Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Slow Down

I have a mind like a steel trap where Calvin & Hobbes cartoons & quotes/plots from bad TV shows are concerned. The near-photographic perfection of my memory regarding these things has never helped me out on math, science, or history tests (for those, I had to use hard work and dedication to actually learn things). I did not choose to be this way, it's simply who I am.

At any rate, because of this skill the first thing that come to mind when I think about the past few days of my life is an old Calvin and Hobbes strip (from 1988! I'm a genius!), in which Calvin has come down with the flu in the middle of the night, and is sitting up frightened in bed.

"It's scary being sick..." he said (and yes, I'm assigning agency to a technically fictitious character here. I write ficiton, ok? This is my world!) "Especially at night. What if something is REALLY wrong with me, and I have to go to the hospital?? What if they stick me full of tubes and hoses? What if they have to operate? What if the operation fails? What if this is my... my... last night... ALIVE??"

This past weekend I developed a fierce set of hives all over my body (as well as a charming rash on my posterior), apparently as the result of an allergy to an antibiotic I had been taking. I've had outbreaks of hives at various points in my life, so this shouldn't necessarily have been the scariest thing in the world: usually, I assume that my body is healthy enough to heal most anything, because I am young and invincible. However, last year at about this time I had a similar allergic reaction, complete with hives in my throat, the cause of which was never determined. I was not on the same antibiotics at the time.

Because of the air of mystery surrounding my condition, I couldn't help but be nervous, and every new symptom made me go a little bit more crazy. The appearance of each hive caused me to hyperventilate in Dave's general direction (note: playing Scrabble while stressed out due to illness will not calm you down), and the swelling up of my hands like link sausages made me miss work 2 days in a row. When my breathing turned wheezy (wheezy sounding: it was still not hard to breathe, my throat was not closing up, and the doctor didn't find any hives in my throat this time) I laid awake in bed until 4:30 in the morning, wondering if I should go stab my EpiPen into my thigh.

Luckily, the antihistamine that I was prescribed seemed to do away with most of my visible symptoms (Dave is still calling me by my new Indian name, Fat Paws), but didn't help at all with the sudden pain in the joints of my hands, wrists, and feet. This reached the point, yesterday, where I could barely carry home a bag of groceries without dropping them everywhere and suffering for it later. This seems to have gone away more or less on its own, though flexing my hands still feels...weird. Not painful, just not right.

When I was a child I didn't really relate to Calvin's fear of illness, perhaps because I so trusted in the wisdom of my parents to get me well again. But now, with a not-really-life-threatening, but-incredibly-annoying condition on my hands, I suddenly knew just what he was talking about. What if I don't know what my throat closing up feels like, and I just ignore it? I worried. What if this is the first sign that my body no longer intends to fight disease?

This all made me realize what it feels like to have an invader in your body, something steadily, stealthily doing you harm from the vantage point of your own bones and sinews. Whatever I was allergic to, it was in my blood. By now, I'm really just fine. But this experience really shook me up, and I'm curious how many other people have become a bit more wary of their illnesses as they've emerged from childhood.

*** Image Credit: 'From my sick bed' by angusf on

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Belly of the Beast
in which I recount the saddest story ever told

This is a story for all the girls and boys out there who were afraid, up to this point, that it was impossible to send a sandwich through the the US Postal System. Let us rejoice! For the world is rife with possibility. And please do not be shy, I know there are a lot of you out there, just waiting to provide your friends and lovers with the best that sandwiches have to offer. So let us begin.

A few months ago, when I was still living in the South Bay Area and rarely even stopped to remember that such a thing as "sleet" existed, my friend Rachel came to me with a problem.

"I was hungry," she said, "and we were out of chips. I tried to go to the store, but I couldn't get the top up on the car, and so I just sat there in the garage, sadly banging on the hinges of the car top, getting hungrier by the minute. And the worst part of it is, even if I had gotten to the store, they would only have had those stupid, healthy, organic chips." It's worth noting that it was also a dark and stormy night. Let's ignore for the moment the fact that our poor bereft waif was trying to dive a convertible.

Rachel was living with well-to-do relatives in New Jersey which attending a sadly lacking graduate school. Before you start thinking that she is a fat, lazy, chip-hungry maniac with poor eating habits, you should know that she is one of the thinner, healthier people I know - the very person who taught me what polenta was. I plan to use the rest of this story to illustrate her intelligence, but if you're not convinced, you will be once she has her PhD.

Being the kind and generous soul that I am, I quickly sent her a box of chips via parcel post, which I am told she ate happily. In return, she told me about a deli near her house with sandwiches so delectable that an ex-resident of the town, who now lived in San Francisco, had them sent to him every week.

"I will send you one of these sandwiches," she said. "And then we'll be even."

Days and weeks go by, each one more sandwichless than the last, and eventually I sort of forget that we ever made this deal. So one Saturday afternoon, while I was out on a walk, I happened to miss the mailman when he came to deliver me a package. I looked at the sticky slip on my door, completely baffled as to what this package might be. It wasn't my birthday. It wasn't Christmas. What's left? I assumed my parents were most likely to be responsible for outright benevolence, and didn't think much of it (since I am an ungrateful whelp). It was too late to go to the post office, and for whatever reason they couldn't re-deliver until the following Tuesday.

Finally, my long-awaited package arrived. I was at work when this happened, but Dave sent me an email.

"I don't think you're going to be very happy," he says. "It was a sandwich. Past tense."

Suddenly the whole conversation about New Jersey and magical delis comes rushing back, and I gaze in mute horror at the screen. My perfect sandwich. My lusted-after sandwich. My gift sandwich - it was all disappearing. And it was all my fault for not being more proactive about going to the damned post office.

When I got home that evening I looked at the now-moldy wunderkind of mail-order sustenance, which Dave had lovingly placed in the refrigerator for my perusal. It was not packaged for long-term survival, just wrapped in layers of wax paper and placed in a thick envelope for Fragile things. It was delicate and ephemeral, like all good things on this earth.

Unfortunately, although it still smelled awesome (no, really!) it was not to be ingested. And so I made the long march out to our apartment building's dumpster, and shoved it unceremoniously inside to be baked into further putrescence by the California sun.

And then I shed a tear. I'm sure that, by now, you're all crying with me.

HOWEVER. Don't lose heart yet. For after explaining to Rachel the sad fate of her benevolent gift, she promised to send another one some day, with better planning and execution.

"Because you really should taste that sandwich," she said.

And so, flash forward to this past Monday, when Dave let me know that I had received yet another missed package slip, this time on the front door of our apartment in snowy Chicago (the discerning reader will realize that I have transitioned, in the course of this post, from "sleet" to "snow." You're getting up-to-date weather reports, people). I knew that Rachel had been in New Jersey again, this time doing some research for her Masters thesis. A familiar, sinking feeling developed in my gut. I would never taste the sandwich of my dreams, I decided, and I should just learn to live with it.

But, this tale has a happy ending. For this time, I did not have to wait an entire weekend-and-then-slightly-longer-for-no-good-reason-goddamnit - indeed, the package arrived the very next morning, safe in David's loving arms. For some still-unknown reason, he didn't devour it on the spot. What a nice boy.

And, more important than either the mail system or David's hibernating appetite is the true fact of Rachel's brilliance. For this package contained not only the sandwich and some wax paper, but also two items of insulating iced tea.

Bravo, Rachel! And bravo to you, gentle reader, for getting past the saddest story ever told and on to the happy ending. How many times in your life will you ever again be able to muster the same courage?

******It should be noted that on days when I'm terrified by the prospect of applying to MFA programs and simultaneously bored at work, sandwiches are often all I can think about.

******Photo credit:

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Darkest Stuff of the Human Mind

Back in my first year of college, lo these many years ago, I took a physics class. Now, there are some who will argue that it was less a "physics" class and more a "get-out-of-science-free" card. And yes, the class was given many nicknames, like Physics for Poets, Physics for the Lazy, or Stars and their Friends (thank you Orhan Pamuk).

But I also really loved that class. Due to a singularly unpleasant chemistry class and a youthful disposition, I let math and science fall somewhat by the wayside in high school, meaning that I didn't have the calculus credit or the wherewithal to become a physics whiz in college. But that doesn't mean that I'm not interested in science. I find the theoretical conversations that exist in the realm of physics to be not so far removed from the philosophy classes I did take in abundance. And furthermore, I am always deeply enchanted when I find that there is math out there to support an idea that sounds perfectly insane.

So anyway, this physics class. What I remember most strongly, besides the fact that the professor tossed out popcorn balls to illustrate the Big Bang, was a cosmological notion I came across while studying for the final.

I can't remember the exact wording, but the gist was this: if dark matter - which is an important, if highly debated, part of the scientific explanation for gravity in the larger universe (or so I've been led to believe) - indeed exists in a non-speculative sense, it makes up the majority of all that exists. Therefore, everything we've ever studied on a grand or minor scale, from entomology to cosmology, is nothing more than the ephemera of the universe.

How's that for a reorganization of your priorities? When I got tired of studying, I ran down to Bob's, the student-run coffee shop, and told my friend Ashley what I had read. I was so excited by the idea that my every aspect was bubbling over, but poor Ashley was tired, and she looked at me and said:

"Adrienne, it's finals week. Please do not give me even more to think about."

Oh well. Sorry Ashley.

From what I can tell, the study of the universe and its structures is full of these gratifyingly bizarre facts and theories, and the one I read about today - in a New York Times article by Dennis Overbye - may just be the strangest one yet. Not surprisingly, what really got me about this theory was the aesthetics of the thing, spurred by a moment early on in the Times article. Overbye wrote:

"The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us."

There you have it: a Boltzmann brain. It's simple, it's smart, and it floats in outer space.

For me, the creepy and interesting thing about this concept is not its lasting implications for physics, consciousness, or thermodynamics. Rather, I am fascinated about what it would mean for the existence of this moment, as I am experiencing it.

If I were a mere figment in the imagination of a "freaky observer," as the Boltzmann brains were called, that would mean that a snapping synapse in the empty universe was resulting in a person who was reading about that same synapse. My life would be an imagined headline in an intelligent mind, proclaiming that the mind itself may turn out to be real .

To me, this is rather like a person convincing themselves that their dreams indeed believe in them.

*****Photo Credit: Jef Poskanzer on

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Monday, January 07, 2008


I have always been a little bit overzealous in my fitness aspirations. For example, as anyone who speaks to me about running will know, I exercise maybe once a week, but it has for several years been my stated goal to be able to outrun a tiger.

If I just want it badly enough, I can accomplish anything, right? Mommy?

Anyway, the one thing I have been pretty good at in the past, which makes me feel suitably tough, is boxing. Yes, it's usually cardio-kickboxing, which is not exactly the stuff of or Million Dollar Baby or Rocky, but who wants to die in the end of the movie? Or lose?

I'm hoping to do more boxing in the future, but for now I'd like to make plain my prowess with a couple of fight portraits, taken in Portland, OR, this past December. They illustrate a triumphant match between a punching bag and the heralded team made up of myself & my young cousin Eddie.

It's probably worth mentioning that Eddie tried to beat me up right after these photos were taken. But I was not defeated!

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