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Archive for September, 2008

502

When I was finishing up my Masters in Teaching at Boston University, back when I still thought I might want to be a teacher, I got asked by the father of a friend from California what my plans were for after I graduated. I told him I was going back home to Kentucky to become a teacher. He smirked and chuckled, “Oh, really? I didn’t think they had schools in Kentucky!”

My goodness, sir, what brilliant wit you possess. And here I thought they didn’t have a sense of humor out on the West Coast, but look how wrong I was.

I’ve gotten lots of comments and questions from people about being from Kentucky. I have been asked why I don’t have a southern accent. I have been asked, in all seriousness, if I live on a farm. I have been asked how I could choose to go back to someplace like Kentucky when I’ve experienced living in a place like Boston, the implication being that someone who has been enlightened about what lies beyond the Ohio River could never go back to someplace as backward as that.

I try and respect the fact that many people just don’t know anything about Kentucky. I have had friends from Boston come to visit me who have made comments like, “Wow! You live in a real city!” I don’t find myself getting frustrated at them for not knowing what to expect. It does bother me, though, when the very people who claim to be so liberal and enlightened and respectful of the diversity of thought and persons that they find in a big city can’t find it within themselves to be respectful of a diversity that includes people who would choose to go back to a state where, yes, some people do very, very rarely marry their cousins.

Today, I was walking from my downtown office to my bank just a few blocks away. On my way there, I saw a large set-up where you can rent a bicycle for free; a group of people painting a random mural celebrating the “25th” of something and involving a wizard and what looked like an alien; a shabby deli advertising Krispy Kreme donuts and SA DWICHES across the street from one of the nicest restaurants in town; a cute guy; a cute baby; two dogs; dozens of large red penguin sculptures decorating a hotel; banners and posters for IdeaFestival; whitecaps on the Ohio River; the church where I spent many of my formative years singing in the choir; and six giant inflatable monkeys, each with a banner, which when all put together reads “EVERYBODY ALWAYS THINKS THEY ARE RIGHT.”

Yes, I do live in a real city. Just because it’s not big or intimidating doesn’t mean it’s not quirky and weird and nice, and ultimately, home.

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Procrastination

Months ago, right at the start of 2008, I was knocking around the This American Life website while I was on my lunch break at work. When I love something, I love it a lot, you cannot underestimate the degree to which I love something that I love. On my roster of THINGS I LOVE, LIKE, A LOT: This American Life.

I noticed that they had on their website an application for an internship, and the realization that while I had essentially no chance at getting that internship, I could still apply for it. It seemed like a bold, brave step to take in the direction of trying to figure out what I’d really like my career to be. If one should pursue the things one loves, why, I could go after that internship, reality be damned! Ha!

I’m mostly unqualified for it, but not completely. I have a modestly successful podcast with two other people. I do a lot of writing both as a part of my job and personally, as a way of processing my life. I do some freelance digital audio editing. I’m good with computers, and relatively smart, and I listen to a hell of a lot of public radio.

First, I was going to apply for the internship that would have started in July 2008, but I put it off. Due to some things going on at work and some things going on at home, the timing seemed off. “No sense in not waiting,” I thought. “Maybe I could do something, try and get some of my writing published, make some real gains, make myself more competitive in the mean time.” I would wait. I would apply for the internship that would start in 2009 instead.

The application deadline is in ten days, and not only have I done nothing to further distinguish myself, I cannot make myself finish this application.

It is mostly done, although I hate my cover letter, and most of my ideas are childish and inane. Of course, I’ve left the most difficult questions for the very end. Talk about 3 episodes or stories from This American Life that didn’t work so well. Uh, okay, great, because let’s see, hmm, they almost all work well. And who am I to criticize them? All I’ve ever done is co-host and co-produce a giggly podcast and maintain a self-obsessed blog or two. Who am I?

There are a lot of things that scare my about turning in this application. I respect that show and the people who make it so much, and the thought of them judging me – literally, judging me! – makes me feel queasy and ashamed. I know they won’t pick me, not when they undoubtedly have an incredible number of immensely talented applicants who will rock their public radio world.

Even more frightening is, god, what if they did pick me? Moving to New York for six months? Having to find a place to live? What would I do about health insurance? Would I have to put my stuff in storage? What in the world would I do once I left the internship? What if I did this internship and was miserable, and This American Life was forever ruined for me? What if I got up there and I was terrible, and shy, and uncreative, and they think to themselves, “Wow. She sure was a mistake.” And I think to myself, “Oh, god, I’m letting them down, I’m letting myself down. FAIL FAIL FAIL.”

I have lived with the idea of this internship hanging over my head for months. For months, I have thought to myself, “You need to work on your This American Life application. I mean, it’s not like you have any chance at getting that. But you still need to work on it.” And then the other voice will pipe up and say, “What if they picked you after all? You do have your own podcast, a podcast with a fair number of dedicated listeners. This could be the very best thing that ever happened to you.”

For months, I have lived with these dual possibilities. The cat inside Schrodinger’s box is either alive or dead. They will either reject me or they won’t. I can’t help but be extremely tempted by the option of never putting the cat in the box at all, never knowing if it would have killed the cat, and never having to face the outcome, whatever it would have been, because either way, you end up with a dead cat or a very, very angry live one.

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Omnivore’s Dilemma

I am pretty much over meat.

I have never been the type of person who considers the most delicious possible meal some sort of mammalian chunk of business. I’ve eaten meat my entire life, but never genuinely loved it. This has made it very easy to not miss it now that I’ve made the decision to mostly give it up.

The knowledge of the size of a cheeseburger’s carbon footprint, the weirdness that the industry has going on with antibiotics and hormones, and the general nastiness of factory farming would have probably been enough to turn me off meat, but on top of that, meat is expensive to buy (and I am cheap) and kind of gross and slimy to cook (and I an squeamish).

And then, to top it all off, there is the whole health thing that people get so excited about. Because as it turns out, it is quite a bit healthier to get one’s protein from black beans and chickpeas and nuts and tofu and soy milk and whole grains and vegetables, so aren’t I smug and noble and healthy.

I haven’t been able to declare myself a vegetarian, though. The word “vegetarian” is very final. I still eat fish probably once a week. And “vegetarian” doesn’t leave room for things like turkey on thanksgiving or honey baked ham on Christmas or the rare bacon at brunch. And it definitely does not leave room for the fact that barbecued chicken pizza is one of my favorite foods in the world, ever, and I will never be able to give that up. The word “vegetarian” is a serious commitment, and one that I am clearly not ready for.

There’s all that, to say nothing of the fact that I already abstain from so many normal activities, like my total abstention from alcohol. I almost never drink caffeine, and I am a picky eater to the extent that it is absurd, enjoying things like tofu and kale but shuddering at a slice of orange or tomato. If I cut meat out of my life completely, it’s possible I would officially be the most socially awkward person to try and feed, ever. I feel like my life is already sufficiently socially awkward.

But then the problem is that if you’re not a declared vegetarian, no one really takes your desire to avoid meat seriously. Welcome to our cookout! What, you don’t want a hamburger? What are you, some kind of dirty, rabble-rousing vegan? Or, daughter, come over for dinner! We’re having steak!

There seems to be no comfortable, acknowledged middle ground. One is either a teeth-gnashing carnivore, slurping up simmering cow’s blood through a straw and killing entire herds of cattle with a single chomp, or one is a militant raw leaf-munching herbivore, growing their own organic garden which is nourished by the compost pile and the tears shed over brutally murdered chickens and prawns.

I have heard the term “flexitarian” bandied about. My problem with that is that I feel it makes me sound like I am a flexible person, which I am certainly not, no matter whether one is referring to my eating habits or my ability to do the splits. Even if “flexitarian” is going to be the proper term, there certainly don’t seem to be enough of us for anyone to know or understand what we are. It is a lonely, awkward food world for the non-alcohol-drinking, non-caffeine-drinking, picky-eating flexitarian weirdos. All one of us.

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The remnants of Hurricane Ike tore through my city on Sunday, bringing with it winds measured at 75 miles per hour. It was a surreal thing to witness. At first, when I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, it was entertaining. I love windy days, and this was a very windy day. The overlarge Bradford pear tree in my backyard is just outside my window, and all afternoon, I stared at it bending and straining against the wind.

It’s been funny to listen to people talking about “the hurricane.” Because while the damage to Louisville was extensive, and while there may still be hundreds of thousands of people still without power, while those people may not get their power back on for up to two weeks, while school may be canceled for most of this week, while most businesses like gas stations and grocery stores are closed due to lack of electricity, while the National Guard has been called in because of the the overwhelming amount of debris, this was not a hurricane. There wasn’t even any rain. But I live solidly in the middle of the country. I am pretty sure that we literally cannot get any actual hurricanes here, unless global warming takes a very drastic turn for the worse and brings the ocean a whole lot closer.

I took my dog for a walk last night, just as it was getting dark. Almost every yard had large tree limbs in it. The narrow park two streets over from mine where I like to walk my dog is awash in trees uprooted, trees that are half collapsed, trees that are missing most of their large limbs. How is it that the tree in my backyard, a tree that has grown to twice the size that it is supposed to be before falling down, a tree made out of incredibly fragile wood had only the most minor of damage?

My neighborhood is a patchwork of blocks with electricity and blocks without. Most are without. Everywhere, there was the sound of crickets and the insistent hum of generators belonging to a lucky few. Somehow I lucked out. My house had power restored less than 24 hours after it went out. Some of the other 300,000 households and businesses that lost power could be without it for up to two weeks. It’s absurd how easy I got off.

I have heard both my mom and many others mention that “god was looking out for me.” My house, of course, was essentially untouched, and my power is back on. “God is good,” I have heard people repeating whose homes were untouched, whose electricity has returned, whose trees aren’t destroyed. This is a sentiment that profoundly offends me.

I find it hard to believe that god made some sort of special effort to spare me, while telling everyone else in our neighborhood, “Too bad!” Telling the family whose ten year old boy was killed on Sunday by a falling tree branch, “Well, gee. Next time you should pray a little harder.”

Frankly, there are much bigger issues I’d prefer god (if in existence) be looking after rather than the state of the tree in my backyard. Like, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, the millions of people dying of starvation in the world, people suffering human rights abuses, children being physically and sexually abused, children (and adults) forced into the situation of having to work in inhumane conditions, innocent prisoners unfairly incarcerated, families attempting to escape the cycle of poverty, political prisoners, or even those whose tree came down in their yard but who have lost their job and don’t know how they’re going to pay to clean up the mess. And then there’s, wow, cancer and AIDS and crack babies and mental illness – why, the list just goes on and on!

The world’s suffering is endless, and if god is concerning him/her/itself with the state of my tree and the state of my wealthy boss’s house, then I really question how the priorities are set up.

My mom’s counter is that god works in mysterious ways, that we as mortals, as humans, cannot know understand god’s plan. That is a statement that will absolutely end this argument. There is no response I can make, because reasoned arguments come off the table when it comes to pure faith, pure belief in something greater that’s in control. And, maybe her argument is the truth – if there is one thing I completely agree with, it is the fact that I, as a mere mortal and insignificant little human do not have the ability to comprehend the universe in its entirety, and all its mysterious wonders.

That said, isn’t it just as very likely that we got lucky? It is not that I genuinely am not grateful to physics or the universe or god or whatever it was that my house, my yard, my self is unscathed. I just feel that it doesn’t have be god or some all-powerful force. It can just be luck. It can be the fact that my mom spent hundreds of dollars a few years ago trying to make the tree in our backyard more sturdy. It can be the fact that we live a few blocks from a hospital, and of course they’re going to restore power to the hospitals first. It could be that we got very lucky, and that doesn’t make us better or more special, it just makes us lucky.

If it’s just pure, dumb luck, nobody has control over it. Not even someone’s god. I’m not sure what’s scarier – the idea that sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t, or the idea that sometimes the it’s god’s plan to protect you and sometimes it isn’t.

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Ending

David Foster Wallace dead at 46.

I know his great literary work is Infinite Jest (which, just like everyone else, I still haven’t gotten through) but I love him for his essays in particular, and his short stories. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men blew my mind. And essays like “Host,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and “Up Simba,” all his essays, really, made me want to throw his books down and stamp my feet in frustration that I would never be as talented, as clever, as brilliant as he was.

But I never threw my books down, because that’s not how you treat a good book. I finished them instead, and marveled at his power to let me see something ordinary or old through entirely new eyes. His writing helped develop my love of creative non-fiction. When I’d finish reading something he wrote, I’d tell myself that I had to try harder, work harder, read smarter, write more, that sure, genius like his is sometimes just born, but even though I’m not a genius, maybe I could be better.

Part of what is so upsetting to me is the knowledge that he must have been terribly unhappy. He must have been so miserable, to have done that to himself. I wish he had more happiness to go along with all his brilliance, more happiness or a better combination of drugs or whatever he needed to not make him feel so bad inside.

It’s strange to mourn someone that I never knew. Like when John Spencer died, there is a feeling of real loss, but it is such a selfish loss. I can’t miss their presence in my life, because they only ever existed as an easily attained simulacrum. Instead, I miss knowing that they’re out there existing somewhere in the world, and knowing that it’s possible I could one day bump into them on the street and say to them, “Thank you for your work. It means something good to me, so you mean something good to me, too.”

I subscribed to Harper’s not too long ago, and when I did so, I smugly thought to myself that an extra perk would be getting in on the ground floor to read any new David Foster Wallace essays that they might be publishing. I cried tonight, because he’s not out there existing anymore, and because all those funny smart works, all those self-indulgent footnotes, all those insights will go unwritten. Who could write them like he could?

I hope he found his peace.

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I am not an argumentative person. I have opinions about things, though. I have carefully considered opinions. Oh, and about those opinions, I’m pretty damn certain that I’m right about things. But to elect to disrupt the peace just so I can tell people how right I am? It seems unpleasant and unnecessary, and sometimes kind of rude.

I’m a pretty standard agnostic, gay rights-supporting, pro-gun control, anti-death penalty, global warming-believing, against the war in Iraq from the very start sort of Daily Show-watching liberal. I work at an environmental non-profit, for god’s sake. Of course I’m voting for Barack Obama, and of course the election season is getting me all riled up.

All riled up, and with no desire to argue about it.

I’m not a blindly-following, mindless idiot. I support Barack Obama for president, and I have loved him since his speech made me swoon in 2004, but I think his education plan is way off. I think his energy plan isn’t aggressive enough, I think his support on gay rights is weak, he really pissed me off when he voted for the FISA bill, etc. Overall, though, his plans and ideas are much closer to mine than were any other candidate’s, and he sure as hell lights a fire under my ass when he speaks. And I believe, too, that having someone in office who can make people feel inspired is more valuable than people recognize.

And then there’s the fact that and I loathe Sarah Palin with every fiber of my being. I despise her voice. And her lies. And her hypocrisy. I hate her smug self-righteousness, and the fact that when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she had victims of rape pay for their own forensic exams, I hate the vehement assumption that only someone who is pro-life would choose to have a child with Down Syndrome. She makes my stomach hurt with disbelief when she claims that the pledge of allegiance, as it is written with “under god” included in there was something the Founding Fathers came up with, and when she doesn’t know what the Bush Doctrine is, and when she says that community organizers don’t take on responsibility.

She makes me furious. And for all the times when I said to people, “Even if John McCain got elected, it still couldn’t be as bad as having George W. Bush,” I’m furious at John McCain, too, for making such an irresponsible choice, clearly motivated by gutless, selfish political desires.

Every time I read an op-ed or an article or basically anything that does not shed a positive light on Sarah Palin (which – let’s face it – is practically everything that’s being written about Sarah Palin) I fight this urge to post it to facebook, to send it to everyone I know, to stand on top of my house and scream at the world, “CAN’T YOU SEE SHE’S THE FEMALE GEORGE W. BUSH, EXCEPT WITH AN EVEN MORE ANNOYING VOICE?!”

Such an action invites response, though, which in turn requires my own response, which – before you even know it – leads to some sort of argument with a person with whom I typically try to maintain a pleasant relationship. I don’t want to disturb the peace. I don’t want to make unnecessary waves within my extended family or with old friends. I sincerely believe that most people, even those who profoundly disagree with me, really do want what’s best for others and the world.

So, I’m keeping it all inside, reading Slate and New York Times op-eds and foolishly liberal blogs and steaming furiously, quietly to myself, so that no one will hear my own powerless indignation.

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(all questions fired in rapid succession and in all seriousness)

Fellow Dancer: (out of the blue as we were lining up to do floor progressions) How long did you dance at this studio as a child?

Me: (surprised) Oh! Well, from eighth grade through the age of twenty so… seven years?

Fellow Dancer: How old are you?

Me: Twenty-five?

Fellow Dancer: Really? I would have thought you were a lot younger.

Me: Yeah, I do look a lot younger than I actually am.

Fellow Dancer: (as I am about to begin doing kicks across the floor) So, what do you do?

Me: (somewhat harried, and tossing my response over my shoulder as I begin my kicks) Um, I work at this land conservation non-profit?

(end of awkward conversation the first)

***

(awkward conversation the second began as the class ended and we were exiting the studio)

Fellow Dancer: (directed at my sister) Where did you go to high school?

My Sister: Sacred Heart.

Fellow Dancer: (turning to me) Where did you go to high school?

Me: Manual.

Fellow Dancer: My daughter is in the dance class before ours.

Me: Oh, how old is she?

Fellow Dancer: She’s eight. I have two kids. Well, actually, I have three.

Me: Oh, well that’s–

Fellow Dancer: And you guys are just really good friends from when you took dance classes here before?

Me: Oh, well, actually, we’re sisters. But we’re good friends as sisters!

Fellow Dancer: You’re sisters. Why did you go to different high schools if you’re sisters?

Me: Umm. Different needs, different interests?

Fellow Dancer: And you both turned out normal?

Me: I think most people would say so…?

My Sister: We went to separate middle schools, too…

Fellow Dancer: Interesting. Okay, see you next week. I won’t make fun of you guys anymore.

My Sister: Uhh… see you next week.

Me: ….

My Sister:

Me: That was awkward.

My Sister: I felt like I was being interviewed for a job.

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