Saturday, May 3, 2008

All Around The World You Will Find Love

I've just finished Subway Idol: a NYTimes video about a man named Joe Taylor who auditions for the Music Underground program in the New York subways. He sings an original love song entitled "All Around The World," proclaiming to the judges before his performance, "This is guaranteed to make you smile."

I occasionally watch the NYTimes videos, but they're not my favorite part of the NYTimes. Neither is the international section, which I read almost exclusively for the first three years I had my online account, which I registered for when I was 15. And it's not the sports page or even the crossword, a staple of my college chemistry career. It's not even the fashion section (which I read religiously.)

And no, it's not Nick Kristof's column.

My all-time favorite, best-loved section of the New York Times is the Vows.

Every week on Saturday, the paper publishes a feature article on a recent wedding, complete with pictures of the bride and groom and sometimes guests at the event. The article also features details of the couples' courtship, often giving in intimate details the defining moments of their relationship along with describing the decor at the wedding venue. In their wedding pictures, the couples are not always dressed in white (less and less often these days) but they invariably manage to look very much in love.

Last week's article was the story of a couple who met during their freshmen year of college and instantly became best friends. They remained platonic best friends for the next eight years, calling each other almost daily while offering support and advice during the other's romantic relationships. The relationship changed suddenly on an unplanned visit one made to the other. Soon the two were dating, and very shortly thereafter the two were engaged. Their wedding picture is one of the happiest I've seen on the vows. Both the bride and the groom look radiant.

Their story almost sounds a little too traditional for the Vows, however. The week before the Vows featured the marriage between a peace corps official who married a stuffy, closeted professor. While she traveled across the world managing the emergency response teams for the International Rescue Committee, he was a workaholic academic with three Ph.D.s and a career in evolutionary biology. They met after seeing each other's profiles on an online dating site, and after negotiating a long distance relationship for several years, married in her apartment in Brooklyn. She left for Kenya the next day.

Other articles have featured U.N. diplomats falling in love with other during peace mediations and across five conflicts, a celebrity hairstylist finally proposing to one of his first clients he saw more often on T.V. then in real life, an Alvin Ailey dancer tying the knot with a corporate lawyer, a female marketing executive getting hitched to a professional clown, the women who wrote a book against marriage taking the plunge... Indeed what stands out about the Vows is precisely the unpredictable and wide range of love stories. Against all odds, the people who are featured in the Vows seem able to make their love work and decide to unite their lives together, even when that unity means giving up rescuing orphans in Ghana and learning how to make brown paper lunches for step children. There is no practical or logistical reason for these couples to get married. Few share a similar upbringing or share childhood memories. Defying statistics that say you should marry someone who grew up in a thirty mile radius of you, none of these couples were raised in the same home town. Many are not of the same race. Few share the same religious beliefs. Some I've mentioned don't live on the same continent for longs parts of the year. Others hate the profession of the one they love. Some, having been married before, swear they will never love again only to find themselves at the altar. Love, as expressed in the Vows, quite literally brings the world together.

So why do I love the Vows so much? Perhaps because the variety of love found in the Vows stands as a testament against the worst parts of my character and the social world in which I date. As a single Mormon women intent on marrying another single Mormon male, the vast majority of men in my dating pool are not only the same religion as I am, but they are mostly the same ethnic background, attended the same undergraduate university, and have grandparents that live in the city that my grandparents or my parents do. Most of them, like me, have more than one sibling-- including a sister who forced them to watch Anne of Green Gables. They grew up eating a lot of hot dogs, jello, and chocolate chip cookies and they drink milk because in their heads they hear their mothers' voices telling them to grow big and strong. They don't listen to a lot of rap music, prefer to recycle, and own a bike. Once upon a time they started learning how to play acoustic guitar and dance the cha-cha. They like opening doors for women as much as I like having my door opened for me (more so, often) and feel slighted when the woman picks up the tab at dinner. Some of them celebrate the Passover even though they aren't Jewish, like my family does. They get uncomfortable when a movie gets too raunchy and listen to classical music on Sundays and know how to change a tire and iron a shirt and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. So do I.

If the people in the Vows can make it work with people that live on separate continents, why have I not yet found love with one of the many kind young men who share my race, religion, family background, major categories of interests, and values?

The answer has a much to do with myself as it does the young men in my dating pool. I suffer from the pickiness and general dating malaise that maybe settles when you don't have to work hard to find people who (at least in surface ways) are compatible with you. There's the boy next door I grew up with who played the trumpet with me and walked me home from school every day in ninth grade and shared most of my major experiences in high school who I didn't date because I felt I couldn't respect his opinions (which often mirrored mine). And I didn't marry the boy in college who liked me because I didn't want to go grocery shopping with him (he married my sister and they spend hours at the grocers together) or the other boy because he was my best friend and liked football too much. I'm not dating one boy I know because he "reminds me too much of Mr. Collins"-- and I yet haven't mentioned the freckled funny boy who makes me laugh like crazy and takes me to my favorite hamburger joint for sweet potato fries because that's right-- I'm not dating him either. For no good reason.

My ex isn't married to me partially because I "give too much of the time" and the boy I've liked for the last two years isn't dating me because I'm not "skinny enough to be paired with him in his brain." I'm sure there are others who have rejected me without even a date because I have red hair or have taken to wearing purple on occasion, because I wave my hands when I talk, because I can't open containers, or because sometimes I come out a little on the liberal side of conversation or am starting med school in the fall. Or because I never wear makeup or am not as physically active as I should be. I feel like I'm in a perpetual round of mutual passive rejection.

How do I change my heart to be more accepting of people, even when they're very different from me? I don't have a good answer to this question, although I've been trying to work on it a little bit at a time for several years. Maybe the answer is that I just need to get out of my homogeneous dating pool and marry a Northern Indian Hindu who works as a guide on Mount Everest. We could live in a yurt together and I could cook yak. Or maybe I just need to learn to overlook the little things and focus on building on the already solid foundations of our commonalities instead of rejecting the future because of temporary habits. As the Vows teach, even a career as a diplomat is negotiable.

I love the Vows because every week, I get a little reminder that I should stop looking at the package and start looking at what is inside-- that I should take chances on people and be patient and wait for romance to develop instead of steeling my heart against the possibility of change. As the Vows illustrate, when love is in the offing, anything can happen. Hearts can be melted. Long term difficulties can evaporate. I, too, can change my heart to accept not only a person who is very different from me, but maybe someone who shares all my major characteristics and my belief in God too.

Perhaps more selfishly, I love the Vows because they give me hope that someday, maybe someday, someone will take a chance on a little redheaded West Coast girl who loves Catholic schoolchildren and viruses both. And if that somebody happens to be a flaming-haired man from Cali who only wears flip-flops in the lab too, then so be it. It might be true love.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

On Precious

For the past couple years, I have painted at Christmas. Last year my subject was refractory camels, as inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi. The subject was meaningful for me because I find Eliot's description of the experience of the Magi (and their camels!) very moving. This year, I upped the ante and decided to do a Madonna and Child. This was a very personal painting for me, and it turned out pretty much how I wanted it to. Since I'm certainly not a painter and have no technique to speak of, I consciously do not aim for photorealism, so it is of course abstracted.

This painting was very much inspired by a song we sung in Rochester Mormon Choir this last semester. The director, a dear friend of mine, urged us to think of the word "precious" as we sang the piece. This made everyone giggle dismissively, but I really felt the word. In combination with the music and lyrics, the feeling of this "preciousness" really stuck with me. And this is the result! I can't find the lyrics, or any reference to the piece ("Little Child") online, and do not want to misquote the lyrics. When I get back to my apartment maybe I'll try to find them and post them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

On Brokenness I Don't Understand How To Fight

This was supposed to be a blog entry about starting a revolution. I wanted to passionately make the case for teaching young Mormon women to rise up and embrace modernity while simultaneously championing the classical visions of womanhood. Key to this argument was the recognition of a growing class of young Mormon men, who may be increasingly willing to accommodate the drive and capacities of the Mormon female minted in my so-called revolution.

That was what I wanted to write about.

But now suddenly, this news: The former Bishop of my home ward has left his wife.

He was bishop for about five years, husband for well over twenty, perhaps thirty. She was small and stylish with pretty green eyes and a wide smile. She was kind and gracious, always to me in my funny dresses and awkward ways. Her older twin daughters were married early and gave birth to strong babies, her third daughter a three-sport star in high school, and her youngest a dimpled blond. Everything about her spoke of compassion and grace. She had served faithfully as a Relief Society President and in other church callings. My father spoke kindly of him during his service as Bishop.

I met with him a few times, although I was away at college for most of his tenure. He was a bit gruff in his manner of speaking, but was straightforward and I tried to follow his counsel.

That man has left his wife.

Perhaps he has left himself too. I cannot begin to imagine the darkness into which he must have descended. I feel I would rather die a thousand deaths, pitch myself off of an airplane over the ocean, succumb to Alzheimer's, rather than to leave a spouse. Where now are his photograph albums, his journals, the gloves he wore when he threw balls to that softball playing daughter? The pots, rugs, wallpaper he leaves behind tainted by his income, his choice, that filling the home he once filled-- all these he has now left abandoned.

And she, we assume, must have played some small role in this drama, but how could she be responsible for his complete betrayal? Surely she, like other women before, was only trying her best at times to deal with an increasingly distant husband she loved but could no longer understand. Now every family reunion a splintered one, every moment of reminiscing with her daughters tainted by the memory of a man who broke an eternal trust.

I suppose that if my father left my mother it would shatter my world entirely. The birds and the rain would disappear. I would stop believing in Santa Claus. I would put squares of only the bitterest baking chocolate in my mouth and then spit them back out. I expect I would stop breathing and perhaps only start when someone pushed by ribcage to revive me and then I would resent them for doing so.

But of course I believe that I am different, that Dad would never EVER leave Mom. There is no other way to believe. Doubting his fidelity would be like pouring tar over the rest of my convictions and trying to make cement. I might hold together still, but everything would be black. But I really AM different. Dad wouldn't even dream of leaving.

In the wake of such news, how can I make an argument for young women apart from an argument for ALL women? And how, HOW can I base any such argument on the existence of a reliable class of men? Such news leaves me in a world of faithlessness and hurt, a trembling at the thought of marriage, a creeping of doubt when I think of even the strongest young men that I know. "You, you too could leave me when you are fifty-four."

I've never been a true feminist at heart, because I've always believed that truly empowered women can never exist at the expense of strong men. I believe in men. I respect men. I honor their unique capacities. I am blessed beyond measure to come from a home that is led by a man who respects his role and the role of my mother, who has sought always and only to serve and to cherish her. Out of all women, I should have the greatest faith in men, through the example of my father.

The revolution isn't starting and when it comes, it won't be anything new. For thousands and thousands of years men have left their wives, left their children, left them to starve, to freeze, to succumb to the elements. For thousands of years women have stayed with unkind men, put food on the table, washed the sheets, tended to the chickens. And for thousands of years women too have died in childbirth, abandoning the men who loved them and their crying infants. Other women have been unfaithful to their men and that type of leaving has caused no less pain. Now when a man leaves he has financial obligations under the law. That is what has changed since the dawn of time.

Perhaps in the next entry I will have recouped enough to feel a revolutionary spirit again, to want to charge out to medical school or graduate school or the world in the hopes of someday living in a nice painted house and reading Little Golden Books to a chubby-cheeked redheaded infant while earning the big bucks consulting wirelessly from my carpeted living room while my husband paints the deck and reads The Economist before flying to Paris for business. But for now I think I'll shower and go then go sleep in my big queen size bed with the dark blue wool comforter, glad that I've always (so far) slept in it alone.

Friday, January 4, 2008

On complexes?

Sometimes I feel like people demand complexes (complexity?) of me that I can't deliver. I don't remember the first time I felt this way-- it was probably a long time ago, or maybe it wasn't; anyway I don't want to think that hard. I don't know if its evident worsening is me getting simpler or people coming to expect more. Or both.

There was S.L., a piano/composition student I knew in college with an Oppenheimer Complex large enough to be vicarious for all the world's scientists. He saw in me (which I cannot argue with and do not regret) a mind with which he could correspond. But what he thirsted for most, I think, was an antagonist, and I could only wearily 'get' him. Which was a connection, of course, but since I could not tear my soul for him, I ultimately couldn't grant him a piece of it.

Years later, a minister of mine announced to me that he perceived me to be an "intellectual," and asked confirmation.

"I cannot venture to say," I counterproductively replied.
"I also perceive that you have a deep testimony of Christ."
"That is true."
"This puts you at a precarious position with you faith."
"No, sir, I do not feel at all precarious."

He had nothing more to say to me. What was he expecting? What did he want? Was he hoping to catch me as I fell?

That's it, mostly, the main manifestation; people expect me to be very torn between my religiosity and my ("my"?) science. I'm not, and what's even more disappointing to them is that I don't even have any formulated rhetoric about it.

I'm sorry, and then again, I'm not.

C.B. is the worst for the cause. Also a scientist, and a physicist no less, he bypasses the expectation of philosophical complexes in favor of the social. It is my motivations he demands so much of-- I can only assume because his are so overwrought and convoluted. C.B., I will discuss with you laser energetics, gating currents of ion channels, Charles Mingus, and the works of Turgenev, but if you turn to some self-created social miasma you assume I share, I can only blink at you.

Blink. Blink.

I regard this recently discovered simplicity with gentle curiosity: affectionate and detached. I don't want to make too much of it, and yet I'm kind of fond of it; I don't want to hurt it by having discovered it.

There is N.T., who claims we are kindred spirits because of what she interprets as my liberality, feminism, and urbanity. Her face sags with certain disappointment when she sees my glee when I play with a child, or my consistent delight with herds of cows on the roadside. I have these simple pleasures; does it make my more esoteric ones fraudulent?

Of esoteric pleasures, or of cows:

A month or so ago, I fell into a particular book. An autobiography of a man raised in tsarist Russia and left homeless, ill, and dissident in occupied Paris, the book absorbed my senses. From it I got that most particular of glorious feelings-- the "I could be happy just reading Russian books forever" feeling. (I intend no mockery, self or societal, in the specificity of this feeling, it's just one I get sometimes.) But this feeling was, at the time, chasered with self-reproach and even dread. Were I to truly throw myself into Russian novels, I feared, it would only serve to make me less approachable, less "matchable," more-- complex. And so I hastened to dumben myself and my glee.

No! I was instead scared of the simplicity of the fact that I am in fact capable of finding Happiness and Beauty in things. I suppose I needn't apologize-- not to S.L., or C.B., or N.T., or those hypothetical folk that would (hypothetically) be alienated or disarmed by my (hypothetical) Lermentov literacy.

I have always aspired to be disarming, anyway.

*Illustration: it doesn't take much to love a Mandelbrot set. They're so pretty and math-y. But the point is that fractals aren't complex-- they're a symbol of simplicity. You can write a Java program to draw one in just a few lines. I did once, but it wasn't all cool and orange like this one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On a few words I like

People who know me well know that I love words; those who know me even better know that I hate words; and those who know me best of all know that I love words.

Here is a handful of words that I enjoy.

Procedural (as a noun). I do not watch police procedurals on television-- I never have. But I love the use of the word "procedural" as a noun. I am moved by the concept that there can be beauty and substance in a procedure rather in just what the procedure effects. It also has such an air of movement about it, in that something proceeds, but also something grave and timeless and cyclical. The procedure-- and the exploration of it, the procedural-- remains even after and through an iteration.

Apoptosome. Aside from being pronounceable in seemingly dozens of different ways, all of which are so fun (and one of which sounds like "hippopotamus"), this word ought to be known by the general public if only for use in metaphors. The apoptosome is a bunch of cytochrome c and APAF-1 glommed together with 7-fold symmetry. This huge complex forms in response to a cell death stimulus, and activates pro-caspase 9. The cell undergoes apoptosis (it DIES). I can't get enough of apoptosomes, and no, I don't even feel "nerdy" about that. I just feel happy.

Gone/Done. These are words so basic to the language that I'm sure they've been around since time immemorial (much longer than 'procedural' or 'apoptosome,' at least). I don't think that the essential words get enough credit for their own beauty. Onomatopoeic words are easy to love, and I extend my definition of onomatopoeia to include what I may also call "psychonomatopoiea." That is, words that somehow sound like the concept they mean to communicate. I particularly appreciate 'gone' and 'done' for their versatility. They can sound so absolute, so final; and yet, since they end with an 'n,' there is some ambiguity to them... they can kind of resonate and then leave a trail as they disappear. They can be so cold and hollow with their central "o"-- or they can be almost tender with a warmer "ah" or "uh." They can be plaintive or relieved. These are truly pillars in great-word-dom.

Enlightenment. This word has so many syllables for what it's trying to say, and it kind of (to me) undermines the point. But that's why I like it. We use this word as a translation of words which in other languages are so simple and straightforward-- they don't have all these little prefixes and suffixes, trying to aggregate meaning from other parts. But I love that we're trying. And I love the irony that it infuses into our understanding of "enlightenment" as a concept, especially as we complicate matters with the term "The Enlightenment." What a clumsy word it is; and yet it is so pretty to look at. And how much we yearn for it.

Seemingly. I challenge you to incorporate this into your speech. If you do, no explanation on my part will be necessary. Use it to begin thoughts. Use it to end thoughts. Use it in the middle of thoughts-- before adjectives, verbs, wherever. Then graduate to using it all by its wonderful self, as a jewel of an answer to many a question. You will be seemingly hyperarticulate.

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Having Survived To Celebrate The Second Anniversary Of My Death

--"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death"-- T.S. Eliot

I died two years ago today. I didn't mean to do it, it just happened and I couldn't do anything to stop it because I wasn't wise enough to know that I was dying until I was already dead

The events of that day summoned forth the figure of death that had been lurking in the shadows. Not recognizing him in his disguise, I sealed his entrance across my threshold with a final kiss.

Today could not have been any more different. I woke up at 6 a.m., put on a gray skirt and wooly black pea coat, hopped into my trusty old truck and drove across the Bay to Hayward. All day long I jumped up and sat and moved and waved my hands and in the evening came home from the acting school called Moreau Catholic High School and made tacos and wassail and hosted a small dinner party at my home. Now at 11:04 p.m. I type on this blog and listen to KT's Christmas CD on the MacBook.

I could not have done these things two years ago, nor a year ago. Only now do I remember what it is to be alive.

The ironic thing is that I didn't recognize life quite so clearly before I had encountered death. Like Eliot, I had "seen birth and death, but had thought they were different." Only in experiencing my own death and rebirth have I come to understand that they are the same. The compassion, the empathy, that I can feel now was born only out of the ashes-- the hard, the bitter agony-- of the death I experienced on a chilling day two years ago.

I think Eliot has it right-- that an essence of Christianity is that ONLY through death, ONLY by taking upon ourselves the weakness of mortality can we experience eternal the birth that never ends in death, even ETERNAL LIFE-- this through the suffering and Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ who, born a wee babe in Bethlehem, laid down his life so that we could overcome the bonds of both physical and spiritual death.

And so on this, the anniversary of my death, I testify of the resurrection of the body and the spirit-- of life, of goodness, of truth-- of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. May the hope of the birth AND the death of the Babe of Bethlehem bring you joy this Christmas season.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Opposable Digits

A big innovation in the history of evolution was the opposable thumb.

Little did nature know what a big deal this would be. Today the thumb is perhaps the most important feature of the human body. It can hold pencils. It can open doors and can and jars. It can play the bassoon. But most importantly, the thumb can press buttons on a cellular phone!

Ah yes! The thumb is by far the most important tool in modern communication.

Faced with possible imminent failure of my SIM card, I spent parts of today and yesterday transferring all the names and phone numbers in my cell phone on to a Google spreadsheet so that in the chance of a true SIM card death, I won't have to send out one of those dreadful "I lost my phone in a public subway toilet!" emails or form my own Facebook group. As I went through and typed each number in by hand, it also allowed me the opportunity to edit a phonebook that had been accumulating, but not purging, for at least my last three years of my life. So who, you may ask, was important enough to stay? Well I'll tell you:

A hit man in the Korean mafia in Salt Lake

My ex-boyfriend's sister who I met once for lunch

Two blind dates from Ohio, one of whom is engaged

No less than five currently engaged men, not counting the Ohioan blind date

Marlene, the widowed mother of my best friend from college

A gay man at Harvard

The passcode to the Cell Science Imaging Facility

All those, among others, were deemed worthy to stay. But alas, not all were so lucky. Among those deleted forever from my cell phone and my spreadsheet (and thus my memory) were:

My brother-in-law

An Olympic volleyball player

A former blind date from MIT who now consults for McKinsey

My second prom date

My roommate of two years

and Everyone named Rachel

I feel much better after deleting these people from my phone book.

The truth is that I could resurrect any of these numbers fairly easily. I'm probably still friends with all of them on Facebook, and if I'm not, I will be eventually. So why let their numbers needlessly clutter up my phone? As I've been reading this week in Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat, globalization 3.0 means not having store everything in my house and home when it can all be stored on a server by someone else virtually!

Taking this to heart, I used my most advanced technology-- my thumb-- to delete all those extra numbers from my phone. Turns out these opposable digits come in handy in dealing with disposable digits all these millions of years later.