Monday, April 23, 2012

Limits of Growth

Hi, there!

I set out today, with high hopes, to get a new driver's license--nothing was wrong with the old one, it was just from a state in which I no longer live. I'd been procrastinating on this for a while, for reasons both obvious and subtle, and I'd also had some trouble getting my act together regarding the paperwork. But, after much prodding from Chris, I finally seemed to have all my ducks in a row, and I figured today was the day.


I failed the eye exam. I wasn't terribly surprised, as I barely passed it last time, and I was pretty sure my vision had gotten worse. And I've had glasses of one prescription or another since I was twelve or so--you may remember me wearing them in class that first year--I couldn't see the PowerPoint presentations otherwise. The next year I returned to campus without them because I'd gotten sand in the case and scratched the lenses to near opacity. Fortunately, there were very few PowerPoint presentations the second year, because I didn't have the money for new glasses. I didn't have the money now, but at least I have a positive cash flow at last, so I could make due. So I went and got an eye exam and new glasses--yay!--but while I was doing that the Department of Motor Vehicles closed for the day. We have to go back tomorrow.

The whole thing was a huge pain in the neck for Chris, so to make it up to him I bought him lunch/dinner ("linner"?) at Ruby Tuesday's while we waited for my glasses. And then I couldn't figure out the tip. Tips always muddle me. Chris figured it out. Yes, I'm a graduate student in science who can't reliably do basic arithmetic. It's not that I'm afraid of math, and I do fairly well with mathematical concepts, but I'm just not reliable with the basics--which means my ability to understand higher math doesn't do me a whole lot of good. I used to mind needing eye glasses when I was younger--I refused to wear them for many years--but I don't mind them now. I'm actually really delighted by my new glasses--everything looks all clear and clean and precise. You'll see them, probably, at Tom's party. More importantly, if you are there, I will clearly see you. But I get really bummed out about this math thing. I just get tired of being limited.

"Limited" was the phrase the headmaster of my old boarding school used. If one of us told him about some odd little emotional hang-up we had, he was likely to sigh and say "yes, I'm limited, too." He meant emotionally or psychologically limited, but he also openly identified himself as learning disabled in other contexts. He hoped we, at least, being young, might grow less limited in time. He wouldn't put up with what he considered emotional laziness, selfishness, or irresponsibility, but he accepted our limitations with a sigh and without judgment. He knew he had his own, and that he would likely die with them. And he did.

For the most part I follow his example. For the most part I fly the flag of cognitive diversity, insisting that there's nothing wrong with my brain for not being able to do division without help; I can, and have, done class readings a year a half in advance and still dominated the class discussion. I knew what baleen was when I was three. I'm smart, ok? But sometimes I just get frustrated.

I get frustrated by myself and others. I will not identify the current miscreant, whom I think too highly of to complain about in public, but you can probably guess. I mean, really? How difficult is it to keep track of this, that, and the other and not waste other people's time? There are very few people I care about who don't seriously irk me now and then (the people I don't care about generally only irk me once). But oh, how I didn't want to be mad at this person. I didn't want her limitations to be real.

I've been watching the new "Sherlock" episodes, lately. They're set in modern-day London, and they're fantastic--though the title character is generally played as a kind of benign sociopath, rather than as the Aspie the original Sherlock Holmes so clearly was.  In one episode, after admitting that he finds it easy to think of murder victims as just intellectual problems, Sherlock notices that his friend, John (Dr. Watson) is hurt and disappointed.

"Don't make people into heroes, John," he says. "They don't exist, and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them."

Have I made a hero? Of course. I've made more than one. I admire a lot of people, though I'm not sure all the people I admire quite count as heroes of mine, and I like admiring them. I like admiring you, for example--did you know that? But you are limited, and all my heroes are limited, and I am limited, too. Sigh.

I think admiration must be tempered with compassion, or it is no kindness.


Sunday, April 15, 2012


So I'm missing my teeth, feeling vaguely grumpy, getting ready to write about subjects I know nothing about, and daydreaming about people who have a lot more spiritual discipline than I have at the moment.

Usually, I like to write these letters with some sense of creative gestalt. In this, Garrison Keillor has always been a major influence on me, how the stories from Lake Wobegon ramble here and ramble there, and as often as not ramble around to some point that suddenly makes a whole. My favorite was a story he told near Christmas one year. I didn't own a radio at the time, but a housemate of mine sometimes left the radio in his room on while he slept, and sometimes I could hear a rebroadcast of Prairie Home Companion if I sat quietly outside the door to his room. I'm sure if I'd asked him to turn his radio on for me during the first broadcast he would have done it, but I never thought of it.

So, one night as I was sitting there in the dark I heard this story about the Lake Wobegon Christmas pageant, and how the surly, self-centered teenagers of the town were being drafted to play angels. They didn't want to do it, being surly and self-centered, but as Garrison said, it wasn't about them. They should get over themselves, at least for one night. And then he said "go, be an angel," and the story was over, and suddenly, with that one line, a disorganized ramble about an extremely local, personal issue with specific (imaginary) teenagers became universal. And I thought, yes, that's what I want to be able to do as a writer.

I've had two such moments as a proto-writer. The other was when, reading Jaguars ripped my flesh, by Tim Cahill, I realized that the author had been paid to run off and have adventures and write about them. That sounded like a good deal to me, so I decided to be a writer. I haven't gotten paid to go on assignment yet, but I've done a lot of interesting things and I can write about them. Tim Cahill also has the gift of purposeful rambling. Me, at the moment, I'm just rambling.

Are you coming to commencement? You said you might, but I can also imagine something popping up for you. Things do pop up. For me, writing popped up, and trail work popped up, and school popped up, and Chris popped up. They say if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. I generally like making people laugh, but I usually don't bother to plan very far ahead, and things generally work out.

I do try to plan, sometimes. I went to college to learn how to do X, Y, and Z so I could get a better paying job, and I ended up learning things A through W, and still not being able to get a good paying job. So I went to graduate school, thinking that a real science degree could help me get that job, and I discovered that I'm actually not cut out for that job, but I am cut out for being a writer. I can't explain why a degree in conservation biology appears necessary to my becoming a free-lance writer, but it appears to be so.

So here I have once again rambled my way into some kind of gestalt, some kind of theme, this time about rambling.

And you remember the redwing blackbird I told you about hearing last week? Well, I hear him again now, through the window behind me. It sounds like he's singing from the same tree, which IS a sweet gum; I checked that out. So I'm feeling better.

I hope to see you at Commencement.

-best, C.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Meaning Extracted

Sorry for the ginormous email I sent you the other day. I hope it was at least interesting to you, meaningful to you--I'll stay out of your in-box for a while to let you digest all that, except, of course, for what I say here, which doesn't go into your in box, unless you've signed up for it. You've never mentioned doing so.

I kind of leak sometimes.

I've been leaking some today in another way--I had my wisdom teeth removed this morning. The bleeding has mostly stopped. I feel ok, other than sleepy and in need of being quiet and comfortable--sort of like having a cold when you're at the stage where it's really not that bad as long as you don't do anything. Except I have no other symptoms, except for still being partially numb--why use Novocain AND general anesthesia? Is the idea to give me some more time to heal before I feel any pain? Were they afraid I'd wake up in the middle? There's no pain now, only a kind of silence where the teeth used to be.

I hope they have little funerals for amputated teeth--they've served well, until recently--but I suspect they don't. I thought about asking for them. I could have had Chris play taps on his old trumpet while I buried them in the back yard. Mice would use them for calcium supplements, same as they used that whale skull that used to sit on the sand on the island. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in pieces or all at once.

I woke gradually this morning, out of the anesthesia, like waking from sleep but even more slowly. It was like sleep, and therefor less weird than I thought it might be. Less scary. I remember the dentist putting an ice pack thing on my head, but I don't think that was the first thing I was conscious of. I remember somebody walking me out, but not who. I remember Chris driving me home...I didn't remember stopping at the grocery store, but I wasn't surprised when he offered me apple sauce that wasn't in the house yesterday, so I must have been conscious when he bought it. I remember Chris putting me to bed and generally taking care of everything--a nice feeling--trying to give me medicine I didn't know I was supposed to take, but I couldn't swallow it because my tongue wasn't working. I work up some hours later feeling more normal, but I still get wobbly when I stand for too long. Zebras and such on nature documentaries wake up from anesthesia much faster. I don't think I've had any tracking devices implanted--though the tape and gauze from the IV is still on my wrist and feels a little funny. I can pretend it's a radio transmitter. And, being a primate with dexterous hands, I'm going to take it off. Ha ha! Take that, researchers!

Two memories stand out from this morning, both from before the operation.

The first, as we were getting into the car, I saw a small black bird perched in--I think it was a young sweet gum, the ones whose dry, prickly fruits we called monkey balls when I was a kid--the bird looked a bit like a redwing blackbird, and I'd seen one in the yard a week or two ago, but I couldn't see the color of his wings from where I stood. He was going tweet! tweet! tweet! over and over, and I thought a REAL birder would know who he is just from the sound. It was a pretty glum thought, because I really wanted to know. Usually I don't care so much, but it was almost knowing that piqued my curiosity. I had to know if I was right. Plus, I might have seen the same bird before--maybe he's one of our neighbors? There are marshes fairly nearby, I usually see them in marshes.

And then he sang. And I knew the song!

I knew the song! The bookstore at the park sells bird toys that sing, and Chris brought one home for his dogs a few years ago, so I heard the song coming out of the right color pattern fairly often for a while. I guess I learned it! At least in context....I was so thrilled I bounced up and down in my seat in the car for a minute or so, while Chris complained about not having had his coffee yet. This is why I claim to be a morning person.

The other image that stands out is that when I got out of the car at the dentists' office, I noticed the Bradford pear in the parking lot had mostly shed its flowers, though it still has flower stems--it's getting ready to produce its little round berrylike pears, I guess. Like crab-pears, rather than crabapples? Bradford pears are those small trees often planted in parking lot medium strips and the like. They have dark, furrowed bark and shiny, pointed oval leaves, and they bloom snow-white in the spring all at once. They also have brittle, fragile limbs, which they like to drop in the middle of things during wind storms. They are slightly stupid trees to plant, therefor, but ah, their blooms are beautiful!

When I was at the office last week, the bloom was in full...well, bloom, I guess. There was a logistical complication and I couldn't get the procedure done that day. I had to reschedule. And in the time that it took to fix that mistake, the Bradford pear display had been and gone. One of the markers of season had changed over.

So many petals, grown, erupted, and shed, no longer needed, left to feed insects or wherever else we go. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in pieces or all at once. It's a dance we all dance, and the dance persists.

-best, C.