Friday, December 23, 2005

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Perhaps it is a character flaw, but I prefer closure in all things. I find that if I leave threads unraveled, they come back to haunt me. Best to finish and be done, tie up all the lose ends, even if no one other than myself knows. There is a peace in simply recognizing finality. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “After a great pain, a formal feeling comes”. As I write this I am packing again and there is a great finality to packing. It’s like erecting a memory cathedral: you pick things up, you put them in the box and think “I remember this…I remember this.”

Earlier this week I was having a sort of goodbye lunch with my friends in Austin and we were talking about some funny things people have done during exams to intimidate other test takers. My friend H said one guy brought his own lamp to the exam he took that week. H also knew a guy who brought a whole crate of books bristling with post it flags to the exam. The guy left the crate in the room and walked out long enough to get them all freaked out, and then when he came back he put the books all away and never opened one for the exam.

Since "I am at least 50% law retarded" as a friend of mine likes to say, I decided at lunch that I would consider new test taking tactics that are focused more on intimidating my fellow students rather than concentrating on increasing my own knowledge. I’ve formed a three part strategy:
1) making any sort of loud body-function noise (e.g. coughing, heavy breathing, etc.)
2) distracting clothing (e.g. a swimsuit, a toga, etc.)
3) and of course bringing bizarre objects (e.g. bell-book-candle, the kama sutra, 100 pens/pencils, etc.)

The key is to be as noisy and distracting as possible, while persevering with one’s own exam. In an effort to help my plan, H left me a gift when he left for the holidays – his desk lamp to take to my exam. This parting gift made me laugh, but alas, I lacked the courage to actually take it into the rooms with me. Instead I kept it in my carrel and would laugh about it when I started to feel overwhelmed.

When I finished my last exam yesterday and it was time to clean out my carrel, I felt I could not simply walk away. That just seemed to lack closure. So to mark my leaving, I created a sort of installation piece. I left the lamp from H, a pile of papers and this message…

To Whom It May Concern:

It seems a shame to clear away
As though my presence never were
Having labored here so many hours
Which quickly turned into days

I think I’ll leave a bit of me behind:
This lamp – a gift from a friend
Who wished me well on my exams
My paper which served me so little –
I’ve decided I’ll keep my pen

But even these artifacts will not remain
To this I am resigned
My only legacy is these words
And the friends I leave behind

Let this then be my manifesto and my creed:
This library did not break me!
Though I sat in this chair a rock, a slave
I could look down the hall to the window
And though it be but a speck –
– I saw brighter days.

And though I am sad to go, I remain optimistic. Although it may not be by choice, the next year and a half will be an adventure. School may be my Ahab, but Ishmael did survive.

Straight on then ‘till morning, Starbuck.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Ode to a Sandwhich (aka A Valediction Forbidding Eating)

As we approach exam time, I am sad to say the thrills in my life have become far less thrilling. In fact they are almost non-existent. The most exciting thing I have had to wrap my brain around is this sandwich that my friend ate the other day known as the "Veggies, Provolone & Hummus".

Frank Gehry No Longer Allowed
to Make Sandwhiches for

In my book, we are already off to a bad start. It gets worse… "on whole wheat with curry mayonnaise"

Curry Mayonnaise and Hummus? Hummus and Provolone? But wait! There's more! I have not listed the veggies:

green peppers
red onion

Sweet Potatoes, cheese, hummus, green peppers, curry oh my!

This is the sort of sandwich one comes up with when stoned. Or on mescalin. All that's missing is a side order of paranoia.

The best part is that this sandwich comes prepackaged – which implies that there are people that enjoy this particular sandwich and have bought enough to keep the company in production of said sandwich.

My friend, who is an easy going sort of person, ate this sandwich in its entirety though not liking it one bit. I encouraged her to toss it, and yet she finished it, which she later regretted as it made her a bit ill.

Why keep eating it? Why? Like Superstring Theory, the evolution of the flagella, and the nature of the human soul, this is one of the many things I do not understand.

We're so lazy on Thanksgiving, we don't even cook

Thanksgiving is my most favorite of holidays. Not due to giving thanks, or celebrating the fact that "The Man" stole this country from the Indians, or eating, or anything so banal but simply due to the fact that it is the most varied holiday in the Texas household. All other holidays at the Texas Shangri-la are lukewarm at best, my father being an atheist and my mother a half-hearted Christian. Not to mention I have no grandparents (dead before I was born) and my parents are not close to their siblings for a variety of reasons (large age gaps, marrying into the mob, emu farming etc.) Therefore most holidays are just the four of us (and sometimes our adopted-by-choice siblings).

But Thanksgiving has always managed to be a wonderful assortment of people: grad students, TA's, my friends, my sister's friends, and the random acquaintances of any one of us who has nowhere to go. The only constant attendees are our godparents.* While such an assortment might not seem that interesting in and of itself, it is also of note that we don't cook. Not one sweet potato, green bean or turkey leg ever sees the inside of our oven on Thanksgiving.

You are surely asking yourself, "But why?" The answer is simple: my parents would surely be divorced if we did.

I can only remember one home cooked Thanksgiving in my entire life. I was about 11, which made my sister 6 and for some reason my mother had decided that she was going to cook for all of Dad's grad students that year, none of whom were American. I guess she wanted them to have that Norman Rockwell thanksgiving experience while they were working on their PhDs. Being engineers, I don't think they really gave a damn, but they showed up as it was their duty to come over if their professor asks. I'm afraid that what they experienced was uniquely American, but distinctly un-Rockwellian.

While my mother is a good cook, she is completely indecisive. This is a particularly lethal trait to combing with cooking because my mother is never quite sure when something is "done". My father, being a scientist, knows things are "done" when they have taken on a brown or black color, and preferably a hard outer shell that might be referred to as a "hull". As long as I can remember at almost every meal that involved oven use, my parents debate the "doneness" of the item. Sadly, my father generally wins and we have always eaten a variety of blackened baked goods over the years. My father also translates this skill to the grill. I like my steaks rare, my dad feels better however if the steak comes back from the grill with its own protective, black exoskeleton.

On the Thanksgiving in question (i.e. when I was 11), the piece de resistance was to be the stuffing. My mother was making traditional stuffing that her mother (aka my maternal grandmother) used to make --
and which was a point of pride to her. This is especially true since my dad's mother (aka my paternal grandmother) was infamous for making little flat patties of stuffing that were simultaneously dry and tasteless; my mother referred to her mother-in-law's creations as "stuffing turds".

It is no leap of logic to discern the source of my father's culinary ability. No doubt my mother's stuffing would have been the pinnacle of the dinner, save for her fatal cooking flaw – after all, when is stuffing done?

True to form, my parents consulted back and forth for an hour about the relative doneness of the stuffing. Alas, my father was certain the stuffing was done when it achieved a firm brown layer on top preserving a dry breadcrumb concoction underneath that, in its final state, could have been used to insulate our house. Needless to say my mother was not pleased. In fact the dinner degenerated into my mother forcing the poor grad students to eat themselves senseless, all the while making little comments/apologies about the fact that the stuffing was terrible because a certain someone had burned it. My father took this opportunity to reacquaint himself with single malt scotch and sat through the dinner with a silly grin on his face which only served to enrage my mother further.

The easy solution to this problem would have been to merely tell the grad students that stuffing's supposed to taste like it's made from asbestos. My mother has taken an entirely different approach to the problem: denial and deflection. We have never discussed that fateful thanksgiving and but since that date she has never made any pretense of cooking, we simply go out to one of those mammoth hotel buffets. Thus my parents' marriage has preserved its delicate balance, clocking in at 41 years of wedded bliss.

This year's Thanksgiving featured an interesting assortment of people. Sadly my sister was not here, she could not be counted on to bring along another art or theater student to provide the dinner entertainment. In attendance instead were my parents, my godparents, the ambiguously gay lover of my parents' friend from high school (who has since died of a brain tumor, my parents' friend that is), my adopted-by-choice-sister, her divorced parents, and her boyfriend. I had no idea that any of these people would be in attendance, but honestly, I rather enjoy the surprise.

Why such a bizarre assortment? Well adopted-by choice-sis usually spends thanksgiving with her father. Her father, being an asshole, didn't want to cook for the boyfriend so he dumped it back on the mom to cook for ALL of them. Adopted-sis's mom, not being stupid, realized this would be a very bad tense situation so she called my mom to tag along to our buffet. The real highlight of the meal was when the boyfriend (who is quite nice) turned to ambiguously gay lover of my parents' friend from high school and asked "So, are you [adopted sis']father?" (Sigh) Oh awkwardness. Anyway, by careful seating arrangement we kept asshole father away from Mom and nice boyfriend and had relatively peaceful and fun drunken Thanksgiving. Not the fireworks I had hoped for, but it will have to do.