Monday, January 30, 2012

A Letter to Sainte-Chapelle

Dear Sainte-Chapelle,

You jerk.

You do fine work, I’m not here to argue that.  You’re a true testament to Gothic architecture.  And your immense stained glass windows dazzle the eye with every color into which light can be broken.  Shards of gold, red and blue hail God Almighty from their station within your ever-splendid, ever-reaching upper chapel.

Seriously, though: you need an attitude adjustment.

I’m not going to get into who first irritated whom.  And I’m not going to drag gravity into this; he faces enough bad press without my relatively insignificant squabbles pointing a finger his way.  The fact is, one of us acted in excess of provocation, and it wasn’t me.

At most, I must have been mildly annoying.  There I was, teenaged American tourist, probably too disheveled for a place of solemn dedication, maybe a bit noisy.  And while no French person I met in Paris was thrilled about me, they never felt the need to whup my ass, either.  That was just you.  Aaaall you. 

You bully.

You could have calmly voiced your objection to any of my shortcomings, but no.  You resorted to violence.  You tripped me.  HARD.  And maybe you didn’t think of it, because it’s how you’re made, but for a fleshy mammal such as myself, falling down a stone staircase hurts.  A LOT.

So if you’re wondering why I didn’t just bounce back up, why I lie on the stairs whimpering while that girl from Atlanta literally walked over me, it’s because you used brute force against a smaller, more fragile creature.  Now don’t you feel dirty.

For the rest of my European adventures, it was impossible to forget you—mostly because my elbows had turned black from landing on them.  Not blue, not purple—BLACK.  And since that time, I have remembered you every time I’ve tentatively tread a stone staircase.  Or thought of Paris.  Or watched a nature documentary where the big bad python swallows whole the fluffy loveable bunny.

I want you to know that time heals all wounds.  For example, my elbows did eventually cease to be black.  As for the psychological scars you left me, they, too, will heal in time.  But for now, you’re still off my Christmas card list.

Truly resentful,

10 Ways in Which I Am a Nerd

1) I think Isaac Newton is more interesting than anyone on reality television 

To be fair, I’ve never actually seen “Teen Mom” or “Jersey Shore,” and I haven’t seen a minute of “The Bachelor” in years.  However, nothing I’ve heard or read about these (and many other) shows sounds remotely appealing.  A cantankerous genius who spent 18 months in a barn avoiding the plague and changing the face of science?  You have my attention.

2) “Seaquest DSV”

Sure, it’s easy to love “Star (fillintheblank)” or “Lord of the Rings,” but I know of other nerds who won’t even dare to touch “Seaquest.”  My friend A and I were so obsessed with the show that we spent a lot of our down time composing storylines in which we could insert ourselves.  I was horrified when I first saw the episode that dare reveal “my” storyline without me.  To this day, I still think Ted Raimi is neat.

3) I can quote “Mystery Science Theater 3000” like nobody’s business

There are days when I eat, sleep, and breathe this 90s Midwest puppet show.  And I’m a howitzer of quotations.  Remember, kids: the good die first.  (Most people are morally ambiguous, which explains our random dying patterns.)

4) I had not one but two birthday parties with a “Mystery Science” theme

The first one, “Sweet Sixteen Down in Deep 13,” was lame.  Two years later I dressed as Pearl Forrester and all was smashing.

5) I once dressed as Spock for Halloween


6) I recycled my Spock ears for a theatrical showing of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”  

 I painted my ears green, and rubbed glitter gel on them to represent the Force.

 7) Dinosaurs

 Once upon a time, I could identify and name dozens of dinosaurs.  I admit to being rusty on that now, but I’m still irked whenever I see or hear “brontosaurus.”  (For the love of Pete, there’s no such thing as a brontosaurus!)  And I geek in museums that have fossil displays.  I need a bib when I visit the National Museum of Natural History.

 8) The classic nerd wardrobe

 Glasses and braces.  I had ‘em.  I also wore Winnie-the-Pooh shirts with great frequency.  This does not represent nerdiness directly, but if you think that Pooh shirts = a lack of willingness to let childhood go = social awkwardness, then yeah, the t-shirts are nerdy.

 9) I correct things I perceive to be incorrect

 For one drama club performance, I played a snotty know-it-all kid who debunked a magician’s illusion.  It was a creative work of nonfiction.  I’m obnoxious in my (often unrealized) attempts to make the world factually sound.  Because evidently, I think I know everything.  (For the love of Pete, there’s no such thing as a brontosaurus!) 

 10) I make lists.  Lots of ‘em

I’m capable of improvising.  With effort, I’m capable of going with the flow.  But my world is best contained in the most anal-retentive of ways.  I can make a list about most anything.  Sorting everything into pleasing compartments—such as lists—is an obsession.  And what is nerdiness without a little obsession—be it a tv show, a branch of history, or a wardrobe?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Smart in, smart out.

I’m smart.  I don’t mean to sound arrogant or whathaveyou, it’s just a fact: I’m smart.  I do stupid things left and right, but the core grey matter is there.  And I’m finally coming to terms with that.  I’ve been smart my whole life, but in a state of hazy denial: smart is good for other people, but it’s not good for me.  Why?  Well, in part, because saying “I’m smart” tends to make me feel as though I’m being arrogant.  But now I’m willing to stand on this here crate and say it loud, say it proud:

I’m smart.

 Most people may view this as puny whining, but for a long time, I felt caught in an intellectual world of torment: smarter than most other kids, but feeling significantly dumber than all the other kids in the advanced classes at school.  In Pre-Algebra, for example, the “smart” math class of seventh grade, I was the worst student.  It seemed everyone else was sailing by with A’s, whereas I was struggling to hold on to a C.  I can attribute social awkwardness at that time to being in a perpetual state of arrested development, but nothing was there to explain to me why I couldn’t grasp the basic concepts to which my fellow preteens so easily took.

I struggled through smart classes for years, ever more down on myself for my inability to keep up with the kid sitting at the desk next to me.  At the same time, I refused to let go of the notion that I was destined for these classes, because I was TOLD I was smart, so I MUST have been smart.  Because no adult would b.s. a kid like that right?  …Right?

 My sophomore year of high school, I dropped out of smart math classes.  I barely made it to AP English senior year.  I barely graduated high school at all, and felt a failure for not living up to my intellectual potential.

 Funny thing about intellectual pursuits.  It turns out that most of the ones worth chasing are the ones they DON’T teach you in elementary, middle, or high school.  I almost had my B.A. before I found something that made me FEEL smart.  The class was called “The Theory of Criticism,” which may or may not have been a philosophy class (it depends which department was talking about it).  I didn’t feel smart in this class because it was easy; I felt smart because it was hard, and it took work, and I GOT IT.  That’s a three-sided combo that I had not before encountered.  And I may have embraced my intelligence with every fiber of my being then, had it not been for an event which occurred shortly before this class:

 The I.Q. test.

I’m the first person to throw up my hands and say that any intelligence test is just a number on paper, that at the end of the day it doesn’t mean much, and yet I trusted that test, more than anything, to explain for me why school had been a world of academic hurt.  I don’t know what I was expecting to hear from the test evaluator, but it certainly wasn’t “153.”  As in, my I.Q. is 153.  Roughly speaking, 100 is average, 120 is gifted, 140 is genius.  My score is enough for Mensa, with enough left over to plant into a mad scientist’s pet rhesus monkey.  Which I feel should be flattering, but at the time, all I could think of was, “If I’m so smart, why have I struggled in school?”

This led to a minor existential crisis from which I’m only now beginning to recover.  In the months, years, life changes following the I.Q. test, I doubted the efficacy of my own brain; someone with an above-genius I.Q. should have been able to handle trigonometry, no?  And if not, what did that mean?  Was I smart but incapable?  Were the test results a fluke?  If I was so smart, why wasn’t school easier?

The obvious answer to that last question is that being smart doesn’t make ANYTHING easier.  It doesn’t necessarily make anything harder, either, but it’s ridiculous to expect that brains are going to make school, life, anything bow to your whim.  I earned my B.A. with the average amount of blood, sweat, and tears.  I finished school with a respectable amount of scarring, but nothing traumatizing.  Brains may have helped, but they weren’t the be-all and end-all.  And until recently, I thought that brains didn’t much matter anymore.

But now, with all the thinking and reading I’ve been doing lately (philosophy, theology, math, history), all of it on my own terms, without grades or classmates to whom I can compare myself, I’m beginning to finally see how NICE it is to be smart.  And to feed the smart.  And maybe, someday, I’ll actually do something with my smarts.  But even if I don’t, it’s okay, because the important thing is that I’m comfortable with the ol’ grey matter upstairs.

In a sharp lesson of “don’t take things too seriously,” I feel obliged to point out that when I took the I.Q. test, I didn’t KNOW I was taking an I.Q. test.  The short answer is, I thought I was taking a test to determine my mental state.  For example, for the first test, I was shown one picture at a time, and I had to say what was missing from each picture.  The first picture was a white rabbit with only one ear.  The appropriate answer is, “The rabbit is missing an ear.”  However, I figured that if I said something like, “THERE’S NO BLOOD ON THE BUNNY,” it would indicate something about my psychological makeup.  Only after the ages-long test was done did I understand what had taken place.  Which strikes me as very odd, because it’s pretty obvious, in retrospect, what was going on. 

Consider it proof that a person’s I.Q. isn’t necessarily reflective of their commonsense.  Nor is it reflective of one’s ability to ace an algebra test.  An algebra test which I would still, to this day, probably fail.  But that’s okay.  Because I’m still smart.

Psychic love affair.

My sister D and I were flying to London on a big, glum plane.  I had the aisle seat; across the way, D was in another aisle seat.  If you’ve never flown from the United States to London, I highly recommend it—because you get to go to London.  In general, though, big, glum planes are not the way to go.  Jet pack or Star Trek transporter: transportation of champions.

I spent takeoff developing a cold and sleeping.  I woke up in time for the drink cart.  At this point, the fella next to me, H, introduced himself.  D, ever more social than I am, chatted with him for a bit.  H was about my age, friendly, and destined for Italy, where he would take part in an opera workshop.  It was the opera bit that turned me squishy: This dude can sing.  Opera!  I instantly decided that, whether he knew it or not, he was my boyfriend.

The drink cart came and went, and soon he turned his attention from D me.   We were both shy, but isn’t that the way the best romances were supposed to begin?  A little hesitation, a little doubt, but then BAM!  the realization that we were truly meant to be.  While I waited for BAM! he stayed matter-of-fact about his life, his journey to Europe, and the refreshing nature of his drink.
I should take a moment to admit that I remember very little else about H.  I don’t even remember what he looked like.  I was obsessed with psychically demanding him to be my boyfriend.  I remember that I was wearing a red shirt, jeans, and my Danskos.  I was turning stuffy from the aforementioned cold.  I think I drank a Coke.  But H?  I was too busy willing him to be mine to actually notice who he was.
I used to do this thing in school—mostly middle school—where I would stare at whichever of my ever-revolving crush list happened to be in the room.  This was most conveniently done during overhead projection lectures, when the lights were out, and by the dim light of the projector I would just make out, across the room, my crush.  I honed my “you-will-be-MINE” skills during this time.  It never seemed to work, but I did develop a keen sense for picking out faces in the dark.
Fortunately H was in the light (well, the light of a plane cabin), and so I could, I reasoned, more effectively sway him to boyfriendhood.  I eventually decided that boring my eyes into his head might spook him into switching seats with someone less appealing, and I guess he was feeling too shy to look me in the eye very much, so we spent much of our conversation looking at the back of the seat in front of him (it was grey).

The stale airplane air, my cold, and the never ending stretch of sitting in one place eventually took its toll, and I nodded off.
When I woke up, my head was resting on H’s shoulder, his head was sleepily laying on mine, and our legs were pressed against each other.

It may have taken over ten years, but finally, FINALLY, I had tapped the power to make a man be my boyfriend.  Well, in my broad definition of “boyfriend,” at any rate.  If he didn’t mind my snotty head on his shoulder, then it must be love, right?  H woke up with a small smile on his face.  We chatted quietly for the rest of the flight.
Alas, all short-term love affairs do, by definition, come to an end.  In this case, the descent into Heathrow brought with it the melancholy beginnings of good-bye.  “You’re going to miss this,” I said.  “Yeah,” he said.  I pointed to the plastic knob on the tray on the seatback in front of him.  “You’re going to miss THIS,” I said.  Across the aisle, D (quietly) laughed until she shook.  H sat still, looking at the knob, a glazed look on his face.  “Um…yeah.”

There was no dramatic embrace, no kiss, no tears as we departed the plane.  As D and I waited for our luggage, she said, “It wouldn’t have worked out.  That knob thing?  He doesn’t get your sense of humor.”  She poked me in the arm.  “Hey, look.”  Yards away stood H, looking in my direction.  I didn’t know what to do.  He sang opera, he let me sleep on him, he validated those countless hours thought-morphing other boys into romance.  But D was right: he didn’t get my sense of humor.  I let this one go.
Personally, I miss that knob.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Mullet; or, a Foreshadowing of Things to Come

I used to have a mullet.  I could tell you why, but I could never tell you why I had one for SO LONG.  It was elementary school.  It was the 80s.  And I thought that the more feathered your business up front, the more happening you were. 

What I didn’t notice, while my hair was happening (or, in retrospect, thrashing about for air), was that every other kid in school with a mullet was a BOY.  And I was a GIRL.  Gender identity and all that brouhaha aside, Adult Me is mortified by that fact.  I had weird, tangled, ratty, boy hair
For four years.
To over compensate for those lost years, when I decided to grow out The Mullet, I let all of my hair grow—not just the short bits, but the party in back, too.  That party just got longer and longer.  Past my waist.  The business up front grew out to a respectable shoulder length, but that pelt of hair in back drizzled on and on down my back.  I can tell you with firsthand authority: a stringy grown-out mullet is just as tacky and unappealing as a tightly trimmed mullet.

I don’t think I cut my hair to one sensible, unified length until halfway through middle school.

The thing is, although no one teased me (to my face) about my hair, ever, I look back on my hair and imagine that somewhere, someone SHOULD HAVE. I was teased about a lot growing up, but never, ever the hair.  Which should be a relief it seems, but if people were able to overlook The Mullet in favor of other, presumably “worse” traits, then GOOD GRAVY what else was uncool about me??

My hair looks good now.  And despite all anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I’m a much cooler person, too.  It’s not that I've become terribly sophisticated or hip over the years; I’ve just learned that nerds are cool.  I aim to be comfortable in my own skin, even if it means living up to every taunt ever thrown my way.  Thank the Lord I don’t have to live up to mullet mania, though.  Hair can change.  But deep down, we are what we are, and in my case: dork.  Represent!