Friday, March 25, 2011

Small things that make me feel like everything might be okay

I can't remember a time in my life when I thought "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this!" Any time I've ever been paid to do anything it's been something horrifying that you'd have to pay me to do, like calling people and asking them to give me money for handicapped people whom I've never met, or driving out past the civilized world of cell phone reception and down into a canyon in order to get out of the safety of my car, hike up an un-passable drive, to a trailer home with the door open just wide enough for me to see someone shove something out of my line of sight, and say "Hi! I'm here on behalf of the US Government!" Those are things that you have to pay me to do, and no matter what you're paying me, I feel like I'm getting cheated.

So it was new and exciting the other day when I was driving out to Dover, Ark. on a delivery when I caught myself thinking "I'm getting paid for this!" The weather had just turned nice so I had the windows rolled down, the radio was playing something like Steve Miller Band, and I was on a long stretch of road, going somewhere, doing something - and getting paid. Usually I'm getting paid to sit in an office and look at columns of numbers, which I certainly don't complain about. I like the people I work with, I have my own desk, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever I want as long as I get my work done as well. And the actual work isn't that bad. It's not studying lost manuscripts in a language only I understand or impressing the world with my creative spirit - but it's close. And it's the best thing I can hope for right now. And it offers me the opportunity to sometimes, if one of the delivery people calls in, deliver parts and listen to the radio in a car I don't own, whose gas I don't buy.

Most of the time my life makes me feel like I'm trying to run through deep sand, choking on my lack of self-confidence and inability to communicate along the way. I worry a lot about how I'm going to get through all the days that are left, which at my age could be very many. And driving to McAlister's Station, I wasn't worrying about all of that. I wasn't worrying about anything. I was just driving, moving fast and easy, cheerful and calm. I was relieved to find that, at that particular moment, despite the many things that stress me out, all it took for me to be happy was a beat-up Chevy with no air or floorboards and a person in need of some shop towels and a blower motor switch. And surely the world will never run out of those two things.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


When I was sitting in my office today I thought I had a great idea. Something fun, interesting. At the time I couldn't wait to get home and share my idea with everyone and now that I am home I'm feeling a little self-conscious. But I'm going to share my idea anyway.

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist. He went to Harvard and was a professor at Yale. And he conducted two of the two experiments that I remember studying in my psychology classes. One was, simply, "The Milgram Experiment." That's the one about obedience and authority, morals and personal responsibility, in which participants willingly administered 450 volt shocks to another person, who in these experiments was an actor pretending to be electrocuted by the fake shocks - but the actual participant didn't know that as he was steadily turning that dial higher and higher. It's memorable, and worth reading about. I tried to attach a link, but I can't figure out how to do it. Just look up "Milgram Experiment" on Wikipedia. I know there's an extra step there because I'm computer illiterate, but it really is very interesting.

The other one is his "Small World Experiment." That's the one that taught us all about the six degrees of separation. He sent packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska with instructions to forward them on to someone who they thought would get the package closer to this one particular person, unknown to them, a stockbroker in Boston, Massachusetts. In the experiment it took an average of six people to get the package to him. Thus, we live in a small world where we're only six people away from anyone.

Here's the idea: Since I'm financially, emotionally, and in most other ways stuck in Arkansas, let's play. Six degrees of separation, that is. I'll write the name of someone who I want to contact me and every one of you reading this (all 10 of you) think of someone you know who could get my message one degree closer. Let's see how long it takes. I mean, if you're interested. I'll start easy. Someone not famous. Someone who is probably local to most of you. The person who actually started this whole thought process for me was Dr. Fred Durer. He is the doctor who delivered my seven-year-old, Adam. I liked him a lot and I was thinking that, if I delivered babies for a living, I would be desperately curious about what these babies were like as children and adults. I wanted to tell him that Adam is an artist, and that he's really good at building things with Legos, very focused and serious, and that his hair still isn't dark like mine.

I could Google him, or give his office a call, but I don't need to actually have a phone conversation with him, and I could write a letter, but I'm not a savage, if I don't have your email address I can't write to you. I don't even think I own any paper. So what I need is the email address for Dr. Fred Durer. Or better yet, slip my email address, somehow, into his pocket with a note about how it got there. Maybe that's too creepy, I just thought that rather than getting information back to me through the chain it would be easier to just have the information going one way. That would be a bit too much like telephone and we all know how that ends up. I'm usually too embarrassed to even say what I think I heard. Okay, information going one way. Get him my email address, surely he'll be curious enough about this crazy experiment to contact me. He'll really have no idea who I am, so we better clarify that I was a patient and he delivered my son. Also, I'm married and an entire state away, so there's no funny stuff going on. That's your task. I send you out into the world, each by your own paths, in search of this one man. And how much more special will he feel knowing that a whole army of bored people who waste work hours reading their friend's blogs have been mobilized on his behalf, instead of a nice card? I'm excited. I am the spark that becomes the flame, the stone that causes the ripple that becomes the crashing wave! We can do this!

If this works, we'll try someone else. It's doesn't have to be all about me either, give me ideas. Who do you want to draw near in six degrees? How about Kevin Bacon?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Family

It was only once I had kids that I started thinking about family in terms other than "people who share the same last name as me." As a kid you don't realize that not every family is like yours. Then once you get older you start experiencing holidays with other people and one day someone passes you stuffing that isn't from a box, and you understand that every family is different. At least that's how it happened for me.

I just got back from a trip to Houston to visit my sister, aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather. Dad and Adam also flew down from Chicago. This was the first time I'd seen some of them in about five years. It was interesting, in my late-blooming adulthood, to try to make sense of my family in the context of "people who contributed to the person I am today."

Grandmother reads. Their house is filled with books. She recently quit reading a book because the first line was not a complete sentence. She looks pretty much the same to me as she always has, she's gotten cuter. I think because she's gotten so thin her eyes look really big and blue and she's got this little button nose that I wish I had inherited. Grandfather is full of purpose, always has been. I remember watching him open the shades in the kitchen as a kid. I have no idea why this struck me or why I remember it to this day, but he did it so slowly and carefully. The whole wall is windows, so there were a lot of shades and he opened each one so seriously and perfectly. Most people would kind of rush through opening that many shades, and not really pay attention as they were doing it. Not my Grandfather.

My Uncle Mike and Aunt Moira live in my great grandmother's old house. We called her Muddie. I still don't know why, I'm one of the youngest of the great grandkids, so the name was there long before I came along. She lived until she was 106. She was a school teacher and had long hair that she always wore in a bun, sometimes with braids. We went to see the house and get cold Cokes and ice cream sandwiches. Muddie always had cold cokes and ice cream sandwiches and it's a requirement now that anyone living in that house offer them to family members stopping by. There is a doorframe where she used to mark our heights. It's mostly faded, but the best I could tell was that someone was about three feet tall on March 18, 1981. Uncle Mike told the story of my great grandfather who woke up one morning and exclaimed "someone cut down a corner tree!" He was looking at his ceiling made of wooden planks. One of them had three notches cut into it and being a land surveyor he knew that the corner of a property was marked by three notches in a tree. And sure enough, there it was, the plank with three notches.

Looking at that plank, I kind of realized that this was not a story about a person very different and far away from me, like most of the stories I hear or tell. This was a story about a person who is part of me, who might like to know me, who might find it interesting that I get cold in 75-degree weather or that I have dark brown eyes. It made me proud that I've got the blood of a man who can look at a piece of notched wood and tell you that someone is now wondering where the edge of their property is. Furthermore, a small bit of a woman who lived in three centuries lives on in me. There's a part of me that, if cultivated a little bit, has that certainty and confidence of a man who opens shades in a way that makes it memorable to a 13-year-old. And, if not the cute button nose, there's a perfectionism in me of a woman who closes a book after finding that a sentence is not complete. I am my father, in a diluted form, who is a writer like his mother reads and like his father closes blinds, thoughtfully and with certainty, and I am my mother who, when asked what he writes and she loses the words, does something that totally sums up who he is AND who she is. She holds her hand to his chest and says, "he writes this."

Family is not just a shotgun blast of people who share the same last name after all, then. I'm not sure yet in what ratios all these little elements come together in me, but they're all there and that makes me proud. Not that my family is better than yours, but it is mine and it's comforting. Thank you, family.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I know that it's been a very long time since I've last written anything. That's partially because I missed so much work from the snow that when I went back, I worked long hours (from approximately 9-5) to catch up and partially because another of our delivery drivers had to leave for a family emergency and that left me to do both my job and her job for an incredible eight hours a day. I hit the ground running every morning and hit the bed with equal enthusiasm each night. I have delivery stories to tell, and a very funny idea about what Lil Jon, Ludacris, and Usher would have to say about me delivering auto parts in rural Arkansas listening to their music ("WHAAAT?" says Lil Jon), but what I want to write about tonight is the Academy Awards, and more specifically, the rowing scene in "The Social Network."

I'll start with the definition for "Umami." It is one of the five tastes, together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It is popularly referred to as "savoriness." Honey is sweet, lemons are sour, coffee is bitter, and pretzels are salty. Umami is a little different, it simply adds body to food, gives them heft. It is the difference between Sam's Choice Cola and Coca Cola. I buy Sam's Choice because it's cheaper, but I prefer Coke. I thought it was the packaging or the advertising, or the desire to pass up the cheaper product for the name brand, but it turns out it's umami. Coke has it, Sam's Choice doesn't. There are people who study this, who make a living tasting food and determining this quality. For me it's more vague, it's just this imperceptible balance that you can't quite define, but you know you crave. It's a kind of perfection, this thing you seek without knowing exactly what you're looking for. And when you find it, you know it.

Since I learned the definition of umami, or rather, since I learned of the concept of umami, I've found myself applying it to everything. I'm fascinated by it. My favorite pair of jeans has umami. That song "If I Had a Boat," by Lyle Lovett has umami. John Hannah reading W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" has umami. The rowing scene in "The Social Network" has umami. I saw the movie a few weeks ago. I saw it because I like Jesse Eisenberg and I was excited to see what Trent Reznor would do with a movie score. I liked it because it turns out that Mark Zuckerburg is one of those people who are such geniuses at what they do that they are totally mystified by human behavior and because of the rowing scene. I'm going to do my technologically-disinclined best to upload a link to this scene here so you can see what I'm talking about.

The whole movie is pretty good, but this scene stands alone. It's a very simple scene. They're just racing boats. The song is very simple. We've all heard the tune so many times I can't remember where it originally came from. It's recognizable, but somehow sinister - which I like. I've watched it several times trying to figure out why it gives me chills. I'm not sure, but I think it's this: If you'll watch, the entire scene has a rhythm. It follows a beat. Everything works together, the images, the acting, the editing, the sound, like in those few minutes everyone put forth their very best effort at the thing they're best at, purely, and it all came together like a dance.

Even after writing this I'm not sure what to make of umami, or if I'm describing it right. Maybe, in the larger, Annie's-over-thinking-things sense, it's different things to different people. Certain things just resonate with some people. For me it's my Gap jeans, it's a songwriter singing a simple song about riding a pony on his boat, it's "He was my North, my South, my East, and West, My working week and Sunday rest" in a Scottish accent. It's people rowing boats to a song we already know, and finishing a sentence, taking a hot bath and going to sleep.

Thanks for sticking with me, those of you still reading. I'll try to be better about posting more regularly.