The ice cream of happiness

I have been suffering lately from a bit of a case of BADD (that’s Being an Adult Dysphoric Disorder for those of you who don’t regularly make up maladies and their acronyms). I’ve transitioned to full-time at work, which is great except it means driving across town five days a week instead of only three. I’m also working on two new projects, which brings the stress of figuring out new data and new bosses and all of that. I’ll get the hang of it all eventually but right now I’m just exhausted and feel like I have no time because not only am I spending more time in the car, my time at work feels terribly unproductive some days because I’m still getting up to speed on the new projects and am re-learning different statistical tools with which I am not as efficient. Pour on top of that a generous helping of emotional malaise surrounding a situation that falls squarely into the “things I cannot change” category and you get a cranky, melancholy Sarahliz who becomes prone to trying to come up with cute names for what’s wrong.

Last night on the way home I detoured to cash some checks and stop at Trader Joe’s for bread. Of course when I got to the Credit Union I discovered that I had not actually put the envelope with the checks in my purse (meaning I still have to make a special trip to take care of that). Then as I was walking the aisles at TJs I started doing the mental “so what am I going to eat tonight.” It was already late and I didn’t feel like making anything. Plus, as per usual for the past couple of weeks, I was cranky. So I bought some frozen gnocchi, figuring I’d heat that up and have it with salad. I also bought coffee ice cream because I’ve been taking my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad and have generally been feeling pretty virtuous in my food choices. (Yes, it’s possible that the super crankiness is also influenced by the fact that I’m trying to lose a few pounds and save some money so have been bringing my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad).

Ok. We all see where this is going, right?

Yeah. I ended up having a HUGE bowl of ice cream for dinner. While taking a hot bath. It was awesome. And I woke up a great deal more cheerful and relaxed. Apparently I stumbled onto a fairly effective treatment for BADD. It helped a little with the feeling of being overwhelmed by work since part of my bath time was spent reading a work-related article that proved helpful. And I woke this morning with the sudden conviction that I actually will be able to accept the thing I cannot change with a modicum of adult grace.

That emotional malaise and the anxiety of facing a thing I cannot change has resulted in images from Alice Walker’s poem “Did this Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot” tugging at my brain. Of course as they were tugging I could remember which poem it actually was. I remembered the bit about weeds coming up through the cracks. And I remembered the gist of the last two stanzas:

Whoever he is, he is not worth all this.
Don’t you agree?

And I will never
unclench my teeth long enough
to tell him so.

That was, after all, pretty much exactly what I was feeling as I hopped into the tub with a huge bowl of ice cream at my side.

So this morning I went looking for the full poem, with the hope of giving the rattling in my brain a little more form. While looking for it I found this article, an interview with Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. I think I had encountered things to suggest that the Walker mother-daughter relationship was strained. I just hadn’t read anything that really made clear how strained, or why.

It was striking to me to read this article today because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how one balances a desire to change the world with a desire to live a happy life full of strong relationships. They obviously aren’t goals that have to be at odds, but fighting for change is hard work. Even just figuring out what issues one might tackle, what solutions might be best, is more than I seem to be able to manage. I can’t imagine the time and effort involved with actually going to rallies or doing things that might directly cause change (I’ll confess I find rallies and protests and civil disobedience perplexing at times because it is so hard to trace out what they actually do).

Lately I’ll admit I’ve been judging myself through eyes that aren’t my own. And those eyes have been judging me very harshly indeed for my lack of real action in the world. It is perhaps the case that, in channeling that judgment, I am actually judging myself much more harshly that said person would. Still, even knowing that, I was deeply troubled for awhile. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how to find more time, exactly what to give up, and exactly where to focus some world-improving energies. The truth is that I fully know that I need to do more to make the world look like I want it to. But, as I thought about it more and more, I realized that though I respect the person whose voice I was internally channeling a great deal, I have no desire to emulate his life. I have no desire to structure my relationships the way it appears to me that he has structured his. In short, after scribbling my way through circles of angst in my pen-and-paper journal, it suddenly dawned on me that my relationships to the people around me are more important to me than grander notions of social justice. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am selfish and think my life more important than others (though perhaps I am, and perhaps I do). I mean, rather, that if I focus all my energies on saving the world only to fail to feed and sustain my closest relationships, then I have failed. In doing so I would have undermined not only my world, but the worlds of those people close to me as well. I would, in short, have contributed to the circle of society closest to me to not looking like my ideal.

One could argue, of course, that the good that Alice Walker has done in the world–the positive effects she has had on people, myself included, through her writing–outweighs whatever negativity comes from neglecting her relationship with her child. I recognize that argument and recognize how, for some people, it is enough to justify consuming focus on activism. For me, though, it’s not the way I want to live. It’s not who I want to be when I judge myself through my own eyes rather than focusing anxiously on the judgment of others. I still feel guilty about not doing more, for remaining so inwardly focused. But ultimately I am slowly forming a better picture of who I want to be and how I want to live. And that picture involves a lot more focusing on real meaningful relationships than it does marching in the street.


More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.
Continue reading “More Alert”

little things

Many many years ago I was enthralled with a woman who was important to a man with whom I was also enthralled (complicated enough for you?) This woman–call her J., because that was her first initial–was enthralled with another man, who happened to be at Harvard at the time. J. and the man with whom she was enthralled, and many other people, wrote for a website called medianstrip. I spent many hours in those days, many years ago, reading things written by J. and people important to J. The things I read moved me in their own right but also because they came from friends of J. who was important to A. who was important to me. I have long since lost touch with all parties but sometimes I am inspired by memories of my then self, watching the full moon move across the eastern sky above the Humanities building, and I look to see if medianstrip still exists. And really, it doesn’t. And this is a little thing that makes me sad.

Unburying the muse

Lately I have been reading more. I also watch more TV than I previously ever have in my life thanks to hulu. On some level I feel a bit guilty for this but on another I am delighted when I actually get passing references made to popular shows. I also mostly watch TV while doing something else (eating, copying and pasting numbers into tables, sewing, crocheting) so I don’t feel that the time is wasted. But I am even more delighted to be reading again regularly. Lately I have been pulled deeply in Sharyn McCrumb’s novels. And reading her descriptions of the mountains of Tennessee and the people of the small town she sets the Ballad novels in leaves me filled with a certain longing. In part it is a longing for that life, for knowing the names of the people around you, knowing their histories. I recognize that as the idealized myth of the small town. There is always a line between the insiders and the outsiders. And there are things about small towns that plan and simply suck, even if you are local, even if you hate cities. I think McCrumb does a good job of capturing some of the distinctions between insider and outsider, and some of the ambiguities of small places. But she does an even better job, I think, of capturing why even an outsider might stay. And I will admit that her characters leave me reminiscent for certain people from my youth. And the books dredge up some of my own ambivalence about having left rural WI. As much as I spent years of my adolescence wishing I were anywhere else, I recognize why my parents, outsiders still after nearly 30 years there, stay. And sometimes, I find myself auditioning fantasies of returning (or moving somewhere else similarly scenic and sparse where I would have to learn the social order from scratch; which I practically would anyway if I returned to Cazenovia).

More than that, though, I find myself longing to write. I find myself trying to imagine putting together a story that would grip readers. I find myself sinking into that feeling that there is a poem at the tip of my pen waiting to be born. But, despite this, I fail to bring pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I bought a notebook for poetry and a journal. Both are still nearly empty. I reopened an old poetry project. I copied and pasted a few lines, moved a few things, wrote a draft of a poem that I think fits into the series. But ultimately I have done almost nothing to reclaim the reality of writing. It has been some 10 years since I thought of myself really deeply and primarily as “poet.” Now if you asked me to describe myself I don’t think it would even make the list. I feel the need to change that but I’m not sure how. I don’t think I will ever publish novels. But I would like to at least write poems. I would at least like to again feel that words are friends welcome to drop into my home at their slightest whim.

Perhaps to that end I will try to organize my old poetry that I like into an online collection (as it used to be on previous iterations of my web spaces). Perhaps I will succeed in writing here more, as I keep telling myself I should. At the least I will continue to read and to long for words, with the hope that by inviting myself into their homes I will open the door for things to flow the other way. And I’ll stick that poetry notebook back in my purse where it belongs. Maybe I’ll even fold it open for a few minutes with pen in hand first, just to see what happens.

What's wrong with this picture…

I’ve been reading about the anthology Yes Means Yes on Bitch PhD. I think, despite the fact that just yesterday I started (but did not finish) a blog post about my large stack of unfinished projects and books, that I need a copy of this book pronto. I almost ordered it online last night but then decided maybe I should use my purchasing power to actually support a physical bookstore in my community and so I put off the purchase with the intention of popping over to Vroman’s for it at some point. Then this morning while I was stuck in traffic on Sepulveda I thought “Oh, I should just stop by a bookstore in Westwood during lunch and pick it up there.” The logic in my brain was 1) Westwood is the neighborhood adjacent to UCLA 2) UCLA is a University 3) Universities are surrounded by bookstores 4) Thus Westwood has bookstores. While point 3 might be true in a sort of vague general sense, it is not true of UCLA. Here we have the UCLA bookstore (which doesn’t have Yes Means Yes, I checked), a mystery bookstore (and while it might be a mystery to me why female sexuality is so fraught with BS in our society, I don’t think the bookstore in question would see it as part of the genre), and a Borders far enough down Westwood Blvd that I’d either have to take a really long lunch or drive there (and really if I’m going to support Borders I might as well order online from an independent bookstore somewhere else). I guess I’ll be making a pilgrimage to Vroman’s some night this week after all. Here’s hoping that the women’s studies section is far enough from the gardening and crochet sections that I am not lured into their grips. I think their gardening section must have some sort of gravitational field going or something, as it’s very hard not to get pulled in.

Meanwhile (and somewhat related to the book in question) I’m listening to the Taj Mahal album my mother owned while I was in high school. At the time I absolutely hated this album, not due to the musical style, but because of the song “Big Legged Mamas are Back in Style Again.” At 14 or 15 years old I was seriously offended by this objectification of fat women (I felt the same way about “Baby Got Back” for what that’s worth; but that at least I didn’t have to encourage my mother not to play at home). Of course, looking back, it’s absolutely hilarious that I thought of myself as being part of the mentioned demographic since at my heaviest I think I was 145 pounds (which at almost 5’10” would have put me on the slightly low side of normal weight). Moreover, fifteen years or so later, I have to agree with my mother that whatever problems one might have with songs objectifying women, extending some appreciation to non-stick-figures is a very very good thing indeed.

hitching bath-chairs to boats

There is something fascinating to me about the way certain things stick in one’s memory where they are pulled up to the surface by strange unrelated things.

As a freshman at UW I took an honors comparative literature class that focused on Kafka, Beckett, and Borges. It was intense, strange, and wonderful. The class itself often felt a bit like a Kafka novel in that we were required to write responses each week and a final paper on one of the three authors, but what the professor expected these writings to contain was a mystery. I’m sure I would have found that less weird later in my academic career but at the time the intellectual freedom to do what I wanted with the ideas was a bit scary.

For the final paper I focused on Kafka, reading his letters and some of his stories that we did not read for class. Meanwhile my friend Chris wrote her paper on Beckett. In the course of doing extra reading for her paper she came upon the line “Doubt, Despair, and Scrounging, shall I hitch my bath-chair to the greatest of these?” She used this line in the subject line of an email she sent me (I don’t recall what the email was about but I’m willing to bet that it was related to our uncertainties about the academic work at hand, paired with our relative uncertainties about various romantic entanglements). This line has stuck with me, despite not actually knowing what a bath-chair is nor how this line fits in with the rest of the piece from which it comes (it’s in More Pricks than Kicks, which I seem to recall was even more confusing to me than even the rest of Beckett).

Years later I began listening to Sleater Kinney. I was a late-comer to much of the cool stuff on the Kill Rock Stars label, picking it up long after it was new and hot. I think it was 2004 or so when I began listening to Hot Rock, a good nine years after release of the album and seven years past my semester of immersion in Kafka and Beckett. Still every time I hear the song “The End of You” I find myself jolted into thinking about that snippet of Beckett when I hear the verse which includes the lines:

Tie me to the mast
of this ship and of this band.
Tie me to the greater things
the people that I love.

I seriously doubt this is actually a reference to Beckett. It’s more clearly (taken in the context of the rest of the song) an allusion to The Odyssey but still every time I hear it I think, even if only for a fraction of a moment, of that line and the way I was back then.

I miss the intensity of classes tackling things so unfamiliar they pulled me far out of my comfort zone and made me think things I swear it would never have occurred to me to think on my own. How do you capture that outside the university? Certainly reading widely is one way, but how do you recreate the intensity of classes? Perhaps the only answer is to build a time machine and go hang out with Gertrude Stein and Picasso in Paris.

Plea for book/article suggestions

Ok, so people who know me know that I’m pretty obsessed with food. I always have been. Fortunately lately I’m obsessed with growing food, cooking food, and exploring new food. This is a great improvement over when I was fifteen and obsessed with the calories in food and how to avoid said food without my mother noticing. And it’s also better than my first couple of years of college when I lived on a very limited dorm-food diet (most of my protein came from dairy and eggs because the meat was scary) and was obsessed by fantasies of tasty home-cooked food, particularly my mother’s vegetable soups.

I’m slowly reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and I fully intend to get to Michael Pollan’s two recent food books soon as well. I’ve also been reading a lot of gardening blogs and the great sociology blog on food, critical eating. All of this has me thinking a lot about where food comes from, the connections between farming and the environment, and the general politics of agriculture. Well, I’d like to be thinking about the general politics of agriculture but I don’t really know enough to form any sort of coherent analysis. I know there’s a whole system of subsidies. I know this country has shifted to a lot of factory farming. I know that understanding some of the ins and outs of free trade requires understanding farm policy. But beyond that I’m virtually clueless, which is pretty embarassing given that I grew up surrounded by farmland (though my family never farmed).

Can anyone point me towards good histories of farm policy in this country? I’d like to understand what the current policies are, where they came from, and what interest groups were involved. I don’t really have a clue where to start, short of combing through syllabuses online for pieces that look interesting. Since I’m shortly going to be heading into a period of unemployment and job searching it seems like a good time to put together a reading list to expand my knowledge on the subject.

p.s. Yes, I know, asking for reading suggestions implies that I think I actually have more than a small handful of readers. There is no evidence to support this assumption but I’m an optimist.