Monthly Archives: September 2012

Part III: Some Stories Must Be Believed

I had never really meant to tell this as a story, so says Julia, until I, of course, did mean to. And then I heard from certain portions of the creative writing community–Cecilia, are you reading this?–that stories are to be shown and not told. As a logical thinker, I can’t fathom this idea. Stories are told. This seems one of those instances in which excessive rule-following has rendered creative writing graduates illogical, as well as lacking in true skepticism. Whatever one says about me, it is never Julia does things by the book because Julia doesn’t. I don’t do things by the book, lest anybody believe me schizophrenic.

I’m a true skeptic, as it were, of the unShermer camp of true skepticism. The Shermer camp, which nearly all scientists and university graduates squat in, is the one where the official story is always accepted, unless the evidence demonstrably proves the official story false. My camp, which waves its own lonely flag, is one where the few inhabitants, lacking the necessary evidence, mistrust even the official stories. By extension, I haven’t yet seen any evidence that one must show-rather-than-tell a story outside the theater and, therefore, showing is simply another unproven official story propagated by the creative writing community, with the ironic twist that it happens to be a story told about stories.

Good God, my head is pounding after working through all that. I’m a geneticist, by the way. Some geneticists claim they’re just shy of discovering a gene linked to migraines with auras. This isn’t my field of study, however, and my migraines don’t glow with such radiative properties. Rather, they’re preceded by premonitions of extreme stupidity, which I am, needless to say, skeptical of, even though life has taught me I should pay attention to these warnings.

Years after high school graduation, while I was living in the lush silicon valley, far, far away from my Washington home village, I bumped into Oso at the supermarket. I had a pending headache, an empty refrigerator in my 300 sq ft apartment, a few dollars in my bank account, and a premonition that my life was about to take a turn for the worse. I was debating whether to buy oranges and Greek yogurt on credit–not the sale oranges, either, because they were round and even in color, which caused yet another flare of disbelief in my overtaxed mind. I just couldn’t believe in those oranges. Surely they couldn’t be real, or at least not as authentic as the misshapen, mottled Valencias that cost twice as much per pound.

Smell is a fair indication of the quality of fruit, and of men, I have to add. The Valencias sent forth the molecular fragrance of orange grove, and I filled a bag with them, and then stared at the food I’d picked, still uncertain about purchasing groceries on credit. And then I smelled the molecular fragrance of man–an authentic odor devoid of the cheap imitations Oso and the other boys had doused themselves with in high school. I felt a presence, too, an energy force that vibrated the air around me. I turned around. Oso.

“Julia!”

Before I could utter an appropriate response, he engulfed me with his arms and pressed my face against his burly chest. Oso was stocky in high school; now, he was simply large.

“Dinner. With me,” he said. “You have to.”

Would he let me go if I told him yes? “I’m broke,” I said, and he released me.

“It’s on me.”

Because I’d walked to the store to save gas, he loaded my paltry groceries in the trunk of his rattletrap vehicle. Perhaps he hadn’t made his fortune yet. But, no, he reeked of pure confidence, rather than bravado. The car was surely a sign that Oso enjoyed making money, but not spending it. He took me to a cheap Indian restaurant, where he ordered a vegetarian dish, and this went some way toward confirming my suspicion (later, I discovered he would only eat at Indian restaurants because it was comfort food. His parents were vegetarian hippies.) I ordered chicken because I was starving and had just bought groceries on credit.

“Did you end up at Stanford, after all?” I asked him over chai. I knew the answer, though. I knew the answer because I’d heard our village gossip.

“No, I told you I didn’t need to. I work for a microelectronics company, heading an engineering team.”

“But you don’t have an engineering degree.”

“I’m not a rule-follower,” he said. “You can’t make money that way. And you, Julia? I hear you’re working on your dissertation at Stanford.”

Ah, so I was the rule follower. Huh. “Yes. On the genetics of autism.”

“A long time ago, I suggested you become a behavioral scientist. I thought you needed a little help so you wouldn’t be stunned by people’s stupidity. I never dreamed you’d study the genetics of autism so you could understand yourself.”

“I’m not…” He was grinning at me, and I decided it wasn’t worth it. To a man like Oso, anybody less extroverted than he was might be autistic. I say less extroverted because, honestly, I wasn’t all that introverted. It was all by degree.

As promised, he paid the bill. Then he drove me home, carried my paltry groceries upstairs, and found my only bottle of wine (saved since Christmas) and uncorked it. My headache was still pending, but the warmth of a good dinner spread to my heart. Why shouldn’t I share my wine?

“To making money and discovering beautiful things in dissertations,” he toasted with a coffee mug.

“Genetics isn’t all that beautiful when you get right down to it. Complex, maybe, and a little frightening, but not beautiful.”

“I’d roll my eyes at you, but they might get stuck in my head. From a biological standpoint, is that possible?”

“I’d like to see you try.” I raised my mug and drank to that.

The wine tasted like blackberries. Imagine the chemistry that turned grapes into blackberries! The next morning, my headache was no longer pending. It pounded. Thanks to Oso and wine with hints of blackberry. Thanks to Oso, who slept beside me. Such was the answer to my stupidity premonitions–nights with Oso, followed by headaches. And, eventually, followed by our first child.

Oso didn’t go by the rules. And neither did I, but I wasn’t so sure about breaking the relationship sort. For a start, I didn’t have that particular rule book in my library, and something told me I would end up the loser. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head, “Societal rules must never be ignored; they’re there to guide us.”

Or maybe that thought sprang from Oscar Wilde. How would I know? I ditched the humanities too long ago to remember. If I hadn’t, maybe I would understand men who oozed confidence, rather than frustrated autistic people who followed their own strict rule codes and told me the same things, ad infinitum, even if I didn’t always want to hear those things. They told, and they showed, and they were still a conundrum to me. And so–Cecilia are you reading this?–some of us are too obtuse to be shown things. We need a little more direction.

Oso Part V
Oso Part IV
Oso Part II
Oso Part I

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Part II: The Night/Day When Oso Determined My Life Path

Giving more of my history with Oso–says Julia–wasn’t on my to-do list. The current blog administrator has already found her goose cooked in hot soup over failing to fulfill promises pertaining to serial fiction (see how vague her language is, how it has vaporized like fog). But Jessica Thomas is correct (see comments on Christmas with Oso) when she says there is more to this story. The history is, to be honest, intrinsic. And it isn’t altogether complex, either, just longer than what could be written in one post.

As I said previously, Oso and I have known each other since birth. Still, we would never have befriended each other given a different set of circumstances. He was a force to be reckoned with–by high school, a field and track star who had the thighs to out-jump and out-hurdle just about anybody he contended with. And, for god’s sake, was he competitive.

We found each other in Claire’s history-cum-journalism group; all of us who fell for Claire’s excitement with Lockean ideology, including Cecilia, also signed up for her “freedom of the press” journalism course that published the best high school newspaper in the state of Washington. We were a group, a team, that nobody could break in or tear apart. At the time, I recognized our ridiculousness, but so loved belonging that I went along with it.

One night just before graduation, we all hit the twenty-four hour hotcake house on the highway. We split into two groups: three of us in Claire’s clean sedan; the other three in Oso’s rattletrap Rabbit. I somehow ended up in Oso’s vehicle that carried the odor of his awful cologne combined with the previous owners’ penchant for smoking. This bouquet ringed my head and settled in my stomach with a strange mix of exhilaration and nausea.

After stuffing myself with three disgusting plate-sized buttermilk pancakes, the exhilaration abandoned me. I ordered coffee to stabilize my system. If it weren’t for the coffee, my life might have turned out differently. Claire, being the thirty-something teacher she was at the time, decided she needed an early, relatively speaking for one in the morning, night of it. Everybody ditched with her, leaving me alone with Oso as my only ride back to my parents’ house. He, too, had drunk too much coffee, laced with packets of sugar. We were wired.

The two of us had never conducted a tete-a-tete. No, I generally avoided a face-off with the high-energy, competitive Oso. Aside from his ambitious nature, he was a know-it-all, and I couldn’t abide males of this type, males who needed a few hired thugs to drag them out back and beat the shit out of them just to make certain they understood they weren’t kings of their own little multiverses. In fact, if I’d had the money in those days, I might have made a deal….If I had my own money today, rather than Oso’s….

“So what are you doing next year?” Oso asked me.

“Going to State.”

“Yeah, but what’re you studying?”

“Romance languages, I think. I already know Spanish, and I’m starting to learn French. I’d like to be a translator.”

“No,” he said.

Monosyllables were typical of Oso’s speech patterns, and if I didn’t know better, I would’ve doubted his intelligence. His status as class valedictorian told another story. I squirmed on the red vinyl seat and painted the gray Formica with syrup traces. What the hell did he mean by negating my future plans?

“And why not?”

“Because you’re not suited for it. You should go into a scientific field.”

“Why? Nothing in my high school career would lead me to believe that. Or in my life thus far.”

“You know, I put together that part of the paper, where the list of honor students goes. You were always on it.”

“Yes, but I made up for my mediocre grades in math and science with French, English, history, journalism.” I ticked my successes off on my sticky fingers. Oh, the humanities!

“That doesn’t matter.” He didn’t flinch. He ripped open a packet of sugar, dumped it in the brown coffee mug, then added a creamer from the base of the pyramid I’d built in the centre of the table. It didn’t collapse. “I know these things.”

Where were those thugs when I needed them to bloody his big nose? And yes, his nose was a little on the large size, not that the size of it deterred most females from throwing themselves at him. “No, you don’t.”

“I do. I know your mind. I’ve been senior editor of the paper for long enough to know the inner details of every one of my writers.”

His writers. “It’s a high school rag. People don’t put their real selves in it. I certainly don’t.”

“Doesn’t matter. I know you. You should go into one of the people-oriented sciences, behavioral or whatever.”

“No, thanks. And you? What will you do next year, aside from make money?” In the yearbook, that was his response to the ubiquitous future-plans question: What are you going to do with your life? I’m going to make money, he said. Sigh. Imagining the thugs. Imagining.

“I have a scholarship to Stanford, and may go into pre-business, but I’m not sure if that will get me any closer to my goals. I think I already have what it takes to succeed.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed at him. Blame it on the coffee, which was akin to liquor in my juvenile mind. I laughed, while he glared with those bright, glassy eyes of his. What an ass was Oso–what an ass he still is. But he was right. He didn’t need Stanford. And before I’d concluded one semester at State, I knew he was right about my future, too. I hated him for it, and was relieved at the same time. How else could I account for my utter lack of enthusiasm for the humanities, and the way my heart nearly exploded when I took the plunge and entered a biology classroom?

Oh, but that’s the rub, isn’t it? Biology–mine specifically–and Oso’s manner of exploding my heart every few years were the true fates of my life, geneticist though I am now. Thanks to Oso. Where are those thugs, again? They’re hiding inside my soul as the mauled victims of a big, black bear.

Oso Part V
Oso Part IV
Oso Part III
Oso Part I

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Part I: Christmas with Oso

Don’t ask me to explain my relationship with Oso. To be honest, it isn’t that complicated, but I grow weary of the questions. You’ve known him how long? All my life. We were baptized on the same day in the same Anglican church. You’ve never been married. Wait. How many kids do you have? We’ve never been married; we have three children together. We’re friends who live in separate houses. The children accept this because they must. Now that they’re older, they walk the five blocks in between our buildings. During school breaks, they run back and forth multiple times a day. Sometimes, Oso cooks for me and, occasionally, I cook for him. We’re friends. We’re best friends. But we can’t live together. Or, if I want to be honest, I should say Oso is the one who can’t live with me.

This Christmas, we packed the kids off to their grandparents’ house in Portland. The next day, we met a group of longtime friends at the airport, ready to have our annual adult vacation. Only Cecilia, the wildly popular self-pubbed author of children’s comic novels, had to fly in for our confab from a book-signing in New York. The rest drove in from their scattered places in Washington state. We kissed; we hugged. After squeezing our respective vehicles on the street outside my building, we went out for Indian food and drank far too much wine.

While staggering back to my place, Oso held my hand and slipped it in his coat pocket. I was used to this sort of affectionate display from him–his manner of owning me without actually being my owner–and his touch caused my chest to convulse on the icy air. Oso let go of my hand and thumped on my back.

“Watch it, there, Julia,” Claire said. “Oso’s giving you convulsions again. He had better cease and desist.”

Claire was the eldest among us–she was our history teacher back in school–and her white hair was capped with a red hat. By this time, she wasn’t merely a retired teacher of history, still dear friends with her loony, scattered students, but oracle to her core group–her inner sanctum of history nerds. Her sharp warnings, often taken as humorous, left undeniable bites. Her figurative teeth had morphed into canine fangs.

“Julia’s fine, she’s always fine.” So said Oso. So said Oso perpetually.

The white air hung heavily around the Christmas lights such that all of our heads seemed ringed with halos. Ah, we were all angels in some pageant, but the play didn’t involve me. It never had, even though we had all decided my apartment should be this year’s meeting place.

We took our wool-coated, winter weaving figures laughing into my stairwell. It was either laugh or cry for most of us, except for Cecilia, who had decided long ago that romantic relationships were for the birds–maybe the bees, too, but definitely not for her. All told, there were six of us, the other two being men I’ve decided to leave as shadowy nether figures for the purpose of this story. But it’s a fine point to make that we were three males and three females, all crammed into my stairwell, then in my tiny two-bedroom apartment.

We piled blankets and pillows on the floor and broke out three more bottles of wine. As Oso yanked out the corks, I caught Claire subtly rubbing her back and groaning.

“Are you all right, Claire?” I asked.

“Oh, fine, just too old for our slumber parties, as much as I enjoy them. This may be the last time I sleep on the floor. Didn’t you say your kids were in Portland? I’m sure I could fit on the bunk bed.”

“You could sleep in my bed,” I told her.

“No. I’m sure you and Oso will want to share that.”

I turned around before I could catch Oso’s expression. These days, he would do anything not to sleep with me. I suspected he was in love with somebody else, but didn’t care to ask. In fact, tears filled my eyes from out of nowhere–wasn’t I done crying over Oso? I walked all of ten paces to the laundry closet and shoved clothes from the net bag into the washer. For reasons still unknown to me, I pulled off my outer clothes down to my undershirt and shoved those in the wash, too. I watched the water fill the drum before realizing the party had gone silent.

I was half-naked, and in front of my friends, too. I forced a smile and spun around on tip-toe. “What a fool I am,” I said.

“You don’t know what a fool is until you self-edit and self-publish your novels,” said Cecilia. “We’re talking minus the darling panties and tank top.”

“It’s my nightly routine. I forgot you were here.”

Claire rose, creaky noises and all, and wrapped a blanket around me. Oso had disappeared with the other men–that explained the silence and lack of gamely puns about my strip show. From the kids’ bedroom, I heard the record player oozing out scratched, honey sounds. Oso’s Janet–his favourite singer. He’d met her once, twice, three times at different spots around the world. Her family was friendly with his.

I dropped the blanket and stood in the bedroom doorway and stared at the mess the kids had left behind–dirty clothes, scattered papers, books. The three men gazed at the album cover, at the willowy golden-honey Janet. Oso glanced at me, and then turned back to the cover–black-headed Oso, stretching his burly body on the incongruously small child’s bed, our gangly and shadowy men friends hovering near his authoritarian air. Oso always had his way. Always.

“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked.

Oso didn’t look up this time. “You’re fine,” he said.

And the record played, as though caught on Janet’s voice, “You’ve got to show your feelings, feelings. You’ve got to show your feelings.”

“I hate this music,” I told him.

Claire touched my shoulder. Claire’s presence couldn’t be avoided, and even Oso looked up at her.

“Janet and I’ll be in Australia at the same time in January,” Oso said. “Our flight paths will intersect. It can’t be a coincidence, can it, Claire?”

Claire pursed her lips together. “No, Oso, I think not. There is no such thing as coincidence.”

With that, Claire took my hand and led me from my children’s room.

Oso Part V
Oso Part IV
Oso Part III
Oso Part II

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Passing of the Cup II

Mi Esposa by A Leon Miler © 2012*

I’m one of the lucky ones, or blessed ones, depending on how you view the uncountable multitude of events that can occur at any moment in a seemingly random universe. I have a great relationship with both my parents–the angels must have winged overhead at my birth–and I call myself blessed. This memoir, therefore, is about my mom.

Like my dad, my mom is an intellectual, no matter how she might protest the label. And she would protest it, too, because she uses her intellectual faculties in a pragmatic manner to solve problems and accomplish day-to-day tasks that create utter confusion in less practical intellectuals–such as me, for example. While my dad found work in the tech industry, she found work in the health industry. I’m sure I’d discover, if I dared look up the stats, that the health industry is the second biggest job source in that suburban area around Portland.

My mom is perfectly at peace in a world of numbers and organization and grammar. Her skills include bookkeeping, filing, flawless sentences, and an endless store of tenacity over the phone. My dad has claimed she should be a prosecuting attorney–or was it a judge? Both would fit, to be honest. I’ve known her to wrangle with insurance companies for hours. Also, keep in mind, this is the type of woman who uses Quicken and spreadsheets for fun. I rest my case. My mom is an intellectual.

In her pragmatism, she took what was necessary from the world of medicine, and the rest of her family’s health needs she satisfied from the practicality of cupboards: food and chamomile or peppermint tea. I recall her fixing tapioca pudding for sick children, or soup with soda crackers. For everyday use, she boiled potatoes to serve alongside meat and vegetables.

From my childhood perspective, she seemed indefatigable. She stayed up late; she rose early. She drank RC cola for energy and kept on going. I don’t know how much coffee she drank in those early years–but those years are irrevocably stuck in the seventies and eighties, so I might wonder forever. I do remember, however, seeing a can of instant coffee in the cupboard. I’m not altogether certain who drank from the hot water added to the dreaded crystals in the jar. I just remember its omnipresence up there in the cupboard–a jar. A jar of coffee–add water and go. It was a jar that represented a different world to mine. It smelled funny, too, but had a lovely bittersweet taste to it. Yes, I know this because, long before I began drinking real, drip-brewed coffee made from freshly ground beans, I sneakily made myself trial cups of the instant stuff. I guess I do know one person who drank of the water-with-crystals, then. I drank it, but not often, and not until I was about fourteen.

My mom was and is the sort of person who brings relief to any tense situation. At heart, she’s a problem solver. Or, she has a heart for solving others’ problems. These two motivators are subtly different in their psychological complexities, although they might appear the same on the outside. Is she simply wired to be able to solve problems, or is she wired to give support to others, and so uses her intellect to find answers for them? I don’t know–tough call on that one. I’m going with the latter. My mom loves others and uses her intellect to help them out. It’s easy to imagine, therefore, how she thrived as a mother, as well as in the bookkeeping, filing, and receptionist areas of medical offices–how this kind of life gave her energy (or she gave her energy to it–tough call on that one, too).

I will never be as organized as my mom. Chances are, I’ll never find great enjoyment in making budgets and spreadsheets, either. In fact, I have to admit to avoiding such activities as much as possible. I wouldn’t want reality to invade too deeply into my labyrinthine daydreams and mosaic logic. It’s all pieced together so carefully, it wouldn’t make sense on a spreadsheet. Catacombs–Byzantine catacombs–that’s where my mind belongs. But that’s all right. I’m capable of making budgets and paying bills, and I’m just as able to pass such nonsense off to my husband. Despite all that, I’ve inherited my mom’s sense of logic in the area of health, and health isn’t an area of avoidance for me.

Owing to my health logic, I concur with my mom’s decision to, at some vital moment, give up drinking caffeinated soda. From my foggy childhood memories, I can’t recall how long she drank soda, or when or how often she drank coffee. In my head, I conjure up the blue RC cola can with its crown and associate it with my much younger mom. Now, though, I can only picture her drinking coffee because she currently won’t start the day without her cup or two of French press.

French press is beautiful. French press is perfect. French press is an herbal infusion, much like my mom’s peppermint or chamomile tea. It’s a health beverage that excites and awakens the mind and clarifies thought. It readies the digestive tract and produces a ready-to-go, problem-solving spirit. It’s an elixir, actually, that sounds ready made for a woman as pragmatic as my mom. And, if you want to get right down to it, I would benefit from drinking my coffee with her. Some of her skills might rub off on me.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Passing of the Cup

Morning Light by A Leon Miler © 2012

When I was in high school, my family lived in Hillsboro, which is part of what is known as the Silicon Forest for its concentration of tech jobs. The largest Intel plant is, in fact, located in Hillsboro. That being true, it’s no leap of faith to believe my dad would, at some point, work his way to a career in electrical engineering. In his own words, he’s comfortable with crunching numbers, while many people aren’t. And why shouldn’t he be? Some people innately understand relationships and are comfortable coping with a diverse group of acquaintances in the same way he’s comfortable with numbers. Bully for them, but numbers are a hell of a lot easier to understand than people.

Why do I trust numbers after years of intensely fearing math? For the record, I’ve spent the same years also intensely disliking most people. These fears and dislikes used to be parallel paths for me, yet they’ve diverged along the way. I have no idea how, except to say that people have squirmed out from under my little pins, while numbers have stayed put. As I’ve indicated in other posts, I’m studying math on my own time at home. After completing my latest lesson via pencil scratchings on paper, I loathed having to click over to my blog and type sentences for people to read. This math-over-writing is such a complete reversal for me that I’m left swooning from the roller coaster, switchback effect. But legacies arrive when they will, and there may be no way to predict the hairpin turns brought on by them.

Despite Hillsboro’s glowing prominence in the techie forest (dripping with rain and silicon), my dad worked for a company in Beaverton, which is a suburb that much closer than Hillsboro to the tunnel shooting into the greater tech forests of Portland. Because of that, he usually dropped me, on his way to work, at the Beaverton bus depot to cut out fifteen minutes or so from my long commute to Portland Christian High School. My commute, however, still involved changing over to the train in downtown, and then one last changeover to a bus that dropped me near the school drive–still tiresome, in other words.

I spent a lot of my commute thinking, but I’ve already discussed this in a previous memoir. With my briefcase in hand, and my raggedy school clothes, I juxtaposed myself over an urban, workaday world, insulated coffee mug in hand, and I scrutinized all these places I didn’t belong. But, again, I’m passing myself by, as it were–passing by the scenes I mean to focus on. The briefcase was one my dad no longer used, and the coffee mug was an old AM/PM travel cup with a faded logo. My dad gave me the mug, too, and that’s the image I’m trying to capture. I still remember the morning he handed me the coffee-filled cup with cap, understanding that I was seventeen–practically an adult–and that I would be trapped out in the frosty morning waiting for buses, and I would need a hot beverage to sustain me. It was one of those passing-of-the-torch moments that adults have with their almost-grown children.

My dad and I have never fit in anywhere. Would I sound childish if I claimed nobody understands us? It’s true. During our commute together, we discussed thought processes and poetry, and we listened to current music, such as U2’s Joshua Tree or Rattle and Hum. My dad talked about the connections his mind makes from one matter to another, and he sometimes spontaneously composed poetry. And then he would ask: does your mind work this way? And I would murmur a consent, even though I quailed inside and wondered if I would ever reach–do–write–understand as much as I needed to. Because of that, those pale morning hang in my head with crazy images of clouds that appear as shattered glass, of starkly bitter trees hanging over fields of orange. The dawn darkness always gave way to light, but I had yet to experience it. I sensed its presence in the distance and couldn’t quite touch it.

My dad is a kaleidoscope. He has a center, and from that, radiates images. He’s a poet, a gardener, and engineer. Most of all, he’s an artist, and if you have time, you should check out his online galleries here and here. In my opinion, he’s an artist whose work will find its way out of obscurity, so I highly suggest you invest in some originals.

Although my dad didn’t pass on his cup of artistry to me in the same way he casually handed me an AM/PM cup one morning years ago, he passed on a legacy of poetry. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a poet, and still I can’t leave poetry behind because poetry is where words and numbers and cadence meet. I’ve always loved counting the world. I’ve always loved counting words. And someday, maybe I will call myself an engineer and I’ll write about it by word count, while simultaneously loathing and loving every minute of it. Oh, did I mention I applied for an engineering program? The silicon forest where I grew up has caught up to me, its dense growth rooted deeply inside my head.

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