27 December 2011

eating doughnuts in the service of science

As both of you know, I've been off the wheat for a while. It's an experiment spurned by the fact that half my family can't eat wheat. Nothing doing. My mother, my aunt Helen, & Helen's daughter Fiona developed celiac disease as adults; Helen's son Steeve has been allergic since birth; & then there's Kevin.

Kevin stopped eating wheat when he noticed it was dragging him down. He just didn't feel good when he ate it. And his symptoms lined up more or less with his celiac-disease-having relatives, so he just stopped. Now, he feels better. This is more or less where I'm at, too. The next step is to go to the doctor to get tested for it.

The thing is, the test for celiac disease is, in fact, a test for the presence of antibodies against an aberrant converted wheat protein. If I have been excellent about not eating wheat, there won't be any antibodies, & I'll get a negative (whether my mutant genes are modifying the antibody-triggering proteins not). In order for the test to be meaningful, I have to eat wheat again to trigger the protein conversion. 

The other thing is, the body is a very adaptable thing. When it notes that you, the User, aren't regularly introducing what it views as a disease to the system, it heaves a huge sigh of relief & happily goes about focusing its attention to other things. Biking, drawing, writing, doing crossword puzzles, thinking about prime numbers, having benevolence toward humanity. It's not girding itself for a great battle every single day. So then let's say your doc tells you to eat wheat in order to intentionally trigger the mutant protein-conversion process, to get the antibodies to show up, for the sake of the test. But while I, the User, know that a great battle is coming, my internal organs & wheat-protein-converting mutant genes ... don't. They are blindsided, having been long out of battle. And the battle is worse than when the antibodies fought for the User back in her doughnut days. Kevin opts out. It was bad enough before, he doesn't need a battle today, thanks. I, myself, went into battle recently when I fucked up one night & drank a beer. I felt sick for two days.

It was a Maredsous 8 Brune. And it was worth it.

Kevin's solution is to not eat that doughnut, to not get tested. I like Kevin's solution. It's not that I don't trust or need medical confirmation, it's that it would be merely that — confirmation of something that I viscerally know to be true. I'm still in the midst of the experiment. I said I'd give it a couple months, & it's only been a few weeks. However, I'm not certain I want to intentionally make myself sick when the couple months are up. You can call it willful ignorance, if you like. I call it refusing to curse the darkness & instead just lighting a candle. We'll see.

Speaking of lighting candles, here's a thing Errol Morris wrote about the benefits of cursing the darkness. He is a funny doughnut-eater.


Sometimes, when I arrive home & chuck my bike on my shoulder & run up my stairs, when I catch my breath & my eyes fall on the Motobecane ... sometimes, I decide I should just yank that old whitewall off it that very instant. I should put on the matching blue-striped tire &, while I'm at it, I could probably stand to patch up one of the old 27x1-1/2s I've got lying around so that I have a spare but, wouldn't you know it, I need it now, so wasn't that a lucky thing. Then I look up & see that it's 2:45 in the morning, & I wonder if my roommates think I'm crazy.

And then I look down at my grease-stained fingers. I look at the TWO tire levers I've broken in an effort to get that damned ancient tire off (it was utterly ossified), & I look at the shredded selfsame ossified tire I eventually sliced off with an x-acto blade. Sometimes, I smile a little & I think, "No. They don't think anything about my sanity. They know."

19 December 2011

writing about reading

My sister is a great reader. She's really good at it. What makes her a great reader, though, is not her commitment to reading only great works, as determined by those who purport to know such things. She's great at it because she does it a lot. All three of us do. We come by it honestly.

Our childhood home has a wall of reference books. Flanking the 1978 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (which was regularly splayed out in layers on the kitchen table as we reference-hopped from one entry to another) are sections about Ireland, dance, medicine, art, physics, & other subjects. I remember wanting to re-shelve the medical illustration books in the art section because the transparent overlays were fascinating & beautiful &, to my young mind, not much different from the books of marble statues. The diagram of the respiratory system had as much aesthetic value as the Pieta. But don't tell the Pope I said that.

We also had subscriptions to a wide array of magazines. Our parents are good at many things, but one thing they're REALLY good at is being curious. They wanted to know more about what was going on in the world, everywhere, in as many realms as possible. National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reader's Digest, The Economist,  Mother Jones, the Atlantic Monthly, Ms. Magazine, Time, Popular Mechanics, WIRED, the National Enquirer.

(Wait, what?)

The National Enquirer. What in the world did they imagine they would learn from a crappy tabloid with cyclical headlines about Bat Boy? So many things, it turns out. In the absence of myths, in the absence of a shared lore, we have Chupacabra, Elvis is Alive!, & the Blue Dot. If I wish very hard while touching this one imperfectly-printed circle of pure cyan, will my wish come true? Maybe! Is the Loch Ness Monster the last living dinosaur? A Catholic priest in Scotland says yes! So while we'd anxiously await our turn at our favorite magazines (I admired Tina Brown's moxie at getting longer stories in The New Yorker, though some of them were a real slog for me), it was always a special treat to follow it up with the serialized fiction of the National Enquirer. And I am not ashamed.

I may be biased toward the tabloids, though. Our family was featured in the Star, when I was about three. The topic: Two doctor sisters with a unique solution to child care. (They job-shared. Whomever didn't go into the hospital that day took care of ... seven children. The dads helped, too, of course, but that wasn't as tidy a story in 1981.) It was August. I look uncomfortably warm in a terry-cloth jumper. I have a perfect bowl cut. And a book in my hands. Like I said, we come by it honestly.

After you put down your copy of the National Enquirer, which will make you a better writer if for no other reason than it will expand your notion of the absurd, I'd like to share ... a list of great works, as determined by people who purport to know such things. Our Favorite Authors' Favorite Books of 2011.

In particular, here's a link to Colm Tóibín's recommendations as a reminder to myself:
a.) Read Tóibín's collection of stories, "The Empty Family"; and
b.) Read Tóibín's recommendations, too: Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" & Craig Koslofsky's "Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe". Actually, this whole list makes me want to attack a library. ("Room" by Emma Donoghue sounds excellent.)

15 December 2011

holy-day cards

I call them holiday cards here, though they may feature a Christmas tree or a Menorah or a Celtic (Pagan) cross or a snowy, secular Yosemite. I call them holiday cards because they arrive at the end of the year, & as we draw nearer to the marker between one year & the next, it's a convenient time to reflect on the good stuff & the bad stuff & to think about what we hope will come. It's something to do with the Solstice — the turning from a time of darkness to a time of bounty, of light, of hope. There's something holy about that.

[It could be argued that this turning from a time of darkness to a time of light happens every single day. What a holy day, Tuesday! But that is another post for another day.]

Earlier today, my friend Joe Anthony expressed his frustration & also his joy surrounding the holiday card tradition. He said he thinks the tradition is "stupid, shallow, & wasteful", yet still it makes him immensely happy. I agree: The tradition can be stupid, shallow, & wasteful ... if there's no thought put into it. But it can also be incredibly rewarding, both for the person who sends the card & the person who receives it.

I don't make holiday cards. I make cards (tiny books, more like) whenever the mood strikes me, unattached to holy days. Sometimes, it happens in July. Or April. Or September, or January, ... or December. I love giving them, & I love receiving them. The best card I ever got was bought from a store, probably years before it was sent. It was a Thank You card. It arrived on my birthday. I've moved at least six times since the receipt of that card, but I have it still. On the inside of this Thank You card were the following words:

"I didn't have a birthday card in my files for you, so I'm taking this opportunity to thank you for being a wonderful daughter. I'm proud of you. Love, Dad."

Read the first part of the first sentence, & you'll see an admission: Every other year, he has pulled a card with the word "Birthday" somewhere on it from a file, signed it, & mailed it off. There's a cheapness to that, a wastefulness, a shallowness. But keep reading, & (if you're me) you'll break down into a mess of tears, in public, as your father tells you the one thing you ever really wanted to hear from him. "I'm proud of you." Holy crap, Dad.

It doesn't matter to me if you spent days seeking out a card that better words your feelings than you ever could, or if you found the blankest of blank cards & wrote just the two things you needed to say, or if you hand-crafted a tiny novella & stitched the pages together with gold thread. Sincerity, gratitude, & love are never wasteful, never shallow, never cheap. I understand what you mean, Joe, about the potential for this tradition to be sad & sorry & small. And I understand, also, your joy at exploring the other end of this tradition's potential. I'm with ya. Get out the pens.

08 December 2011

fail harder

Once upon a time, I participated in a wacky advertising collective called WK12. Wieden+Kennedy 12 is "an experiment, disguised as an agency, disguised as an ad school." We made things on behalf of brands, in order to help those brands speak more truthfully, more honestly, about themselves. It felt more like art school — incredibly intellectually rigorous art school that allowed (demanded) that we come up with six different formal executions before we started working on any of them. We used to have to come up with a list of a hundred ideas. We became idea machines. (Not all of the ideas were good.)

But it wasn't art school. We were in the business of communication. The froofie way of describing what we did is how I stated it above. The more straightforward way: We were selling stuff. Good stuff, for sure, but it cannot be denied that we were coming up with pieces of communication in the service of a product. Or an idea. Or an event. In doing that, it's important to be clear, concise, & direct. You cannot obscure your meaning. You can be poetic, but you must be succint.

This past spring, the current class of WK12 held an art show, inviting all students past & present to submit something. The theme of the show was "Fail Gloriously", a riff on the Fail Harder idea. Failing isn't always bad. Failing teaches you things. Failure is not something to be feared. It happens when you aim high & when you take risks, both of which are admirable things to do. It's what you do after you fail that makes the difference. And shit, if you aim high & then you fail big, you already know how to aim high again, right? It's not so hard the second time around. And that time, you might succeed big. I'm just saying.

Here's what I wrote:

The only books I've typeset, printed, trimmed, & bound by hand this whole year were requests for transfer from the coffee shop at which I currently work to another one.

Now, that's failure. On a bunch of levels. I love to make books — small, folded paper or hand-bound, printed or hand-written, with a cover or without. I love laying out type, I love folding, I love binding. It's a perfect little joy of a thing to hold in your hands. But I'd somehow allowed myself to believe that I was too busy or too tired or too ... something ... to do this thing that I loved. Another failure: I had attended this prestigious school, been under the guidance of some brilliant thinkers, been exposed to some of advertising's most influential & powerful people ... & now I work at a coffee shop. On paper, that looks like failure. (Off paper: The benefits of not working a 60-70 hour workweek cannot be overstated; Intelligentsia is doing incredible work for global sustainability & development, which is something I prize highly in an employer; & I really, really, really like coffee). So I made a piece which, not coincidentally, read like a book — multiple pages of text printed on transparencies mounted on a backing of shellacked, hand-lettered wood. And just yesterday, after the receipt of a piece of ancient technology that will speed up my process considerably, I re-did it. I ripped off the transparencies & painted the two pages of text right onto the wood. One on top of the other. It's aesthetically wayyyyy more pleasing than transparencies. And, it's a better failure.

Because you can't read it.

"A Failure of Communication", 2011. Acrylic & shellac on wood.

The result of submitting the piece to the show this summer was my name in a catalogue, a great compliment from the current director of the school, & a commitment to never again de-prioritizing the things that I love. And I started making books again. If I have a reason to write something down, I make it into a book. I made a shopping-list book once. I left it on a grocery store shelf. I hope someone found it. Because it was made outta love.

05 December 2011

wheat trouble

I'm sitting here, drinking a cup of Kenya/Ethiopia coffee (I didn't have enough of the Gichathaini for a full cup, so I supplemented it with some old Yirgacheffe I had lying around), marveling at how good I feel. I woke up rested, calm, & happy. I have energy, & I have the inspiration to get up & do the things that I want to do (like, say, write). I feel very, very good.

This is in contrast to just a few days ago. I was downright giddy. All the time. I smiled at strangers, my days were a frenzy of activity & good will, & I was remarkably uninhibited. It felt like I was a little bit drunk, all of the time. It startled me, frankly. It felt good, but it was unnerving. I kept stating it: "Hi! I feel giddy. How are you?"

Fortunately, I wasn't actually drunk, & I decided to use this hiccup of good feeling wisely. I used this newfound energy not in making things (I have a few art projects in various stages of completion & a book to write), but in setting up the proper conditions to create better, later on. I didn't believe that this uplift in spirits & productivity was going to last, so I figured I'd better prepare. And I was right — it didn't last. But this is a good thing. One can't be drunk all the time.

Well. One can. But it's not recommended.

"So what changed? Why the giddiness?" Well, thanks for asking. Before The Giddiness, I stopped eating wheat. My family is Irish, if that wasn't patently obvious. People of Northern European descent are more apt than others to develop something called celiac disease (they aren't born with it — my mom developed it in her fifties). The short version of celiac disease is, when I eat wheat, an enzyme in my person modifies some proteins in said wheat, & my immune system is all just like "WHAT, NO." My immune system then goes about fighting those proteins as though they were foreign bodies, like it would fight a virus. The crux is in the modification. People without celiac disease don't modify that protein, & they go about their doughnut-eatin' ways. (Poor saps.) People with celiac disease, in contrast, feel like all of their systems are just a little bit depressed. This is because they are. Their immune system is taking up much of the body's energy to fight this "virus". They experience fatigue, stomach upset, & lowered mood — everything from crankiness to mild depression. To keep with the booze analogy, I felt like I had a teensy, tiny hangover. All of the time. But since it got progressively worse over time, I didn't notice. I kept re-setting what "normal" meant. But there came a point when "normal" felt so ... abnormal, that I decided to do an experiment.

The experiment is still in the works. I'm simply & only cutting wheat out of my diet for a while, to see what happens. The Giddiness happened, but it's ebbing, & now I feel merely very good. Also of note: The emergence of The Giddiness doesn't necessarily mean that I have developed celiac disease. It means that I might. It's possible I can stave it off, if I cut wheat out now. Conveniently, the treatment is the same: Don't eat wheat. The difference is in the degree of terrible I will feel if I do eat wheat. If I stave off the disease but then at some point eat wheat unknowingly, I will feel down & gross & cranky for a small time. If I keep eating wheat until I develop celiac disease, then at some point eat wheat unknowingly, I will feel terrible. Maybe for days. So, y'know ... I should just stop eating wheat now.

"A stitch, in time, saves nine." Or so the kids say. But man — I'm gonna miss you, doughnuts.

30 November 2011

learning how to breathe

Three nights a week, I finish up work after the last train leaves. And so I drink sixteen ounces of sparkling water, saddle up, & hit the road. It's just shy of eleven miles from Old Pasadena to Angeleno Heights. It's no century, but it's long enough for me to notice a few things along the way. Like breathing.

I used to be a ballet dancer. One thing I learned through dance is the importance of using my breath in exercise — that the pattern of my breathing could work with me or against me. Let's say I'm doing small jumps (petit allegro*). It feels right to inhale as I jump up, then exhale as I land, with every small jump. It's what my body wants to do, to maintain a perfect one-to-one ratio of jumps to breaths. But the jumps are so fast that I can't get enough air in my lungs if I stick to the tempo. It's not efficient. And when you're performing as one of the Cygnets in Swan Lake, the number one aces top thing you can do to not suffer the fate of Moira Shearer is be efficient. (The number two thing you can do is stay perfectly, exactly in time with the music alongside the three other dancers; if you don't, you'll accidentally kick one of them, ruining the performance, & they will drag you backstage & murder you.)

I'm riding along Fair Oaks, not paying attention to much, when I sneeze. Twice. (I always sneeze in pairs.) I've just expelled all the air from my lungs, so I take a monstrous breath**. And then I let it out. It takes me two 360º revolutions of my pedals to exhale. And it feels pretty good. I slip into shallow breathing again (more or less one inhale-exhale couplet per 360º pedal revolution), but I notice that it feels ... not as good. I breathe slowly again. One full revolution to breathe in, one full revolution to breathe out, so half the speed. Then I inhale slower: once per every TWO full revolutions (& exhale at the same rate). And I keep at it for a while. And it feels amazing. Meanwhile, I notice that, with my current gear ratio, my breathing is just a tiny bit faster than my legs, which means my legs are constantly trying to speed up, to make my cadence match my breath. Which, coincidentally, is the same thing as going faster***. And wouldn't you know it, while I'm focusing on my breathing & my legs are focusing on my lungs, it's easier & more efficient to stay in the saddle instead of standing up, which means I'm using more of my legs, which makes them go faster, which makes me able to slow down my breath even more.

Then it gets fun. So two full revolutions per inhale (then two again per exhale) feels good, but what about two & a half? Two revolutions are easily split into four parts (right-left-right-left), so I just add one. Right-left-right-left-right on the inhale, then left-right-left-right-left on the exhale****. Then I let my cadence & my breathing get out of sync for a bit as I force my lungs to slow down & I try for three revolutions. I become a monster. I tear down hills, I annihilate corners, I chew up the road, & out of nowhere emerges the intersection of Figueroa & Cypress. 

I can't believe I didn't know this. I mean, I knew this once. But I didn't translate it. Did you know this? For me, it's a revelation, a minor miracle, a marvel of physiology, & the most obvious thing in the world. I feel silly & proud at the same time. And oxygen-drunk. It's cool stuff, that oxygen. You should try it.


* "Petit allegro" — I know, I know, the first word is French, & the second word is Italian. That's what happens when French dance people name stuff using Italian music-notation descriptions. (There's "grand allegro", too.)
** A beast of a gasp.
*** This is where the analogy with dance breaks down. You can't — shouldn't — dance any faster than the music tells you to dance. But you can adjust your breath all the same.
**** Is there a less clunky way of describing the details of one's cadence? I hope so. 

28 November 2011

this actually happened

On the last leg of my ride home, at about Sunset & Beaudry, I pass an old duffer in the bike lane. My bell rings, unprovoked, because my bell does that. But the guy changes gears, speeds up, & snorts,"What're you running, 35/17?" I counter, "48/15!" "Gears are good, y'know, for hills like these." "Is this a hill?" I meant to be funny.

We ride maybe a quarter of a mile in silence.

"I never did understand the whole no-gears thing," he finally says. "It's only good for riding on flats." I respond, "You should try it. It's very different. I ride both geared & fixed. And hey, if you ride both, maybe then you won't get passed on the road by a girl." I'm smiling though, hoping he can hear it. That he can tell I'm ribbing him, one rider to another.

One must smile in this circumstance, but it's an effort. I've been smiling all day. And this is the tenth & final mile of my ride home. And I'm tired. Sometimes, you just don't want to smile anymore.

He turns right, & I change lanes to turn left. My bell rings of its own volition, again. I consider wishing him a good ride, but then I think better of it. My face falls back to its usual riding expression — flat eyebrows, small mouth. I ride up the one hill, then I ride up the other hill, slowly, with great effort, & then I'm home.

10 July 2011

je suis venue te dire que je m'en vais

I'm leaving you. I'm sorry. I love you, but I have to go.
Otheroom, Sunday 7/17 9pm for one last goodbye, until I see you again.

23 April 2011

i quit

There are things that we do that we're proud of, & there are things that we do that we are not proud of. For the past ten years, I have gone back & forth, caring that I did something of which I wasn't proud vs. not caring. Does that make sense? No, right? So I did something about it.

I quit smoking.

Below is a pretty good list of reasons I might have quit:

· I taste things, professionally. And smoking gets in the way of my ability to taste things. And smell things. It prevents me from being as good at my job as I could be.
· Meanwhile, to be seen hampering my ability to taste lessens others' faith in how well I do my job. Employers, colleagues & customers, some of whom ask me on the regular for advice on coffees.
· Continuing to smoke — choosing to smoke — while knowing full well that it brings about an early, painful death is basically saying that I want to die. But the thing is, I don't want to die.
· It lessens my enjoyment of other things that are important in my life. Like food, coffee, biking, breathing, walking, singing, & feeling good.

But those aren't the reasons that I quit. I quit because I wasn't proud of it. And I would like to be proud of every damned thing that I do. I am not proud that I started when I was so young. I'm not proud that I gave money to the tobacco industry, on & off, for fifteen years. I am not proud that I allowed myself to be complacent when I knew it was out of step with what I believed in. And one day, I realized just exactly how un-proud I was, & from that moment forward I didn't want anything to do with it anymore.

So far, quitting has not been difficult. In fact, it's been remarkably easy. Perhaps this has to do with my reason for quitting — I'm not withholding something from myself that I want to have. I just don't want to want it any more. And that feels incredible.