Tuesday, March 30, 2010

clap your hands if you believe

(My good friend Rose-Anne and I have been writing tandem weekly posts about the same topics. You'll be able to read hers here. Enjoy!)

When Rose-Anne reminded me that this week's tandem post was going to be about gender, I knew I was in trouble. (Gender trouble! Get it? No? Here you go.) That might seem counterintuitive, given that the only reason we’re writing about it at all is because it’s something I’ve written about before; next week we’ll be covering a topic more prominent in Rose-Anne’s writing. Anyway, given that this is my topic, why was I concerned about it? I have some haphazard credentials in this area: a few classes taken in college, a shelf or two of books that I've mostly actually read, Kate Bornstein's signature and lipsticked kiss in my copy of Gender Outlaw, and an organizational role in Genderqueer Chicago, a weekly safe-space community discussion group. I even have a business card. I spend a lot of time thinking about gender, so writing about it should be no problem. Right?

Well. You know how if you say (or write) a word over and over to yourself it begins to lose its meaning, to become a collection of nonsense syllables without any content? You sit there, and you say "Wow, 'tongue' is such a totally weird word!" and then you forget about it until it happens again with something else. Gender is sort of like that for me. Talking about gender is sometimes difficult enough, but writing about it is almost always like trying to make sense of the word "stoop" after I've said it for the hundredth time in a row: in other words, virtually impossible. The problem is that, for all the time I've spent thinking about it, I actually have no idea at all what gender is. I mean, I sort of do, in that I know some of the potential definitions, and I have some fairly clear ideas as to what it isn't--sexual orientation, for one, or some sort of penis/vagina binary--but if you asked me what it really truly is, what lies in the deep dark heart of the word "gender", I don't think I could tell you.*

Gender as a theoretical concept is one thing—and an important one, I believe; as one friend told me, you can’t create change until you can imagine it—but what really matters right now, what makes gender a big deal and worth talking about, is real life. In real life, people get harassed, beaten, killed, and commit suicide because they have and exhibit understandings of gender that differ from those of the people around them. But in real life there’s also room to play and joke and push boundaries and meet new people and be more considerate towards others and laugh and cry and dance around, and that can all take place in the realm of gender too. Because gender is on some level invented and possibly imaginary (or so I sometimes think of it), it’s an area open to exploration and learning. Being around people who are willing to re-imagine their gender lives in radical non-socially-approved ways has made me able to believe that other boundaries are more permeable also, and that there is space to live in between what I should do and what I might do.

One of my best friends, who is trans, consistently uses humor to diffuse the ire leveled towards him; when somebody asks him what he is (note the dehumanizing phrasing of that question), he simply raises his forefinger, upon which he has penned a mustache, puts it to his upper lip, raises his eyebrows, and walks away. He jokes about a Glitter Revolution, one formulated around play and acceptance, and he often carries a pouch of glitter with him that he will willingly sprinkle you with if you ask him nicely. He also told me one of the best stories I have ever heard, which I will pass on to you now.

He was on the beach, looking at the waves, spiffed up in a tie and collared shirt. A small child ran up to him and, as children often do, asked him if he was a boy or a girl. He smiled at her and told her, truthfully, that some people are more than just boys or girls. Her eyes got enormous and she leaned forward and whispered, as if she could barely believe her luck: “Like fairies?” “Yes,” my friend told her, “like fairies.” With that he reached into his pouch and blew some glitter towards her from a raised fingertip, and she ran off down the beach as fast as her legs could carry her.

I hope she remembers that some day and laughs. I hope she grows up believing that she can be more.

*Nor am I going to try; there are plenty of people who have written far more eloquently and knowledgeably about gender than I could ever hope to, and I suggest you read their words if you'd like to know more. If you don't know where to find them, write me a message and I'll get back to you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

on language

(I went ahead and linked a number of words in what follows, words that I either had to look up recently because I didn't know them or words that I was checking the definitions of. Hopefully a) that's not highly irritating, and b) you'll go ahead and follow a link if you don't know a word.)

Some time ago my co-worker and I instigated a practice that we refer to, rather unimaginatively, as "The Word of the Day." I'm not sure how it started, but more days than not one of us will show up with either a new word or a word that we particularly love floating around in our heads, and we'll look it up on dictionary.com and spend some time talking about it. (And yes, joke about how we might work it into conversations with customers.) Galvanized, puissant, crenulated (or even better, the adjective form crenate), ebullient, unalloyed, and my personal favorite, concupiscence: all these and more have been bandied around as we process flowers and dust antique vases. We bring each other poetry, too. It sounds almost romantic, except it's not at all. (The last poem I forced him to look up and read was Sylvia Plath's poem about terrifying oxygen-sucking red tulips.) We just both like words, those we know and those we haven't met yet.

But it's part of something larger, namely that lately I've been a little bit obsessed with words. I've always been a big fan of groups of words--poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, song lyrics, whatever--but lately my focus has been narrowing down a bit to individual words, the bits and pieces of the larger wholes I love so much. I was the kind of kid who breezed through vocabulary tests in school, baffled that other people didn't use words like "disparate" in their everyday lives, although public education did teach me at least three words (that I remember; surely there were many more) which spring easily to mind: vacillate, cupidity, and maudlin. The first two were vocab words; maudlin was taught to me by my seventh-grade math teacher for reasons that now escape me and that I suspect had little to do with math, but it's a great word and I use it as often as possible.

That math teacher also had a saying that he liked to throw out at us: Know What You Don't Know. It's good advice, and I try to keep it in mind now that I'm no longer even remotely a student because learning can definitely fall to the wayside when nobody's pushing you to earn a grade. People seem to like goals (A, B, C, D and so on), no matter how arbitrary, and somehow I don't know that education systems often manage to show that knowledge itself is actually the goal that is being striven towards. Once we exit their hallowed halls, I think it's all too easy to stop Knowing What We Don't Know and just start Not Knowing. There are reasons for that--work, family, financial struggle, all the many and multifarious distractions and hazards of daily life--but it's the easiest thing in the world to just let that particular lesson slide right on by. I'm not immune to this, but at least I'm aware of my own faults, and what better place to start from?

And so, I've kept on with my self-education. I may be living in the "real world", but due to my arty professions and self-oriented lifestyle I've managed to escape many of the potential distractions of adulthood, things like full-time employment and children, and as such I still have plenty of time to read. I'm grateful for this because I'm aware that many (most) people don't have this luxury, and in order to avoid some sort of cosmic intellectual hubris I've been trying to humble myself a little bit and focus on recognizing that there's a great deal I don't know. And this, it turns out, includes not just information but the very words themselves that are used to convey that information. Perhaps because I never had to work very hard at it, I also never made much of an effort to knowingly increase my vocabulary. All of my life I’ve been notoriously lax about looking up words, assuming that context would fill me in or that I probably knew a word already that meant close enough to the same thing that it didn’t matter much.

Now I’m trying to mend my ways, and so I’m keeping a dictionary by me while I read and looking up the things I’m not so sure about; unsurprisingly, it turns out that there is a lot to be said for the words I skimmed over or bypassed entirely before. I’m discovering that I really love learning a new word, feeling the flavor of it in my mouth, stowing it away for the moment that will surely come in which it will precisely convey what I'm trying to say, but I also feel somehow richer for simply knowing what the words that I myself use (somewhat) regularly mean. Maundering, for example, which a friend described as ‘the perfect storm where “mumble” meets “wander”’, or multifarious, which I used earlier in this piece and was convinced that I had invented out of thin air (perhaps some sort of illogical combination of multi-valenced, which itself may or may not be a real word usage, and nefarious) until I looked it up and decided that I was spot-on. Other words are—perhaps--less useful. Consider demiurge, which is most definitely the word of the week, and which has two meanings: a public official or magistrate in ancient Greece, and "(in the Gnostic and certain other systems) a supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the Supreme Being, and sometimes regarded as the originator of evil." A bureaucrat or the origin of evil: learning that those two were, in a perhaps anachronistic way, roughly synonymous sort of made my day.

I’m having fun looking up the money words, the big ones that I either don’t know at all or don’t know if I’ve been using correctly all these years, but there’s a certain amount of snobbery that I feel like I’m admitting to when I confess my love for words like sybarite or shibboleth. A much deeper part of this is that I’m realizing how many words I love just because they exist, because of how they roll out of my mouth and the precise way I understand them inside of my own head, and in this particular instance size truly doesn’t matter. When I say a word I enjoy, a word like certainty or chaste or insouciant, I can almost feel my brain flipping through the series of pictures, instants, memories, that inform my understanding of this particular word and its usage, and I feel a deep sense of happiness just for the knowing of it. I try very hard to pay attention to the beauty of the small details of my life, and what is smaller than a word, the lowest meaningful level of verbal communication? I’m owning what I don’t know, and I feel alight with possibility. Except really, I prefer incandescent.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

secret agent

(This is something I posted on Genderqueer Chicago's blog last week. Maybe I talk about this too much... Or not enough. Anyway.)

“Hey baby.”

I sigh and roll my eyes, because this has happened to me every damn day this week. Nothing much about me has changed, but spring is in the air and I guess that makes me fair game for every random stranger on the street who feels that catcalling is definitely the way to get into somebody’s pants. I’m tired of it, and tired of the reactions it inspires in me; peering distrustfully at everybody who glances my way is not my preferred method of interaction. It’s especially galling to me now, even more so than it’s been in the past, because there is so much about me that these people don’t know. I look perfectly average, but inside this quiet and ordinary exterior is a genderfunny polyamorous queer, a wild reimagining of what a “good girl” could and should be, and it bothers me that my internal complexity is so imperfectly mirrored by the external presentation that feels most comfortable to me.

I’ve always been undercover, sometimes even to myself. I spent my childhood, my full-fledged girlhood, purposefully and happily wearing white gloves, lacy ankle socks, and frilly dresses—I would make my mother take me grocery shopping while dressed like that, often also wearing a large white straw hat with a ribbon on it—and other than my sporadic fascination with various female characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation (Beverly Crusher, oh yeah, and Tasha Yar before that) and the fact that I laughed so hysterically when I saw my first penis that my mother had to force me to apologize to my father for hurting his feelings, there doesn’t seem to be much in my early history that marked me as a potential queer. There were no childhood dreams of a corseted Tim Curry or a latex-clad Michelle Pfeiffer for me, and I tended far more towards the geek side than the tomboy aesthetic. “Nah, I don’t want to build a clubhouse today, I think I’m gonna go read.” Which I guess is queer in its own right, actually, but not quite in the accepted way.

I prefer undercover to the more commonly-used “invisible”, because it makes me feel smart and subversive instead of just lonely. If I say I’m undercover, I feel like a spy, like I can sneak in behind enemy lines with my quiet straight-looking nice-girl exterior and blow people’s minds when I finally get around to talking. If I start to feel invisible, though, that’s a whole different matter. Nobody wants to lack history; nobody wants to feel alone. But when I try to connect myself to the larger continuum of queerness, I usually feel like I don’t have access to the visible representation that might help facilitate that connection: when I see other queers on the street, there’s no frisson of recognition or meeting of eyes across a crowded bus, because I look like just another straight person on my way to wherever. Hell, I probably look straighter than most of them, if I happen to be in a neighborhood with a lot of hipsters.

There’s an adage of sorts that says that The Master’s Tools Can Never Dismantle The Master’s House, and I suspect that’s part of why femmes, non-queer-looking folks, and a whole slew of other potential identities get so much conscious and unconscious shit from everybody else: we look like we’re using the master’s tools. Hell, sometimes it feels like I’m using the master’s tools, what with my apparent and supposed normality and such; I’m well aware of how much easier my life is because of how I look—not to mention my race, my class, my level of education, all the stuff that is weighted before my favor, mostly determined before I even had much of a say in it—and sometimes that feels really, really shitty. What do you do when the tools you have at your disposal look so much like the tools of the ruling ideology, the ideology that has been screwing up the world for just about as far back as anybody can remember, that they are outwardly indistinguishable? That line is razor-thin, and I’ve never wanted to walk the straight and narrow, not really.

There are queers hidden under shy exteriors, shy interiors hidden under flamboyant presentations; there are a million different ways to be alive, all of them valid and joyful and contradictory and confusing. I think the only way to begin to respect all of that is to listen to others, and to speak up—even if it’s in a whisper, even if it’s in writing, because in addition to being nonvisibly queer I’m also one of the quiet ones and I understand not always wanting to be loud. But if we can’t be seen, we have to find each other somehow; that’s why I wrote this and why, even as I respect my own comfort levels, I sometimes rush across them. I want to be who I am and I believe that there’s value in that, but I need community as much as anybody else. It makes me stronger.

Maybe eventually I’ll get fed up with all of this and decide that really I’ve always wanted that mohawk and those cool tattoos that might make me seem more queer on the bus and I’ll leave all this ambiguity behind, but I doubt it. I don’t want to blow my cover.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

everything with wings is restless

(This is the second in a series of thematically-linked posts my friend Rose-Anne and I are doing. You can go straight to her post here, and in fact I highly recommend it.)

I was on the phone a few weeks ago with one of my nearest and dearest friends when she told me how much it bothered her to know things had changed since she moved away, the feeling that she wasn't keeping up with the lives of her friends. It stopped me short, and left me momentarily speechless. I suddenly felt the terrible inadequacy of the telephone, the attempt at summation of daily life into a weekly or bi-monthly conversation, the pang you get when somebody far away from you mentions an event or a person or a place fondly and you realize that you have no idea what they're talking about. It's a special kind of disorientation, to suddenly discover that a medium which is supposed to promote communication is instead capable of leaving you with such a vast and barren feeling of isolation.

I remember that feeling from when I moved to Chicago. I'd left behind everything I knew, friends and family and my lover, easy transportation and mountains and a sense of place, and instead of approaching my new surroundings with an open mind I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to pretend that I was still where I had been. That first year I literally felt like I had moved to a foreign country, one where girls wore high heels paired with jeans even in the snow, where there were large bodies of water really nearby and it was cold all the time, and instead of exploring what was new I mostly just moped around wishing for what was familiar. But of course, no matter how hard I tried to pretend that nothing had changed, I ran again and again into the realization that really I was on my own, and the voice on the other end of the line was living a completely different life from mine. I think the refusal to accept that slowed down the process of letting here become home; if I’d opened myself up to what was happening to me instead of what wasn’t, I would perhaps have been much happier much sooner. Alas for being young and foolish and heartsick!

There is an art to long-distance connection, to knowing where you are and where other people are and recognizing that those are not the same, but without letting go of what made you close in the first place. I'm trying to keep this in mind, because suddenly a great many people I know have moved or are moving or have long lived elsewhere, and I couldn't bear to lose them all. In the space between last year and next year, nearly all of the people who are closest to me are changing locations. Chicago to California, Texas, Canada, New York and New York and New York again and again; Alaska to Albuquerque, California and Canada to destinations yet to be determined. My friends and loved ones are and will be learning new cities, adjusting to different geographies, and seeing what that means for their future selves. They will change, because their lives will demand it of them, and I here in Chicago will change, and so what will we talk about in that moment when it becomes obvious that we are no longer exactly the same people who rode our bikes through the streets or spent evenings baking cookies together?

Proximity is certainly helpful to friendship and affection but I refuse to believe that it's the only reason for being emotionally close to somebody, and not only because I'd be screwed next year what with the mass exodus and all. I believe instead that the people who I’m really connect with will stay around, if only metaphorically. In light of this hope, I’ve recently been making a concerted effort to be a better friend, to keep up with those who are still here and to renew and strengthen my long-distance connections with those who have already left. As part of that effort I’ve been writing emails and the occasional letter (snail mail, gasp!), making phone calls, and I’ve even learned how to use skype, but as I do all of these things I’m also trying hard to leave space for myself to be alone and to make sure that I don’t forget where and who I am. I’m here, in this city that I love almost in spite of myself, and there are no plans to change that in the immediate future. I am where I am, and I want to appreciate that even as I keep the people I love close to my heart.

It’s especially important for me to remember that last part now because, well… I’m a little bit jealous. There’s all this flow all around me, I’m reading books about far-off places that I’ve yet to visit, so many people I care about are relocating, and basically I’m in the throes of mini-wanderlust even as I bolt bookshelves into my walls. It’s paradoxical, the desire to strengthen my roots even as I dream of elsewhere. My attempts to stay closer to people who aren’t here are also a way to remind myself why I am still here: because I’m happy, because there are things here that I’m not ready to leave yet, because this is where I met many of those wonderful people and because I have hopes of meeting many more. There will be time for travelling later, I believe. Now is the time to learn how to be the one who stays.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

a fine frenzy

I refuse to say it's really spring before the equinox--a word I adore, incidentally, especially when paired with autumnal or vernal. Those phrases have always sounded like poetry to me, but the vernal equinox has always been particularly evocative. The dictionary meanings of vernal (springlike, pertaining to spring, fresh and young, and so on) are one thing, but apart from that the word itself sounds to me like the linguistic embodiment of lush deep green, moss that your hands sink into, fecundity and shoots reaching through the soil and water beginning to move again and sex. It's positively Bacchanalian.

It may not really be spring yet, but it feels like spring here. The last few days have been in the mid-to-high fifties, and I managed to get out on my bike twice while the going was good. (Saturday the projected high is somewhere around 40, with rain expected.) It's taken me by surprise. The odd thing is that I actually sort of (I hesitate to say this aloud) enjoyed winter this year, and I'm almost (cry blasphemy from the rooftops!) sad to see it go. It's shocking, I know. But we had an unusually mild winter this year, and because the cold rarely if ever reached painful levels I was able to appreciate it and even enjoy it in a way that hasn't been as possible for me in past years. Cold is a rather unappreciated state of being, as my friend E up in Alaska likes to point out. And while I don't know how well I'd deal with her levels of chill, I was happy with my own this particular year.

Still, though, for me the joy of a cold-but-not-too-cold morning walk still pales before the first flowers of spring. I saw mine today: first some tiny dark purple irises and then some purple-and-white striped crocus. I nearly squealed aloud at the irises; I guess I've been too busy riding my bike to look at the ground as closely as I normally would. As a florist and also as somebody who tries to milk the most out of "nature" in the city--even when nature is in the form of cultivated flowers growing in an urban front yard--I try to pay close attention to what is growing around me. (Otherwise, most of what I have to ponder is in the form of squirrels and pigeons, which for the most part I find only nominally interesting, with migratory birds and insects thrown into the mix to liven things up a bit.) And yet, every year, by the time I figure out that there are flowers blooming, I look around me and realize that they're already everywhere. I forget sometimes, I guess, that nature moves so quickly.

Spring here is a fickle season, and so I'm sure I still have plenty of chilly morning walks in my future. Now, though, I'll be keeping a closer eye out for life coming up around me. The trickle that becomes the gush that becomes summer has begun, and I want to see it happen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

where credit is due

(This is the first of a hopeful series of linked posts that I'm doing with my friend Rose-Anne. You can see her take on things here.)

When I was a kid I was convinced that I was not a very creative person. I'm not sure why, because as I looked through the photo albums at my parent's house when I was in Arizona last month I found plenty of pictures of myself doing things like this:

And this:

So obviously there was something going on there. But I remained steadfast: I was the one kid in the whole world with no imagination whatsoever. (I was sort of prone to unnecessary martyrdom as a child, can you tell? Also melodrama. Also I’m pretty sure I stole the idea wholesale out of a Ramona book.) Even when I was older, after I got pretty serious about being a viola player, I focused more on the grunt work, the sheer physical and mental labor that went into just playing the notes. If artistry followed so much the better, but it wasn’t what I was thinking about.

But now I’m an adult, and somehow nearly everything I do would be considered “artistic” by most people-- I spend the majority of my working time playing music and arranging flowers, for god’s sake, and my main hobby is baking-- so I’m giving up the battle against acknowledging my own inventiveness; art takes legwork, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t creative too. But although I’m striving to get to a place where I can accept compliments gracefully and, more importantly, believe them wholeheartedly, I still tend to downplay my own endeavors. “Oh, we had a lot of rehearsals,” I say, or “Well, I might have made a much more interesting yet cohesive bouquet than you would have, but hey, I get to practice a lot more often,” or, my favorite, “I just followed the recipe and chopped things.” Which are all more or less true, but not the whole truth, as is so often the case.

The place where I have the most trouble admitting that I’m doing something besides just following orders is the kitchen, because while it’s true that much of cooking is just reading the directions and then chopping/measuring/mixing/turning the oven on, that’s not the entire story. It makes more sense to me when I think of following a recipe as an act of translation. A recipe is a set of instructions, a series of words that somebody else put together to describe the act of food preparation, but the act itself--and thus the outcome--depends largely on the person doing the actual physical work. The recipe says “chop the potato”, but how large? Exactly when should I put in the spices, and how brown should the onion be before I add the soup broth? Those things are, to some extent, subject to my own whims and judgment. And somehow, despite all the possible human error, where I end up is usually close to where I think I should be.

I use recipes a lot, and I’m not ashamed of that; for a while I used them exclusively, initially out of fear but then out of a desire to learn how to put things together. It was the polar opposite of my early cooking endeavors, when I barely glanced at a cookbook and turned out food that, while decent, was nothing like what I make now. It’s taken me a while to understand the space between these two extremes, to realize that it’s not about complexity, or time-consumptiveness, or fancy ingredients, at least not entirely; it’s about understanding what goes well together, and knowing how to cook things so that they taste good. That takes practice, and guidance, and for me that came from following recipes and trusting them to point me in the right direction.

Now, nearly eight years after what I count as me cooking life began, I’m coming full-circle to my origins. I still use recipes, but I’m also beginning to trust myself to know what will taste good and to stray away from the precise instructions of a well-written set of directions. Most of the time I still use a recipe as a basis for my own inspiration: a new filling for a pastry shell, or a different take on a soup, or adapting a cookie recipe to accommodate for food allergies. These are things I couldn’t do a few years ago with any degree of panache, and now I do them on the spur of the moment, joyously and with barely a thought for the recipe that I’m setting on its head. More rarely, though, I make something entirely of my own invention, and when these endeavors turn out well I feel proud and skilled and yes, creative. Most of them are dead easy; I’m not about to turn out a newly-invented soufflĂ© or anything, but I’m more willing to wriggle around within the scope of what I understand and wait for the results. Not using a recipe now and then feels good, because it’s an acknowledgement that I trust myself.

And so, here, is one of my new favorites, something I more or less made up, although theoretically I could site this recipe as inspiration because I’d never roasted sweet potatoes before I made it. Still though, this was my idea, conceived of a year ago and finally implemented about a month ago, and I’m proud of it. So proud that I’m willing to admit that I didn’t even make my own sauce (something I would normally do) because the whole point is ease, and food joy, and yummy warm goodness without killing yourself to get there. And so, before it becomes too warm for roasting, eat up and then change it all around so it’s all your own. I recommend it.

Sweet Potatoes Roasted with Barbecue Sauce

You need:

Two sweet potatoes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce, homemade or bottled (I used Culinary Circle’s Poblano Chili Lime and was astonished at how much I liked its subtle bite and tang. Granted, I’m neither southern nor accustomed to eating barbecue sauce, but I was more than happy with the results.)

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the (unpeeled) potatoes, then slice into rounds approximately 1 1/2 -2 inches long. Set the rounds cut-side-down on a cutting board and make perpendicular slices, cutting them into long rectangles. Toss these in a rectangular baking dish with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, stir, and roast for fifteen more minutes or until fairly soft with some crispy browned edges. Remove from oven, garnish liberally with barbecue sauce, then roast for five more minutes; any more and the sugars in the sauce can begin to burn, so be careful. Eat alone or with something else delicious.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

oh time in thy flight

It's time for the country to spring forward, an hour into the future. As an Arizonan--and thus one of the few people who don't partake of the clock change--I've always resented Daylight Saving Time and this year is no different, but this time around I'm tempering my resentment with grudging acceptance. I recently read Seize the Daylight, a book entirely about Daylight Saving Time (DST, and commonly called Daylight Savings Time, although now that I know there's not supposed to be an 's' I have a hard time putting it in because I'm stubborn like that), mostly because I didn't understand the point of it all and thought some knowledge might help. And it did... Sort of.

The immediate realization was that I had two misconceptions about DST right off the bat. The first was that DST was in effect during the winter and that the summer was "real" time, which is the opposite of true and probably a result of inattention as well as growing up in a state where DST isn't in effect. I also have to admit that spatial relationships between things is not my strong point, and no matter how many times I said "spring forward, fall back!" the actual relationship of time to itself on these days mildly confused me. (Probably the fact that all of my clocks automatically change themselves doesn't help; I remember and understand things far better when I have a physical role in their implementation.) I hate admitting that--it makes me feel dumb, frankly, and also like a girl for having relative spatial inability--but eh, it's true. This year I get it, mostly because I have reference charts and things that make more sense to my brain, but in the past it's been hard for me to remember if time is moving ahead, or back, or where I am in relation to where I was yesterday. Anyway.

My second misconception was that DST is "for the farmers", and this one is sort of funny because a) it's incredibly widespread (virtually every person I've asked has said basically the same thing--farmers! the damn farmers!), and b) it's absolutely and completely untrue. I don't know how they feel about it now, but when DST was in its planning and early trial periods the farmers totally hated it. Because they did their work by the sun instead of by the clock, all DST did was to force them to get up ridiculously early and start working in the dark so that they could sync up shipments and such with things that operate by the clock, like train schedules and market openings. In fact, a lot of farm work simply couldn't be done so early in the morning--wheat can't be threshed when there's dew on it, for example. So the poor farmers were getting up in the middle of the night, milking the cows, and then sitting around waiting for the dew to dry. How frustrating must that be? When DST was being heavily debated, it was often posited by agricultural interests as a battle between "golfers" (rich assholes who just wanted playtime in the evenings) and "people who did real work" (farmers).

So DST wasn't for the farmers, and it's during the summer when we have lots of light all the time anyway, so what's the point? It turns out that it actually is for playtime in the evenings, or at least that was the initial conception. In 1905, an Englishman named William Willet was up for a pre-breakfast horseback ride and began thinking that it was a shame that so much daylight was being missed by his fellow citizens, who were not as forward-thinking nor as early-rising as he was. So what, he thought, if everybody got up an hour earlier, got off work an hour earlier, and had an extra hour of light for leisure time in the evenings? And that was it. He spent basically the rest of his life trying to get his idea implemented, sparking worldwide debates but at least in the United States, the idea wasn't fully accepted until 1986. (It went into effect much earlier in England, Willit's home country, although he never actually got to see it in action.) Many countries eventually used DST during times of war or crisis, with the first being Germany during WWI, in order to conserve energy by allowing more work to be done by daylight instead of expensive artificial light. This was especially important during WWII, allowing work to be done without the interruptions and dangers of blackout conditions.

In the United States, it took us damn near seventy years--from its first wartime trial in 1918 to its passage into national law in 1986--to switch over completely. In between, sometimes we all did it, sometimes none of us (at least on a statewide level) did it, and sometimes it was a total free-for-all. We may all change our body and physical clocks like... well, clockwork, now, but for many decades it was a matter of serious and vehement debate. (My general feeling after reading my book was relief that I hadn't had to deal with living through it.) Farmers and urban dwellers, people on the east sides and west sides of various time zones, even religious and not-so-religious--we were talking about changing God's Time, after all, and screwing up the "natural" order of things, even though we'd basically invented clock time in the first place*--all got in on the action, and it sounds like total chaos. Many states let individual cities choose whether or not they wanted to do DST; sometimes small towns even let individual citizens decide what they wanted to do. Train schedules were hell to read, and there was one thirty-five mile bus ride that took its passengers through seven different time zones.

But eventually it was decided that that was dumb and in 1986 most of the country, excluding Hawaii, parts of Indiana, and Arizona (woot) went permanently to DST. In the summer we have more time in the evenings, and in winter it's dark and nasty anyway, and it gives us all a chance to bitch about how stupid we think DST is twice a year. For my part, while I'm not thrilled to be messing around with my body clock when I don't have to, I have to admit that I sort of get it now. I'd be sad if it got dark an hour earlier in the summer, but it's illogical to want that extra hour in the winter when it would involve the sun rising after nearly everybody was up and about. (The farmers! Think about the farmers.) As much as I hate to admit it, this may be the best way to go. I hate being proved wrong.

*Before standard time zones were implemented, clock time was determined on a town-to-town basis, and many communities dropped a "time ball" (Times Square on New Year's Eve is an offshoot of this practice) at noon every day (high noon was slightly different every day as the period of sun to no sun shifted throughout the year) so that everybody could reset their clocks to the correct astronomical time. Railroads, with their faster rate of travel, were largely responsible for the way we divide our time zones now, and for the standardization of time in general. I actually found the push for time standardization more interesting than the push for DST, because it is amazing to me that we once had to struggle so hard with something as basic as what time it might possibly be. Fascinating.

Friday, March 12, 2010

the naming of things

It's one of those weeks where there just isn't enough time to get much done, and when there is time I'm too strung out from all the busybusybusy to do anything with it. Which is not to say that I've lost my shit just yet--I'm actually feeling pretty much okay about the fact that I don't have a full night to myself until, at minimum, next Thursday--but does mean that productivity has been sort of hovering around medium-low. Instead of washing dishes I've been listening to Rasputina and watching Lady Gaga reenact Thelma and Louise (but with more interesting clothing); I've been reading cookbooks instead of book books.

Which is a shame, because the book I'm reading right now is awesome. Did you know Vladimir Nabokov was decent amateur lepidopterist? Neither did I. But I'm reading a book about it and I know much more about butterfly genitalia right now than I ever thought I would. My inner geek is dancing. I'm about halfway through and I won't have much time to read for the next couple of days, but I'm excited for life to slow down just that smidge that will give me enough space to pack more of these words into my brain because I want to know more. Bring on the genitals, the discussions of the biomes of Argentina, the meditations on the place of taxonomy in the larger realm of the modern biological sciences! I'm ready, or nearly so.

I'll hopefully write more about the book, about science and exploration and discovery, later. But for now, a poem. In case you don't know (I didn't), a type specimen, tagged with a red label, is the first described specimen in a species, the specific organism that is referenced whenever you use its scientific name in formal literature. It is the example that marks the beginning of a new species; even if it's eventually shown to be an atypical specimen, it's been determined to be different enough from other organisms to warrant a new listing. The details can be sorted out later. I feel torn between a slight almost-frown about celebrating the dusty drawer future of a butterfly even as I understand the excitement and joy of adding to a base of knowledge, of learning something new and being responsible for the ability of that knowledge to be passed onto others. Science and art, wilderness and specimen drawers; perhaps, then, this poem perches on the ambiguous boundary between what could be defined as my rationality and my romanticism rather well.

On Discovering a Butterfly

Vladimir Nabokov

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer—and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

Monday, March 08, 2010

sweetness and light

There are times when I become unexpectedly obsessed with a certain flavor, a single ingredient or, somewhat more rarely, a single food, and it becomes the prevalent note of nearly anything I make until the fever passes and I move onto more varied fields. Notable examples have included lime juice, black pepper, and fettuccine alfredo from a box (I'm looking at you, sophomore year of undergrad), but a few years ago what I craved more than just about anything was honey. Which was odd, because up until that point my relationship with the golden liquid had been rather strained; it tasted too sweet to me, it set my teeth on edge, and the flavor was so strong that I almost felt headachey if I ate more than the tiniest amount. It was something I sometimes managed to keep on hand for mixing with lemon juice in case of a sore throat, but other than that I used it rarely and I'll admit that, after my brief obsession, I went mostly back to my honeyless ways. I had, however, developed an increased tolerance for the particular sweetness of honey, so different from sugar, and I was more willing to use it in things even if I didn't often remember to.

Which is good, because it turns out honey is awesome, and that basically every civilization prior to right now has widely acknowledged it as pretty much the greatest thing since before sliced bread was a twinkle in a yeast's eye. Records of wild honey collection are present everywhere from the bible to cave paintings, in Asia, Europe, Africa, India, and the Americas, from at least 6000 BC onward. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks kept "domesticated" hives--bees can never be truly domesticated, merely housed and catered to--built from local materials, and apiaries were a fairly standard part of everyday life in Europe starting in at least the seventeenth century. Wild hives were once so important that the maps to their locations were jealously guarded and passed on in wills. Honey has been used as a medicine and a preservative--it has antibacterial properties, and contains a minute amount of hydrogen peroxide that enables it to admirably preserve meats and such that have been submerged in it--and along with bee pollen has served as a major daily food source for plenty of peoples over the centuries.

Bees are also pretty neat. They communicate by dancing--the only Nobel Prize ever awarded to an entomologist was given to Karl von Frisch in 1973 for this discovery--pollinate the plants that lead to at least a third of our daily food intake, and happily provide us with as much honey as we give them the space to create. Bees have been feted as messengers of the gods, and used as weapons during war and as self-defense for individuals; imagine a hive full of angry insects lobbed at you or a pissed-off nun siccing her hive on you (both real happenings) and the term "biological warfare" has another meaning. All worker bees are female, with the male drones just hanging around waiting to maybe mate with the queen during her generally singular flight, and occasionally the worker bees are "dragged to the entrance... and dramatically pushed out" when a fertile queen is already in residence as this effectively renders them functionless hive members. Bees provide humans with honey, pollen, wax, propolis, and venom, which has potential medical uses for a variety of diseases including arthritis. Honey, too, is coming back as a healing agent, with medical professionals using it as a treatment for burn victims instead of chemical healers with excellent results, including faster, less painful healing. The description of how hives are constructed from scratch is one of the most awe-inspiring things I've read lately.

All this and more I learned from Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees, one of the first books I tackled from my newly-expanded bookshelves, and I'm a convert. Honey is packed full of vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and amino acids, and trace amounts of pollen for protein; refined sugar contains virtually none of these benefits, and because most people experience complex sugars as less sweet than simple sugars like honey you have to eat more of the refined sugars while also losing out on all the good stuff in simpler sweetners. Refined sugar is actually responsible for the downfall of honey, and the average person (as of 2005, when my book was published) consumes 152 pounds of refined sugars and corn syrup every year as opposed to just over two cups of honey.

I eat honey every day now, and bee pollen as well. (Although I keep that to a minimum, because apparently too much can make you feel sort of crazy; the recommended beginning dosage on my bottle is a mere 1/4 tsp.) I've even been using it on cuts instead of neosporin, with good result. I'm already excited for the summer farmers markets; Chicago has a honey co-op as well as a number of other local producers to draw from, and I'm looking forward to sampling their wares. It's true that honey is more expensive than sugar, and I also don't yet know how to incorporate it into baking gracefully, but I'm making an effort to take at least a portion of my daily sweetness from this nuanced and somewhat anachronistic source. Bishop describes it as "a sweet, condensed garden in your mouth," and what could be more seductive as winter draws to a close? On grey days, I dream of the flowers, the effort, the sunshine in every drop, and as I drink my tea I smile a little more widely than before.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

a post-it day

I have the day off today. I have most days off; I'm not working enough right now. Which is worrisome, very much so, but for now there's very little I can do about it so I'm just trying to take advantage of the time that I have. But the downside of time off is that my lack of coherent schedule is also making it a little hard for me to be consistent, to focus, to the point where I'm making myself detailed lists on post-it notes nearly every day just to try and make sure I get something done, even if that thing has sort of negligible measurable worth. Today, for example, here is one of the things on my list: bake a cake. Do I need a cake? No. Do I have anybody to give cake to? Not really. But damn it, I have this whole day and part of that day is going to be spent baking a cake. Maybe.

This fractiousness in my schedule also makes it hard for me to focus on what I might write about next. I've been reading a lot (I mean, who wouldn't be, when there's literally hundreds of new books to choose from just sitting around their apartment?), and have plotted posts on several recent topics, including bees and honey, the sense of smell and linguistic sensory word flow, and India's Ramayana epic. I've also been thinking about Elvis (really), gluten-free cookies, my favorite soup, and about counting all of the books currently in my possession and calculating just what gigantic percentage of them are so far unread. For today, though, I just wanted to put together a few vignettes, little things that have been niggling at my brain for no good reason. So here we go.


I'm apparently doing my hibernation eating right now. I'm craving protein and fatty comfort foods like crazy, things that I normally don't eat often or ever, and following up on my cravings by actually preparing and consuming them. I have had, for instance, eggs every day this week; normally I vaguely dislike eggs, and I hadn't eaten them outside of a baked good for many months before this. I'm also eating boca spicy chicken patties like it's going out of style, and instant mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese from a box, and I've been daydreaming about making myself some nice teriyaki tilapia soon. I don't know why. But I'm going with it.


I'm not super into horoscopes, but I do like Rob Brezney's Free Will Astrology because it's sort of amusing and I think the advice (regardless of astrological sign) is sometimes helpful. Unabashed cheesiness and earnest advice-giving is an underrated method of information spreading, I think. Last week my horoscope was about buried treasure, how we have preconceptions about the treasures we may or may not be looking for and may or may not find anyway; I wondered, after I read it, what buried things I may be discounting. I think it's a valid thing to wonder about. Anyway, here's my horoscope for this week:

"It's not a good time to treat yourself like a beast of burden or to swamp yourself with dark, heavy thoughts. You're extra sensitive, Sagittarius -- as delicate and impressionable as a young poet in love with a dream of paradise. You need heaping doses of sweetness and unreasonable amounts of fluidic peace, smart listening, and radical empathy. If you can't get people to buoy your spirits and slip you delightful presents, do those things for yourself. "

I assume this means that actually, yes, I should bake myself a cake. And maybe write in my journal a little more often. And spend evenings with good books. I can live with those choices.


Facebook has some sort of application where people answer questions about you; if you save up enough points (I have no idea how to do this) you can see who asked the question, but I find I don't really care. I can already see what was asked and answered, and that's fascinating enough. Somebody out there thinks I can throw a football in a spiral (FALSE), and various other people think that I'm not greedy (hopefully true), that I've never prank called anybody or been in a fistfight (also true), and that I voted for Obama (also true, even though I felt like it was a rather symbolic gesture and I felt sort of ambivalent about it). My favorite, though, is that somebody thinks I scored over 1500 on the SATs, which is actually not true but is sort of flattering. I'm not that good at math. I scored a 1450 when I took it as a sophomore, 1400 (or maybe 1420, I can't remember) as a junior, and got a perfect english score the first time around. That's my bragging for the day. Sometimes I masochistically miss taking standardized tests.


I think that's enough narcissism for the day, at least in public. I'm going to go work on my latest book (it's about Daylight Saving Time! Woot!) and think about what to read next. Also cake. And Sibelius. That sounds like a decent day to me.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

everything in its right place

The cycle of seasons in Chicago this year has been a little bit strange, overall. Spring, summer, and fall were all unusually chilly, but then winter stayed (all things considered) practically balmy, with temperatures infrequently dropping below the twenties and not much snow to speak of. I saw more of winter when I went to Arizona in January than I feel like I've seen in the Midwest, which made me laugh at the thought of one of my own stories: when I found out I was coming here I was living in Tucson, and every single person that heard I was moving to Chicago would nod sagely, looking very very serious, and say "Oh, it's cold there." No shit, Sherlock, but not always. I never even bothered to upgrade to my heaviest coat this time around.

I'm not complaining, of course. I personally feel like I needed a nice winter, one where I could appreciate the cold without resenting it; not to start anthropomorphising too much, but it feels like being taken care of, this lack of awfulness. Sometimes I walk to work in the mornings and it's cold but just the right amount of cold and the sun is shining and I feel like, right that moment, I'm incredibly happy to be exactly where I am. That's not to say that February--the great gray beast February, as Clive Barker called it in his cautionary children's book, The Thief of Always--didn't pass without its fair measure of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or that I'm not daydreaming about summertime bicycle rides, but the longing for a new season is almost more habitual than actual. The cold helps me to feel centered, stable, and that's exactly what I crave right now: to desire to be here and not there, now and not then, present and not absent.

I went to my first orchestra rehearsal since probably late August a few days ago. I don't think I've spent that much time away from large-scale ensemble music since I began seriously playing at the age of thirteen or so; I was vaguely worried that, despite my years of almost total immersion, I would have somehow forgotten how to do it, how to read my notes and watch the conductor and my section leader and the concertmaster and still play beautifully and in tempo all at the same time. Luckily, ten years of semi-professional experience still trumps six months of inactivityand my fears were (as far as I know) unfounded. It helps, though, that we're playing music that I love passionately and also, as luck would have it, have played enough times that it is embedded in my fingertips and probably will be until I die or, god forbid, quit playing entirely.

Sibelius' Fifth Symphony is one of my absolute favorite works to learn and perform but unless you're a classical musician or you're just lucky like that, it's entirely likely that you've never heard it or even heard of it. This Monday will mark my fourth performance; I've been living with this music inside of me since I was eighteen, a full decade ago. I well remember my initial skepticism, and I still find that it can be a strange piece to wrap your mind around. The viola part looks absolutely ridiculous, thirty-three pages long and more than half of it repetitive noodley figures with little-to-no melodic content, interspersed with intense rhapsodic lines played in unison with the rest of the string sections. There are huge overarching tempo changes that you just know every orchestral conductor will do slightly differently, massive shifts that take place so slowly that before you know it you've gone from a slow swelling lushness to a frenetic and joyous flurry of flying bows and red-faced violinists. On some levels it's an incredibly strange piece to play, but I find myself seduced again and again by the passion and intensity of the writing. Even at the age of eighteen, I fell in love.

I find that, a decade after my first performance, I'm still smitten. I love this piece so much that if I'm invited to play a concert and it's on the program, I will almost invariably agree. Even knowing that, even after four performances and a lot of rehearsals, as I sat in rehearsal last night I was surprised to be shaken to the core by the final movement. It begins fast and happy, with about a zillion buzzing notes bouncing around the orchestra as we all sweat together and try to play fast enough to keep up, hanging on for dear life as we fly along, but a few pages later a lush melody overtakes all of that and we're all smooth and together, melody and harmony and ringing brass notes and my god, it's beautiful. But this is not where my heart broke; that comes slightly later. After another episode of "oh shit, fast", the orchestra stops dead. There's a pause, and then the strings, in unison, play one of the most heartwrenching lines I think I've ever heard. We are playing loss and beauty and love and pain, stark notes with no underpinning, rhythms that defy their boundaries. It is as different from the rest of the movement as anything I can imagine; my breath caught in my throat and I felt tears inexplicably rising in my eyes.

The piece ends in beauty and full ringing chords, but really it's that moment that keeps me coming back to it with a full and willing heart. On the surface I think it can seem a little bit disjointed--there are so many different textures, moods, tempos, to that last movement in particular--but really it reminds me of what life is really like. One moment you're dancing, the next singing, the next crying, and it has the potential to be beautiful, all of it. It is as it should be, somehow. In the midst of change, starkness, oddness, there is a sense that this, right here, is part of what came before, no matter how unlikely that seems. There's a reason I did what I did for so long and why I'm not letting that part of me go; music can lift my soul above notes on the page and into a completely different realm. It is a feeling of rightness. I feel it there, in rehearsal; I feel it when I'm living my life in a way that makes me happy. Those two things are not unrelated.

Sometimes there is comfort in cold, and a form of joyous exaltation in the expression of despair.I don't entirely understand why this should be so, but it is. All I know how to do is to take my happiness where I can find it, in symphonies and winter sunlight and quiet nights at home alone with a good book. Those are the moments when I say to myself, yes, this is what is important, this feeling, this here-ness, and I go back to what I'm doing and all is as it should be for me.