commas

I have a strained relationship with commas. I very much like them and I use them to string phrases together and to pace a sentence. Yet, often, when I read something that at first seemed coherent and straightforward, I find that the commas I threw in are, now, like potholes in the road.

So, for example, I could have written that last sentence: Yet often when I read something that at first seemed coherent and straightforward I find that the commas I threw in are now like potholes in the road.

 

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grace in nature

I returned to the backyard to see Grace sitting and hunched over out by the beehive. While I was working out front she’d been here upon her own suggestion that we wrap the hive with tar paper, a variation on our evolving strategy for how to help the colony survive the winter. I’d left her to it, armed with tools and the heavy roll of paper. And now there she was, head down, inspecting her hands intently. I’d imagined she’d been stung, or she’d cut herself. I let her be either to nurse a wound or otherwise suffer on her own.

But fifteen minutes later when I checked in, I realized it was none of these things; she was just connecting with one of the local residents.

I’m not sure that this one will see it through the winter, or even through the rest of the weekend, but Grace takes care, pays attention, and makes the connection. Hers is a good lead to follow.

focus

I have a piece of software called Focus, and as the name suggests it does the job of helping me to keep my focus on tasks. It keeps track of those tasks and sets timers to continue to work on these, singularly, in a focused fashion. It’s a little like having a little old lady, slightly hunched but sternly focused on me, knuckles bulged around a ruler that raps your skull to help keep that focus. Also, it plays a soothing gong sound at the end of each 25-minute interval.

Anyway, Focus got an update the other day. It’s good to have your software applications update so that perfectly functional software can become more functional. It updated and it looks nice. Some corners are rounded and I appreciate the subdued shade of blue. But the application window was strangely sparse. In the updating, it thoughtfully dropped the list of tasks I was to focus on, dropping them into a pit somewhere in another universe. This, apparently, was the improvement in the update.

And there’s a new font.

So, I lost my focus. And I deleted Focus. It may be just as well.

worn

In my pocket I had a handful of coins, including a particularly worn dime. Eisenhower looked more faded, recessed back into the ore, and the glean had long faded. Old coins intrigue me. I was surprised by the date: 2006.

At least, I think it said 2006. It’s hard to say with the etchings’ rounded contours. Maybe, actually, 2008. I brought it up closer to my eyes, but it was too close to focus. I pulled it farther from my head, where it was too small to make out. I squinted. Could be 2005. But I’m pretty certain it’s 2008. Or 2006.

I found some more light, brought the dime up closer and then farther away again. This is when I realized that this coin of only 10 years — or more, or less, it’s hard to say — was not the most worn thing in this interaction.

white anger

There were signs taped around campus with the words, “It’s okay to be white.” Walking through the dark from the bus to my office, from my office to the classroom building, these were what greeted me. And each one bothered me, each one I took down. Easy to remove the printer paper adhered with its single piece of tape. Easy to justify, as they were layered over other campus signs or on doors that are reserved for official announcements.

The last one was on the door to my classroom that others had already passed through and that others would open after me. I pulled it, added it to my modest pile, and delivered them all to the garbage can inside the class.

It is okay to be white. It’s okay to be lots of things. It’s also okay to acknowledge what that whiteness means and what privilege it carries. It’s not just “okay,” it’s a clear advantage. It’s hardly worthy of announcement. It bothers me that this Sunday night sign campaign was likely motivated by prejudice, fear, or even hate. It bothers me almost as much that the argument and this statement, “okay to be white,” is inept if not dishonest. Right, we’re all okay to be. But it’s a false argument. No one is taking away anyone else’s race or heritage or culture or identity. Making the misguided argument is something that can only be done from a place of privilege. Putting the signs up in the first place diminishes the foundation of any stance you might have been trying to take.

And, also, mostly, we could do less to stand up for ourselves, people you’re already surrounded by. We need to do more for those who are of another group. The last thing I wanted was for D. or J. to walk through that door with that sign and see that here, on my classroom entry, was yet another piece of our society that was saying they were less than.


I’m angry; and, I’m becoming more and more cognizant of this anger. It’s not a sensible emotion, and I can’t rectify it. Sure, you can point to the signs or to the politics or to the debates or to the denials of things that are important and assure me that I have a right to be. It’s like this extra cul-de-sac of emotion in my neighborhood, a dead end I keep driving into and even circling around in. I don’t get anywhere no matter how fast I go.

I’m angry I haven’t written more on projects that are important to me, and I’m angry that writing more wouldn’t make a difference. I’m angry there’s only 3 weeks left in the term; I’m angry there’s not more I have finished or at least tidied; I’m angry I haven’t done right by my students. I’m angry that I’ve said “I’ll take care of that” — the bathroom fan or the paperwork or a task that someone else is relying on — and I’ve fallen short. I’m angry that blood pressure recommendations have been adjusted and that I probably qualify for some kind of treatment.

And I’m angry at people. The Republicans, to start, but also the Democrats. The progressives and the Christians and those who are both, and also those who are yelling and those who are standing oblivious to the side. I was angry about a push poll pushed upon me by my own Representative, and then I turn around to see a science advocacy group doing the same thing. I’m angry at others I don’t know who aren’t listening, at beloved friends who aren’t listening, at myself who isn’t listening. Excuse me for saying it, but if we’re really honest about it we have to admit that we’re acting like a bunch of fucking assholes, all of us.

And so my inner psyche, the voices in my head, the coursing of fire in my veins, collectively, is trying to decide if tearing down signs was about my own anger, a response to someone else’s, or both. Or neither. Maybe I’m just cleaning up the trash I see, finally following through with something, some small task that I can complete. Deep down I’m afraid it will just be back there again tomorrow, and then it will be just one more task to add to the list, one more round in the cul-de-sac of my frustration.


I parked in that psychological cul-de-sac for the evening, came back to face myself in the morning, drank some coffee. Here I am, still drinking my coffee, getting ready for class. I’m telling myself, and I believe, the question I need to return to is this: What can I do today that will make the world better than it would have been otherwise, without me? There must always be something. It just might not always be an overall net gain, but I’ll finish my coffee, go to class, clean up the messes I can (others’ and my own), and see if I can move myself forward.

women with sensible raincoats walk into a bar

Four women with sensible raincoats walk into a bar. They sport glasses without rims, hair approaching the shoulder but not quite landing there. They’ve walked in like they know they’re in the right place but not quite sure how to fit in, not quite sure where to step in the tight, dark quarters framed with wood tables and beer taps.

Sit anywhere you want, they’re told.

We’re just here “for our passports” their leader replies, red knee-length trench coat with canvas purse at her side. They’re on a scavenger hunt.

A knowing bartender shows them the way to a dark back hallway to find their target, a specific destination at which they can get a specific icon for their collection . They laugh and kibitz and get their passports stamped. Smiling, they’re out the door, into a silver sedan, and on the way to the next stop in their urban adventure.

considerations of pencil leads

The kid in the front row dropped a pencil in the middle of class. It fell away from him, off the front lip of his desk and to the floor like a valuable dropped accidentally from the railing of a pier and into the ocean, never to be recovered.

I picked it up for him and returned it, but first admired it. A drafting pencil, .5 mm. This inspired a discussion. “I prefer point seven millimeter,” I contributed. Impassioned debate ensued, a roomful of science majors detailing their beliefs about the tools of their academic life. Most favored the .5, a few sided with me and the .7, and a few even preferred the boldness of a .9. “It doesn’t break as much,” one scholar reasoned. I was delighted. Not only did they know these relative merits, they had strong and reasoned opinions on these important matters.

One student insisted on only using ink. I shook my head and others shuddered at the notion of such permanence on physics exams.

It continued, the advantages of different styles of writing instrument, the nature of its click and the size of its eraser. And then there’s the graphite hardness, the HB versus the 2B. These are my people, so different from one another in so many ways, and yet united in their shared value of a pencil.

spreading happiness

It’s not in my nature to be an outwardly sociable, friendly person. I’m a man who’s more likely to turn up his collar, tuck his hands into his pockets, and just stare down at the ground as he walks by. I’ve worked to improve this, but it takes a bit of personal engineering. My hope is that I can improve my overall affect and maybe at the same time make someone else’s day a little lighter. “Good morning,” to a stranger; a held door to the building as I welcome someone in out of the cold.

This time of year I’m a little more conscious of this. Days get darker, politics wrenches our sense of normalcy, and the events of the world weigh us down. So I look up a little more, nod and say hello. And it happens: people smile back. I’ve noticed that young women, especially, turn a large grin and their eyes light up. Older women seem amused and there’s an extra bounce in their step. I wonder if I’m getting better at this after all. Or maybe it’s my youthful exuberance and welcoming disposition. Or, more likely, they know who I am, they have heard about me and my work, or they’ve seen me working in the community—probably with children or teachers—and they admire the good I bring to the world.

That bit of reverie goes too far, of course. It’s clearly a sign of my own lack of awareness and surplus of ego. It takes me most of the day, but I eventually realize that they’re just smiling at my hat:

That’s enough. They smile, one way or another. And they really do seem to light up, gain an extra bounce in their step. It’s my public service, simply wearing a hand-knit anemone hat out in public.

instant coffee

I thought I was just being lazy, warming up some water in the electric heater in our workroom and pouring it over the powdered instant coffee I’d been saving in case of emergency. Today wasn’t really an emergency, but it saved me a trip across campus and provided immediate heat and caffeination.

But it also provided a quick respite. That first slurp of hot, bitter, dark roast sent me back hundreds of miles and elevated me thousands of feet. For 3 seconds I wasn’t in my office but by an alpine lake waiting for the sun to break its way over the ridge and push the shadow away from the campsite. The flavor of coffee was also the flavor of fading frost, of anticipation of the day’s trek, of the thinness of the high altitude air, and of the freedom that comes with having nothing to do that day except pack up your stuff, put it on your back, and trek over the next mountain pass—just as soon as I finish this cup of coffee.

espresso, Sunday afternoon

I was about to say, “I’ll just be upstairs, grading.” But then I made and consumed one small cup of espresso. And then I thought I’d play piano, work on the stride and triplets of the late Fats Domino. Glancing outside while my hand worked its way up the bass line to the bluesy seventh, I noticed that I could still barely tell which of those limbs on the plum tree were dead and that I’d better cut them now before the rest of the limbs lost their leaves and I wouldn’t be able to distinguish what had to be trimmed; and so before I knew it I was out in the sunshine with a saw on a long pole, sawdust practically glittering as it fell against a blue sky. That’s when I remembered that I should drain out the irrigation lines—sure, it’s nice enough now but there will be a hard freeze before you know it. Screwdriver in hand, I surveyed the valves and opened plugs. That’s about the time I started thinking about the awning on the back porch that I’ve been meaning to build, and in my mind I started sketching angles and heights, pressure treated redwood joists and four-by-four supports, and you know maybe a quick survey of the hardware store isn’t such a bad idea today if I just leave now and hurry back and maybe I can grade tonight. But I held off that temptation, went upstairs to score papers while still caffeinated, just as soon as I jot down a few of these important notes about the day.