24 April 2008

The very definition of snarky, but funny as heck

I find myself enjoying Garfield again, now that I've learned to edit him out. April 17's strip really makes me laugh.

23 April 2008

Stop them! They have GMOs and they're not afraid to use them!

Am I a lightning rod for this stuff or am I just highly sensitive right now? It seems like the world around me is positively crumbling. I even have that disoriented sensation I felt after the earthquake in Santa Cruz in 1989: like I've awakened in some parallel universe where things will never be the same. In a documentary I heard someone's description of seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center towers: "I saw that second plane crash and entered the twenty-first century." That's just how I feel now. I woke up in the twenty-first century and it's already too late. Sometimes I feel I am in some terrible sci-fi flick; it all seems so terribly obvious.

Last night Monsanto haunted my dreams. I have so many layers of associations with that company, but the preponderance of evidence shows an ugly, profit-driven machine that has unleashed a flood of pure evil on our planet and is showing no signs of slowing down. It is quite terrifying. I awoke with the sensation that I might never sleep well again, knowing what I know now.

I know all this sounds so melodramatic but what has me absolutely floored is that Monsanto has turned the wind into a force for spreading their toxins. By engineering corn and unleashing it around the globe, the corporation is attacking biodiversity everywhere and trying to force everyone to buy their seed, every year, or face steep penalties and punitive actions (backed, I might add, by governments around the world who are no doubt populated with members of boards of directors and shareholders in the Monsanto Corporation).

I know this thanks to a brilliant French investigative journalist named Marie-Monique Robin. She made a film for ARTE France TV called The World According to Monsanto. In the film, we see her start at her computer terminal and follow the trails of references. She shows us what she finds right there on Google; we could conduct the same search and turn up the same results. Robin is so determined in following each thread, however: she goes to nearly every locale she turns up and interviews people, from former FDA execs and scientists and Monsanto spokespeople to community activists around the globe to the citizens of an Alabama town where Monsanto dumped PCBs in people's backyards for years, unchecked, and whose graveyard is now riddled with cancer victims.

Robin finds internal Monsanto memos dating as far back as 1937 that describe the toxicity of the company's products and waste products. But when confronted with a lawsuit on behalf of the citizens of Anniston, Alabama, in the 1970s, Monsanto responded, "We can't afford to lose one dollar of business." In that one phrase, you can see how that company has made decisions based purely on financial decisions.

The problem is that every decision they make looks suspiciously like this one: designed to maximize profit -- at any cost to humans or the environment. It's quite clear that the only costs factored into their equations are the financial ones, the costs of doing business.

In this case, stimulating the American economy and keeping our economic edge are paramount, and any costs that don't directly affect the company aren't put on the balance sheets at all. When they do have to pay judgments, settle lawsuits, or pay PR firms to do damage control, those costs are spread as widely and thinly as possibly, amortized and offset.

What I see in The World According to Monsanto is another opportunity Monsanto seems to be quietly but systematically trying to maximize: to make their seed and herbicides cover the earth. And because US policy seems to be driving world policy, and because this country has allowed a corporation to patent a new life form, it is now conceivable that this single corporate entity could wrest control of much of the world's food supply. I've been troubled by the trend toward less biodiversity and heartened by people's efforts to collect and cultivate heirloom seeds, but hearing in Robin's documentary about how engineered organisms behave in the environment is truly terrifying. "Frankenfoods" is no exaggeration.

So I am going to get more active on this front. What I feel like doing first is baking pies for all those nice people in Anniston who had a monster in their backyard all along and got poisoned by its trailings. That's one place to start.

And the other is with that corporation. I need no more convincing that Monsanto is bad news for this planet. And what I really can't believe after watching this is that many of us have heard of Bhopal, but few of us know anything about Anniston, Alabama. All because some poor little rich company declared, "We cannot afford to lose one dollar of business."

*Edit: April 24: I'm chasing down links to this film and so far all the links to the google video are broken. Huh. I wonder why. You can see it in chunks, however, here, organized as a playlist so you can find them all at once: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=E5A91E6C5EAE3E5D

16 April 2008

The ten talents

I think I've been in the process of adding a new occupation to my list (you know: writer, rock star, actor, director, trapeze artist, performance artist, architect, software architect, etc.): epidemiologist. I just had a flash of insight about going to the schools and collecting data about diet and behaviors. What if one person tried to gather as much data for this state on those topics? What if I asked about school lunch participation, did a survey to find out what kids eat (all anonymous and voluntary), did follow-ups by phone or in other languages, if needed, to get as much of the data as possible, like the census.

Think of what a difference that could make, though: if one person could synthesize all that information (here again: we're back at this gut-brain question). I absolutely must do some more research and see who is asking these questions, because I have an instinct that we have more answers than we realize right here in front of us. I feel like a cosmic (that's the first word I got -- live with it) detective, some kind of dowser, really, who sees all the pieces and knows how they are starting to fit into the puzzle but hasn't seen the whole picture mapped out just yet.

13 April 2008

When is the end of the world as we know it?

"There has to be some day when nobody's alive," insisted the youngest one in the house this morning, having just asked me what she'll be doing in "a hundred thousand days." I told her she'd probably be dead and gone, 274 years from now. She said, "We wouldn't be here if nobody else was here. Everybody would be gone. The world would be over."

"So," I asked, "you think there's an ending for the world? A time when everything is gone?"

"Yes," she said, emphatically. "There has to be."

So interesting to find out what she believes, and what I believe in contrast or that overlaps. I believe in a world without end. Does she just imagine nothingness because she doesn't have enough experience to imagine what will come? Is that a byproduct of having a frontal-lobe-in-development?

I believe if we are not here as we know ourselves to be now (I find myself wanting to put quotation marks around every pronoun in that phrase), there will be something else going on that perhaps we just won't be around to witness. I'm one of those people who believes the tree makes the sound, whether you're there to hear it or....

One of the panelists at the conference told a story his son thought there was a line of souls waiting to be stuck into bodies and his was next. His son had seen a snapshot of his dad with a girlfriend who came before his mother and his father had said something about it being fortunate he married his son's mother, or he wouldn't have come into the world. "Oh, no, Dad," his son told him, "I would have been here, just with another family." The panelist concluded that his son "Doesn't believe that now, of course." But why the "of course," I wonder?

11 April 2008


What Would Sporty, Intellectual Mom Do?

Today it was ride up to campus despite feeling yucky, for more of the conference. And I even rode all the way up without stopping, which surprised me. Whenever I can do more than I expect to be able to, it is always such a joyful gift.

[Total tangent: My base level of fitness has shot way up in the last couple of months, largely thanks to that online league tracker. I could see how much I exercised in any given period, and for some reason that simple bit of feedback motivated me to do more and rack up more points. And then I'd get to do other things: learn to dance in a really fun dance class, ski on a spring day with a foot of new snow on the ground; or ski down a hill full of oddly spaced, gnarly bumps. Which I did, last weekend, particularly one run that dear heart said was "fun" and my thought process went more along the lines of "what the heck was I thinking?" as I started to traverse down the mogul-strewn hill. But as I always say, I can get down anything, even if it's not pretty, and I did. I even started finding a rhythm and figuring out the spacing of the turns. I stopped for a rest and let some faster people slip past me down the slope -- pretty much everyone was more of an expert than I was in this territory. But a few minutes later when I had finally straggled down, I saw a small crowd had gathered at the bottom of the hill to see me make it all the way down. They even clapped and gave a little cheer when I reached the bottom, so their little show of support felt like an bonus prize at the end of a tough run successfully navigated. I thanked them for spotting me as I skied down and away. I still feel all verklemt remembering it.]

So: highlights of this year's Conference on World Affairs? Hard to say. Some wonderful storytelling and joketelling in the every joke is a revolution panel. Bad '80s novelty songs and an obliviously reliving-his-own-past writer of said novelty songs (he was a forerunner in deals like: first, the song! then -- the movie, based on the song!). And I don't just say "oblivious" lightly, or just to be snarky -- it was that the volume kept increasing, which was fine for him on the other side of the speakers but some of us were clutching our ears and he totally ignored that in choosing the volume. And then the black conservative guy was earnestly trying to explain comedy. "What's the secret of comedy?" my friend David used to quiz us. "Timing," he'd interrupt when we started responding. There's something about the dissection of comedy, though, that knocks it flat every time. And the guy had no idea; he was trying so hard to think of important stuff to say about what made things funny. So I was grateful for Derek Lam's gracious jokes with lots of fill-in-the-blank-with-offensive-subgroup-of-your-choice here bits. Nicely done.

I tried to go to a panel about writing but was completely shut out. Instead I went to a panel about who other countries/peoples would pick to win our next election. (For the record, the panelists came in three-to-one for Obama, but one qualified his vote with the statement that "Iranians don't think he can win because of his race." Then I sat in on the one on Evangelical Atheism, in which a lot of people said "Believe all you want, but let me believe all I want." It was that point when I knew, as I always do, that it's all up to me. I can listen to these thinkers and talkers for ideas, but it's what I make out of it that matters. I'm less than likely to find something I am looking for in my work at this conference, especially given this particular subset of all the possible discussion topics on world affairs. Writing my own response to one of the topic titles yesterday felt like the right thing to do. And I noticed during the atheist one that Jello Biafra was not only communicating his truths to this audience but he was also working on his bits. He recycled a segment in both panels I saw him on, and he seemed perfectly at ease with that part of his shtick. Maybe that's the kind of thing I came for. To see and hear the way Shonaleigh Cumbers was able to connect with people all over that room (except for a few near me who were shocked and horrified by her story of how the "penis of peace" protest penetrated an arms deal). To hear Terri Jentz tell her stories about making sense of the nonsense that is violence, and to be able to tell her that her book inspired me tremendously.

In all, this year's CWA was a fun little whirlwind of ideas, but nothing earth-shaking (and maybe that's a good thing!). I told someone it was like school but it's not -- it's more like dropping in on fifty intense cocktail-party discussions in rapid succession. You never have enough time to go very deep the way you can in school, and the issues get distorted by the ones who like to hear themselves talk as much as listen (this includes panelists and audience members with "questions" in equal measures). So as much as I love the "open exchange of ideas," I know I can't really find much of what I'm looking for here. It will take a more focused search than just dropping in on discussions of topics others have chosen. But I do love seeing so many of the myriad ways there are of doing what we do in the world. That is a joy and and inspiration, always.

10 April 2008

The end of eloquence

That's the name of a CWA panel I wanted to attend but decided to stay home and take care of this chest cold instead. The End of Eloquence is one of the panel titles I've been pondering all week: I am in this funny position, as I straddle Generations X and Y, of feeling like the younger folks just don't understand dinosaurs like me, in the usage and grammar departments especially. I do a great deal of writing and reading and feel that we must keep our linguistic standards high, which I don't see in the editing of a lot of the books I read. So that's my take on the meaning of the panel title at this moment: People getting in their own way by not learning and following the rules of grammar. And that includes the conference promoters, too and all their "over 200 participants" signs. No one is exempt from the red pen of ... what? It should stop being shameful to make these errors. All you need to know is that too many of those and people like me stop paying attention. You lose credibility with educated people. (I recently did a little editing job for some computer game developers and itemized credibility-building in my list of services provided.)

But in this world, I must turn and ask myself, as if I were another member of that discussion panel, in this world where people learn English from hip-hop videos and Hollywood movies, who's to say what the rules are? How can a single set of standards describe, much less prescribe, how people use the English language? Do the opinions of usage snobs matter any more?

I take the point that there can be no one true standard in a language that is spread so far and thin. Yet what I feel is the strength of my own desire to resist the tide of mediocrity. Like I said, I mark up a lot of library books. Another instance is how people drive. People's driving skills are getting worse in part because I believe people are not adequately instructed on how to drive nor on how to behave in traffic (me, too). Are people taught any longer to count "one-thousand-one" and so on for every ten miles of speed on the highway to calculate the safest distance behind the car in front of them? (You start counting when the car in front of you passes a fixed marker, like a sign. At fifty miles per hour, you should have five seconds until you pass the same sign.) Do people learn to take turns properly at four-way stops? So many people these days don't seem to know how to handle traffic obstacles, nor grammatical ones.

And does anyone really care except us dinosaurs? If I were to build credibility workshops, would they come? Maybe a few writers, grantwriters, sure. But I would guess most other people don't have the time or the motivation or the desire to learn the arcane details of the English grammatical system. I hope I'm wrong.

We must remember too that while the end of eloquence is a pessimistic title, there's plenty to be optimistic about. Despite its occasional preciousness ("honest to blog"), one of the charms of Diablo Cody's dialogue in the movie Juno is its blast of fresh air into the colloquial room. Like other artists, I admire her nerve in telling it the way she sees it, a gift not everyone has. (Think about it: first you must be able to feel it; then you must be able to synthesize and articulate to others that feeling as a creative expression of your true feelings, without fear of ridicule or retribution. It's a complex set of skills!) And people are seeing that movie and thinking about the way people say things and about what they say. It's a good thing.

Nor am I ready to put any nails in the news industry's coffin just yet. I believe we are in the midst of a sea change in how we think of media right now. Most people don't even realize how much today's ideas about rhetoric, news, and common culture have been affected by comedy (think Jon Stewart and everyone who has made what he does mainstream -- Jeff Greenfield, The Capitol Steps, Will Durst, SNL) and by other independent sources (bloggers, artists, musicians, documentarians, The Simpsons, and many more new-media gadflies). There's an explosion of source material and what we are really going to need from here on out is excellent sifting and sorting capabilities for it all, which brings me back to that dear topic of mine, metadata. It may be that being able to sift and sort and index, that making ourselves Googleable, becomes even more important than one's eloquence level ever will be again.

08 April 2008

When I grow up, I wanna be a diplomat

I'm still such an English major at heart.

In the first session I dropped into this morning, on this second day of the Conference on World Affairs, I arrived just in time to hear former Senator Tim Wirth tell fascinating insider stories about the UN and how people's responsibilities therein are out of whack with their authority. Example: the Secretary General of the UN, a former official of South Korea and in Wirth's description a talented diplomat, told Wirth how he had been charged with getting aid to Darfur. "But you must have helicopters for this peacekeeping effort," he was told. So he started asking the richest nation (the big US), and then continued to work his way down the list of alliance nations. He went down the lists of South American and Asian countries. None of the militaries of any of these countries offered whirlybirds for the UN's use. No one coughed up a single helicopter, until the Secretary General finally found four in [... drumroll please ...] Ethiopia. Can you believe that? Four old Russian machines with working beanies, with a handful of sharp Ethiopian pilots who had been expertly trained years ago by the Soviets who had to find anyone who cared enough to send a 'copter.

But back to the English-major part. When I first entered that session, I came too late for the remarks of the first three panelists, and Tim Wirth was admiring his fellow's contribution before beginning his own, saying something to the effect of, "His talk reminds me that we would learn so much about the graciousness of the Iranian people if we would just talk to them." And I couldn't help thinking, "Isn't that part of the problem? Don't we need to talk with them, and not just to them?" But I see that this is too close a reading for extemporaneous speech on a CWA panel. Yet I can't help it. (I'm getting all militant, like that Eats, Shoots, and Leaves lady. I mark up library books because I still don't like letting all those typos go by. I make a lot of marks in a lot of books.) The other irksome detail was printed on all the little signs they have on stakes in the grass all over campus, the ones that advertise, "Over 200 sessions," and "Over 100 participants...." But they should use (all together, usage geeks) "more than" for describing these countable numbers; and they should save "over" for describing an innumerable quantity. That editor in me, she just won't let go.

Anyway, I will order up a CD with the UN session because I would like to hear what all those folks had to say, and the subsequent questions and answers are always interesting. Wirth told of the persistence needed to effect policy change over time in a detail relayed by Bush I's former Secretary of State Jim Baker on a flight on which they happened to be seated together, from Houston to Washington. (Baker, incidentally, was described the next day by another panelist, Jello Biafra, as one of the most poisonous snakes on the planet or something just as repellent. More on that panel later.) Wirth said after that flight with Baker, he said goodbye and promptly ducked around a corner to take notes on their conversation, a sweet detail that said a lot about him. One of the things that Baker told him was that in their diplomatic efforts, they had "visited [a country whose name I can't recall] 25 times, but it was on the 26th visit that they got what they wanted." Wirth applauded the kind of persistence and commitment to not only one's own vision of diplomacy but also the embrace of the culture of the people with whom one is negotiating.

Another diplomat on that panel, when given an opportunity to revisit the others' comments (it's such a gracious forum for discussion and argument; I truly enjoy that), also endearingly felt remiss in having failed to entertain with anecdotes as his fellow panelists had. So now he brought out a story with a similar point, concerning an American ambassador to Syria back in the 1960s whom he admired. He made a little aside about Syria, neatly providing context to those of us who have little understanding of Middle East geopolitics, with a quote from Kissinger: "We can have no war without Egypt, but we can have no peace without Syria." He returned to his narrative: immediately upon his arrival in Damascus, the American ambassador asked about a good bath house, and was taken to one in the center of the beautiful city. He had his bath and steam and a couple of hours later emerged to a crowd of 2,000 Syrians, all applauding his willingness to literally immerse himself in their traditions and culture. "Now we can work," he reported the ambassador saying. "I could be an ambassador," I thought then. And I just joked to my sweetie that this conference is a thinly disguised advertisement for going into the civil service. These lawyers are okay, I think to myself as I listen to the discussions blooming all around like the clumps of startlingly bright daffodils communing in the gardens now. These talkers and thinkers and writers give me a clearer picture of the kinds of differences we can make if we make an effort and work together with our communities.

I went to the keynote session at Macky plenty early for an aisle seat down front (in case I decided I did have an urgent question, but I didn't). The address was by Wendy Chamberlin, a former diplomat (2001-2?) to Pakistan. It was interesting to hear her speech and see how she handled the questions put to her by the crowd, yet she didn't have the ability to work a room quite the way Joe Wilson did last year. I am still considering her advice to learn Arabic as a way of learning more about the culture. I could see doing that. She said she has two college-age daughters, and one is learning Mandarin Chinese and the other is learning Arabic.

During the Q-&-A portion with the ambassador, someone did ask a question that got at what's been irking me but I still haven't heard a convincing answer. My own specific question is this: If we can't even care for our own (and here I call witness Katrina to the stand), how can we even say we care for those outside our borders? If we abandon our soldiers to fend for themselves in horrorshows like Abu Ghraib (you can't make that shit up) and the one in Afghanistan, how can we possibly rectify the damage done by murdering the innocent citizens of other countries with only the slightest provocation? I dropped in on part of the death penalty panel today and one question seemed especially perspicacious: say its opponents succeeded in eliminating the death penalty. Wouldn't its opponents just try to go after life-without-parole next as cruel and unusual punishment? The short answer from Mike Farrell (one of this year's celebrity guests as a former star of the hit show and movie M*A*S*H and anti-death penalty activist) was yes, definitely. Someone asked about whether the death penalty has been proven to be a deterrent, which is far from clear. Yet what I heard only confirmed what I recently read about the "brutalization effect" seen in countries and specifically states that employ the death penalty (the panelists described it as a "death system"): human life is simply valued less in these states and countries and there's more murder and brutality across the board.

Today, I also attended the panel on censorship and I wish I could say there were some surprises in it but I can't. I already knew about the preemptive self-censorship that goes on in corporate environments and fake news and Jeff Gannon and Tipper Gore (although thanks to Jello Biafra I now know a lot more about Hillary Clinton's take on sanitizing media for youngsters' health and safety, an ugly proposition with stuff like steep fines for store managers -- but not chain owners, no -- if content of video games on the premises is deemed inappropriate by Tipper and Hillary and their socialite pals on the decency committee, if Jello has indeed done his homework, which I'd guess he has). I enjoyed Jello's bombast and Margo Adler's stories from behind the scenes in Berkeley and at NPR (where being a journalist trumps any kind of activism, apparently), but most affecting was a reminder from the drug policy expert Sanho Tree on that same panel that the more opportunities we take to speak with people with whom we don't agree, the better.

I walked out with that thought in my head above all the others, around the corner to where my bike was parked. I happened to notice that the guy who'd been sitting in an idling SUV, smoking and apparently working, was still idling and smoking and working in his car, an hour and a half later. So I tapped on his passenger-side window and asked, "Excuse me, is there any reason your car is running?" He actually laughed. "No," he said, immediately shutting off his engine. "Thanks!" I said, and hopped on my bike and rode off, wondering if I would have done that had I not just been exhorted to engage with people I thought I might disagree with. (Yes, I believe even English majors are allowed to end sentences with prepositions. If that's good enough for Winston Churchill, it's good enough for me.)

Sasha Cagen, in a panel about publishing, said you have to build a platform for your ideas if you are going to be successful at publishing these days. This, I suppose, is just another piece of the scaffolding.

05 April 2008

Have a great trip! Make sure you don't fall!

After spending some time planning and booking our latest trip, I compiled some of my tips for online trip planning to save you as much time and anxiety as possible.

  1. Before you start planning, consider what is important to you in your escapes. Is it nonstop adventure and activities or is it lazing on a beach for hours with a stack of books or magazines? If you want some of both, you may even want to consider splitting stay between a couple of attractions.

  2. Search for flights on comparison sites like Kayak or Orbitz and then go directly to the airline's site and look for the same flights, should you find one you like. Travelocity used to be a good way to find rock-bottom prices for flights, but in the last couple of years it has become downright irritating. They are constantly advertising some fare you can't possibly find when you do the search. For some reason, I have seldom found the lowest fares when I have used Expedia. If your searches on the comparison sites turn up fares that require multiple carriers to get you to a destination that usually only requires one airline, I find these types of tickets are seldom worth going after. Stick with a single airline if you possibly can.

  3. I generally start my search for flights about eight weeks out, and search often over the next few weeks. Often a fare sale will begin during the time I am checking. Good times to search for flights: try varying times of day; after midnight (every now and then unusual fares are released and you may turn more options then as a result as well); midweek (Tuesdays and Wednesdays); and Saturday and Sunday. In my experience, I've been least successful on Fridays.

  4. In searching for flights, select the flexible dates option, if you have any give in your schedule. Often, flying at an off-peak time (Tuesdays, Wednesdays; sometimes other days depending on specific routes) can save you hundreds of dollars or get you direct flights instead of flights with connections.

  5. VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) is a great place to start searching for condo, house, and villa rentals. craigslist is another option, but can be a less-reliable source.

  6. If you're at all particular about where you stay, it's worth reserving some time to comparison shop, hard, for lodging. You want to make sure that the things you need and wish for are covered, and the things you hate aren't going to make your heaven away from home a living hell. Go to TripAdvisor to find out whether anyone has complaints about the hotel upon which you have already started pinning your set of vacation fantasies. Comments like "The double-glazed windows kept out the constant traffic noise but kept in the smell of stale cigarettes," "The walls were so thin we could hear our neighbor's TV set blasting away," or "Great beachfront condos but stocked with barely enough dishes to cook breakfast" will help you with your decision before you plunk down lots of your hard-earned cash to hold a place.

  7. Once I've narrowed my search down to a few places, I Google the name of the place to find my own directions and a web site for that hotel or locale. I check out message boards that have trip reports and reviews. As you browse, do remember that the snapshots of the hotel or condo or cabin interiors online often make things look more spacious than they will when you see the real thing. If I have the time for a trip to the library, I might even cross-reference my online finds with the places listed in the guidebooks. By cross-checking, I find I don't wind up with so many unpleasant surprises.

  8. Book the lodgings directly through the people operating the establishment, if possible. You'll often get the best rate (especially if you mention finding a lower rate than they advertise on their home web site). Be aware, too, that hotel personnel have admitted their biases against guests who have booked through online travel websites like Expedia, Hotels.com, or Orbitz.

  9. If you are using an online booking engine to rent your condo or hotel room, I have found it can help to add a friendly note in the comments section, if there is one. I might write something to the effect of: "My husband and I are looking forward to celebrating our anniversary at your lovely villa! We will be traveling with our daughter, who is a little lady of eight years old, if you have any suggestions for activities in the area that kids her age especially enjoy." That little bit of icebreaking up front can make a big difference in the long run.

  10. On renting a car: Again, consider what you like when you travel. Would you rather study your maps from the seat of a train or would you rather take that little twisty detour and visit a different village than you had originally planned, one that looks a little more off-the-beaten-track? Although Travelocity can frustrate during flight searches, it is reliable for car rentals, and I have often found the lowest rates of all the online comparison sites there. Another one I just learned about is carrentals.com. Also, when renting cars, I have found it's the opposite of renting lodgings in that going to the company directly is not necessarily the cheapest option. At most US agencies can usually cancel car reservations just before your trip with no penalties.

  11. Create an all-in-one detailed itinerary before you go that contains the following details:
    • Airline and flight numbers, along with the number for the airline. (If your flight is delayed or cancelled, it can be quicker to call the airline than to wait in a long line of passengers.)

    • Address, directions, and contact information for your lodgings.

    • Transportation info: car rental details like confirmation numbers, pick-up times, and rates. (A couple of times when my reservation didn't come up in a rental agency's database, I have been able to get the same car and rate without hassles because I was able to show them the printout showing the quoted rate.)
    • Times and route numbers for buses, trains, ferries, or other transport.

    • Your own contact information.

    Make copies of your itinerary, too: One for each other piece of luggage you are checking or carrying on. I put one in my kid's luggage when we travel together so that if we get separated, people know exactly where to find us and what our destinations and connections are.

And if all of this seems too overwhelming, go see a professional travel agent instead. This is what they're paid to do!

Happy travels!

02 April 2008

Turning off the projector so I can see the light

This is an entry I had to stop working on for a while and just let sit. I'm only just now posting, even though this happened two-and-a-half weeks ago.

On April Fool's Day, when I thought I was almost over the cold (ha!) but still felt quite drained, I went to a reading at the Boulder Bookstore by Gerda and Lissa Rovetch of the delightfully goofy There Was a Man Who Loved A Rat and Other Vile Little Poems, which they had written together. Lissa, with whom I went to high school, told of how she had submitted the book proposal as a stack of her illustrations with her mother's limericky verses on paper plates. The publisher called her up and said no one had ever sent them a proposal in the form of a stack of illustrated paper plates, and not only did he want to publish the book but he also wanted to edit it personally. What a lovely reading that was. In a room packed with family and friends and former English teachers, it was clear that they are a loving and close-knit family. I saw someone I knew across the room and we all listened and laughed and sang along.

I was so tired and ready to go home and rest at that moment; my initial impulse was to dash home and buy a copy of the book on the next trip. But I wanted to say hello to Lissa and so I stayed and let some other things happen.

I said hello to a woman my father once dated for a while after he and my stepmother divorced, someone who I now think of as having made it through or past his net, like a silvery fish. She's a lovely person and I am always glad to see her and was as usual especially glad to see her as herself, not with my father. He made her life more difficult and complicated and dark, and it didn't work out with them. My mother and I like to think we helped with this outcome; at a family reunion that occurred when they were dating, my mother and I warned her about his alcoholism, his violence toward women. But I believe this woman already recognized this about him by then, from her own experiences and from her own family history with her father. So at the bookstore the other night I told her that I am "not in touch" with my father, and she listened.

The thing was, she was a very good listener. She reflected what I said right back to me, and suddenly I felt the odd sensation that I was projecting my father's negative energies into the world even though he wasn't anywhere nearby. Because of her reflective listening, I was able to see it and hear it and feel it in what came back to me. As we talked, I felt grateful to her for showing me this truth about myself. I felt kind of icky and sad about letting that color my own light, but also kind of detached: having seen it, I felt I could move forward.

The surprise for me has been in not finding this feeling through forgiveness. I've been on a search for an alternative that makes sense to me, and I think I found some of what I was looking for in a book by Alice Miller, a thinker on therapy who always has compelling insights for people who have suffered abuse as children. The Body Never Lies is her book about how the body holds onto traumas and the times that involved fighting for one's existence. She talks about how if you honor your body's intelligence, it will tell you about your true needs. She also says that when you find good listeners, helpful witnesses who acknowledge your truths, healing can occur more quickly.

In my Feldenkrais class a few months ago, the teacher talked about a study that showed the pinprick to the heel they do to collect blood from a newborn is a trauma that has effects on those children's bodies for years hence. And what Alice Miller says is that the Fourth Commandment, the context through which she and many of other were introduced to the notion of fealty to our elders, has it all wrong when we have been mistreated and misjudged by those same elders. All bets are off, then, Miller says. But it's not just a matter of not being obligated in our adulthood to feed the hands that slapped us when we were small and defenseless. In her book, she points to anecdotal evidence that people suffer physical illnesses and imbalances when they ignore the truths of their childhoods. People who continue to adopt their parents' perspective and rationalize on their behalf ("Oh, they were too young to have kids"; "They were only doing their best with what they came up with, which wasn't much when you look at their parents") tend to suffer more maladies as adults, Miller claims

Now, I don't think it's as simple a formula as Miller seems to imply. In The Body Never Lies, Miller attributes someone's pancreatic cancer to her willingness to accept her parents' plans for her despite her mistreatment as a girl. After the other reading I've been doing, however, I see about a thousand possible causes for that pancreatic cancer; the bodily effects of the kind of cognitive dissonance Miller describes could account for some but maybe not all the causes. (My one-woman think tank is tracking these results in a long-range study -- check back with me again in a few years.)

Okay, I have clambered up another limb into intellect-land again, but let me drift gently back down into my consciousness as I stood on the old wooden floor of the bookstore chatting with new and past friends after another acquaintance's reading, seeing myself and my projections in a new light. Perhaps it was being exhausted and feeling not so sparkly as usual that let me feel vulnerable and sad that night. It wasn't comfortable, and I felt myself soldier on through all the parts of the evening (dinner, going downtown, the reading, the chat, the attempt to buy the book, the attempt to get a signed copy), but I knew these feelings were okay, too. More than anything I felt a simple grief on my own behalf for what I had missed by being so preoccupied with all that pain. Despite her having received the brunt of the abuse in our family (my, there's a lot packed into that brunt), my mother has even moved past it in a way I have not (we saw this also when we both read Crystal Zevon's memoir of the life of her brilliant-yet-abusive-addict husband, the rock musician Warren Zevon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. This book affected us entirely differently earlier this year).

The experience of the reading at the bookstore brought all those feelings up as I saw my high-school acquaintance surrounded by her loving and creative mother and father, their friends, and her high school English teacher. When I see that love-bath happening, that warm embrace of family and friends, I feel that sadness even more because I have that closeness and support from one of my primary parents, and most of my other familial ties feel so broken. At the same time, as soon as I say that, I feel the potential for this to change, and for me to change it. It feels the same as the realization that as an adult I could have the kind of home that has what I loved about going to my grandmother's, the feeling that this is a place where you are free to think and laugh and play games and celebrate being together. But I still don't know whether I can fully accomplish all this without forgiving my father.

On top of that, another friend I was talking with pointed me to her blog on ADD, Head in the Clouds, and I followed some of her links later and had to wonder whether I have ADD myself.

So I've been just sitting with all this ever since the night of that reading. I'm having a little trouble working up the steam to write my novel right now (having a cold for weeks isn't helping at all), but I'm sure that will shift eventually. Lissa and Gerda's poetry did inspire me to work again on my children's rhyme, "How can we convince the cat?" And like so many things, all this only increases my resolve to love and play more and support my kid in her tasks and desires and never treat her with cruelty or brutality.