Thursday, April 29, 2010

put on your red shoes

It hasn't been the worst week for sleep ever, but it hasn't been the absolute best either. Right now, for instance, it's 7 AM and I'm drinking coffee to try and get myself psyched up to go read college student compositions for three hours and pondering the (sometimes painful) things we do for money. Anyway, a friend recently told me (via facebook, since half of life's interactions seem to take place there sometimes) that she saw this and it reminded her of me. Which is cute, no?

Monday, April 26, 2010

the single body alone in the universe against its own best time

The sun is out today. It's sunny and I have the day off, and right now I'm still in a bathrobe but soon I'll finish my coffee and put "real" clothes on and pull my bike from its place in the closet and ride somewhere. I'm looking forward to it. I woke up happy today, and I want to make the most of what I have, the sunshine and the warmth and the ability to control my own transportation destiny.

I almost forget about my bicycle every winter. Out of sight, out of mind, and the truth is that I dislike being cold too much to go through the winterizing process and I'm too cheap to buy good gloves. As soon as the temperature drops below a certain point and the snow starts falling, I resign myself to riding the train or the bus--or walking long distances, because sometimes I do that too, even during the bitterest months--waiting in the cold impatiently, trying to at least get some reading done but often being distracted by the flow of people around me. I actually quite like riding the train in some ways, and I'd certainly much rather be people-watching or reading than driving (although I do miss singing in the car), but being a passenger on a public transportation system also automatically makes my movement something out of my own hands; I can show up when I want to, but I'm not going anywhere until the train pulls up to the station or the bus pulls over to the curb.

I think that's actually a large part of why I love riding my bike so very much: I don't have to wait. (I'm also somebody who will often simply hold it if I'm in a public venue and there's a line for the restroom, so this isn't just transit-based.) I remember coming to that realization during my first Chicago spring. In Arizona I never used public transit on a regular basis, and one of the big struggles I went through after I got here was simply trying to figure out how to get anywhere roughly on time. I was profoundly irritated by the fact that I often had to either risk being late or show up half an hour early, by the feeling of wanting to be moving towards somewhere else but being forced to stand and wait, to be motionless. It sounds sort of funny in retrospect, but I felt like I had to submit my autonomy of movement to systems larger than myself, and it drove me crazy until I adapted and gave up my resentment as pointless.

But oh, that first bike ride! It's part of why, in the middle of winter, summer sounds like freedom. There are a lot of reasons to love biking--the wind rushing past, the intricacies of weaving through traffic, the blood running faster and the muscles tightening and the speed--but there's also the autonomy. After a winter of waiting, I suddenly get to choose where I am in space, how fast I go, when exactly I leave. If I'm late, it's my own damn fault and I should have left earlier. If I'm early, I can ride around until I'm on time. My first spring, I felt that clear as a bell: I am in charge of this now, of the movement of my own body, of my own schedule. I was elated; I think I laughed out loud.

I've already biked a few times this year, but not enough. And so, once I finish this cup of coffee and put on some pants, I'm off. I have no real goals today, but that's part of the point; I just want to ride.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

the thickened heart, the dumb tongue

For whatever reason I've been feeling sensitive this past week or two, more susceptible to barbs and setbacks and sensations and emotions than I normally am, and as it turns out this was a particularly bad week to be feeling that way; I wrote and am not going to post a whole spiel about the fact that I'm suddenly and unexpectedly in a place where I'm worrying about feeling anxious, a vicious circle that I'm doing my best to calmly break. But I feel abruptly fed up with looking at my own navel, and right now I need to move ahead more than I need to back myself into a claustrophobic corner of self-examination. And so, instead: a poem, one of my favorites, which I am shocked--shocked!--that I've never posted before. (At least as far as I can remember...) I've been thinking about this all week.

Dreaming of Hair
Li-Young Lee

Ivy ties the cellar door
in autumn, in summer morning glory
wraps the ribs of a mouse.
Love binds me to the one
whose hair I've found in my mouth,
whose sleeping head I kiss,
wondering is it death?
beauty? this dark
star spreading in every direction from the crown of her head.

My love's hair is autumn hair, there
the sun ripens.
My fingers harvest the dark
vegetable of her body.
In the morning I remove it
from my tongue and
sleep again.

Hair spills
through my dream, sprouts
from my stomach, thickens my heart,
and tangles from the brain. Hair ties the tongue dumb.
Hair ascends the tree
of my childhood--the willow
I climbed
one bare foot and hand at a time,
feeling the knuckles of the gnarled tree, hearing
my father plead from his window, Don't fall!

In my dream I fly
past summers and moths,
to the thistle
caught in my mother's hair, the purple one
I touched and bled for,
to myself at three, sleeping
beside her, waking with her hair in my mouth.

Along a slippery twine of her black hair
my mother ties ko-tze knots for me:
fish and lion heads, chrysanthemum buds, the heads
of Chinamen, black-haired and frowning.

Li-En, my brother, frowns when he sleeps.
I push back his hair, stroke his brow.
His hairline is our father's, three peaks pointing down.

What sprouts from the body
and touches the body?
What filters sunlight
and drinks moonlight?
Where have I misplaced my heart?
What stops wheels and great machines?
What tangles in the bough
and snaps the loom?

Out of the grave
my father's hair
bursts. A strand
pierces my left sole, shoots
up bone, past ribs,
to the broken heart it stitches,
then down,
swirling in the stomach, in the groin, and down,
through the right foot.

What binds me to this earth?
What remembers the dead
and grows towards them?

I'm tired of thinking.
I long to taste the world with a kiss.
I long to fly into hair with kisses and weeping,
remembering an afternoon
when, kissing my sleeping father, I saw for the first time
behind the thick swirl of his black hair,
the mole of wisdom,
a lone planet spinning slowly.

Sometimes my love is melancholy
and I hold her head in my hands.
Sometimes I recall our hair grows after death.
Then, I must grab handfuls
of her hair, and, I tell you, there
are apples, walnuts, ships sailing, ships docking, and men
taking off their boots, their hearts breaking,
not knowing
which they love more, the water, or
their women's hair, sprouting from the head, rushing toward the feet.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

to take what we love inside

(The tandem posting project continues! Every other week, my friend Rose-Anne and I will be writing about the same topic. You can read her take on this week's subject, a sense of place, here.)

What is a sense of place? What does it entail, and how do you get one? What place are we talking about? A sense of place is different than “knowing your place”, which is less about expanding to fill where you are and more about holding yourself back to as not to push your boundaries. A sense of place practically begs you to push, to feel the weight of where you are against your skin but to keep on growing anyway, to infinitely magnify and become more in tune with what’s around you even as you become more attuned to your own autonomy.

It begins to seem almost like a contradiction when I say it like that, but it’s not really. In order to know about where you are, I think it’s essential to first know about who you are. I’ve seen this in myself again and again: I move to a new place—a new city, a new neighborhood, a new apartment even—and I feel very uncomfortable, I don’t know how to relate to the people or sometimes even the objects around me, I act oddly and not like myself, and I don’t like my new home at all. But then one day I relax enough to remember that I, personally, am an okay person, and suddenly I’m in placelove and home has somehow become Home and I know that when I move later on I’ll probably cry because this place, this place has been so good to me. It happened in Tucson and Flagstaff, it’s happened in every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in Chicago—the only place it never happened was Evanston, which just tells me how desperately unhappy I was during my first year of grad school.

This leads me to suspect that a sense of place is more complex than I initially thought, not just about a where but about a tangled interconnection between a physical location and the way I approach that physical location. When I’m happy and in touch with myself, I actually suspect that I could fall in love with almost any place. I feel like lately I’ve been talking a lot about connection, about noticing the small things that cross lines and bring everything together for me, but for me that’s the root of the matter: the only way I can see those details, which literally mean the world to me and make me continually fall in love with every day and every foot of ground I cover, is to be comfortable enough with myself that I can tune in to what’s outside the cacophony of self-ness. When I don’t have to spend all of my time considering my own (largely existential) personal crises, I’m set free to turn my mind to recording the generations of graffiti in my neighborhood, watching how the various people I run into connect and disconnect and ignore and share moments with each other to form community, feel the firmness of the ground beneath my feet, look at flowers and plants and birds and funny street signs and squirrels and dirt. When I’m happy, I simply see more, and seeing more makes me happier, and then life is good.

A sense of place, then, for me could be a geological region, a state, a city, a street, a forest, a building, or the space inside of my own head. But I’ve loved (and written about) Chicago for a while now, and my own interior self for nearly that long, so instead here are some pictures of my apartment. I’ve been here nearly two years, but it took me a good deal longer than I realized to actually grow into my own space; in a lot of ways this just became home for me. My apartment is a room on the fifth floor of a ridiculously quiet building, where unless I make something happen I can live in nearly perfect silence, divorced from the clamor of city, from other people, even from the weather—I can’t even tell if it’s raining, because there is nothing close to me that registers the drumming of a shower. As somebody who spends so much time exhaustively chronicling the outside world, it’s deeply comforting to me to have a space where I can relax and just exist, where I am surrounded on all sides by well-known and well-loved books and cats and food, where I can let my guard down. This is my safe space. And because I love it for its details as much as for what it means to me I’ll elaborate slightly on the pictures, but I’ll try to keep it short so I hope you’ll bear with me.

My desk and skinny bookshelf. I nailed shelves in at varying intervals so that I can store not only books but objects and jewelry there. There's a picture of my friend Erica and an Alaskan mountain on my desk, a picture of me next to a giant redwood tree on the shelf, a fan painted by my dear friends Jesse and Lauren on the wall, and plants. It's good.

My favorite bookshelf array! One of those shelves holds my books, the other holds my boyfriend's. The wall shelves (which I love) hold a mixture; the themes are random history, the desert, and science. And yes, that blanket has sushi all over it.

More books! Really, that's what my apartment consists of. The tall shelf is J's, the short one is mine. Also, I have a good amount of tea stacked up on there.

Messy, I am. But these wall shelves and the wide variety of small tables I've collected--mostly from the alley, I'll admit--hold all of my cooking stuff and save my sanity. I recently installed the smaller wall shelf that holds my spices, and that's how I knew I was home finally.

This is my view. It isn't much, but I get to watch the sunlight change and see how the vines on the wall leaf out in spring, stay happily green all summer, redden and fall in the autumn, and the bare architecture of winter. I try to be so connected to the world the rest of the time that it's somehow restful for me to limit my interactions to a single focal point. The picture on the wall--an abstract of tulips--is a batiked wall hanging I bought in either Prague or Krakow in 2005, and was the only thing on any of my walls for roughly a year. I sort of failed at nesting.

So that's where I live, where I call home. I love saying that: home. Books and cats and food, a spice shelf and a sushi blanket and a love for who I am, and I'm happy.

"O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach."

(from From Blossoms, by Li-Young Lee)

Friday, April 16, 2010


The cats have been trying to escape. Every exposed surface--doors, walls, bare sections of bookshelf, even the floor--has been under attack, and my apartment is filled with the scritch-scritch-scritch of claws against hard flat surfaces. When I wake up every morning I'm unable to fall back asleep because the first thing I have to do is elevate my heart rate by chasing Rita around the apartment with a spray bottle for scratching at the carpeting by the front door. "Security deposit!" I mumble at her as I try to aim in the darkness of pre-dawn. It sounds funnier than it is, mostly because I don't understand what's happening, why the sudden interest in outside, if that's what this is. My cats meow plaintively, standing by the front door, paws upraised, and I have no idea why.

I don't dream often, or if I do I don't remember them--I remember approximately as many childhood dreams, all nightmares, as I do adult ones. There are a few stand-outs (once I dreamt I was Michelle Pfeiffer; I had died but somehow posthumously written a novel that won a Pulitzer Prize, and I gave my acceptance speech via satellite from some sort of afterlife), but frankly, most of my dreams are very monotonous. Especially now that I'm not as anxious in my everyday life, most of my dreams have turned into endless Sisyphean tasks, small repetitive actions with no end that leave me exhausted and mildly depressed when I finally do wake up. I have dreams where I endlessly tinker with flower arrangements that never appease my irritable customers (once, in my dream, a regular fell asleep on the shop floor because I was taking so long), where I try to cook rice over and over again, where every time I try to get on my bike the chain falls off and I have to put it back on.

This week, though, I've been remembering my dreams; this week my dreams have an edge. I've been waking up before dawn every morning, confused and alarmed, staring out my window at the lightening sky and wondering what is happening. It began fairly harmlessly; my first dream was simply narrated by Haruki Murakami. (Sort of like Stranger Than Fiction, except instead of portending my death he was mostly describing everybody's clothing.) I'm actually quite fond of Murakami, but his writing style is so detailed and methodical that in the past I've actually sunk so deeply into his words that they've taken on a hallucinatory quality that reminded me of my Sisyphean dreams. This dream was less alarming than bemusing, a more literary version of my normal wanderings, and a bit tiring.

The second dream was briefer and more disturbing. Again, I was helping a customer at the flower shop, and as he rejected every flower I picked up, one by one, I became increasingly irritated. Finally, as I faced him with an armful of flowers, he groped me, sliding a palm up my inner thigh and then laughing at my confusion. I surfaced briefly into consciousness at this point, and so this dream has two endings: in one, I merely stumble, frown and tell him to back the hell off and never do that again, and then I ring him up and send him on his way. In the second I begin screaming at him to get the fuck out of my flower shop right now, screaming and screaming until he leaves and I'm left alone with his flowers, gasping for breath.

Last night I was a fifteen-year-old transgender boy. I hadn't come out yet even to myself, but when my companion gently told me that I was a lovely young transman I felt a flush of warmth and knowledge and acceptance that was actually pretty beautiful. My companion was also trans; so was my older brother (I still called her brother) and her partner, who had recently died. This dream was long and confusing, good and bad; I learned how to kiss and fall in love and to claim who I was, but there were also gender misunderstandings and sorrow and death. At one point I delivered flowers to a hotel where a woman had been raped and murdered the week before, her severed head left on the steps where I stood; later, I was at a news conference where I first had to defend my brother's transgenderness ("My brother's trans and she's fucking awesome!" I screamed at the reporters) and then we watched news footage of her partner being blown up in a car accident. I woke again at 5:30, deeply disturbed.

I don't know what to think. I wouldn't call these nightmares--they're too complex for such a distinction--but nor are they "good", and they seem to be carrying themselves into my daily life in a way that I'm not accustomed to. They come back to me: the feelings of shame and rage at the obtrusive customer, the possibility of death, the confused feeling that perhaps everything boils down to a meticulous narrative and that nothing I'm doing matters. I dream, and then I wake up and the cats are at the door again, eyes wild, and I wonder if there's a dark side to spring, something coming out in my muddled dreams.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

grandiose musings (not mine)

And now for something silly. But good. But silly. I spent too much time yesterday reading posts from Hyperbole and a Half, a random blog written by somebody living in rural Montana. Mostly it's about her trying to be famous. Also bears. She draws a lot of pictures, many of which are surprisingly funny, and takes pictures of herself imitating geese and velociraptors. She stole my heart a little bit with this line, about mentally anticipating something that never ends up happening: "It's like blue balls, but with your Medulla Oblongata instead."

What can I say? Sometimes you need something funny, strange, and crass to pass the time. I'll write something real soon, but until then I recommend her thoughts on grammar (a word I nearly always misspell, which may or may not be ironic but is definitely personally irritating), the morning habits of animals, and a hyperbolically horrific childhood fishing trip.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

vision to me, bearing leaves

Lately, I've been unable to escape the produce section of the grocery store unscathed. I walk in, intending to pick up an onion, maybe some spinach, and I leave half an hour later laden down with more fruits and vegetables than I can fit on my back, wondering what on earth I'm going to do with two pounds of fresh strawberries on top of the five-pound bag of mandarins and those two bunches of asparagus and on and on and on until there's no room left in my fridge for the leftovers. This happens every year; after a winter of roasted, stewed, and baked foods, suddenly I want absolutely nothing more than a simple stir-fry, things that are barely cooked at all, vegetables that crunch. I'm not necessarily very good at "listening" to my body--other than really obvious things like noticing that I feel like crap when I don't sleep enough or I have more than about two beers, that is--but I feel like it's a pretty safe bet that when the scent of fruit makes me flare my nostrils like a wild animal, it's time to stock up.

I think cravings mean something, if only that maybe I haven't been getting enough greens or that I'm getting more exercise as the weather warms up and so need more and better food, and I'm totally willing to listen to my body's desire for radishes because, hey, I like radishes. What I'm finding interesting is that the things I absolutely can't resist right now are the things that are handily just coming into season--I feel no immediate urge to buy more tomatoes, but my god, I've gone through a lot asparagus lately. I spent the last few weeks thinking about zucchini far more than I had any reason to, but the specimens at the store had been increasingly anemic; today, I was happily surprised to see the first giants of the year, and went straight home to make myself an entire pan of enchiladas with thinly-sliced squash, spinach, avocados, and black olives. (I know that doesn't exactly fit into my barely-cooked crunchy-veggie spring ideal, but I believe pretty strongly that enchiladas are never a bad thing.) I'm thinking I need to figure out where to get some rhubarb pretty soon, and when I was googling "seasonal vegetables" and cherries were mentioned I nearly drooled.

On one level this is obviously about food, and that's okay: I like food. I like making food, I like eating food, I like giving food away, I like creating and exploring and learning about food. I also like feeling somehow grounded in natural cycles, in discounting the fact that I live in a giant city where nature is best experienced at extremely close range, and looking beyond that to the Big Picture I like the things that transcend urbanity and remind me that I'm an animal. I watch the seasons and the moon, close my eyes to ignore the concrete and listen to the lake crashing against the beach, put my face right down next to the dirt to see what's there. I am made almost more happy by the dandelions sprouting in people's yards right now than I am by tulips or crocuses or daffodils, because they are unplanned, disorder asserting itself in the unnaturally grassy expanse of a three-flat. Craving asparagus right now makes me incredibly happy because, in this context, it reminds me that I want what is being currently produced. I'm not craving raspberries in January; I'm craving what is growing right now. I'm in sync with some sort of larger process, where my body and the weather and cultivation all want and produce the same things, and it's effortless.

Here's where I run out of gushy things to say about radishes and give you a recipe. I made this for my two (then future) partners last summer, and then again two nights ago, because in all honesty I'm not the best warm-weather cook; beyond stir-frys, I'm at a bit of a loss without the use of an oven. This, though, is delicious, and infinitely variable--my cooking friend Rose-Anne even suggested using cream cheese instead of goat cheese, which I think would work quite well. It's also my favorite way to prepare asparagus, and furthermore, it's legitimately fast and easy, which I'm coming to realize few of my recipes actually are.

Pasta with Asparagus and Goat Cheese
(Rather loosely adapted from this recipe at Smitten Kitchen)

You need:

1 lb spiral pasta
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-2 inch pieces
1 lemon
5-6 oz goat cheese (log, not crumbles, as it will melt more easily)
basil, salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, cook the pasta until nearly done; add the asparagus for approximately one minute, then drain immediately. Return to pot, spice, add the lemon juice, and then stir in the goat cheese, broken into chunks. The cheese will melt and coat the noodles and veggies; you can add a little water if it seems too thick.

(This can be made with other vegetables; Deb at SK suggests green beans, and last time I added yellow squash for the last thirty seconds of cooking and was pleased with the results. The asparagus is wonderful, though, crisp and firm but not tough, especially if you buy thin spears.)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

the sky calls to us

Speaking of science, here's a nifty auto-tune thing with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

consort with things eternal

Today my friend Rose-Anne and I, as part of our ongoing tandem posting project, are going to talk about science. (You'll be able to read her post here as soon as it goes up.) Rose-Anne is an actual scientist; I am merely what might be called a science fan, if anything. (Although not in quite that way; math was never my strong point.) I don’t do scientific work, but I reap the benefits, both intellectual and physical, and I’m grateful for that. But science was a topic that was close to my heart long before gender entered the picture, and I’ve recently been re-evaluating my relationship to me nerdy roots and how—if—things have changed.

In high school I was heavily involved in my school’s science programs. It was my only extra-curricular activity besides music. I was a member of the Science Olympiad team—which was, as you might expect, utterly geek-tastic—and through that I eventually somehow ended up remotely piloting a mock Mars rover in California from my small public high school in Arizona, four-wheeling what was certainly very expensive machinery around a desert landscape searching for a Marvin the Martian doll that some wily scientists had hidden from us. After high school I spent a few summers working for an ecologist who assigned me tasks that ranged from cataloguing clam shells I tweezed out of disgusting-smelling samples of river sediment to classifying his gazillion insect specimens into their scientific orders, which I totally already knew from Science Olympiad. My second summer I said ixnay to the insect sorting—it gave me nightmares—and ended up organizing his file cabinets, a job which took me weeks and involved reading at least the abstract of each and every paper so that I could place it into the correct topical category. The next time I went to the zoo I was a rock star, spouting off facts about ants’ fungal farming habits and how tarantula hawks paralyze and colonize their prey. It was a good time.

I was never a scientist, really; I just hung around with them a lot. After my job with the ecologist I became an “adult” and didn’t have time for things like Linnaean classification on any sort of regular basis, and my relationship with science went from being a sideline to something more like an every-year-or-two liaison, mostly via texts like The Botany of Desire or some other book written to explain science to us laypeople. And that’s actually a good thing (although I’m certainly looking to up my yearly liaison count this year), because I think that I’m better and happier as a haphazard admirer than as an actual practitioner. But I’ve been thinking all week about What Science Means To Me, because it does in fact mean something, and what it comes down to seems to be connection.

Knowing amazing facts about bees and butterflies, telling customers in my flower shop about the historical physical adaptations of the tulip or explaining why it’s illegal to plant two gingko trees on the same block in Chicago, even watching a cardinal fly past me on an early spring day: all of these, for me, relate in some way or another to some sort of scientific idea, something I learned that I was then able to apply to my life. It connects me to daily existence, remind me that there are reasons behind my actions, remind me to look around and to consider the why and how of things. I appreciate the details more because of that, and the details are part of what keeps me happy as a person. In high school I was all about empirical knowledge because I was searching for anchors, but as I grow older I find that really my fascination with science and information exists more to connect me to the world in tangible ways than because I have anything to prove. Maybe my thirst for knowledge is entirely selfish, because what I most want to know about is the living breathing heart of what I can see and taste and touch.

But more than that—because really, that’s sort of rudimentary—it’s also about learning new things and the way that purely mental jolt makes me feel alive in the world. It’s a position of privilege to have access to that kind of intellectual high, and I know I’m lucky to have the time and energy to devote to such things; there’s such an immense feeling of satisfaction I get when I learn something new and I suddenly understand a little bit more about how things work, about how I fit into my own life. Knowledge really is a light bulb, and I’ve felt that click and the sudden warm flood of recognition, thought to myself and so! This is what it’s about. So when I talk about science, I’m not necessarily talking about data and numbers and experimentation; it may be rather romantic of me, but I’m also talking about understanding. I just want to know. I’m greedy. I want to have knowledge I can use, and I want knowledge that exists in my mind for its own purposes and nothing else. I don’t know that much yet, but that just means that there’s so much left to learn.