the Fair

We are going to the fair!

We have photos of taking Veronica to the fair every year since she was born. One of our favorite things is to get her into the goat pen.

The Los Angeles County fair has a big pen of goats, a scattering of sheep and a handful of alpacas. It’s free to go in but you have a pay a small fee for the Dixie cup of food you can give the goats.

The goats are very aware of the Dixie cups at all times. Veronica can hand feed a pellet at a time and be the center of attention. When she was shorter than the goats, this was a scary scene. Now that she has some height on them, it’s a lot more gleeful

But it’s always been gleeful.

It turns out that the county fair, and it’s descendent the state fair, are a product of the industrial revolution. A by-product, perhaps. The first one took place in England, the year after America’s declaration of independence, and it took almost a hundred years for the American states to take it up.

Wikipedia calls them agricultural fairs, because they happen in lots of places. They have animals and cooking and crafts–homey things. Homemade things. It’s a celebration of things that are not industrialized. Australia calls them Royal fair. I hear Jamaica has a phenomenal fair.

New York had the first American state fair, which continues into the present in Syracuse. More than a million people a year go.

My home state Alaska, whose fair I was deeply involved in as a teenager, is a big deal. I knew it was a big deal. I raised farm animals–pigs, cows and rabbits. My brother and I showed them at the fair and won prized. We had to drive to the fair every day to feed then, and clean their stalls. This let us get into the fair for free and see all the fantastic sights.

One of my favorite things to see was the punk rock hairdressing booth, where women would take your money then give you a stiff spiked and colored Mohawk for the day. They played rock and roll and made you one of them.

I was far too afraid to do this myself. Also, my hair doesn’t do that. Does it? But I could watch endlessly while taking a break from cleaning my pig’s stall.

The fair was always a magical place to me. It had a special place in my heart. It was my fair.

Looking into it, I find that maybe it was not so unique to me. Of all the state fairs, Alaska’s state fair gets the highest number of people visiting, especially when you take into consideration the low population of the state.

The Alaska state fair gets a whopping 40% of the ENTIRE STATE to come to see. That beats out Texas, which has four state fairs just to cover the territory. North Dakota is almost as popular, with 39%.

It is startling to realize I come from a place with a culture that values the fair.

Here, in Los Angeles, the agricultural roots are being forgotten. The fairgrounds are beautiful, with historic buildings from the 20s and 30s. And they do have contents for homemade things.

And we can’t forget the goats.

Interested

A couple years ago, I was invited to a party with a lot of college professors. I found myself sitting next to a professor emeritus.

I was nervous to go to this party, because I didn’t know many people. I’ve always felt out of place around highly educated people. I had to find a way to justify my presence.

I would start talking; explain some of the more interesting stories about myself. I would want to come up with something impressive I had done.

I could go the other direction too, come up with stories that explained why I was behind and backwards. I found that if I made them colorful, people would listen and possibly forgive my awkward ignorance.

That was the hope anyway.

But it could be exhausting, making sure to get in my stories of explanation, and I could find myself the one doing all the talking. I wished that I could find another person who would tell me about themselves. Because what I really wanted was connection.

As I was getting ready for this party, I told myself to tone it down. I wanted to listen to other people.

At the party, I was introduced to people, and I was trying to start conversations. And then I encountered this professor emeritus. We exchanged names, and I asked, “What do you do?”

“Oh, I used to teach. Tell me what you do.”

I told him, and he was so charmingly interested. I tried to ask him more about himself, but he was so interested in my stories he had no time to tell his own.

I didn’t hog his attention the whole night. In fact, I saw him move around the room, and engage person after person in rapt conversation.

He was really interested, and people really wanted to tell him what they were up to.

I remembered self-admonition to tone it down. But when I saw this guy in action, I could see what I was trying to achieve.

He was more interested than interesting.

I mean he wasn’t trying to be interesting to these people at the party. He didn’t have anything to prove.

He was interested. He was interested in me, and in hearing what all kinds of people had to say.

And it was easy to tell him, because he really wanted to know.

Which means, years later, never having met him again, I remember this man. He made a lasting impression on me.

And it wasn’t even his goal.

Alternate futures

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades
-Timbuk3

Science fiction used to be a lot better. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. In a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago there were a lot of seriously evil people.

But even Disneyland had a sparkling view of the future. Walk past the castle in fantasyland, make a turn and the future prospects of Tomorrowland were just as magical. Rockets? Spaceships? All of it was fantastic and getting better by the minute.

My first forays into science fiction were that sort of giddy optimism. The world of Star Trek was as pure and seamless as any happily-ever-after fairy tale. As Kirk liked to expound, the biggest flaw of mankind was the insatiable desire to explore.

And then my older brother tossed some Heilein at me, and I saw some more of that exploration of the universe, with unbounded freedom. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress showed a wild-west space colony using science to gain their freedom from the remote earthbound leaders. The protagonists were very pleased with their prospects and pretty sure that things were getting better.

That’s something that Sci-Fi has always been able to do for us. Imagine a world…same laws of physics and science…. but we have better tools…What could we do then?

Certain authors and an older tradition of science fiction had that optimistic thought-experiment tone with their storylines.

But others looked into the future with dystopian gloom. The very recent Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is set in an impoverished world where people escape into virtual reality without ceasing. Neil Stevenson’s The Diamond Age from 1995 is cyberpunk gloom, with organized crime barely worse than the official governments.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1984 has vat-grown food in a hopeless future where people jack into their technology to have any kind of power. Even HG Well’s The Time Machine published in 1895 showed a terrible future for the planet.

I had for the last few years been very suspicious of science fiction because I couldn’t deal with the gloom. Some of my friends may remember an extended rant I went on regarding Stephenson’s’ Seveneves after I hit the darkest point in the story and dropped it like a hot coal. I was angry at the author.

This was going too far! Science fiction plays into the pessimistic tendencies of people to extrapolate into the future the worst possible outcome of the current trends.
Unbridled pessimism as unrealistic as unbridled optimism. Are people terrible? No doubt. Will we do the wrong things? Yes.

But more often, we do right things. We are generous and creative and kind.

I stumbled on a recent book in the optimistic tradition that reminded me why I used to read science fiction Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. It was not dystopian, it had a girl flying spaceships and having an adventure.

THAT”S WHAT I”M TALKING ABOUT! I am pleased to have some adventures in space where bad stuff happens but a little hard work, ingenuity and good character saves the day. We are not powerless, not now and not in the future.

Yes, Captain Kirk, humans are amazing. I’m proud to be part of this group. We are imperfect to be sure, but the future is full of promise. Look what we’ve already done so far!

Present Perfect

There’s something I know about myself: I like big projects. I like to look ahead and think of how my plans will work out. I don’t mind doing hard work with little immediate payoff when I think of it that way.

In fact, I prefer for my days to include these long-term projects. I’ve felt disappointed, as if my days were shallow if I don’t include them.

This year, including this summer, I’ve been supplementing Veronica’s education with online classes. We’ve done math, but I’ve also had her working on grammar. The grammar I found is probably high school level, but I think learning something when there isn’t the pressure of a test makes it easier.

It’s our language, after all. We should kind of know it already.

We learned about the perfect tense. The present perfect tense in particular. This is to express that something is complete (perfect). And it is complete, and the completion continues on into the present.

“I have eaten.” That means I’m not hungry, and I won’t be hungry for a while.

“I have been sleeping.” My sleep occurred and is expected to continue.

These things are presently perfect.

These projects that I am working on? The steps I take to get the projects done are not perfect. It is only true that I am continuing to work on them with the hope that they will be perfectly complete. That I will get to the point of saying “That project has been done.”

I also finished a beautiful book this week, When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a sad story of a doctor, who was nearing his completion of becoming a surgeon, but gets cancer and succumbs.

He has been dead for a few years now.

He had to grapple with death as a surgeon, treating patients who had cancer. The he himself got cancer.

He and his wife had been planning to have children after their residencies. But when cancer entered their lives, they moved up their plans.

The dying doctor got to enjoy holding his newborn daughter as he was preparing to leave his life. He described this experience as a perfect joy.

Perfect. His was wrapped up in the perfect present tense.

He has been holding his daughter, and he has been happy.

That’s a different kind of happy. A completed happiness completed and perfect in the doing of it.

That is hard to find in a life full of plans and future payoffs. But this sick doctor found it after all, in those last months.

He, like me, had been a ravenously ambitious person. He worked hard to achieve what he set out to do: become a neurosurgeon.

But he couldn’t do it. His body wouldn’t hold him up.

In the end, even in the very end, he didn’t lose his drive to do. He worked up to the end on creating the manuscript of the book that I was able to read.

I take this to mean, it is okay to hold both kinds of happiness. I don’t have to give up my delight in the long horizon goals.

And I can remember that there are present perfect bubbles of happiness that are worth it protecting as well.

What power can mean

I have discovered that I really enjoy audiobooks, but my tastes have changed. Back when I could check out books on CDs from the library, I really enjoyed novels and fiction as audiobooks. I can’t tell you how great Cold Mountain, read by the author is.

But now, I am finding that I want a total immersion experience when I’m reading my novels. What I like on audiobooks is non-fiction. That’s what I will get into when I have to drive or do housework with earphones.

For a recent job interview, someone recommended that the interviewer was really into Good to Great. I got that one from the library as an audiobook and enjoyed it. But then I browsed the library’s catalog for another book and checked out Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office.

It’s a good read, and I think I’ll need to get a hard copy. She talked about how many women have assumptions that are not universal.

One thing I am still thinking about is her recommendation that women begin to think of themselves as powerful. She shared that in her consulting practice, the female executives she coached did not see themselves as powerful. She said that women tended to think of power as someone who has power over others.

But she said that being powerful means having power over yourself.

This is a tough one for me, but I would like to view the world that way. So much of what a job seems to be is about being caught in forces that are totally outside my control.

But what if I really did have power over myself?

Some people might call thing boundaries.

Another non-fiction book, The Happiness Project, talked about how you can be happy, but if you don’t know you are happy, you miss a whole lot of what that happiness has to offer.

So, what if I recognized that the forces I am engaging with that really are outside my control, if I recognized that are learned to glory in it?

Like surfing.

Or whitewater rafting.

That’s the game. And in work, it’s not that I am the only one caught in the elements, ALL of us are.

Power looks a lot different from that perspective. I’m going to give it a try.

Comfort or Elegance

“What do you think Veronica?”

 

She looked me over critically.

 

“Oh, you do not think I look fancy,” I said.

 

“Well, it’s your shoes,” she told me.

 

This weekend was a set of memorial services. We had to drive all day to go to my father’s memorial, and stick around to drive to her sister’s memorial the next day.

 

I packed only one black dress, and a pair of comfortable shoes.

 

I figured one black dress was enough. And this was family, so comfortable shoes were in order.

 

My daughter was not so easily impressed.

 

I remembered these people I had known all my life. I thought about the younger ones, and realized I’d be making my impression on them. As I had remembered my older cousins throughout their lives, I would be making impressions on these younger impressionable cousins.

 

Maybe Veronica was right. I did not cut an elegant figure.

 

Should I have taken the time to pack a pair of heels? Maybe I should have brought pantyhose instead of my ubiquitous black tights.

 

Being the youngest child of the youngest child on my father’s side, I had always thought of myself as the youngest one.

 

But as Stevie Nicks says, children grow older and I’m getting older too.

 

I’d like to impress my young cousins with my je ne sais quoi. But I also know I am going to need comfortable shoes to get through this weekend.

 

There will be a lot of hugs, and a lot of stories. And the stories we tell, the fact that we get together to tell them, will become a new set of stories we tell.

 

I suppose I would like to cut an effortlessly elegant figure as I mingle.

 

Then again, that was never the point of these gatherings. It’s a lot more about the hugs than the rakish angle of hemlines.

 

Still, I might want to invest in some should that are comfortable AND elegant. But I won’t let that stop me from the hugs and the stories.

social contract

Living in a house with a dog, we take the restaurant’s doggie bag literally. Whenever we eat out, we collect the scraps–and maybe even substantial servings–of food and take it home. This white carryout has significance for Lucy Dog.

If we rush in the house, dropping off the bag of food on the counter and move on to something that seems more important at that moment, the dog will sit in the kitchen and whine.

I say, “What is wrong with you, dog?”

Chris will look up.

“She knows she is owed something. We are breaking the social contract.”

Ah. We must give her what she expects, or put the food we plan to eat ourselves in the fridge. That’s her signal that her chance is done.

Chris has a similar maxim for the catbox.

“We must keep our part of the social contract, and keep his box clean. Otherwise, he could be justified in not using the box, because we started it.”

There are expectations that form contracts between people, even if they are unspoken.

At this moment in my life, I am supremely blessed by how many friends I have. I am so grateful for these friends who will hold space for me.

For the friends who will LISTEN TO ME when my life hands me a circumstance.

I can feel afraid, or bewildered or happy. And I find that I need to talk to someone to get a handle on it.

Maybe a lot of someones.

Maybe a lot of times.

Like I said, I am really blessed because I have so many people who are willing to talk to me.

And when a bank of terror fogs me in, I will call all these friends and give them updates, asking for sympathy and perspective. It is so healing!

I can run in circles, calling everyone I know for support.

But I understand that if I am to keep this support network healthy, I cannot only call when I am feeling overwhelmed.
There is a social contract I do my best to stay on top of:

I have to give the story it’s ending.

If I have reached out, and am granted the alms of sympathy and attention to my stories, I have created a contract.

If I ever want to tap that resource again

I better make sure to close the chapter.

I have to go back and tell the end of the story. It’s only fair. If I have gotten people all involved, I have to respect that tension I have created. It was real to me, and those friends took some of it on for me.

We all need to know what happens to the hero.

Voice

Writers, even though they are not working in an audible way, spend a lot of time thinking about their voice.

I want to talk about the writer’s voice. Our voice, when we write (you write too, so I’m including you) is how we sound.

I personally have worked really hard on my voice. I have a way of writing that expresses my emotion and my personality. I like to bring humor–little nods and asides—into what I write.

You may notice, I’m also really fond of white space.

In the solitary space of writing, where I am alone with the thoughts I am trying to convey, I like to pause. For laughter? Maybe. But also for the ideas to sink in.

I try to introduce ideas that are unusual, a different way of thinking about an ordinary circumstance or situation.

You know what I don’t like? Repeating myself. Just now I am considering deleting either “circumstance” or “situation” because they are saying almost the same thing.

And deleting things that are repetitive means that I write short pieces. I say what I have to say, get it done and we can all move on.

You know what else I do? I talk about myself. The first person is all I ever talk about.

Recently I had to write a rather long piece with no first person whatsoever. I was nowhere to be found.

I found myself wanting to go all A.A. Milne in there, and have asides reaching to the audience. Breaking the fourth wall of writing, to acknowledge that there is in fact a reader, and that reader is in fact reading the shapes of the words on the page.

I suspect this is frowned upon in circles of people who do not use the first person.

There are other ways of indicating that action has taken place, ways that do not require mentioning a party who acts or a party who is the receiver of that action.

Passive voice abounds.

Mistakes were made.

I like to write. I like for my writing to be read. I like readers, and I like it when readers let me know they have read what I write.

The bestseller list confirms that people who read like to read action.

I will have to learn a whole set of new skills if I am to write without referring to myself.

Some people are very insistent on that. I understand that removing the actor and the acted upon means the thing written is less likely to cause offense.

But it’s also a lot less likely to engage.

It might be a new challenge to learn how to be exciting without any action. It’s my voice. I get to use it how I want.

Fewer Facepalms

Before I go to the grocery store, I make a list. Very rarely I will forget and wander the aisles trying to think of what I was missing at home. Even when I do make a list, I often forget to get one or two things on the list. And when I get home I face palm, remembering some obvious thing I had been telling myself to remember all week but had forgot on the list.

We are still out of toothpaste.

In the rest of my life I have started an analogous habit: setting intentions.

What this means is, as I prepare to do something like have a meeting or set about the business of my day, I try to set an intention. Even if it is blazingly obvious, I can set my intention for myself, “Today I intend to focus on each task one at a time.”

Or if I am scheduling a meeting, I can let everyone know my intention:
“This meeting is to talk about an efficient and graceful solution to our problem.”

As obvious as toothpaste.

But as I discovered from my shopping lists, even the obvious things get forgotten. EVER WHEN I AM TRYING SO HARD TO REMEMBER!

Some things which should not be forgotten get lost.

Putting a little thought into it beforehand helps. And even more than just the tradition agenda, which is a list of items, an intention allows for flavor.

Yes, we want to get this or that thing done. But how do I want to feel about it while we are working on it, and how I want it to look when it is done can be expressed with intentions.

It’s a simple thing, but a little fore thought on that can make a big different.

My intention is to avoid the facepalm.

Bridges

“Come on Veronica. It’s time to do Khan Academy.”

It’s summer, but I want to keep her brain working. And I know she loves math, so I want to keep her skills sharp. We’re working through the 4th grade lessons.

I know I’m not the only one who is uncomfortable with the way Common Core teaches math. We are having fun with 2-digit multiplication right now, and Sal Khan is gently and carefully teaching 3 different ways to arrive at the answer to 57×65

I can understand that when there are 28 kids in a class, one of those three ways will hopefully catch with all the kids. But I know that my daughter has quickly caught on to the way that *I* learned math, and the way I taught her when we were starting this.

So she is bored to tears when the same exact problem has to be solved two OTHER ways. Except I know that the teacher next year will require her to do homework and answer test question for all three ways.

Her mind is stimulated by the math, and not at all stimulated by the two other ways to find an answer she already knows.

HOWEVER! She does take away another lesson. What she figures out in this moment is that there are multiple ways to solve math problems. So as she waits for Sal Khan to finish his boring explanation of arriving at an answer she is already sitting on, she knows she wants in on the fun.

If HE can figure out two other ways to solve a math problem, what can SHE do?

This causes a problem for me. As she is bored with the regular answer she’s been sitting on for the whole lesson, she pokes and twists the math problem again and tries to see if there is another way to do it.

This is exhausting for all concerned. She doesn’t like being wrong and she lacks the skills to be right.

What happens is her brain starts revving so hard trying to reach for that knowledge that is out of her grasp, she forgets stuff she knows, that 5×6 = 30, not 11

And then she gets so mad at herself for forgetting what she knows she knows. She tries to solve the whole problem in one swoop in her mind.

I had to really pull her up short.

“Solve the problem in front of you!”

There was a lot of shushing, and not now, and don’t ask why happening.

Solve the problem in front of you.

“You know, Veronica, this is something I have trouble with too. You are saying in your mind ‘what if’ and ‘what if’ and ‘what if’ but we can’t solve those things before they happen. And it’s quite likely that most of them won’t happen anyway.”

Hmm. This is a good thing for me to remember. That bridge doesn’t need crossing before I come to it.

Thanks, Sal Khan.