Thursday, March 30, 2006

I'm beyond your peripheral vision, so you might want to turn your head.

Every woman is precisely aware of her degree of handsomeness.
-Elizabeth Kerbridge, “A Special Mischief,” Upstairs Downstairs

My father thinks I'm beautiful. In fact, it's part of my title: "My Beautiful Princess Daughter." My father also says that I'm his favorite daughter.

I'm his only daughter.

So, that gives you a sense for how much my father should be trusted on issues that require objectivity.

I do not think I am beautiful. I never have. I was boyish as a kid, then gained some of that baby fat that prepared my body for puberty. (By the way, how cruel is life that just as a girl is developing a sense of her place in the world, her body should prepare itself for growth by making her chubby?) Until I was out of college, I struggled with how to choose clothing that was aesthetically pleasing in its combination and relevant within the cultural context. I couldn't learn the language of style so I was not communicating who I was through what I wore. And I knew it. This made me extremely self-conscious. By the time I had figured out how to dress myself with some success, I'd gained enough weight to qualify as a "big girl."

But in addition to all of that history, I have to face the fact that guys haven't tended to be interested in me. Since guys are interested in beautiful girls, the logic is obvious. Oh, there is a somewhat long line of men that have communicated interest with their behavior and with some of the things they've said, but their interest was never strong enough to actually inspire them to do something about it. From Chris H. in high school to Mike P. in college, I can only attract quiet guys and then only half-way. I have spent what seems like months of my life waiting for phone calls that never came. Let's face it, I fell for Dennis because he asked me to. The simple fact that a great guy like him wanted me to go out with him, wanted to write me poetry and make me mix tapes and then wanted me to marry him was all the evidence I needed to convince me that I had been wrong about being pretty all along. And, for the only time in my life, I desperately wanted to be wrong in my conclusion.

Because I kind of always suspected that I was. Wrong, that is. From an early age, I would stare at myself in the mirror and see myself as beautiful. Literally, I admired the planes of my face and the color of my eyes in bewilderment that no one else could see it. To explain to myself this gap, as far back as elementary school, I would spin fantasies about boys that I had crushes on being intimidated because I was somehow more than those popular girls in several ways, including my looks. I rationalized that they were accessible and common, so they got more attention. I was a weird dichotomy: my intellect knew that I was plain, but my soul actually kind of believed my dad. The two truths could occupy the same room and ignore each other completely, like former best friends at a party that neither expected the other to be at. I was annoyed by my skinny friends who complained about being fat but at the same time, was certain that I actually was fat. I just didn't want to be that girl, so I never said anything. (I was all of 120 pounds in high school.) So, I learned to explain this dissonance by compromising, if I wasn't beautiful, I told myself that I would qualify as a handsome woman or possibly even striking if a book were being written about me. But, I sang along with A Chorus Line, "Well, different's nice but it sure isn't pretty; pretty is what it's about. I never met anyone who was different, who couldn't figure that out? So, beautiful, I'd never live to see. But it was clear, if not to her, well then to me, that everyone was beautiful at the ballet. Every prince has got to have his swan." I didn't like to dance, but I did like to read. So, I gave my life over to being smart.

Looking back on my life, I am fiercely glad that I did not get many strokes to my self-esteem because of what I looked like. When I was in New Orleans a couple of years ago, I was walking down Bourbon Street at midnight on a random Friday night with my Aunt Barbara. We stopped across the street from the Penthouse building to look around and I watched a skinny skinny girl with fried long blonde hair wearing a bikini and trashy high heels hold beads on the balcony to hand them to gross men who had rented the balcony - and her - for the evening. She was crouched on top of her shoes and wrapped her arms around her body whenever the men left her alone and her face looked about to go over the edge to tears whenever she wasn't looking directly into the face of a client; then she smiled. I was so sad for her. I spend so much of my time thinking about whether or not my job is fulfilling and wondering what my passion is and how I will pursue it. It is such a luxury for me to have to decide between a job in community development and prestigious grad school. When she looks at her options, her best one is to make money by being vulnerable to the kind of men that enjoy taking advantage of a woman in that situation. That never would have occurred to me, so I've looked for success in other areas, like my brain and my personality. (The personality is a little less reliable than the brain when it comes to being successful, though.) Since that night, I keep seeing other examples of women whose lives are limited because the only way they know how to be successful is through their looks, like when you learn a new word and all of a sudden see it 6 different places in the next week.

But, despite my history, I'm finding that I might be pretty after all.

It feels weird to be talking about this again. Like, shouldn't I get this by now and let it drop? But the positive feedback from strangers is getting consistent and I can't help paying attention to that. And that means a belief I've held as unquestioningly as my belief that Star Wars is a good movie might be wrong. Apparently, the wigmaster at the opera is mad at my friend Camilla because she brought me by once and then never brought me back. His comments about why he wants to see me again seem to be an extension of my years at the Renaissance Faire when I just looked right in my costume and got attention that way. While I was at the Faire, I found an article on the Renaissance image of the ideal woman that proved my childhood comforts that I was something unique. ". . . beauty was the physical evidence of spiritual virtue. A beautiful woman would be modest, graceful, humble, obedient and pious, but she would also possess something indefinable that brought these attributes together. Agnolo Firenzuola, . . . [a] Florentine writer, would later delineate the physical characteristics that were sure signs of a virtuous character. The forehead should be twice as wide as it was high . . . Arched brows. . . and a pointed (but not upturned) nose were necessary, and ears should be pale pink like roses, except at the edges, which should be the transparent red of a pomegranate seed. High, ivory cheeks should frame a small mouth, which might only occasionally reveal a woman's most potent feature - a smile that would transport the recipient to paradise." (Mary O'Neill) Camilla and I stood behind the counter at the Faire and measured our foreheads. Mine was exactly twice as wide as it was tall. However, that article did not force me to give up my belief that I was unattractive because I could still take comfort that I was only beautiful in limited contexts that could not result into actual relationships. I only wore the costume nine weekends in the summer so I only had to adjust to a different identity - as a pretty girl - for 18 days a year. The rest of the time, I could just be myself.

Recently, I found another quote in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell that resonated with my self-image, "She was about twenty-two years of age. In repose her looks were only moderately pretty. There was very little about her face and figure that was in any way remarkable, but it was the sort of face which, when animated by conversation or laughter, is completely transformed. She had a lively disposition, a quick mind and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile and, since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women who were acknowledged beauties in three countries."

But I didn't really participate in the conversation with the wigmaster. I stood to the side and listened. And, on Friday, I sat and read my book at Bite, the restaurant where my brother works, as I waited for him to end his shift and give me a ride home. As we were wrapping up to go, the middle aged gay man who had been having lunch on the other side of the restaurant hustled by me on his way to the bathroom and said casually but hurriedly, "You, you're very pretty," as if he was pointing out that my shoe was untied.

These men didn't see me smiling. These men didn't see me in a Renaissance costume. These men hadn't been wowed by my superior intellect. These men weren't my father or men on the street with absolutely no standards. The only indicator they could use to determine my spot on the attractiveness chart were my actual physical features.

That boggles me. I'm going to have to figure out what to do with myself now. Or, at least, how to think of myself.

This is part of a whole new stage in my life. I have been uncomfortable with the infrequency of my posts since I moved to the city from the island. It has made me feel like I have lost the adventurous spirit that I had been so proud of. But as spring approaches and I can look back on the winter with a lighter heart, I realize that the adventure has been different but it is still there. Much of my energy over the last few months has been spent thinking about relationships and how the world works. I've remembered passions that I've had in the past and begun playing with them again. I've written a lot of emails that function as essays, especially to my pastor, about community development. Maybe I'll share some of those with you all, to show you where I've been. I've wrestled a lot to find my place in the church. I've been building an adult relationship with my brother and spending time with friends, new and old. My heart has been doing flip-flops. My body has been stretching into Warrior 2 and Utthita Trikonasana. I have just today realized that the city is dense with experiences and beautiful images that convey the human experience as ephemeral art at every turn. The island was so quiet that I could process unique experiences as they happened because they were the only events to process. It is taking me a long time to be able to focus on single experiences here in the city so I can paint pictures for you in this blog because there is so much ambient experience that I have to tune out.

I've learned that my father is right: I am his beautiful princess daughter.

My life is full of adventure. And that, too, is beautiful.

Maybe it's not so bad after all.

Last chance

Everyone who has ever taught me anything about fundraising has said that the most important thing to remember when approaching potential partners for a mission is that you need to offer them an opportunity rather than beg them for money. The best example that I've seen of this are the billboards that I've seen around Chicago that point out all of the little ways that we deviate from our personal ethical codes, then offers a solution for how to equalize the karma. For instance, one says, "You lied about your weight on the treadmill." Another says, "Your dog thinks you'll be right back." I think they're pretty funny but, unfortunately, can't think of the organization that was offering me the opportunity to make up for my shortcomings by giving them money.

So, I have chosen instead to walk in the Shamrock Shuffle this Sunday and to raise money for kids in poverty. I'd like to offer you the opportunity to help kids, too. I mean, who doesn't like to help kids, right?

I walk for World Vision because World Vision uses your money to change the causes of kids' poverty by empowering the people who live in targeted community to strengthen their infrastructure, with some support from World Vision staff. They do not simply hand out food and relief supplies unless it is part of the first step in making sure that a community will be able to provide these supplies for themselves one day. They work both here in the US and around the world. Although it is a Christian organization, World Vision does this for communities regardless of their dominant religion.

You can partner with me in a couple of different ways. The obvious way is to give me money by going to this secure website. I am a big fan of Captain Obvious and you should go ahead and use this donation option without fear that you will be mocked for lacking subtlety. If your Luddite tendencies are acting up this week, you can also send a check made out to World Vision. Let me know and I'll send you an address. The less obvious but equally rewarding partnership is to keep me in your thoughts on Sunday morning or to pray for me. Better still, pray for the kids and their families. They need it more than I do. 29,000 kids die EVERY DAY from hunger and preventable diseases. Countless others have their childhoods stolen by being forced into gangs, prostitution, being child soldiers and any number of other terrible things. Here in the Austin community on the westside of Chicago where I work doing community development, over 6,000 families live below the poverty line. 15% of kids in this 7-square mile neighborhood test positive for lead poisoning. Lead poisoning! That causes brain damage in toddlers and we're finding in the US? It makes me mad. So, I pray and I walk.

World Vision has started a campaign called One Life, which seeks to remind us that we talk about these kids as part of a big group of similar situations but that each of them only has the one life they are experiencing, just like each of us looks out at the world as an individual with unique opportunities and hardships. Can I tell that some days at work are exhausting because I am surrounded by the needs of these kids?

But it's good work and it's worth doing. If you want to help, I'm happy to have you along. If you're making the world a better place some other way, keep doing it. Let me know how I can help you and I'll try. Thanks for all that you do.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Woman Who Rides Like A Man

I have been reading fiction novels as a way of dealing with some of my emotional turmoil over the past two months. Recently, I have read three novels by Charles DeLint in a row. I have four favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov, Tamora Pierce and Charles DeLint. These are authors whom I am always in the mood to read a new book from and whose entire library I've mostly read. Except for Asimov. With over 500 books written, I haven't got a chance with Asimov. For the most part, they are also authors that have influenced profoundly the way I think about the world. Except for Stephenson, I have read them all since I was very young and when I re-read some of their work, I have huge insight into why I think the way I do because I am hit with the memory of when I first read a particular passage and times when I deliberately shaped my life to be more like that particular moment in the book.

I'm in the middle of rereading Tamora Pierce's books about Alanna. I have seriously considered naming a child after this character. A middle name, but a name nonetheless. I started rereading it with the intention of taking notes about the specific passages that have been influential with the idea that I would craft a longer essay with quotes and anecdotes. It would be funny and somewhat moving and have some overarching message. You know, something to work on as a hobby for a little while. You see, I first read these books when I was in the seventh grade. It is the story of a ten year girl living in a fictional kingdom who doesn't want to go to the convent to be a lady but instead disguises herself as a boy to study at the palace to be a knight. It follows her from age 10 to about age 21. And it's perfect. Alanna was everything I ever wanted to be but was too shy or embarassed to actually pursue. She said the first thing that came into her head and people thought it was charming. She lost her temper and her friends simply shook their heads. She could set a long term goal and have the focus and discipline to work in secret for months to accomplish it. She had worthwhile secrets. I mean, how cool is that? Plus, she had friends. People who weren't her family but loved her unconditionally and included her consistently and who stood by her when she made mistakes. Who gives a shit about swords and magic, this was escapist fantasy!

So, I began reading them again with the intent that I would take notes, but I am pleasantly surprised at how they still hook me in. After the 4th chapter of the first book, I made no more notes. I just kept reading to experience what happened next. I have read the series over 20 times. You think some of the magic would have worn off by now.

But it hasn't. I'm still completely pulled in by Alanna's adventures and her relationships. In fact, let me tell you a story about last Friday to illustrate Alanna's power over me.

Morning routines are powerful things. Last Friday, I had to disrupt my routine because I had no food for breakfast. No eggs, no bread, no juice. That holy trinity can occasionally sustain the loss of one of its members for a morning. Maybe. But all three? Might as well not get up out of bed.

But no worries. We had meetings on Thursday that involved bagels and cream cheese and the good orange juice and there were plenty of leftovers, so I knew I could get acceptable breakfast at work. I figured that I would wake up at the same time that I alwasy did and instead of spending 25 minutes of the second part of my morning preparing my breakfast and eating it, I would simply leave and spend twenty minutes at work eating breakfast. (Five minutes would be lost in the stumbles that would be the consequence of changing the routine. See, I planned for it!) So, I did exactly that and got on a train that was 20 minutes ahead of the train I normally take. I opened In the Hand of the Goddess and proceeded to read. About 35 minutes later, I got the uncomfortable feeling that I was too high in the air. I looked up from my book and looked around and sure enough I was pretty high up and the scenery looked a little different. I shook off the odd feeling, explaining to myself that I usually don't look out the windows while I read, at least not since it has been light in the mornings and that I was sitting in a side-facing seat instead of a front-facing one like I usually do, so the scenery might in fact look a little different. But I realized that on the side of one building was a GIANT building-sized banner that read "Teamster Town" and I had to admit that I'd never seen that before. I looked around in a panic and finally thought to look at the sign in the window that indicates which train one is on and, sure enough, I had boarded the wrong train back at my stop. I forgot that part of my morning routine is to look out my kitchen window while I cook my eggs at the passing trains and keep track in the back of my head their every-other pattern. (There are only two that come through my stop and they actually follow a parallel course all the way through downtown until they get two or three stops out to the westside.) So, because I'm keeping track, I generally do walk right on the next train that pulls into the station. This morning, though, I followed habit without having the foundation there to support me. But the really rediculous part is that the train announces over the loudspeaker at every stop, "This is a blue line train to 54/Cermak." Every other morning I hear, "This is a blue line train to Forest Park." Every stop. But I was so into Alanna's fear of letting the King of the Rogues love her that I never heard the announcement. Not once in the entire 15 or so stops.

So, as soon as I realized that I was only one station down from where the trains split, I got off the train, went down the stairs, across the hall, up the stairs and got on the eastbound train back toward the city. I got off the train, crossed the platform, got on the westbound train, settled myself for the rest of the ride and opened my book again. Soon, though, I started to get this uncomfortable feeling that I was too high off the ground. I looked around in a panic and, there it was again! Teamster Town! I had gotten right back onto the wrong train! So, I had to get off the train, go down the stairs, go across the hall, go up the stairs and get on another eastbound train. Then I got off the train at the next stop, waited for the 54/Cermak train to pass, finally got on the Forest Park train, settled in for the rest of my ride and opened my book. So, because of a book and an interrupted morning routine, not only wasn't I early to work, I was actually late.

So, Alanna is still wonderful. And you know what? I'm a lot more like her now than I ever was. I say the first thing that comes into my head and people laugh. I dated a man that I loved but could not ultimately make a life with (although he wasn't a Shang Dragon, master of bare-handed fighting). And I have friends that will stick by me and want me around. I'm ready now for the next quartet, where Alanna is all grown up and the stories follow a younger woman coming of age in Tortall who follows a completely different path with different experiences but with Alanna as an influential figure. However, I don't think that Daine makes quite as catchy a middle name for a small girl.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This is my story; this is my song.

When I was 12, my father went to prison and broke my heart. It has healed, but while my chest was cracked open, the harmonies and energies of gospel music fell in and were sealed up into my heart as it mended.

You see, my father spent his time in a minimum security prison that was mostly populated by men who had committed first-offense drug crimes with minimum sentencing mandates. We usually went to visit on Sundays and so attended the Protestant church service with him, which mostly centered around 9 or 10 African American men singing while an older black man played the upright piano. Slow, densely harmonic, traditional gospel. Then, over the summer while Dad was gone, I went on my first church mission trip to Mississippi and spent a week at Canton Bible Baptist Church, welcomed and surrounded by its members and their worship.

I have been chasing the black church ever since.

I have attended gospel choir weekend workshops and done research projects on Mahalia Jackson. I attended day-long Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations on campus and wrote a paper that was published on the influence of the traditional black preacher on James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones. I can sing at least the first verse of the black national anthem, just like Bill Clinton. My calling to work with urban kids is directly related to my utter sense of contentment being surrounded by black speaking patterns and vibrancy.

But I have never felt comfortable enough to just walk right into a black church and worship with them. I'm not sure why, but it seems to be one of the last lingering self-conscious bits of my personality. I'm willing to make a fool of myself in every other arena for the sake of curiosity and spiritual enlightenment, but I am unwilling to be the only white person in a church full of black Christian strangers. It's ridiculous, but I've learned that life is rarely rational.

So, when one of my co-workers invited me to her CME church for her Women's Day service, I immediately responded that I would go, even if it was at 8:00 in the morning. Even if I would have to abandon my uniform of jeans, hiking boots and a fleece vest. Because, I'll tell you, those black ladies get dressed.

I arrived at the church at 79th and Wabash exactly at 8:00. I stood in the narthex, where I told Vanessa I would meet her and waited a minute or two. Several people smiled at me but no one really spoke to me. I really was the only white person there. Then, my phone rang and it was Vanessa. She had to drop her husband off at the airport, so she'd be a little late. She usually sits about 4 or 5 rows back on the right side. I could go sit down and she'd be along soon. "Four or five rows from the front?" I asked. "Yes."

So, now I'm the only white person in the church and I have to walk all the way down the aisle and ask an old woman in a great hat to let me in because the only pew that qualified as 4th or 5th and had enough space for the party of 3 or 4 that I knew we'd be eventually only had space in the middle. Then I just had to sit by myself in the middle of a pew, being white, and wait for either Vanessa or Princess, who Vanessa had said would be joining me. Interestingly, as I sat there, although people smiled but didn't say anything to me, both sets of kids that filed into the pews around me said hello.

But I was comfortable. I had been invited and I had already seen things that delighted me. Five women sat in a pew in front of me wearing different white outfits that looked faintly like nurses uniforms and all had matching white hats. I know that women in uniforms in black churches often have more than a ceremonial role, so I was caught up in wondering what they would be needed for. Lots of women were wearing great wigs. All of the women who would be running the service were wearing white outfits. In fact, as the choir filed in, they also wore white, with yellow wrist corsages to celebrate the day. By this time, Princess had arrived in full African regalia (she's from Zambia) and the choir started singing.

It was marvelous. I cried. A lot. Experience has taught me it does not seem to matter what type of gospel it is, it all makes me cry. There is such a catharsis possible because there is so much power sent out from the women singing. Unless they are modulating volume or intensity for a specific dramatic impact, no one has to hold back. Each of those women gets to be exactly herself and with full force. Women who are more physically expressive than others are not discouraged, they are simply placed at the ends of the rows, so as not to knock anyone over. And, because gospel has become part of my heart, I have no defenses against its power. So, I cry. The 7 or 8 year old girl in the pew in front of me who kept looking back to stare at both Princess and I throughout the service, Ashante, brushed her face at one point at me in obvious sign language and when I leaned forward to hear what she had to say, she told me, "Your cheeks is getting red." At points in the music when the entire choir would all of a sudden start clapping more sharply and raising their hands higher in unfathomable choreography or when they would change keys, I would catch my breathe and my joy would get ratcheted up just a little higher.

At my own church later that morning, I thought a lot about the differences. I realized that although I can achieve a state of worship and feel a real ability to actually talk with God in my normal service, I do not always leave joyful. Often, God and I have heated discussions and the time is more akin to meditation. I'm often exhausted when I get home. Black church makes me joyful. I left full of energy.

After the opening song, a woman stood at the pulpit and said for the first time, "Good Morning, Carter Temple." Every woman who stood at the pulpit after that repeated the greeting and, every time, the congregation would give the woman an enthusiatic, "Good morning," in response. When I would participate in worship in the suburban Presbyterian church that I grew up in, the pastor would advise us not to greet the congregation unless we were the first participant to speak that morning. He told us that we would only get a lackluster reponse and that would affect the flow of the service. And, as I watched over the years, he was absolutely right: after the first good morning, Presbyterians feel like any additional greeting is a bit of an imposition. Not this morning, though. After the woman with a vaguely Asian face greeted us, she launched into the announcements in a strange monotone that I have come to associate with the black churches that broadcast on the radio. But people were listening because occasionally they would shout in encouragement or call out to Jesus for prayer for the sick.

When it came time for the Affirmation of Faith, this church took a turn from my Presbyterian peers again. We will recite that we believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his own son, our lord, glimpsing down at our bulletins to help us with the words to something we have recited thousands of times. Carter Temple, however, proclaims that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, nearly shouting in their fervor that on the third day, he ascended into heaven. It was cool.

When my extended family gets together, we often have devotionals and sing in the evenings. We have Murphy hymnals that some of my cousins made 15 years ago with construction paper and glitter glue covers. These hymnals are full of the best hymns from all of our traditions. From "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," my Lutheran grandmother's favorite hymn to "Victory in Jesus," a standard in my aunt's charismatic Nazarene church. When we sing, my mother doesn't need the hymnals. She knows all the words from growing up Methodist. So, some years when we have forgotten the hymnals, or if we are singing several songs in an evening and so hesitate to sing the third and fourth verses of some hymns, she tends to just roll right over any hesitation and simply belt out the next verse. Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Saviour am happy and blest. So, I could sing along when we sang "Blessed Assurance" and think of my mother at the same time.

Then, it was time for the Poetry Ministry, a choral response and the Praise Dance Ministry. I am delighted by the African American cultural trend of poetry recitation. I've seen Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks and 12 year old girls reciting the poetry of Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks. All stand dignified and with a dramatic impulse that puts the dry chanting of old white guys mumbling their poetry so that "the focus is on words I've crafted" to shame. The woman who wrote the poem and read it got standing shouts and applause when she finished reading it.

The congregation files to the front to turn in their offering. I realized that the elder men of the church must sit in that front pew so all the people walking by greet them. They all wished me God's blessing as I filed up. Vanessa pointed to one older woman in a pink suit who danced all the way up to the front, danced with the pastor, then continued dancing up the center aisle. She is 80 years old and leads the country line dancing group for health.

The musicians in a gospel service play chords underneath most of the service, changing keys, picking up or slowing down the tempo and generally underscoring the emotion of the particular element of the service that is taking place. Because of this underscoring, the choir can follow the rising pitch of the clapping and shouting of the congregations and sing a few more repetitions of the chorus of the song they had finished before the preacher started.

They had a guest pastor to speak that morning in celebration of Women's Day. She was a tiny little woman who shouted and rocked and swayed in the best gospel tradition. She spoke on the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus, "Lord, help me. My daughter is sick." When Jesus asked her why he should deny the chosen people his service in order to help someone of her race, comparing her to a dog in the process, she gives him the only back talk he gets in the entire Bible, telling him that even dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the table. The preacher took that story and made it a metaphor for the plight of the African American woman, who is at her wits end. She didn't do this by explaining how this story was a metaphor for the African American woman, who is at her wits end. She did it by acting it out, repeating, "Lord, help me! My daughter is sick! Lord, help me! My son is in prison! Lord, help me! My husband can't be found! Lord, help me! I'm sick and tired!" And it was big and it was moving and those women in that congregation called back to her, shouting agreement and exclamations and praising God for her message and their pain and the kinship that they shared. As I listened to both the pastor and the women around me, I could pick out individual voices and was drawn to a woman in the front row. Her diaphramatic strength astounded me. One of favorite quotes from my collection is from a book called Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan, "'If a woman is stronger than her husband, she comes to despise him. She has the choice of either tyrannizing him or else making herself less in order not to make him less. If the husband is strong enough, though. . .' she poked him again, even harder, 'she can be as strong as she is, as strong as she can grow to be.'" I think this is true of all relationships and if the church is the bride of Christ, then people should be able to be as strong as they are in worship, like the woman who projected so well and without a hint of reserve. Another woman in the front row stood up stick straight and called, "Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on! [pause] Come on!" like she was cheering a baseball player who was digging in to make it to homebase before the ball did, her head snapping forward with each repetition. At one point, the preacher quieted the intensity and talked about her use of emotion saying that some would say, "It doesn't take all that," which was a phrase that the women knew and so I inferred that it was the standard phrase to criticize the style of worship. She handled the rhetoric of bringing up the opposing argument in order to refute it perfectly, pointing ou that those who criticize that particular aspect of their worship didn't know what these women felt like or they would realize that it does take all that. The disciples thought the Canaanite woman was overreacting as well. I like this preacher because in addition to the emotion and the shouting and the call and response, her sermon was well-written and linear, with good, solid logic. I could access it. Perfect experience.

I enjoyed watching the little girls in front of me as they experimented with their own participation in the service, occasionally shouting something and then dissolving into giggles. I also loved to see the little girl standing with her mother in the choir, a full member alongside the adults. As children, their hearts are wide open and this worship will always feel like home to them. And they will always feel welcome in this home.

I'm jealous.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Well, folks, my very particular type of intelligence has been validated by an outside agency and I'm very excited because, actually, it's a very prestigious outside agency. I have been accepted into the University of Chicago's Harris School for Public Policy "based on outstanding academic achievement, professional commitment, and personal motivation." What's more, they're giving me a scholarship worth 2/3 of the total tuition for the first year with a chance to renew it based on my performance.

My toes are wiggling and I have a goofy smile on my face.

I mean, this is the school of Carl Sagan and Studs Terkel. Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Glass. Indiana Jones and Susan Sontag. And, of course, the ever-popular Martin Gardner, everybody! We are stardust, indeed. This program last year only accepted 122 students out of 635 applicants and most of those applicants had to have thought they were some sort of hot shit even to apply. I'm very excited. Did I say that before?

I'm also a little nervous. I applied before I got my current job and the tasks that I signed on to do at work will not be completed before the fall. Also, the school recommends taking an introductory microeconomics class and brushing up on one's calculus before one starts the program, as well. I never took calculus! I'm considering asking them to let me defer for a year to finish the job that I've started. If the added bonus is that I get a little time to brush up on my quantitative thinking, then, so be it. We'll see, though. It also depends on what they say at work.

I'm very excited, though. Three weeks ago, my roommate Paige got accepted to study for her doctorate at Brown, with a full ride plus a stipend for the next five years. We've been waiting to hear from U of C so that we can have a joint party. Wait, careful, not a party where joints are smoked, just a party thrown together in honor of two of us. :-) I think we should call it the Paige-and-Rebecca-are-a-certain-kind-of-smart-enough party. I think I may get voted down on that, though. I'm going to fight for it, though, unless one of my gentle readers has another suggestion?

I'm very excited.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


I'm sorry that I haven't been writing much lately. I know that my life is fairly entertaining to some of you all out there. I keep pretending you're laughing with me and if you would play along, I would appreciate it. :-)

I haven't been doing much of anything. If I've done it, you've read about it. Since I've only posted twice (and one of those was to ask for money) in the month of March and today is already the 11th, that should give you a sense of the scope of my not doing anything. I'm dealing with some internal things; figuring out what I want and so forth. But, unlike some of the other internal things that I've shared with you in the past, these aren't really connected to events that can be made into stories. If there were stories, I would tell them to you. I promise.

Today is the first day of spring in Chicago. It was 60 degrees and when Daniel and I went out to Target, I actually felt like the air was warm, rather than not-so-cold-anymore, like it has been these last couple days of 50 degree weather. And, just like magic, the warm weather has raised the spirits of young men across the city. So, as I was walking to the El from work yesterday, wearing every piece of warm clothing that I have worn all winter except my hat, I was asked by a young man with a cigarette dangling oh-so-attractively from his lips, "Have you ever dated a black man before?" with the obvious next sentence being, "Do you want to?" It was terribly clever and I'm not sure why I didn't stop to continue the conversation. It must have been that I had a train to catch. Yes, that's it. I'm feeling all fuzzy inside that my big coat and scarf must accentuate my figure to the extent that once I strip my hat off, I'm like a super-model to men on the street. Ah, good times.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Orfeo y Eurydice

Finally, tonight, maybe, the city has redeemed itself. I guess it's not just cold and dirty and full of strangers. I guess community can happen here, too.

I've made a friend. A real live friend that I can call to see if she's busy or not and if she's not, ask her to come over for tea or walk the few blocks to her house to say, "Hi." That type of geography, in itself, is something that I've always wanted. Even on the island, I had to drive (or at least hitchhike) to see people I liked. I've always wanted friends that lived down the street. So, now I have Jess. I met Jess at a party for church. I was sitting quietly in a chair, watching everyone else do their small-talk. I had been animated earlier when the music minister was there because I knew him and I find him to be fairly intriguing. However, he had left and I wasn't interested in all of the pretty girls and their chatter. But, I had this nagging sense that if I didn't actually spend time with strangers and their chit-chat, I wouldn't ever know them well enough to move beyond chit-chat. So, I sat in the chair quietly. Then, I heard the girl with very cool dreadlocks in the chair next to me say to her friend, "I've recently realized that my energy and large groups of people just don't seem go together." It was so completely like something that would come out of my mouth that I laughed to myself and started edging in on her conversation.

When I have students write about what makes a good friend or write an anecdote about when they first met someone important, invariably, they turn in their papers and "something in me just knew that we would be friends forever." Of course, by the time they are writing the essay, forever has been, oh, about five years. Maybe seven. It's pretty funny and they laugh when I point out the unrealistic nature of their not-too-subtle foreshadowing.

I take that little tangent to illustrate that I am not making any predictions about my friendship with Jess. We still don't know that much about each other, nor have we spent much extended time with each other. But, I'm comfortable with her. And she asks questions that I would ask. And she answers questions like I would answer them. And she calls to see if I'm busy or not. And when I call, she tells me if she's busy or not, rather than thinking about how tired she is and that she just wants to veg out in front of the TV.

It could still bomb but it's a start.

So, why am I telling you about Jess when I started the post talking about the city? Well, one reason is that her physical location illustrates a redeeming social value of the city: I can have friends that live down the street. Other than Kelly and PJ, the bad influences that lived across the street when Daniel and I were kids, I have never had a friend that lived down the street. I've always craved the ability to just go hang out at someone's house because it's close and I'm comfortable there. College and tour were close to this ideal, but those are constructed communities. They weren't what I really wanted.

So, because Jess lives down the street, we can easily come to redeeming social value #2, which is that we can do things of an impromptu nature because we don't have to waste a lot of time getting to each other before we go somewhere.

Today, I was working out at the new Curves that I found where the women aren't fakey nice and I don't have to walk half a mile in the cold to get there. It's right next to one of the stops on the El on my way home. So, I just get off the train two stops early, walk around the corner, work out, then get back on the train and go home. It's perfect. So, I was nearing the end of my workout and my phone started to ring. I left the circuit to pick it up and it was a breathless Jess.

"What are you doing tonight?"

"Nothing. Why?"

"Do you want to go to the opera?"


She kept talking about which opera and yadda yadda. But really, with the Lyric Opera in Chicago, does it really matter which opera it is? It will be an experience no matter what.

So, it's 6:30, I'm at the gym and the opera starts at 7:30.

Which leads me to redeeming social value #3: in the city, it's possible to fulfill that kind of timeline successfully. I left the gym, got on the train, got off the train two stops later, went up to my apartment, changed, ate, researched the public transportation route we would take, met Jess downstairs, got on the train again, got off the train downtown, walked by the Picasso statues and the "I Am" Temple and was in my seat in the highest, backest, toppest row at 7:20. We were so high up that we could see straight down into the orchestra pit to see the violins playing.

And the opera was wonderful. Which is, I guess, redeeming social value #4: art and culture abound. Tonight's production wasn't perfect. I think it lacked overall energy, Hades wasn't scary, some of the silences were too long and there was some odd corpse choreography that involved the chorus and supernumeraries wrapped in burial sheets rolling like a big game of high-school steam-roller. Plus, just as I was feeling good that one can always rely upon opera to go ahead and give you that tragic ending, the goddess Amor steps in and fixes everything! What gives!? That's not the way the story goes! But that's part of art and culture. Analysing the emotional communication during the experience and still feeling your heart twinge when Eurydice dies. Plus, the performance could have all out sucked and it is still always worth it to see the sets at the Civic Opera House. The scope is just so epic. The lighting design for tonight's performance was particularly stunning. (My friend Camilla's friend Amy is one of the lighting designers for the Lyric and she's making Boys-Are-Dumb Mudslides next week for the Boys Are Dumb party so I will try to communicate this delight I'm feeling to her then.)

So, it might not be quite the torture I have been dreading it to be living somewhere other than my island in order to be with my family. Yesterday, I spent the entire snowy afternoon curled up on the couch in front of my mom's fireplace, with my dog sitting on the cushion at my head, reading my book and eating her food. Even without the opera and Jess, being in Chicago is still where I want to be because I can have days like yesterday in addition to days like today. Redeeming social value #5.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

There was a boy

There was something very right and comforting yesterday about lying on the couch with my book in my hands, my dog sleeping on my chest and Daniel's music filtering into the living room from his room. These are some of the best parts of my leisure life up to this point all mixed together into one Saturday morning.

Although I have always loved music, I have never really had the focus to pursue new sounds on my own. I have always tended to get references from friends and I really only assimilate about 4 new albums into my life a year. However, lots of music is familiar to me because my brothers listen actively. As a child of about 5 or 6 in the old house, I listened to my bother Paul's classical from the room next door. Once, Daniel and I went to investigate Grieg's "In the Hall of The Mountain King," which quickly developed into a whirling dervish of chase dancing around the room, onto the bed, through the closet, around the room, onto the bed, through the closet, faster and faster until we collapsed into classic giggles. Paul would have been about 15 at the time, playing with the little kids that were his siblings. As a pre-teen in the new house, I remember investigating the music in David's room to find him jumping up and down with his body perfectly straight like a pogo stick to the Violent Femmes, "I Hear the Rain" and being just a little weirded out by the discordant harmonies and dark lyrics. Again, David would have been around 16 or 17 at that time. As I entered junior high, though, my friends and I would share dubbed tapes of all the Femmes albums and in my teenaged angst, they spoke to my soul that was now so dark. HaHa.

But Paul and David are so much older than I am that these two memories are about the extent of their musical influence. Daniel and I, however, grew up at the same time. So, I lived out that summer he learned Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Poison, "Look What the Cat Dragged In" winter, the Thin Lizzy spring, the multi-season Kiss experience and the full-on David Bowie era. So, to listen to him working out Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" on Saturday morning and to hear, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" while he worked out the chords was a nice recreation of our childhood, as well as a relieving indication that his musical taste has grown and matured as he has gotten taller and acquired tattoos and a mustache. Oh, that mustache.

Other than Saturday morning and a weekend dogsitting Retha, I don't have much to report lately other that to tell you that I had my first Superdawg. I'm still not sure how I feel about that. I'm hoping Spring is going to restore my adventurous spirit. Thanks for hanging in there with me through these last, dull days of winter.