Where the Hell is Our Mailbox?

When the Engineer and I were house-hunting, we had a wish list.  We wanted a garage for his motorcycle, an in-unit washer and dryer that were not coin operated, a cat (not included with the house, but we wanted the option to get a feline friend), and a mailbox in which we could not only receive our own mail but have outgoing mail picked up (our old apartment complex didn’t have an outgoing mail slot, so we had to go to the on-campus post office).

We got some of the most important things on our list.  The Engineer’s motorcycle is safely tucked in our garage, and we’ve already run several loads of laundry in our Very Own Laundry Room.  Unfortunately, though, the cat is not allowed.

And at first it seemed like we didn’t have a mailbox.

We noticed a bank of locked mail slots at the end of our street in our little townhouse/apartment community.  The keys we received from the realtor included a mail key, so this seemed a likely spot for our mailbox to be.  On our way out on an errand one day, we pulled over to see if we could find our mailbox.  There were four sets of boxes, numbered from 1 to 14 over and over.

Our house number is above 1200.  We have no other unit number for it.

We texted the realtor, but she just told us the mailbox was at the end of our street, which we already knew.  She didn’t know what number it was.

We resolved to flag down a neighbor the next time we saw them, ask which mailbox was theirs, and extrapolate from there.  But we kept missing them in our comings and goings.

Finally, we stood together in front of the bank of boxes, trying the mail key in as many boxes as we could before someone drove by.  None of them worked.  One of them even tried to eat my key.

Then, at last, on his way to a meeting today, the Engineer spotted the mailman himself at the mailboxes.  Pulling over briefly, he explained that we had just moved in and didn’t know which mailbox was ours.  He came home triumphant.

“I found out which one is our mailbox!”

So we took a stroll up the street, stood again (less suspiciously this time) in front of the boxes, and ceremoniously turned the key in our box: Number 11 in Row 3.  Sure enough, on the inside of the little metal door was our house number and our last names.

And right below it, etched in a little metal lid over another slot: OUTGOING MAIL.

We had to hunt it down, but we sort of got our wish after all.

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The Tide of Adventure

“From sea to shining sea,” to me, always meant from East to West.  Moving west was the proper direction, from the Atlantic that first brought European explorers, troops, and colonists, to the Pacific that halted Lewis and Clark at last.  From the first sea, the Old World, to the second, the New (to white people).  I had a certain amount of pride in growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where, it seemed to my elementary school self, everyone must have wanted to settle down.

Going east now seems strange, like we’re pulling against the tide of adventure that swept so many people to the western expanses of the United States.  “Go West, young man!” our so-called Manifest Destiny proclaimed, and the young men obeyed, and women, too.

(I’m currently reading a history of the Harvey Girls, which may be part of why moving back East [does it count as “back” if I’ve never lived this far east before?] feels weird – I just finished the background section on the Santa Fe Railroad.)

Instead, our current is bringing us to the shores of history, the New to Us But Old in General world.  From the west coast – where I grew up surrounded by stories of pioneers for whom the Oregon Territory was the endgame, making it seem like the West must be the final goal for everyone – to the east coast, where the water is actually warm and the first growing pains of our nation started.

From one sea to the other.  Our own new adventure.

 

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Never-ending Easter Egg Hunts

“In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, five, six yourefineyourefineyourefine seven, eight.  In, two, three four…”

I said the words in my head like a crazed conductor, sternly scolding my chest when it tried to contract again too soon.  My lungs preferred hyperventilating to this slow, rhythmic exercise.  I felt like I was choking every time I breathed out for too long.  But eventually my heart rate slowed.  The air stopped feeling oppressive.  I stopped counting as I drifted off to sleep.

For a few weeks, this was my bedtime ritual.  As soon as I got under the covers, I would immediately feel guilty that I hadn’t completed all these tasks.  But during the day, when I had the time and energy (and daylight) to devote to working, I only remembered a fraction of them.  They seemed to hold back, waiting to rush at me the second I turned out the light.

It was like a protracted Easter egg hunt.  Some eggs, hidden in obvious places, were easily spotted and placed safely in my basket – the completed tasks that I had already planned on doing.  Then there were others that I glimpsed as I went about my day – the random, little things I suddenly remembered and addressed even though they weren’t part of my original list.

And then, when it got too dark to look for Easter eggs, my workaholic little brain piped up: “You can’t go to bed yet.  We didn’t find all of them.”

“It’s fine.  They’re plastic.  They won’t hurt anything if we don’t find all of them until tomorrow.”

“But what if we don’t find them in time and the candy in them melts?  Or what if someone gets annoyed that we didn’t collect them all?  No, we should keep looking.”

“I promise you, it’s fine.  We’ll look with fresh eyes tomorrow.”

“Did you check under the sofa?  I think I saw one under the sofa.”

And on it went.  As much as I told myself that I had time, that I hadn’t missed any deadlines or accidentally forgotten to reply to someone, my anxieties had a new worry for every one I dismissed.  The most compelling of these was, “But if you forgot to do it today, what if you keep forgetting until you completely forget?”

Cue racing heart and shallow breathing.

My mental state, whether in the midst of my depression or just a lot of stress, has always been the most frantic at night.  I have trouble with the concept of “rest” when I feel I haven’t earned it, whether that be letting go of emotions until I am better equipped to address them or getting some sleep even though I haven’t exercised/written/worked “enough” that day.  So bedtime, when I put away all distractions and wait alone with my thoughts before falling asleep, is a great time for my mind to rebel.

Some nights found me up with that damn basket, hunting the rest of the Easter eggs (e.g., all-nighters on projects that weren’t even due the next day, just because they were worrying me).

Other times I’d stay up long enough to map out a plan for exactly where to look for the eggs the next day (putting together a specific schedule for the next day to address all the random tasks I was suddenly remembering).

On occasion, I do manage to shush my brain entirely, with exercises like breathing (fun fact: exhaling longer than you inhale is supposed to disrupt the fight-or-flight response) or doing something similarly meditative like saying my rosary.

Melatonin supplements work too.

I’m still learning how to negotiate with my own mind and body in order to get some sleep.  But even just recognizing that this time of day can be difficult – that’s a start.


What stress-reduction/brain-quieting strategies work best for you?  What time of day do you find it hardest to deal with stress and anxiety?

 

FFF Profile: Camille, “Stitchers”

Welcome to Fierce Fictional Female Profiles, a semi-regular feature where I write about current female characters in popular culture (probably mostly TV and film) that I think are well-written and realistic.  With so many tropes surrounding women in the media and affecting the way we are perceived in real life, I like to call attention to stories that attempt to break those habits.

Camille Engelson, Stitchers

196b2fa8-9cfc-4002-b97e-4011a49af834Occupation: Computer science grad student; technician and occasional Stitch director in the secret government “Stitchers” program, where she helps her friends solve murders by “stitching” the protagonist into dead people’s memories.  Also originally hired to spy on said protagonist.

Three reasons I love her:

  • Her reaction to feeling powerless after an attack on the Stitchers team was to ask the guy recovering from a gunshot wound to train her in fighting, since he had plenty of spare time.  She then proceeded to continue learning Krav Maga so that when further threats arose, she could meet them head-on.  This demonstrates her response to failure: get better so it doesn’t happen again.  (Plus we get to see some pretty badass fight scenes.)
  • The writers allow her to have flaws.  Her original role as a spy for the program director, plus her own trust in her gut, lead Camille to have some inconsistent views on trust and loyalty, a code that sometimes frustrates her coworkers and distances her from her friends.  She lashes out when she doesn’t know how to deal with emotional situations (again, that instinct that leads her to fight physically) and is still dealing with a past she’s not proud of.  Cf472DEVIAQVBSP-300x300
  • Though she has a kind of Tragic Backstory, Camille neither milks it for sympathy nor deals with it in a one-and-done episode.  The series brings up unexpected ways in which her trailer park upbringing continues to affect her, making it just one part of a complex, developed character.  She deals with some things, like kicking her brother’s ass when he shows up and robs her friend (one of the best moments of the series, in my opinion), but she still struggles to move past other reminders of her childhood, which make her a weaker team member when she shuts people out.

Icing on the cake: THE SNARK.  Camille gets the best one-liners in the series (see below), but she’s always available to offer advice and sympathy (and open a bottle of wine) when her friends need her.

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Though she still adheres to certain aspects of the Best Friend role, Camille is well-written enough to feel real.


Who are some of your favorite female TV characters right now?  What do you think writers tend to get wrong?  Let me know in the comments!

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Future Mr. Changeling

The Engineer and I are getting married!

Remember when I said our spring break was lovely?  That was a bit of an understatement.

At his insistence, I had gone up to visit the Engineer’s house on the peninsula, even though I could only stay for one day.  We went for a walk on the beach at Salt Creek, which was nothing unusual; since it’s one of our favorite places, sometimes we go there every single day of my visit.

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Once a group of college students left, we had the whole beach to ourselves.  It was a delightfully “west side” type of day, a little breezy and overcast but nothing like the freezing weather we’ve been having in our little college town.  We meandered down the beach and back again, chatting and pointing out pretty rocks or a bird on the water.

I didn’t notice at the time, but the Engineer was making sure to keep me on his right side and wouldn’t hug me too closely, because the ring was in his left coat pocket!  He wouldn’t even let me put my hands in his pockets to warm them, as I sometimes do; he just held my hand and kept choreographing our movements so I wouldn’t notice the box.

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The log I decided to Instagram right before he proposed

Finally, when I stopped to take an Instagram picture peer through the tunnel formed by a driftwood log, the Engineer followed me with something slightly more than his usual amused expression on his face.  He hugged me, fumbled in his pocket for a moment (“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s just his phone,” I told myself), then pulled away and got down on one knee (“That is not a phone.”).

Holding up the ring, he asked if I would marry him.

“Of course I will!” (Then I asked if he was serious, because it’s good to check, apparently.)

We walked back along the beach, both grinning, when a family of bald eagles flew overhead.  Two of them landed in the top of a nearby tree and started squawking to each other.  They stayed perched there for nearly an hour while we sat on Our Log (the log that we sit on every time we go there, where we first had a conversation about getting married years ago) and talked.  The solitude of the beach gave us a bit to process what had just happened and enjoy our shared excitement before we had to start telling people.

We still had another week of grad school visits ahead of us before going back to school, so we spent the next few days calling friends and family and swearing them to secrecy so we could tell certain people in person when we got back.  Those reactions were well worth the wait, most notably the Commodore, who was in town for her spring break as well, setting down her coffee in order to scream and jump up and down; my current roommate, who sent her parrot on a panicked circuit around the room when she leapt up to hug me; and our other friend C., who took a full ten minutes of small talk to notice the ring before stopping midsentence to stare, count my fingers to be sure that yes, it was the correct ring finger, and jumping up and down.  (A lot of jumping was involved here.)

I’m very excited for our newest adventure to start.  Can’t wait for September!

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He chose well!

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

Disabling the Exasperation Filter

Whenever I decide to call in sick, my brain immediately turns on what I call the Exasperation Filter.  This filter colors every email, text message, and Facebook chat from my boss or coworkers with a tint of irritation on their part, stemming from and reinforcing my assumption that I have horribly inconvenienced everyone and therefore everyone must be annoyed with me for not sucking it up and coming in anyway.

Some of this probably comes from the classic Impostor Syndrome, which gives me the sense that I am the only person to ever call in sick without being in the hospital, clinging to life.  Never mind that I know that’s not true.  Never mind that logically I know my workplace is more caring than that.  Never mind that catching whatever has left me unable to do my job would probably inconvenience everyone far more than covering for me for one day.  No, the Exasperation Filter adds a layer of guilt and nervousness to every piece of communication on a sick day, which just makes everything worse when I’m already fuzzy-headed and exhausted.

When I caught The Death going around campus (that’s what we all call the annual virus that makes the rounds at the beginning of spring semester) immediately after getting back to work from Christmas break, I tried to push through it.  I tried to read students’ papers and direct small group workshops and ask my coworkers how their holidays had been.  But pretty soon it was clear I needed rest.  So (with the Engineer sitting supportively beside me) I sent out the dreaded sub request.  It was a Monday, one of my longest days, so I worried that not all of my hours would get covered and they would be understaffed and the Writing Center would go up in a ball of flame.  (The Exasperation Filter comes packaged with the Worst Case Scenario Upgrade.)

Instead, my boss, B., sent me a nice email with a smiley face saying not to worry and to feel better, that they would manage without me.  The next day that I did drag myself into work, B. heard me coughing and asked, “How many hours do you have after this?”  I told her.  “Any classes today?”  Yes, I was facilitating one small group.  “Go home when you’re done with that,” she said.  “You need to get better.  We’ll be fine.”

I started to protest, but she said she needed me at 100% when she would be out of the office later that week.

Her genuine concern for my wellbeing made me squirmy, especially knowing I was about to miss quite a bit of work to tour grad schools with the Engineer.  My work has always been a wonderfully affirmative place, particularly when I first started after my super-stressful and toxic internship sophomore year.  But I worried that as I started preparing to leave, the Writing Center would have no reason to keep being nice to me.  I didn’t want to damage any relationships in my last remaining months.  So I pointed out that I’d be gone a lot in the next month already, so I didn’t want to miss any more work.

B. tilted her head and looked at me.  “All the more reason you should go home and rest.  You absolutely need to go with your boyfriend and you should try to get well by then.  Those visits are important too.”

Turns out that was the phrase I needed to disable the Exasperation Filter.  Now I manually replace it with the B. Filter, forcing myself to read her emails in her actual tone of voice, not the false accusatory tone I’ve never actually heard her use, and reminding myself that she and the rest of the Writing Center actually do want the best for me.

It’s a much more pleasant way to read my emails.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography?