Thursday, August 30, 2007

a brief history

I like relativity and quantum theories
because I don’t understand them
and they make me feel as if space shifted about like a swan that
can’t settle,
refusing to sit still and be measured;
and as if the atom were an impulsive thing
always changing its mind.

~ D. H. Lawrence

I have a Swiss cheese kind of science background—substantially rich in some places, holes in other places. Explain why a clock ticks faster as it nears the event horizon, no problem; add numbers larger than the amount of fingers I have, that’s asking a lot. Bifurcate a logistic equation, sure; multiply fractions . . . I have no idea how to multiply fractions.

Among the many and varied causes of this Swiss discrepancy are two major contributors: The first is the jerk who sat behind me in 7th grade math class. Jerk put bugs in my hair unbeknownst to me until sometime toward the end of class when the bugs migrated from my head and commenced roaming the rest of my topography. The discomfort caused by the insects was negligent compared to the devastating humiliation caused by sneering, pointing peers, so, I never went back. Hence, a mathematical education that does not exceed the 7th grade level, and, holes. I quit going to the rest of my classes shortly thereafter, having concluded that school was for learning about humiliation, fear, and self-loathing, and not where I could learn about what makes clouds look the way they do or how those rings around Saturn got there in the first place. A few bad years and a lot of dangerous substances later, I re-entered school as high school student, where I met the second major contributor.

Pete taught science classes at the alternative high school I attended, introduced me to what would become an insatiable, absorbing passion for scientific understanding, and saved my life. I was fortunate enough to attend Pete’s Space Science class where I discovered that I was not stupid, just miseducated, and that science, more than anything else, yielded the most satisfactory answers to my insufferable and growing tower of mostly unanswerable questions. Thus began some filling in of the empty spaces.

I became addicted to Scientific American. I read Asimov, Feynman, Hawking, Gribbin, and Davies. I read about atoms, relativity, quantum theories, chaos theories, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the paradox of self-referential systems, history of science, and philosophy of science. I even received a [fancy tech school] “Medal of Achievement in Math and Science” and a small scholarship because the admissions committee assumed I had the mathematical qualifications due to the high level of promise I demonstrated in my science classes.

In college I took all the chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, and botany classes I could take without calculus prerequisites and taught myself the math I needed on a case by case basis. I am in love with covalent bonding, I dream chemical reactions, and I have a veritable encyclopedia of astronomical and botanical lore and nomenclature stored in my brain.

When I enrolled in college for the first time (a long time ago), I fully intended to be a Physics major and go on to become a Professor of Physics. I registered for pre-algebra three times and finally passed on the fourth try. I was yet undaunted and still cultivated dreams of theoretical physics notoriety. I would say that naivety is the mother of courage. During the subsequent decade of my on-again-off-again college career I would register and withdraw from college algebra more times than I have fingers. However, because I understand now that learning mathematics requires a step ladder process, and I could not seem to leap up even to the bottom rung, I finally gave up trying to take college algebra—bye-bye Physics major, hello Arts and Letters.

I still want to become a Physics Professor. I took Complexity in the Universe I with the noted physicist Dr. Semura and more than once he suggested I become a Physics Professor. I take this to be the greatest compliment I have/will ever receive in my life-time. I followed up with Complexity in the Universe II and discovered that I really enjoy writing science based, big questions, what-does-it-all-mean-reflection stuff. So, what does an Arts and Letters major who loves science but can’t add, and who loves writing but wants a steady income, grow up to be? A restaurant manager. An art school applicant. An avid “science for the lay person” reader. And maybe, someday, a poet.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

letting go: a lesson in resumptive modifiers

She couldn’t have known how the stars would burst behind her eyes when she finally let the night fall, a night that would have been thankful for a moon or two to keep it from collapsing so utterly.

So this is the way it comes down, she thought, heavily.

So with the night fallen to its knees all around her, and stars exploding, she resolved to finally pick up some of the pieces of the day, pieces that had broken up and scattered themselves years ago in the pallid litter of a languishing room. But beneath the unbearable dark, her hands were hers, were responsible for letting go of the rope, were gathering shards of light and slivers of remembrance.

She searched for solace. She searched for some consolation.

She sought string and tail feathers in the ruble and promised to fashion a proper kite, a kite that was tangible enough to pull the night up off its knees, and fly through the prevailing headwinds, trailing the heft of time behind it.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

the orrery

Round and round
the planets go, the planets go
without a sound. Without a sound,
the planets go, the planets go
round and round.

Round and round
the moon circles, the moon circles
without a sound. Without a sound,
the moon circles, the moon circles
round and round.

Round and round
the sun spins, the sun spins
without a sound. Without a sound,
the sun spins, the sun spins
round and round.

Round and round
the planets go, the planets go
without a sound. Without a sound,
the planets go, the planets go
round and round.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

so, what am i going to do with my bachelor's degree in arts & letters? exactly what i should've done fourteen years ago

Dear Admissions Committee:

My life goals and career goals are intertwined: wake up on most days and create something (life), and get paid for my creation (career). Actually, I have to wake up and be creative or I devolve into a melancholic killjoy who doesn’t get invited to art openings or cocktail parties. I know this to be a fact of my existence and therefore am confident that my career must involve creative pursuit.

I need a job that allows me to reconcile my internal inclinations with the demands of living in reality, to any extent that this is possible, and I strongly believe that self-employment is the answer to this conundrum. Also, I am certain that I excel when I combine my analytical skills and artistic faculties to communicate abstract ideas. So, ideally, I would like to become a self-employed, skilled communicator of abstract ideas rendered in aesthetically pleasing ways. I have known this for many years and pursued writing as one avenue toward this goal; however, it seems to me that words alone are fairly limited in what they can say. But a single word set in a stunning font, or paired with a particular shade of green, can be a very powerful messenger.

I believe an education at [fancy art school] would give me both the artistic foundation and technical training that I need to pursue a career as a creative professional. I am also excited about the opportunities provided by [fancy art school] to learn from experienced professionals and become involved in Portland’s art community. I think there can be no substitute for peer critiques to foster growth and generate quality, and looking at a sample of the work produced by students at [fancy art school], it is obvious that excellence presides in the learning environment.

I feel I have a strong creative intuition, but I know that I am lacking the skills necessary to execute a visual message to the best of my ability. I believe that my education at [fancy art school] will give me the skills to become the artist that I am. E. E. Cummings said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” It also takes time and a lot of money, but it sure beats growing up to become who you really aren’t.

Thank you very much for your time. Sincerely,

Thursday, August 16, 2007

the day before my last day of a fourteen-year Bachelor’s degree: order of events

9:37am: miss the bus, walk/run to my first job
9:45am: realize that I rubbed make-up remover all over my face instead of moisturizer
10:05am: arrive five minutes late to my first job
10:05am-1:00pm: teach writing, my students thank me and hug me, I cry. I love my students.
1:22 pm: miss street car, run/walk home
2:00pm or so: eat gigantic bowl of chili with half a diced onion on top while writing final paper
2:thirtyish: notice my kitty’s eye is swollen shut and watering
2:thirtyish: minor kitty freak-out, call vet, resume paper writing
4:14pm: not finished with paper, not dressed for second job, call work and tell them I’ll be five minutes late, finish paper
4:19pm: walk out the door and see bus going by, RUN, look down to make sure I have put pants on
4:35pm: arrive five minutes late to second job, fully dressed. Brush teeth (at work).
4:35pm: manage a restaurant, train a manager, host a restaurant, train a hostess, make people calm and happy in high-stress situations (can I put that on my resume?).
7:15: trusted colleague offers mints, I accept.
Around 9:00pm: fire manager trainee, go home
9:46pm: eat fried plantains, the most delicious food I have ever eaten
11:42pm: drink glass of wine, revise and edit final paper
1:33am: can’t sleep

Friday, August 10, 2007

senior thesis: not sure if this even remotely answers the question

I will be graduating this term with a BA in Arts and Letters because I never could pick just one discipline in which to focus my academic study. When I began my college career over a decade ago, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The problem was that, at the time, Harvard was the only school offering a degree program in Ethnobotany. Harvard does not accept poor kids from alternative High Schools who haven’t taken a math class since the seventh grade and who still think SAT is short for satisfactory. Denver Community college does. So I began to study biology (the “botany” part) and anthropology (the “ethno” part) with great determination and even greater delusions. I wanted to become The Best Ethnobotanist in the World.

The idea is simple: Save the rainforests. The only way to save the rainforests is to find something that the world will recognize as a valuable commodity and sell it, without destroying the forests in the process. Medicine yields an extremely high return on investment and can be extracted from the vegetation with minimal impact. And everyone in the world needs medicine. So the really interesting thing about plant medicine from the rainforest is that the indigenous rainforest people are the experts. And the really interesting thing about indigenous rainforest people is, well, everything; not the least is a perception of reality that is completely foreign to a poor girl with a questionable education.

So, one discipline led to the next in my quest to become The Best Ethnobotanist in the World: Biology led to chemistry led to physics led to astronomy led to logic led to philosophy, etc. And on the Arts side, anthropology led to politics led to language led to literature led to writing. . . Throw in a bunch of full time jobs, a couple moves across the country, military service, marriage, divorce, and a life-time of debt, and all this culminates in a Bachelor of Arts in Arts and Letters.

So what can be said about the perceptual lens of my discipline? My “discipline” came about haphazardly as a result of the desire to protect what I love. Throughout my studies I have encountered obstacles and opposition, but the original intent is still intact. I will graduate with a BA in BS, failed attempts, hard feelings, no math skills, my goals unreached and ultimately unattainable, but I still want to save the rainforests. And I know just how many disciplines it may take to reach the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

my prayer

God (or whomever) grant me a sense of humor
To accept the things that surprise me,

The ability to laugh
When I surprise myself,

And a great smile
When I have nothing else.

Monday, August 6, 2007

taming of the shrewd perfectionist

I have a secret weapon against the shrewd perfectionist. A little tid-bit I was lucky enough to come across in a book about the publishing business written by a prominent New York editor: A good writer will write 98% total crap in his or her career and only 2% not total crap. That 2% comprises such works as Moby Dick and Sons and Lovers. But I suspect it took Melville and Lawrence a whole lot of crap to get there. This same editor (whose prominent name escapes me at the moment) also divulged the following gossamer shred of aspiring writer hope. Referring to the majority of manuscripts he receives, the author claims that “Yoda better syntax had.” Ha! Take that deliverer of non-encouraging words.

Since I now wield a nice percentage ratio, I figure I can commit to writing total crap for most of my career and somewhere therein should be a nice 2% of not total crap that I can extract, put on display, and say, “See, I’m a good writer!” and no one else will ever know the depths of the foul language from whence it came. Also, I’m quite certain I syntax have better than Yoda.

And so do you.

As a writing tutor, the most common introduction I hear is, “I know this is really awful. I’m a terrible writer.” Not even a hello or my name is. And this I have learned to respond to with complete silence. I hand over a pencil and explain that sometimes it’s easier to see things with a pencil in your hand. Something about putting the physical activity of holding a pencil together with the isolation that normally accompanies the writing process seems to bring about a keener awareness of the connection between the words on a page and the ideas in the mind. I try to make it clear that when we look over a piece of writing, we are trying to make sure that the sentence on the page actually says the sentence that’s in the head.

This is a two-way journey, of course. Sometimes you don’t know what your head thinks until you see it on the page. This is why I write: To figure out what the hell it is I want to say. And this is precisely where that 98% crap comes in handy. It often takes an entire essay of really bad writing to find out just what, exactly, your point is. And if you don’t spend that valuable 98% getting to the 2% that actually says something, how else will you ever get there?

Certainly not by believing that you don’t know how to write or that your writing is really terrible. Writing is a skill, just like cooking, that can be learned. Sure there are probably better cooks out there than you, a writer always has Shakespeare to live up to, but no one else can make exactly the same thing, ever. And no one else can ever think the same things in the same way. So, don’t stop yourself from finding out what you think before you begin. And then, when you know what you think, try to make your sentences reflect your thoughts as accurately as possible. We’re not aiming for world-changing grammar; just a sentence that makes sense. The rest will follow.

Remember, we have a nice and friendly ratio to work with. Commit to your own 98% crap with clarity and accuracy. Try to connect the act of thinking with the act of writing. Tell the shrewd perfectionist that you’ve got work to do. Then go to your writing tutor and learn about semicolons.

Friday, August 3, 2007

una estrofa para mi insomniodoro (translation follows, corrections welcome)

Amado mío, por la madrugada,
Tu no dormir es un pájaro dañado,
Asustado de sus propias alas que baten.

Mi despertar es un nido
Musgoso y húmedo por rocío—
Esperando, pero demasiado pequeño
Para contener todo tu insomnio.

My love, in the early morning,
Your un-sleeping is an injured bird,
Afraid of its own beating wings.

My waking is a dew-damp,
Mossy nest—
Waiting, but too small to hold
All of your sleeplessness.