Letter to my 16-year-old self…

Although i have no fucking idea why, i am often sought as a mentor at work – usually people early in their careers who are sorting out what’s next. i’ve had a run of these sessions lately – and it reminded me of this old post.

As i’m listening to these young men and women sort out not just career – but life balance – i am reminded that i REALLY need to write that letter to my 30-year-old self…

Trailer Park Refugee

Not that i would have actually listened, mind you… but a stumble into dearme triggered the thought exercise.  Exactly what would i have told myself at 16 that might possibly have made a difference?  Who knows…  here’s my best guess after a couple glasses of bourbon.

Dear 16-year-old daisyfae,

Christ.  Where do i start?  First off, lose the flannel shirts and owl glasses, ok?  You bear a frightening resemblance to Neil Young.  While you take some solace in this, and it may feed the deeply buried socialist songwriter hiding underneath that case of Oreos you snarfed down in your bedroom last night?  It’s not particularly attractive.

Off the top of my head:

– You are an athlete and a dancer, despite the fact that the mirror tells you otherwise.  Somewhere in your 30’s you’re going to figure this out, but it will be a tad late to start formal training.  Join the…

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The “Dream Team”

Although it’s become passé, i’ve long been a fan of the Zombie Apocalypse as a practical metaphor for disaster preparedness. Even the stodgy Center for Disease Control built a zombie survival plan to better market the need to take a modicum of responsibility for your own sorry arse when the shit hits the fan…

As we spent time on the gun range recently, and caught up on “stuff”, The Boy appeared to be at least mildly impressed with my interest in shoring up my skills in the survival department.

Backpacking, SCUBA, motorcycling,  Now adding horseback riding lessons to the mix. Already a “one and a half banana” mechanic with machines, rudimentary plumbing and electrical wiring. A master with duct tape. Power tools (including chainsaws) do not intimidate me. i might actually be useful should the undead rise from the dirt.

It bothered me a bit – thinking about The Girl. The Boy is armed, rugged and ruthless. The Girl’s got an amazing brain, is a trained linguist, and has a powerful intellect…

Travel-wise? None better! She escaped a fight in a Turkish brothel, rode trains in India, took an impromptu trip down a Chinese river and survived seven hours on camel-back en route to the Great Pyramids – all before she was 20 years old.

As a kid, she was the least comfortable with our outdoor adventures, and wasn’t a fan of “roughing it”.  Will her Ninja-like travel skills be enough?

i really want her on the team.  “Survival of the Species” and all that shit. When genetic proliferation is at stake, i can’t exactly go back to the drawing board. My two existing spawn are all i’ve got to support my quest for DNA-based immortality.

Recounting my conversation with The Boy to Studley, as he drove us back from our horseback riding lessons, i remembered a moment from a few years back.  And found a glimmer of hope…

[sound bite signifying flashback goes here…]

It was 2004. i was battling mono. Passed out at home, with a fever of 105 F. The Girl was in town for a few days, and had borrowed my car to purchase art supplies from a warehouse in a rough part of town.

In a fever-ravaged haze, i picked up the phone as she called…

The Girl: I hit a curb when i went into the art supply house! I have a flat!

daisyfae: i have a fever and no car. Call the auto club. i can’t do a damn thing to help. Is there a spare tire?

The Girl: Let me check. I’ll call you back.

She called me back within ten minutes.

The Girl: Yes, there’s a spare. I called the auto club – they’ll be here in about an hour.

daisyfae: Wait in the store, or in the car if you don’t feel comfortable.  It’s getting dark.

The Girl: I’m fine. Some creepy dude asked me for change when I was looking for the spare. I told him to fuck off. “Can’t you see I’m having issues here?!?”

She’s on the team…

Bird brain

For over 20 years, i was part of a close-knit technical community.  Seeing the same faces at meeting after meeting, conference after conference, friendships (as well as a few adversarial relationships) formed.  

Attending a round of drunken debauchery workshop in New Orleans a few years back, my pod of Dawg Boyz was doing our very best to support the local bar-based economy. 

Two colleagues, Charles and Greg, were avid bird watchers, and trying their best to call it a night to allow an early start to their birding adventure the next morning. Being one of the more emotionally mature folks at the table, i taunted them for being big pussies and wimping out.  

Greg:  But we’re going to be getting up at 4:00 am!  We can’t stay for another round.

daisyfae:  Aw, c’mon, you big stinkin’ baby.  You’re acting like a girl!  

Charles:  You don’t understand – this is quite serious business, and we need our sleep.

daisyfae:  Right.  Looking at birds is extraordinarily taxing.  How hard can it be?

Invariably they stayed a little longer – but only after i took the bait, and agreed to join them in the hotel lobby at 4:30 am to get schooled in the fine art of birding. And i did.

As it turns out, much of the ‘early’ was necessary to support their ritualistic search for coffee and donuts prior to the actual bird watching.  The drive to Lake Pontchartrain took another 45 minutes. 

i was still drunk from the night before napping in the back seat, while they drank their coffee and gnawed on donuts.   We entered the wildlife area, and i perked up a bit, attempting to pay attention and not welch on the bet. 

Parking and wandering down a few paths, we sat quietly and waited.  Charles kept making this annoying “pishing” sound – some sort of bird call.  Eventually, as the sun was just rising, they got quietly excited, looking here and there through binoculars.

Charles:  Pretty sure that’s a juvenile Wooble Nibbler*.  Can you see the tail markings?

Greg:  No, but it looks to me like a female Amber Bock*.

They tried to teach me.  i tried to listen and learn.  But it just wasn’t my bag…

As we were driving back, they continued to try to explain the joy they found in “collecting” birds.

daisyfae:  But you’re not really “collecting” them.  You’re just looking at the bits and parts of the bird and identifying it.  i don’t get it.  In my world, it ain’t collecting unless you bag ‘em and tag ‘em, then either put a carcass in the freezer or hang it on the wall!

It was pretty clear that this would be my first, and last, bird watching venture with them.  And that was fine with everyone in the rental car. 

Passing an old shed along the one-lane road, i nearly jumped out of the window.

daisyfae:  Hey, stop the car!  Did you see that?  Back in the weeds next to that garage!

Charles mashed the brakes, and i rolled down the window, squinting in the morning light.

daisyfae:  There it is!  Looks like an old flat-fender Willys Jeep!  Back up so i can see the grill and doors – need to figure out if it was a military or civvie… Jesus, i don’t think i’ve ever seen one un-restored in the wild!

* not actual birds, of course, but i obviously was paying no attention at this point.  The buzz was wearing off, and the hangover settling in, and i was thinking about my coffee still sitting in the cup holder back in the car…

Time traveling…

Twenty years ago when i walked across this campus, the strap of my backpack tossed over one shoulder, i easily deluded myself into thinking it possible to be mistaken for a student.  A graduate student, probably, but in my late twenties, i could still pass. 

This week?  Nope. 

Sporting my “Elder-Hooker” collection of travel clothing, i couldn’t even pass for a professor this year.  Just another invisible middle-aged woman, attending a conference on the grounds of a marvelous California campus.  A campus wedged neatly between the mountains and the ocean.

This meeting is held annually at the end of June, and has been at this site every third year for decades.  i’ve attended eight of these west coast conferences, going back to the early 1990’s.  The recurring venue – as well as the recurring content, and people – provided an unexpected pinning point, hiding inside a routine business trip. 

Although different from the Christmas pinning point, i was surprised to find myself stumbling backward in time.  When not attending sessions, or being goofy with my friends, i was awash in memories.  It was just a nice summer conference trip… The flashbacks caught me by surprise.

Time with old friends.  Making new ones.  Laughing about all the stupid stuff that happened before.  Who we are.  What we do.  How we live.  Catching up on lives lived hundreds of miles away.  From the mundane to the deeply personal, a chance to get the latest news…

“Hey, he’s fourteen already?  Great looking kid!” 

“I’ve got to do it…  I’m moving out next month.” 

“It’s a constant political battle for lab space and funding!  I’m looking for another gig…”

“Did you hear about Dr. Z?  Did six months in jail for that shit…” 

“Hey, RD dyed his hair!  Who wants to ask him if the carpet matches the drapes?”

Memories of insecurities and angst.  Hook-ups – near misses, line drives.  The occasional grand slam.  Unnerving flashback to a conversation on that bench.  “He died?  Really?  When? What happened?”

Hours spent playing billiards in the local Irish pub.  Pool parties.  Beach parties.  Private parties.  Conning the guys at the bar to get us guitars for an improvised jam session.  Scamming my way on stage with the hired band playing at the conference picnic… after swiping a cowboy hat in order to blend in…

The year i brought my children with me to the meeting.  The Boy, at thirteen, brought a friend.  Hitting the huge concrete park, they were in sk8rboy heaven!  The Girl, at fifteen, enjoyed wandering the small college town, roaming from thrift store to thrift store, while i attended sessions. 

Listening as a colleague commented on the smokin’ hot co-ed walking toward us at the conference reception, wearing a mini-skirt and go-go boots.  Enjoying his discomfort when i said “That’s my daughter.  She’s fifteen. Don’t you have daughters?”

Feeling old and young simultaneously.  Memories rolling by like a newsreel…

A pile of silicon dioxide.  We tell the tales, draw the lines, leave a few footprints.  It all sort of flows together…. 

And the tide rolls in…

Bedlam

Sure, when the videos of Charlie Sheen first started popping up on YouTube, i watched a couple with the same slack-jawed astonishment as the rest of the world.  But it didn’t take long before i was squirming.

i’ve been there.  i have heard virtually the exact same words from my sister, T, as she rolled off on a manic phase.  On more than a dozen occasions.  It’s unpleasant.

From her initial meltdown at age 26, through her 50th birthday party last August, i’ve had those conversations.  They are difficult.  Perhaps difficult as an interviewer, but FAR more difficult if the person is your sister. 

Mr. Sheen is clearly dealing with mental illness.  And listening to the commentary in the media?  It is even more clear to me that at least in the U.S., we are woefully lacking in understanding about what this means.  i see it in my own family – my Mom* and i are the only two who have some appreciation that T is not “doing it on purpose just to be mean”. 

At the gym last Monday, i was stuck on an elliptical machine with a broken television – couldn’t change the channel from Fox News**, some mid-day talking heads program.  Closed captioned for the hearing impaired and gym-bound.

The topic:  Mental Illness.  They discussed the seeming constant stream of celebrities encountering melt-downs.  Stating “Six percent of the population is afflicted with some form of mental illness…”, one of the cutesy blondes went on to say “So why does it seem that Hollywood has more than it’s fair share of the mentally ill?” as she laughed…

The segment went on to cover the pressures on celebrities that might cause more breakdowns – the stress of fame, perils of having a lot of money.  Blah, fucking blah, blah, blah.  At no point did these idiots mention that perhaps it seems that way because boneheaded media wonks are always watching and ‘reporting’ on celebrity meltdowns? 

It wasn’t until i was tossing and turning in bed, and happened to catch late night talk show host Craig Ferguson’s opening monologue the same night, that i was able to get my head around it. 

Laughing at the mentally ill.  Watching their antics as a form of entertainment.  You’d think we’ve come a bit further than in the past couple of hundred years.  Apparently not. 

i’m just a bit thankful that we’ve been able to process my sister’s condition in relative obscurity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Mom was a psych nurse for about 16 years.  She always said she felt at home on the Psych Ward.  i’m pretty sure she wasn’t kidding….

** Regarding this topic?  Fox News is no worse than any of the others…