The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Clearing the Air

As I write, I am sitting in one of my favorite bars in San Diego: The Aero Club. I have been coming to this bar ever since I got my fake id in 1998 (actually, it wasn't fake. It belonged to another girl who sort of looked like me if I didn't wear glasses, were 6 inches taller, and about 15 pounds thinner. She had lost it, replaced it, and passed the now extraneous id on to me.). At first, I came because it was seedy and dark and the bartenders really didn't care whether I was 21 or not. Then my reasons for going morphed as my tasted for alcohol matured. I then started going because they served good beer and the crowd was an excellent mix of socially awkward college misfits like myself and aging locals.

Plus their jukebox freaking rocks!

Nine years later, not much has changed. The bar is cleaner and they have free wifi (two things I appreciate more and more as I get closer to thirty), but the beer is still good, the crowd still solid . . .

and their jukebox freaking rocks!

I am not kidding. This place is located on busy and awkward one-way India Street, so it's been able to maintain a sort of bar purity mostly because almost all who pass it are either whizzing their way to the 5 north or to Washington Street to get to Hillcrest. This is not the neighborhood for breezy tourists or uber-yuppies. This is an inbetweenplace. And like all inbetweenplaces, it remains a place of rejuvenation.

A place to celebrate the literal clearing of the air as the marine layer marches in and chases off the ash and smoke that have coated all San Diegans' lungs since Sunday night.

There's a feeling of celebration in the air as the fires start be more and more contained and the event that continues to dominate the TVs is the second game of the World Series rather than pictures of burning homes.

I'm not in any way stating that the fact that the fires still are burning--that people are still displaced, that many have lost homes and a few have lost loved ones--is trivial. But to have the oppressive air that has hung over this area of the city for fully five days to lift is a moment to celebrate.

We are emerging from our homes and shelters after days of avoiding "bad air," shaking our heads, wondering where we've been all week. And though for many this isn't the case, life is starting to "get back to normal" as businesses and schools talk about opening again.

I am blessed in that I don't know anyone who lost a home in the fire. All of my friends were merely displaced for a few short days and returned to their safe and whole houses. This situation is also a blessing in that all of us (me and my friends) were left free to help others who had suffered loss. To be able to cheerfully aid others is indeed a true blessing.

I truly mourn the losses of so much for so many people. Yet I also celebrate how we, as a city--a community, supported each other. Those who had shared with those who had lost. It kind of makes you think that maybe the human species isn't quite so bad as we usually seem.

And as I write this, I look up and see the local bartendress. She gives me a smile, sharing with me the relief of spirit at the cleared air and the joy that we can still be kind to each other.

Wedding in the Ashes

On Sunday, 21 October, I went to a wedding.

This wedding was interesting for two reasons.

a) It was my first wedding where kids aren't invited, and

b) I caused a glorious scene by coughing through the bride's maids' entrances.

I'm serious about a. I've never been invited to a wedding where my wonderful, so well-behaved, absolutelythecutestkidontheplanet son hasn't been welcomed with open arms. Apparently, childless weddings are all the rage. And who can blame people? I love dancing a sober jig with my darling boy, but I love dancing a slightly buzzed jig without him all the more. Leaving baby behind does have a touch of that date night, devil-may-care excitement--except I am still waking up at 6am to a whiny toddler.

What is so odd about this childless wedding is that apparently the bride and groom didn't realize they didn't want rug rats cutting capers until after the invitations had been sent and RSVPs had been returned. In short, we were given a two-week (Lynn Truss, eat your heart out) notice to find a sitter for this wedding via a slightly abashed call from the groom, clarifying that the RSVP was for two not three.

At first my motherly ire rose and I railed about how my gift to this blessed couple would be the $10-an-hour sitter I would have to find. However, I was quickly set straight by all of my more wedding savvy friends about the normality and propriety of this exclusion by my son. And more importantly, my grandparents came down that weekend and watched my sweetest one for a whopping free dollars.

Lucky couple. They still got their gift certificate to Crate and Barrel (to which I had happily found out at the wedding they had actually registered at).

Now on to part b. As many of you already know, I am prone to ridiculous coughing fits. However, no matter how ridiculous they are, these fits are no laughing matter. These moments of extreme cough-dom can last for as long as 30 minutes, in which I am literally gasping and retching. I simply can't control them.

They've happen when I've been teaching. All I could do was wave a weak hand at my horrified students as they watch me hack up a lung with horrified expressions on their faces. Happily, they've all left the classroom with minimal fuss (since I am in no shape to argue with them), and I've recovered after agonizing minutes of searing explosions and possibly a little pee leakage (I'll never tell . . . but I did have a baby. Mommies everywhere can attest that your bladder is never the same).

They've also happened during important interviews. One of which I failed to mention was when I interviewed to be in the lab I currently am performing research in. Yes indeed, I did begin a coughing fit. For about five or six awful minutes, I frantically scanned my no PI's desk for any type of device to swab my watering eyes and running nose with. To no avail. He finally noticed my plight and gave me permission to flee to the ladies' room where I proceeded to streak my linen shirt with tears and snot. Oh yes, I walked back into my no PI's office to continue that interview, red nose, eyes, face, and all.

However, in both of the above situations, I have had the option to flee when such fits start. Not so with this wedding. The fit started when the ash from the then unremarkable southern fire (Harris for all of you in the know now) became lodged in my throat. The air was already bad because of the smoke, and this particular ash was merely the straw that broke my civilized throat's back.

I erupted into hacks and gasps . . . just as the bride's maids began their sssssssssssllllllllllllloooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwww march down the aisle to Pachelbel's Canon. Now this bride and groom are very lovable which was evident by the mass of people who attended their wedding. Seating was at a premium and very cramped. I happened to be four rows from the front of the action and two seats from the center aisle, crammed in so tight that to exit right then would have entailed a mess of "excuse me's" and chair shifting (we were outdoors) and people standing and calling a lot of attention to myself.

I was faced with a quandary: which is the greater disturbance? Poorly suppressed coughs or clumsy evacuation of wedding. I choose the former as being the most discrete. My thoughts were that if I didn't breathe for a bit, I could refrain from coughing too loudly until people stood for the bride and then in the jubilant confusion I could make my escape.

Unfortunately for my plan, I didn't have enough breath for the bride's TEN FREAKING BRIDESMAIDS! All marching as slowing and inexorably as time does to tasteful classical music. These lovely ladies (and they were lovely) were followed by TWO ring bearers and a flower girl.

I was in agony. My breath-holding had turned into a sort of beached whale gasping, snot and tears soaking my newlypurchasedforthisevent sassy dress.

Finally, the bride appeared, and I booked it for the nearest watering hole. I ended up watching the wedding from a discreet distance. The bride was indeed beautiful. The wedding indeed touching. And ultimately, I am thankful for the kid ban. I don't know how I would have wrestled my kid along with my errant bronchi.

So, what do you serve grandparents (also great-grandparents) when they are watching your kid for free? Goat-cheese stuffed burgers.

hamburger meat
goat cheese


Roll hamburger meat into small balls (about half the size you would for a regular patty). Pat the small balls flat (yes, I know how that sounds . . . you think of a better way to say it). Place goat cheese slices on top of one flat patty. Top with another. Seal. Repeat.


Assemble a burger.

Enjoy a wedding without your kid.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Eye for a Well-Turned Phrase

I know a person who can turn a perfect phrase. It’s an art really. One that so many of us have lost in this day and age of anticipatory texting, smileys, weird shorthand (e.g. “lol”), and “you know”’s.

Taylor Mali in “Totally like whatever, you know?” laments that “actually our disarticulation... ness/ is just a clever sort of... thing/ to disguise the fact that we've become/ the most aggressively inarticulate generation/ to come along since.../ you know, a long, long time ago!”

And while Mali focuses more on our lack of conviction in our speech, his poem (and poems) so nicely outline that we are continuing to raise generations of people who will never learn to truly express themselves. It’s sad really. Millions of people who are trapped inside themselves, frustrated they do not have the words to relate to others and unable to figure out how to change this sad state of affairs. Unable to communicate and unable to understand one another. For even though this or that smiley might adequately express a surface emotion (much like that pain chart at the doctor’s office where a 1 for pain is a happy face whose smile gets more and more linear until level 5 where it begins the downward slope to a full frown at 10), there really isn’t a yellow visage that can truly represent the soul.

Someone might argue with me that language is just as inadequate as a smiley. Language is just a continued and always delayed representation of the real thing—the real I. But I argue, try having a thought without language. Try to gauge how you feel, react, or interact in the world without some sort of symbolic representation. Impossible? Exactly.

Jacques Lacan calls this pursuit of language as a method of defining ourselves and the world around us the manifestation of the absence of the petit a. The little a (which is “autre” in French and “other” in English—so I guess it would translate the “little o”) is the center of ourselves we can never express or define. This inability to access our other makes us split souls (or subjects in Lacan’s speech). We are incomplete. We know this fact. We strive to pursue that which will make us complete—our petit a—and in that striving, create language. We can never actually access our other center-self, yet we can have terrifyingly beautiful moments when we come ever so close.

Why terrifyingly beautiful? Because to come so close to accessing our other leaves us terribly exposed, yet, at the same time, beautifully whole. We become intimate.

In Sex/God, Rob Bell writes about the human condition of lost intimacy with each other and the world itself. He discusses physical intimacy as an important component becoming whole. However, this intimacy is also couched in language. He distinguishes between animal sex, human sex, and angel non-sex. What is important to note is that humans, according to Bell, occupy a realm that is neither solely physical (animal) nor solely intellectual (angel). We occupy the middle realm. A space between pure physicality and transcendent ethereality. A space of spirituality that is mediated by language.

Because our entire perception of reality is based on our language system, to not have a grasp on said system is tantamount to putting oneself into solitary confinement and throwing away the key. Isolating. Destructive.

Someone else might argue that because language and meaning is so subjective, we can never truly have a grasp on it. Never truly master it. Never truly master ourselves. However, think of the time you’ve been struck by a poem or a story or a spoken phrase. One that slices through the meat of you to the core and leaves you exposed and gasping. In that moment, language was mastered.

For a person, like the one I know, who makes a point to master language—who more often than not refuses to just blather away as many of us do to fill that void of silence in our souls—there are amazing “aha” moments. But there is a darker side to these moments as well. With the ability to expose the soul with True words, comes the ability to wound as well as reveal the beauty within. With a mastery of language, one can build the soul up or break it down.

I have words that will reverberate forever through my being. Some leave me joy-full. Others continue to rend and tear through my heart until it weeps tears of blood. Both types, because they are True, establish intimacy even if painfully so.

This person I know knows that language is an art: the art of expressing exactly the way our souls feel at that moment. This person knows the importance and power of the-perfectly-right-grouping-of-sounds. The “aha” moment of “that’s just what I was feeling.” This person also knows seemingly smaller language details like the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.” Yet in these details is also power.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty understood this power. He articulates that the real question in life is who is to be the master: the words or the speaker. Dumpty elaborates, “They’ve a temper some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!” I love how nicely (if a bit pompously and circumambagiously) Dumpty explains the problems with mastering language. Sure we can all come up with filler. But when we have to get concrete—depict actions, motivations, Truth—word-use gets tricky.

But we still have to try. We need to speak confidently but also Truly. We need to stop filling silence with talk. Rather, we need to construct intimacy with language. We must be brave enough like the person I know to be exposed and to expose. We must take the time to turn a perfect phrase. As Dumpty puts it, “When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Exactly so.