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A poem for my son


I'm sitting in the airport in Salt Lake City, of all places, my flight to Idaho Falls delayed by two hours. I'm sitting in a bar called Finnigan's, and I can't help but wonder how many bars there are called Finnigan's.

On the flight here from San Francisco I read this poem by S.P. Somtow, in "Armorica", the 2nd book in the Riverrun Trilogy. I offer it to my son.

At the End of the Forest

And so, at last, I left the darkling wood.
I came to the cave where I had left my mother,
The hearth I loved, the bed in which I'd dreamed
Of these adventures.

I came upon my kinfolk
As they supped, telling old tales to warm their nights.
I said, "Mother, I have returned, with gifts
And stories, conquests, jewels, and a bride;
I have slain man and dragon; I have ravished
Maiden and crone; I have lived dangerously,
Stooped, beastlike to drink water from the stream,
And quaffed celestial manna from gold goblets."
My mother said, "My son, take out the trash."

"But, but," I said, "what of my lurid tales,
My battles and my witty conversations
With saucy knights, my exploits the bedroom?"
"Yes, yes, my dear, but first, go wash your hands,
Or you may not sit down to sup with company."

Only that night, when I lay down to sleep,
Did she consent to hear my tales of woe,
Of joy, of passion, courage, and survival;
And then she wept full sore, because the son
She loved had been through so much suffering.
Then she did kiss me gently on the cheek
And say, "The places you have been, the conflicts,
The fierce encounters, and the nights of passion,
These places all are marked upon a map;
The map is called The Human Journey.

Although, my son, you have traversed the world,
And conquered love and death, and grown from child
To man, there is another thing to learn:
Your journey is the journey all men make,
An exploration of the human soul;
And I am still your mother.

"Let me kiss you,
And tomorrow I will bake you a fresh loaf
Give you a new condom and clean clothes,
And you shall venture forth again.

"The journey
Is forever."

Back in Salisbury

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Yes, I know McCain has pulled ahead in the polls. Yes, I'm as depressed as the most depressed of you. Let's hope it's temporary.

I'm back in Salisbury. When I was here in June I didn't bring my camera, so today I wandered around town snapping photos. First, proof that, unlike my experience in November of '06, this time I caught the bus to Woking:

Chrissy: there are two bead shops in Salisbury. I went in one of them; it's a tiny place called the "Mole Hole".

Mike: there's a Subway on Market Square. I had lunch there today.

Before I go any further, an anecdote: Mike doesn't like to travel, so he says. Never mind his having spent a summer in Beijing. When we do travel, he doesn't want to go to any country where he doesn't speak the language, and he doesn't want look like a tourist. Consequently we spent three weeks in the UK in 2001 and ten days in Ireland in 2004. In the UK Mike and I blend in so well that locals ask us for directions. We were sitting in a restaurant in Dublin one evening when a guy walked in who looked so much like Mike that it startled me. But even there, Mike was careful to avoid wearing anything that would make him "stand out". At one point I became so exasperated that I told him I couldn't stand out if I tried. I told him I could walk down the street with a camera in one hand and a map in the other and I wouldn't stand out as a tourist. Today that statement was proven to be true. I was standing on a street corner here in Salisbury with my camera hanging around my neck, staring at my small map of the city. A fellow approached me and said, in a heavy British accent--one of the more difficult accents for me to understand, like Cockney or something--"'xcuse me, do you live around 'eah?" I wanted to say: do you not see my map? but instead I just said no, and then, because I've been here several times and have cased the joint pretty well, I thought "what the hell," and asked him what he was looking for. He was looking for a clothing store so I pointed toward the center of town, where there are quite a few clothing stores although maybe not the kind of thing he had in mind. Anyway...

Okay, more pictures. I'm not going to post pictures of the major attractions around here. You can easily find better pictures than I can take of the cathedral, and having been there several times, I didn't go there today. Nor did I go to Stonehenge, which Mike and I saw in 2001. Yeah it was quite a while ago but the rocks don't change much. When I posted back in June I described the 700-year-old Haunch of Venison pub/restaurant; here it is:

The hotel I'm staying in, the Red Lion, is older than the Haunch of Venison. It's about 800 years old and claims to be the oldest hotel in Europe. It has a great atmosphere, although the room I was originally booked in had no hot water. Enh, when you retrofit for running water, endless problems. As are most of these old places, it's supposedly haunted.

A river runs right through the town, and today it seemed crowded with swans and ducks. I took this picture when a couple of kids crouched down by the railing and fed them:

This old place is now a wine shop:

These large flower planters are all over town. They were in bloom in June and are still in bloom now:

I'll post one more picture for now: the view from the inside of Starbuck's (heh):

The Memory Trees

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The summer of my 8th birthday my family took a road trip from our home in Michigan to Seattle and back. My brother was coming up on 11, and we were both avid readers. Our parents chastised us repeatedly for having our noses stuck in books while we drove through thousands of miles of beautiful scenery.

My brother remembers more of the trip than I do. I remember squirrels who took peanuts from our fingers at Yellowstone National Park, and a waitress there who remembered our order without writing anything down. Somewhere in the Midwest we stopped to see a building made entirely of corn cobs, which was one of the highlights of the trip, for me. I remember being outraged by the unfairness when my step-great-grandfather took my father and my brother deep sea fishing and wouldn't take me because I was a girl. (Just one of many such incidents, but "Seeds of Outrage" isn't the title of this post.) I had to stay behind and help my mother and step-great-grandmother (yes, both great-grandparents were "step") bake a strawberry pie. I've never since eaten strawberry pie. Oh, and we left my brother behind at a gas station once. We didn't get far before his absence was noticed and we turned back. My parents (who never lived it down) asked why I didn't say anything when we pulled out and he wasn't there. Well, I was reading, wasn't I?

I have only one memory of scenery. I know I glanced out the window every time either parent complained that we were missing all the beauty around us, but only once did the scenery get through to my 8-year-old soul. I put the book down and stared out at dense forest on either side of the road; forest of tall dark evergreen trees. The memory has taken on a surreal quality in the years since because I never knew where we were when I saw those trees and I never saw any forest quite like it again. In the ensuing years I've seen quite a bit of the country and I've mentally compared every forest with "the memory forest" and never found a match. Nothing on the east coast is anything like it; it was solid evergreens. I've compared the forests in Northern Arizona, where the trees are not as dense, and Northern California, where the trees are not as straight, and South Dakota, where the trees are...just not the same... with the memory and not found the scene. I'd begun to assume the forest no longer existed; that it had been leveled to make way for "progress".

This past weekend I found the trees. When I was eight we drove from Michigan to Seattle along a northerly route, which meant we drove through the Northern Cascades. This past weekend I drove about 80 miles east of Seattle into the Cascades and I thought "this is it." I didn't find the exact scene but I found the trees. I saw the same kind of forest: dense and dark but not oppressive, a forest of perfectly straight, majestic, evergreen trees.

Teaching and Learning


I've just spent four days sitting in meetings in which a succession of engineers, biologists, and chemists spoke. During all but one of those presentations a few experts in the audience paid attention while the rest of us fought to stay awake and wondered how many of our finite number of heartbeats were being wasted on this.

And then... and then, on the last day, the next-to-last speaker was a Teacher; he had the gift. And the audience was spell-bound, and we were like my god-- I understand him, and we looked at each other wide-eyed and knew we were all thinking the same thing.

As paranoid as I am about writing about my work, I have to tell you who he is: he's Dr. Vince Ortiz, a prof at Auburn University. Earlier in the week we'd all introduced ourselves and he realized how many of us weren't chemists, and he, he alone, decided to amend his presentation on the fly by using a white board to supplement the material on his powerpoint slides, to explain what he was doing for us non-chemists. He wasn't really animated; he didn't even smile. He used his hands a bit, but mostly he just spoke slowly, explaining things in simple terms.

He talked about Schrödinger's Equation and how he was attempting to solve it computationally, and he talked about harmonic oscillators and hyper-surfaces and infinite sets of basis functions, and we were like why oh why couldn't he have been my chemistry professor in college and we all came away a whole lot smarter and knowing we'd witnessed something rare and wonderful.

Only one speaker followed him. As this hapless fellow walked to the front of the conference room, someone in the group said "You're in trouble now that we all understand this stuff," and we all laughed.

Eisenhower Ave. metro station--10 am


Looking south along the tracks.

I was there yesterday morning, sheltered from a cold drizzle, waiting for a train to Reagan National Airport. At the last minute I'd put my camera in my carry-on bag, and I pulled it out to take this picture. I'm not much of a photographer, but I like the way the tracks curve at the very end and I like the smoke stack in the distance.

I'm at my mother's house in Arizona. She had hip replacement surgery a month ago and I've come to stay with her for a while, more to convince myself she'll be okay than to be of any real help. We can't do much of anything while I'm here--she's a prisoner of medicare, under house arrest. Medicare is paying for some home physical therapy, and they'll stop it if they think she can get around well enough to do out-patient rather than home care. According to the rules, she can go two places: church and the beauty parlor. It's nice to know Medicare has its priorities straight. So I'm going to take her to get her hair done, and I'm trying to talk her into getting a rinse, which I think will be fun and will cheer her greatly.

I suggested that if I take her to the beauty parlor we could go out to lunch, but she won't risk it. I said "Who would know?" and she said "There are probably eyes and ears everywhere here." You've gotta hand it to an 85-year-old woman with a walker for being savvy enough to fear medicare spies under this administration. After all, 9-11 changed everything.

More Light


Just a nice clip for a cold winter night:

Clan of the Black Dog


About thirty years ago I spent some time staying with a friend in Isla Vista, the small college/beach community in California in which U.C. Santa Barbara and its students reside. I was just coming off a very short, very miserable first marriage. I was depressed, emotionally messed up, searching for relief, and hoping to find comfort on the coast. Feeling moody, I went out to walk along the beach one night. I walked the short distance from my friend's apartment to the main drag through Isla Vista and turned in the direction of the beach. Before I'd walked half a block, a large black dog--probably a Lab mix but it was dark--came up to me and started trotting along beside me. He wore no collar. He accompanied me all the way to the beach and all along the beach, staying right by my side. The one time he walked a short distance away to sniff some bushes, I stopped and waited for him to return. He came back, and we continued on our meandering way. The casual companionship of this dog cheered me considerably, much more than the crashing waves. After maybe an hour we got back to the main drag. He stayed beside me until I turned onto the street on which my friend lived, and then, without so much as a goodbye glance, he veered off and I never saw him again.

When I was very young I was afraid of dogs, but by the time I hit middle school I'd gotten over the fear. When my parents adopted a full-grown, smallish white poodle from the pound, I liked it well enough but felt no particular attachment to it. When I brought a kitten home a couple of years later, my parents let me keep him in spite of my mother's allergy to cats. According to received wisdom in my family, one was either a dog person or a cat person, and I was evidently a cat person.

My parents were nonplussed when I came home with a puppy during my senior year of high school. I can't explain why the little black Lab was so irresistible that I would do something so ill-thought-out as to buy a puppy--especially one destined to grow into a large dog--without discussing the matter with my parents first. I named him Cassius after the Roman senator--I was going through a Shakespearean phase. Sadly, my mother, like many of her generation, didn't consider Labrador retrievers to be "house dogs", and Cassius was staked out in the backyard once he'd outgrown his puppy cuteness. My father built a very nice dog house for him, I must say--I remember crawling into it myself on occasion.

Still, after I left for college I never lived at home again, and I couldn't take Cassius with me. Eventually my parents gave him away to friends who lived in the country. They said the family loved him and he had room to run, and I was happy/sad to let him go.

A few years ago Mike and I were in the UK and I was browsing cheap junk souvenirs, stuff for the American tourist market: refrigerator magnets bearing "Coats of Arms". I've since seen a variety of disparate designs supposedly associated with my family name, which is a common, generic Anglo-Saxon name, but the one I found that day bore the heads of three black dogs on a field of white, and I bought it.

There've been other things: black dogs that looked me in the eye, and the time I should've gotten bitten but didn't. It was years and years before I began to recall these incidents collectively and sense some indefinable connection to large black dogs. Lacking a better idea, I drew from Native American mythology and began to think of black dogs as my spirit guides.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted the neighborhood Christmas potluck, at which there was a large turn-out in spite of a forecast of freezing rain. One neighbor stayed late to help clean up; his wife, whom I'll call M, had gone home earlier to nurse a cold. He and I discovered we were both Northern Exposure fans, and we talked about the show while I piled dishes in the sink. A couple of days later M called to ask a favor: the friend who usually feeds their pets while they're away was unavailable and they needed someone to fill in. I gladly offered my services. The following evening I walked to their house to meet the pets and get a key and some instructions.

The pets turned out to be two cats and a 12-year-old black flat-coated retriever named Sara, named for Sarajevo, where M, a retired military officer, had rescued her from abuse during wartime, pulling strings to avoid quarantine by flying the dog to the US on a military plane. In the front window of their house are two signs: "Beware of the Dog" and "Warning: Dog bites first, asks questions later," but the night I visited, the dog stayed by my side, wagging her tail, licking my hands and my face, gently accepting treats from my fingers. M was amazed at how well Sara took to me, and about the third time she said "I'm so surprised," I said "I'm not--black dogs are my..." and I stopped myself, not knowing anything about M or how she would react to what I'd been about to say. She finished my sentence, as a question: "Your totem?" And I thought Yes, that'll work--that's it exactly.

A couple of days later I mentioned the totem thing to Mike. As an atheist with a degree in Religious Studies--go figure--he feels no obligation to either accept or reject another's beliefs, but is rather more likely to critique the basis of belief. I was pleasantly surprised when he gave my theory a nod of respect by saying that my religious experience --I hadn't thought of it as such until he so named it-- was more tangible than that of Christians, and far more tangible than that of some other religions. Thus buoyed, I write this post.

Tears in my eyes


This is the most beautiful thing I've read in a long time.

Travel As Adventure

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I'm waiting for a pan of water to boil so I can heat up a Home Bistro dinner--I'm way too tired to cook anything. My body has no idea what time it is and I had a killer headache for about half the day.

I was telling my boss that I don't know how I'm going to fill out the expense report for the trip that ended when I got home at about 6pm last night; it's not going to make any sense. I paid for 2 hotels Sunday night: one in Salisbury and one in London. I paid for a bus ticket to Woking and a taxi ride in London.

I had a good plan--an excellent plan--for getting to Salisbury Sunday night. I was expecting to arrive at the Milford Hall Hotel at about 2am and had emailed to let them know I'd be getting in around that time. I was to ring the bell to awaken the night porter.

My plan allowed plenty of time at London Heathrow Airport to get to the main bus station and buy a ticket for the last bus to Woking, where I would catch the last train to Salisbury. It should have been a piece of cake. I didn't, however, build any fallback positions into the plan to accommodate the learning curve.

As I said, I had plenty of time. I got to the main bus station at 10:30pm and the bus didn't leave until 11. The ticket windows were closed so I purchased a ticket from a machine. It was a National Express machine and the ticket had the logo printed on it even though the bus to Woking was not a National Express bus. I didn't know this about the bus to Woking--I didn't know anything about the bus to Woking--and this missing piece of information could have been inconsequential but turned out to be catastrophic. I walked out to the "platforms" on one side of the station and asked a fellow who was working there how I'd know where my bus would be pulling in. He could/should have said "Go back inside; there's a big electronic screen high up on the wall. Sit in a chair and stare at it until your bus number comes up." But he didn't. Instead he glanced down at my ticket, saw the logo, and said "Oh, you want a National Express bus; they all leave from the other side of the terminal."

So I walked out to the platforms on the other side of the terminal and waited for 45 minutes. I finally asked a woman working on the platform what had happened to the bus to Woking, and she said it had left from other the side of the terminal, since the buses to Woking aren't National Express buses.

That's the beginning of my story; things went downhill from there. The woman on the platform tried to help me. She got on the phone with someone working inside, and they discussed bus and train schedules, searching for any combination that would get me to Salisbury that night. The train I'd planned on catching in Woking originated at Waterloo station in London, and it hadn't yet left London. I'd built so much time into my schedule (it was an excellent plan--did I say that?) that there was still a possibility I could go into London and get on the train there. The woman finally decided I should try this, although she said it would be close. At this point she could/should have told me to take the Paddington Express into London and then take the underground from Paddington Station to Waterloo. I've taken the Paddington Express a couple of times; it's easy and fast--about 15 minutes to London, and I've taken many trips on the underground. Had I done this I would have had a good chance of catching the train. I guess it just didn't occur to her. I didn't suggest it myself because I was in receiving mode, so to speak, waiting for her to tell me what to do. After all--what did I know? I was a clueless American, too stupid to know that buses to Woking aren't National Express buses.

There was a bus sitting at the terminal that was about to leave for Hatton Cross station, and she told me to get on it. She said that Hatton Cross was on the Piccadilly line, so I could take the underground all the way into London and, with one change, on to Waterloo. I got on the crowded bus and grabbed a pole since the seats were all taken. It was awkward with a briefcase and a suitcase, but some guy almost always grabs my suitcase and helps me out in such circumstances, and this was no exception.

The bus arrived at Hatton Cross and we all piled off and discovered that the Piccadilly line had been shut down for the night due to construction or something. Apparently traveling on Sunday can be hit-or-miss. We milled around for a while wondering how we were going to get to London; by this time I'd become one of a large group of like-stranded travelers. Two buses were brought and we piled on.

After just a few minutes the driver pulled over at a bus stop. A young Brit complained bitterly--"Are you going to stop at every fooking stop? Just let me off here, then," and he got off. The bus driver got on his radio and conferred with someone. He was instructed to drive straight into London, to King's Cross station. After we'd gone some distance a woman came to the front and began to complain bitterly. She'd intended to go just two stops on the Piccadilly line; if she were taken all the way into London she wouldn't be able to get home. Her cell phone was dead and she had no money.

The driver pulled over, and so did the second bus, which was behind us. The two drivers conferred for a considerable amount of time. Our driver pulled out a map of London and studied it. Someone loaned the woman a cell phone and she arranged for a ride. She got out and walked to a nearby best western hotel to meet her ride.

I knew by then that I wasn't going to catch the train to Salisbury. I decided to go on to Waterloo station anyway, and find a hotel within walking distance. I figured I'd have to take a taxi from wherever the bus dropped me off.

The driver announced that he was going directly into London, and was that okay with everyone? No one objected, so we started out again. When we got to the outskirts of London people began walking to the front of the bus and asking to be let off when we were close to their destinations. The driver was accommodating and began making frequent stops. I asked him to tell me where I could get off and get a taxi. Not that I was in a hurry, but he wasn't going anywhere near Waterloo station. It was well past midnight and many of the streets looked dark and deserted. A fellow passenger heard me and suggested I get off with her at Hammersmith station, since there was a car service office there where I could get a taxi that would be cheaper than one of the black London cabs. And so I did, along with a couple others, and a fellow from Germany and I shared a cheap taxi to Waterloo.

Of course I'd long missed the train to Salisbury. It was after 1am by the time I got to the station. A couple of very nice men working the night shift offered to let me stay in the first aid room there, saying they'd wake me at 5 and I could catch the 5:30 train. It was a nice offer, under the circumstances, it was better than sitting on a bench all night, but I had all day Monday to get to Salisbury and trains left every half hour or so in the morning, so I decided to get a room. I asked the workmen if there was a hotel nearby, and one of them walked out to the sidewalk with me and gave me very simple directions, which I asked him to repeat just to make sure I'd understood: walk down here to the main street, cross over, turn left, then take the first right; you'll see a row of hotels.

I followed his instructions. No hotels. I walked further along and took the 2nd right. No hotels. I continued on, carrying a briefcase, dragging a suitcase, and I was beginning to get a sinking feeling. I knew roughly where I was, having seen the London Eye, the big ferris wheel, while in the taxi. I was right in the heart of London, near the Houses of Parliament. I couldn't have been more than a few blocks from the hotel I'd stayed at last time I was there. But because I hadn't intended to see London at all on this trip I had no map with me, and once the sun goes down I can't navigate (note to self: study the stars).

I was relieved to see one of the black taxis coming toward me. He had no fare and I flagged him down. I asked if there was a row of hotels up ahead and repeated the directions I'd gotten at the station. He shook his head, then said "Get in; I'll take you to a hotel, don't worry about the fare." He drove past a couple of "posh places" and took me to a Novotel, one of a chain. Think Motel 6, but not. He said they get busy and might be fully booked, but they could help me find a place from there. I offered to pay him something but he wouldn't take it, so I just said thank you and let the good deed stand.

The hotel did have a room, and I checked in at about 1:30am. It was cheap for central London, but still expensive: £109, about $200. It was clean, with clean bedding and a good shower. It was a smoking room but it didn't smell like stale cigarettes.

Once I was comfortably in bed I started to feel sorry for myself, not for what I'd been through but because I'd gone through it alone. I examined my feelings and asked myself if I wished my husband had been there with me. Lord no. He had a tendency to lose it under difficult circumstances, which would have made it much, much worse. I used to try hard to prevent his losing it, and because he knew I tried, he complained all the more bitterly. Lord no, I didn't wish he'd been with me.

I asked myself if I wished my son had been with me. Lord no. Although he doesn't "lose it", he sees no reason why he should try to keep his (or my) spirits up when things are falling apart, and he can get downright morose. Seeing him miserable raises my own misery to the power of ten. No, I didn't wish this night on my son.

On the other hand, I did wish my dog were with me. He takes responsibility for his own good cheer and never blames me for his misery, even when I squirt medicine in his ears. He's always happy to be with me, and he loves taking walks so much that he'd have loved walking down a dark London street at 1am. He loves sleeping on the bed with me and would have loved doing so in an expensive cheap hotel in London.

Of course the reality is that he'd have growled at the cabbie, but we'd have made our way to a hotel eventually, although he wouldn't have been allowed to stay there. Sigh. Well, still, I missed the dog most of all at that moment.

Tomato Soup


Is there any sense that can bring on nostalgia as quickly as the sense of smell? While driving in my car today I inexplicably, ever so briefly, caught a whiff of tomato soup. It took me back to Davis, California, where I lived during five years of grad school and for a couple more years after Mike was born. Davis is in Yolo County, which is the center of California tomato country, where some 90% of the tomatoes produced in the U.S. are grown. Consequently, there was a Hunt-Wesson cannery in Davis, which may still be there for all I know.

Right around this time of year the tomatoes were harvested and brought to the cannery in gondola trucks, which spilled them out onto the overpass at Mace Boulevard, each truck spilling a few until a slippery mass of crushed tomato formed and cars with old tires slipped and slid and occasionally failed to make it up the hill.

The cooking of vast quantities of tomatoes produced a wonderful smell that filled the air in Davis for days. Oddly, I don't think soup was canned there, nevertheless the smell was that of tomato soup . Every year I was overcome by a craving for tomato soup. I made late-night soup runs; I stocked up on soup and saltines; I heated the soup in a small sauce pan and sat down to soup and crackers with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for Thanksgiving dinners.

temporarily assigned to this planet


I'm going to turn now from posting about injustice and suffering in the world to focus on moi and the petty aggravations of my daily life. This is brought on by a meeting yesterday in which I was, of course, the only woman present, as is almost always the case.

I was also the only mathematician in the room, and was doubling as the only physicist, since we have no physicist involved in the project being discussed. Results of some experimental work were being presented by a very "famous"-- using the term in the limited context of academia-- prof. of electrical engineering. Not a mathematician. Not a physicist. Take note. He is "famous" largely for having invented a methodology a long time ago that was effective and which he successfully marketed here and abroad.

Long story short. He was trying to use this methodology in some experiments in which the methodology failed, so he tried modifying it in a way that was bogus. The reason I know it was bogus is that he provided a "mathematical proof" of this new method in the form of some thirty pages of hand-written notes, faxed, and a lengthy section of a report lifted from a book on shock waves by Zel'dovich and Raizer, which I just happen to own.

His "proof" was fine for about the first 29 pages, until he made a simple substitution, came up with a final equation, and wrote Q.E.D. with a smiley face next to it. The substitution he made is valid only in the limit as the Mach number of a shock approaches infinity, and he was using this equation to examine shocks of Mach number 2 or 3, so...

So I objected, and he looked at me as though a department store mannequin had just questioned him, a famous professor of electrical engineering. I persisted. I invented examples that, to me, were intuitively obvious. He dismissed my objections repeatedly, although I was, gradually, winning over the rest of the people sitting around the table. That was my goal, because I knew I could never in a million years convince the prof that he was wrong.

The rest of the people were scientists or engineers, some PhDs, some masters, but none were mathematicians, so I knew I couldn't start writing equations because everyone would tune me out. I had to fall back on simple logic: explaining the ludicrous corollaries that would follow if his assumption were true.

At such times I know that to convince listeners, I have to overcome my being a woman, my being blonde, and my being an American--a woman with a Russian or German accent is much more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. The professor can wave his hands and talk bullshit and everybody will think "wow this guy sounds smart; he totally lost me; he's talking way over my head", while I have to use such simple logic that everyone can follow it, so they will forget what I look like and follow my logic and listen to what I say. At such times I feel so utterly mismatched, mind and body, that I sometimes feel there are no other people on the planet like me.

Sitting there, arguing my case, suffering from congestion due to allergies, an odd thought passed through my mind: I'm allergic to this planet; I'm going to request a transfer.

This thought was so ridiculously comforting that I held it throughout the meeting: I'm on temporary assignment on this planet, and I'm going to request a transfer. In fact I held the thought throughout the day, and it made my job immensely more enjoyable.

At home last night I missed my late husband. The camaraderie we shared as mathematicians was the best part of a difficult relationship. My husband, as an Aspie, was way more out of touch with the planet than I, but when it came to mathematics, we enjoyed the ability to talk to one another about our work. I could have written the professor's equation on a piece of paper and shown it to my husband, and he would have rocked back and forth with laughter at the stupidity.

But he's gone, and my son has rejected mathematics, despite, as I'm sure I've mentioned here before, probably more than once, obtaining a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT. *sigh* So there is no longer anyone with whom I can share my frustration. I tell the dog: Saint! Prof. K assumed C was zero! lol! Can you imagine that?! And Saint looks at me and I know he's thinking: Throw the ball! THROW THE BALL!

So I throw the ball, and it's okay and I'm happy, because my job on this planet is just a temporary assignment, after all.

The Difficult Years


Here, finally, is the long-put-off sequel to The Insulated Jar.

It's been five years since my husband died, and the time has run like sand through my fingers. My son was a freshman in high school then; now he's a sophomore in college. Maybe this time has gone by so rapidly because these have been the best years we've had. The fourteen years that preceded my husband's death were very, very difficult. On the day of the funeral four of my son's friends came over and hung out with him, all dressed in church-going clothes, they just sat and talked and sometimes they joked and laughed. They all left together when a couple of moms showed up, and after they walked out my son said "That's the first time I've had friends over to this house in four years."

After his death, I was consumed by the need to understand what had been "wrong" with my husband. I had been with him for twenty years, and I had long known that his emotional reactions seemed bizarre; as though he first decided how to feel, and then pretended it. But he never quite got it right. I couldn't explain it, but he was always just a bit "off" in his emotional expression. At times he would gush embarrassingly in lavish praise of a salesclerk in a store; at other times he would be shockingly, pointlessly rude. Unless the emotion was rage, or fear, or some such primal reaction--these came naturally.

I knew, too, that he was hyper sensitive to noise. I had frequently seen him startle in response to sounds that didn't bother me at all. Our son played with balloons because they were quiet; every time he came down the stairs from his room the sound of his footsteps set my husband's teeth on edge.

There were other things I couldn't explain. The blinds in his study had to be open. The blinds in my study had to be closed. Although he was a brilliant man, a math professor when I married him, he couldn't relate his knowledge to the world around him. He couldn't understand simple mechanical systems. We had a bizarre conversation one day in which I tried to convince him that conservation of mass was not just a rule used in the formulation of mathematical equations, it was a real phenomenon. He said "But what happens when wood burns?" and I described the classic experiment in which wood is burned in a sealed container, and the combined weight of the released water vapor, smoke, and ash is exactly the same as the original weight of the wood.

What was my husband's diagnosis? He hadn't suffered from depression, although a sudden onset of depression had certainly killed him. I've already described in my earlier post (linked above), how I stumbled on the answer, so I won't repeat the story here. Suffice it to say that once I discovered Asperger's Syndrome, it all became clear.

For a while I posted to a private, invitation-only online message board that was a support group for partners of people with Asperger's Syndrome. They would all understand what I'm saying: that the years since my husband's death have been the best years of my son's life. Their stories all mirrored my own. There was a woman whose husband bought all his clothes at Nordstrom while his children slept on mattresses on the floor because they had no beds. There was the time a piece of heavy furniture fell on a woman's two-year-old son, and her husband's only reaction was "Did it break?" There was the time my own son slipped and fell on the stairs and my husband's only response was anger at the noise. Again and again, the stories described narcissism beyond comprehension, and a complete lack of empathy.

I'm likely to get some angry email in response to this, so I'll say up front that like all disorders on the autism spectrum, there is tremendous variation between people with AS (most of whom are men), and I've heard of at least one case in which a man who recognized his symptoms worked hard to form a bond with his children. Congratulations to those few. The majority, I'd say, reject the idea that they have any shortcomings at all. Indeed, it's typical for an "Aspie" to reject any diagnosis and believe he's perfectly all right and the rest of the world is hysterical.

My husband and I had been married for three and a half years before our son was born, and we'd lived together for two years before getting married. And yet I couldn't foresee how difficult it would be to bring a baby into our lives. It's not that the courtship and early years had been trouble free--even the courtship years had been difficult. You may well wonder why I chose to marry a man to whom it was difficult to be engaged. All I can say is that I learned to navigate the rocky shores and find the few calm inlets. I attribute this tolerance to the home I grew up in--which is all I want to say about that at this time.

And besides, there were qualities I greatly admired in my husband. Most people who see the movie "A Beautiful Mind" probably wonder why in hell the wife ever married the guy, as nuts as he was. I can answer that question, because I understand perfectly why she married him; I'd have married him too. She wanted an extraordinary man. My husband was a very successful and highly respected mathematician. After his death a memorial conference was held for him at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute on the campus of UC Berkeley, and a scholarship was established in his name.

So I navigated the rough waters of our relationship, and I learned things about him that helped. Such as, he was always, always in a good mood after a good night's sleep. His mood inevitably deteriorated as the day wore on. I assume my husband's brain chemistry was unstable, and sleep corrected whatever went out of whack during his waking hours. As fate would have it, I am not a morning person, and I was never on his wavelength after dragging myself out of bed in the morning. Nevertheless, I relied on my husband's happy mood at the beginning of the day. I knew it didn't matter if he went to bed mad at night--the anger would be completely gone in the morning. I knew I'd have a better chance of getting a positive response to any suggestion if I waited to ask until morning. There was a flip side to this trait: he was utterly dependent on sleep and quickly destabilized when it eluded him. He committed suicide after suffering just one week of insomnia.

Despite the difficulty of the early years, I failed to anticipate how much worse it would get after our son was born. My husband couldn't tolerate disruption of his schedule--a typical Aspie trait. His lack of an emotional bond with our son meant, I guess, that to him it was as though we were baby-sitting a stranger's child, constantly watching the clock, counting down the minutes until the child would be picked up, but the child was never picked up--he was ours.

And yet--he was not incapable of forming a strong bond, and he formed one with me. How I came to this conclusion several years after his death will be the subject of another entry.

The Flavor of Dirt

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I've just returned from a gourmet grocery store. Walking out of the store with a couple of shopping bags full of nice stuff to eat gives me a feeling that I think must be akin to the feeling "It's good to be the king." I think back, every time, to my undergraduate days: as an unemployed student without a meal ticket I had less than ten dollars a week to spend on food, and my diet consisted primarily of rice, cheese, carrots, and peanut butter.

Aside from dentistry, food is the best measure of the rise in my financial well-being from childhood to my current age of nearly 52 years. My mother spent as little as possible on food. She used to buy large blocks of corn meal mush, slice it and fry it in oleo. I loved it. She made meat loaf that I liked and salmon loaf with canned salmon, which I wasn't so crazy about, and chipped beef on toast, which I didn't like at all.

I've already described my undergraduate diet. As a graduate student with a teaching assistantship I ate a lot of ramen, but I also bought pastries from the bakery and take-out Chinese food. Now I buy fresh produce at any price: small plastic boxes of berries, occasional papayas, and baby squash. As I write this there's an artichoke boiling on the stove; when it's close to ready I'll melt some of the imported Irish butter I bought today. There's still a limit to what I'll spend on food. I won't spend more than about $8 on a bottle of wine, and I've never tasted caviar or truffles. Which is why I know that I've not yet reached the pinnacle of my culinary indulgence.

As a child I was a dirt eater. I wish I could remember the first time I tried eating dirt; perhaps I did it on a dare, or maybe it was just the natural tendency of a two-year-old to put anything and everything in her mouth. In either case, I attribute it to my brother and I having spent many hours playing outside, unattended, when we were very small (see Licking The Swingset). I was fussy about the dirt I ate. It had to be dry, "clean" dirt, meaning free of any obviously organic or unidentifiable elements. It had to be dirt that had never known mulch-- dirt that had been washed by many rainfalls. The untended portion of the backyard, on the periphery of the swingset, was an excellent source of good clean dirt. Although my mother reacted with mild disgust to my dirt-eating, I was never punished for it. Two unrelated wives' tales no doubt converged to spare me: my mother believed that we all eat a peck of dirt in our lifetime, and she also believed that every craving was the body's way of fulfilling a need.

People often complain that some things don't taste as good as they smell-- fresh bread and coffee are two examples. I'm telling you now, speaking with authority, that dirt tastes as good as it smells. Anybody who has worked a garden knows the wonderful, "earthy" smell of freshly turned dirt. This is the flavor of dirt, precisely-- it's earthy. I don't know if my palette would appreciate the flavor of dirt anymore; too many years of kung pao chicken and vindaloo have undoubtedly dulled my sense of taste. Although I loved the flavor as a child, some inhibition of adulthood prevents me from tasting the dirt in my backyard today.

But... I've heard truffles described as having an "earthy" flavor, and I've often wondered without irony if truffles taste like dirt, and if so, are they as good? As a child, would I have rejected a truffle while relishing the dirt in which it grew? Someday, when Mike has finished school and is gainfully employed, I intend to spend quite a lot of money to do a "truffles vs. dirt" taste test (comparing the flavor of the truffles with my memory of the flavor of dirt). If truffles do indeed taste like dirt, I expect that before I retire (and give up the income that will make it possible) I'll indulge a craving for truffles, thus recapturing a pleasure that I enjoyed free of charge when I was three.

Licking the Swingset

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I grew up in a tiny house in Michigan. I estimate the house to have been about 580 square feet, but it could have been smaller. It consisted of a livingroom, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom, all small. It had a screened front porch and a detached one-car garage.

In a neighborhood built in the inverse of today's development style, our tiny house was on a large lot, and the outdoors was part of our living space. When we weren't in school, my brother and I spent almost all our time outside. When I played with dolls, I played outside. When I painted, I painted outside. And my most vivid memories by far are of playing outside in winter.

I don't remember my mother ever saying "Don't go outside today; it's too cold," and this was Michigan. In the winter she bundled us into "snowsuits" consisting of thickly padded pants and jackets with hoods. We pulled on rubber boots and thick mittens and were sent out to build snowmen and catch snowflakes on our tongues.

I was never aware of the temperature as a child, but I can say with confidence that it was very, very cold. There was deep snow on the ground throughout winter. Enormous icicles hung from the eaves of the house, several inches thick and reaching almost to the ground. I remember igloo-like "forts" built with packed snow that stood solidly through the winter months.

I can't remember ever complaining about the cold, or minding it. We never asked to go back inside because we were cold; we stayed out until our mother called us in because it was getting dark. Then we peeled off wet snowsuits and sat in front of the radiator, the only source of heat in the house, our skin tingling painfully as sensation returned to numbed limbs.

The only winter warning issued by my mother was "Don't put your mouth on the swingset." The swingset in the backyard was metal, and she claimed that our lips and tongues would stick to it, and that it would "take the skin right off." I can't speak for my brother, but for me, issuing any such directive was counter-productive. Of course I put my tongue on the swingset-- not just the tip of it, but a good portion of the flat of it. Laying my tongue on the pole that supported the glider is one of my favorite childhood memories. Indeed, my tongue stuck to the metal. But I didn't panic. I spent several moments savoring this strange new tongue-stuck-to-metal sensation, and then, contrary to my mother's dire predictions, I found that I was able to slowly, carefully, pull my tongue away.

Examining the pole, I could see the print of my tongue. My saliva had turned to a layer of frost.

The Insulated Jar

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My husband took his own life three weeks before Christmas, 1999-- four weeks before Y2K. He did it in the middle of a day that was, by all outward appearances, normal. He put his coffee mug and newspaper down on the kitchen table and, not waiting to finish the book he was reading, not waiting to move his laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, checked out.

When people ask me about it, I usually give a short answer: he was suffering from depression. Well, yes, but the depression had come on very suddenly, and it wasn't something he normally suffered from. No one saw it coming. Everyone who knew him was blown away.

His suicide wasn't a "cry for help"; there was no chance of failure. He did all of the classic things: he waited until my son and I left the house, wrote a note absolving us of any guilt, took off his glasses, went into a small uncarpeted room that our son never went into, closed the door, sat down on the floor, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

We had been together for 20 years, married for 18. I don't know a kind way to say this, but I had known for a long time that my husband was "emotionally handicapped". Because I had never heard of Asperger's Syndrome, I had no clue as to the cause.

Several years before my husband's death, while waiting for our son to come out of an orchestra rehearsal, I spent a few minutes reading over the shoulder of a mother who was doing graduate work in child development. What I read sounded like a description of my husband: uncomfortable interacting with others, reluctant to make eye-contact, adverse to change, stuck in routines. I asked her what she was reading, and she said it was a description of Asperger's Syndrome. When I asked "What's that?" she said it was a mild form of autism.

I dismissed it at the time; my knowledge of autism consisted of my having seen the movie "Rainman", and I knew that my husband, a successful and highly respected mathematician, was no Rainman. For years I tried to put my finger on just what, exactly, was wrong with him. A year or so after his death, I again ran across the words Asperger's Syndrome, on a message board, where a poster claimed to have AS, and blamed it for his being hyper-sensitive to noise.

Bells rang, whistles blew. My husband was so sensitive to noise that our son had grown up playing basketball with balloons because they were quieter than balls. I started to research AS online, and all the pieces fit. From my husband's addiction to routine-- eating the same sandwich for lunch every weekday for eight years, stacking his handkerchiefs and wearing his t-shirts in a certain order, to his need to control his environment-- insisting that the blinds in his study be open twenty-four hours a day, that everything on his desk be at right angles, to his inability to interact spontaneously with strangers-- he was an "Aspie".

When our son was two years old I had a terrible revelation: my God, I thought, Michael is more mature than Fred. And yet I knew that didn't really explain the situation, because to say that my husband was less mature than a two-year-old was to suggest that he was emotionally similar to a one-year-old, and that was nonsense.

Consider a profoundly retarded twelve-year-old. It might be said that this child has the developmental skills of a two-year-old, and yet, are they similar in any way? While they might know an equal number of vocabulary words and have an equal ability to count to five, they're nothing alike at all. Remembering my own son at two years of age, I recall standing in the kitchen while he sat on the floor and scribbled. He looked out the window and said What do you see? I pointed out some object, and he followed up with a barrage of questions. Before he knew the word Why he invented his own query by inverting Because. He said What is it for doing? What is it cause-be? And he didn't just want facts; he wanted aesthetic and moral judgements: Is it pretty? Do you like it? This is not the behavior of a profoundly retarded twelve-year-old.

My son lived for feedback at that age. Supposing he had gotten none? Might he then have appeared retarded at the age of twelve? I think so. I believe my husband suffered from an inability to register emotional feedback, and consequently he did not develop emotionally as a "normal" person does.

Some people believe that those with AS, or any form of autism, have no emotions. I and others who have lived with an Aspie know otherwise. Not only did my husband have emotions, he had a good sense of humor, although his sense of humor and mine were very different. It was the lack of feedback, not because it wasn't provided, but because it couldn't be absorbed, that retarded his emotional development.

What would cause a person to be unable to register emotional feedback? This brings me to a point at which a reader might well hit "back" on the browser, because it is based on my interpretation of the nature of life, of existence, if you will. I believe we are all part and parcel of a unified field of consciousness, call it the Mind of God if you're religious, or call it a spirit world. We are all, while encased in physical bodies, separated from one another spiritually as the air in a glass jar is separated from the air around it-- part of it, but unaware of it, or of the existence of it in other jars.

Ahh, but we're not unaware of each other, not really. Because the glass isn't insulated; when the air outside is warm, the air inside is warm; cold outside, cold inside. When we ask someone What's wrong? and they say Nothing, we know better. Through emotional feedback we learn to recognize facial expressions, to relate them to emotions. Because of feedback, we can interact on an emotional level.

I think one tragic symptom of AS is the inability to sense not just the emotions but the spiritual essense of others. This is said in various ways in descriptions I've read of AS: it's said that Aspies "lack empathy" or that they "don't believe others have minds of their own." These are descriptions of the symptom, but my own explanation grasps for the cause. While all of us are "psychic" to some extent, if being able to sense others is a psychic ability, there are those with more ability than others, and those with less. I believe that tragically, those with AS are "psychically blind"-- the jar is insulated.

Or Just Settle For Mustard


Getting this blog started has proven to be a task akin to that of getting the ketchup to flow from a new bottle. I have too many things I want to write about and don't know how to begin.

I could start by writing about my experience as a new "empty nest mom", but I'd want to mention that I'm a widow, and thus completely alone in my nest now, making the sending off of my only child to university a more life-changing experience for me than it is for most.

This would lead to my mentioning in passing that my husband took his own life, since readers would wonder how he died, but something like that requires further explanation, which would be at least one whole post.

That post or another would have to contain a discussion of Asperger's Syndrome, with which my husband was afflicted, or it would not do him justice.

And then, as an aside, I might want to talk about university mathematics departments in general, and how my husband and I met in the xerox room of the math department in which I was a graduate student and he an assistant professor, because I like to say that as mathematicians go, he was by no means the strangest nut in the bag.

In any discussion of Asperger's Syndrome I'd want to explain my way of understanding it, and autism in general, which is based on my theory that we are all spiritual beings, or manifestations of consciousness if the word "spiritual" has too many religious connotations, enclosed in bodies the way air can be enclosed in a glass jar, and how some jars are more insulated than others and so on.

I'd want to say, though, that despite the difficulties of living with someone with AS, we did have many Good and Interesting Times in the twenty years we were together, which might lead to a whole series of posts on the difficulties of traveling in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, staying in Warsaw as the currency was collapsing there, getting yanked off a train at the border of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and learning to say "Two beers please" in six languages.

I don't know where to begin; any meaningful topic will lead endlessly to other topics. So what has happened is that I've written about freeway construction projects near my home, and the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and I've thrown in a little politics and whatnot and other odds and ends. The point being that these topics have been chosen pretty much because they are all dead-ends. Where to go from here?

July 2012

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