Words from before the storm

(This was from early last week, before the storm)

Yesterday was one of those great productive days where I did a fair amount of research, drafted a questionnaire for 3rd-5th graders, did laundry, baked pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with Wally in the afternoon, went grocery shopping, and even made dinner (with a big assist from Alex who told me there's a certain word only in Italian (I forgot it) for the exact little bubbling up you want from the slow-cooking tomato sauce but the important thing is to get the exact little bubbling up).

As far as the productivity goes, partly it was luck – no appointments, no meetings, no work phone calls, no doctors or out of towners. I even studied for the GREs a bit in the evening. There are a couple things in the math section I have no memory of at all. Like most of it – quadratic equations and three dimensional stuff... I wouldn’t have thought of it out of the blue, but now that I see it, I remember it. But a few weird formulas I just have never seen before, I’m sure of it. It's true I haven’t taken a math course since the single one I took at Dartmouth – Multivariable Calculus -- just to prove I could, descending from a long line of math wizards and having my sister be one of them. While I was technically one year ahead in High School math with everyone else in the Honors class, she was two. In Junior High she traipsed down the sidewalk to the High School every day to take, Advanced Algebra/Trig was it?, as a 13 year old.

So the stuff that I have zero memory of, I know if I were to run it by my dad, “Do you remember x times square root of 3 for the height of an equilateral triangle with side 2x being a thing?” His response would be, “It doesn’t matter if you remember it or not, it’s obvious that it would be." [Update: we had this conversation, and it followed script -- and now looking at it I do see it is -- I guess you could say -- obvious with a quick calculation. It's one example -- there are many - where the Cracking the GRE book tells you to memorize stuff rather than figure it out/understand it. That's why it's called "Cracking" I suppose rather than "(Re)Learning the stuff you need to know to do well on the GRE." It's last-minute, cramming, best-score-possible with least time given type stuff.

This facility with numbers goes back on both sides of my dad's family. His father worked on the original Social Security program, and my grandmother Miriam received a letter from the Treasury Department about how much he'd contributed when he died. Though the Republican Spin machine claims otherwise, it’s a solvent system and apparently has trillions in reserved revenue. My grandmother Miriam tutored math well into her 80s. She loved to tell the story of how her father – I don't know if he went to high school or not -- never learned algebra. But he was able to easily assist her with her algebra homework because he worked things out arithmetically  Nothing was mysterious. Everything was, when you took a moment to figure it out, obvious.

I am hopeless at the vocab for the GREs. All along I’ve found these word lists just outrageous until I started spouting off words to a friend of mine last Wednesday hoping for sympathy and she had an answer for everything. “Dessicate, dry out, did you know that? Is that well known?” I said.
“Yeah, of course. Dessicant, those things you find in shoes to keep them dry.”
Pull out by the roots
Pusillanimous, anodyne…Can’t stump her. Why is my vocab so incredibly inept compared to others? Do I not read enough challenging material or do I filter out info I don’t immediately understand? Either way, it’s not good.

I helped myself stay on track yesterday using makesometime.com It’s such a simple website with a stopwatch and a way to divide up projects and tasks but it works when I’m restless and having trouble focusing. You’re not really going to stop the clock to go check dailykos or motherjones or immoral minority or balloon juice or whatever and get one more person to reassure you over the election or make you panic, are you?

These relentless ridiculous polls have made the election circus now all but unwatchable. I do want to recount my experience in Philly. I made the error of not recording it all immediately and now details will be lost, but more importantly the emotion will be dulled by the surfeit of prosaic days now stacking up in between. 

Back to the productive day yesterday. It feels so good to put in an honest day's work, and for people whose work ties them to computer screens I think it happens less often than it used to. Those days of distracted working feel so...dirty...so kind of dull and frustrating. You know you are not really focusing, not really getting done what you could, and so you stay at your desk longer, put in my hours, none of them really solid, focused hours until later in the night when it's crunch time maybe and you have no other choice. For me, all too often, distracted working is really common. The checking of email, the answering of phones, the clicking of links. All of it short little bursts, little moments of escape, but adding up to a constant energy drain. 

I think that's partly why I remember my post-college graduation Starbucks stint with such nostalgia. It certainly wasn't a stress-free job. At rush-hour it was the opposite. The cleaning was endless, my boss was mean, customers were outrageous in their demands for 1/2 skim 1/2 soy 1/2 decaf mocha lattes with an extra shot. I never mastered the timing of the espresso bar -- the shot was supposed to finish pouring at the exact second the milk was steamed -- and the impatient, anxious late-for-work customers suffering the early effects of caffeine withdrawal would lean over the bar to supervise the process,  mystified that the drink they just ordered wasn't the one coming up next. The breaks were short and highly regulated and the shifts were always changing -- which meant you might have to close at 10 PM one night and open at 5:30 the next morning. I could hardly manage it for a day now, and I don't want to glorify a minimum wage job. There is nothing to idealize about people who have no choice but to work full time on their feet in stressful conditions and bring in a total of $14,000/year before taxes. So I hope it's clear I am sentimentalizing that period of time in my life with full recognition that I was in such a ridiculously privileged a position as to not even be paying rent let alone bearing the burden of any other responsibilities. I took the job with the vague hope of being able to get health insurance from it (never happened) but knew it was temporary and I'd be onto something else in less than a year.

To get that satisfaction of working hard, it helps of course if what you do is important in some way -- if it helps others, contributes to some larger personal goal, provides a learning opportunity -- but it's not essential that there be some greater meaning to the work itself in order to get that good clean feeling of an honest day's work. What does seem essential is minimal distraction. Focus. Clarity about what needs to get done and -- at the end of the day -- clarity about whether or not you did it. Closing up at Starbucks with the chairs stacked on the tables, floors mopped, coffee ground for the next day, it was clear. You knew when you were done. You were tired and deserved to be.

I couldn't have distracted myself then the way I can now. Even at the various office temp jobs I had during summers and vacations from college, the only thing I could do to distract myself-- if I was answering phones and really had no other work -- was write letters on the back of paper out of the recycling bin or sometimes on post cards if I was feeling particularly contumacious (insubordinate -- GRE --really? Come on, has anyone ever used that word, ever?).

Sometimes I did write those letters. One gets delivered to me now, from Wally, on his pretend mail route. A few words to my friend Kristin in Charlotte, North Caroline scrawled on the back of Red Canna by Georgia O'Keeffe. It must have transferred back to me when we lived together on West 87th. But when I sent the post card, it wasn't just geography that separated us but temporal distance, too. In the opening lines of a letter you described where you were, often, but it's not where you would be when the letter was received. That space then fell into the ether--hovering somewhere between where you had been when you wrote, where the receiver imagined you to be when he or she read. As you were writing, you often posited the receiver's position too. Those coordinates changed by the time the envelope arrived in the mailbox. This interval of time expanded in the arc of the envelope's journey, giving room to imagine, time to hope for a letter in return.

Not always being able to reach the person you had so much to talk to about forced contemplation, an internal dialogue. This particular postcard begins with the fact of not being able to reach Kristin even via the wonders of modern technology. "The first time I called," it began, "I got the machine. The second time, the incessant ringing." The other person wasn't always there when you needed him or her to be. But you were where you were. You were somewhere, for sure. There was often no response, there were minimal demands competing for your attention. You weren't likely to miss the moment. In fact a moment sometimes felt like a really long time. You inhabited it, more often than not. There was the date on the page. There was the time it took to write longhand. There were the hours to go still before closing time. No one to answer immediately, no boomerang emails, no instant-replies, no one to read your blog posts the instant you hit send. You were somewhere, for sure with little to distract you. Anchored there. Full of longing.


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