October 29, 2012

Dieser Weg

Aquarius, 2012 is your year to shine!


That is what my yearly horoscope said this January.


It’s funny, really. It also said that Jupiter would place importance on long-buried family issues in the first half of the year. It also said that the stalemate us Aquarians must have felt during 2011 in terms of work was just a time of collecting ideas and experiences that would be put to good creative use this year under the auspices of Saturn. It also said that Venus would make herself cozy in my chart between April and August, and predicted travel in September.


I got divorced in May.


I am mentally refinancing my dissertation.


And on August 12, I was never so happy to cross a border in my life.


Back in 2010, during my year in the States, I was a hyperinflated version of myself, and I was high on it. Self-knowledge came in books, time zones, happy hours and strange beds. It came in everything that was not my home, my marriage, and my comfort zones. I was needy and loud, actively unwilling, hungry for myself and reckless as only a God’s child can be.


It was not the devil that made me do it. It was loneliness.


I was lonely beyond words. I had been lonely for years.


Some six months ago, between moving out of my old home and the divorce hearing, I imagined the next phase of my life. After a year of extroversion, exposing myself to more emotional vulnerability than I knew what to do with and getting intoxicated with each new experience, I saw months of introspection, circling the wagons, and very probably more solitude than I could bear. Being one half of a team would be replaced by the hollow bang of nothing but my own thoughts. The new freedom of time and space would feel denser than a black hole, and I felt weaker than when I had to slip on an invisible protective armor around my person when I was thirteen. I had not known human connection then, not the kind I was looking for anyway, not my kind of connection, and it was easier to just zip up and shut myself off.


I know what the next phase brings. It will be a test of patience and big picture thinking. I am an impatient little devil. I do not ask for much, and God knows I am willing to do the work myself. But I usually know what I want, and I want it NOW. I am looking at a marathon effort of toiling away without the promise of immediate gratification. A mental hill that at times feels too steep for my drained faculties. An emotional deferment that leaves me raw, sensitive and vulnerable.


It is like swimming across an ocean. You keep your head above water and your eyes on the horizon. The Sun, the Moon and the stars are all there, venerable guides and companions. You know you are worthy, you know you have it in you, and it is not difficult to spot the level geometry of that beautiful line that splits - or connects - sky and water. It is distant but clear. But the journey is still made up of individual strokes against a medium that provides buoyancy as much as it does resistance, each of which takes its toll on the muscles and bones, the head and the heart. And when someone says they will be here, for you, with you, whether to throw you a pair of flippers to make you go faster or get in the water with you to swim alongside, and then they don’t, they might as well have pulled you back a hundred miles by the feet. Then, next to living, breathing, loving creatures one can still feel terribly alone.
Manche treten dich, manche lieben dich
Manche geben sich für dich auf
Manche segnen dich, setz dein Segel nicht
Wenn der Wind das Meer aufbraust

October 26, 2012

I would prefer not to

Tell me about your coping mechanisms, friends. Because mine are driving me up the wall lately.


When you have a moment of success, what do you do? Call up someone you love [mom, dad, partner, goldfish?] and share, or have a quiet celebration with yourself and light up the world from the inside of your soul? When somebody does you wrong, do you confront them or cry about it in the corner of your bedroom? Do you call your best friend at three in the morning because you are having an anxiety attack about the general direction your life is taking, or go run for about ten miles and meet them the next day? Do you swallow bile or get a punching bag? All of the above? None of the above?


For someone who has a short fuse regarding so many things, I internalize. I take it all in. I process on the inside, and only share when I am good and ready, or when I find myself so mentally contorted that I cannot separate my head from my ass.


And like with many other things, I take it too far. I have no measure. I turn hibernation into agoraphobia, independence into isolation. I have kept some sad things from my parents because I did not want them to hurt because of me. I will make myself physically sick before I allow myself to admit that I am up against the wall and could use a little help, goddamnit. There is no pressure from the outside, it was not the way I was raised. It is just who I am.


I am fascinated by people who resolve their issues externally. I wish I could do that.


I had a coworker who sat across the room from me. She had no filter. Every task she had to tackle, her first instinct was to ask me what or where something was, and what to do. Pretty soon she was calling me “Ms. Google It,” because after having to explain the simplest things to her [sometimes right in front of her], I had to tell her to actually look things up before tugging on other people’s sleeves. I, on the other hand, almost brought a conference to a halt because I was running in circles trying to figure out a conceptual issue. By the time I knocked on my other coworker’s door and asked for advice, it was almost too late.


I get that. That was foolish, and I learned my lesson.


But I don’t get the bank clerk yelling at you because they are having a bad day and you just asked them a question they don’t know the answer to. I don’t get people who take a mile when you give them an inch. I don’t get acquaintances that don’t respect personal boundaries, or your time and space. I don’t get displaced aggression, or that childlike attitude of bringing you their broken toy and telling you to fix it. I don’t get people who do things just to get a reaction from others, or just to see where their limits are. Testing, manipulating, venting, dumping responsibility into other people’s laps. Expecting them to carry your burden, be your whipping post, fix your life for you. I do not get that to such a degree that I feel like I might be from another planet sometimes.


The very thought of someone doing something because I made them, of having an effect on someone’s behavior, no matter how well-meaning, goodhearted or justified, scares me. Don’t get me wrong. I am a functional human being. I say Hello to neighbors and earn money, I love and play as much as the next person. But the principle behind that thought of being the agent of something freaks me out. You know fight or flight? It does not exist with me. I freeze. I endure. I do not run away, but I refuse to fight either. Because I have found that the rules of direct engagement usually disagree with my sensibilities. More often than not, the other party will try and get you to communicate with them in their code. Yellers need to be yelled back at; bullies need to be bullied to actually understand what they are doing to people; control freaks need to be subdued; drowning people will take you down with them. Me? Like that poor bastard Bartleby, I would prefer not to. All of it taints me, compromises me, contaminates me.


I understand that we are all blood and goo underneath the skin, and that the ‘externals’ are doing pretty much the same thing that I am, which is trying to make it through the day and not feel as shitty about yourself as when you woke up. They are two sides of the same coin. And the right way to go about things is probably somewhere down the middle, helping as many as possible and victimizing none. I understand that getting your hands dirty is necessary sometimes, and that lofty mastheads make for long falls. I just have a hard time not preferring not to.

October 18, 2012

I do not ask for much tonight

I wanted to just come home tonight. Close the door and leave the weather behind, like the saying goes. Smell dinner in the kitchen, and let my arms land on your body like two tired birds on a familiar perch.


I would have given up words for the evening, and not missed them. I would have sent depth out the window like a runaway curtain in a drafty hallway, and kept only the surface of us. Smell. Touch. Heat. Motion. The intersection of our gyres, and the explosion that we set off. We do not have a half-life, you and I.


I would have shed the doctor’s office-tainted clothes and slipped your black sweater over my head. Your fingers would have found a shortcut to my shoulder through that little tear in the neck, the one that has a purpose now.


I do not ask for much tonight.


Just for an ocean to freeze over so that I could slide across it like an ice-age Bering Strait.


Lay my head between your chest and your belly and feel your fingers remove my hair from my face, strand by strand.


Press my ear against the pulse where nerve meets even keel, and have you swipe the vapor of longing off my skin like that night you drank my tears.


Feel that effortless othering of our bodies’ natural fit. Have you kiss me like it was a crime, as if we were prisoners stealing one last drop of life before dawn.


Be rocked into sleep as you played music on my spine and gently tapped a beat on my ribcage. Have your black wings envelop us both while we have angelic dreams.

October 11, 2012


Two days before Mo Yan was announced as the 2012 laureate of the Nobel prize in literature, I sat below a high ceiling in a library that dares not utter its name out loud, lest the world should know its location. Hiding behind tall doors and germ-free hallways, one Laputan presented a book of poetry written by another Laputan, published by a Brobdingnagian. And it was not just any Laputan poet, I tell you. It was Seat number 16 of the Nobel literature committee, no less. He had that delicious Swedish cadence to his English, rustique, clique, publique.


Suits and ties praised one another, medals and handshakes were exchanged. The poetry was read in three languages, fluid and gentle even at its darkest. Described in the opening accolade as “no young person’s poetry,” it was nonetheless performed by drama students in their late teens, their newly trained diaphragms bravely gloving their quivering hands.


My people, and yet I bite my cuticles on your margins. Foreigners to me, and yet I belong to you, for we love the same thing, this art of words. I love you, yet I cannot tolerate you. You beckon me with a promising finger, yet we speak different languages.


And they were so delightful, the Laputans. Old school gentlemen with that soft, pleasant, charming kind of male energy that one does not encounter very often anymore. Their peace was of the kind that resides in the eyes of sacred cows; complacent, well-meaning creatures incapable of aggression because they were never victims. Pure enlightenment, unadulterated humanism. Unthreatening, because never threatened. Refreshing in their ignorance of the alpha principle, because the umbrella of their institution did the dirty work for them.


So I sat beneath the high ceiling of this public institution, which belongs to me as much as it belongs to the Laputans’ bums occupying it, 145 of them gracefully deciding to welcome 15 representative XX-chromosomes into their protective alpha-not-alpha bosom. I listened to the pretty words recited in three languages, waiting for the only not-suit, not-tie, not-brown, not-tenured member of the festivity to speak.


Finally, she was summoned. The translator. The mediator. The arbiter. The nomad. The interpreter. The one without whom those three men would not have ever met. The publisher would have still been the publisher, the academic would have still been the academic, and the Nobel Seat number 16 would have remained nice and warm and occupied. Only the rope-bridge of her multilingualism brought them all together.


She was everything they were not. A complete and utter other to their class, gender, voice, energy.


And she spoke with her ice-glimmering dress and faux fur, her lioness hair and butterfly hands, as much as with her words. She ignored the officials in the front row and called out to the cubs that oozed fuchsia and red all over the brown and grey, working their way inward from the margins; puppies in training, at that confusing age where commands have been learned but you never know when they might decide to pee on the hallowed steps – out of joy as much as defiance. Readers of her work before it was published, confidantes of an art-in-becoming before it was shared with the publishers and academics.


Oh yes, dear, soft, genteel, courteous flying islanders, we just might make you want to become alphas again.

October 1, 2012

The physics of empathy

My fifteenth high school reunion is coming up next year. Not that I am thinking about it already, and not that I plan on going.


I was good at physics in high school. Our teacher was awesome. He knew his subject and did a great job teaching it to us; he was tough but fair, consistent and principled. I would like to say he was good enough to teach at university, but his temperament actually made him perfect for high school. He was where he needed to be.


We made fun of him because he was middle-aged and living with his mother, and the meanders of life were still a mystery to us. He pretty much looked like George Costanza, and in our arrogance of youth we also assumed he had no life beside the classroom and the bus he got on after school. We made fun of his English, because we had no concept of what it meant to be forty and try to teach in a second language; because we had no idea what it felt like to be overweight and stand in front of a mostly all-girls classroom. We were sixteen and full of ourselves because we went to one of the best schools in the country, and were handpicked, tested and interviewed for the advanced class that would have half their subjects taught in English. We were sixteen and "mistake" was not in our vocabulary. We had only ever been overachievers, and empathy was an ironic beast that we would learn to grant to others only after seeing our own selves fall. Somewhere down the line.


Whether he was in fact to be pitied or not, he certainly would not take shit from anyone, and he damn straight would not demean himself to be popular. There were one or two occasions in our senior year when we hung out having drinks with some of the teaching staff. Our young and goofy homeroom teacher was one of them, and so were the philosophy and Latin guys. We liked our physics teacher too, and perhaps we thought we were doing him a favor when we asked him to join us once. His ethics blew us all a raspberry when he gave us a curt and laughable “No way!”


I have no idea if his feelings were hurt when he read a note over my shoulder once, written by the girl sitting next to me in class, which said “What do you think of Mr. C as a man?” I made a disgusted face, the kind that only a sixteen-year-old girl can muster up, only to hear him growl behind my back. “I will have no such conversation in class, ladies.” I dare say that Mr. C had a crush on me. There is no salacious story to tell, I just knew. I was allowed to make comments that others were not. I was publicly scolded, but called aside after class to receive a blundered apology. There was a protective instinct that he had about me.


Mr. C would always rank our grades when he handed our tests back to us. He would call us to the blackboard one by one, in order of excellence. He had a great way of making it not personal, so that you did not feel bad if you fucked up, but there was a sense of accomplishment if your name was one of the last ones to be called out. I was the only one to get an A in our first test, and I was also the last one to have my name called out for the last test in our senior year. “You ought to think about studying physics,” he said to me. I went for English and Comp Lit instead.


But more than the quiet pride I still feel over these, there was one test that still sticks in my mind. There was a task that required calculating the time it would take for a vertical projectile to return to the ground. All the variables were there, but for the life of me I could not remember the formula. So I divided the motion into two trajectories – the vertical throw and the free fall – and did the math based on the formulas that I could remember.


I got another A. When taking my test back from Mr. C, I wanted to explain myself.


“I’m sorry, I could not remember the formula so I improvised.”


“And your method was correct, as were your results. That is why you got an A. But you sure did take the long way round. You shouldn’t overcomplicate things.”


Fast forward fifteen years.


Dear Mr. C, I have not changed one bit.


I still take the long way round.


I still make things more complicated than they need to be.


I still give myself a hard time, but I try to improvise, and sometimes I get the right results. Your protective instincts saw right through me, even if I would not admit it then.


But I have learned empathy. I have learned to fail, and to make mistakes. I am still learning self-forgiveness and letting go, but I trust that that one is just round the bend as well. I am sorry we underestimated you, unthinking little jackasses that we were. I hope that you are still a man of integrity, and I hope your work is valued. I also hope, for your own sake, that you finally got a place of your own.