December 28, 2009

Shared loss

My friend's father passed away on Christmas Eve.  I just found out today: a mutual friend mentioned it, almost casually. 

I don't know any details; how he died, what the circumstances were, when the funeral is (have they already had it?).

All I know is that I wish I could phrase my condolences better, more eloquently.  That even having been on the other side, all I can say from here is still, "I'm sorry.  I'm so, so sorry.  I'm thinking of you."

What I really wish I could do is give him a hug: the kind that doesn't require words, the kind that is enveloping and sheltering and cradling and would just let him cry, because that was what I had needed the most, what my best friend provided for me.

The facebook message I sent hardly seems enough, but I wanted to make sure that he would receive it quickly yet on his own time.

I am crying, and I am not sure if I am crying for him, for his father, for his family--or if my tears are really just for me, for a pain that is remembered and amplified by the present, for a stocking that we still hung this year.  For this man I only met once or twice, for my friend who is far away, for the way his life will change, for everyone (because haven't we all lost someone?  We all will eventually).

Pride goes before a fall

We had Christmas one day early this year.  The evening of the 23rd, we all trekked out to my uncle's house, far away in the country up a steep, rain-sodden gravel drive.  My great-grandparents were there: GrandDad, with his hunched back arcing up over the nape of his neck; Grandmother, with her vacant expression and absolute deafness, finally confined to a wheelchair after years of putting on a pretence of being able to walk.

We opened presents with typical chaos, though instead of one-at-a-time, oldest to youngest, there was an attempt at organization followed by "whatever!" and everyone opening at once.  GrandDad would slowly unwrap each of Grandmother's gifts, holding it out for her inspection like an offering at an altar. 

The next day, GrandDad went to the care facility to sit with Grandmother while she examined her gifts again...but she refused.  She insisted on leaving, on being taken home to sit and look through her gifts, her free pass out of the nursing home really her best gift this Christmas.  The troops were mustered: GrandDad went to the home, and Mom, my brother, and I piled into the car to help.  Wheelchair to car was managed reasonably well, with Grandmother able to settle herself in the front seat, lifting her legs with her hands behind the knees and pivoting them around in front of her; a twitch on her skirted lap, to adjust trailing hems, and she was inside the car.

At their house, GrandDad backed the car into the garage, so that Grandmother was next to the single step up to the door (her preferred route: No one had used the front door in years).  The screened garage door, propped open, made a narrow diagonal path with the car door, opened so wide it hit the wall.  By some fluke, I was positioned in front of her, waiting to help her "walk" to the den (a short distance: maybe seven feet?), her pride and dignity refusing to use the wheelchair that she really needed.  Laboriously, she swung her legs to the ground and started feeling for the car door.  As usual, she didn't want to lean on my arm, but preferred the extension thingy on the door as a safety rail.  I convinced her to hold on to me instead, a much sturdier choice.  My brother crawled through the driver's seat to stand behind Grandmother, his hands on her waist. 

She managed to put one foot on the first step: to place the other there would have required a miracle.  She must no longer feel her legs--I think there is some paralysis--because she had no way of actually supporting herself.  Finally, Ben and I lifted her into position on the stoop, but suddenly I could feel her getting heavier and heavier--her feeble but frantic cries of "I can't do it!  I'm going to fall!" proved that she was already giving up and not helping us help her at all.  Eventually, I had my arms on her sides: underneath her shoulders, the way you might lift a toddler before settling him on your hip.  She grew heavier, and as we tried to move her forward I think her feet must have gotten caught or her legs simply gave out, because suddenly we were sinking, as if the wooden floorboards had turned into quicksand, we sank down until I think she was on her knees and I was crouched as low as possible.  Ben and I gathered around her, and Ben's reluctance to touch her (an aversion, I think, because she was Grandmother, capital G, inviolate, old, incontinent, ancient, the one around whom the family did everything, the very definition of matriarch) made it difficult to maneuver.  A last resolved grasp, and the two of us simply picked her up, Ben's arms around her waist, mine under her arms, and we shuffled forward (or backward, in my case) five or six feet to a wooden bench in the hallway.

As we set her down, I straightened up, sweating but relieved that we had made it, that we had not really dropped her, that now we could make her sit in the wheelchair so that life would be easier for everyone.

We moved her into the den, seated beside the divan (another small skirmish: had she sat on the couch, we would never have rescued her from its cushioned, low-seated confines).  Ben and I were sent on a lunch mission while Mom and the grandparents examined Grandmother's gifts (again).

After lunch, GrandDad's reluctance to cross Grandmother's wishes--in its own way, a sweet gesture of the fact that he has been her companion and caretaker for far too many years to count--generated a ridiculous plan: we would take her out the way she came in, only with more room around the car door.  Ben and I refused: the front door was easy to maneuver, we could lift her down the single step to the porch, and then it was an even path out to where the car was already parked.

GrandDad fussed, but I would not give in.  I thought about autonomy, and whether, if Grandmother were my patient, I would be allowed to do what I was doing there: telling her how it would be, rather than giving her a choice.  It was for my convenience, sure: but ultimately, it was for Grandmother, too.  She actually was unable to walk: to let her believe otherwise was a disservice and a bit of a farce.

At the car door, as Ben pivoted her into the front seat, all of us urging her to put her hand through the door so that she could be seated.  Finally, she was in, tilted sideways worse than the leaning tower of Pisa; I tried to get Ben to help her shift so that she was more upright, but he didn't understand.  I leaned into the car and wrapped my arm around her, under her arm and behind her back, and helped her scootch her bottom into place. 

Despite the frustration of trying to get her to move, I saw a vulnerability in the gratitude on her face when she thanked me for getting her situated; despite the smell and her stained clothes, there was a sweetness in the fact that she needed us, really needed us, to make this small trip from the house to the car.  And despite the fact that normally, a reveal of such weakness, such dependence would have released a wave of vitriol from her lips, muttered but certainly audible to us, even if she couldn't hear it--despite this, she seemed genuinely glad we had helped her.  Genuinely glad she was able to count on us to help her inside.

In the car, my brother could only rant about how awful she smelled, about how gross it was to touch her, especially around her bottom (she has not had control over her body function for as long as I have been alive, I'm pretty sure).  But all I could think about was that brief glance at the end, and the thought that kept recurring in my head: this might be her last Christmas.  Ninety-two is a lot of years.  Even though I thought she was eighty-eight for most of my childhood (somehow, I never really knew how old she was and this number always felt right), she's been around for a long time. 

I had never really felt this strongly about her: Grandmother has always been a feature at every holiday, and with each year it has taken longer and longer for her to reach the house from the car.  But never before have I seen her this way: dependent and humbled; like a real person who needs help.  And hearing my brother's revulsion in a way made me notice his immaturity, because Grandmother certainly couldn't help it.  And she certainly would not have chosen to present herself that way.  But Ben's inability to move beyond the very real smells of old age made me realize that I was able to do so.  It was a strange feeling, like looking in the mirror and suddenly realizing that you are as tall as you will ever be, that you are your parents' height and that makes you a "big" person: that you are an adult.

December 15, 2009

Better documents?

Why don't Google docs or other document formats work the way spreadsheets do?  Why can't you have multiple tabs within a document--so that, if you need separate pages for things like figures or a bibliography or an outline, they could be separate from the body of your document but still gathered together?  For that matter, why isn't there (or is there?) a program that would allow integrative documents--maybe one tab is a spreadsheet, another is a slideshow presentation, and another is a text document.  I feel like this would make it a lot easier to plan out larger projects (like a thesis paper, or a novel, or a lab report) and keep everything together.  The way things work now, you have to have a separate file for each type of format; at best, you could make a folder and save each file in there, separately.  But then, to work on the project, you would have to open each program and open each component's just not efficient.

Maybe the Google wave thing will work like this.  But it seemed like that was much more for collaborative documents.  Anyway, someone should create a new, better format.

December 14, 2009


Yesterday, I turned twenty-two.

It was a completely ordinary day. 

Though it was graced by the presence of an absolutely decadent, extremely delicious, totally surprise (almost-flourless) birthday cake.

And singing along to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the shower.

And practically zero work accomplished.

A good birthday!

December 12, 2009

Dinner with PJ & MS

If there were a picture next to the word unctuous in the dictionary, it would be of a goat's-milk brie, room temperature, smeared over a hunk of baguette ripped open down the middle and butterflied by fingers eager taste the mellow tang and smooth creaminess against tender tendrils of bread, the chewy-crisp crust being the perfect foil for the viscous cheese.

Adulthood would have an image of three friends sitting down to eat, a simple beige felt blanket over the table, plates, forks, souvenir champagne flutes filled with a cheap but very drinkable cabernet sauvignon, a plate of greens, a bowl of pasta, the cheese on the small cutting board being passed from hand to hand as conversation rolls as naturally as the low-set desk chairs gathered around the card table laden with food.

(Drinkable is a word that means "I don't know anything about wine, but this tastes like it and it has a fancy French name that I can pronounce because I saw the movie Sideways and is, if I ever have money, something I would like to know more about by trial and error.")

Tiramisu would come in blue plastic cups, "parfait" style, with warm blackberry coulis and chocolate chunks melting into the hot fruit over the top.

Conversation would be the position taken on the couches afterward, recumbent like ancient Romans after a feast, practically horizontal, one hand across the belly as topics shift from Disney princesses to Apple products to Google to the value of waiting tables as a job to the tales of jobs past and present to people to the future is almost here.  (The future is always almost here.)

December 7, 2009


Interesting correlation: the further to the right, the more likely I am to be making paint-generated graphs of productivity and the lower the subsequent y value.

December 4, 2009


This week has just made me really happy.  It's strange, because I was rejected from a medical school on Monday, but even then it didn't seem to matter because then on Tuesday, I got another interview up north and today I got one here!  I feel really confident about life in general.

I haven't had any meat to eat since Monday--I think the safest term for me right now is "presquetarian," similar to a pescatarian in that I'm trying out the idea of becoming a vegetarian, but I think that fish & occasionally chicken wouldn't be bad for me, so I'm really more of an "almost-vegetarian" (thus my franglish term).  Who knows?  I might have meat tomorrow.  I might not!

I had my first black bean burger on Tuesday.  It was actually amazingly delicious.  No, not just in a "are you sure you're not just trying to convince yourself that?" kind of way--it was actually just really delicious.  It didn't pretend to be beef, and I think that helped it more than anything.  (Next thing on my to-try list: the Subway veggie patty.  I owe MS that much, at the very least!)

Is it bad if part of my confidence comes from a pretty favorable tarot card reading?  I think I interpreted it pretty pragmatically.  Maybe it's one of those things where it doesn't matter if it works, it's simply an endless positive feedback loop.

November 28, 2009

Plan for literary self-improvement

Read the following in English (at least one book by):


Read the following in French (at least one book by):

de Beauvoir
Hugo (bonus for Les Miserables)
Proust (Du Cote de Chez Swann; only, finish it this time)

This sort of thing makes me feel like Austen's Emma, constantly starting plans for improvement but never following through.  I should have all next summer to read, though...maybe I can make a dent in my (lofty) list.

November 25, 2009

Mal au coeur

This morning, I think I realized exactly what the French call mal au coeur: literally, a pain in the heart but colloquially, a general nausea and malaise (hmm, another French word, unease). 

Symptoms: nausea; stomachache; general uneasiness; a desire to hit snooze or better yet, turn off the alarm; an urge to pull the covers over one's head and not go to class

Proximate causes: lack of sleep, indigestion, lack of breakfast, rainy weather

Ultimate causes: guilt, terror over incomplete homework exposure, guilt, chronic sleep deprivation (extended version of lack of sleep), anxiety over medical school interviews, anxiety over emails and other correspondence from medical schools which have not arrived, stress

Treatment: two courses of action meet standard of care; a) pull covers over head, turn off alarm clock, sleep til 3pm or b) wash face, brush teeth, find marginally clean clothes, attend class, pretend to know answers, try not to cry in your French literature class (when the text is too personal to be discussed objectively), substitute getting ahead on Thanksgiving homework with hours of Bones and House, do laundry, pack, shower, go to bed.

Prognosis: generally curable.  If persistent, may develop into something requiring therapy or antacids.  If Thanksgiving break is not a strong enough dose, wait and try a triple dose (3-4 weeks) of Winter break.

November 22, 2009

La place

My French professor assigned La Place as our last novel of the semester.  I had read Ernaux's Une Femme, and I wasn't sure what La Place would be about but I decided to start.

The first page was deceptively ordinary.  The second page was a sneak attack, a surprise "Gotcha!" that made a headache start to build behind my eyes and around my temples from holding back tears.

"Mon père est mort deux mois après..."

The sentence made my breath catch; it hitched inward and ratcheted into my lungs, stopping for an instant in my throat.

Oh.  This could be hard. 

Even the few pages afterward--all that I have read, so far--the wait beside the body, the careful closing of the eyes, the preparations for the funeral, the condolences of her neighbors--all this is like being transported back in time, three years, six months, five days, to a Tuesday in May that was sunny and mild and terrible.

Already, I imagine myself in class, responding to the novel, and try to prepare myself for what may be inevitable: the knowledge that Ernaux's words are not just crafted well but are a true representation of grief, that her description could be a timeline of my own thoughts, that the numbness that you feel in reading her account is not contrived or there for a purpose but instead the product of shutting off the world so that you can function.  I see myself defending her style, my eyes tearing up and needing to leave the room, my intimate relationship with the subject becoming apparent; the vulnerability of sharing that with people who hardly know me is excruciating, terrifying. 

Then, I imagine myself instead: numb, quiet, not participating, my silence (mis)taken for not having read the book.  Is this better or worse?  I would have insights that hopefully my classmates haven't had.

As always, it seems to be a struggle between being honest and accepting the social niceties that follow ("I'm so sorry."  "I didn't know." and others) with just keeping it quiet, holding back, not sharing so that I don't have to lie ("It's all right.  It was a while ago.  That's okay.  Thanks") or react to sympathy or worse, know that thereafter they could look at me and see this background piece of information like a filter, a special insight into how I respond to things, a clue to my emotions, something that most do not have.

November 21, 2009


The dough is soft, both times that I knead it: it feels the way I hope it will taste, delicate and gentle, golden and sensuously smooth.  When I divide it up into five pieces, ready for braiding, each little ball gets tugged and shoved and squooshed into pillowy mounds of anticipation.

Division was hard--the first separation was light, beautiful--about the size of an orange.  Two more just like it came off the whole in quick succession, and then, lo and behold, the remaining two were grapefruits.  No matter.  I start to roll each ball into ropes, what my four-year-old self would have called a snake.  But rolling the yeasty, stretchy, elastic dough doesn't work: I have to pick it up, pulling on it like you would for taffy, if you still made taffy by hand, extruding the dough from my hand into the right size.

Finally, five ropy, rough strands are ready.  I pinch the ends together and begin to weave them into a loaf, each strand going over-under-over-under and the loaf so long that it must bake diagonally on the baking sheet.  A thin glaze of egg white and it's into the oven.  When I come back twenty minutes later the loaf has swollen, engorged with heat and released gases and puffy, pale.  Another few minutes and I dare to peek, opening the oven to see a beautiful golden color just completing the Maillard reaction that is so essential to caramelized, browned, perfect baked goods.

A quick, hard tap tells me with its hollow report that the loaf is ready.  I wish I could pick it up and tear into it, right then, but I wait instead.  This is not just for me, but for others: we will eat it together tomorrow night, and the instinct--aroused by the softness of the dough, the anticipation of watching the bronzed loaf through the oven window, the delicate scent that says "someone is baking bread!" and the knowledge that out of flour, water, honey, eggs and yeast come a totally new product much, much greater than the sum of its parts--this instinct to tear off a piece and shove it in my mouth must be averted.  Tomorrow can't come fast enough!

November 15, 2009

On edge

By a miracle, it takes only two swipes of my ID card to unlock the door.  A yank brings the door swinging open, a moment and I am inside.

Scanning the wall of little the right....further right...down two, three...there it is.  Crouch down, spin the knob left, then right, then left again....Damn! didn't work.  Again.  Left, right....and left....there--the lock catches just a hair, opening on a rectangular pigeonhole stuffed with papers and oh! envelopes.

I pull them all out at once, a flier catching on the edge as I drag the mail out of the slot.  Ignore the flier, I don't care, it's probably something I won't go to anyway...envelope...from a medical school! but it's just a form from the study I'm participating in.  Another envelope...from the school again! but it's just commencement information.

Everything gets folded hot-dog style around the envelopes and shoved in my bag.  I try not to think about how excited I almost was, how disappointed that the envelope was not from somewhere else, that the envelopes did not contain letters saying "We are pleased to offer you a spot at the School of Medicine..."

"You should hear from us in mid- to late November."

Mail does not get delivered on Sundays.

Today is only the 15th.

November 13, 2009

Poème pour novembre

Tout d’un coup
le monde devient grisâtre.
Les jours ensoleillés de
la semaine dernière sont bien
passés, et les feuilles tombées,
mortes et croustillantes, se reposent
au-dessous des arbres et
partout aux trottoirs.

Il fait froid. Je sens
la fraîcheur
de l’air contre la peau,
mes joues rougissent et
un petit
me glisse de tête aux pieds.

Même les odeurs ont changé —
il n’y a que
sept jours que le goût
d’été sur le vent
me tourmentait.
Tout perd
son chaleur
son couleur
son odeur
sa vie.

November 5, 2009


Well, it's easy to see how dedicated I was to the idea of reflecting on gratitude.  I clearly haven't done a very good job of keeping up with my promise to reflect on each day and be grateful. 

But I was reflecting today, while I was in the shower.

Tomorrow, I am to attend a dinner for all the "named scholarship" recipients at my school.  Naturally, being invited to attend such a dinner involves dressing up, meeting your donor, small talk and niceties and an interesting mix of gratitude and shame.

Something in me rebels at the thought of this dinner--I don't know what, exactly.  I feel a sense of shame in needing the scholarship...but where does this come from?  I think it has to do with its anonymity and the fact that it is wholly unearned.  Essentially, I am benefitting from charity. 

Why should I be so ashamed?  My financial status qualifies me for this attention; otherwise, I wouldn't have received the scholarship.  But unlike some of my other financial aid awards, I didn't have to do anything for this one.  In fact, I'm not even sure that I was really selected in any particular way.  At least for other things, I feel like the money is deserved: I wrote an essay, or my grades were exemplary, or some other qualifying condition made me eligible for aid.  But this--with no rhyme or reason?  It makes me feel almost like an orphan made to show up for an orphanage function, a prodigal daughter to be shown off and presented as "look at all the good your money is doing in the world."

Maybe I am just ungrateful.  What's wrong with meeting with my donor, and making her feel like she's making a difference in the world?  Does it matter how I was picked out of the lottery of students in order to be singled out for such attention?  Do I really care that there seems to be no reason in particular for me to receive this scholarship? 

What if there really is a reason for me to receive this scholarship, and all this griping is me being lazy and not wanting to devote my time to saying 'Thank you" for something that's truly just a gift?  What if the reason is something we have in common?   How do I feel about that?

November 1, 2009

Reading from 10-28-09

Reading from 10-28-09

Present/Recent past:The 4 of swords--urgent need for rest; The Sun--celebrations ahead; Queen of swords reversed--mature female unafraid to confront difficult issues has become bitter and hardened.  The center portion of the layout makes me think of the interview itself--My first interviewer was very hardcore, and her style of questions was very difficult to communicate with.  I felt like she was really picking apart at every little thing that I said.  But the Sun suggests a positive outcome.

Temporary state of affairs--3 of cups reversed: false pregnancy or miscarriage.  I never know what this card means in my context, since I've never been pregnant, falsely or otherwise.  I guess in this case it could be that because my first interview seemed so shaky, it seemed like a false start.

Slightly ahead--King of cups reversed: Fair-haired, blue-eyed mature man, family-oriented, married or attached, has become possessive and overbearing and prone to selfishness.  This I read as my second interviewer--we had a good discussion about health care reform, but he tended to talk over me and interrupt to some degree.

Passing influence to come: The High Priestess: a highly intuitive female capable of great psychic power.  I have no idea...sometimes shows up as IO or RB.

Recent past: The Hermit: "seek and ye shall find." I'm not really sure on this one, either...maybe the application process in general?

Near future: Ace of pentacles reversed: money going in one door and out the other.  Definitely true with med school applications and travel; also definitely true of halloween!

State of affairs, near future: The Chariot: a good feeling about having control of your life.  True!  It feels good to have one interview under my belt; if I get in, I'd be happy to go there; if I don't, well, there are other schools...

Others' opinions: Lovers reversed: confusion about the choices in one's love life.  Why is this one here?  Not really school vs. love life?

Your expectations: 4 of pentacles reversed: I'm becoming a miser; you can't take it with you when you're gone.  Is this really true?  I mean, I'm certainly conscious of how much it costs to not only apply but also just to get to interviews.  CW & I ate at Waffle House after my interview--it wasn't exactly cheap, though--McDonald's is cheaper...hmm.

Outcome: Ace of swords reversed: Poor decisions or reluctance to make an important one proves to be disastrous.  Not sure what to do with this--I don't know that any poor decisions have been made...have I forgotten something?

See, overall the layout seems to do just fine.  Maybe I lost focus on the last few cards--they didn't seem to meld with the idea of the interview at all.  They seemed to be more about the general state of my life than anything.

October 21, 2009

Haiku for fall, gratitude

On Monday, I saw a presentation about positive psychology. People who reflect on things they're grateful for live longer and are generally happier--I've tried to keep a daily list of a few things I'm grateful for, but usually I fall off the wagon. Maybe I'll try for at least a week, and see how it goes...

1. My current favorite song, "Say Hey" by Michael Franti, was on the radio after rehearsal. I've only heard it two or three times so far, but it cheers me up every time (whether I need it or not)!

2. The weather today was amazingly beautiful. When I tried to think about my favorite part of today, I came up with a haiku:
glorious sunshine
brief respite from icy Fall
winter on the way

3. pumpkin chocolate chip muffins + milk = snack heaven.

October 20, 2009

Oh, no. What have I done?

I used to have a journal on This was in high school--my friends all had them, and we would read each others' posts and write pithy, scathing remarks or post endless surveys, summaries of your life, demographic collations of facts that somehow were only half as interesting to read as to do yourself (and not that interesting to do, either).

Unfortunately, I realized that what I (and my friends) were really doing was whining about how awful and stupid we thought our lives and teachers were. I deleted my freeopendiary a long time ago, and vowed never to engage in such ridiculous pursuits. I even held out on Facebook until my senior year, waiting and waiting and then, relentlessly sucked in by its siren call of instant stalking capabilities...I was lost.

But, I told myself, this new thing, this "Twitter" thing and the blog thing--that I will never do. (Still no Twitter. I resist!) But blog...(even the word looks ridiculous)...well...

Taking a poetry class my freshman year plucked a chord that I couldn't quite express but knew I had a desire to share (even though I had self-prescribed it as a sort of secret therapy, my curiosity was piqued). And since that class, I have had random urgings--the way the ground smells after it rains, my favorite parts of spring when leaves are a misty green haze on thunderstorm-blackened tree trunks, the surge of joy when you step outside and take a deep breath (even here, in the heart of a midwestern city) and know that you can feel the cold air seeping in through your aveoli into your bloodstream and shimmering pearlescent to fingertips and toes--

but I have not written them down. Something about writing them down on paper makes me feel like a rite is necessary: the proper pen, a special notebook, something consecrated. And then my thoughts feel unworthy of ceremony, the word in French is désacrilisées (-es for pensées, feminine, plural), impure.

So maybe this is better, after all.