Monday, October 29, 2007

Dream: The professor-spy

I was a David McCallum-like spy or professor, and my assignment was to train or teach a young woman—something. I didn't know what.

When she arrived, I told her that my sense of geography was not good, but that somewhere in eastern Europe, perhaps Romania, "we" had lobbied to install an experimental pig farm and finally had won our way.

In case she had missed the obvious point, I said, "Of course, we don't need a pig farm there when we have the entire Midwest." I did not know if she would be able to complete the thought. "The pig farm is really an opportunity to keep an eye on the Russian missile program."

She left, and I stood in the window on the second floor, watching the evening rain, wondering what I had been talking about, and thinking, "Why Romania?"

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Week of October 21, 2007

I wrote this at Bonjour Bakery and Café. I thought it would be too chilly to sit outdoors today, but there's no breeze so it's very comfortable, and my fingers don't hurt. My coffee is even staying hot.

The apartment troubles continued this week, but there is an end in sight. I noticed intermittent dampness on the bathroom floor under the toilet tank. On Monday, the wax seal was replaced, which seems to have resolved that problem. They also tore up the hallway wall and found nothing, so it was plastered and will be painted tomorrow. They think the seal problem may have caused the plaster to crumble, although I still can't envision how.

After the closet was plastered, I noticed it seemed powdery in some places and damp in others, and the back of my mind registered that the wall was cold to the touch. The construction manager looked at it and had it torn out again. All was well, though, and this morning I moved everything back in. Yesterday I returned everything to the bottom of the linen closet except a couple of old sports bags that smelled of mildew, and also to the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink.

Now I'm tired, even a little sore, but everything is almost back to normal. At this point, normal feels a little odd.

To remind me that there is always the potential for something to go wrong, large or small, this morning the smoke detector started chirping at uneven intervals—a low battery, and another job for the hard-pressed maintenance men.

In terms of household tasks, I've gotten a lot done this weekend—washed dishes, cleaned the litter box, mopped the kitchen floor, put almost everything away, vacuumed, shopped—yet I managed to sleep most of yesterday morning and afternoon.

My exhaustion is not just from PMS or from working too hard. It's from play acting every day.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"Like, you know, totally"

One day when I was eating lunch at Caffe Baci on Madison, a nearby conversation intruded itself into my awareness. The speakers were two young male professionals. Their dialogue was along these lines:

"So he thought we should, like, tell the client . . ."

"Like, that is so weird."

"Well, he was like . . . and then I was like . . . He's so, like, annoying, you know?"

"Totally. Like, what are you going to do?"

And so on and on.

I looked at them. They were ordinary-looking men.

Who sounded like teenage girls.

Since then, I've noticed a lot of this, even in men I guess to be as old as 30 or even more. I heard another one the other day at Bonjour; he was pacing the courtyard, carrying on his end of a particularly mundane conversation on his mobile phone and peppering his contributions with nearly every poor speech habit imaginable, loudly, so we all could hear.

Now, I'm not a woman whose tastes run toward the macho. I do, however, like a man who sounds like a man (Richard Harris, Richard Kiley, and Howard Keel all come to mind). That means I like a man whose every other word isn't "like," "he goes/she goes," or "totally," a man who doesn't remind me of a young woman.

Presumably, many of these men have wives or girlfriends. Do their women find their speech patterns and habits sexy? Do they match their own so closely that it never occurs to them how odd they sound emanating from an adult male? Does everyone, both genders, of a certain age talk in this way, and am I catching on only now? After all, in the past 10 years I've noticed more and more adult women, some as old as 45–50, who sound like chipmunks on helium, which I had not realized before. I'm starting to wonder if men are following suit. To wonder, and to be afraid.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What do I want to be?

In the 1960s, boys wanted to be firemen or policemen, and girls wanted to be nurses or teachers.

Except me.

I didn't know what I wanted to be. I didn't know what it meant to "be" something. I never thought about adults or what they did all day, even the teachers I saw every day. I didn't know what my father did when he went to work; I knew only when he left and when he returned. Once in a while, he would come home with a cut or scrape, but I never learned how they came about.

As I grew older, I figured out that doctors and lawyers had more money, but I couldn't say why. I was naive about socioeconomic status and based my own affections on the merits of the person before me, not on what their father did for a living or how much money he made.

In college, I learned the importance of status and money to others. A young woman in my dormitory asked me what my father did before his retirement. Still unclear as to his exact job, I said he worked for Ford Motor Company. "Was he a VP? Of what?" she asked. I didn't know what a VP was or did, but I told her what I did know, that he worked in shipping, in the rail yard. Her eyes and facial expression changed. "Oh, he was a worker," she said dismissively. Neither she nor anyone in her circle of friends spoke to me again. In addition to being the child of a mere worker, I must have seemed the height of stupidity and social ineptitude. Later I would see the campus communists protesting speakers and would think, "What do they know of workers?" I seemed to be alone.

I thought about this the other day when I did a keyword search and came across job listings in health care. Registered nurses, licensed nurses, administrators, directors of nursing—all the usual health care positions.

For some reason, the position of "case manager" caught my attention. No one at age 6 wants to be a case manager. No one at age 6 has heard of a case manager. As with nursing and many other fields, to be a case manager requires specific education, training, and experience. At some point, you have to decide to become a case manager and then you must prepare for it. It's a long-term commitment, different than becoming a store cashier or a call center operator. If you are a case manager, you are a case manager—your commitment, at least for now, has made the profession part of your identity.

This may be where I get hung up on career choices. I can't get past thinking of careers as functions that society needs performed. To me, it's something that someone pays you to do and that you perform so you can do what you really want to do—whether that's buying a house and having a family, collecting lovely things, traveling to exotic or exciting places, or following your academic dreams.

Specialized functions seem so limiting to me. I don't mind writing copy, but I don't want to be thought of as a copywriter because I can do so many other things. I learn quickly and thoroughly, and I think strategically. I come up with ideas and develop solutions to problems. I'm a good judge of people. I can earn the respect of people of diverse personality types.

There are things I'm terrible at, too. I don't have the patience for advanced math or physical sciences. I'm not mechanically inclined; in fact, I'm dimensionally impaired. I'm introverted, so I would not do well at anything that requires an outgoing personality, for examples, fund raising or sales. Authority and top-down discipline are antithetical to me; I could not succeed in the military, on the police force, or as part of any bureaucracy.

I have a clear idea of who and what I am, and of who and what I am not. If I remember accurately, my dad's official position was "checker." My current official position is "senior copywriter." Just as my dad was much, much more than a "checker," I am more than a "copywriter." I chafe, I think, because the guardian types who tend to be in charge in any organization prefer to see people in terms of function instead of possibilities, and because i have not taken enough risks to find a function that focuses on my abilities, capabilities, and interests, not tasks.

There must be something comforting in knowing that you are a good case manager, that there will be a foreseeable need for case managers (or at least their talents, knowledge, and skills), and that there is little or nothing else you would rather do. You have a plan, a certain amount of job and financial security, and perhaps a general sense of contentment that balances the day-to-day frustrations any job brings.

I have but a vision—and it's blurred, scary, and forever elusive.

And so I continue my function, paralyzed by inertia, never happy, always discontent and unfulfilled, forever dreaming.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Week of October 14, 2007

This will be one of those entries in which I memorialize what is going on in my life, which isn't much.

On Monday, I met with the director of learning and organizational development to discuss my Clifton Strengthsfinder results. My top five strengths are:


I'm not sure what this means in practical terms. I like to think it indicates I'm thoughtful, creative, spiritual, and insightful, with a bad habit of collecting stuff. I could wish my Self-Assurance or Significance were commensurate with my intellect, but since they aren't my inner genius remains confined, trapped.

One of my top ten strengths, Adaptability, indicates that I need challenge and change. It's interesting how lazy I am about finding either or making them happen, as though I am afraid of them—and of being happy.

Because of the leak I found under the kitchen sink, I have a new faucet. It's relatively sleek and ergonomic, and operates more easily and smoothly than the old one. Such small changes bring me small blips of pleasure.

The new plaster in the hallway is already starting to crumble. This week I found a damp spot underneath the toilet tank that appears intermittently. I'm beginning to wonder if the crumbling plaster on the outside wall and the damp spot under the toilet are related, odd as that may sound. I'll have to make a note of it.

The plumbing repairs appear to have been finished early, and now the bedroom closet is awaiting a new paint job. Assuming the mold issue is dealt with (a big assumption), I should be able to return my lifetime's accumulation of clutter to the closet this weekend. I wonder if I will sleep easier, or if my subconscious will always be on the alert for a downpour of water from above.

A friend tells me I may be a nemesis of pipes. He's referring to the X-Files, I gather. Apparently, psychics take out their anger or stress on the plumbing, which comes apart. I doubt this is the case for me, unless I am emotionally suicidal. My subconscious would become a significant source of my stress, as wee-morning phone calls, water pouring behind walls, mold, and sodden and ruined possessions do not make me happy and contented, or relaxed.

Earlier this week, I bought two flattish pillows, not for any particular reason other than that they were on sale and looked comfortable. Because they are flatter than the old pillows, they seem to be better for my neck. Unfortunately, mainly because I seem to have a nagging ear/throat infection, my sleep has been restless and broken, and I have been waking up tired, sore, and head-achy.

There was the morning I dreamed that a friend (unknown, that is, not a real person) and I went to a local computer repair shop somewhere unrecognizable and surreal. The place was owned and managed by . . . John Denver. While he was talking to us about my friend's computer problem and my Internet access speed issues, a large Amish family walked in with their troubled computer. At this point I think I felt like I was having a bad dream and struggled to wake up. It was too unreal even for me.

There's something new to look forward to—glasses. I had my annual eye exam on Thursday. I've managed to dodge (barely) bifocals for one more year, and so illogically and because I like change I am splurging on Silhouette rimless titanium frames. Because there's almost nothing to them, they weigh almost nothing. Alas, they cost enough to make me wonder about my sanity. I hear my dad's voice saying, "More money than brains." Right now, I am in short supply of both. By the time I go back to pick up the new glasses, most likely I'll have decided I need the clip-on sunglasses, too. At this rate, I must win the lottery I never play.

And so it's Friday. The closet, a load or two of laundry, and a good vacuuming await, as well as anxiety over damp spots in the bedroom ceiling and bathroom floor, but so do a couple of pleasant mornings at Bonjour and a few good stories. I may even start to write one myself.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

City slicker

My friend J. took this tonight with his mobile phone on Everett Avenue, one block over, where I used to live.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Review: Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. Recommended.

Like Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn is part autobiography, part memoir, part polemic, part fiction, part fantasy, and part poetry, written in near stream of consciousness as Miller experiences one epiphany after another.

As with the prior book, Miller's ramblings are the source and the result of his efforts to define himself as an artist. Other contemporary American writers, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, seem fascinated by their significance as artists and by the future importance of their art. In the Tropic books, Miller makes his consciousness of himself as an artist the subject of his art. In some ways, reading the Tropic books is like watching someone obsessively paint his self-portrait over and over, all with the title, Self-Portrait of the Artist.

According to Miller, "Life becomes a spectacle and, if you happen to be an artist, you record the passing show . . . The surface of your being is constantly crumbling; within, however, you grow hard as a diamond." He says he "was perhaps the first Dadaist in America, and I didn't know it. Nobody understood what I was writing about or why I wrote that way. I was so lucid that they said I was daffy." The focus is not on the art (what he is writing about) but on himself as the artist, with an anonymous readership ("nobody," "they") who doesn't understand him. As if his own belief in himself as an artist were not enough to convince us, he quotes a series of friends who insist that he should become a writer.

While Miller lacks objectivity and security, he has moments of insight into the current human condition. "Now we are eating of the same bread, but without benefit of communion, without grace. We are eating to fill our bellies and our hearts are cold and empty. We are separate but not individual," following an anecdote about sour rye, is a brilliantly simple description of a world he sees as cold and mechanical, when progress and war have robbed men of their humanity. "The smell of a dead horse . . . is still a thousand times better than the smell of burning chemicals . . . the sight of a dead horse with a bullet hole in the temple . . . is still a better sight than that of a group of men in blue aprons coming out of the arched doorway of the tin factory . . ." Honest death and decay, "after life," are better than "death from the roots, isolating men, making them bitter and fearful and lonely, giving them fruitless energy . . ."

Superior to Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn still shows a lack of discipline, or a contempt for it. Separating the poetic gems are long, rambling passages that are sometimes pointless and sometimes nonsensical. He continues the use of incoherent metaphors such as, "Inwardly they are filled with worms. A tiny spark and they blow up." Sometimes his attempts to play with words and prose are more childish than literary or artistic, for example, " . . . deeper and deeper in sleep sleeping, the sleep of the deep in deepest sleep, at the nethermost depth full slept, the deepest and sleepest sleep of sleep's sweet sleep," and so on.

Tropic of Capricorn is uneven, ranging from the lively and the lovely to the self-conscious and tedious. It's unfortunate that Miller expended so much effort trying to convince the reader (and himself) of his status as an evil monster and artist (perhaps with the idea that they are synonymous) and so little culling the irrelevant and refining the rest. Miller's perspective and vision are interesting, even compelling, when not muddied by his fascination with himself and by his need to stand out.

Saturday, 13 October 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Highly recommended.

"It was 7 minutes after midnight." Every detail matters in the solution of the mystery of the neighbor's murdered dog, which is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That's partly because the detective on the case is Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy with autism, a penchant for numbers, a genius for math, and a determination to solve the mystery and write a book.

Clues abound, but Christopher's strictly literal view of the world prevents him from seeing or understanding them, even as he records them. In his mind, metaphors are "lies," and phrases like "raining cats and dogs" and "you'll catch your death from cold" are incomprehensible nonsense. As the story behind Wellington's death unfolds, Haddon masterfully gives the reader the clues that escape Christopher while allowing him to pursue the more logical details he does understand and to get help with the more subtle ones.

Along the way, Christopher offers insight into the autistic mind and people's reaction to it. While he cannot read emotions or pick up on verbal cues and body language (unless they are explained to him; for example, he knows that a raised voice may indicate anger), his mind processes details the average person would miss. While we might see cows and some flowers in a field, he knows how many cows, he can draw each of their individual patterns, and he can name the species of flowers.

Just as Christopher doesn't understand why everyone won't or can't notice these important details, the people he encounters, while quickly picking up that he is different, can't figure out how and adjust themselves. His working-class father tries to, but his understanding of his son seems limited to an intellectual rather than an emotional one. He knows that Christopher hates to be touched and is wise enough to develop a hand signal that signifies love in lieu of a hug, but he doesn't understand at an emotional level the pain that touch causes his son. Not surprisingly, he can become frustrated when Christopher can't behave in the normal way. If Christopher's perception is limited by autism, his father's is limited to what he knows and can see. He cannot feel what it's like to be Christopher any more than Christopher can figure out that his father's quiet, slow speech indicated tightly controlled anger.

As Christopher works on the mystery and his book, he learns how to do things he may not have thought possible; for example, he survives the ordeal of going to a crowded train station and traveling alone. More significantly, he learns how to twist and withhold the truth when necessary. When his father makes him promise not to do something, Christopher rationally determines what he can and cannot do within the very literal sense of the promise, thereby breaking it in spirit. As he pursues his investigation, he seems to grasp that he is on questionable ground according to his own standards, even as he senses that the mystery is important enough to justify his rationalizations. By the end, he can say with pride and with some truth, "I can do anything."

Haddon uses a simple technique to convey the linear, mathematical nature of Christopher's mind and thought process; as the story builds, Christopher begins many if not most of his sentences with "and." "And I bent down . . . And I walked after him . . . And someone said . . . And I said . . . And the man . . . And then I heard . . ." The use of "and" not only sounds genuine, but it is also additive—that is, mathematical. For someone who squares numbers in his head to stay calm, "and" is one way to manage the sensory and emotional overload he encounters in his quest to determine the killer.

Only someone who is autistic can say whether Haddon has captured the thought process and emotions accurately. Even if The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not a complete insight into the autistic mind, it is a valuable one, and a reminder that not everyone sees the world we see in exactly the same way we do.

Sunday, 7 October 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Dream: "Thanksgiving Unstuffed"

Our food and beverage department held a "Thanksgiving Unstuffed" event for employees, but I felt out of place and confused. There were two or three long tables; one was surrounded by women I didn't know speaking a language that I didn't know, and another was empty for no discernible reason. I didn't know where to go. Then I found that the strange women had moved to the empty table, but somehow nothing else was available.

Someone asked me to stand up and speak about my past as a benefits consultant, but I didn't know who would care or what I should say. In addition, two boyish young men from outside spoke and mingled with the people standing, but I did not know them or what they spoke about. They seemed to be oddly cheerful and somehow out of place. One of them gave me a businesslike hug before I left.

Later or the next day, he saw me on a bus and made a point of talking to me. He was different in some way, still cheerful but more authentic in behavior. When I went to get off the bus, he commented that I could not get away from him so easily. The hug he gave me this time was not at all businesslike, but earnest and intense.

I could not help but mull over who this strange young man was, what he had meant, what he wanted from me, and why he had singled me out for what appeared to be unusual attentions. Then it flashed on me that he had also kissed me passionately and urgently. I could remember only the fact, but not the act itself no matter how hard I tried. I wondered if I should want to see him again, but I was afraid to because I was so unsure about what had happened and what was meant.