Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Provo

So here I am in Provo again, hanging out in Spare Oom at the top of my mom's house, lying lazily across the guest bed and typing rather awkwardly on the Surface I brought along for the ride. Mom's turning 70 this week, and it's kind of a big deal, so here I am to celebrate (and maybe help clean out the basement a bit).

I'm trying to think how best to explain the complicated and sometimes paradoxical feelings I have for this city. Right. Do you have any siblings? Remember how in childhood you'd get in fights, yell, complain, pick on each other -- but if somebody else dissed your sib, you'd punch that somebody else in the nose? Yeah, it's like that. I'll be the first to admit that Provo has its faults, but let an outsider start making fun of the place and I'll also be the first to bristle and leap to its defense.

Our family moved to Provo the year after my dad died. I'd never lived anywhere other than California, and at the time I was convinced I never wanted to live anywhere else, despite Mom's best efforts to warm us to the idea of moving to Utah. And for some time, my worst fears were realized. Provo in winter was grimly cold and arid, and at the time the Geneva Steel mill was still polluting away with impunity, so you practically had to chew the air before you breathed it. I moved from a place with numerous family members in the same neighborhood to a spot where I knew no one except my own family and my aunt and uncle's family who lived seven miles away. At the time Provo was over 90% Mormon, and although I shared the faith, the local culture surrounding the religion felt insular and judgmental compared to the pan-religious Bay Area culture I'd left behind. Provo was small-town, isolated, bland, and utterly lacking in things to do. I hated it for a solid year.

And then I had the best attitude adjustment I could possibly have experienced. I went back to California for the summer.

Utah schools let out earlier than California schools do, which meant that I got to attend the last day of school with my friend Varalynn. To say it was eye-opening was a drastic understatement. For the first time I noticed the way the physical plants of schools in the district resembled prisons. I saw how casually brutal the students were to each other, how much disrespect and disgust they showed to teachers and parents, the way the boys openly groped girls' bodies as though they had the right, the way kids affected a blasé attitude toward everything as a kind of psychic body armor against the cruelty of their peers. And I thought about my high school in Utah, all red brick with beautiful flowerbeds that the students wouldn't think of tearing up, the way people embraced their passions, and the way so many students had gone out of their way to be kind to me, the awkward new girl who always stared at the floor. And I realized with a bit of a shock that although I missed many places in California, I wasn't missing out on a thing when it came to high school. Even I could see that I was better off in Provo than I would have been in California.

So I went back to Utah. It was still roasting hot in summer and frigid in winter, everyone still assumed everyone else was Mormon, it was still isolated and small-town. But Provo also had the most beautiful old Carnegie library, with reading marathons where you could stay up all night and read books to raise money (on one of these nights, a devious librarian introduced me to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" around 2 a.m.). Provo had a canyon filled with world class rock formations, where in autumn the trees blazed up in colors I didn't believe were actually found in nature. Provo had a university filled with art and music and international film and a planetarium with an observation dome and a telescope, where nearly every week there were cheap or free things available to do if you looked on the campus bulletin board. Provo had an Italian restaurant set up like an old speakeasy, the entrance designed to look like a flower shop where you had to press the right button to get in. Provo had people who were determined to make their own fun, whether that meant setting up a fancy dinner for their dates in a cavernous service elevator, going to Stan's to get dollar milkshakes on Mondays, wrapping solid blocks of party ice in towels and sliding down the hill next to the Marriott Center, playing Cliff Hanger or air hockey at the Wilkinson Center arcade, or hiking up to the big Y on the side of the mountain and looking down across the whole valley. Like most truly interesting people, Provo needed some time to be discovered and explored.

My mother's house is built on the side of Y Mountain, not far from the trailhead which leads to the Y. It's been our family home since 1984, and my youngest sibling doesn't remember any other home but this one. From the top of the house, I can look out over the valley and see BYU campus, the twin smokestacks of the Provo Power Company, the silver expanse of Utah Lake and the mountains rising beyond it. I see the new spring growth on the willow trees across from Mom's house, the white apple blossoms on the volunteer apple tree that's grown up in her side yard. I think of all the astonishing people I met while living here, including my husband. And although I'm happy having been transplanted to the Puget Sound and hope to stay there for good, I know that Provo is grafted into me, its branches nourishing my roots. So much of who and what I now am grows from my years here, and I would be foolish to pretend anything else.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ooooooklahoma, where the wind and sun are such a paaaain...

I don't usually talk about news or politics here, but I'm about to make an exception.

This has been making the rounds in the news recently. And frankly, it cheeses me off.

A number of people are framing this story as a problem with greedy power companies. And as Americans, we do seem to have real trouble learning the law of diminishing returns (that is, making twice as much money might make you twice as happy, but making ten, a hundred, a thousand times as much money doesn't create the same ratio of cash to happiness -- or as the hip-hop community puts it, "mo' money, mo' problems."). Our world runs on an almost universal monetary economy, so we do need a certain amount of cash to live -- but as Douglas Adams points out, this is odd because on the whole it isn't the small green pieces of paper that are unhappy.

Nonetheless, as a small-L libertarian, I don't have a problem with people using their particular genius to make money. My general rule of thumb is that peaceable people should be left alone to do as they choose. But the moment you start infringing on other people's freedoms, you break that rule. And do not misunderstand it: this news story isn't about "fairness" or about making money. It's about an organization abusing a long-held position of power to persecute those whose only "crime" is trying to be more self-sufficient. Household solar and windpower systems, far from being a threat to the power grid, ease the strain on the system. In essence, Oklahomans who are putting up their own money to install home solar and wind systems are doing the power companies a favor. And the companies want to penalize them for it. This goes to stupidity and beyond.

At this point it's up to Gov. Mary Fallin to see through the buttery, flaky layers of dumb in this bill and veto it. If the power companies and the Oklahoma state government then want to start a fight about net metering, that's just dandy. But in the meantime, power to the people!

Friday, April 18, 2014

What adventure smells like

So I'm on another Epic Late-Night Grocery Run, cruising the aisles of Safeway in the middle of the night on a quest for frosted flakes, and suddenly I catch the scent of something familiar. And a split second before I can mentally identify the scent, a specific pleasure center in my brain pipes up with the thought, You're going to have an adventure.

Well, that's odd.

I turn around. Directly across the aisle from the cold cereal boxes are the plastic push-to-vend dispensers filled with bulk coffee beans. Rows and rows and rows of dispensers (Seattleites are particular about their coffee, even the home-brewed kind), and I see them and start to smile. Because, for once, I know exactly why my brain reacted as it did, priming me for an adventure just because I smelled coffee.

If you know me, you might find this mental connection a little silly; after all, I'm a member of a church that advises its members not to drink coffee or tea. (The first and only time I drank coffee in my life was as a demanding toddler. I was whining for some of my paternal grandma's morning coffee because it smelled so good, like a really exotic kind of hot chocolate. Grandma, knowing it was against my religion, kept telling me no, but then my mom -- no doubt realizing that anything forbidden becomes more tantalizing -- said, "Oh, go ahead, let her have some." After one big sip of hot, strong, acrid black coffee that tasted NOTHING like hot chocolate, I had zero interest in trying it again.) But for me, the scent of coffee figures into a lot of pleasant memories. It's part of the memory of my Aunt Marcia and Uncle John's home in the early morning, along with the other scents of breakfast cooking. It's part of the memory of going to the big Cost Plus flagship store in Oakland and wandering around looking at burlap bags of coffee, Asian teapots, scented votive candles, articulated wooden snake toys, whirligigs, alien antennae, Bee & Flower sandalwood soap, and little round chocolate-covered apricot brandy cordials. It's part of the memory of being 20 years old and having my first full-time adult job at an appraisal company, where the scent of coffee was always wafting from the break room.

Mostly, though, I remember summer days and Saturdays in childhood, piling into the orange VW microbus, and driving nearly an hour from our house in Concord through the East Bay towns of Walnut Creek and Orinda, through the long tiled stretch of the Caldecott Tunnel (the weather was always different on the other side), and a quick stop to pay toll before we headed over the Bay Bridge, with a quick dip into Yerba Buena Island -- and then the city vista of San Francisco stretched out before us, glittering and urbane and punctuated by the Transamerica and Coit Towers. And with that sight came a very specific scent: the strong, rich, unmistakable tang of roasting coffee from the Hills Bros. roasting plant on the Embarcadero.

That scent was a sign and a promise -- a sign that adventures were coming, and a promise that they would be memorable. Going into San Francisco meant visiting Ocean Beach, playing in the surf and finding fragile grey sand dollars to take home. It meant watching monkeys swing and play and hoot in their enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. It meant walking between the stately columns and through the front doors of the old Steinhart Aquarium, or wandering through the Japanese Tea Garden, or getting a peek at the bison in Golden Gate Park. It meant visiting the ACT to watch plays with my junior high English class. It meant the Doggie Diner and Union Square and Green Apple Books. It meant the Exploratorium and the Palace of Fine Arts. It meant walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and getting a sweet sample of fresh-made chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, or running loose in Macy's. It meant getting a fresh loaf of Boudin sourdough and riding a cable car from Powell & Market to wherever it was going, or shopping for beautiful lacy dresses in the Gunne Sax outlet. Later, it meant catching a glimpse of a flock of wild parrots in flight, or walking into Rincon Center and seeing the "Rain Column" water feature for the first time, pouring 85 feet down from a ring in the center of the building's atrium.

But before any of that, there was the scent of coffee to usher us into whatever amazing event the day had to offer. And now, standing in the grocery store some 800 miles and thirty-odd years away, I close my eyes and take a slow, deep breath through the nose, and I can't help but smile again at what it does to me. No, I don't drink coffee, but I don't need to. In my mind the smell of roasting coffee will always be the incense of some great adventure yet to come, the promise of the unexpected, and the scent of wonder. And really, what more could you ask from one little bean?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to talk to an introvert

Based on what I've been reading, there are a lot of misconceptions floating around online and in person when it comes to the subject of introverts. People seem to think that all introverts are painfully shy (not necessarily), that they're social hermits who shun parties (that depends on the nature of the party), that they're oblivious navel-gazers (uh, we prefer the term "observant thinkers," thanks).

People gain and expend their energy in different ways. As you may have heard, introverts get their energy from downtime -- being left alone to read, watch movies, surf the web, daydream, create and otherwise "recharge." They don't have a problem with being alone; in fact, they'll go a little stir crazy if they don't get sufficient alone time. If you think of life energy as equivalent to money, downtime is how introverts make the cash they need to live.

So let's say your friendly neighborhood introvert has just spent several hours reading the latest Neil Gaiman novel and is feeling pretty flush with energy, and it's now time to sally forth and run errands. Errand-running means interacting with other people, and interacting with other people means spending some of that precious life energy. Most introverts expend their life energy the way people on a strict budget spend their money: carefully. They don't want to burn through their limited energy budget and not have anything meaningful to show for it.

This is why introverts, almost to a one, would gnaw off their own legs to avoid small talk; fluffy cotton-candy conversations about the weather and everyone's health and "how 'bout them Mariners" exhaust their limited energy reserves, and offer very little mental sustenance in return. This is also why many introverts avoid parties, especially parties where they don't know anyone; small talk is often the first step to getting to know others better, but introverts have such low tolerance for idle chitchat that they don't end up making new friends at such gatherings. Instead they tend to hover in an obscure corner, just breathing and listening to other people, or they flee the intense mix-and-mingle areas and find a quiet place to take a ten-minute introvert break.

But just because introverts don't like small talk doesn't mean they don't like to talk at all. They just want their conversations to be meaningful. (Remember, they've got a limited energy budget, so they want the most bang for their buck.) Generally speaking, then, introverts are drawn to conversations about ideas -- especially ideas that are already important to them. But they can also be genuinely interested in the ideas that make others tick, especially if such people are unabashedly enthusiastic about their passions. Seeing someone just light up about a concept that makes him or her happy is an experience well worth expending one's limited energy on, at least by my lights.

Introverts are opinionated (sometimes very opinionated, if my own example is any indication), but often won't venture to make comment unless someone asks first. So be the one who asks. Just be prepared for anything; many introverts are philomaths and are full of wide-ranging, interesting tidbits they've soaked up during their downtime. (Oh yeah, and if you want to be a mighty juggernaut at Trivial Pursuit team games, get their contact information! AND LO, YE SHALL BE THE UNSTOPPABLE INFOMANIACS!)

Oh, and another thing: some introverts have a tough time making prolonged eye contact during conversations. This doesn't mean they're not interested in what you have to say. Introverts tend to have an easier time making eye contact when they're relaxed; this tends to happen most often with people they've known for a while, or people whom they trust. Give them time. Meanwhile, take confidence in the knowledge that if an introvert deliberately chooses to continue a conversation with you, he or she is interested -- eye contact or no eye contact.

Some of my friends are introverts, so I'm going to be the one who asks: what's the best way for someone to engage you in conversation without making you want to hyperventilate and retreat to a locked room somewhere?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Small satisfactions

Today, my kitchen island is clean.

True, everything else in the house resembles the detritus left behind after a Wild Rumpus, but that's not the point. Just for today, and maybe only for a few hours, I have proven to myself that I have the ability to impose some semblance of order on small spaces, to conquer the clutter. Whenever I feel discouraged at my awful housekeeping today, I can stop wrestling with whatever quotidian mess I'm fighting, look toward the center of my living space, and see a serene little clearing of organization and cleanliness in the jungle of chaos.

Yes, it's a small thing, but you've gotta start somewhere.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why I am not a feminist

Actress Kirsten Dunst is apparently taking a beating in the media this weekend. Interviewed for the May issue of Harper's Bazaar UK, Dunst made some supposedly-controversial comments about the nature of gender (aka sex) roles in modern society:
Dunst is surprisingly outspoken on the subject of gender: "I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued," she says. "We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking -- it's a valuable thing my [mom] created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I'm sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That's why relationships work..."
Erin Gloria Ryan, writing for feminist blog Jezebel, considers these comments -- which for hundreds of years were merely commonsense wisdom about the sexes -- to be so abysmally stupid as not to be worth taking the time to refute with logic. She writes a mere 120 words on the subject (most of them shopworn middle-school clichés about Dunst being blonde and "kind of dumb") and dismisses the rest. Nice work if you can get it.

So apparently feminism is all about women choosing to do whatever empowers them and makes them happy -- unless what empowers you and makes you happy happens to be championing the values of traditional femininity. Then the nurturing sisterhood, as one, becomes a pack of raging harpies to turn on you and tear you apart -- as Ms. Dunst could certainly attest.

But before feminists dogpile all over themselves in the race to shove Kirsten into the corner and crown her with the Dunst cap, could someone take the time to inform me what precisely was so shameful about what she said? Certainly it wasn't the sentiment. She took time to honor the contributions of her own mother, who made the choice to be a homemaker. She admitted that men and women need each other, and that each has something unique and valuable to contribute to a loving relationship. As far as I can tell, the source of all the ugly here is the suggestion by Ms. Dunst that men and women have different natures. Well, OF COURSE men and women have different natures. The most honest feminists already know this, even if they are loath to admit it -- after all, if men and women were exactly the same, all feminists would welcome men to their cause with open arms instead of calling them beastly, patriarchal oppressors, suggesting that women need men like fish need bicycles, and repeatedly excluding them from the girls-only treehouse. Solidarity, rather than segregation, would be the order of the day. Instead, even men who consider themselves ardent feminists are sometimes treated with suspicion and disdain, simply because they are male.

This controversy is one of many reasons why I don't call myself a feminist. Yes, I'm in favor of being able to own things in my own name, walking around in public without a chaperone and having basic control over my own body. But if you ask me, these things no longer make one a feminist -- only a member of a modern free republic. Due in part to the work of early feminists, ideas once grouped under the status of "feminist beliefs" are now widely considered to be commonsense beliefs. You know, I'm also in favor of adult women being able to vote, but that doesn't make me a suffragette. Women's suffrage, at least in my country, is a done deal; the American people have long since realized that it was wrong to force adults to be subject to laws which they were not allowed to vote on, simply because they were female. Furthermore, if there were a modern suffragist movement that wanted to extend voting rights to girls as young as age 6, I would be adamantly against it; such a move would effectively liquidate the democratic process. Likewise, I'm not a feminist because most of the early equity-feminist goals have been achieved, either through legislation or encouraging social change. And these days an alarming number of people who call themselves feminists seem to be attempting to rend and destroy the culture in which they live. I see much that is worth saving in my culture, so I cannot stand with those who would shred it to pieces for the sake of pulling down "the patriarchy."

The thing I find most odd about the behavior of the modern feminist movement is the way it seems to push back against individualism. Feminism is supposedly about women's liberation, about women's rights. To me, that includes the right to be free not to call yourself a feminist, the right to decide for yourself that you're already liberated, the right to choose to be a wife and mother first if that's what you really want. I see in this something akin to the process of raising a child; your ultimate goal as a parent is to work yourself out of a job, to help shape a healthy adult with her own thoughts and ideas, one who can live independently of you. Of course you miss the child, but you also take pride in the adult your child has grown to become. But this goal -- to glory in the triumph of strong, capable, well-educated, independent women in society -- seems to have been lost in the modern feminist movement. Far from their stated goals of female liberation, feminist leaders seem to panic at the idea that there are strong women in the world who have declared themselves mature enough not to require the support structure of a political movement. They seem to need a cadre of perpetual teenagers, constantly fearful of having their rights snatched away by the looming specter of the Male Chauvinist Pig, and never quite able to think or act independently of the Cause.

So the question now before me is whether I need feminism, or whether feminism needs me. More and more it seems to me that the latter statement is more true than the former. As a political movement that needs the power of the masses to effect its goals, modern feminism is trying to pull in as many women as possible by trying to convince them that if they believe in such common-sense notions as women voting, owning property, not being sexually harassed at work, etc., then They May Already Be Members! But I don't accept that notion. And I'm just enough of an old-fashioned rugged individualist that I don't believe political and social change only takes place by stirring up the emotions of well-choreographed mobs.

Sorry, ladies. I'm standing with Ms. Dunst on this one.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tra-la-la BOOM-de-ay, I'm wat-chin' A-ni-me...

It's been a long while since I followed any anime series; I think the last time was when Miss V was going through her anime/manga obsession in middle school. But just recently I've had a couple of shows recommended to me by friends, so I'm working my way through each one, an episode or two at a time. Maybe you'll like them too -- so here they are:


Four middle-school students from the undersea town of Shioshishio -- Hikari, Manaka, Chisaki and Kaname -- must attend school in a town on land after their middle school closes down. They are not welcomed by their fellow students, most of whom are prejudiced against sea-people, but one of the land-dwellers, a fisherman named Tsumugu, befriends them. It's hard enough just being a teenager without the added sturm und drang of having friends or sweethearts who can't breathe underwater. Part magical realism, part teen drama, with beautifully surreal visuals.


An alien race known as the Gamilans have been waging total war against Earth, making it all but uninhabitable. In desperation, the U.N. Cosmo Navy uses alien technology to transform the WWII-era Japanese battleship Yamato into a spaceship, sending its crew on a desperate mission to save Earth from complete destruction. A recent remake of the 1970s anime classic (aka Star Blazers in the U.S.) with some updates to the storyline, a few new characters, and (not to be disloyal to the original or anything) better animation. They're currently planning a feature film for release in Fall 2014, so now's a good time to prepare by watching this.

Fun!