What Does a Fist Know of a Hand?

It’s December. Christmas has just passed, and in a few days, it will be a new year. I started this post on December 3rd, and am only just finishing and posting it. That’s how my life has been for the past few weeks.The magazine for which I’m the editor in chief (it’s called Lunch Ticket, and we’ve got four Pushcart-nominated pieces that you should absolutely read), published on December 3rd, my first patent has been filed, and I’ve been working on the stuff I had to do for school, and three days ago, I had a whole bunch of surgery.

There have been days when I was up until three in the morning in tears, trying to do work that I was completely sure would be sent back to me, not marked with a failing grade, but packaged with a letter bomb and a note that I did not deserve to live. I am nothing if not grandiose in my neurosis. I’ve also had days where I’m in such deep denial of it all that I just play game after game of Plants vs. Zombies as though I have nothing else to do.

The upshot is that there are times when I actually get caught up on things and have some breathing  space, and the first thing that happens is that I begin to cry. For so many years, I have been so stressed every second of every day that on those few occasions when the stress lifts, I break down entirely.  How did this happen? It’s possible that I was just born this way. Being sensitive to noise, light, the emotions of other people in  way that makes daily life a challenge means that situations that are enjoyable for most people (parties, family gatherings, concerts, movies, etc.) are still enjoyable, but exhausting.

I have always wondered what it’s like to think about an upcoming social event with happy anticipation of meeting other people, of finding oneself in a crowd, of making new friends. I have always wished that I could be the sort of person who, when she relaxed, had that melty feeling where the muscles stop being tense and the mind empties itself. I’ve always been a tightly clenched fist who dreamed of being just a hand.

I Only Exist in the Past

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, I brought with me a backlog of The New Yorker magazines. It was the first magazine I subscribed to that made me feel plugged into the adult world. The problem was that somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I had to read every single article in the entire magazine, cover to cover. That meant every Joan Acocella dance critique where Ms. Acocella reveals in painful detail how bitter she is that her dance career never took off. I couldn’t care less about dance, and having it described, critiqued, teased apart and explained to me in painstaking detail is worse than having gum grafts (and yes, I’ve had gum grafts, so I have a basis for comparison).

Then I realized that I don’t care about anything that Roger Angell has to say about baseball, although I’ve ploughed through thousands of words about it because I had to finish that article to get to an Ian Frazier piece about the hilarity of child abuse. But the problem with forcing myself to read every single word is that if I procrastinate at all, the next issue is in my mailbox before I’m done with this one. And then the next one. And before you know it, I’ve got two years’ worth of magazines in a huge pile somewhere, mocking me.

And then I realized that it’s not just my reading habits that have me dwelling in the past. At some point over the summer, I decided that I would give the tv show Battlestar Galactica another shot. My husband and I tried watching it when it first came to Netflix, but because I hold FarScape up as my apex of space opera television, I found Galactica humorless and dull. But I have forced myself since then to watch it (although it’s still humorless) and I’m now nearly through the series. Which apparently ended in 2009.

And I’ve now extended my time travel to my podcast listening. I’ve been listening to Judge John Hodgman since it premiered in 2010, but I’ve since  checked out the other podcasts offered by Maximum Fun, and have started listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!. I started listening to it yesterday, and I’m now up to Episode 5, which was recorded in January of 2007. Bush was still president. I was still working. My older kid still liked me. That 2007.

I have often been told that I do not look as old as I am. It’s true that I stay out of the sun, I do use a moisturizer every morning and every night, I have good genes for looking young. But I don’t think that’s what does it for me. I’d have to say that what keeps me looking young is that mentally, I’m still somewhere between 2006 and 2010.

 

What I Can’t Count in Words

I’ve been trying to work out every day. For me, working out looks like jogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes. I also target shoot with my bow and arrow once or twice a day, 100 shots at a time. I normally listen to music while I’m working out. I’ve experimented with a lot of different listening options: silence, audiobooks, Gregorian chant, dance music, electronica. So far, synth metal is my best bet both for jogging and for target practice. Nothing with lyrics, which distract me.

I can’t afford to be distracted, because when I’m doing something physical, I’m counting.

I tend to count out loud so that anyone around me can hear my progress. When I’m target shooting, I count upward. I’m counting the number of bullseyes I’ve hit out of the number of shots I’ve taken, so I will say out loud “Zero zero” before my first shot. This morning was forty-one one hundred.

When I’m jogging, I’m counting down. I jog for 45 minutes, and I will say right now, I hate it. Jogging doesn’t feel good or natural or like an accomplishment. It feels like a torture and the only way I can get through it is by distracting myself. I break each minute up into both 10-second and 15-second increments. There are 270 10-second increments in 45 minutes, and 180 15-second increments. Every minute, I will subtract 6 from the 10-second increments, but I only subtract from the 15-second increments every two and a half minutes (meaning it’s always a multiple of ten). This happens smoothly in my head without missing a beat of the music. When I get down to 30/20 (5 minutes), I start counting each increment down singly, so the pairings of numbers change more often and I have to be more mentally present. By the time I get to 0/0, I’m normally just as happy not to have messed up my counting as to have finished my workout.

When I’m counting, there is no room for anything else. I can’t think about that cramp in my left calf, or what I’m going to write later or whom I’ve got to call when I’m off the treadmill. There is a conversation in my mind every second of every day. Even when I’m sleeping I have dreams of such vividness that many of them get made into fiction that I inflict on other people. The conversations in my head are most insistent when I’m talking to someone else. And those conversations in my head are so distracting that if I don’t find a way to deflect them, they’ll deflect what I’m trying to do. I’ve walked off in the middle of target shooting or of jogging because I decided something else was more important. The only way I can stay present with a physically demanding task is to crowd out all those words with numbers.

I guess that’s why I love numbers. Because there is a limit to the number of words in the English language, but there is no limit to how high I can count. If I hit the aleph, there’s always another aleph beyond it. Both of those thoughts are comforting to me. That there are only so many words that I will ever have to learn to describe my experiences, real or imagined. That there is no limit at all to the number of experiences I could possibly have.

Making Things Right

A week ago, I went to Betty’s Eat Inn (Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz) with my daughter. When I got the bill, I gave them my credit card but then never got it back, and so walked out without it. The next day I called the restaurant. They had the card, and I told them I’d come to pick it up. I didn’t make it there on Thursday, but on Friday when I went I was told that they had destroyed my card.

I’m still processing what happened. I called. They knew that I knew the card was missing. They knew that I knew they had it and that I wanted it back. And they destroyed it.

The last time I had to get a new credit card, I found out a few things. I found out that my husband and I don’t just share an account, we share an actual card – our cards have the same number, etc. This makes it tough if, for instance, I want to use Paypal. You can’t have more than one account with the same card number, and he updated his with the new card first. I also found out that in some instances if you have a service that’s automatically billing your card and you switch cards, they may skip a single auto-billing. You’ll end up having a late fee (unless you’re me and pitch a fit about it). Most of our bills are on auto-pay, and every single one of those accounts would have to be manually changed over to the new account number.

I called the restaurant again to find out what happened. The woman I talked to said that she had spoken to the manager and that my card had been destroyed. She said that she understood it was upsetting, that it was all a misunderstanding. She said that the manager would call me on Monday (yesterday) because they wanted to “make this right.” Nobody called me.

What does “making it right” look like? In a case when you’ve accidentally done someone an injury that can’t be fixed with money (replacing something broken, etc.) how do you make it right? I don’t want vouchers for free food at a restaurant where the staff has done something to harm me. I don’t want to make friends with someone to reward them for having screwed me. It’s out of the question to have someone else go through my accounts and undertake the tedious work of both getting the new card and fixing the accounts that use that card.

I’m sure that a lot of people have had similar problems. Someone has done something to you that they can’t fix. How do you handle it? How do you gracefully get through it without letting yourself be made bitter at people’s incompetence? How do you allow the other person to atone for their actions without unfairly hanging a millstone of guilt around their neck. That gets to the crux of the matter. If you’ve done something wrong, you want to be able to apologize, be forgiven, and get back to okay as quickly as possible. But what if the thing you’ve done has long-term consequences? What if the thing you’ve done comes back to haunt the other person for months or years? How long do you have to keep apologizing for the same sin? When I look at it like that, I come up with a very different answer.

What’s right? Who’s right?

UPDATE: I happened to be having lunch on Pacific Avenue again today, and afterward I stopped by Betty’s to see if the manager would talk to me. He did, and he was just short of hostile in his condescension. His attitude was “I cut it up and now it’s gone. What do you want me to do about it?” Not “I’m sorry that I’ve just caused you a huge headache.” He consistently blamed everyone else on his staff (an action that always sticks in my craw). What’s worse, he and the assistant manager acted really strange about the whole thing. I asked them if there was a particular card that was different than the others. No, they didn’t think so. Really? No, they were all just regular cards. Except that mine was a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. They’re made of metal and so can’t just be put through a shredder or cut with scissors. You would notice if you were trying to snip one of these. And yet, nope, there was no problem with any of them.

The whole thing is beginning to sound suspicious to me.

Love and Courage

Today is Michaelmas. My daughter’s school holds a celebration of Michaelmas every year with a play to celebrate the victory of the heavenly host over Lucifer (God’s apparently a delegator) and a picnic to celebrate the harvest. The play is always adorable with the 7th grade playing the part of Lucifer in the person of a giant dragon who ravages the village, much to the consternation of the 4th grade villagers. The play emphasizes that love and courage overcome evil better than might.

While on the 45-minute drive to the school, I thought about love and courage and faith. I was raised a Catholic. The thing I love the most about Catholicism is the amount of ritual. If you go to Mass, there’s going to be standing, sitting, kneeling, talking, singing, eating, drinking. And there’s the best part – the kiss of peace. You turn to the people around you and say “Peace be with you.”

While I was saying those words and shaking hands and kissing people on the cheek, I meant them. I loved those people. I completely forgot that this one had cut me off in the parking lot, or that one had spoken sharply to me or another one owed me five dollars I wasn’t going to see anytime soon. In that moment, I truly loved them and wished them peace.

Later, I became Buddhist. Let me clear something up for you: there’s nothing in Buddhist doctrine or in Catholic doctrine that says you can’t be both. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a god, nor do Buddhists worship him in the same way that Christians worship God. The big difference is that, while Catholics filter their experience of God through priests and other church hierarchy who put a lot of rules in place, Buddha encouraged his followers to believe only what they could prove to themselves. Catholics have ten commandments and a million other rules, but Buddhists only have one rule: every action has consequences.

If you open your hand and drop something, whether you’re the president or a prostitute, whether you’re a stockbroker or a stock clerk, it’s going to fall. There’s no judgement involved.

Being Buddhist has meant that I now spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of my actions, but nobody is good at that 100% of the time, and every time I make a poor choice and experience negative consequences, I feel like a failure. And, like everyone else, I’m hungry for success. Humans are all hungry. We’re hungry for love, hungry for money, hungry for approval. Starving for it.

Here’s where love and courage come into it: you can’t feed yourself. No amount of staring into the mirror and saying “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” is ever going to fill that hole of doubt inside you. But you can feed other people. Everyone around you is as starving as you are, and the easiest thing in the world is to feed them. You feed them by actually listening when people talk. By paying strangers compliments. By smiling at people. By asking someone who looks upset if they’re okay.

The flip side of only being able to feed others is that when others feed you, you have to open yourself up to the nourishment they’re offering. When someone smiles at you, feel the goodwill they’re giving you. When they compliment you, don’t just say “thank you,” but really feel grateful. When someone offers you that kiss of peace, kiss them back.

Happy Michaelmas, everyone.

The Loss of a Close Friend

On Thursday when I left the house to pick my daughter up from school, I couldn’t find my iPod. I’d had it in the car the night before, but now I couldn’t lay hands to it. I couldn’t find it again when she and I left to go to karate. I came home and looked in my briefcase, my purse, my other purse, my backpack. I looked in the foot wells of the car, in the trunk, under the seats. I looked in that place in the kitchen where all the junk seems to accumulate, on the nightstand next to my bed, in the mess of books on the floor in front of the nightstand. I cleaned the desk in my office. I cleaned the stuff off the couch. I cleaned the stuff off the other couch.

Don’t get me wrong – my house is neither so big nor so messy that a thing as big as an iPod goes missing often. Yeah, I know that an iPod is only about the size of a deck of cards, but do you think that if you left a deck of cards somewhere in your house, you might never find it?

I looked in the onion bin, the potato drawer, the fridge, the silverware drawer, and the drawer in the pantry where we keep screws, tape, hooks, hinges and bits of string. I’ve looked under things, behind things, in things, between things.

In the meantime, I’ve got two audiobooks that I have to hear to prepare for an interview. There are a few podcasts I follow that I now miss. I’ve got a half-dozen audiobooks that I’m reading for non-school purposes. And then there’s the music. If I were stranded on a desert island, I could listen to music continuously for 20.4 days without hearing a duplicate. I’ve got 4.5 days of television shows (nearly all animation), and a whopping 138 days of books. Just over FIVE MONTHS of content.

I didn’t realize how much I depended on my iPod. Because I’m always reading a paper book while reading an ebook while listening to an audio book. Because I’m hooked on Lexicon Valley and SuperEgo and Judge John Hodgman. Because I am like the rest of the world in that I like to clean while listening to music. Because when I’m on a plane and I can’t write anymore, I can always watch more Clone Wars. Or re-watch.

I know from the painful and tragic experience of a family friend that you have to wait 7 years after someone’s disappearance to have them declared dead. How long should one wait before declaring a beloved life partner lost? Would I betray my old friend if I went out and picked up someone new and shiny? How stupid will I feel if I buy a new iPod and come home and the next time I sit on the couch, there it is, under my left butt cheek? In the meantime, I’m dragging my entire laptop around with me so that I can keep up with my schoolwork.

Lord knows what I’ll do when I mislay that.

UPDATE: Not 30 minutes after posting this, I found my iPod. It’s a 160Gb iPod classic in a thick silicone skin (I drop it a lot). The silicone means that not only does it not break when I drop it, but it sticks to things (like the time it stayed on the roof of my car during 48 hours and 100+ miles of driving). It had fallen between the mattress and footboard of my bed (it’s a big sleigh bed) and stuck there. Until I pulled all the linens off the bed and jiggled the mattress around. I knew that if I just bitched loudly enough about it being lost, it would hear me and get itself found again. This iPod and I, we’re like Sauron and the One Ring.

My Taste, Your Taste

Last night, the Pirate and I opened a bottle of red wine after dinner. We were still drinking the wine when we retired to the bedroom to get ready for bed. The Pirate brushed his teeth before he’d finished his wine, and when he came back into the room and took a sip, he made a weird face.

“That’s interesting. After brushing my teeth, this wine tastes like…chocolate…and cheese….” He was doing that thing people do when they’re trying to describe a taste or sensation they’re experiencing: looking around in the air above his head as though the answer were on one of the hundreds of postcards attached to the ceiling.

Postcards on my bedroom ceiling

I started collecting these in college, and still pick up a few whenever I go someplace cool. If you sent me one, I’d put it up and think of you when I looked at it.

He wanted me to taste it after brushing my teeth, but I declined. I feel certain that if I had done the experiment, I wouldn’t have tasted chocolate OR cheese, and it led me to wonder – when I eat chocolate, do I taste the same thing my husband tastes? Or that you taste? I know that when I drive past a skunk that was hit by a car, the skunk smell is exactly the same to me as the smell of roasting coffee, and yet I know people who say that the smell of roasting coffee is pleasing to them, but the smell of skunk is disgusting – how can they make a distinction between them? To me, they’re identical.

People can distinguish five different tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. In addition, they can distinguish seven different types of smell: musky (the smell of perfume), putrid (rotten eggs), pungeant (vinegar), camphoraceous (moth balls), ethereal (dry cleaning fluid), floral (roses) and mint. Here’s what I’m not sure about: a given food contains a set of chemicals that make up its flavor profile. Every eater of a given food is working with the same set of chemical inputs. Why, then, the differences in perception? Is it a difference in body chemistry? Is it a difference in brain wiring? Both?

How much does our sense of taste play into our food and drink addictions? A Google search of the words “fast food addiction” shows 16.6 million results, including studies that show the addictive properties of fast food. Those addictive properties are tangentially related to taste in that the pleasing taste activates the brain’s pleasure centers – one article outlines the addictive ingredients in fast food including monosodium glutamate (a prime component of the “umami” taste) and casein, a naturally-occurring protein that, in fast food, is pumped up to past the danger point.

I’m not addicted to fast food. I can’t afford to be, since I’ve been battling a weight problem all my life. My husband, on the other hand, is naturally thin and has no real fondness for the things I have the most trouble with – baked sweets, chocolate, cheese. It feels unfair to me that because of an accident of chemistry my husband can maintain a healthy weight despite eating an enormous amount (I know, part of it is that he’s a man and therefore has more muscle mass and a higher metabolism, in addition to the fact that the man is two meters tall and therefore has a lot of guy to feed) while I have to consider every bite that goes into my mouth.

On the other hand, I also like to think that it means that I have outlets for enjoyment that are closed to my husband, who doesn’t equate the taste of white jasmine tea with love, or the flavor of Ezekiel bread with independence. In that way, I’m the lucky one.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 718 other followers