Monday, April 28, 2014

When Math Wins

Today, I did the unmentionable and betrayed the indolent adolescent in us all.

This day, April 28th, 2014, will go down as a day of victory for high school math teachers everywhere.

Today, I applied SOC-CAH-TAO to a real life situation.

I know, I know. How did this happen?! you wonder, incredulously. See, there was this ladder... and a loft bed... and the legs on the loft needed to be cut, but the distance cut from the ladder was unknown.

Trial and error is a dangerous method to employ when cutting real life wood with a real life saw. The wisdom of that proverb "cut once, measure twice" hangs heavy when the object modified is a $300 bed frame and the consequence determines whether or not your new studio apartment will work for the next two years.

When first considering the problem, I felt the faded and lurking memory of the Pythagoras Theorem rise to the front of my memory like oil slicked across the water of my mind. Right-angle triangles floating on pages of old math books, taunting me with squared a's and b's equaling c's matching pencil drawn triangles. I quickly pushed the theorem away in search of a different solution.

I turned to Google. How do I cut an Ikea loft bed and ladder? 

While the internet offered many parent opinions on whether the bed should be modified, it lacked concrete measurements, ratios, or equations to correctly make the cuts. Even with technology jumping in to dominate every area of my life, it appears I would still have to do my own thinking for my modification. So, remembering 10th grade math class and the quirky Mrs. Anderson, I now Google searched a refresher to SOC-CAH-TOA and a pattern for a printable protractor.

With a tape measure, pencil sketches, and my incredibly sad printable protractor, I am determining the length cut from the ladder of my loft bed given the decreased length in each of bed legs, not so unlike a test problem I worked out 15 years ago.

And, because I have to measure twice and cut once, I even have a method in place to check my work that involves a weight on a string and a leveler.


Math, today you win.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MaddAddam Book Review

After finishing this book, I read both the good and bad reviews to help sort out my own thinking on Margaret Atwood's conclusion to the Oryx and Crake trilogy. There is truth in the bad reviews. If I was expecting the deep and complicated world of Oryx and Crake or the Year of the Flood to continue in this novel, I would be disappointed. If I wanted to continue getting to know the previous main characters (Jimmy, Ren, Amanda or Toby), I would be sad how one dimensional or not at all present the characters have suddenly become. In MaddAddam, Atwood does not give us the conclusion we have been wanting. 

She gives us something better.

In the previous two books, Atwood shows the destruction of a world through two different viewpoints. In Oryx and Crake, we see the world inside the corporate compounds and are drawn close to the master of the apocalypse, Glenn/Crake, through the narrative of his childhood friend, Jimmy. In the Year of the Flood, the world is further explored outside the compounds, in the black market free-for-all known as the Pleeblands through a resistant movement known as God's Gardeners. As the story concludes in The Year of the Flood, the characters in two seemingly unrelated stories turn out to be very intertwined through their pasts and are joined up again in the present, post-apocalyptic world. As it turns out, even the dystopic world is a little too small for comfort. 

For most readers, myself included, the anticipation leading up to the release of MaddAddam is the question as to how these characters will deal with their sudden re-acquaintance as well as to continue living in the pre-virus world of the past. This expectation toward drama and conclusion is precisely what Atwood refuses to deliver in the third book of her trilogy. After I get over my own frustration at not receiving what I wanted/expected, I realize that Atwood's approach moves the story much further forward, and offers a stronger and fuller message than if she were to stick with the approach present in the previous books. This is why: 

1. The world the previous characters have known has ended. As much as I want to go back, as a reader, and continue exploring the corruption, greed and violence that led to the present collapse, it is pointless. I have already been back in that world twice. If this book seems to lack the intricate plot and complex characters of the previous two, is it perhaps because the day ins and outs of survival can be boring? 

2. The questions the characters (and the readers) are struggling to understand are unanswerable. Why did Crake kill Oryx? What were the motivations and reasons behind Crake's destruction of humankind? What happened to all the other characters that didn't survive? Why did they have to die? Are they still out there somewhere? To be given conclusion to these questions would not be honest to the present world the characters are struggling through. Crake is dead and unfortunately, he didn't write his motivations into a journal. Families with a missing loved one rarely receive conclusive news that their husband/wife/child is in fact dead. This is one of the reasons this dystopia is so believable. Just like us in everydaylife, the characters in MaddAddam have to deal with the frustratingly unanswerable and choose what to do moving forward (if they do, in fact, chose to move forward).

3. Finally, and perhaps the most important reason why Atwood's approach with this book and reader expectations is incredibly well crafted: this is not a story about Jimmy, Toby, Ren, Amanda or any of the other previous characters we have know and may or may not have loved. Everything we need to understand these characters has been given in the previous two books. Their stories are about the ending of the world that they knew and their luck (or unluck) at ending up in the present time of post-apocalypse. MaddAddam is about the future, about life after the dust settles, about the building of mythology and culture, and the adaptability of humankind and the strength to move forward even in the midst of extinction and tragedy. 

The more I think about what Atwood is doing in this novel, the more I love it. There is beauty in the simplicity. The exchanges between the survivors and the Crakers is hilarious and endearing. Atwood captures the irritating frustration adults sometimes feel when faced with the insatiable 'why' of a child piecing together their world. Her skill in first building a complicated world falling apart and then speculating how to see that world through the new eyes of a different culture is brilliant.

As others have mentioned, this is not a stand-alone book. You will need to read the previous two books to gain the backstory on the characters and the plot. I enjoyed this book and highly recommend the whole trilogy to anyone who likes dystopia or speculative fiction. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Silliness: Part 2 - The Build-up

The heartbreak, loneliness, disappointment and exploitation I felt in Scotland didn't sink in in any meaningful way. In the following years, I perfected the art of leaving and hatched farther fetched and more ridiculous dreams of traveling the world.

At 18, three months after coming home from Scotland, I landed on the Western Washington University campus my freshman year of college only to pack up and transfer to community college nine months later. In the first month of my freshman year, I tried to move out of the dorms and into an apartment with high school friends only to have the move vetoed by my parents. My college career continued to scatter as I attended one community college to transfer to another in Seattle, to finally land at Washington State University in Pullman to then transfer to WSU - Vancouver one year later. At the end of five years, I had attended a total of six higher education institutions and moved nine times, with the tenth move landing me back at my parents' house in Bremerton. 

My ideal career path was just as scattered as my home addresses. I graduated high school thinking I would pursue education, then switched to biochemistry and pre-pharmacy, only to finally graduate with an English degree and bucket loads of science electives. I wanted to be that teacher in the African villages, then the pharmacist doctor who would deliver drugs to poor countries, only to give it all up in a large dream to walk around the world volunteering and writing poetry to make a living (because, you know... volunteer work and art sell). My boyfriend and I called it "the Plan" and drew a line from one part of the world to the next. I would have been happy to pursue English teaching abroad with him, however he became more concerned building a professional life after college and I landed back home in Bremerton, trying to decide if I would volunteer with this organization or that, take this career path or that, and generally, hatching a plan to leave Bremerton as quickly as possible.

Rather than understand my desire to leave, I believed the scheme came from a love of the world, experiences and adventure. This belief was not unfounded or entirely incorrect, but there was something deeper there as well that I refused to address. Like the need to keep moving even while in exotic or new places. Or the inability to think further ahead in my plans than the landing of my feet in a new location. In each of my adventures, I left a very small margin of error with both my finances and my safety. If anything went wrong, I didn't have savings to do more than get me back to Bremerton.

The plans grew more and more radical. Six months working with street children and former victims of prostitution in Kathmandu. Dead-end job with Raytheon Polar Services in Antarctica for six months, live-aboard and sail the world in the six month off season, repeat. Nursing degree followed by career as traveling nurse indefinitely. On and on the dreams piled with some catch as to why I wasn't off living them or setting them in motion. Rather than invest in one dream or the other and focus, I would float until I couldn't anymore and frantically run toward the option easiest to execute. I remained in flux, either between the desire to leave or the return home when things didn't work out as I had planned. I was making a career of dead end jobs, a scattering of college classes leading nowhere, and the ability to leave at a moments notice.

After nearly two years of floating in Bremerton and around Seattle, moving another five times, and working a total of four temporary and semi-permanent jobs, I'd hatched the perfect escape plan. With $5,000, I was going to live in Mexico and Central America for at least 18 months. I would work on my Spanish skills, I told myself. I would decide if I wanted to work in Orthodox ministries or live in a monastery, I told myself. I would come back finally knowing if I wanted to go to graduate school and what to study. I convinced my friends and family this was not running away, that I had purpose and plan to this trip, and that I would do my best to include them all in my travels.

These were not lies as I fully believed the reasoning myself, but there was something deeper just under the surface of my good intentions. This something peeked through as I sorted and got rid of nearly all my possessions. The feeling of escape was tangible as I either waved goodbye or completely ignored people in my life, be them on good terms or bad terms. While still trying to love and honor my family, I was also trying to annihilate history and ties to my Washington hometown and city. This was to be the ultimate of all leavings, and I hoped against return unless to cuddle a nephew or celebrate Christmas with the family. Good riddance was the phrase held in my heart as I left. My attitude that peeking something sabotaging my intentions and spinning this trip as my greatest movement yet.

Four months into my trip, I landed back in Seattle for my uncle's funeral. I was home for 10 days before I left again, this time for Alaska and this time very much aware of the fact that I was running away. In the face of death, I could no longer keep up the pretenses of movement for adventure and the alleviation of poverty. My noble intentions now stripped away, I was forced to view my budding legacy as that of a professional runaway. With the finality of my uncle's death, I finally experienced the bitter taste left behind the person who leaves.

Exhausted, confused and suffering a little bit of PTSD, I returned home from Alaska after four months. My thermos was dry, my crackers were gone, my uncle was still dead, and I needed to finally look at why I couldn't stay in one place for longer than 3 months.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Silliness: Part 1 - Scotland

Life has a way of being silly. Given the plot twists and turns since my 30th birthday, I'm not sure that I can say much with conviction in regards to life plans aside from this: expect silliness.

For years I have been trying to leave. I would say that it started when I got my passport as a junior in high school and traveled to Peru, but that is just when my ability to travel grew to an international scale. The truth is, I was the kid who would irrationally pack up my few prized possessions and flee home for the smelly bit of woods near the sewage stream, the shelter of trees behind the neighbor's wooden fence, or the hallowed out stump/cabin near our neighborhood playground. A brother or two would always follow me on bike, disclose my new secret home to the parents, and convey messages from my mother that if I didn't get home in time for dinner, I would be grounded. The logic of this doesn't make sense, come home now or be grounded, but neither did my new life as a gutter renegade. For instance, I had no plan on how to get water when my thermos ran dry or where to get food when that package of saltines was fully consumed. I always returned home and just in time for dinner. 

As I got older, the home leaving schemes grew larger. At 15, I learned of a fellow 15-year old who started teaching in villages in Africa. I almost badgered the news sharing missionary into telling me exactly how this could be arranged before realizing that my parents valued education and would never support a scheme that didn't have me finishing high school. At 17, my boyfriend introduced me to the idea of crewing for a rich person's yacht, traveling the world and serving various forms of alcohol and food to the 1% while they were around, and enjoying port and boat while they were not. I nearly married the chap for his perceived connections within this high-brow boating community, knowing exactly which states allowed underaged marriage without parental consent, before my puritan fear of sex scared me into acting otherwise. Thank goodness for my parents and that fear. 

At 18, I finally made good on one of my plans. In February, I accepted a nanny job in Scotland, set up independent studies for the classes I still needed to graduate, withdrew from high school, bought a one way ticket to Scotland using funds borrowed from the aforementioned boyfriend, and boarded a plane for Edinburgh foot loose and fancy free. What I didn't see while leaving were the worried and teared up faces of my parents, the devastated look of my childhood friend upon learning that we may not be walking together at graduation, or the general confusion and hurt from countless mentors, teachers and adults in my life that wondered what in the world was going on with me. It took me about a week of performing nanny duties inadequately, experiencing British aristocracy as the serving class, and communicating home (infrequently but enough to realize that life does go on without you) before I finally realized what it really means to run away. 

Or, looking back now, I wish I had learned what it meant to run away. Instead, when things started going badly with my job, when I started feeling homesick and nauseated at the opportunities and friends I'd left behind, when aforementioned boyfriend didn't in fact wait for me and I had no friends with enough history and investment to help me through the heartbreak, I ran away again. This time, from the home of the family where I was working and into the home of my adopted Scottish grandparents until my parents helped me buy a plane ticket home.

My adventure in Scotland consisted of 4 months of employment and 2 weeks of recovery before arriving at the Seatac airport, just in time for prom and graduation. While I learned important lessons about myself and the world on that trip, my desire to leave stayed strong. Thanks to my parents, I'd made it home in time for dinner, experiencing few consequences and never really learning what happened when the thermos dried up or the saltine crackers package was empty. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mental Breakdown, My - Brief

Last weekend, I threw a handcart at a UW parking official.

It was somewhat provoked, and I'm sure if more people had handcarts at their disposal this would be a common occurrence for him. I jumped in my car and drove away before he could print the ticket and give it to me. Of course, my trunk was still filled with the heavy boxes of resources I was trying to drop off for the College Access event I needed to start in 30 minutes. I was running on my fifth consecutive night of less than 5 hours of sleep and lugging the boxes from our free parking location back to the building seemed more daunting and depressing than my decided action.

Having just fled the UW parking official, I stopped my car not 20 feet away, around a corner, and threw the heavy boxes and bags of buttons onto the UW lawn. I drove away very aware of the fact that I was snapping. Professionalism be damned. UW parking official be damned. My job, my life in Seattle, everything that I'd built in the past three years be damned. I was done playing Atlas, shouldering way more work responsibilities than I was being given support, recognition or compensation to justify the 50 to 60 hour weeks.

I drove home, transitioned into biking gear and returned to campus for the boxes on the lawn and the event that was now going to start late. As I rode, the only condolence I could give myself was the conviction that after my event, I would finally send out the email of my resignation. I planned it all out in my head: I quit. Short and simple. To the point. No room for negotiation.

I quit. As I breathed the phrase in, I started feeling the tightness loosen in my chest, the weight lift off my shoulders. I cried, briefly, either from the wind in my eyes or the release of stress I'd been holding close for so long. It's true, I was embarrassed at snapping, at losing my professional cool at some sad parking official who probably hates himself more than the people he treats badly. But I'm glad for the breaking and the embarrassment... they were feelings, at last. I'm not a robot: I can still break if pushed too hard. I'm not an alien: I can still engage feelings of embarrassment, loneliness, relief and hope.

Back on campus, I retrieved the handcart and the boxes, still exactly where I left/threw them. I started the event with partners, distributing resources and beginning conversations with students and parents about colleges and the financial aid packages they had been offered. Someone from a partnering organization said that I looked like I needed a hug. As the event went on, I remembered why I was doing my work. It was for the students and their families. It was for the partners who helped support all the resources we brought to the schools. It was for the fact that I actually like program management, evaluating successes and failures, brainstorming strategies to make our programs relevant, better. And it was for the belief that education can lead to social change, that each student holds a potential to change the path they've been given and that perhaps a college education can help them get there.

I didn't end up quitting. I'm still at my job, though I don't feel as stuck as I did before. I'm committed to a 40 hour work week and calling sick days for meltdowns. I can make it to June 30th, when the company sunsets my work and lays me off, rather than terminating my own employment. I'm committed to finding ways to feel human, to connect with people, to gain my bearings and space in this city before I leave.

I need to find the present. I need to be here, now, especially when life is the most frantic and busy. I need to cut those puppet strings attached to people willing to use me up and start dancing for myself. Then, I'll be able to climb to the rooftop and sing out like Pinocchio: I've got no strings! and like those blessed Harmoniums: Here I am! Here I am! Here I am! 

If I quite myself enough, I can hear the answer in the wind or the sun on my face: So glad you are.

I'm only loosely attending to work today and only as it happens to fall in between cuddling my niece and playing trains with my nephew.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nothing Gold Can Stay

It's a paradox, living in a city with roots. I cross a bridge in February and the sun hits the water just right, illuminating the leafless trees filled with crows watching the canal for who knows what. The water, one minute stoney grey the next emerald blue, shows you a depth in the flickering of a second. You have crossed this bridge and seen this light before, many times before. And still, in the throes of your busy day, it stops you cold - in the cold - as if you had never seen a canal, a crow, or a flickering of a second so beautiful. In this moment, with the buildings and trees suddenly grown up around you, you realize you know this city and it knows you.

When I was growing up across the water, we took a ferry to the city. On our boat, we would watch the wild and unruly slowly come into view around the last bend of island. You could feel the change in the boat and the water.  The waves would grow strong and rock us back and forth as we hit the open waters of the Sound, no longer safe in our inlets and bays. Making those open waters, the engines would rush us forward to the foot of skyscrapers and city lights before depositing us among aquariums, homelessness and too many seagulls. Somewhere on these docks I begged a classmate to leave a dead bird alone. He stepped on the bottom half and I heard a pop of bird insides flooding past decaying bird skin. I ran away plugging my ears to the pop and the laugh, cleansing myself with the vomit that followed. But I think the tears were really a fear for my classmate's soul. Some rule of life was broken that day, though I couldn't explain what and can't remember my classmate's name. My stomach still churns and my ears hurt a little when I turn the corner to the aquarium. I try not to look at the boards that once held a little bird's body - try not to wonder if a stain of life could outlast the rain of 20 years, or if that is really just an old piece of bubble gum greased into the wood.

The family trips took us to the Market and we would eat peaches and honey comb while men threw fish and musicians begged for dinner with open cases, cello strings and a baritone to break a thousand hearts. I have a family photo with cousins lined up and on and around a brass pig as if it were a prized pet. We are tanned and grinning, creating a memory around the stoic and metal face. Carrying my first found tulips of the early spring, I see him in the market. He is still stoic and still brass, photo bombing countless memories of families, lovers, and Seattlites who find themselves in the market at night - too intoxicated to drive and too late to bus home. I nod to him and feel the sense that if pigs could, brass or not, he would nod back.

Followed by these childish outings were the right of passage trips. Dropped off on one side of the water with a group of friends to ferry alone and roam the Old Navy, Sees Candy, Westlake Mall as group consensus deemed fit. As a pack, we would suck down the first sips of adulthood while still too young to drive. One birthday party trip was in late August. Our group of six galavanted the piers, the Old Spaghetti Factory and the market. The boardwalk lights dripped with magic and the sunset whispered romance to our adolescent ears. If I walked a little faster or slower than the other four, I could almost convince myself I was alone on a date with my childhood crush and that maybe he thought so too - the city held that much hope and opportunity. Quickly walking the same pier, I see the spot where a summer job clown broke the magic by calling me freckles. I remember the rage of that adolescent self and feel warmth that at one point, wonderful was as simple as city lights and matched pacing.

Biking along the Burke-Gilman, I see the place where I was once a wife. It wasn't the first home we built, but it was the most successful out of the three. Still, the walls were barren, the kitchen untouched, and boxes left unpacked and begging the question if either of us wanted the arrangement to work. His boxes were full of momentos from girlfriends. I was too young to own boxes, full of momentos or no. Ghosts of me fight with ghosts of him and further along, another ghost of me wanders the streets at night, wishing for a worse worst - murder, mauling, suicide - to brush the boundary of what could go wrong so I could handle my current bearing, or wouldn't have to. A mile up the hill, I run past the house that provided escape, companionship, and a return of hope. My childhood friends and I would drink vodka and sit on our porch couch, watching the buses irreversibly shuffle residents between stops. Both houses have been torn down and replaced with buildings more friendly to family growth and development in urban sites. Still, past versions of myself wander between the locations, trapped in love, despair, happiness or hopelessness.

In the thick of it, I build a home for myself. It is the most successful home I've had, a basement studio apartment approaching whimsical. I have a job and steady income - at least for the next 5 months. In these walls, I've built a place where I can create myself free of the memories. And yet, I leave and there they are, in nearly every part of the city. Some happy, some terrified - they live out memories like windows of gold against the landscape. I see in their eyes glimmers of wonder, hope, love. I think of the things they hold dear, the fights they endured, the tenacity of their character. I wonder if I have impressed them, if I have done the most in my present to honor their struggles. If I was the happiest present, if I could build something to outlast their golden shimmer, would they finally fade into the distance? Would this city finally be my own?

The paradox is bitter, almost like a catch snagging a nail on a new sweater. Is the very thing that binds me to this city the very same thing to drive me away? Am I continually drawn back, unable to survive without my roots, my saltwater canals, my mountains and yet, unable to live once I'm here? Can I build something that doesn't have the threat of blowing down or away in a year's time?

And yet, I know this city. The lazy February sun will be enough to pull the cherry blossoms into spring.  The crows will watch the canal and the bridge I walk across will, with the budding season, lift for sail boats and summer water traffic. From those leafless trees a brighter and stronger green will grow until the Emerald City regains it's name. With shards of me so hopelessly scattered about, can this city believe in the same growth in me? Will warmth bring out my blossoms?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Cynicism

Love is throwing yourself into a volcano for those last moments of happy togetherness. (Image lifted from  the Reduced Shakespeare Company.) 

It's Valentine's Day.

At this point, I'm cynical enough to dislike the holiday and old enough to not care. There are some wonderful things about turning 30, the least of which is the death of teenish hopes in romantic gestures by people you barely know on a day that wouldn't be important if Hallmark didn't deem it so. Seriously, guys. It's not romantic, it's creepy. Don't let Hollywood tell you differently.

Of course, my first boyfriend might say that the very same cynism was around even during my adolescence, terrified as he was to give me flowers and chocolate only to have his jugular ripped out by the sight of romantic weakness. Instead, he shaving creamed "Happy V-Day" down the side of my parents' giant blue Astro van while I was finishing an AP Chemistry test. I stayed at school late that day, running an experiment or a study group of some sort. By the time I saw my surprise, the rain melted the script into a somewhat menacing and snarling frowny face. After I puzzled out the meaning in a nearing twilight, I was quite flattered.

The next Valentine's Day he broke up with me. Could have seen that coming, right? I dropped high school and flew to Scotland for a nanny job, leaving the whole mess behind me. Ah, young love.

I know it's a self perpetuating cycle. I clearly communicate that I don't trust men and their affections would be better spent on a less intelligent and easily flattered sprig in her early twenties. (I don't believe that she is less intelligent, of course, but perhaps due to insecurity, she presents a hyper-femininity to stroke a weak male ego and years of male attention have reinforced this persona into a strongly fortified shell against the potential of who she can be.) They do this and I'm left disappointed. The inability of men to puzzle the question "Why the weak ego?" or "What is wholeness and growth?" an apparent epidemic of our 20th century culture.

Of course, I create the world I want to see. Lately, that world has been riddled with male entitlement, porn, weakness and addiction. But, if I breathe and draw a frantically bitter mind off the brink of a destructive worldview and back into my body, I start to see a different scenario. My impenetrable shell of under attachment and cynism isn't due to the lack of pursuing and eligible suitors, but a deep desire for a break from it all. I want to be single. I need a pause in my life, where I can live life for me, pursue the dreams I have, and see where it takes me. In what ways am I allowing entitlement, weakness and addiction run/ruin my life that I'm blind to and not addressing? This is the question that expands out of my chest when I take a breath and it holds me in the present. Where is my ego weak and sensitive to the slightest provocation? Where am I stunting myself to wholeness and growth?

It would be nice to be doted on, Valentine's Day or not. But perhaps I am doted on already by family and friends but I am not in a place to understand or accept the doting. A short list consisting of the following comes to mind, to make this statement more truth than hypothesis:

  • Last weekend, I had surgery to remove my wisdom teeth. For two days, my dad offered to blend anything into a liquid that met my fancy. Soup, french fries, cookies, fish sticks. Nothing was safe from my dad and his blender. 
  • Several days ago, a very close friend offered to pay for an Avalanche class because an upcoming layoff has left me more than little worried about finances. 
  • My two month old niece is a relational prodigy with her recently developed smile. She coos to get your attention, studies your face, then responds with the largest of aunty melting smiles. 
  • In the International District, the first of the boldest cherry trees have started blooming. Fragile and new, they brave their pink against the incessantly grey February sky. 

My question this Valentine's Day is not in regards to woe and bitterness but rather, how can I fully dote on the people in my life who mean the most to me?

How do you dote on the people who mean the most to you?