“So, what’s your favorite?”
“My favorite what?”
“Future potential means of faster-than-light travel.”
“Oh. I’m not really sure that I have one.”
“So, what’s your favorite?”
“My favorite what?”
“Future potential means of faster-than-light travel.”
“Oh. I’m not really sure that I have one.”
It says clearly on the back, “Multi-Purpose Eraser.” But the only use I can find for the rectangular block of felt is removal of marks from the board. It won’t erase pain or sin, not memory or anything important, not even what was left in pencil.
I took air in and stared out the window, trying to relax into a 25-minute state of stillness while sitting on a wood bench. In drawing class, we work on the practice drawing others, the human form. We paired up and took turns inflicting eyes and pencils on one another.
The apprehension of being the model is that you might have a bad drafter trying to get down your likeness with marks on a piece of paper. But this fear is quickly displaced.
Next, you worry that your partner is a good artist, that they’ll get your features preserved as they truly are onto the 18 by 24 inch page, possibly to be pinned to the wall in the art building for all to see.
Or, worse, what if they see, really notice, exactly, what you really are like on the outside?
Or, worst of all: What if they see me as I really am?
I held still, stared out the window, trying to keep my mask on, inadequacies and insecurities tucked away within.
Friday morning, 8:00 AM. Thirty-eight students work out a problem on projectile motion, each on their own, hunched over paper and calculator. I’m just watching in the electric quiet. Everyone is concentrating on how long the banana is in the air, how fast is it moving, in what direction, how does that change, what does this mean about the apex of its trajectory, what is acceleration anyway and what does this have to do with velocity and all these directions and why on earth did he choose a banana it must be an inside joke that I would have understood if only I’d been in class yesterday but it probably wasn’t funny but what if I missed some hint? And also, the mind continues: what am I doing here, how on earth is this relevant to me, didn’t I just do this problem last night and why don’t I understand it now, is there a trick, why did that guy just finish so quickly and what am I not seeing that he did, what is the professor thinking and why is he smiling to himself and how much time is there and maybe I should have had breakfast?
I’d like to think that it’s a privilege to have a dedicated space of a classroom and a 20-minute block of time to do nothing but focus on one thing, all of us together in this shared experience, some shared braid of consciousness and effort and emotion. Maybe I’m offering them an experience they can find no other place. In return, I witness humanity, one brief example of what might separate us from other primates. Concentration and problem solving and celebration and despair all in this room, at this moment, focused upon this problem about a banana that I hypothetically threw across the room.
I just received confirmation from an institution overseas that they have received some paperwork, and in response to me asking if they needed anything else, I was told:
So long so good.
This stymied me. Was he telling me “goodbye and good riddance?” I thought harder, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I wondered if it was a title of some porn movie I wasn’t familiar with, but I couldn’t make sense of why this would be a solitary line from Norwegian counterparts. And then I realized, slowly, not having really mastered any language other than English (and that’s only marginal), that “long” and “far” are synonymous. And so everything is good, idiomatic or otherwise, at least so far.
and read poetry, all
at the same time,
which itself is a poem,
though a really bad one.
Students sometimes reintroduce themselves years after they’ve taken my class. I might randomly see them on the street or they send an email to ask a question. Often they enter that interaction tentatively and with a caveat. “I don’t know if you’ll remember me; I didn’t do that well in the class,” or something like this they say, suggesting that I have some ranked hierarchy of student memories. Perhaps the A-students have a dedicated shelf in my psyche, the C-students swept together randomly in a corner.
Truth is, I almost never remember the grades I give students. There was that one guy who got an A-, and I remember his A- specifically because he was so angry about it and blamed me for ruining his future by not rounding up and giving him an A. So I remember him, and I’ll watch out for him and make sure that I never have him as a doctor. I’ll make sure I go to someone who earned a solid B, instead.
But, like I said, I don’t actually remember if any other student from the past would have earned a B or anything else. I remember the things that are more important to me, like where you sat and what you actually did in the class. I might remember something you wrote, but more likely I’ll remember how you wrote. I’ll remember if you were kind. I’ll remember your colored pen set. I remember how hard you worked in the class, that you were there every day at a godawful time and in spite of your heavy course load. I’ll remember that you played basketball, but were generally benched and still had to practice and travel with the team. I might remember that your mom had cancer. I remember tattoos. I remember quirks. I remember that one project you completed or a conversation in my office. More often than not, I remember something random: you liked mechanical pencils or you worked nights or you had an addiction to Mountain Dew or you were finishing a degree in geoscience eight years in the making. Though mostly I remember where you sat, if you were kind, that you worked hard.
Anna calls her mother’s cell phone, me listening in while driving the car from the airport after my five-hour flight. There was a loud squeaking noise, and smoke, and a burning smell. It will be okay, we told her. Or call 911, but probably it will be okay.
At home, I looked up “Maytag washer belt repair” and learned where to twist and what to remove. I took the pair of belts with me, along with my sense of urgency for clean laundry, to the various big box hardware and appliance stores that are open on Sunday. None of them carry the belts. They can order them through their “hotline.” Maybe they would be here midweek.
After lunch on Monday I visit Local Appliance Store 1, from which we’d bought other appliances, a dishwasher, I think, and probably the refrigerator if I’m remembering right. They looked up the model number and could order the belt. It would be here Friday. I said I’d try to find something that was more timely, and I tried down the street, where a solitary man sat in the depths of a spacious store, ceiling tile hanging where it hadn’t been re-supported with makeshift wood planks, an old tv playing a soap opera in the corner. He got off the phone, told me the model was old, that he didn’t carry those belts, though he could order them—no promise of how soon. But, when I asked for advice, he suggested the place down the street.
The third place visited on Monday, the seventh in total (not counting the online options I’d looked up, two-day shipping arriving on Wednesday) was like a speakeasy for appliances, obscure frontage wedged in between a drive-through coffee shop and a used car dealership. I walked into narrow confines, aisles hedged by dishwashers and dryers, constraining and aiming me to the back counter where I waited behind three others. Two employees worked behind the counter, another answered the phone. When it was my turn, the fuzzy-bearded dark-skinned young man in glasses started to respond to my request for the part, when the matriarch of the place interrupted her assistance to others, looking at the belts in my hands as she overheard my quest. “Maytag? 11124 and 11125?” She knew immediately the origin story of the parts, as well as the place in the backroom where they were stowed is plastic bagged packaging, and she directed fuzzy beard to the deeper recesses of the store. I left with brand new belts and a new appreciation for Appliance Store #7.
I took time to readjust tension, re-level the washer, replace screws and panels. Connections with the water and electricity were remade. Nothing difficult, but I was thoughtful and took my time and even tidied and cleaned as I went.
And we all know how the story continues.
The washing tub won’t turn, even though the motor and belts are all functioning. Burning rubber, the smell of failure, signals that bearings or a clutch mechanism or some other vital point of rotation of the tub is failing.
I poured a martini and looked up the number of the appliance repair shop, the same where I found my part.
The term commences from within a thick stew of fog; it’s still dark as I walk to my 7:30 AM class. Ice crusts the edges of walks and slicks the centers. It’s ironically the first day of “spring” semester.
The first day is always quiet. Everyone is early today, a third of the course roll occupies seats 10 minutes early. I wait to see if they’ll say anything, utter any sound at all, but they just sit in frozen politeness or trepidation or grogginess. I fiddle with chalk, making sure the white and red and blue are at the ready, out of the box and within reach, but it’s mostly just to demonstrate some kind of task. Unfold a binder, stack the freshly stapled syllabi, roll in a table from the back room— all to pantomime a routine to hide behind as I listen to their silence.
And then we begin.
I hand out syllabi and explain that the class never gets old for me. I’ve been teaching this stuff for 20 years and it’s still new to me. I admire you, I told them. I’m excited for this all, I proclaimed. It’s all true. Come back tomorrow, same time, same place.
The day continued. I composed emails—two of which were really well written, as far as emails go—and moved papers around and said thank you to helpful people. At one point I got lunch, and I ran that errand in which I found the belts for our washing machine and installed wiper blades on the car. I went to two formally planned meetings, and multiple other impromptu passing-by or in-the-hallway or can-I-ask-you-a-quick-question kinds of non-appointments. I handed back a final exam from last term; I planned a meeting for next week; I helped calculate an orbit.
Later, there would be the exuberant high five exchanged with my former student who will be the tutor for my early class, the very one that starts at the break of dawn and meets every day of the week. How was your break? She shared that she’d gotten herself most of the way through the Carl Sagan book I’d lent her. I remembered to ask if she could cover a review session for one of my classes when I’d be away. She jumped up and down with zeal and even said “thanks” for that opportunity to do more work, as if it was me doing her a favor instead of the other way around. I called her a nerd. The high-five came after.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a Joe Walsh song in my head, a rhythmic piano chord keeping the beat and a repeated line sung through the chorus. What was notable to me was that I had heard the song that morning, though Karyn’s alarm clock, and here it was, resurfacing to the consciousness almost a day later, looping through my sleeping brain and staying with me as I walked to the bathroom. This was notable, too, because earlier that evening I was re-reading a passage in my nightly book because I seem to have a hard time remembering what I’d read the night before, or even five minutes before, for that matter. Often I wonder if the neurons and their circuitry are degrading and slipping away.
And so I woke up, actually pleased to have a song in my head, pleased to know that there are things that can get stored there and stick, even if a few paragraphs of text slide away along some slope and out of my mind. Except, now that I’m awake, I can’t quite place the song anymore. No matter: I just looked up the list of Joe Walsh tunes, solo or Eagles, to re-seed the memory.
The song doesn’t exist.
It could be that I am mistaking Joe Walsh from some other. It could be that I just missed the song as I scrolled through the listing — three times. Or, it could be that I invented the entire sequence, from alarm clock music early in the morning to waking up in the middle of the night to the details of the song itself (which I can no longer recall). I had awaken, not annoyed but delighted to know that I could remember something from earlier in the day; but now I realize that this might be a fabrication, a story (and song) that I’ve just created out of thin air.
There are good reasons for me not to have tattoos. Take, for instance, the fact that I can’t even decide on the watchface that my wrist-based device will sport. I’ll vary the display every three days from a digital to analog representation, messing with colors or fonts mere moments after I’d decided that I’d finally arrived on the ideal means of telling me the time. If I just give it another day I can’t help but change the graphic completely.
Given this, it’s quite reasonable that I don’t have dye permanently injected into my flesh. What would be the ideal piece of art and where would it be displayed and what color? It’s best that I leave my expressions to a collection of wool socks that I can vary each day, perhaps a hat on occasion.
Yet, in my classes I’m often cracking wise about what essential pieces of information a student of science should have etched into their skin in preparation for an exam, or perhaps just for everyday referral. Trigonometric functions and the Pythagorean theorem, for example, would be handy for many of my scholars. Maybe different expressions of energy and a few fundamental constants, say the mass and charge of an electron or the speed of light, would be appropriate tools. These would be both an excellent crutch for back of the envelope calculations as well as a good indicator of what really matters to a person, and maybe they’d make a good conversation piece over a beer or two. Such potential body art should pay off in multiple ways.
(And, in all honesty, I would love to see what staff of our testing centers would do when they check for disallowed aides before an exam. How could you argue with something that is a piece of your own flesh?)
Just a few weeks ago, I was imaging the entire periodic table painted onto one’s forearm. After all, what could be more useful and representative of what we are? It could offer a kind of ingredients label, and with some creative rearranging you could even list elements from those that contribute the most to least, either within the body or beyond. Upon that thought, I spontaneously wrote H2O on my arm with the dry erase marker I was wielding.
At first it seemed silly, one of those in-the-moment quips to help others remember and to entertain the instructor. But now I’m thinking it’s an ideal label. It is truly what I am, mostly. I could scarcely imagine a more genuine ingredient label than this. We are a jumble of cells keeping salt water arranged into its improbably sculpted form. Being the same inanimate byproduct of a simple acid/base reaction, we’re not much more complicated than the outcome of vinegar and baking soda poured into a large tumbler. Foaming and frothing, respiring and evaporating, we can be grateful that we have even the most minimal control of where we take and how we direct these big sacks of goo.
So, perhaps a water molecule on my forearm could be a personal reminder of my mortality and simplicity — and I’m intrigued enough to consider this as a permanent feature to my exterior. But it’s more than this. The fact that I’m trying to direct and improve upon this sack of fluid — make it love and think and serve others — is laughable. It puts New Years resolutions into a new perspective.
For this year, 2018, I’ve decided it’s enough to resolve simply:
It’s a bold ambition for these ingredients kept together by a saran of skin and held up by calcified limbs. There are such large problems, such deep holes, and they seem impossible to climb out from. But there may be footholds, simple steps that can be taken one at a time. In the ostentatious presumption that we have some impact that can be made manifest on our own bags of water, not to mention on those of others, this is enough. And maybe that tattoo isn’t such a bad idea after all: a reminder to forgive and accept, both myself and others, for all that we’re trying to make of the particles we’ve assembled.
I’m on the couch listening to Handel’s Messiah and to Grace and Karyn making cookies in the next room. It’s all music. I put away my book and close my eyes and appreciate each note.