Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I just got home from a 3 hour dental appointment....my 12th in 5 months. It's been hard to bear. I hadn't seen a dentist for at least a decade and I avoided them because I'm on a fixed income and I have no health insurance.

But a friend told me about a local dental school that I could go to that had a sliding scale and student doctors with professional supervision. It took a lot of phone calls to actually set up an appointment but I got evaluated and was pleased and surprised to find I had no problems at all (lucky I have good genes), but there was such this minor, optional, elective procedure I could undergo that might prevent a tooth from cracking in the future. But it was up to me. I went for it, mainly because I could actually afford their rates and because it was a teaching hospital and there were dozens of professional dentists around to advise in case my student doctor ran into complications.

Well, here I am, 5 months later and what was supposed to take 3 visits has taken 12 and they told me to plan on at least 2 more...and the visits last between 3 and 3 1/2 hours. It hasn't been torture (they have great painkillers now) but it has been tedious, tiresome and frustrating. And there is no one I can even get mad at about it all!

My student doctor is a sweetheart, young, eager, well-intentioned, and a bit of a perfectionist. But "things", I've continually been told, didn't go as planned. Unforeseen consequences. What they thought would work, didn't work, so they had to start from scratch with another procedure, then ran into problems with that one, etc. etc. It's been an exercise in patience and it makes me wonder how people cope with dialysis or chemotherapy, those uncomfortable and timeconsuming procedures people undergo which can actually save your life. What a trial that must be...I think it would either build my character or leave me a bitter woman!

I guess what I'm left with from this experience is that being well-intentioned might make you a nice person but isn't an integral ingredient to success. They are not opposed to each other (you can be both well-intentioned and successful), but being well-intentioned just isn't enough when you are trying to accomplish something (do a medical procedure, right a wrong, build a career, write a frickin' dissertation, etc.). It's best to try to mesh your good intentions with knowledge, experience, and the drive to reach your goal in a timely fashion, whatever that may be (get this damn tooth crowned) or however long you consider to be timely (last November).

Monday, January 30, 2006

Ticket, please!

I get up every morning, get some coffee, turn on the local NPR station, and sit down at the computer which is on a table by my office window. From the window, I can see the trains coming to and from New York City, taking people from or bringing people to the NJ suburbs. This morning is very foggy and it's beautiful seeing the train lights cut through the misty air, hearing their lonely horns blaring, and the wheels clacking upon the tracks.

There is something romantic about trains that sets off my imagination. One summer a few years ago, I had some free time and took a train trip around the United States, stopping off at different towns for a few days or weeks. Although train travel has its frustrations, it was fascinating seeing the backyards, open plains, and coastlines in different states.

We stopped in one place in SW Texas, a desert town close to the Mexican border where there was just a boarded up old train station, not a living soul or house in sight. I almost expected to see cattle skeletons and wagon wheels besides the tracks. Another part of the trip went through the area around Gary, Indiana and the route took us through an enormous factory graveyard, buildings and warehouses that were completely abandoned because of the change in industry in the U.S. I felt like there were ghosts of 19th century factory workers watching us pass by.

But for every desolate spot, there were gorgeous vistas like Idaho where you travel through a national park and see mountain peaks and raging rivers or the ride coming into Chicago where you pass by a baseball stadium and see the busy life of an amazing city. And there is nothing more beautiful than the train ride from San Diego to San Luis Obispo which glides along the California coast. It is always breathtaking.

So, when my life is in a rut, like has happened periodically over the past few years, I work by the window and listen to the trains and think about the people in them, who they are and where they are going...to an office job, to visit family, to connect with an Amtrak train at Penn Station that will take them somewhere else in the U.S. And it is freeing knowing that the train station is there and if my life here writing ever gets too claustrophobic, I can walk down the hill and catch the next train and soon be transported somewhere else.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I have a soft spot for zealots

That is, of the nonhomicidal, nonviolent kind. There is just something about their tireless devotion, their singlemindedness, and their boldness that I find endearing and attractive.

This week I celebrated my birthday which falls on the feast day of the conversion of Paul, one of the most celebrated zealots in history. I grew up in the Roman Catholic church but left at 13 to join an alternative religion, an act that was completely acceptable in California in the 1970s. Later, at a different point in my life, I rejoined the church and was confirmed as an adult, at the age of 27. Searching for a confirmation name, I looked at the saint whose feast day fell on my birthday and saw, with disappointment, that it was Paul. What a misogynistic jerk! At least that is how I had always viewed him since I returned to studying religion. He said that husbands should rule over their wives and slaves should obey their masters...I couldn't imagine a figure more opposed to my liberal religious beliefs.

But I had taught by one teacher to always look for the small kernel of truth, even amidst the garbage and so I read through his letters, finding words that were difficult and challenging as well as patronizing. Sure, he could be harsh, anti-sexuality, anti-gay, overly dualistic (spirit vs. flesh), inconsistent, arrogant and grandiose, and, at times, anti-Semitic. But those failings obscured the fact that he also had some interesting and even funny things to say.

So, I decided to embrace my inner Paul, full of ignorance and blindness as he was, and chose Paulina to be my confirmation name.

Now, in honor of my birthday and Paul's conversion, I'm going to share a few lines from his letters that I find interesting, challenging, poetic, or surprising. They are not the most theologically significant or important. In doing so, I am violating the primary rule of biblical scholarship--do not remove passages of texts from their literary and historical context! You miss all of the subtlety of their meaning and can easily misinterpret the words and symbolism. Those folks are completely right but this is my blog so I'm going to violate those rules in hope that anyone reading this might find something of interest.

For those of you who are atheist, anti-Christian, or hostile to religion of all varieties, you can skip today's and future installments of "My Favorite Zealot" (I've divided it up into parts). I'll return to hashing out other ideas and the mundane details of life soon enough.

So, here is Part I of my completely arbitrary selection, in no particular order:


For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.

There is no partiality with God.

Their throats are open graves; they deceive with their tongues; the venom of asps is on their lips; their mouths are full of bitter cursing.

Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I did not know sin except through the law, and I did not know what it is to covet except that the law said, "You shall not covet." But sin, finding an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin is dead.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate...for I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.

I consider the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed to us.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Then let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister.

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something so that no human being might boast before God.

Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within?

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.

For you have been purchased at a great price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.

If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that.

Food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, nor are we better off if we do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I think you can tell a lot about how a person looks at the world and other people by how they would answer the following two questions:

1) Do you think people are inherently good (trustworthy) or evil (untrustworthy)?

2) Do you think the world is a place of order or of chaos?

So, of course, here's where I reveal what I think. I think people are basically good. Or, at least, I tend to trust people until they give me a reason to think otherwise. Perhaps I've been fortunate but I've had few people ever intentionally betray my trust or stab me in the back. I believe everyone has a shadow/dark side but I think most people are either ashamed of that part of themselves or they selectively express it and it doesn't define who they are. Or they have a skewed moral perspective and what they think of as evil or sinful are merely aspects of being a typical human being with weaknesses and faults.

As for the world, I tend towards theories of chaos rather than karma. Years ago, I had a close friend Phillip who had an attitude of providence or, basically, that the universe would provide for him when he needed things. And, remarkably, that was true for him...everything (jobs, love, money, success) seemed to come to him at the exact moment when he needed it. Not spectacular things or riches, but enough to provide him with a full life.

But my experience has been different...."sure things" fall apart...I fall for someone at the most inappropriate time, like when I'm moving to another state/city...people I know who are deserving suffer while those with little talent succeed...individuals get serious health problems when everything seems to be going well in their lives...I am born into a nation and family where I have enough to eat and a roof over my head while others are born into starvation and unstable environments. Life is clearly unfair.

The upside of chaos though is that you can receive blessings that are completely undeserved. I'm not sure that I would call it "luck" and I would never bet on a longshot winning the Triple Crown. But the most unlikely things happen, things that are unpredictable and unexpected and sometimes those things are wonderful and more beautiful than you ever imagined.

And therein lies the slim hope I have in my future. I think a certain amount of success comes through hard work but most of the course of my life has been completely out of my control and is never what I would have imagined or planned it to be. There have been more twists and curves than Lombard Street, some good, some very unpleasant. So rather than being an optimist or pessimist, I think I would call myself a realist...life is hard and unfair but people are generally good and the most amazing things can happen to you when you least expect them.

Here's hoping that something amazing and unpredictable happens to you today!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Call me Lina

The other day, I picked up my new glasses....bifocals. I hadn't been tested for 6 years so it was quite a shock. I mean, bifocals are for your grandparents, right? Well, no, the optometrist said, people get them around 40. Another little signpost of aging.

Frames have changed so much since the late 90s, from ovals to small rectangular jobs. Having a limited selection to choose from ($$ an object), I got a pair that is small, plastic, black, and rectangular and I think I look like Lina Wertmuller....for everyone born after 1970, she's a famous Italian film director and the first woman ever to be nominated for a Oscar for Best Direction (1977). But she also famously wore these thick, rectangular, plastic frames that were kind of iconic.

I could go back to contacts which are invisible and thus, more flattering, but I think I will instead embrace my Lina-ness, have an espresso, kiss people on the cheek, dream big, and order people around to carry out my visionary work.

Have a good week, mia cara!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Dilettantes of the world, unite!

This afternoon, I was reading the acknowledgments page of a book in which the author thanks one prominent scholar for rescuing him "from the temptation of intellectual dilettantism".

On the academic playground, being accused of being a dilettante is akin to a bully calling you a "sissy". But the "temptation" of dilettantism was news to me...oh, yes, it's pleasurable at first and gives one a rush of knowledge but it soon becomes the first step down the slippery slope towards irrelevance and obscurity. One becomes an pitiable object of mockery at cocktail parties and scholarly conferences. As you try to worm your way into other people's conversations, offering a witty comment or two, you later walk up to the bar (cash bar for academics) and find you are the target of hushed giggles and whispers. You, my kind sir, have been called a dilettante!

Worse yet, in academia, one's untouchable status is often exposed in a footnote where another writer dismisses your ideas as mere dilettantism, unworthy of mention except to warn the reader that cleaning out her gutters would be a better use of her time than to spend it reading your work. If widely read by your peers, that dismissal acts as a white kid glove slapped across your face, calling the author either to defend himself on the playing field of battling rebuttals in journals or to resign himself to being an acknowledged--shudder!--dilettante.

I think scholars, amateur or professional, should reclaim the identity of dilettante. My dictionary cites dilettante as coming from the Italian word dilettare ("to delight") and meaning "a dabbler in an art or a field of knowledge", "a lover of fine arts", "a connoisseur". What the hell is wrong with that? Better to be a dabbler delighting in art and knowledge than to sit down to a Labor Day six hour marathon of "Everybody Loves Raymond" episodes; better to crack open a book on a Saturday afternoon or visit a gallery, park, or museum than spend the weekend shopping for plasma screen TVs; better to try to pull together a Greek meal for your Anglo family (with mixed results in my case) than to run into Burger King for a quick dinner fix.

So, DABBLE AWAY! Experiment in the arts! You might fail miserably but it's GREAT material for stories later in your life and you'll learn something about yourself. Explore some aspect of knowledge (Aviation? Winemaking? Python programming? Pierre Bourdieu? Ventriloquism? Divorce Law?) that you're curious about. Try to cook a complicated recipe from Katmandu! Make a mix tape (okay, dating myself here)!

Better to be a dabbler and a lover than a pompous ass who rests comfortably in her/his own small, self-important, and insular world. Break down those intellectual and cultural gates and walk down into the halls of knowledge proudly holding your Dilettante ID card. Now go...log off your computer and GO DO SOMETHING!

Friday, January 20, 2006

What do you cover?

I heard a public radio interview today with Kenji Yoshino, a Yale Law professor who has published a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. He made some interesting statements about how people in U.S. culture are encouraged to "cover", to hide aspects of themselves that would make them stand out as different from mainstream culture, whether those differences are racial, sexual, ethnic, religious or just ones of personality (a man who hates sports, for example). Diversity is accepted and preached but we receive subtle but strong pressure to silence or not express those parts of us which are different enough to cause others to become uncomfortable (being blind, being gay, being poor, being a sexual victim, male or female, etc.). The one exception he mentioned is the marketplace...if some aspect of, for example, being black (rap) or being gay (Queer Eye) proves to be hip and popular, it is accepted and incorporated into the mainstream while other aspects which are not fashionable are discouraged or put down as strange and unacceptable.

Yoshino had larger issues to make about how this concept of covering influences civil rights legislation (behavior, not identity is regulated). It got me thinking though about how we all actively cover, really manage, what parts of ourselves we are willing to show to different people in different situations (Psych 101, right?).

But it connected with a quote I had read earlier today from an E.B. White essay, "The Second Tree from the Corner" (in a Ralph Keyes book about writing) where a man named Trexler goes to see a psychiatrist because his fears and anxieties are crippling him. The session has mixed success but Trexler feels a bit more free afterwards because he is "unembarrassed at being afraid; and in the jungle of his fear he glimpsed (as he had so often glimpsed them before) the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage." Keyes goes on to say that White was a beloved writer because he was "so willing to sail boldly into the squall of his own fears, commenting on the trip as he went" (1995:5).

Fear is so visceral. You break out into a sweat, you hyperventilate, your eyes dialate, your heart rate shoots through the roof, your muscles tense up, and your stomach does cartwheels. It pulses through your body. Meanwhile, your mind is actively scanning the physical, psychological, and verbal horizons for that one reliable source of relief: an escape!

The idea of not only being unembarrassed by our fears--not "covering" them--but to "sail boldly" into the midst of them, requires a courage that eludes me at the present moment. But it does inspire me to try to take a different approach to writing anxiety than the one that is my typical reflex--busying myself with something completely unimportant in comparison (cleaning, writing letters, playing Sudoku, um, writing in a blog). Something to muse about over the weekend...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Please, more snow!

We got a tremendous rain storm yesterday that washed away the little snow that was still on the ground from the last snowfall. We are really snow-deprived right now. We got a good blast in December but so far January has been a bust.

The landscape is so dreary without it...bare trees, brown lawns. Having that white coating reflecting the light seems to brighten up an otherwise blah month. Januaries have been a cruel time for me in the past and a good snowstorm would really pick up my spirits.

Luckily, I have a warm den to retreat to during the storm itself until quiet comes and I can go out and shovel. Funny that a lifelong Californian who didn't see snow until she moved East would like to shovel snow but I do. Unlike paperwork or routine chores around the house, it is a useful task that once you're done with, you're done with! Unlike some of the houses surrounding us, we are blessed with a short, nonsloping driveway, so it only takes an hour or so to clear the sidewalks and driveway and start warming up the car.

After years of old clunkers, I'm fortunate now to have a car that is only 9 years old with decent tires so I no longer fear driving in the aftermath of the storm...I use to slide around on the road and there is nothing to get your heart pumping like doing a 90 or 180 degree spin. I remember one day going down a gently sloping street with my full brakes on and just sliding, sliding, sliding down the street. The best I could do was steer into the curb. Remarkably, I was able to drive in reverse back up the hill because there was no way the car would have stopped moving when I got to the stop sign. I have little desire for money and the burdens it brings but it is a relief to have enough to buy a dependable car.

So, please, weather gods, cooperate...ignore the global warming that has brought us temps in the 40s and 50s and send us a good, old January snowfall. It would be a great birthday present.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Enmeshed in Significance

Clifford Geertz, paraphrasing Max Weber, famously wrote that a human being "is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun". Thinking about my writing problems, I'm wondering if I have spun webs where everything is of equal significance and I can no longer distinguish north from south or inside from outside. My writing project should be a forest I manage but it has become acres and acres of trees I need to tend to and prune. I take care of one and there are still miles before me.

Even though my interest has never flagged, it often seems overwhelming. I can become riveted by the smallest of details that seems, for that moment, to have been imbued with significance. Distracted by a million tangents that have become crucially important for that moment, every aspect becomes invested with significance that is usually completely out of proportion to its ultimate importance.

This trait annoys me in my theologian friends because it seems like they project their own religious views into objects or moments or persons that rob that entity of its own identity and ability to define itself. Human beings are symbol-making creatures but that should be something that enhances these entities/events and doesn't impose a meaning upon them.

The ethics of nonfiction writing. The whole process is one of interpretation, of making distinctions, analyzing consequences, passing judgments. At times I think a touch of arrogance would help me handle this responsibility better, to care less about properly representing the perspectives of my subject(s) and care more about accomplishing the goal at hand.

Then I realize that it is actually humility that I probably need, to realize that I never need claim to be the definitive voice but just one offering some truth and insight as I see it. That doesn't help entangle me from these webs but perhaps I'll be more patient with myself during the process.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Buffy is an old cat who lives in my house. She's tanish-orange, 19 years old, and normally unaffectionate. She has a howl that would raise the dead. Her fur is matted in places and she no longer cleans herself. She spends most of her time sleeping on one of our heaters to warm herself. But, as Willow said in a BtVS episode, she just won't die! She's got a tenacious spirit that holds on despite every indication that she should be on her last legs. She goes days without eating and then bounces back to her normal, howling self.

In some ways she reminds me of my grandmother (grandfather's second wife), a tough, tough lady who was born in 1900 and lived through the joys and pains of a century. She didn't want to make a big deal of it when she turned 100 but her relatives wanted a big party so they threw her one, everyone trekked out to the small town she lives in and she made her obligatory appearance at the party, saying thanks, accepting good wishes, and eating a piece of cake. And then two days after, after all of the guests had left her little desert town, she passed away. She hadn't been sick but she was clearly done with this world and she had the willpower to continue living because she didn't want to disappoint her family. But after she fulfilled her obligation and everyone had been able to gather and celebrate together, she said, "Okay, now I'm out of here!"

I wish I had a bit more of this survivor mentality, not enough to make me as tough as these two are/were, but enough to weather the unfairness and injustices of life without getting so bruised. Maybe I should reconsider one of my grandmother's favorite expressions that she use to say in the last couple of decades of her life: "I never thought I'd be content with so little". I use to think that this was a sign of having overly low expectations but now I think maybe it reflects an attitude of gratitude for what you do have instead of being preoccupied with what you think you are entitled to.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Has it ever happened that you've been listening to or singing along with a song that you are familiar with (and in my case, don't even like that much!) and all of a sudden you hear something you never heard before?

That happened last night to me with a song by John Lamberton Bell...there is a line in one of his songs that goes "Will you risk the hostile stares/Should your life attract or scare" and it just hit a nerve. I have such ambivalent feelings about risk...in one sense there is the craving for the new and unexperienced but there is an equally strong fear about unexpected outcomes, rejection, and possible disappointment. Some might chalk it all up to confidence but it is easy to be confident in activities that we routinely do. That is why repetition can at times be so comforting.

But this line highlights the risk of being in the spotlight which, to me, sometimes feels like being under a microscope. The hazards of being an introvert in a creative field. Unless your only audience is the mirror, you need to put yourself and your work out there and once you release it to the world, it is out of your hands. I think it takes a detachment that I have yet to acquire.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A new year...thank god

In lieu of a new presidential inaugural (damn it), I'm inaugurating this website. I hope it won't be your typical self-indulgent "life is hell" blog but sometimes, sigh, ya just gotta vent.

Right now, I'm a struggling writer (is there any other kind?) and ever since I've been blocked, I've been reading about the nature of writing, composition, and other creative endeavors whether they are in art, science, philosophy, or design. It all seems so mysterious, cryptic, unpredictable and a matter of luck. Yet, I know that breakthroughs only come through a LOT of trial and error and I guess I'm frustrated with this part of the process. It is not that I want things to come easily but it is difficult when you don't see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I can see how frustrations with creativity can lead to addiction problems (drinking, smoking, reckless behavior, etc.) as the whole process seems fraught with anxiety. Hence, the insomnia. Luckily, I've been able to limit my vices to online surfing and Sudoku having wasted a portion of my younger years in more risky pursuits. When you realize how short life really is, it sure wakes you up and helps you get your life together. Or, hopefully, it does.

Time to log off and return to the frustrations at hand. Cheers!