Thanks for All the Fish

I had this vague Idea that I would write a Thanksgiving post.

I mean, I didn’t do the whole Facebook thing of daily posting what I was thankful for, because, hey I have a blog and would write all about that. In my own time.

Which turns out to be days later.

I did post that I was considering just reverting to childhood at my mother’s house, which would consist of lying about reading and generally being a parasite.

The beauty of the adult version of this is, you get to drink beer, too!

So, yes, this is what happened to my Thanksgiving post. I was sitting in the sun on the patio, drinking beer that my wonderful Stepfather Dave stocked in his special Corona cooler, reading and being a parasite. Here is my list of thankfuls for that:

To my mom, for making sure I got to relax;
To Dave, for being a great host and for putting up with HER side of the family;
To David, my love, for being the kind of guy who loves to sit and read on the patio with me;
To the sun, for shining.

I wasn’t a complete loser, but I came quite close. Somewhere around the Monday of Thanksgiving week, between emails and phone calls, it occurred to me that my mother hadn’t even mentioned the dinner menu, much less asked me for input.

This is what’s known in the business as a Bad Sign.

When I asked my mom about the plans for the holiday meal, she replied that Thanksgiving is a slam dunk, she and Hope had it handled. So, while I did make my cranberry/pear chutney on Thanksgiving Day, it was an afterthought. Here’s me, in my desultory cooking, laptop at the ready. And no, my mother’s kitchen is never that cluttered. That’s my fault, too. Thus I am thankful:

To Hope, best stepsister anyone could ask for, for stepping up when I didn’t;
To my mom, who never once bugged me about the dinner menu and who just wanted me to relax.

So, while I managed to make chutney, consult on the stuffing and set the table — yes, I was totally 13 again — I was worthless this Thanksgiving. Even for giving thanks.

In the end? Hands-down winner: I’m thankful for my mom. Who promises that I get to make it all up by hosting Christmas. And she won’t do anything, especially not scrubbing my stove top in the middle of the night.

I love you Mom!

Girl Stuff

So, we were kind of dorks yesterday.

Which Hope says is okay, because the guys already know we’re dorks.

What happened was, my mom, Hope and I indulged in the great American tradition of shopping. We had fun and all was reasonably predictable, until we hit Ann Taylor.

Where we pretty much lost our minds.

So, yes, we all bought the same shirt in a slightly different shade, and all wore them out for Mexican food last night. Mexican food is the Beck family tradition for the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Brett, Hope and Galan’s older son, decided that the girls wearing the same shirts should also be part of the tradition now, which might be kind of difficult to sustain in the long run.

That, and tales of Xerodeupopods.

My mom’s camera was accidentally set to video for the photo of the boys, so you get the full photo-taking experience here, complete with Mariachi music in the background.

I know. Doesn’t get better than this.

Girl Stuff

So, we were kind of dorks yesterday.

Which Hope says is okay, because the guys already know we’re dorks.

What happened was, my mom, Hope and I indulged in the great American tradition of shopping. We had fun and all was reasonably predictable, until we hit Ann Taylor.

Where we pretty much lost our minds.

So, yes, we all bought the same shirt in a slightly different shade, and all wore them out for Mexican food last night. Mexican food is the Beck family tradition for the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Brett, Hope and Galan’s older son, decided that the girls wearing the same shirts should also be part of the tradition now, which might be kind of difficult to sustain in the long run.

That, and tales of Xerodeupopods.

My mom’s camera was accidentally set to video for the photo of the boys, so you get the full photo-taking experience here, complete with Mariachi music in the background.

I know. Doesn’t get better than this.

If I’m a Prick, Do I Not Still Bleed?

David is studying acupuncture and oriental medicine, as some of you may or may not know.

The upshot of this is, there’s all these diagrams around the house for identifying various characteristics or the location of acupuncture points and meridians, etc. What’s funny is they all have this look that I find particularly creepy. It’s kind of like attack of the zombie patients.

I think it’s because the drawings are meant to represent people realistically, but without ethnic characteristics or any kind of emotional color.

Which, of course, isn’t realistic at all.

So you get this curious combination of something meant to look human, that isn’t human at all.

People have been sending me notes, concerned that my blog posts show that I’m under pressure or overloaded. And I start to think about how can I edit them so as not to put that so much on display. I suppose that’s my first instinct — to try to gloss that over. Then I wonder why I feel like no one knows when I need support. Therefore, I’m making a concerted effort not to gloss and to ask for support when I need it.

After all, it’s the human thing to do.

(Today is the official last day for the label “Ruthless Revision” — it is DONE! I’m lousy at keeping secrets.)

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Flesh

So, the last few days turned out to be crazy.

Par for the course in my life, you say? Yeah yeah yeah.

There’s this idea that the more something is worth doing, the more difficult it is. That the universe makes you pay for what you want, in sweat and pain. The old idea of blood sacrifice: if you truly want something you have to sacrifice your life blood to it. Sacrifice, of course, derived partially from the word for blood, for you word whores out there.

The idea is that if you are trying to do something, the universe will throw obstacles in your path, to see if you can be distracted.

If you can be? Alas, you are unworthy.

I’m not sure I believe this. But I’m so close to finishing the Ruthless Revision. Within ten pages, I think. And every time I think I’m there something happens to stop me.

So Jeffe, you ask, why are you writing this blog post instead of those ten pages?

Because I’ve got to be at full power to wind everything up in the elegant way I envision and the meter is running low today.

After a few days in New Jersey and another day downtown working with new clients, I thought I was in striking distance of finishing. And then a big DC muckety-muck had to call a state muckety-muck and I had to be called in. All very exciting and now people are sending glowing emails about how admirable I am.

It’s great to have the career validation. It truly is. And I’m not just saying that because I know my boss reads this blog.

The invidious thing is, nobody asks if I’ve finished the book yet. At least, not because they need it and are anxiously waiting for me to deliver it.

I’m really the only one who cares that I haven’t.

I’ve talked about this before, haven’t I?

At any rate, Allison has had a crazy few days also, with an offer of a book contract and four agents now circling her juicy self. It’s a great problem to have, no doubt, but she’s overwhelmed, sorting details and doing her best to make the best decision, not just for now, but for her foreseeable career.

Which brings me back to something I’ve also said before, that the most rewarding part of writing really occurs between you and your work. That’s the most uncomplicated thrill. It’s intimate and lovely.

Maybe I’ll finish tomorrow and keep it a secret.

Who the Hell Cares What Posterity Thinks, Anyway?

Those who check in for the “Where Is Jeffe?” updates know I was in New Jersey last week.

Land of mullets and IROC, I’m reliably informed by Allison, who spent the 80s growing up in that state. I had to ask what IROC meant. “Camaros,” she replied, while someone else said International Race of Champions. No dissent over the meaning of mullets.

Though neither was particularly in evidence.

Of course, evidence to the contrary, the 80s are well and truly over. Ann Taylor might be showing decidedly Madonna-wanna-be fashions –it’s true! think frothy lace and big bangles, possibly fingerless gloves — but theoretically mullets and camaros will just never be hip again.

We had dinner at a great place in Princeton, Mediterra, which was lovely and festive. Just the right amount of shine for early onset holiday season. For a Westerner like me, Princeton is old. The whole quaint colonial thing. Gives me a thrill every time. Cobblestones, narrow buildings, boutiques and bright Ann Taylor windows, with 80s-feel outfits. The eras blend.

We went into the bar at Nashua Inn, famous for the carvings in the wood tables of famous people. On the wall hang black and white framed yearbook photos of notable Princeton alums. It’s amusing to peruse the long wall, to see the politicians and movie stars. Yes, Brooke Shields is there. And Donald Rumsfeld.

Then, below and to the left of Donald — no significance there, I’m sure — was Michelle Obama

Class of ’85. With big 80s hair.

I remember my own youth in the 80s and how we’d have 50s day at school. Apparently 30 years is the magic number, for fashion nostalgia. My mom dressed me in what she wore in the 50s. All the other girls were in bright felt poodle skirts and ankle socks. They turned up their noses at my pencil skirt and white button-down, but all the teachers said I had the look nailed. Through no effort of my own of course.

But I remember thinking at the time, that it would be hard to do 80s dress-up day, because we didn’t really havea fashion. It seemed like non-fashion to me. It’s so difficult to have perspective on a thing, when you’re immersed in it.

Michelle’s hair screamed 80s at me. I would have known in a glance, even without the ’85 identifier. This isn’t exactly the one they had, but it gives you the idea. I wondered if she’d been back to the bar at the Nashua Inn, to see she’s now on the wall. And I wonder if she regrets the hair. Not so much that she had it, but that it’s now part of her definition. She’s leapt to the world stage and this is the moment crystallized from her college days

The sad thing is, my hair was even bigger than hers and I had to perm it to get it that way.

I suppose we don’t get to pick these things, what images end up defining us. Just like you don’t get to pick what will be the defining moments of your life. Small choices resonate it ways we can’t predict. What seems like a good idea at the time becomes a regret later.

I make a lot of choices in order to avoid regret.

I learned early on about loss and missed chances — and drew a lesson from that. So I slept with men I might not have slept with, just in case I might regret bypassing the opportunity. I’ve tried to appreciate every moment of my life, every person in it, so I wouldn’t regret later that I didn’t.

But the thing is: immersion makes it impossible to know what you might regret. You simply can’t see it in the moment. Hindsight makes it crystal clear.

In the end, I suppose all one can do is foresake regret altogether. We make choices. We hope they’re good ones. Whether it’s the person you choose for a life partner or a hairstyle.

Only time will tell.

Life, Art and Imitation

There’s something to be said for waking up to this kind of view.

It’s like having a Georgia O’Keeffe painting on your wall. Only it’s real and ever-changing. I see now, what she saw here.

Of course, I can’t quite capture the image like she could.

I remember a story I read in her biography (autobiography?). The book is still packed, so I’m pulling this out of memory.

When Georgia was a young woman, she drew and painted. She wanted to be an artist. At one point a teacher told her she didn’t have what it took. That her skills and talent were adequate, but that she lacked that something extra that would make her a great artist.

And really, you have to be great if you want to make a living at it. The Pro-Football player analogy.

Georgia went back to her room — she was living at a boarding school, though I don’t recall now if she was still a student or teaching there. And she took all of her work and hung it on the walls. She papered the walls with it and sat there and looked at all of it.

She saw her teacher was right.

None of it had that extra something that would transform it from image into art.

So, she destroyed it all. Burned it, maybe? Or something less dramatic — perhaps she just stuffed it all in the trash can.

I can’t recall the sequence after that, except that she discarded all she knew and started over. She might have not painted for a while. And when she began again: it was there. The thing that makes Georgia O’Keeffe art instantly recognizable.

Sometimes someone would bemoan the art she’d destroyed. She would reply that it was no loss.

Maybe I’m leaving out the important part of the story here, the “how she did it” part. But I don’t think so. Clearly that’s not the part that stuck with me. The part that did is the image of her, standing in the center of her room, with everything she’d done stuck all over the walls. And what it took for her to see that it wasn’t good. To destroy it for that reason.

Every time I see her art now, I think of that moment. It magnifies my admiration.

Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days

With any luck, this photo of me will get picked up as a current pic and everyone will think of me as 27 forever.

This was taken at the party for my Master’s defense.

I was beyond happy to be done, but it was bittersweet because I was supposed to have gotten a PhD. I spent six years, did all of the course work and all of the research for a PhD. And left with a Masters.

The same degree another guy in my department got for one year of histological work.

I’m pretty much over it now.

We watched “Dark Matter” last night, which has multiple resonances for me.

The movie (spoiler alert) is loosely based on what happened at the University of Iowa when Gang Lu, a Chinese grad student in Physics, lost his nut in 1991 and went on a shooting spree that included his graduate advisor. I’d been a grad student in Neurophysiology for three years at that point and had been shut down on my Masters bypass. Many were the jokes told that day about what we’d like to imitate.

By 1994, I’d made the decision that research wasn’t for me. They’d beaten it out of me. I cut bait, snagged a Masters for my trouble and worked on being a writer. At least the Masters got me a job with a decent salary. In 1996, I published my first essays and was part of a writers group, which included a gal who’d graduated from the famed Writers Circle MFA program at Iowa. Her good friend, Jo Ann Beard, wrote an essay in 1997 that was published in the New Yorker and then in her collection, Boys of My Youth, about Gang Lu and what happened. Jo Ann had been an administrative assistant in the Physics group and only missed being killed because she called in sick that day.

Dark Matter isn’t exactly that story. The way Jo Ann told it, Gang Lu was always a difficult, even scary, personality. Liu Xing, in the movie, is brilliant and misunderstood. Some critics have complained that the movie took the story in a different direction, because one of the writers drew on his own grad school experiences to show the other side of this kind of story.

The whole bit about how they beat it out of you. Liu Xing is not a team player and most grad advisors really hate that.

Looking back, I can see that my advisor and I were a bad match. From the begining, he didn’t like the way I worked. He had particular rules for how everything must be done. He was a manic/depressive Hungarian, so those rules changed. I was his first grad student and not a good rule-follower. He set out to prove that I could not succeed doing things the way I did and he ultimately proved his point.

Looking back, I could have done a few things. I could have recognized that I could never shine in that situation. I could have left. But I didn’t meet David until 1991. So I can’t wish that one away. At one point, a female professor on my committee tried to intercede. She got my advisor to agree to giving me a “Plan B” PhD, where I’d write a paper and go.

I was stubborn.

This is a theme with me and one my advisor and I frequently tangled on. I didn’t want Plan B because I thought I’d be doing a half-assed job. He retorted that I already was doing a half-assed job. Which only stiffened my resolve to see it through and do it right. Which didn’t happen.

So, I don’t have an actual PhD. But I never went on a shooting spree.

I try not to regret what I invested in those years, because I deeply believe all our efforts are for a reason. The lessons all feed into something. Even if it seems impossible to discern what that might be.

Looking back at this picture, I see I was young. I had been full of ambition and hope. Like Liu Xing, I fancied I’d win the Nobel Prize. It’s probably the slap all young, hopeful and ambitious people must take. A slap that academia and graduate committees feel duty-bound to deliver.

Maybe the trick is to find a way to keep the hope and ambition, even after they beat it out of you.

Joy and Other Indoor Sports

I love this image.

One day I’d like to journey to the remote part of China where this cliff-carving is, just to see it for real.

What I love is how the sculptor(s) capture the sense of movement and joy. The Bodhisattvas, though captured in stone, are dancing.

To me, that’s what life and enlightenment are about: being so filled with joy that it moves you to dance.

Lately I’ve been feeling sensitive to anger. Maybe it’s just a symptom of bad economic times, but I’m noticing so many harsh responses on a variety of fronts.

I’ve been noticing writers criticizing other writers in mean ways. Or making lists of things they think writers shouldn’t do.

One of my favorite bloggers, Heather Armstrong, finally listed with ads all the hateful comments she receives, figuring that if people are goling to pour out that kind of hate, she could at least get revenue from it. I notice she’s taken the page down now. I read a bit and felt so soiled by the things people said that I couldn’t bear to keep going.

A colleague sent a “funny” email to me that was a collection of pics of office refrigerator notes. Again, the parade of passive/agressive rage at people who took or molested food from the communal fridge only left me feeling sad.

Granted, I’m not good with anger. I’m one of those people whose parents never fought in front of her, so she doesn’t like to see people fight. When I hear people yell in anger, I physically flinch. I feel emotionally slapped, even if it’s not directed at me. I’m a big believer that you don’t talk when you’re mad, because once something is said, it can’t be unsaid, regardless of apologies.

In short, I’m a total pansy about conflict.

I know that conflict is part of life and one must deal as it arises. And yet, I think there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the positive. In fact, I think it’s crucial to find the joy and not the rage. I suspect there are very few exceptions to the old rule, that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

It’s hard for me to imagine the dancing Bodhisattva’s leaving hate comments on someone’s blog.