a shorter, less-trafficked way.  Thinking about all of the ways I could turn, but didn't.

I'd been worried.  Do other parents worry that their children might die when they run a fever of 106?  I do. Is that morbid?  A little, maybe.

Sometimes she questions me, testing, "what if I died?"

I swallow the scream that I'd prefer to make, and tell her calmly, "oh, no. Let's not talk about that.  That would make me so very, very sad.  I don't even want to imagine it."

But I do imagine it.  More often than I care to admit, when she is sick, when I don't see her for a long time, when I've let her ride in someone else's car for a school field trip: what if I never see her again?  What if this gift was--is--temporary?  What if her life is a tease?

We'd been to the doctor, who told us that everything else looked fine, that it was probably a virus, that I should take her home and try to keep her comfortable.  That we should call right away if she started vomiting or coughing excessively or if her fever went up to 107 (which is apparently the threshold for worry).  So I took her home, let her lie on the couch with her Elsa blanket, tried to coax her to drink juice and water and eat ice cubes, dumped her into lukewarm bathwater despite her protests and screams and tears.

Tomorrow I'd be on the way to work, and the light would be the way it's supposed to be, the sun not quite up yet, casting long shadows over the hills.  The detour would have been removed, holes in the road now patched, stretches of it smoother than before, improved from assault of winter.  N. would be on her way to school, too, having shaken the last of the fever, with no remaining symptoms after I left on that strange half-day.

Still, it would take me longer to shake that feeling of strangeness, that being out of time.  Sometimes I wonder if we need those disorienting moments just to remind us that we're alive, after all.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bystander Intervention, and the Comeback

(reposted in an expanded version from Facebook)

I don't usually stop at Starbucks in the morning.  I make my own coffee, and even when I buy coffee, I prefer to get it from an independent shop.  But 1) I had to go to the post office, which is near Starbucks; 2) I had a question about a package of coffee I'd bought; 3) it was St. Patrick's Day, and I thought maybe they'd have something interesting to drink.  I'd already finished caffeine round one, and my tumbler was empty.

After deciding that nothing new was particularly appealing, I ordered a boring skim latte, made pleasantries with the cashier, paid, and went to wait at the end of the counter.  Up strode a female customer who was clearly not happy.

Barista, getting to the counter as fast as he can (he walks slowly because of a health issue): "can I help you?"

Female customer, standing with hand on hip and making a pissed off face, waving her coffee: "yeah, this tastes like water." Throws cup across the counter.

Barista, remaining calm and cheerful: "sure, let me remake that for you. What did you have?"

Customer, sneering: "Caramel Machiatto."

Me, after the barista walks away, deciding I can't watch this silently, in as kind a voice as I can muster: "You know, you could try to be a little nicer. It's not the easiest job."

Customer, now sneering at me: "You could mind your own business."

Me, agreeing: "You're right, I could. But I didn't."

Customer shouting after me, as I'm walking out the store: "I'm going to be late for work because of this ... and by the way, get a sense of fashion."


I am walking down the street towards the office, holding my coffee, wondering if I care about the customer's desperate attempt at a barb.  I love the sweater I'm wearing.  It's my most comfortable sweater.  I bought it at Urban Outfitters, ridiculously on sale, and was proud of myself for shopping, for myself, on a whim, at a store where I don't usually shop.  My pants are a hair too tight because it's winter, but you can't see that because the sweater is like a tent.  My shirt, deep forest green, is my only homage to St. Patrick's Day, not counting the shamrock socks, which you can't see because they're hidden by the old black boots, heels worn past the sole, right down to the plastic.  The heels could be colored in Sharpie, but I don't bother.

In a moment of revelation, I decide that I don't care.  And it is incredibly liberating to realize that the stupid comeback doesn't bother me.  And that while I can have sympathy for that woman, who was clearly not a happy person that morning (or maybe even at all), we can't let people walk all over other people.  For any reason.

Later, one of my students runs into me near the dining hall.  "I just have to tell you," she says, grinning, "you are a rock star.

"Huh?" I say.

"I was there this morning.  At Starbucks."

"Ohhhhh," I say, laughing. "You were there?"

She recounts the story for the people waiting in the lobby, and turns to me.  "And I thought, 'I want to be more like that.'"

I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

But I am not a perfect person, and I also know that there are times when I should have spoken up, and didn't.


That was going to be the end of my story, but just this afternoon, I learned that in the early morning hours of March 18 (today, for those of you counting), a young black man, a junior at the University of Virginia, an Honor Committee student, a leader on campus with no criminal record, was beaten by police, requiring ten stitches to his head, when he tried to enter a bar. 

I don't care if he was presenting false ID.  There's no reason for what happened to him.

I am not going to equate standing up for a barista at Starbucks with refusing to be a bystander to racism, with questioning white privilege and doing something to level the playing field.  It is easier to say something when the stakes are lower, when all you have to worry about is someone critiquing your fashion sense.

But I want us to ask ourselves: how can we be bystanders, when injustice (both larger issues of racism and the smaller microaggressions that belie racist, classist, sexist attitudes) is not in our back yards, but on our front doorsteps?  And in the places we call home?
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Saturday, March 14, 2015


Last night, as the kids ate dumplings and sushi and sate (ordered in) at the kitchen counter, because my husband was away at the NJ Regional Science Fair, I told them that today was going to be Pi Day.  We would have pie for breakfast, and pie for dinner, and maybe even pie for lunch.  Because: pie.  Do you really need an excuse?

via flickr user Alex Cockroach under Creative Commons license
We have a whiteboard in our kitchen, mostly where we hang the calendar (now that refrigerators are no longer magnetic) and where I write down the menu for the week, but also where we scribble math problems and words and diagrams when we're trying to explain something.  My son and husband in particular love this, and will leave their problems up on the board until the dry erase marker becomes part of the whiteboard, and I have to scrub the thing with alcohol.  (Type A, remember?)  But I confess, it does come in pretty handy.

I asked my son if he knew what pi was.  He said yes, it was a number.  I agreed that was partially right, but that it was even more magical than that.  I drew a circle, and he correctly identified both the circumference and the diameter (things I don't know if I knew when I was in third grade); I explained the pi was the ratio of the circle's circumference to its diameter ... that no matter how big or how small the circle was, you'd always get the same number, and that it goes on forever without an identifiable repeating pattern in the decimal: irrational and transcendental.  Pi helps us to describe every process, every cycle that repeats.  Pi explains waves.  Pi is the universe sticking its tongue out at us, refusing to be calculated in some way that we can pin down, but also bringing us ever closer to its understanding.

"Isn't that cool?" I said, waving my marker.

"Whoa, cool," agreed I. and N.

I wouldn't consider myself a math geek.  But pi reminds me that math is pretty amazing, that part of its beauty lies in its enigmatic nature.  I hope that I can instill some of that wonder in my kids, even if I've used it as an excuse to eat pi, or pie, for breakfast.

What's your favorite pie?  Are you a math geek?
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Monday, March 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Read to Me

(technically posted on Tuesday, I guess.)

This weekend, during a long drive (you'll just have to wait to find out where I went!), I listened to what I think may have been my first audiobook.

I belong to a book discussion group that reads one book a month together, and I've always read the book, scanned the physical pages, even brought it with me to meetings for reference.  I think I may have read a book on the Kindle just once; I just prefer the feel and smell of paper, being able to flip back and forth, scanning the pages for a word or a passage.  Other people in the group, people who are frequent flyers and commuters, listen to audiobooks regularly.  I just didn't think it was for me.

But the person in charge of our choice for this month picked Faulker's As I Lay Dying, and though I bought the paper copy too (somehow, I seemed not to have a copy any more, though I'm sure I read it in high school), thinking about my drive, on a whim, I downloaded the book from Audible.

I don't know if it would work as well with all books, but something about this one--between the cast of characters and frequent switch of narrators, and the poetic language that the characters use--it was absolutely the right choice.  I don't remember enjoying--or understanding--Faulkner nearly as much on the printer page as I have as it has been read to me.  Suddenly the poetry of the language became more evident than before, the pauses and ellipses more pregnant and meaningful.

On the way home from work I caught a story on NPR about audiobooks: about authors who now write for the ear, rather than the eye.   We like the intimacy of a private performance, the publishers say.  But it's something deeper, too.  After all, stories began in oral tradition.  Why wouldn't we be pulled back to our origins by the very technology that divides us from the past?

I used to read to my son every night, until he decided that he could read faster on his own than I could read to him.  Now, I read to my daughter, and sometimes, my son still wanders in, though the books are far beneath him, to listen to the story, to laugh at the voices, to cuddle with us.  He leaves reluctantly to brush his teeth, hangs around the doorway, still listening.  When I turn the light out, my daughter asks me to tell her another, to fabricate something out of the darkness.  Sometimes, I ask her to tell me one, too.  There's just something about the sound of a good story.

Do you listen to audiobooks?  Do you still read aloud?


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Not There: On International Women's Day

Maybe I'd been living under a rock, but I'm pretty certain that the first time I heard about International Women's Day in my 30s, I thought it was an Australian thing.

No one had ever celebrated International Women's Day in my house when I was growing up, nor did anyone mention it in school.  Sure, we had Women's History Month, during which there was some discussion of Florence Nightengale and Marie Curie and Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (eventually Sally Ride made it into the top 10, too, and we had Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks for "color" when someone finally realized that our version of Women's History Month wasn't exactly inclusive).

Even now, despite the social media campaign, it doesn't seem to me that we celebrate International Women's Day in the U.S. in as public a way as some other countries do.  Which is really too bad, considering what a mess of a holiday Mother's Day has become.  Socialist origins aside, IWD is an important opportunity to remember that we still have a lot of work to do, at home and abroad.

Like: for all of our demands to #BringBackOurGirls, there are still 230 missing.  If we really felt that they were "ours," why has our outrage or willingness to act subsided?  Like: the recently banned documentary about sexual violence in India, which is now available, thanks to the BBC.  If we don't live that experience, what do we do with information like that, beyond being voyeurs, safe behind computer screens?  Like: a recent U.N. report found that 70% of the poor are women, that one in three women is a victim of sexual or physical violence and the majority of rapes are either never reported or under-punished and that statistics are even worse for women of color, who are disproportionally victims of sexual violence, more often at the hand of white males.  What are we doing about this?  Even the U.S., seen internationally as a leader in gender equality, ranks 17th in the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report, and in many states, our reproductive rights are under attack.

Want to celebrate Interational Women's Day?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Be a local activist.  Are there women in your community who are abused, who don't have enough to eat?  Find a women's shelter.  A women's support network.  Don't just write a check.  Listen to the stories of a diverse group of women.  Understand that inequality and abuse are not a third world problem.
  • Speak up for women you see being harassed.  Microaggressions happen everywhere.
  • Mentor another woman. Do you have a talent to share?  A network?  Are you an entrepreneur?  Help another woman to start a business, get a (better) job, get a (better) education.
  • Celebrate women who call out injustices.
  • Be an activist on a broader scale, domestically or internationally.  Write to your policymakers about "women's issues," and help them to realize that women's issues are everyone's issues. Beyond the personal effects of trauma, violence against women, lack of adequate child care, poor health care for women, and other issues traditionally seen as "women's issues" have a huge impact on international economies.
  • Celebrate the diversity of women's experiences.  Know that not all women are mothers.  Realize that well-intentioned and brave as it was, Patricia Arquette's Oscar acceptance comments about women fell short.  Recognize and own privilege, and realize when the dominant narrative is merely that: dominant, not all-inclusive.  See out other perspectives.  Support other ways of being woman in the world.
  • And celebrate the women in your life who have helped you to become the person you are.
  • Follow the 31 day action calendar at http://notthere.noceilings.org/ to find one thing you can do each day in March.  Create a habit of gender mindfulness.
What did you do for International Women's Day?
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Monday, March 2, 2015

#Microblog Monday: I've Got a Little List

"I had all sorts of ideas for next year on the way in this morning," I said.

"Well, I want to hear them while they're still fresh," he assured me.

And of course, by the time he sat down in my office just a few hours later, all of the ideas seemed stale, or wilted, or just plain ... well, half-baked.  I read them anyway, and he made kind approving noises.  Because that's the sort of person he is.

"I made a list last year," I said, "and I did everything on it."

"Really?" he said, laughing.  "Wait, let me see that."  He peered at it over the tops of his glasses, amused.

"That doesn't cover everything I did, though."

"I know it doesn't."  He's still looking at it, my list with tea stains on it, perhaps a little impressed less with the list itself than with the fact that I'd even keep such a document, given that I have almost no paper on my desk.  He's the save-er in our office; I'm the Queen of Purge.  "We should send this in for your performance appraisal."

It occurred to me that even if the list didn't have very important or large things on it, I was impressed, too.  I hadn't realized that I had such power.

I wonder, what would I be capable of doing if I simply put it on my to-do list for next year?

Learn to speak another language?

Go to yoga once a week?

Write a novel?

Does my goal-orientation only apply at work?

Do you have a little list?*

(with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, whose Lord High Executioner has a very different sort of list.  I couldn't help it; the song planted itself in my head as soon as I started thinking about lists.  I played Katisha in my 7th grade production of the Mikado, and I haven't yet successfully erased the libretto from my memory.)


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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