Where I'm Coming From

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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Yesterday afternoon I spent almost three hours in a dentist's chair having an emergency root canal performed on a dying molar. The diagnosis startled me -- the nerve inside my tooth was dying -- because I had never thought of teeth as living things and especially not as separate from me, so that while I was still alive they could be dead. And the treatment -- to scrape the infected nerve out of the roots with long sharp implements -- sounded and felt downright barbaric. This isn't so much because of the pain; rather, it's the poking and prodding deep into tissue -- nerve and bone and blood vessels -- that ought to remain private, inviolate, hidden in the dark of the body. I'm waxing faintly religious here. So let me correct myself: I don't consider the body sacred, only private. And the consent to have it invaded, no matter that it's for the purpose of good health, never feels voluntary, even when, as wasn't the case yesterday, I have time to consider the implications of that consent.

Once I gave it, I entered a different world. A dentist's office has its own rules about the passage of time, about what a human body is when it's lying, head lower than the heart, mouth agape, on disturbingly comfortable soft leather chairs in pastel colors, hands and feet crossed, every muscle in the body tensed as if to remind you that you, as a whole self, still exist, that you are more than a tooth about to expire, more than a mouth that produces inconvenient saliva that interferes with the surgery you're undergoing. It's a position of utter defeat, of profound discomfort that stuck with me through the evening and the night, through dreams and terrified moments of wakefulness in the small hours of the morning. But the most traumatic aspect of this vulnerability for me was the fact that I couldn't speak, that my mouth was full of sterile rubber, my tooth isolated from the others but a metal brace in such a way that I couldn't articulate most consonants, so when the dentist asked me questions my answers were slurred as if I'd been drunk. And of course I was too discomfited and troubled to ask any.

In the end I did ask some. Lips still numb, tongue sluggish, I asked about nerve fibers and antibiotics and success rates and why the anesthetic didn't work as well as it was supposed to. The dentist gave me a small, condescending smile after every question, but also a complete answer. He is a rather young man with thick, longish, black hair, and a feeble, fingers-only handshake that alarms me. Perhaps he shook my hand that way because I am a woman, and that troubles me even more. But he's supposed to be a very competent dentist, and wouldn't I take competence over a firm handshake any day?

I watch House, MD, the television show, in part because this question of competence versus kindness is at the core of the story. It's not simply a question of convenience, at least not to me; true, it's easier to be mean than to be kind, but that's not the point. The much deeper problem is whether being a brilliant doctor requires stripping a person of dignity, reducing him or her to a puzzle to be coolheadedly solved. And if this kind of cruelty is necessarily the price for exceptional competence, is it worth paying it? This dilemma seems to me to be specific to Western medicine, whose fundamental assumption is that the body and that other part of the self that isn't the body are two different things irrelevantly connected to each other. When you get sick, you cease to exist as a whole being and become the sickness. The part stands for the whole. This transformation is even more humiliating than the inability to speak.

I have to go back to the dentist for another appointment, and I don't want to. Every fiber of my being tells me not to go. Well, there's one exception: my logical mind says: Don't be ridiculous. Infections have to be treated, and doctors are the only ones qualified to treat them; so you have to go to the doctor. I feel compelled to submit to this reasoning. And as a protective measure I become didactic, force myself to learn something from this experience, console myself that, if nothing else, it's material to write about. When I was young, nine or ten, my father said to me, after I had my feelings hurt by someone, to write about it. I set out, vengefully, to do it, determined to have my pound of flesh. Maturity hasn't entirely exorcised that impulse out of me. But I have a more powerful motivation now that trumps revenge: I want to learn not to fear death, and that means learning first not to fear smaller things, like the death of a tooth, like the dentist who kills it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tested Self

Numbers have always reassured me. Two plus two always equals four. Mathematical problems have a right answer and a wrong answer -- at least at the level of mathematics comprehensible to me. Precise measurements are possible. Tests have answer keys with orderly sequences of black-and-white truths. So I like tests, and grades, and measuring things out. That includes even measuring myself, figuring out what percentage of this or that quality of mind I'm made out of.

Last week I took a version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The types to fall into are straightforward: extroverted or introverted; sensing or intuitive; thinking or feeling; judging and perceiving. This is a catalog of categories after my own heart: spare, smacking of oversimplification, precise, and, at least at first sight, unambiguous.

I counted on being labeled, even though I know, in my better moments, that labels do more harm than good. But I was in need of precision even at the price of oversimplification. For six years I've been swimming through my life in a haphazard way, mostly against the current, constantly in doubt about the purposefulness of my work, but reassuring myself that this was the right way to live: accepting not knowing, not being sure, as part of what it means to be an adult, to grow up. One Buddhist teacher calls this groundlessness. I stand in it -- I do, I practice standing in it every day -- and it burns me. There must be relief from this, I told myself; there must be a limit to not knowing.

So I set out to know. And I began by answering questions on a test and looking up the answer key to give me to myself wrapped in a definition I could understand and use as currency in the world.

Life has a sense of humor. It reminds me in all sorts of small ways that I can't get away with certain things. The results of my test are one instance of that: like all things human, some of them were clear, some nebulous. I'm introverted, I found; that was straightforward enough and something that corresponds to my sense of myself. I'm also intuitive rather than sensing, which is something I knew about myself as well. But my scores on thinking versus feeling were equal; I'm, apparently, both. As for judging versus perceiving, the test says I'm the judging type. The trouble is that my experience of making decisions contradicts that. So again I might be both, a tangle of rationality and irrationality, rigidity and flexibility. In other words, I'm just like everybody else. I fit in some categories and not in others; my mind works in predictable and unpredictable ways.

There's no solution, then, for the problem of myself. Not an easy one, in any case. Perhaps my assumption that the self is a problem to be solved is itself flawed. Right now I'm struggling to understand what work is meaningful for me to do. But the way to go about that isn't to imagine that there is only one type of work that fits that definition and that the definition won't change even though I will. So I must go back to the old-fashioned way of figuring things out: making mistakes and hoping that I make different ones every time I start over again.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


It occurred to me as I was thinking, rather obsessively, about the mathematician Georg Cantor's death after years of intermittent mental instability in the second half of his life, that religious faith can be a kind of medicine for the mind.

Cantor is famous to the the likes of me, curious but fundamentally ignorant about mathematics, for using set theory to classify infinities. He proved that infinities are not all created alike and defined them as countable, uncountable, and absolute. This was a reckless thing to do in his time (second half of the nineteenth century). It amounted to splitting open the mystery of God and proving that the human mind was able to understand the divine, summarize it in a handful of theorems speckled with arcane but comprehensible symbols.

The strange thing is that Cantor didn't make, as a result of this kind of work, the predictable enemies. The one man who opposed him most vehemently -- standing in the way of his work being published and intervening whenever Cantor was about to get a better university job -- did not belong to a religious institution but was a fellow mathematician. Leopold Kronecker found it abhorrent that mathematical logic would be applied to such nebulous, untidy quantities as infinity. He wielded all the power he had to undermine Cantor and prevent him from spreading his ideas.

Eventually, Cantor broke under the pressure. Science historians with a flair for the unnecessarily dramatic call this the madness of Georg Cantor. He began to look at his mathematical ability as a gift from God, the absolute infinite, and at his work as a form of devotion to the divine. He distanced himself from mathematicians and gathered around him a circle of men of faith and philosophers. Depression claimed him almost every year but he kept resurfacing and working, sustained by his faith. He died in the hospital of a heart attack in 1918.

Perhaps if you can't stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen. I tell myself this with the cruel practicality of street wisdom every time I succumb yet again to despair that my mind doesn't have what it takes to make beautiful, enduring things. Then I wonder if genius, that overused and nearly empty word, doesn't mean endurance, stubbornness, an unshakable faith in what you can do, more than it means brilliance. I wonder if accomplishing something extraordinary has to do more with courage than with intelligence.

Cantor's life half confirms and half belies all this. He succeeded in changing mathematics, after all. And at the same time he lost faith in his work's ability to stand on its own, apart from God and his redeeming power. That's how I see it, at least. This failing of the heart deeply troubles me. For if people like Georg Cantor cannot be sustained by the power of what they are able to accomplish, what's left for the rest of us ordinary people?

There is, of course, a biochemical explanation, besides the psychosocial one, for Cantor's melancholy. These days, he would have been kept going by anti-depressants instead of God. This sounds flippant, and I don't mean it to. God fails at least as often as pills do. And that's because both of them oversimplify, to some extent, the strange workings of the human mind. Both assume that there is an unequivocal answer, a final solution to the problem of doubt and despair. Whereas in reality there's nothing but waiting for them to release their hold on you enough for another deep breath, and another, and another. You do the best you can, and sometimes that's enough, and sometimes it isn't.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

40,000 Years

This I knew: it takes light eight minutes to travel from the surface of the sun to the Earth. But this I didn't: to travel from the center of the sun to the sun's surface it takes light forty thousand years.

For weeks I haven't been able to get this out of my head. I've been walking around with this bit of knowledge in my head as if it were some kind of secret. Not one that gives me, as an individual human being, any kind of special significance. Just the opposite: I feel an indescribable peace at the thought that the universe is immense beyond my capacity to imagine it, that even such a small part of it as our Sun is so big and so dense that light gropes its way through it, a step forward only every millennium, and that this universe contains me so briefly as to make me irrelevant. It's strange to find myself encouraged by absence of meaning.

But I have a suspicion that it smacks a little of cowardice. Every time I encounter that cliche about people's fear not that they don't matter but that they do, not that they are powerless but that they're powerful, I shudder. It's out of shame as much as disgust, because I'm convinced that whoever believes that to create fundamental change of any kind -- and therefore meaning -- is possible, sorely, and dangerously, deceives himself. And at the same time, the alternative, giving up on change, on exercising this illusory power, seems a cop-out.

I've failed to change time after time, no matter how earnest and disciplined I am. I seem always to end up in the same place, caught in the same patterns: confused about what's right and wrong, sunk in familiar despair about all the things I'm unable to do, vacillating wildly between the desire to give up and stubbornness to keep going. Time after time I find myself back to square one, persuade myself that the work necessary to get to square two is worth doing just for itself, and then when there are no results, when I'm back where I started, I simply can't bear it. Then the idea that I don't matter in the grand scheme of things, in the context of the infinite universe infinitely expanding, begins to sound like salvation. It takes me out of myself, places my failures into perspective. It turns me into a mere flickering of atoms in time and space.

Like most everyone else, I grew up thinking I was different, special, unique. It was a sort of religion, fed by my parents and teachers, fed by everything, really, that happened to me: the fact that I had hardly any friends as a child and have hardly any now that I'm an adult; my almost pathological love of reading; my speech impediments; even my constant doubt in myself. And what if I'm not different, special, unique? What if I'm not meant to do any great, enduring thing? What if this life of mine with its approximations, its ordinariness, its failed resolutions to change, is all there is? What if progress is a fallacy?

As always after asking such questions I think of Wittgenstein and the limitations of language. And as always I've reached the end again without learning anything new, having circled through the same old questions and not managed to find their answers.

The unexamined life isn't worth living, you might say. But the examined life doesn't seem a much better alternative either.