2010 Hunger Challenge, Days 4 & 5: In Praise of Distraction/Life Interferes

Day 4 (Wednesday)
There's a fascinating thing that happens on occasion when I'm with a client and we're deeply engrossed in work: no matter how hungry I might get, I'll reach a point at which I'm so far beyond hunger that I can go for hours without eating. Even once we've wrapped up for the day and I've left, it sometimes takes a while before I realize that I haven't eaten for many hours and am, in fact, ravenous.

Unhealthy as this is, it's actually fairly handy: no need to interrupt the flow of the work I'm doing and no weirdness or worry about when, how, where, and what to eat when I'm in someone else's home or office.

I didn't particularly intend to invoke this hunger legerdemain yesterday, as I was home (which usually means that I get unignorably hungry on schedule) and was working on my own admin stuff, not a project for a client. But somehow it happened. I had a quesadilla (one Trader Joe's handmade wheat tortilla, about an ounce of cheese, and salsa--45¢) in the late morning, and then set to work weeding out, digitizing, and reorganizing my business files.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I had an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie from the batch I'd made on Saturday (15¢), along with some water.

And then it was 7.30 p.m. My friend Mary called, and as we chatted, I realized that I hadn't eaten for hours and was bound to go downhill fast if I didn't make myself some dinner. 7+ hours on a single quesadilla and a cookie=cheap, yes. Recommended, not especially.

Thanks to the grocery center stipend of free produce, the only part of my meal that actually cost me anything was the pasta (32¢) and the feta (25¢); the roasted potato, carrot, and onion that went with them were "free." Total for the day: $2.12. (After I tallied that late in the evening, I ate another cookie in celebration, bringing the sum to $2.27.)

This get-beyond-hunger-by-working phenom reminds me of a saying my high school French teacher taught me: Dormir, c'est manger, or To sleep is to eat. Lose yourself deeply enough in something else and you might forget that nothing of substance has gone in your mouth for hours.

But that forgetting, of course, can't last.

Day 5 (Thursday)
Can't last, and doesn't. I woke this morning, 45 minutes before my alarm, hungrier than I've been all week. Normally I can find myself at least a few hours into my morning before I'm truly hankering for breakfast, but today, no such luck. I was so distracted and miserable that I had to eat a bowl of cereal just to function.

I went through the day today knowing that this evening I'd be going to a networking meeting for which I'd already paid, and at which there would be appetizers. I wrestled with the Hunger Challenge protocol here: since I'd paid weeks ago, wouldn't it be foolish to go and not eat anything? Also, how much of what I paid for the meeting went toward food, and how much toward the general meeting expenses? Finally, how guilty should I make myself feel for veering off the path here yet again this week?

I decided on a compromise, sort of: I kept the rest of my food expenses today to $2.23, bringing me to $4.50 total for the past two days. To balance that out, I decided I'd let myself eat sans guilt at the meeting tonight.

And then I blew that compromise by buying a glass of wine. It was completely overpriced event wine, and chardonnay at that, but sometimes these schmooze-y meetings are just easier with some vino.

Which brings me to this: so much of my life, whether personal or professional, involves food in some way. With friends, I go out for dinner and drinks, or we gather at someone's house over wine and tables crowded with things to eat. When I network, nine times out of ten a meal--or at least a beverage--is involved. With colleagues, we meet in taquerias or cafes to swap stories and offer support, or we show up at each other's doorsteps with a bottle of something, a plate of something, and then sit and talk and laugh and eat. And eat.

But what if I couldn't? What if I really were subsisting on $28 a week, plus rations of produce from a grocery center? What if every time someone asked me to join in a meal or a drink out I had to beg off because I couldn't afford it? I would, I admit, be totally adrift.

This week, life has interfered with my ability to be completely faithful to the Hunger Challenge. It's jarring to realize the reverse: just how much being hungry and in need would interfere with my ability to live the life I'm used to. Damn if I don't take that for granted.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 3: My Cheating Heart (and Stomach)

Day 3, a Day Late
I admit: last evening I knowingly and intentionally fell (well, leapt, really) off the wagon. In the second of my two planned social outings for the week, I went with my friend Dana to 15 Romolo for cocktails and bar bites, both because--theme alert!--I had a voucher for same, and because I was sorely in need of a cocktail.

All told, the evening cost us each $20--which, for two drinks each, three shared appetizers, and one shared dessert, was not a whole lot (thanks to the aforementioned voucher). Of course, $20 was ridiculously far above and beyond my food budget for the day. It was also worth every last guilt-inducing cent.

In my everyday life--that is, even when I'm not intentionally aiming to eat three solid meals for $4 per day--I tend to be fairly frugal when it comes to grocery spending. A few times a year, I'll splurge on something special, like the Meyer lemon olive oil I bought from a very sweet man at the Castro farmer's market a few weeks back, but I'm generally inclined toward the cheap(-ish): I buy a lot in bulk, stick with pretty simple and inexpensive produce, and resist the allure of the fancy cheeses at Rainbow in favor of the basic cheddar and ricotta salata and Bulgarian feta that are a fraction of the price. (Yes, I realize this is a wildly bourgeois definition of frugal grocery shopping.)

But it's a different story when it comes to dining and drinking out. Since I'm already laying myself bare here, I will admit that I shell out $9+ per cocktail on a pretty regular basis, even though that same $9 would buy me, say, a hunk of cheese that would last all week, or some handmade ravioli, or some other non-essential but lovely foodstuff that I probably wouldn't buy because it seemed too expensive.

Hello, my name is Emily, and I'm penny wise and pound foolish.

I'm also someone who thrives on being around other people, especially when that communion involves food, and doubly especially when that communion involves food and a cocktail that comes with its own back story, as did those Dana and I drank last night. So while there's a big part of me that feels like I should be engaging in some (more) self-flagellation today--after all, people who are really living on food stamps cannot simply decide to take a night off and belly up to the bar at 15 Romolo--there's also a part that's OK with having savored last night: the bar, Dana's company, our conversation, and, yes, that final sip of stout ice cream milkshake at the tail end of our meal that left me feeling, for the first time all week, completely and delightedly full.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 2: What $4 (Plus 2 Potatoes, 1 Apple, and a Cucumber) Looks Like

I woke up this morning realizing that part of the crazy-ass dream that filled my sleep (once I finally fell asleep, that is) last night had me in Spain with some friends carefully deliberating whether to spend $2 on a glass of sherry or $2.25 on a glass of red wine. For the record, I went for the sherry, not so much because I was in a sherry mood but because, hey, 25¢ can buy a decent snack. When I finally pulled myself fully awake, I was both baffled by the dream in general--it was insane--and vaguely alarmed that food price calculations have already filtered into my subconscious.

It is literally and existentially exhausting to have to think all the time about what every single bit of your food costs. I've only been doing this for two days and already I'm tired of it.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a rundown of what I ate today, and roughly what it cost.

  • Coffee with milk and sugar: 40¢
  • 1 small and 1 medium potato, roasted as home fries: free (I'm counting these as part of what an individual in SF would get from one of the Food Bank's grocery centers; see yesterday's post for details)
  • 2-egg omelet with cheese: 55¢
  • tortilla: 21¢
  • 1/2 cup orange juice: 13¢
  • (Technically, I should've counted the ketchup I ate with my home fries, but there comes a point at which laziness takes the day; this was that point.)
  • PB&J on whole wheat: 45¢
  • 1 small apple: free (I'm substituting apples for pears in the Food Bank's sample list)
  • 1/2 veggie banh mi: $2 (I'm guessing; I ate it at the board meeting I went to this evening)
  • 1 mini and 1 fun size Milky Way: 15¢ (I made the mini last for 4 bites and the fun size for 6--not an easy [or fun, frankly] feat)
  • 1 medium cucumber: free
  • 1 small homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookie: 12¢, give or take
Grand total for the day: $4.01! Of course, without the "free" potatoes, apple, and cucumber, I'd be hosed.

This list reads to me like some kind of crackpot diet plan: enjoy one (more or less) normal meal in the morning, and then go slowly off the rails throughout the day until you find yourself so hungry in the late evening that you're unable to resist the siren song of a cucumber and a cookie (which, let's be honest here, are not exactly packing my stomach right now). The fabulous results? Lingering hunger for most of the day, followed by a gradual descent into loopiness, accompanied by longing for things like avocados and cheese and toast lousy with butter.

Dammit. I'm hungry.


2010 Hunger Challenge, Day 1: Chocolate Is Not Lunch

Because it was so fascinating (if very literally painful) last year, I signed on again to the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, entailing a week of attempting to eat for no more than $4 per day. (If you missed my posts from last year's challenge, start here and work your way through.) Today was Day 1 of the challenge, and already I have--completely consciously--blown my food budget.

First, a little background: $4 per day, or $28 per week, is the average amount a food stamp recipient in California gets. Trying to eat on this budget, as the hunger challenge suggests, gives you a starkly real sense of just how limiting it is, even if you opt for super-cheap foods like dried beans and inexpensive (read: probably conventionally grown) produce. Every bit of food and drink you consume (with the exception of tap water, salt, and pepper) counts toward this total, whether it's stuff you've paid for or stuff you've been given by others.

This year's challenge features a new wrinkle: participants can supplement their $4-per-day stash with food that represents what a family or individual in San Francisco would receive each week from one of the Food Bank's neighborhood grocery pantries. As an individual, here's what I'd get around this time of year:

Potatoes--1.2 Lbs per Person
Cucumbers--1.1 Lbs per Person
Pears--0.9 Lbs per Person
Carrots--0.7 Lbs per Person
Tomatoes--1.1 Lbs per Person
Stone Fruit--1 Lb per Person
Onion--1.1 Lbs per Person
Honeydew--4.5 Lbs per Person

Having done the challenge last year, I can appreciate (immensely) the difference a few pounds of produce can make in terms of stretching a week's food budget. In fact, I'm about to have a peach in an attempt to quell my rumbling stomach, and am very happy that peach won't make today's budget overage any worse.

Because here's the thing: one of the biggest bummers I discovered during last year's challenge was that there's not a whole lot you--or, more to the point, I--can do socially that doesn't somehow involve food or drink. Even with an event that's not food-centric--watching a movie at home, say--food so often comes into play: you make popcorn, or have a glass of wine, or go to Walgreens and buy gummy-somethings to eat during the film. Last year, because everything that passed my lips counted against my $28 for the week, I gave up several social outings, or whimpered through a few that were, sadly, just painful--viz. my friend Nir coming to my house with a burrito from the Little Chihuahua while I downed a salad and then watched longingly as he ate.

I can deal (if complainingly) with the hunger I know I'm bound to feel while trying to eat on $4 per day, and can deal with the required hyper-consciousness of the cost of every single thing I consume, along with the knowledge of everything I love eating that's off-limits this week because it's too expensive--most cheeses, the walnut baguette from La Boulange I want like crazy, a coffee and breakfast burrito at Arlequin....

But what I couldn't face for another year running was saying no to social events, or giving friends the brush-off for most of the week, or more salad-vs.-burrito showdowns. So I gave in and planned two outings, the first of which was today: a visit to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival with my friend Maria.

Insane as it sounds to go to a chocolate festival on day 1 of a hunger challenge, I had a coupon that gave us a big discount: two 15-taste passes for $10, working out to about 33¢ per taste. I had 8 tastes, for a total of $2.64. Not bad for fancy-ass chocolate, except that 1.) it did not exactly (or, really, at all, in any way, shape, or form) make a meal, and 2.) $2.64 is more than half of my daily budget. So even though breakfast worked out to a petite $1.18 and dinner to $1.37, I'm still over budget by $1.19.

Could be worse, but peach or no peach this evening, I'm going to go to bed hungry, because I haven't had enough protein or--chocolate samples notwithstanding--fat today. Neither of those, you'll note, is on the free-from-the-food-bank list for an individual, and I'm not going to exceed my budget any more than I already have.

It would be too facile to say that there's a necessary trade-off between socializing and eating on a strict budget; I could, of course, have had Maria over for something super-cheap at home and spent just as much time with her as I did waiting in line for toffee samples. Nonetheless, it's jarring to realize how much of my time with friends is spent out over food, and how much I love that combination, and how impossible it would be if a single burrito or a few pieces of chocolate truly did undo my eating budget for an entire day.


To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (San Francisco Version)

Wear thee ye summer clothes while ye may,
Warm weather is always fickle-y:
And these same temps that soar today
Tomorrow will be sickly.

(Sorry about that, Robert Herrick.)


"Her Hardest Hue to Hold"/The Pursuit of Happiness

This post was slated to begin several days ago as a litany of the sweet and funny and heart-swelling and purely fun and interesting and just plain awesome moments that wallpapered my two weeks on the east coast. I sat, last Friday morning, in my aunt's backyard on the outskirts of Boston, swimming back through those moments and thinking of Robert Frost and his leaves subsiding to leaves, thinking how reluctant I was to fold up the tail ends of my vacation and return to San Francisco.

But then, this evening, S. and I sit on my sofa, suddenly a little heavy and teary after a long and spectacular day, and it's another poet who comes to mind.

Earlier in the day, we drive around Marin, in awe of our unbelievable summery weather (finally, finally). At the Muir Beach Overlook, we stare for a long time out at the ocean, all blue and green and glittering madly. At Stinson, I wade into the water, cold and bracing and tugging at my feet like a sweet ache; we eat ice cream and drink cold caffeine and wander languidly through town. We drive and drive, stopping to snap photos of cows, to Point Reyes. Back south in Sausalito, we sit at the edge of the water and watch the city in the distance, the city to which S. is about to bid farewell, the city in which my life will carry on. Finally, then, back to Hayes Valley for our last supper at PaulK.

And then we're home, sitting on the sofa laughing until we're choked up with the reality of our impending goodbye. We talk and talk--about heading into the unknown and unseen, about having your slate wiped clean, about not promising but hoping, about how to go on when your life isn't what you thought it might be, about believing that, ultimately, people are wired to connect and care and love. (And S., they are, they are, they are.)

S. says something about the unlikelihood of leaving behind what you've done and starting over in the name of happiness and I immediately go über-American on him. You can always start over, I say. If you take nothing else away from your year in the U.S., take this: the belief that you can begin again, the belief in the pursuit of happiness.

And when, at length, I hug him goodbye one last time and watch him walk down my front steps, out into the night, it's Frost who comes to mind first: Nothing gold can stay. (How we both know that, and far too well.)

But then it's Whitman--unabashedly hopeful, slightly goofball, occasionally naïve Whitman, master of lightheartedly beginning again. Who better to wave the flag of optimism for whatever it is that's out there?

And so, S., it's with deep affection, no promises but hope (l'espoir, l'espoir), and some Walt Whitman that America and I bid you au revoir, bonne chance, et a bientôt.
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.


Who's Left and Who's Leaving

Last night Scott and I sit in the lounge at Jardiniere, sipping fancy-ass drinks and debating which cheese on the platter before us is the most pungent. (For the record, Scott? It was that sheep-y one, case closed.) Within 24 hours he'll have emptied his apartment here in San Francisco and will be on a plane to Boston--a mirror image, nearly 3 weeks to the day, of Jenn's departure for New York at the end of May.

So many of my friends seem to be leaving the Bay Area lately that it leaves me dazed and whimpering. Jenn goes, then another Jen (to Austin and then Boston), then Scott, then Val and Isaac a few weeks hence, then S at the end of August, and then...I can't bring myself to imagine or anticipate who's next. This exodus punches dozens of tiny holes in my heart. Why so much loss, and so many goodbyes, in such a short period of time?

I try to focus on who's still here, on what's unlikely to change. Eric and I spend Thursday evening together over dinner, hilariously inappropriate conversation, and "The Hurt Locker," and I marvel again, again at the dumb luck that threw us together at MS lo those many years ago--and at the fact that he's still here, unlikely to leave. I exhale with relief when Dana reports a part in a new play; I fear, achily, that she'll be the next to go, so this is a stay of execution of sorts, at least for a little while. I hold hard to news of friends here who move to new apartments or renovate their houses or take new jobs, thinking, Yes! OK! This is proof that they'll stay for a bit, right?

To some degree, San Francisco has always been a place of comings and goings: I came here amidst an influx of people like me in 1997, and have watched so many of those people leave in the ensuing years, one after another after another. But now it's reached a critical mass--like having a whole hand lopped off at once, I tell Dana, when all I've gotten used to is losing fingers one by one.

That fell swoop is so much harder.


Adieu, Claude

After several months of deliberation, I decided earlier this year that it was finally time to sell my car. And on Tuesday, following a week of typically nutjob Craigslist-facilitated interactions around this transaction (more on those in a moment), I watched the two sweet British guys who became the car's new owners drive it away.

It will sound odd or melodramatic or perhaps slightly crazy to say that, in that moment, my heart did something funny, but that's exactly what happened. I felt a sense of relief--this selling process had been, frankly, kind of a pain in the ass--and a wave of happiness as one of the guys said to me, "We'll send you a postcard when we make it to New York" (more on that in a minute, too). I also found myself in the crest of a wave of nostalgia, because this car--this slightly dinged and dented 1993 Toyota Corolla--had taken me so far.

It was my parents who'd found it originally, back in January of 1997, when I was in Boston. We were on the hunt for a car to replace the giant sky blue Buick I was then driving (word to the wise: Buick in Boston=bad idea), and the then-young Corolla was perfect. In honor of its significantly smaller size, we dubbed it Little Car, and somehow we wound up referring to it as "he."

So it was Little Car who accompanied me for my last few months in Boston, and he who allowed me to leave New England in mid-March and head west, first to Chicago to pick up Monique, and then down Route 66 to California. In Texas, after what felt like an endless stretch of road with nothing to offer by way of services, we drove into Claude, a little town where we gassed up and, at the local soda fountain (for real), got snacks and drinks to clear away the west Texas dryness. In gratitude, Little Car got his official name: Claude (pronounced the French way, just because).

Little Car took me up Highway 1 and into San Francisco 13 years ago this weekend. He went back and forth to Sonoma countless times in those early years, anytime a visitor came into town and anytime we could come up with a reasonable excuse for a day in wine country. In Little Car I went back and forth to Palo Alto, and then to Mountain View, sometimes alone, sometimes with Otis or Shayne or Daryl or Deb. On the days we didn't want to drive the whole way, we'd drive only to CalTrain, fueled by Peet's and speeding down (or attempting to speed down) 17th Street, entreating other drivers with Gooooooooooo!

It was in Little Car that my first Shanti client and I would take his two dogs out to Fort Funston each week, evidence of their fur and the sand they carried on their paws still popping up in various crevices in the car, numerous rounds of vacuuming and many years notwithstanding. With my current Shanti client, back and forth to the grocery store, to the food bank, to Mitchell's ice cream. A few weeks back, we drove Little Car to the top of Bernal Hill and marveled at the city below us.

Little Car transported a lot of beloved passengers, from boyfriends to family to friends. A select few even got to drive him; I would sit on the right side and marvel at the change in perspective.

When I traveled a lot for work and would drive to the airport, it was, of course, Little Car who'd be there waiting for me in the long-term parking lot when I returned. Seeing him there meant, simply, Home.

So it was that, when it came time to sell my sweet little vehicle, I hoped, a bit shmoopily, that he'd go to someone who'd be happy to have him. Posting the car to Craigslist got me a crazy number of replies, several of them claiming that they'd pay me whatever price I was asking in cash, no haggling, because they needed a car right away "to get to work/to school/to my band gigs." There were enough of these weird responses that I have to assume they're shorthand for something, though I don't know what.

On Monday, amid the flurry of calls I got (having grown tired of dealing with people by e-mail) was one from a guy in Pleasanton who told me his uncle would come to the city right away to pick up the car, full asking price guaranteed blah blah blah. Said "uncle" then called and brushed off my insistence that I was legally required to get the car smogged by telling me that I should save my money, because he was just going to export the car anyway.

As Export Dude made his way to the city, I got a call from Sweet British Boy #1, who arranged to come by with his friend and have a look. And then there they were, young and adorable and did I mention British. They told me they were in the States for about 3 more months and were looking for a car to take them around--to Yosemite later in the week, perhaps up to Vancouver at some point, maybe all the way to New York, from where they'd depart to go home.


After a test drive and a look under the "bonnet" and some very light negotiating, the three of us shook hands. I went to get the car smogged and, when I returned, found the "uncle" waiting. I told him I'd found another buyer, despite his protests now that he was not going to export the car, but was instead going to use it for himself. (Can anyone explain to me what's behind this type of scam, anyway?) After a while he gave up and went away.

Tuesday morning, I went out to meet with the Sweet British Boys and to hand over the keys. They met me on the street, all smiles, SBB #2 brandishing a Rand McNally road atlas. We walked to the garage, talked about their trip to Yosemite, American road laws, California drivers.

I backed the car out of the garage and pointed them in the direction they wanted to go. We all shook hands again. I wished them happy travels. They said they'd send photos from New York. Then I stood on the sidewalk and watched them drive to the light at Franklin Street, then turn left and drive away.


Girl Scout Cookies Reconsidered

Phone conversation with my sister-in-law this afternoon

Me: It's totally relative, but I was surprised to discover that Tagalongs have fewer calories than I thought. And my client gave me a box of Do-Si-Dos a few weeks back, and those weren't bad at all.

Sara: Yeah, but Do-Si-Dos are kind of the bastard cousin of Tagalongs.

Me: True. They are sort of redneck-y.

Sara: Do-Si-Dos are like...like Billy Carter. You know--Tagalongs win the Nobel Peace Prize and all. And then there's Do-Si-Dos.

[In case I haven't mentioned, I have the best sister-in-law ever. EVER.]


Maybe it makes sense in the original German

From Austrian Airlines' online booking page:

Evidently there are no Frauleins in Austria, and the Dr. part matters more for women than for men.

So, since I have to choose an inaccurate salutation anyway, should I take this opportunity to temporarily grant myself a doctorate?


The World Shines (for Krista)

I'm sorry, but this deserves a "Well, GODDAMMIT!": my friend and colleague Krista, who is smart, funny, sweet, creative, and sassy to beat the band, has been diagnosed with breast cancer--invasive ductal carcinoma, to be exact.

I know this because Krista has been Tweeting her heart out about her diagnosis this afternoon (brave, brave, BRAVE, mon amie!), and has also posted a message to her blog asking people to share some of their favorite things so she has pleasant stuff to think about as she deals with what can only be called some seriously crapwad news.

It so happens, my dear Krista, that I've recently gotten into the habit of adding to the daily summary I write each night a few notes on whatever made me happy throughout the day. This is generally a random, ragtag, not-exactly-puppies-and-balloons kind of list, but it shows me that sometimes glee pops up in totally unexpected forms, and sometimes from ridiculously simple things.

So Krista, here are a few bits and pieces from my lists. If I could bundle them up and send them to you by mail, I would, because I sort of think they'd pop out of the envelope in a huge, delightfully messy, pleasantly chaotic jumble, like a much cooler version of one of those fake cans of nuts with a spring-loaded Slinky snake inside. But I'll mail you some restorative San Francisco chocolate instead, and will give you these moments right here:
  • The driver of a plumbing van playing a harmonica with his window rolled down while stuck in traffic on Gough Street the other day
  • Listening to "Wait Wait--Don't Tell Me" on my iPod at the gym and laughing so hard I had to put down the weights I was trying to hoist
  • Discovering the cheapest Bulleit Manhattan in SF at Bar ($6! For Bulleit!)
  • Standing in the patch of bright afternoon sunlight spilling through my kitchen window and onto the floor
  • Watching the wedding montage in "Up in the Air" for the second time
  • Finding multi-colored popcorn at Rainbow Grocery (even though, alas, it all pops out to be the same color--which is probably some sort of "Kumbayah" lesson for us all from the food world)
  • Getting a free box of Girl Scout cookies from a client who'd bought multiples
  • Watching the band geek version of OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" over and over (and over and...). I can't NOT be wildly, stupidly happy every time I see this.
Cheap top-shelf bourbon, harmonica-playing plumbers, and marching band-filled pop tunes can't keep the world and its sometimes-sucktastic realities at bay forever, but for a little while, damn, do they brighten things up.

We're with you, Krista, all the freaking way.


Relative Measure

From an article in today's NY Times about the suspect in a shooting at the University of Alabama on Friday:

Dr. Bishop and Mr. Anderson have four children, ranging in age from 9 to 18, Mr. Reeves said, and they frequently took them to hockey and soccer games.

He and others who knew Dr. Bishop described her as a normal person, perhaps a little quirky but no more so than most scientists.
Textbook definition of a relative measure, no?


Songs for an Achy but Hopeful Heart

I just watched, in his Tiny Desk concert from All Songs Considered, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats sing "Going to Georgia," and promptly embarked on a brief but intense crying jag. (You, too, should take 12 minutes and 39 seconds to watch the full little concert, explosion of tears optional.)

What the hell with the sobbing? It's not a depressing song--in fact, if anything, it's precisely the opposite, fast and loud and insane with what sounds like the shiny hope of young love. And yet, it punched me squarely in the chest. So I listened to it again. And again. Then once more.

The last song that (figuratively) knocked me on my butt in the same way was the National's "Slow Show," which I listened to about 5 times on repeat when, on my way to the library early last November, I actually paid attention to what it had to say. That whole "You know I dreamed about you/for 29 years before I saw you" thing did me in--though in a generally good, hopeful way at that point.

A few weeks hence, that all seemed to play out nicely. At least for a little while.

But back to "Going to Georgia." Though the track from the album doesn't quite have the same flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal energy and thrill of the live version, I decided it must immediately go on a playlist, along with other songs that are either therapeutic in their feel-your-pain misery (Elliott Smith, I'm looking at you) or, in the interest of being fair and balanced, somewhere on the spectrum from cautiously to flamingly, unabashedly hopeful.

So here's where you come in. Because I'm in the mood for some surprises, I leave the other entries on this playlist up to you, my, um, extensive readership. Your recommendations for good cryin'-in-yer-drink or I-defy-you-to-resist-hope songs? Lay them on me in the comments. (Yes, sometimes I cry in my drink while listening to the sweet, shiny, hopeful stuff, but don't let that stop you.)

My only guidelines: nothing bitter, nothing angry, nothing saccharine, nothing religious, no speed metal, no smooth jazz (just because), and R&B or slow jams only if absolutely, positively necessary (and, really, when are they ever?). Everything else is fair game.

Gimme what you got. And in the meantime, get yourself to the NPR Music site and listen to John Darnielle's little gembox song stories. They're good for what ails you.


Ebbing and Flowing

I stumbled this morning on Live Now, a sort of collective art project/"community of happiness" that sprang up in the wake of creator Eric Smith's diagnosis of and treatment for cancer. Live Now is a somewhat indescribable combination of art, design, words, collaboration, and general good feeling--to which I could only say, Yes, please.

There's plenty of interesting work on the Live Now site, but what really grabbed me was the piece above, both because I had to sit with it for a decent amount of time until the meaning and import really sunk in, and because, when they did, they stopped me short. I wanted to pass the message of this sweet little boat along (just 'cause), and I wanted to repeat the words to myself all day, a mantra, a reminder, a goad.

Half of me this week wants to do what's generally easiest when you find the carpet pulled from under your feet and your face in sudden, unanticipated, and generally unwelcome contact with the floor: that is, to withdraw, retract, go fetal and conservative and quiet. It's this half that would stay in bed all day with books and tissues and carbs were it not required to play along as a Responsible Adult.

The other half has decided that this is as good a time as any to write a proposal for the book idea I came up with back in early November and have since largely ignored. Almost without my awareness, this half has climbed the mast of the SS Sure Thing and is ready to do a swan dive into whatever body of water we're sailing in.

Whence this crazy-ass idea? Who knows. I can only say that, on Tuesday night, as I walked to the gym, something in me proposed this pact: If in fact you're about to experience a relationship implosion, you have to promise yourself that you'll return to the book.

Perhaps because I didn't want to give much (more) thought to the disappointment I feared was ahead, or perhaps because I didn't want to pay much heed to the voice in my head ready to commit me so blithely to such a huge project, I simply thought, Yes, ok, fine, done and done, then went inside to read bad magazines and sweat for a while, assuming the insanity would pass.

But then, alone with myself on Wednesday night, I thought, Well, you promised, had some wine, and went online to hunt down a book on writing a proposal and finding an agent.

Is this utterly ridiculous and Quixotic? Quite possibly (though regular readers of this blog should be used to such things by now). But somehow it also seems unquestionably necessary. After all, I can't convince anyone else that there are risks worth taking and potentially illogical passions worth pursuing, but I can convince myself.

The sure thing boat never gets far from shore.

So here's to a completely unsure thing, and to stretching myself farther than I ever have before, and to learning to face rejection again and again and again, getting up every time and trying once more. Here's to Live Now. Here's to what will become "Lost on Me."


"dark though it is"

As one almost must in cases like this, I turn to Elizabeth Gilbert.

Not her new book--its topic a million miles away from me right now--but rather Eat, Pray, Love, with its dog-eared pages and the notes I made in the margins when I first read it three years ago, right around this same time. (April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot? Au contraire; it's February.)

Last night, it was Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies that I pulled from my bookshelves, because I love Anne Lamott, and will happily do my best to lose myself in her words at any time, and because things last night had not yet stepped off a cliff with both feet. I read until I fell asleep, thinking, after I turned my lamp off, of the final words of the W.S. Merwin poem with which she opens the book ("we are saying thank you faster and faster/with nobody listening we are saying thank you/we are saying thank you and waving/dark though it is").

But now, come morning, an unhappy chat behind me, I'm off that cliff, and it's Gilbert, not Lamott, I need most. I can't shake the vision of those paintings of Jesus in which he has two fingers in the open gash in his chest, right over his heart. At the risk of sounding utterly sacrilegious, I know the feeling today, my man: something in me that was intact has torn open, and I can't ignore the wound, much as I'd like to.

So I return to Eat, Pray, Love.

Being the annoying completist that I am, and now faced with an unwelcome surfeit of free time clamoring to be filled with distractions, I will, of course, read the damn thing cover-to-cover all over again. Maybe twice.

But for now I flip through and read the passages I marked last time, thinking Yes, thinking Remember that, thinking Know that. You made it through--and out--before. You will certainly make it through again.

With my fingers over that new, sore, achy, messy wound, then, I keep reading.



"I can only suggest you do your best to banish anxiety, possibly with a glass of Champagne, and lay yourself open to the moment when happiness becomes irresistible. I'm writing this at a good time of the year. The beech trees are covered with fresh, green leaves--we are going to have a birthday lunch in the garden. My grandchildren will play in the mysterious sunken copses, disused flint pits now filled with tall and ancient trees, where I also played as a child. The daffodils will be in flower, and the dogs will be jumping over them. There is every possible reason for happiness, but it's a moment of sadness too. How many more such birthdays will there be? It's sad my mother never saw my daughters grow up. Although the poet Shelley was right about our sincerest laughter being fraught with sadness, it's the sadness, in a way, which makes happiness complete."

--from Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life, by John Mortimer