Saturday, August 14, 2010

Horror in the Laundryroom

(Image courtesy of
I can still remember the first slasher films I ever saw, although it's taken me an hour and a lot of random internet surfing to remember the title, Silent Scream.

All I really remember are a lot of terrifying moments in a big rambling seaside house. And then a horrible screaming madwoman escaping from an attic, all wild black hair, wild eyes and wildly swinging knife blade.

The heroine, the now-iconic Last Girl Standing, was forever walking into a room, down a hallway or out in the yard and suddenly finding horribly mutilated, bloody dead bodies (cue alarming violins). And screaming really loud.

She would reach into dark holes and shadowy recesses, from which things would grab her and pull her in.

In fact, she did all those stupid things that Scary Movie would later spoof, for example, in the banana scene.

When I got home that night after going to the movies, my mom asked me to go get the laundry out of the dryer, which was out in a detached garage.

I walked out into the cool night, flicked on the dim light in the garage, and looked over at the still-humming dryer, far off in the shadows.

Standing there in the doorway, I surveyed the darkened interior and thought of all the places a homicidal maniac might hide, behind the shelves, under the car, in the many dark corners.

In those days, we were already taught to be scared by events that occurred around us, horrifying true events that took on legendary proportions as we talked about them. Just two years earlier, a stranger brutally raped Mary Vincent, a teen runaway hitchhiker, cut off her arms and left her for dead on the roadside.

The orange groves in the town where I lived were legendary crimes scenes, and if we had to bicycle past them at dusk, we would do it frantically.

So with all those thoughts in my tender head, I slowly entered that place of noise and shadows.

As I approached the dryer, I saw something behind it, something large, flesh-colored and . . . trembling.

A dead body? A severed leg? My heart was racing, my ears ringing. What was it?

Did I turn and run back into my house screaming? No. Family dynamics in my childhood home didn't allow for any of that. Unless I was actually dead, I was expected to return to the house only if I had the clean laundry in my arms.

So I had no choice but to solve this mystery myself.

Swallowing my terror, I edged closer to the vibrating heat of the dryer and cautiously peered behind it.

I half expected to see bloody horror back there. At the same time, the back of my neck prickled as I half expected something to grab me from behind.

But here I am to tell the story, so we all know no homicidal maniac lurked in my garage that night.

My dad had attached one of my mom's old nylon stockings to the dryer vent to catch the lint. When the dryer was going, the stocking filled with air and lint, filled into the shape of a human leg, bouncing gently in the dusty, cobwebby shadows behind the dryer.

Sighing in relief, I loaded the warm clothes into the basket, shut off the light and went back into the house. My parents never knew.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I get to blog at work now sometimes.

Blogging at work is a Special Project. My boss will wander into my cubicle, ask how I'm doing and then say the words I love to hear: "I have a Special Project for you."

It's always something fun and interesting, something outside the box. One day, I took a client sightseeing. One time, I rummaged through boxes to find something. One day, I proofread a press release. One day, I wrote a brochure. One day, I made a cake.

Blogging is a regular thing, though, and it happens about once a week.

Over time, my understanding of the technology I'm expected to write about has grown. I've only been studying it for a little over a month. I read technical manuals and textbooks over my lunch.

At first it was hard to write, hard to set free the writer in me, when I wasn't even sure of which words to use to string together the technical terminology and jargon.

As teachers of writing know, the surest sign of someone using a term they don't understand is which little words they surround it with; which prepositions they use will show how close their own relationship with the term is.

In linguistics, your (the reader's, the writer's, the speaker's) relationship to the action is hidden cleverly inside those little terms. Think of deixis. Think of dramatism. But I digress (more about digressions later).

Well, that novice writer, that awkward user of unfamiliar terms: that's me at work.

Not only that, but maybe I wanted to liven up the writing, use unexpected active verbs, be creative. At first, I didn't dare. My blog entries were uncharacteristically short, a little stiff.

Now, most recently, I finally wrote about something I actually understood. It was fun, it flowed. But when I digressed in a totally interesting (to me) direction, I was instructed to cut that part out.

So now, it seems, I have leftover parts -- little things I've written that are going to have to wind up somewhere. And of course, by somewhere, I mean here.

Coming up next: The amazing journey of the salmon migrating not only hundreds of miles upstream but also migrating from my work blog to here. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Many months ago, I made a wager, of sorts.

I passed my perfectly reliable car along to my son, whose precipitous entree into adulthood meant he needed my help. And I began driving an older SUV that I bought cheap last fall.

I gambled that I would finish school and become gainfully employed before the SUV began to wear out and need a lot of work.

The race is on.

I'm working now and paychecks come in with regularity, but I am still playing the catch-up game financially. And for months now, I have been trying to track down and solve a noise my car makes.

The noise is a high-pitched whine like the one you hear sometimes on the street and you think uncharitably, "That person needs a new fan belt," and you can't help but wonder how they could be so negligent as to ignore something so simple. And annoying.

Well, it's not that simple. In pursuit of The Noise, I replaced the serpentine belt, then the alternator pulley came loose. I replaced the alternator. Then the idler. Then the tensioner. I bought a better belt. In between these things, the noise went away and then returned, getting worse and worse.

The only things even left in the pulley system that weren't brand new were the air conditioner and the water pump.

In desperation, I went to a mechanic friend and said, can't you do something, bypass the air conditioner with a shorter belt or something?

He looked under my car and say, "Karol, you have bigger problems than a weird noise." Coolant was flowing out beneath my car.

The good news is replacing the water pump will probably fix the noise. The bad news is that fixing it now means I have to spend my rent money; rent is due the first and I don't get paid again until the eighth.

Fun, fun, fun. It's hard to say where the wager stands.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write Like...

...H.P. Lovecraft, apparently, writer of the sci-fi sub-genre "weird fiction" and whose "protagonists usually achieve the mirror-opposite of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality and the abyss."

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Polaris & Pan

I think grad school was my mooring for the last three years; amongst all the life-altering events (divorce, for one), grad school was a constant, like the Northern Star, keeping me oriented.

And then, a little over a month ago, I graduated.

I should poll my colleagues and see if anyone else feels as thoroughly disoriented as I do now that it's all over.

There was such a flurry of activity leading up to graduation that it was all I could do to hang on tight, work as hard as I could and try not to overlook any details.

The Flurry
There was the finishing of the thesis, a copy of which had to be mailed off to my second reader who had retired to Southern California; then I had to get approvals, track down lots of signatures, write a dedication page, get a copy to the department for binding, etc.
There was an awards ceremony, at which I found out I did not win the Patricia O. McConkey Award for Outstanding Thesis of the Year. Even though I knew the nomination was a huge honor, I was still a bit sad and disappointed after the ceremony.
Then there was a totally fun barbecue at my place to congratulate and thank my colleagues and celebrate ahead of time with friends and family.
Major highlight of that day was that my son, his girlfriend and my precious granddaughter spent the whole day.
And then, graduation itself: exciting, heady, a little overwhelming.
I was very much aware that this was the last time I would get to experience this particular company, my fellow grad students. Never before has my life contained such a bounty of intelligent company and trusted colleagues. I wonder if it ever will again...
So I tried to savor the moments, there at the ceremony, the laughter, the shared excitement, the sense of belonging.
And then, a dozen friends scattered to the four winds, to teaching jobs in New Mexico, Virginia, the Bay Area, to PhD programs in Texas, to summer vacations in Gold Country, Oregon, Monterrey.

And here I still am.

The Floundering
And then came the job hunt, not to mention dozens of existential questions about what I even really want to do. Teach? After completely surrendering my life, heart and soul to grad school for three years, I am hesitant about surrendering those things again--a surrender that teaching as a career seems to demand.

But after flailing around for awhile, alternating bouts of extreme lazy self-indulgence with bouts of existential angst, I finally started a new job last week--- in marketing.

I was trying to think outside the box, trying to find a job for which my particular skill set would be of value (former journalist with an advanced degree in persuasive writing). But also something that would allow me to work just while at work, then be able to claim my off hours for my own.

Once I figure out the business and the market, that is . . .

It's a telecommunications company, so there is a steep learning curve for me. After a training Friday, I had to go home and take a nap because my brain hurt. A textbook my boss put on my desk Monday morning is called Wireless LANs: Implementing Interoperable Networks. Yikes!

Finding my Footing
Anyway, I've spent the last month feeling a little disoriented--in life, at home, at work, spiritually, emotionally, materially.

Who was I before life became so complicated? Before I got married, before my kids grew into teenagers, before I became a grandmother, before my son's accident, before I got a divorce, and before college and especially graduate school made me set aside all my personal interests in order just to survive?

So for a month now, I've been going on dates and having romantic adventures. I've been yard sale-ing, cooking, playing guitar, painting, flying kites, hiking, bicycling, picnicking, drinking cocktails and sunbathing. I've even begun to read for pleasure.

I think of a quote from my little niece's website:
"On my good days, I believe in love, laughter, and the goodness of people. On my cynical days, hedonism is always a nice alternative." --Emily
I like that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Love Grows

My eldest son became a young father last fall, a challenge that he has risen to with beautiful grace that absolutely humbles me.

In a matter of months, this wild, reckless boy transformed into is a strong, fine man; an able, willing provider; a patient, loving partner; and a kind, gentle father.

As for me, I really didn't know what grandmotherhood was going to be about, but I guessed it would just mean that there would be a new child in our family to love.

I didn't predict that my love for my son was going to take on new dimensions. I didn't know it was possible to love him more or more deeply.

Nor did I predict that my love for my granddaughter would be filtered through-- inextricable from-- my love for my son and his love for his daughter. It's hard to describe.

I began to understand it the day my granddaughter was born. Of course, I was deeply moved by the arrival of this precious new being. But I was absolutely floored by the curve of my son's shoulder as he held the warm bundle of his daughter for the first time. And by the softness of his face as her tiny hand curled around his finger.
My son and his family visit me sometimes, and my dear little granddaughter, now eight months old, has just learned to crawl. It seems I need to vacuum more. And I need to do some rearranging to accommodate a little explorer in Grandma's house.

I love way my son and his girlfriend look at their baby girl, the way they hold her and the way they talk to her.

I love how my son won't let his daughter put a metal spoon in her mouth in case she might chip her two brand-new teeth.

I love the way he put leggings on her when her newfound crawling ability made her bare knees turn red from the carpet.

I love the way he tells her she's the prettiest girl in the world, second only to her mother, and her mother responds, "No, she's way prettier," and my son and his girlfriend give each other a little smile.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Feather on the Breath of God

Image courtesy of
Excerpted from A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez (1995)

But was it so terrible to be an old maid? I saw myself traveling in foreign cities. Bright sun, ancient stones, the endless noon of the streets and the eternal dusk of the churches. Straw hat, sandals, a white blouse, and a skirt flaring gracefully below the knee. Dinner alone: bread, cheese, fruit. Long train rides, rocking, dreaming. No one knows me. The unfamiliar peace of a hotel room. The narrow bed with its iron bedstead. Faded wallpaper, original paintings touching in their crudeness. No one knows you, you can make yourself up anew every day. This evening you have written two letters and finished the guidebook. You take a long walk, and when the stranger comes, you make love on the narrow bed, no English, speak with the body. And afterward the bed is too small, good night, my dear, never forget, goodbye, goodbye.

Are there really women like this or only women who write stories about women like this?

Someone has said: To be a woman is always to be hiding something.

A woman, a wife, a mother, sits in a cafe with me and talks about this man she calls the love of her life. Out of her life now, as he must be, for he was wrong for her in all ways but one. When she left him for good, she took one of his shirts; she wanted to have something with his smell in it. It was his smell, she says, that drove her beyond reason, drove her to risk everything that was most important to her. "I kept it in a plastic bag in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and from time to time when I cannot resist, I take it out and I bury my face in it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Drive All Night

(By Awna Texaira/Po' Girl)
Where's your home
When life's spent on the road?
Where you gonna hide your eyes
When your heart's come undone?

It could take all day
Heading out before the sun comes up
You could break down
Before you get out of town

What's done is done
No matter what's been said
It's something, how much it takes
When your friends are far away

I can't judge you
For the things that you did
I'd take it back
Oh If I could

How can you tell
Where the road ever ends?
She'll wrap her arms around you
As you drive all night

I drive all night
The highway lines
Just to see you
Smiling back at me

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All I Want

(By Joni Mitchell)
I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?

Oh I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me.

I want to be strong, I want to laugh along
I want to belong to the living.

Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive.

Do you want to dance with me baby?
Do you want to take a chance
On maybe finding some sweet romance with me, baby?
Well, come on.

All I really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you too

I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you
I want to renew you again and again

Applause, applause - life is our cause
When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws

Do you see how you hurt me baby?
So I hurt you too
Then we both get so blue

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the key to set me free.

Oh the jealousy, the greed is the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be

I want to have fun, I want to shine like the sun
I want to be the one that you want to see

I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free

I want to make you feel free

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Facebook & Etiquette

A life like the one I've lived thrives with a tool like Facebook. Here's why:

My life has been nomadic, characterized by self-reinvention and tenuous group connections. All my life, I've tried on lifestyles like costumes, found all of them rather ill-fitting and eventually moved on to the next one.
  • A childhood in rural west Texas, an adolescence in a Southern California alternative high school, and a half a year as a terrible misfit in a Central Texas high school.

  • Three wild young adulthoods, one working in bars and partying in Central Texas, another as a Santa Cruz beach bum, and another as a Grateful Deadhead.

  • A mom of two little boys in Southern Humboldt. A newspaper editor. An after-school program director in an elementary school. Married woman.

  • "Returning student" at a community college. English major. Graduate student. ESL teacher. Writing teacher.

  • Mother of teenagers. Empty nester. Divorcee. Grandmother. World traveler. Swedish language learner.
What this history does socially is leave a trail of wildly various friends, family and acquaintances located all across the country and even around the globe.

I feel real affection and regard for a group of people who have never met one another, whose ages range from 0 to 85, whose politics, desires and outlooks span the spectrum.

So for me, Facebook is a blessing. When I log on, there they all are, as different as snowflakes and seeming to be right in my neighborhood, no matter where they are really.

I can come home after a long day, log onto FB and it is like being at a wonderful, eclectic, interesting party -- even though such a party could never really exist.

So my lifestyle allows me to have a special appreciation for Facebook. I admit, I'm sometimes baffled by how others use it, but their ways have allowed me to recognize how mine is different and to think about why that is.

Facebook Etiquette

Your Facebook "wall," or homepage always has a line of ads up the side that are triggered by your comments and conversations. Clearly, FB is a database of public conversations that allows the host to sell ad space by claiming the ads can be targeted. The more "applications" you authorize to access your account, the more advertisers can target their ads to you.

Generally, I ignore ads if at all possible. I find it easy to ignore visual ads, more difficult to ignore animated ones, and impossible to ignore audio ones. Just because I can't ignore them, however, doesn't mean I am persuaded to buy/partake/vote for whatever is being advertised. Quite the opposite, actually.

When I notice Facebook ads, I note their connection to recent conversations, for example, homeschooling ads followed yesterday's homeschooling conversation. Writing, publishing and academic ads frequently appear.

Today, I noticed that politics were dominating the ads of my "wall," politics that bear no relationship whatsoever to my own political views.

This makes me realize that I don't often express my "real" opinions on Facebook.

That's not because I don't have opinions; I most definitely do.

But because of the situation I described above, because of the wide variety of people there, and because I care about them all, I stay with neutral, humorous or basic-human topics on Facebook.

FB is about making connections, not alienating people. So I follow a certain self-designed etiquette when using it:
  • I don't lay my politics or religion on my FB friends, nor do I try to sell them anything.

  • If I don't have something nice to say, I try not to say anything (though I have, in the past).

  • I don't get in arguments (although I have in the past). My argumentation and rhetoric skill is kung fu I try to keep in its place.

  • I try to reveal my individuality and quirkiness without scaring anyone away.

  • I show my humanity and weakness, and ask for support, because we are all human and need that.

  • I try not to say things that are so enigmatic not one person understands me, because what on earth is the point of that?

  • Out of kindness and love, I tolerate the foibles of those who grumble and grandstand and try to sell me stuff.

  • If it goes beyond the pale, I delete. I don't believe in "hiding" people (making their updates invisible). That seems dishonest.
What do you think? What etiquette do you follow?

Friday, March 26, 2010

In the Hood

Here in this image from HSU ceremony 2008, you can see the master's hood and the doctor's hood.

As the ceremony for finishing my master's program edges closer, I've become curious about the history of its pageantry and costuming.

For this ceremony, I will need more than a cap and gown, now I will need a white hood. White is the color that denotes my area of study -- in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The master's robe is different, as well, in the shape of the sleeves. Whereas bachelors' sleeves are pointed, masters' sleeves are very long, with slits for the arms to come through.

Master's gown

Doctor's gown

Bachelor's gown
Images courtesy of

I'm also going to need a stole (sash) to indicate that I'm graduating with distinction. I don't know what color yet, but presumably gold. When I was an undergrad, it was a gold honors cord worn around my neck, and for my associate's degree, it was a gold sash.

History of Academic Regalia

These outfits, now worn only at graduation, used to be everyday dress for scholars in 14th century English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. In those days, scholars were clerics and dressed accordingly.

The custom came to America through King's College in New York. It spread, the colors became standardized in the late 19th century, and little has changed since.

The Gown

Also called a robe, the gown is usually black and is designed differently for each of the three types of degrees. As I mentioned earlier, the sleeves are different, bachelors' pointed, masters' long with wrist-openings, and doctors' sleeves are bell shaped. Doctors' robes have trimmings including colored panels down the front and three velvet bars on the sleeves. Bachelors wear their robes closed, masters and doctors can wear their open or closed.

The Hood

The hoods, which are separate from the gown, hang down in the back to reveal their satin lining in school colors and their edges, whose color indicates the scholar's field of study. They are long, three-to-four feet, and their length and width depends on the degree earned.

Caps, Mortarboards and Tassels

We all know what a graduation cap looks like, so rather than describe it, I will tell you its interesting history. Our modern version is a combination of skullcap and mortarboard.

The skullcap remains from the time when clerics wore their hair cut in a tonsure, shaved on top with a ring of hair around the sides. They wore skullcaps to keep their heads warm.

As for the mortarboard, there was a rule in England in 1559 that clerics had to wear square caps to indicate their profession, and from those early square caps evolved our modern mortarboard (so-called because of their resemblance to the boards masons used to hold mortar in place).

Meanwhile, professors at Oxford began wearing, as a mark of dignity, a skullcap with a point at the top, usually made of velvet. This evolved into the velvet beret professors now wear at commencement ceremonies.

On top of those dignified caps was a knob holding a string that was tied at the back of the head to keep it in place, a string that was the forefather of our modern tassel.

Modern Twists

Some universities insist on sober clothing worn under graduation regalia, but HSU has a more relaxed policy.

Also, people often decorate the top of their mortarboards to express their individuality or wear sashes that indicate some affiliation. Native American students and African American students, for example, often wear sashes of culturally meaningful colors. Graduates from the nursing program often balance traditional nurses caps on top of their mortarboards.

I have seen no such group affiliation in the English department, but a friend decorated her mortarboard with a linguistically diagrammed sentence.

When I earned my associate's and bachelor's degrees, I decorated my caps with a brooch that had belonged to my grandmother. What will I do this year?

Here is a pic of graduation 2007 with my professor, adviser and dear friend.

Here is another with several of my classmates from the English Department, 2007.

Note: I gleaned much of this information from which has a good history section with excerpts from academic research articles on the history of academic customs and ceremonies.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Swimming Pool Daydreams

When my youngest son was little, I used to go to water aerobics class to work out in the water. Any excuse to get in a pool; I seriously love to swim.

I didn't know anyone, so I just minded my own business, exercised against the resistance of the water, enjoyed feeling strong and buoyant, sunshine on my hair, the scent of chlorine in the air.

Well, I didn't entirely mind my own business, because I spent a fair amount of time eavesdropping on the conversations of two little old ladies -- and daydreaming about their lives.

They were schoolteachers near retirement who came to the pool to exercise, best friends from way back, and they were always full of stories of places they had just traveled. It seemed like they were always just getting back from somewhere.

Greece. Australia. A cruise through the Caribbean.

I never talked to them. I never even knew their names, but I listened to their stories. I wanted to be like them -- confident, secure, with a best friend by my side, adventures ahead as well as behind me.

It was in that pool that my dream of becoming a teacher was born, not of selfless desire to help people or spread knowledge, but to work nine months a year and travel all summer.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Like the Wild Roses

"The long empty roads
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal unresponsive sky.

Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;

Youth, with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk."
-- Excerpted from "Prairie Spring," epigraph to O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I read this today and wanted to share it with someone. I like the juxtaposition of the tired unrelenting world against the bright energetic flash that is youth.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Breathing Life

Beautiful spring image courtesy of

Today I can finally breathe again, after a bout with pneumonia. I am on day three of antibiotics and day eight of being cooped up in the apartment. No more fever, and I can finally feel little stirrings of energy and determination and hope.

I have not enjoyed good health this winter, and the reason is stress.

is such a 21st century word, so businesslike and modern. Sibilant as a sigh -- which is very misleading. It should be a long, garbled string of hard consonants, in my opinion, something better befitting its monstrous and deadly nature.

It makes us ill, but that can be a blessing in disguise. I had eight days of forced solitude and inactivity -- a little time out. There was nothing to do but feel terrible, rally the energy to take showers, make glasses of juice and take medicine --- and notice what my life has become.

I don't like what my life has become.

At this point, you probably want me to explain myself. Let me just summarize by saying that it become filled to overflowing with things that are not life-affirming.

One of them, unfortunately, is graduate school. A mistake, a miscalculation, a black hole for everything that matters in my life, it eats all my time and energy and gives absolutely nothing in return. It leaves me with no time to earn a living, no energy for my family, and no inclination for seeking happiness and love.

Yet, I'm only two months away from graduating, so I have to see it through. I have to look at what remains of it and try to get it done. In May when I graduate, will I celebrate it as an accomplishment? I just don't know.

Another thing that has taken more than its fair share of my life force lately is the love I have been completely wasting. All the humiliating events of the last few months haven't shaken me out of it, but spending several days alone sick finally did.

I realize that our real friends and loved ones are the people who check on us when we are ill. The rest are just people we know.

So now that the antibiotics have begun to kick in and I am looking at resuming my life, I want to live it in a way that will keep me healthy. I won't be pouring my precious life energy into anything that doesn't enrich me or my family or the world.

I started this post thinking it was going to be an extended metaphor about pruning the dead or life-draining parts away, something I have posted about before here at the Bitten Apple. I searched the archives for that post and, to my surprise, I discovered it was written almost exactly a year ago, March 18, 2009.

So maybe this is something that just happens to me in the March, like spring cleaning.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

One Secret

I write this through a fever haze that seems to affect the touch of my fingers on the keyboard. If you see a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation, be lenient with me today, please. I have the flu.

It has been nearly a month since I last posted, tantalizingly announcing the existence of three secrets to be revealed. Here is one:

That thesis, that 80-page behemoth that I labored over through the winter and despaired that no one would ever read, that thesis has been nominated for an award!

The Patricia O. McConkey Outstanding Thesis award. Here is a link to last year's call for nominations.

This has renewed my faltering interest in my thesis and renewed my determination to finish it. I also had to write a 1,000-word summary of the project, which was an excellent exercise in refocusing my energy.

Just the nomination means I will graduate with distinction, which was my highest goal. So I don't even need to win; this makes me very happy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Image courtesy of
I woke up this morning to my alarm, which I had set even though it's my day off, because I wanted to have a productive morning.

But I was momentarily confused when I woke up, thinking it was Thursday and I needed to get to work. Panic!

This is the second Wednesday in a row I've done that. What is wrong with me?

My work this semester is interning in a class called Structure of American English, under my thesis adviser, someone whose opinion of me is very important. I guess I live in fear of blowing it somehow.

Other than that brief moment of panic, it was a very ordinary day. I took care of ordinary things today.

I made an appointment, washed the dishes, took out the trash, put oil in my truck, chatted with my neighbor and did homework.

This evening I did my laundry at the laundromat. While the clothes washed, I did more homework by the interior light of my truck, rain pattering down outside and evening traffic swishing by on Central Avenue.

I chatted with the little old lady who works at the laundromat and wondered what it would be like to do her job, folding other people's laundry all day, cleaning the bathroom, wrestling all the big machines.

I'd do it. I need a job -- one that doesn't involve reading great mounds of essays and worrying 24 hours a day.

For dinner, I had hot wings from the Safeway deli. I chatted with the deli guy who is very cute and friendly.

Underneath all this ordinariness, I have exactly three extraordinary secrets that I will be able to tell eventually. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Drama of Sameness and Difference

I'm trying to find a satisfactory definition of ennui, something more descriptive than the "feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction" that Merriam-Webster offers up, and yet something that doesn't drag you straight down into a black hole populated with grotesquerie like Sylvia Plath's sonnet, "Ennui."

Something about a world drained of color should be in a proper definition, don't you think?

Even Walter Sickert's stark brown painting is a bit too colorful for this feeling, although I do appreciate the visual rhetoric of the half-full glass on the table (or is it half empty?). By the way, it is suspected that the artist, Sickert, might have been Jack the Ripper.
How about Asker Askerov's "Ennui"-- what the heck is going on here? A table topped with plenty of variety and goodness ignored by the listless woman at the table.
Here is a 16th century illustration of the health problem of ennui. A sad, bored person sits surrounded by books full of knowledge, cupboards full of curiosities and windows full of views.
I'm thinking that world-weary seems like a more adequate definition.

The problem is not with the world, of course. The world continues to spin thrillingly and to be populated with its usual glorious circus. It continues its usual pageant of sunsets, rainbows and synchronicity.

And yet, all of a sudden, the endless underlying patterns that other times offer comfort and orientation, suddenly just look like ... sameness. Same old sameness.

We need a little of both, I think. Some sameness to keep us oriented and comfortable, some difference to keep us interested.

There is probably a mathematical formula, a necessary balance that must be struck before we can feel satisfaction. I guess it's related to the usual tensions, such as that between order and chaos, rest and motion. But do we really need equal parts of each --difference and sameness --in order to be happy?

The problem, as I noted earlier, is not with the world, which continues to pour forth surprises as it always has. We're talking about a world that includes the Permian extinction event, mutating viruses and the platypus. It's hard to see how we could ever be bored.
Ennui is a problem with the way you're looking. It's like 3D glasses that makes some things apparent and others invisible.
We have this little thing in our brain called the reticular activating system, which is like a filter for what we notice and what we don't. It plays a role in language acquisition, which is how I learned about it. But I can't help wondering if it also plays a role in ennui.
Here's what I think:

In the wintertime, the world really does slow down, the colors really do drain right out, and our surroundings really are often limited by the weather. In wintertime, the world ceases its flamboyant displays; its beauty becomes understated -- all this just as the inconveniences of foul weather and illness set in.

If we want to keep ennui at bay in the wintertime, our reticular activating systems need to be in fine form and working overtime to see the difference-among-sameness that is the lifeblood of our satisfaction.

But how?

The scent of peppermint is said to stimulate this part of the brain. Some vitamin supplements claim to as well, for example, thiamine (found in wheat germ), and a synthetic form of B1 called sulbutiamine.

I don't know. It's worth a try. We have another two months of winter ahead of us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Unreal Life

Image courtesy of
In the same way the television is objectionable, the internet is also.

It takes a lot of effort to avoid the garbage, the incessant flow of mind pollution that the internet (just like the TV) brings into one's life.

This pollution bombards you against your will, while you're trying to engage in wholesome, meaningful activities. Examples of pollution: ads, popups, objectionable search results, and commercials, particularly the kind that remind us of the lowest human attribute -- lack of self-control.

Not only that, but spending time with the imaginary world of the internet (or the TV) means you're not spending time with actual flesh-and-blood people.

Like it or not, we are social creatures who need real human contact in order to survive. Remember Harlow's rhesus monkey experiment, where the baby monkeys failed to thrive without a loving touch? Or the institutionalized Romanian orphans of the 1990s or feral children throughout history?

Clearly, our development and progression depends on real, physical contact with real people.

Furthermore, doing things online (or watching TV) means you're not creating anything. Hell, the internet is even worse than TV, because with TV at least your hands are free for crocheting or something.

In fact, being online too much creates a kind of half-life; you seem to be living but not really. Really, you are sitting in front of an electronic box.

All your beautiful consciousness is directed into it; all the miraculous synapses of your brain are working on this imaginary scenario. It's a black hole for consciousness.
Photo courtesy of Vic Nanda,
I recognize this half-life notion from a long, long time ago when, for the briefest period, I allowed television into the house and started watching-- yes, I'll admit it-- soap operas.

For that, blessedly short, period of time, it seemed as if my life consisted mostly of doing laundry, folding it while watching soaps, and preparing and cleaning up after meals.

No writing, no studying, no artwork, no creating, no photography, no traveling, no parties, no lunches with friends.

Back then, I called my sister in Texas and told her I was feeling depressed. She asked me to describe my day. When I got to the part about soaps, she stopped me. "Hold on, we've identified your problem," she said.

And she was right. I turned off the TV and never looked back.

But here we are again, with a different little box of commercial messages and commercially motivated hooks for the human spirit.

I feel depressed. Should I call my sister and describe my day?
P.S. Here's an article about a couple whose four year love affair has been carried out entirely on Second Life.

P.P.S. An unsatisfactory little article about a study looking at a link between Facebook and depression. More studies like this are likely to arise.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

At the Crossroads

With hands that trembled a bit, I hit "print" and sent my thesis, which my advisers have assured me is not my magnum opus, to the printer. Eighty-five pages shot out of the machine in rapid succession.

Again, my hands trembled a little as I gathered them up, stacked them neatly together, felt the satisfying heft of them and tucked them safely away in a manila folder.

I had promised myself I'd finish this draft, this penultimate draft, by 2010. I doubted myself; I thought I would fail as I've failed so many things lately.

But with only this single thing on my agenda, I managed to do it.

All semester, I have been doing too many things. Any single one of these things I could have done with admirable flair, but all of them at once and frankly, I was just lucky not to fail spectacularly.

But just after 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, I was done. A whole night stretched ahead to celebrate, but all I wanted to do was rest my mind.

I am so bloody tired.
Who Will Read It?

It's hard to work on a thing that no one will ever read. It's hard to maintain your commitment with that realization by your side.

Some friends have asked me what it's about; one good friend, accustomed to academia, has offered to read it and give me feedback.

Many people don't even know what it is, what the big deal is. I confess I never really understood until now.

Who will read this thing I have created? My advising committee, and that's it.

It will be bound in green, labeled, then set to join the others on the shelf in the English Department office. There dust will collect on its surfaces, spiders nest in its crevices, and harried grad students of the future might choose it to look at vaguely for clues about what is expected of them.
The Unfolding Process

The product isn't that important, as it turns out -- important as defined by me and my views of what my own education has been about. Instead, it is the process that mattered.

Indeed, in some ways, it is a magnum opus, because writing it caused me to distill my thoughts and gather the resources I need to back up my own teaching philosophies with good, solid evidence.

It's not my best writing. It doesn't carry the reader along as I want my writing to do. This is the third piece of writing I've done that has had this effect, the effect of making me take a good look at something I've done, put it into perspective and make sense out of it.

One was the cover letter in my senior portfolio. The second was the entrance essay I wrote to get into graduate school. And now, my thesis. Pains in the ass, all, but powerful, powerful assignments, effective tasks that I strongly believe in.


It's hard to articulate what goes on in academia, particularly in grad school. How it opens you like a flower that never stops blooming, makes you shed your old, ill-fitting skin like a snake, over and over. Wakes up your mind like a night city coming to life.

I've heard people say we jump through hoops so we can get a piece of paper, the diploma. It is enough to make you cry to think that someone could go through the process of their own education and somehow manage to avoid being educated.

It is like saying the whole wild ride and witch's brew of marriage is about a gold ring. It's like saying life is about death. Ridiculous.

What Now?

So, here I am at the crossroads, wondering what will happen next.

I'm tired of school. I hope I never have to climb the stairs to Founders Hall again. Hope I never have to curse HSU as I search for parking or snatch a telltale green parking ticket off my windshield.

And yet. And yet.

On the Wane

Reach a hand to the crescent moon
Grab hold of the hollow
If she sits in the palm of the left
That moon will be fuller tomorrow

If she sits in the palm of the right
That moon is on the wane
And the love of the one who shares your bed
Will be doing just the same

Won't you come with me, she said
There's plenty of room in my iron bed
You're looking cold and tired
And more than a little human

I know I'm not part of the life you had planned
But I think once your body feels my hand
Your mind will change
And your heart will lose its pain
Do I reach for you when I know you're on the wane?
Do I sense you when I know you're not around?

Do I search for you when I know you can't be found?

Do I dare to speak your name?
Raise your eye to the moonless sky
Try to wish upon a rising star
Search all you want for her blessings
But you won't find her sparkling there

Now cast your eyes to a part of the sky
Where nothing but darkness unfolds
And watch as all around you she reveals
The brilliance of secrets untold

("Crescent Moon," Cowboy Junkies)