Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Comprehensive List of Songs Played On the Satellite Radio Station at Work; Or, Why My Head Is About To Explode

1)"Wind Beneath My Wings." Not even the Bette Midler version. At 7:30 in the morning. I really gotta bring in my coffeemaker.

2) "Love Story" by Taylor Swift.

3)"Small Town" by John "Cougar" Mellancamp. Having grown up in one of the most economically stunted and cloudy small towns in the whole US of A, I can't tell you how much it depresses me to hear the lyric "Gonna die in a small town/and that's probly where they'll bury me." That just feels like saying "I went nowhere and did nothing with my life and no one will remember me, ever....Isn't that awesome?!"

4) "I Don't Want to Wait" by that chick who did "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" Whatever happened to that song? Why do they only play the second hit she had that wasn't as good as the first one?

5) Something inaudible by Michael Bolton. Srsly, station. Sync your playback volumes.

6)"Take the Long Way Home" by Supertramp

7)"Picture" by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow

8)"My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion. Really? Really, station?

9)"Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac. Like a beacon of light on the far shore. When my boat is in the middle of a thunderstorm. And it's raining crap instead of water. God, I love Fleetwood Mac.

10) "Land Down Under" by Men At Work. Aaaand the shitstorm is back in full force.

11) "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood

12) "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles. (I had to look up who did this song and now I'm confused. I thought I liked the Bangles. Maybe not.)

13) "Bubbly" by Colbie Caillat. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

14) Something inaudible again that resembles "Redneck Girl" by the Bellamy Brothers, but there's no way this station has that much class.

15) "You Are the Woman" by Firefall. I take it back, station: you are all class, all the time. Good God.

16) "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne.

17) "Boys of Summer" by Don Henley. Close, station. A near miss. Unfortunately, Don Henley is not The Eagles.

18) "I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner. Man, I already hated Foreigner, but up til now I've been blaming this atrocity on solo Kenny Loggins. But nope. It's Foreigner.

19) "Hold My Hand" by Hootie and the Blowfish. I don't think I can say anything about Hootie and the Blowfish that we didn't say back in seventh grade the first time we realized they sucked.

20) "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins. Congratulations, station, you have been demoted from 10% awesome to 5%. Also, there aren't words gross enough to express the depth of my disdain for Phil Collins.

21) "Love Story" by Taylor Swift.

22) "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's. Can we talk about how he wrote this song for a girl he didn't even know, and how creeped out she was by it?

Question: if a terrible song plays in a cubicle, and no one is there to hear it, would it still depress me?

23) "My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison. How is this possible? I don't understand. Shouldn't the universe have imploded by now or something? How can they just throw this in amidst all that crap, like, "Oh, yeah, we really do know good music, we just won't play it. Except randomly. When you're not expecting it." I can't handle this kind of discrepancy! This is the kind of thing that turns normal worker slaves into slobbering, padded-wall, alien-anal-probed loonies.

24) "Smooth" by Rob Thomas, feat. Carlos Santana. WHAT?!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Martyrdom and Ethiopian Food

As you may have noticed, either by my virtual absence or by evidence of the piles and piles of crap that have accumulated in my car (seriously...there is no room for passengers--anybody want a television?) my life has been on hold for the past few weeks.  I moved to a new apartment, fell for a guy who was in the process of moving to the other side of the country, watched my best friend and roommate move to a different part of the other side of the country, did a housesitting gig, and turned 23 in the space of about 20 days or so.  And smoked a shit-ton of shisha.  Cough.
The last day this guy (who, for lack of a better defining numerical term, shall henceforth be referred to as Ex-whosit number bazillion) was in town, we went out for Ethiopian food.  I'd never had Ethiopian food before, and man, what a waste of my first twenty-three years.  Shit's ridiculously good.  Anyway, we didn't finish it all, and the to-go containers were kind of leaky, so when Ex-whosit number bazillion tried to keep it on his lap when we got into the car, I took it from him and threw it into the backseat on top of my old broken computer, some dish towels, and all the other random crap that is left after you move all stuff you actually need out of your apartment.  He said, "I can just hold it," and I was like, "Don't worry about it," because he's a street musician and I figured he probably shouldn't go around ruining perfectly good clothing in the name of saving my extraneous crap from the perils of Ethiopian leftovers.  And he gives me this look and goes, "You are just absolutely selfless, aren't you?  You don't even want to burden me with your leftovers."
I said, "Well, yeah, but it's not as awesome a thing as you'd think it is."  Which is true.  My family isn't particularly religious, but my father teaches the Philosophy of Nonviolence at a small university, and basically since day one I've been trained to think about other people's feelings and desires even to the detriment of my own.  "My mother has told me she's actually worried that if it came down to my life or someone else's, I literally wouldn't be able to defend myself."
"Wow," he said, "that's great."
I laughed. "Oh yeah?"
"Some people work really hard for that."
I sat in silence for a while and thought about that.  It was interesting to hear him say that, because it's something I have struggled with my whole life.  It's hard for me even to separate out my own desires from other people's, and often I end up getting taken advantage of without realizing it until much later.  "It doesn't come from a place of strength," I said.  "I have no control over it at all.  I just do it."
He laughed at me, then, and said, "What, you think it's worth less because you didn't have to work for it?"
"Well, it doesn't mean anything."
"Why does it have to mean something?" he asked me, and I was stumped.  
But I've had a few days to think about it now, and I still think I am right.  The right action is worthless without right intent behind it; and if you're not capable of killing someone, how "right" is it to refuse to do it?  There's no intention there, no choice; you just can't help it.  You're a machine, programmed to do the right thing, rather than a human acting rightly in full knowledge of what he is doing.    These are the philosophical arguments behind what I believe.
But the real reason I think that my inability to act to benefit myself is a detriment rather than a gift is because it hurts me.  I don't want to do it; I just do it, and it is exhausting.  I am not less than anyone else, and I deserve as much respect from myself as other people do.  Any sacrifices I make for others should be made out of the fullness of my heart and not out of an inability to act otherwise.  I would like to be able to act kindly towards other people out of strength, and not out of weakness; I would like to be able to do it willingly, with love for them and for myself at once.  And if that means that first I must learn how to act selfishly, and in my own interests, in order to build up my own reservoir of love and strength and kindness from which I can give as I choose, then so be it.  I think that would be better than blundering through the rest of my life giving to other people to the point where it hurts me, and always wishing for someone to give in return.  I can't count on anyone else to give me what I need, to make me feel fulfilled. I think it's a greater kindness to the world to make myself into the kind of person who can fend for herself, emotionally as well as physically, than to push myself to breaking.  If everyone cleaned his own backyard, the whole world would be beautiful.  

Monday, June 8, 2009

And, in a desperate attempt to rescue this blog from the depths of the mire of maudlin:

I present the funniest thing I've seen all day!

An Open Letter to a Man Who Is Somewhere Else

I cried for half an hour on the drive home from that apartment in Phoenix. I know that if you had seen me crying the way I did you would have launched into some speech or other on what Rumi has to say on the subject of attachment, and you would ask me what it was I thought I had lost, and tell me that it was all an illusion of the mind.
What you would not have done was to hold my hand and tell me it would be okay.
I do not know how you can read the things you read and see the things you see and yet be so callous to the depth and magnitude of other people’s pain. God, yes, it’s a construct of our minds—but it’s real to us; if you knew anything at all you would know that—you would know that hell is a place you can live an entire life. And your lectures and your attempts at detachment do nothing to make the world a better place for anybody but yourself, and I think perhaps make you cold to half the beauty around you—but I know I do not know your heart, so that last may be unfair to say.
It’s just as beautiful that I cried for half an hour in the dark to a cold, unplugged television set that lay pathetically in the passenger seat as it is that I watched an egret fly overhead and land on a red tile roof while the sun was setting, and it’s just as beautiful that you stood like stone with your hands in your pockets and watched me walk away from you as it is that I loved you for a long moment, standing beneath the cast iron fan that was rusted and immobile with ivy out under a desert nighttime full of meteorites. If you think I do not know this then you saw nothing of me at all.
I know you for what you are. I know you do not ask questions of anybody and that what you really want is for someone to listen to you; I know you are more comfortable with somebody who takes from you than somebody who gives; I know the reason you do not ask for what you want is because you are afraid of being refused. You think that because I choose to participate in this life that I have nothing more substantial than the shadows on the wall, and you think that because I do not carve out forty minutes a day to listen to God that I do not hear Him speaking at all. You think that because I know the strength of my own mind that I rely on that alone. In a year or two you will not remember my name.
You have been given everything, and then some, but you do not give back; instead you hesitate, and secure yourself against loss. You have such a heart, and such a mind, and such a voice—! But where are these and what are they doing to serve? Yesterday I put my hand down for a moment and accidentally produced exactly the thing you were looking for; but I put my heart down at your feet and you saw nothing in that at all. Yes, if you love nothing, you can lose nothing; but the loss is nothing, and the love everything. The heart renews itself, and there is nothing else that ever belonged to you to begin with.
And so I cried for half an hour last night, but this morning I watched the sun rise over a cup of coffee and an open patch of desert. Tonight I will go down to the lake where I saw the egret and sit with an Australian Shepherd named Hannah and my thoughts of a man who brought so much beauty into my life—but what will you be doing, love, and where is it you expect to find what you’re looking for?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kings of I-Want-to-Have-Their-Children

I went to see Kings of Leon at Mesa Amphitheater last night, and they blew me the fuck away. The opening act was the Walkmen, and they were fairly good—they were much more talented than most openers I’ve seen, with a good vocalist and a solid backing band, but the difference between them and Kings of Leon was palpable.

I shouldn’t be surprised, given that I’ve previously compared Kings of Leon to Bob Dylan, but it’s always an astonishing moment to stumble upon an artist with the presence. You know what I mean—there are musicians (and writers and painters and even politicians) who do more than play music: who create a living atmosphere for the people around them, who create an entire universe out of the things they feel and see, and who bring you into that universe and make you a part of it. It’s always a small miracle.

The band was having trouble hearing themselves; Caleb Followill kept mentioning it apologetically, saying it was “one of those nights when you walk on the stage and everything goes wrong.” And sure, they dragged a little, and drummer Nathan did his damndest to correct it subtly, like a drummer should, and Matthew, who normally sets everything in motion and never drops it like some magical harmonic juggler, seemed to pretty desperately need his cigarette by the end of the night, but if that’s what they sound like when everything is going wrong then they truly have the gift. Because I was there, in the Kings of Leon universe, and nothing took me out of it. Even a bad night was saved by the intrinsic energy of the songs; exuberance is written into them like a diamond in a setting, and honestly the whole experience was sex in a medicine cup—a strong fucking dose that leaves you shaking your head and wincing, but cured of your ills. Couples everywhere were making out by the end of the set, and I don’t think it was just the beer.

(Just as an aside, if Jared Followill should ever desire to give in to the evolutionary inclination to reproduce, I totally volunteer my healthy and fine-boned Eastern European genes for the task. Let me know if you need my qualifying credentials.)

So, yeah, if you get the chance to see Kings of Leon live, do it, because even on a bad night they will impress.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The I-Wish-it-Wasn't-Lost Weekend

       It was a knock-down-drag-'em-out fight with the elements this weekend; I carried Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love around with me like it was a pocket Bible just to keep me sane.
      Ex-boyfriend number 6 did, in fact, call me up to go have a beer.  We arranged to meet at our favorite old oyster house/outdoor bar down in Tempe at 6 after work on Friday, and I made contingency escape plans for the hookah bar with my roommate Pete and Dwyer (who was, thankfully, in town to visit before he takes off to Mongolia for two years.  Yes, Mongolia) just in case the night went badly.
      It went great.
      Not the kind of great where you end up with a hangover and a "shit what did I do" morning, but the kind of great you hope for when you see an ex.  We were there til eleven at night just talking about the past year and catching up and sharing ideas we had developed and talking about plans.  We did talk about his breakup with this recent girl, but that didn't bother me all that much.  We got along just fine, we touched on our relationship but didn't get into it beyond vague generalizations of what happened, and we had a few good laughs and some drinks.
      And even though it went great, and we left with a hug and a "See you around," I was fucking exhausted.  I went straight home to bed, slept for eleven hours, and spent the next day desperately trying to carve out time for myself in between all the things I had committed to (graduation parties, errands, etc.) By eight o'clock Saturday night I called up everyone I still had plans with and said, "Sorry, can't do it," and went to the hookah bar and sat with Pete and Dwyer and pontificated on the nature of relationships and continued our quest to offend the entire universe.
     Then I went home, got ready for bed, and when my friend called me I burst into tears.
     For the past six years I've been going through what can only be described as a dental saga--I have a congenitally missing tooth and a peg incisor and have been going through braces and retainers and surgeries and implants to get them fixed.  It's been kind of a bitch.  
     We're in the final stages, now, though, and just last week my dentist took what are hopefully the last molds of my teeth and put on a temporary tooth and a temporary veneer until the lab can make permanent ones based on the molds.  And he said, "You'll have to stop biting your nails because that can rip off the temporaries."
      I stopped biting my nails once before, but then I learned how to play the guitar and had to clip them anyway and I just figured, screw it, why make it more difficult than it has to be?  I haven't been able to quit again since, but this time I stopped the very same day my dentist told me to.  Not cold turkey, or anything, but I stopped enough that I managed to grow some actual nails and my cuticles aren't quite as mutilated as they usually are.
        About a week ago it occurred to me that the last time I stopped biting my nails was the last time I really felt like I liked who I was, until recently. Then it occurred to me that nail-biting is really just the physical manifestation of my mental self-blame and incessant nitpicking, which I have only begun to learn to control and eliminate in the past year--and because I've learned to control and eliminate that, it's that much easier to control and eliminate my nail-biting.  
       And this is what I told ex-boyfriend number 6 over my Blue Moon and veggie burger when we were getting into the changes we were making in our respective lives, and the things we had learned about ourselves.  I showed him my nails.
      Later I absentmindedly put my thumbnail to my mouth and he said, "You're biting your nails, by the way."  Accusatorily, as though I had lied.
      And of all the things he told me in the five hours we spent together, this was the thing that I kept remembering all weekend, just vaguely popping into my head at random times.  I couldn't figure it out; honestly all of Saturday I didn't really have time to try to figure it out, until I started crying on Saturday night, and my friend asked me what was wrong.

     It wasn't that he had criticized me, or even just that seeing an ex who hadn't spoken to me in a year was just an emotionally exhausting experience.  What upset me was how he casually dismissed the physical evidence of all the changes I worked so hard to bring about in my life since we broke up.  He didn't care that I had changed, that I have begun to make the small steps that lead to giant leaps, that I have stopped beating myself up over everything, enough that I can do things that are healthy for me easily, with very little regression.  
    Perhaps it is silly, to be upset that he didn't recognize what such a small thing meant for me--but it means he doesn't know me any more.  I felt like even the history we had, the last remnant of what we were to each other, was really gone, and I felt so deeply the fact that we were starting over from scratch, two people who haven't even seen each other in nine months, much less maintained any semblance of a relationship.  I heard somewhere it takes a cat nine months to forget its owner completely.  
    This desire I have, and my wish that he would still know which things were so important to me, reminds me a little of the movie Anastasia, with Yul Brinner and Ingrid Bergman, where (spoiler alert, but hey, it's a classic anyway and you should know the ending) the Russian Empress recognizes Anastasia because she coughs because she is frightened.  These are things your family knows about you and should always be able to recognize--and he was my family.  
    Was is the operative word in that sentence.
    So I am sad, but it is okay, and probably as it should be.  Maybe we can get together every couple of months in the name of people who cared about each other, have a beer, have a laugh, and call it quits for the evening.  
    But I am sad.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Two Hours in the Sun Was Worth It

Last night I went to ASU's commencement where the President was speaking (courtesy of my friend Meg, who got her Masters):

That's it. I'm getting my PhD and finishing my damn novel.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Motivational Post For My Friend Sam

Yesterday Sam gave me a pretty solid kick on the behind in an attempt to motivate me to post, and today I owe her one.

Samantha, get off your ass and clean your room.

I'm not telling you this because I care whether your room is clean, or because I know you wanted me to tell you this.

I'm telling you this because it's a small thing you can change about your day today. I'm telling you this because I know you are feeling the major suckitude of the post-graduation black hole that is being broke from working your ass off at a job that's boring and meaningless, and because I know you want to start putting your life in order. And cleaning your room is constructive effort towards a small improvement. Maybe it's a baby step, but it's a step all the same. If you like the place you live, you can begin to like living there, and that's a good start for putting your life in order. If you set yourself a task and accomplish it, that's another good start for putting your life in order.
The main character in one of my favorite books said, "Keeping yourself clean, cooking, eating, clearing away afterward--that's what life's about." And I think that's true. I think taking care of yourself is the first step toward living a life that means something, and, as mundane as it sounds, cleaning your room is one of the many ways to take care of yourself.

So, Samantha, get off your ass and clean your room.
And then call me, because I miss you very much.

No One Was Harmed in the Writing of This Post

Yesterday as I was leaving work I saw a massive fire about two miles away. I stopped into the gas station on the corner, and as I pumped, I could see flames—from two miles away. “There’s no way that’s a one-house fire,” I thought, and it also occurred to me then that the fire was remarkably close to Ex-Boyfriend #6’s parents’ house.

So I called him.

I knew that he was probably at work; I knew that he very likely had moved out and gotten his own apartment; I also knew that for the last nine months he has refused to answer my phone calls. After our breakup he cut me out of his life, telling me that he “needed some time” and that possibly we could be friends again in a few months. I tried to call him a few months later and had no response. The only time I ever heard from him after that was once involving a party with mutual friends, coordinating our plans so that we could avoid each other. The only time I ever saw him was once, on campus, driving in his car with another girl (which was, it must be admitted, likely the least awful way that knowledge could be imparted to me).

Considering we spent three years as the best of friends, and that our relationship ended as a result of a mutual agreement, all this was fairly confusing and painful for me.

But I thought, “I know it’s probably not his house that’s burning down, and that even if it was he’s probably not in it, but what if it was?” I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for not trying, one more time.

So I called him.

And he answered.

He hung up right away again in order to go call his parents when I explained why I had called, but he called me back an hour later, to tell me that his house was fine and the fire was actually up the street a bit, and so we could ask each other the absolutely tender and quite serious, “How are you doing?” that I think all exes want to ask each other.

We talked about jobs, and his graduation, and the things you first say to that question, and then I asked, "How else are you doing?"

“Ah, “ he said, “I went through a pretty rough emotional time recently.”

“Bad breakup?”

He hesitated. “Yeah, it was pretty nasty. I’ve still got all this latent anger hanging around, I don’t even know why or where it’s coming from.” (By the way, isn’t it great that you can pick up a relationship at almost the same intimacy level where you left off, even with a nine-month hiatus? I’m quite serious. Isn’t it fantastic that he’s still inclined to tell me things he probably doesn’t talk to about to a number of people? Isn’t it great that no matter what we do, or how long we decide not to talk to each other, we are still good friends?)

“Yeah,” I said, “I was pretty pissed at you for a few months”—

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t be talking to you about this." He laughed uncomfortably.

“No, it’s okay. I would tell you if I were uncomfortable talking about something.” I paused for a moment, because I realized that was absolutely true, an exhilarating discovery. I didn’t want to know her name, and I didn’t want to hear an in-depth discussion of their relationship, but I was perfectly happy talking about his feelings about it. This was astonishing to me, because what is okay for me and what is not is something I would not have been capable of saying, or realizing, just a year ago. “Anyway,” I continued, “the reason I told you that was just to say that it does go away.”

“All right,” he said.

We talked a little longer about it, and about his job, and my job, and then I said, “Well, it’s great talking to you again.”

“Yeah," he said, "I've been thinking about you, and I wanted to call you up. I shouldn't have cut you out of my life like that. I had it done to me, and it's not cool."

"It's okay," I said, again surprised by the truth coming out of my mouth. "It was actually really good for me at the time."

"Well, I did need the space, but I could have called you way before this, and I'm sorry."

Most apologies come after you don't even really need them anymore. But then I guess most apologies come because of where the apologizer is, and not wholly because of the needs of the apologizee.

Somewhere at the end of all of that he said, "We should go get a beer sometime."

"Sure," I said, "But if you don't mind, I think I'm going to let you call me."

My first reaction to all of this, I have to admit, was to think about what it would be like to get back together, and to imagine scenarios leading to said reconnection. But I managed to keep them under control. Now I know a little better just where they come from: a little bit from my tendency towards idealization, a little bit from my hyperactive imagination, and a lot from the part of me that feels more comfortable when a decision has already been made. I like to decide what I want in advance, because otherwise I get overwhelmed by the pressure to make a decision in a short amount of time. The future has always been as real to me as the present; sometimes more so. But now I am beginning to recognize that this is just how I deal with the possibilities presented by new information, and that I should not let it control my reactions.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my relationships (I can hear the chorus of "Duh" echoing from everyone who knows me). I dated a guy recently for two months, and even in that short period of time a lot of the same problems I've always had with men cropped up.

There is a Buddhist idea (Nalin, feel free to jump in if I'm explaining this wrong) that the point at which suffering can be eliminated is in the space between desire and grasping; i.e., the moment after you feel a desire but before you actually reach out to act on the desire. It's the moment between hunger and eating, anger and lashing out, loneliness and latching on to anything that moves in the hopes that even baggage-filled angry interaction will be better than not alone.

I never thought I had a problem with grasping. Grasping seemed to me to be the territory of materialism, of consumerist needs for big-screen televisions and expensive sports cars, or even the right job and career and baby. I thought love was beyond grasping. I thought I was safe because I had rejected the material life and searched for meaning in my relationships and my work. And love is beyond grasping, but only if it's real love. Real love requires a wellspring of strength and respect and devotion from inside of you, that is created only when you can forgive yourself, know your limitations and your endless capabilities, and when you draw your own boundaries of respect for yourself from that same place. Real love is when you do things simply for the sake of doing them.

Everything that is not real love is grasping.

Everything that is done in expectation of a particular response, or even any response, from another person is grasping. Saying "I love you," and hoping to hear it back is grasping; saying angry things in hopes of hearing an apology is grasping; getting into a relationship because you want a relationship rather than because you want to devote yourself to that person is grasping. Going to college to get a degree is grasping, and so is writing in order to get published. And when you are grasping, nothing will ever, ever, ever be enough. Even if you get what you want, which you usually won't, you will just find something else to grasp towards.

I say all of these things not because I know better, or speak from a position of superiority, but because I have done all of these things, and I still have trouble separating out what is real love and what is grasping. I have started to practice, but I'm still working on mastering the basic scales of real love. One of the things that helps me sort it all out is to write about it, and get feedback from the people who love me enough to criticize me.

I think that phone call was made with real love. I think we both had only affection and respect towards each other. But now I must be careful, and stick to the boundaries I have made for myself out of that place of real love, and watch out for the tendency toward grasping. It is easy to fill my holes with things that other people have, but they never fit quite as well as the things that I fashion for myself*. And lastly, I must forgive myself for failing, because I will fail, but also there will be successes. Everything is all right.

*In an attempt to circumvent EVERYONE who will make this joke...that's what she said. Now shut up and read the post.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reason # 16 Why I'm Reconsidering Grad School

I'd get to do stuff like this.


I Have a New Attitude

Sometimes I forget the reasons I do what I'm doing.
Sometimes I forget why it is that I get up at five-thirty in the morning and work a job I'm, at best, ambivalent about for nine hours a day, five days a week.
Sometimes, especially the times I don't have time to make coffee and hang out with the cat and read a book before I run out the door to work, and most especially the times that I do have time to make coffee and end up looking at pictures of my friend's safari in Kenya where she saw leopards, lions, gazelle, baby rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and the Great Rift Valley where all life on earth originated, and it's raining on an African plain and she's all smiling happily with her husband and her freakin perfect marriage and her fluency in Arabic and her stupidly awesome Fulbright scholarship to get her masters in Cairo, Egypt, right before I have to go into work and sit at a cubicle and adhere to a dress code--well, those times are the times I want to fall to my knees and cry, "Why, God?! Why?! What did I do wrong? What terrible decisions did I make that put me here instead of on a happy little safari in Kenya?*"

Then I find this.

Somehow Elizabeth Gilbert and her sage advice seem to show up exactly on time, whenever I need them.

*What I actually do is call my grandmother on the way to work, and she says remarkably sage things as well, like "Firstly, you're not supposed to be in Kenya right now, which is why you're not there, and secondly, you've been to France and Germany and England and Belgium and the Netherlands and Spain and to all but six states in the U.S. and you live in Arizona, so to some people you've done the equivalent of going to Kenya." And then I stop crying.

Monday, April 27, 2009

OK, OK, One More Picture.

There Are Too Many Pictures On This Blog. Here's Some Words.

Because A) a couple of people have asked me about it, or things related to it, and because B) it’s horrifically dry and academic as it now stands, I thought tonight I would give a more concise and hopefully more interesting overview of my senior thesis

Ok, seriously, please keep reading.

While technically, my thesis was a criticism of a theory in cognitive biology made using Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Immanuel Kant, there was a lot more going on under the surface that could not come out in an academic paper. I worked out a lot of my own personal issues writing that thesis, and I feel like I resolved a lot of questions I had at the time.

I went into my undergrad undecided, because I didn’t have any career in mind, and my father, who is a philosophy professor, told me that I should take some time to try out classes and see what interested me. In my sophomore year I took an entry-level biology course, loved it, and that same semester I became a biology major.

But within a year and a half, I wanted out. ASU didn’t have a separate pre-med program, so even if you wanted to be an ecologist or some other esoteric type of biologist, you were still lumped into classes with every tom, dick, and harry who wanted to make a lot of money at playing doctor. On top of that, I began to find that somewhere underneath all the encouragements to question everything, to look for the truth using scientific reasoning and the inductive logic that is the basis for science, there seemed to be a decided lack of…something. Suddenly, the same professors who had told me that science had boundaries were also trying to tell me that religion sprung from the fact that humans were social animals and needed to connect with others; suddenly, they were arguing that there were no universal truths, that the only way anything could be known was through science and experimentation, and that even that was limited and often completely wrong.

This sat badly with the part of me that likes to write music and go hiking, the part of me that reaches for that height of feeling that occurs sometimes when the moon is low and orange and the breeze is blowing the smell of rain in from the east. I wanted meaning, and they were telling me there was none to be had.

At first I decided, “I’ll just add a philosophy minor. That will help integrate the other side of me, and balance out all the science.” So I enrolled in an entry-level philosophy course, and, in a circumstance of either great misfortune or great blessing, it turned out my professor was a disciple of Rudolph Carnap, the original logical positivist. At the time I was in his class, he was bidding to buy Rudolph Carnap’s desk. If you don’t know what logical positivism is, basically it’s the idea that there are no truths except truths by definition (i.e. a bachelor is an unmarried man)—basically, that nothing is true, and things are only useful or not.

I ran for it. I dropped my bio major and enrolled in the college of interdisciplinary studies, which allowed me to take whatever courses I liked from each of two concentrations. I stuck with biology and philosophy, in the interest of saving time and money, but I took classes like Cancer and Heart Disease, where we stuck strictly to the medicine, and a seminar on Kant, who is decidedly not a logical positivist, but rather a main figure in the Enlightenment period.

I was still nervous as hell, and reacting badly to any suggestions that I should do what was the most useful, or that I should ever question the value of my artistic side, or of the literary universal truths like love and compassion and pity and pride and all that other stuff William Faulkner talked about. But slowly I recovered, and the thesis was my final retching, the breaking of the fever and the healing between my broken halves.

So bear with me; it requires a little bit of background information, but I think it will be worth it.

My thesis centered on the question of the existence of the self. (Yes, there are people who get paid to do research on/write about whether or not they actually exist. Higher education FTW!) A group of cognitive biologists had proposed in the 1970’s, based on some experiments they did, that the self is simply the higher level of functioning that occurs when a lot of parts work together. In other words, all the different functions of your brain, when put together, can do more than what they can do separately, and that “more” is what we think of as the self. There is no actual self, they argued, it only seems like it to our experience.

This is something that Friedrich Nietzsche said a long time ago, except without any modern-day scientific evidence to back it up. So I wanted to explore how it had come about that, 100 years apart, two very different schools of thought had come to the same conclusion.

It got really interesting when I learned that the cognitive biologists were influenced heavily by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche thought Kant was an idiot—and yet he agreed with the conclusions of a group of scientists who had studied Kant in depth and formulated their theories in the same vein.

The cognitive biologists were disturbed by the fact that something all humans seem to experience—the experience of having a “self” that is whole and which exists separately from other things—was contradicted by their experimental evidence. And, like me, they were bothered by the lack of meaning this suggested—if your self isn’t real, do you have a soul? What is the freaking point? And why the hell does it seem like we have a self if we really don’t?

The cognitive biologists tried to integrate Kant’s theory by arguing that people should try to experience their “lack-of-self,” thus bringing experience and reality into sync. They suggest trying Buddhist methodologies for achieving this. Basically, what they are arguing is that you should try to get a grasp of the self “as it really is;” or, in other words, that you should be objective about the origins of our subjectivity.

This is where Nietzsche’s genius comes in (and a little bit of my humble ability, as well). Nietzsche argued against Kant’s ideas for the very same reason, and said:

“Against the scientific prejudice.—The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge. One would like to know what things-in-themselves are; but behold, there are no things-in-themselves! But even supposing there were an in-itself, an unconditioned thing, it would for that very reason be unknowable! Something unconditioned cannot be known; otherwise it would not be unconditioned! (The Will toPower 555)”

Nietzsche has arrived at the observer’s paradox: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” You can’t know! Maybe it will only make a sound if someone is there to hear it, but you will never know the sound in and of itself, minus the experience of the observer. And in the same way, you can never know the reality of your self; you can only ever know how you experience it.

If you managed not to get lost along the way, there, you will see that my paper arrived at the same conclusion with which I was so uncomfortable only a year before: that there are no objective truths, and all knowledge is imperfect, and dependent on your own ability to observe.

The difference between my own answer and the idea that my science professors had offered me was not only that I had arrived at the conclusion myself, on my own terms. Nietzsche also offers a purpose, a meaning, along with his conclusion: growth. He argues that if there is no inherent meaning, all you can do is try to create it for yourself, by striving constantly to become a little bit better than what you were before. You can live in a state of becoming, and use the false idea of yourself to try to shape what is into what could be.

The best example I can give of Nietzsche’s idea of “meaning,” is, ironically enough, the idea of evolution. Life on this planet constantly evolves, always adapting to take better advantage of the resources around it. It has no specific goal, or purpose, and it will never reach a pinnacle, or perfection, but always it is growing and changing in a constant attempt to be better than before.

So maybe my professors were right, and there are no universal truths, and there is no inherent meaning. Maybe love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are static ideals, shadows that really mean very little. Maybe I don’t even have a self. But what I do have can always be better than what I had yesterday, and always I can strive to improve; and I can try on ideas and take them off again if they do not help me become better. That’s enough meaning, even for me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reason #7 Why I Live In Arizona, cont'd

This is Usery Mountain:

That strip of light color you see is actually a wide band of bright yellow lichen, which does really well on the type of rock that is exposed there (don't remember what kind of rock that is; apologies.)

This is my friend Chris, the ecology TA:
He has a much bigger camera than I do.

This is the bitchin' sock tan-line I got from hiking the Usery Mountain ridgeline with my friend Chris, the ecology TA (and my special gift basket to those of you with a foot fetish):

(My calves aren't really that big. It's just the angle. )

Chris and I used to work on an ecology research grant together which required us to visit Usery Mountain Park at least once a week. On Friday he called me up to go have a beer with him and a former ranger at Usery, and we all got to talking about how beautiful the park was and how much we missed going there, and Chris and I resolved to go hiking on Sunday (the ranger didn't want to go seeing as she is still a ranger, albeit at a different park, and does that for a living).

So I strapped on my brand new running shoes:

and we headed out to Usery.
(Side note (with the disclaimer that I don't get paid to say this or have any affiliation with New Balance): I am obsessed with these shoes. These are the New Balance 840 trail runners; they are a slightly different version of the 800, which are the. best. shoes. ever. I've been wearing the 800 for two years now, and they basically feel like I'm wearing socks with a crapload of tread. Unfortunately, they were either sold out or else discontinued when I went to buy a new pair last week, so I bought the 840. I think the only difference is the 800 has a built-in tongue, which I loved because it doesn't do that annoying thing where it moves over and sits on the side of your foot after you wear the shoe for awhile. But the tread is the same, and the fit, and the material. If you're interested as to why I'm obsessed with a shoe that has virtually no support or padding beyond the tread, please note that in a year of running I've suffered no injuries, shinsplints, or any sort of discomfort, which is a big deal for a girl who tore her ACL and medial meniscus at the age of 13; and please check out this article. Also, I have tried Sauconys with moderate support to compensate for my slight pronation issue, and all they did was make my ankles feel like somebody was bending them the wrong way. Which, now that I think on it, is exactly what they were doing.)

Back to the hiking.

This is a saguaro in bloom:

So is this:

And that's why this is the perfect time of year to go hiking in Arizona.

The first part of the trail goes up to the Wind Cave, which is a hollow in the side of the mountain carved out by--you guessed it--the wind. The rest of the trail, the ridgeline we hiked, is not actually a Usery Park-sanctioned trail. It's technically a part of Tonto National Forest, and it's kind of nasty in places.

This is one of my favorite things about Usery Park: the giant Phoenix sign. It used to be a sign for airplanes, back when the suburban sprawl didn't reach quite so far out into the desert; now I think it's just a relic. Just underneath the sign sits the shooting range, and our whole hike was peppered with the sounds of gunfire at a distance.

Here's a better view of the lichen:

Here's a baby bird nesting in a palo verde that we saw at a rest stop on the way up to the Wind Cave:

Interesting fact about palo verde: they evolved photosynthesis in their bark, which is why it's green. I guess it takes a lot of energy and water to produce leaves in the desert heat, and the bark is a little more efficient.
Update: Erm, now that I've actually looked at this photo, I realize that this isn't a palo verde because it has brown bark. So I'm kind of a moron but the thing about palo verdes is still true so I'm leaving it in there.

A common species of lizard. Chris informed me that they're actually all female (technically hermaphroditic) and reproduce asexually:

A bee's nest in the ceiling of the Wind Cave. It's hard to see, but there's a hummingbird there feeding on the honey.

Four views from the southern edge of the ridgeline; east, southeast, south, and west, respectively:

A lovely windowrock view of Four Peaks:

A cholla bloom, and the view to the north:

Looking back at the southernmost peak of the ridgeline, where we had been standing:

A young saguaro:

A closeup of the spines of the saguaro, which evolved mostly to provide shade with the least amount of effort on the part of the plant:

(Disclaimer: Chris took this photo, which is why it's so awesomely good. I am still learning about macro functions, etc.)

A barrel cactus, from the top down. Did I mention I love plants?

Weaver's Needle, my very favorite rock formation:

The Phoenix sign, from the ridgeline:

We figured out you can see for about 60 miles in every direction.

Jojoba fruit:

My all-time favorite native plant, the ocotillo (which is technically a succulent and not a cactus), on a background of lichen:

Not sure what kind of cactus this is, but it's pretty!

The log book at the very top:

Four Peaks, from the top:

Looking northeast into Tonto National Forest:

Ocotillo and cholla sharing space. Not very comfortable cuddling, that.

More of the view from the top:

One of the more beautiful ocotillos I've seen, still with all its leaves:

A prickly pear in full bloom. Out on Rt. 88 there's a place that sells prickly pear ice cream, which I have yet to try.

A chain-fruit cholla:

And, finally, we have arrived at the end. To close, I leave you with a cactus that put me in mind of those images of a lonely steer skull, drying out in the desert sun. Sorry, I guess that's not a very happy image, but look how freakin cool it is:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reason #8 Why I Live In Arizona

I started running about a year ago because I began to notice how much of a difference regular exercise made in my mood and my energy levels. I was going through kind of a rough period and needed all the endorphins I could get, and when I moved into my current apartment I established a regular route through the neighborhood. I live near a set of man-made lakes with a lovely little trail that runs along part of them, and at six in the morning it's absolutely stunning. The other day I brought my camera along so I could share my mood-boosters with you, so this is what I see (in roughly the order I see it) every day I manage to drag my ass out of bed by 5:45:

Most days the moon is still out when I step out the door.

Bougainvillea! I'll save my rhapsody about bougainvillea for another day.

The first neighborhood street, and the point at which I usually wake up fully.

People really have some lovely flower gardens. Also, I love plants.

There is a species of palm native to North America. This is not it. But isn't it great? Doesn't it make you feel like you're on vacation...even though you're not?

This is the pathway leading up to the lake, through a little park. On Mondays and Wednesdays there are two ladies working through exercises with a trainer, and there is outdoor nautilus equipment available in the park.

There are ridiculous numbers of ducks on the lake, which makes me super happy because when I was little I used to feed the ducks at my grandparents' lakehouse with stale Wonderbread my grandma would give me. The part I can't capture in the pictures is how much noise all the birds are making at this hour; all the small birds are singing loudly and the ducks are flapping at each other and calling at the geese, and carp are breaching with their little popping sounds. Occasionally I see the blue heron that lives in the area. There's also a white crane, and these little king-fisher type birds that all perch on the edge of the lake and fish in the early mornings and late evenings.

Sunrise! Run is still feelin' pretty good.

This is the view around the bend in the lake path.

The community dock, and the random free-standing gate to prevent people who aren't "members" from parking their boats there. For some reason I find this thing hilarious. They could just swim if they were that desperate to park their boats there.
Last view of the main lake...
Until I turned around to see the carp breaching to catch flies on top of the water. Weirdest thing ever to watch.

The lovely little alleyway connecting the main lake to the smaller one. Just at the end is where I usually see the heron.

Very cool saguaro, almost in bloom, outside one of the neighborhood homes. Also the point where my run starts to hurt.

The LDS church that means I'm almost home. One thing about the Mormons, they have freaking great taste in architecture. The most beautiful buildings in the desert are usually theirs.

And, finally, a closeup of a bloom on a bush just outside my favorite house in the neighborhood, a lovely little grey number on the corner.