Grimm Reaper (A short fable)

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Once there was a peasant whose ruler demanded delivery of riches she could not produce. She thought all was hopeless, when a strange little troll suddenly appeared. He claimed he could spin pure gold out of worthless straw, had done it time and again and would do so for her, but only if she gave him anything he asked for in return. Desperate and terrified, the peasant accepted his deal. The little troll danced and sang with glee; he always made the best deals, and this one was YUGE.

A year later, the troll returned to claim his due – the peasant’s very soul (in the form of her child). She did not want to pay such a price, so she tried to bribe him with anything else she could give. But no. “A deal is a deal,” said the troll. She begged him to renegotiate, and finally the troll pursed his lips; “Fine. There’s only one thing I love more than crushing souls – and that’s my name. My name is amazing. It’s the best name. And hearing people say it is the best thing in the world. So if you can guess my name, and say it out loud when I come back, you can keep your stupid kid.”

The poor woman determined to scour the country for every name in existence. She sent emissaries out in all directions to help her, but as luck would have it, the task wasn’t so hard. One of them happened to stumble upon the troll’s reclusive home and, because the troll was the narcissist that he was, saw that he had written his name across literally everything he owned. The emissary returned to the woman, told her his findings, and when the troll returned she was ready.

“Go ahead, try to guess my name. You’ll never do it. It’s very, very impossible.”

“It’s Trumpelstiltskin.”

“HOW DID YOU DO THAT?! Cheater! Witch! Liar! No fair!” The little troll turned orange with rage, pulled out his hair, and stomped his foot so hard he buried himself in the earth. Sadly, his hands were too small to dig himself out, and everyone lived happily ever after (except the troll). The end.

I’m just saying: fairy tales have a lot for us to learn. And names have power; use them wisely.

Once Upon a Time Warp (A Brief History of Leap Day)

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It’s a tale as old as time: one of the greatest innovations of human timekeeping is credited to “Father of Leap Day” Julius Caesar, and where did he get the idea? From a woman.

Gather round, kids, for a brief story:

Once upon a time, there was a Prince with a Problem. His people, the Romans, were having some trouble keeping track of things. They, like most of humanity, had adopted a lunar calendar – first with only ten months (because, in a move that would make George R.R. Martin proud, winter was a “monthless time”), then eventually with January and February to bring it to twelve. But if the Prince and his countrymen had bothered to ask, any woman could have told them that letting life be ruled by a lunar cycle is just asking for trouble. And it was!

The Prince’s trouble was that the Man on the Moon takes on average 29.5 days to complete one of his cycles, which makes a 354-day year. Mother Earth, on the other hand, has more to do; she takes roughly 365.25 days to get all the way around the sun, which made the Roman calendar a full 11.25 days too short. Bummer. In just a few years, this communication gap had the Ides of March on the Ides of April, and that just sounds silly.

Like the Classic men that they were, the Prince and his Romans routinely ignored this inconvenient problem until it got so big they couldn’t; then they “fixed” it by inserting a random extra month into the year now and then, forcing that rascal Spring back where it was supposed to be.

Effective? Yes. Functional? Maybe. But much like a frat house, this was no way to live.

In a different part of the world, a Queen named Cleopatra and her Egyptians had devised a brilliant strategy for living in harmony with Nature. They kept a calendar of twelve tidy 30-day months, then made up the extra length with a five-day party at the end of each year. Every fourth year, that party went for six days.

Kids, if this sounds like the best idea humankind has ever had, you are right. We really missed the boat.

By the time Julius Caesar met Cleopatra, things had gotten way out of hand for the Romans. I mean, seriously out of hand – they’d ignored their time problem so long that Spring was hiding in Summer and snow was falling in May. Julius was impressed by Cleopatra’s brilliant calendar (and by everything else about her, pretty much), so he did what usually happens in these situations: stole it from her, made it a little less good, and proudly declared it his own. Typical.

First, Julius had to get his Roman calendar back on track, which could have happened by letting time take its course, but was more fun to do with brute force. (Bruté force? That would come later.) Declaring 46 B.C. the “Year of Confusion,” Julius Caesar made it 445 days long and forced that sneaky Spring Equinox back to March, where it belonged. He then sprinkled some extra days around the calendar (making his own month the biggest, of course), and decreed that every fourth year one extra day would be added to the end – which, for the Romans, was February.

Way to kill the week-long party, Julius. Way to kill the party.

And everyone lived happily ever after in harmony with Nature – except that they didn’t. There was a dark storm brewing, and it was called Accuracy. You see, kids, the problem is that Mother Earth only takes roughly 365.25 days to circle the sun. She actually takes 365.2422 days, which means that adding a full quarter day to every year then made the Roman calendar 11.2 minutes too LONG.

This seems like a small problem, sure, but like grains of sand in an hour glass, it adds up. In 128 years, the whole calendar was off by a full day, and by the time of Pope Gregory XIII more than 1500 years later, that sneaky bugger Spring was back in April instead of March.

Once again, the man in charge took drastic measures, removing ten days from October 1582 (no Halloween candy for you, kids), and declaring that, going forward, every century year – 1600, 1700, etc. – would have no Leap Day, unless that year was also divisible by 4.

That’s right, kids; bet you didn’t know how special that Leap Day was in 2000.

And so, with this new “Gregorian” calendar (because of course he renamed it after himself), we’ve got the whole 365.2422 days per year problem sorted out. For a while, anyway. It’s still not perfect, but it will be 3,300 years before we’re off by a whole day again. Let those guys worry about it.

The End*

*Or is it? The buried feminine roots of Leap Day seem to have caused some residual guilt that has seeped out in the form of misguided attempts at female empowerment. In Ireland and the U.K., Leap Day became traditionally the one day women were allowed to propose to men – and had to be compensated (with money or clothes) if turned down. In the U.S., this tradition became “Sadie Hawkins Day” (celebrated November 15th in common years), and in one city – Aurora, IL – single women are deputized on Leap Day to arrest men.

THIS YEAR, I say we tackle our own empowerment in a less condescending way, and use our special day to leap a woman one step closer to the Presidency. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, after all – and the first day of Women’s History Month. Make some history, Hillary; one giant Leap for womankind.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Grown Woman

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Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a dream. There was inspiration and motivation and daring and excitement. She was going to conquer the world and with a voice in her ear and endless story in her heart she knew that she could.

*                          *                           *

The land of creation is populated by liars. Its waters look deep but when stepped in are shallow, and the language is not how it sounds.

–How is it yes means maybe and maybe means don’t hold your breath? She never could understand or remember. She never learned to speak WhatsInItForMe.

But there are sparkly people, too, and she loves them! There are brilliant ideas and shiny talents; there is work and play and work and collaboration. O the collaboration! Yes, she says, and yes again. Let’s do something, or another thing, or lunch. A new project, new spark, new yes and yes I will Yes.

*                          *                           *

How can a world so small and crowded feel so empty sometimes? She has uncovered the challenge of living in the world while working in her head.

–It’s far better than the reverse, she reminds herself.

She watches friends change and fade and move on to better things, to better people. One by one some give up. She dreads the day she is faced with the same decision, wondering how one could possibly stop.

–Better odds for the rest of us. She secretly loves the acquired wisdom such ugly understanding betrays.

*                          *                           *

–This work is fantastic! Can you make it less ‘smart’?

–I love everything about this. Can you make it about a man?

–A brilliant new voice! Can you take out everything that makes it different?

Some create while others calculate, she learns. She wishes the calculators had as much faith in humanity as she does.

Stupidity and fear increase with power. With each note she leans to find the useful in the self-indulgent slop. She realizes she has a choice. Not every suggestion has to matter. Even if it’s right, she decides if it’s right for her. She learns to listen to herself.

*                          *                           *

Success is a carrot dangling, tantalizing up ahead. There is work, and money, but never the meal. She drags the weight of experience one step closer and grasps; victory keeps pace. One more step, one more reach, one more miss. With each try the weight gets heavier. Her legs get stronger. The distance gets smaller. But there is still distance.

She played Lucy once in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It sucks to be on the other side of the football.

*                          *                           *

–Why can’t my work speak for itself? Why do I have to learn to market to people?

–If only it worked that way. This is a business too, she explains. People have to see the dollar signs.

Mentoring reminds her how much she knows after all the years, how much she has to offer. It is good to give back, help, feel useful. She hopes they won’t look close and see she’s a fraud.

–What is the best strategy for breaking in?

–When you find out you can tell the rest of us.

She explains time and again there is no best way. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has the same answer: whatever works. Time and again she watches their faces fall to frustration. She remembers the feeling. It doesn’t get better, she wants to tell them. Unless it does and she just doesn’t know it yet.

–It really is true that if anything else can make you happy, you should do it.

–They tell the same thing to clergy, her student replies.

–Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Isolation, devotion, a calling. The joke works because it’s true. She wonders if she accidentally took a vow of celibacy at some point.

*                          *                           *

Night is dark, but feels darker. The city moves constantly, yet nothing changes. She wants desperately to give up. What if the years ahead look just like the ones stretched behind?

Stopping would be easy, logistically – she could teach, go back to school. Stopping spiritually is impossible. The voice is there. She has something to say and the ability to say it. Her drive to be heard will never fade; stopping just means desire with no hope.

But she lacks means. Substance and skill are useless without means. It feels like the means will never come.

Death would stop desire. She briefly considers it; the moment is one moment too scary. Her practical side objects: too much willpower, love, guilt. She wishes there were better reasons to get up.

–OOF. Okay, I’ll feed you! Now please get your fuzzy butt off my bladder.

She is reminded why she adopted the cats in the first place. Who rescued whom, really?

*                          *                           *

Nov. 9: Another birthday without the gift of work from anyone supposedly invested in my career. Another day is frustrating enough. If I make it to 40 in the same situation, it may kill me. Although I’m pretty sure I said that about 39. And 38. Time for champagne!

Nov. 26: Today I get to be with family. As rough as the last 13 years have been, at least I haven’t had to deal with parental disappointment or a lack of love. I give thanks for family.

Dec.1: It’s tempting to hate the agent who refuses to sign female comedy writers, but he’s not wrong. The odds are for-never in our favor re: work. But my motivation is starting to return. Spirits are up.

Dec. 27: Winter is coming? I’m pretty sure it’s here. A Game of Thrones marathon can ease me through the end of the year, but I need preparation to survive. New projects; new strategies; new sparks. Time to work.

Jan. 1: Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated story of my future. Stand me now and ever in good stead.

Los Angeles 2016

[My thanks to James Joyce for writing something I struggled with the first time, started to understand the second time, and have loved every single time since.]

To Kill a Mocking Turd

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When I came to Los Angeles 13 years ago, it was not to be a writer. I didn’t know yet that I was a writer. This seems silly in retrospect, given that I wrote my first play in kindergarten, tortured my family with puppet shows through elementary school, spent junior high writing original Nancy Drew mysteries, and was one-fifth of a sketch comedy troupe in high school. But math has objective answers and I usually got them right, so that’s what I knew I was good at.

Even after light dawned and I actively embraced what I had been doing my whole life, I still didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer. It wasn’t about legitimacy – I got paid as a writer for years before I called myself one; it was a little about resistance – being an actor is sexier than being a writer; but it was mostly about proof. Before I uttered the words, “I am a writer,” I wanted to be confident I could back it up with evidence (blame the mathematician in me).

Writing is weird in that it is something most people think they can do yet very few actually can. Or do. The coffee shops of the world are full of folks with “this amazing idea” who never manage to get it out but still call themselves writers – as if having the intention makes us the thing. I have the intention of learning to change my own oil someday, but that doesn’t make me a mechanic.

Eventually, I came to understand there are a few key elements separating writers from “writers”, all thanks to the quintessential poser I met in my first few weeks here:

Russell the Love Muscle and I met as extras on the set of Legally Blonde 2, and continued to connect on various film sets for months. Russell (dubbed “the Love Muscle” by my eventual boyfriend – who hated him) was many things; he was confident, he had an overdeveloped sense of what he had to offer the world, and he had an inferiority complex about everything. He was the inspiration for the term Nerd Fucker after our one (and only) date, which consisted of car-ride conversations about my IQ and Mensa, and the introductory phrase, “This is Kate, she went to Harvard” used every single time at his friend’s party. The Love Muscle had not gone to Harvard, and my purpose was to prove, through my willingness to associate with him, that the universe had royally messed up on that one.

Russell was also a writer, which was provable because he had a website. In showing me his work, he was the first (but certainly not the last) person to say to me, “Oh, I don’t believe in re-writing. I think the art is more pure if you just let it flow and then put it out there in its original form.” He may have even said “virgin form” – he was that kind of a guy.

This, as any real writer will tell you, is complete bullshit.

To his credit, at least Russell put actual words down on paper (or keyboards). The first key element to being a writer is 1) WRITING SOMETHING, which seems obvious but is probably the hardest step. There are a shockingly high number of “writers” out there who don’t even get that far.

This is because it is scary.

I mentor burgeoning writers regularly, and one of the most common discussions I have is about getting started. People get stymied because they can’t figure out how to translate the glorious idea in their head into words, and I tell them that the secret is to just do it – without stopping or looking back – because the other secret is that they can’t succeed. At least not the first time.

Which brings me to the second key element of being a writer: 2) HATING WHAT YOU JUST WROTE. First drafts suck. They just do. This is why they are called “drafts” and also “first” instead of “finished products”. There is a great Ira Glass quote about how too many aspiring artists stop after producing a bad first attempt, when in truth the mark of a real artist is that very ability to recognize its poor quality. He is completely right. While the Russells of the world look at their first drafts and declare them genius, the writers see all the flaws and get inspired to improve.

That improvement is the final key element to being a writer: 3) WRITING BETTER. My favorite author, John Irving, has said that he considers the real skill of writing to be in the editing. I could not agree more. A writer must not only have the ability to recognize weaknesses and visualize improvements to her writing, but also then have the fortitude to rip apart the work to make it better. There is a reason why this process is referred to as “killing your darlings” (or “babies”) – it hurts. But it is vital, and also impossible without something to fix in the first place.

Writing a first draft is terrifying, because translating a three-dimensional idea into two-dimensional words is essentially an impossible task. You will fail. Admitting that failure is ego-shattering, but necessary because the protective ego stops progress. You must be vulnerable to change. And making changes is heartbreaking, because the initial creation, while flawed, is still precious.

Once a writer gets through this process and creates something to be shared with the world, it is absolutely exhilarating. But the process itself is messy and miserable. No true writer would ever want those earlier drafts – those mocking failures – to be shared with the world.

Think about that before reading Go Set a Watchman. Is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird something Harper Lee would want the world to see?

The Silence of the Clowns

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In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)

Fifty Shades of Green Eggs and Sham

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Happy V-Day! Ladies, let’s celebrate this year by wanting more than to have sexual “liberation” forced on us by an older/wiser/richer “savior Prince”. Dr. (Seuss)’s orders.

I am Sham.

Sham I am.

 

That Sham-I-am.

That Sham-I-am!

I do not like that Sham-I-am.

 

Do you like BDSM?

 

I do not like yours, Sham-I-am.

I do not like BDSM.

 

Would you like it in a book?

 

I would not like it in your book.

I would not give it any look.

I do not want BDSM

I do not want it, Sham-I-am

 

Would you like it in the dark?

If it’s just a harmless lark?

 

I do not want it in the dark,

It is not just a harmless lark.

I do not like your F-ed up book,

I will not give it one more look.

I do not like fake S&M,

I do not like it, Sham-I-am.

 

Is it better done with force?

If he beats you like a horse?

 

Not done with force.

Not as a horse.

Not in the dark.

Not as a lark.

I cannot like your violent book,

It should not get a second look.

You do not get BDSM,

You want a master, Sham-I-am.

 

Would you? Could you? If he hit?

Let him! Let him! Just a bit.

 

I would not, will not, go for it!

 

You may like it.

You will see.

Would you like to be set free?

 

I cannot let you set me free,

As I already pleasure me.

I do not need it done by force,

I do not need to be a horse.

I do not need the total dark,

I do not need a messed-up lark.

I do not need your sad bad book,

I do not need a single look.

I do not want warped S&M,

I do not need it, Sham-I-am!

 

The pain! The pain!

Again! Again!

Could you want it with more pain?

 

Not with pain! Not to free!

I say again, Sham, let me be!

I do not want a man to force,

I do not want to scream ‘til hoarse.

Your fantasy is pretty dark,

Abuse and rape are not a lark.

For girls this is an evil book,

And victimhood is a bad look.

I do not like it, Sham-I-am.

 

Say! With a fox?

Look, he’s a fox!

Would you if the guy’s a fox?

 

I would not, even with a fox.

 

Would you if he’s super rich?

 

I would not, could not be his bitch.

Not for a fox. Not if he’s rich.

I do not need to be set free,

I do not need it, Sham, you see!

Not as a lark. Not as a horse.

No need for dark. No need for force.

I will not read submissive books

No matter how risqué it looks.

 

You do not like BDSM?

 

I do not like your savior scam.

 

You do not like it, so you say.

Try it! Try it! And you may

like the nightmare Christian Grey.

 

Sham! I do not need your muck.

I already like to fuck!

 

Yes! I like the sex and stuff.

And my libido is enough!

I like to do it in the dark.

I sometimes do it as a lark.

I’ll also do it in the sun.

I’ll even do it just for fun!

And by my choice. And just for me.

Because it is so good, you see!

 

So I do not need an excuse.

Or else a psycho savior ruse.

And I already have no guilt

For being sexy to the hilt.

And if I want BDSM

I’ll find an equal, unlike them.

 

So take this f-ed up book and scram.

We do not need it, Sham-I-am.

Rock, Paper, Sisyphus, Shoot (Me)

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I imagine if Sisyphus were alive today he would be a New Hampshire-ite. (New Hampshirino?) He would at least be a New Englander. Heck, he may already be Bernie Sanders. And I don’t just say this because of the futility that is shoveling in the midst of a New England winter.

Everyone thinks of endless futility when Sisyphus is invoked, but rarely do we remember why he was sentenced to such a fate. In life, King Sisyphus was a practical leader who placed his own judgment and passion above silly customs and superstitions like “the gods”.

Zeus steals the river god’s daughter for his own version of Fifty Shades of a Rape Fantasy and no one dares to speak up? Not Sisyphus – he’s all, “I’ll tell you where your daughter is, river god, if you promise to give my people water.” That’s good leadership. Angry Zeus sends Death to chain Sisyphus up in punishment? Clever boy says, “Hey, Death, you mind showing me how those chains work first, so I’m less nervous?” BAM. Death in chains, King S back on Earth – Live Free or Die, baby. Literally.

Even when he eventually did die, Sisyphus refused to stop living. He talked Persephone into letting him back up “just to haunt the wife a little”, then simply refused to leave until he’d had his fun. Sure, his lust for life and complete disregard for what is “supposed to” happen made his ultimate torment inevitable, but I’m pretty sure Sisyphus would have done it all anyway. You only live twice; what is an eternity of monotonous labor in exchange for greatness?

Great victories are always balanced by great struggle somehow, whether it be before or after. Call it Newton’s Third Law of Emotion. The problem is that in the midst of those darkest moments – as our strength is on the verge of giving out – it is impossible to know if we are about to be victorious over Death or about to watch that damn rock roll back down the hill for the umpteenth time.

There is a moment near the end of The Two Towers that is one of my favorites because it perfectly captures this uncertainty. Frodo, after months of mental torment and in the middle of a seemingly endless upward climb into Mordor, is feeling understandably desperate. To distract his friend from complete surrender, Sam starts talking about adventures:

“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered… Folk seem to have been just landed in them… But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end.”

Sam then asks the magic question: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” says Frodo, “but I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale…the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

Frodo is convinced at this point that he is pushing a ring up a hill in complete futility, but of course we know that he will end up victorious over death. I like to re-read this part of Tolkien’s masterpiece in the midst of my darker moments. True, Frodo is attempting to destroy the source of pure evil and I am merely trying to bring some respectful and multi-dimensional portrayals of women to our modern mythology, but a struggle doesn’t have to be epic to completely suck sometimes.

Hollywood may not be Mordor, but can come close. The need to write is my ring/rock, and the patriarchal, nepotistic power structure is my uphill battle.

Lately, I have been feeling more like Sisyphus on the hill than Frodo in the midst of a dark tunnel leading eventually to light. If we’re lucky, in these darkest times we find ourselves in the company of a Samwise Gamgee – someone to give a little perspective, or at the very least a distraction for a moment or two. I am thus blessed, and so am prepared to keep pushing this rock no matter how many times it rolls back down the hill.

Life could always be worse, after all. As my own Samwise put it recently, “Sisyphus is better than syphilis.” Truer words have never been spoken.

In the Blink of an Einstein

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TEN… By the time I was ten, I was madly in love with Albert Einstein. I have no idea how I even learned about him in the first place, but the source of my love was obvious. He was mischievous yet deeply profound, musical, passionate, curious, kind, odd looking, and more than a little alien; that is a vibe I could dig. My taste in men hasn’t changed much since.

NINE… In 9th grade, I decided to finally understand the Theory of Relativity. (Enough to do a report for school, at least.) My favorite illustration of how time is relative involves a flashlight and a train:

Imagine a light shining up from the floor of a moving boxcar, to a mirror on the ceiling. Turn the light on and it hits the mirror, bounces, and returns to the source. To an observer on the train with the light, the beam travels a distance equal to twice the height of the boxcar (up, then down).

But to an observer on a hill watching the train go by, the light travels further. Its journey isn’t just up and down, but also the horizontal distance the train travels in that time. To the observer on the hill, the light’s path is two diagonals of a triangle whose base is the distance traveled by the train and height is the height of the boxcar.

Since Rate (speed) is equal to distance divided by time, and since the speed of light is always the same, the fact that the light travels different distances means it also does so over different times. To the observer on the hill, the light’s journey took longer. More time passed than did for the observer on the train, even though they were both watching the same light.

EIGHT… This principle of relative time was demonstrated for a much wider audience in the 80’s, when a different Einstein – Doc Brown’s dog – spent a few seconds in a speeding DeLorean that simultaneously lasted a full minute for Marty McFly.

SEVEN… Any tween who was ever forced to play Seven Minutes in Heaven already understands the relativity of time with excruciating clarity. How slowly those seven minutes pass when we are awkward and self-conscious. Yet when I met Hodor earlier this year and we set a kitchen timer to 20 minutes on our second date (an attempt to wield some grown-up control over our teenage attraction) we were suddenly on a speeding train. Those minutes passed in seconds, and we had to reset the timer at least three more times to test its functionality (for the sake of science, of course).

SIX… I once even experienced the entire life-cycle of a relationship over the course of a six-hour conversation. Via text. It started as a chat about a basketball game, during which we acknowledged our usually moderate flirting had escalated to blatant, and then both admitted we were very interested in the person but not currently ready for the relationship. The raw honesty on display made me far more interested than at the start of the conversation, and our subsequent discussion about how to conduct ourselves in the future felt like passing through a break up and coming out the other side. In the course of one night, I gained an amicable divorce.

FIVE… Time is relative everywhere, not just in love (though especially in love). When I teach a five-hour logic class, I am most definitely on the train. Passage from start to end seems to take no time at all – though I know we traveled because I finish exhausted. My poor students experience the full expanse of the time, however, watching from the figurative hillside.

FOUR… Soon, we wave goodbye to the year 2014, a year full of time quirks. Looking at the bulk of events, we seem to have both traveled far and stood still. A lot of ugliness we thought was behind us turned out to be very present. But at the same time, the fact that we are now talking openly about things like religion, drugs, law enforcement, homophobia, sexism, racism, principles and so on is a huge step forward for our community.

THREE… For the first three months of 2014, I was an observer on the hill, living more life than my counterparts on the train. On January 1st I was a single girl between projects; by the end of March I had hundreds of regular readers and had both met and fallen completely for Hodor. For the last three months, I’ve been back on the train; Hodor left in September, but it feels like only days ago to me.

TWO… Career-wise, I ticked off a second full year of waiting for the biggest deal of my professional life to finalize. It is my own personal Groundhog Day – stuck reliving February 2nd when February 3rd is the day life starts. I fully understand why Bill Murray’s character experiments with violence in that movie.

ONE… December 31st is only one night, but somehow we imbue it with the weight of an entire year. With so much time passing in an instant, it is easy to feel bruised by the impact. But it is important to remember that the real significance of New Year’s Eve is…

ZERO. In almost every sense. It is nothing, a place-holder, just another day; it is also something, a baseline foundation from which to build another year. Zero can add nothing, nor can it take anything away. Yet it has the power to multiply things exponentially, or to negate them entirely.

It’s all in how we choose to use it. So, I say we use December 31st for a little bit of reflection, a whole lot of appreciation, and a healthy amount of celebration. Travel on the train or off, but remember it is still only one night, much as zero is only one number among many.

As long as zero isn’t also the amount of champagne left for drinking, everyone will be just fine.

Over Easy

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“In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight-

“In spring, when woods are getting green, I’ll try and tell you what I mean:

“In summer, when the days are long, Perhaps you’ll understand the song;

“In autumn, when the leaves are brown, Take pen and ink, and write it down.”

-Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty

On the other side of the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is a hyper-literal prissy pants; having a conversation with him could justifiably be classified as torture, and if I were Alice I probably would have pushed him off that wall myself. Still, his understanding of linguistic nuance is admirable.

Different words have different definitions because they mean different things, and those differences matter. “When I use a word,” he tells Alice, “it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty may also be completely nuts and kind of a snot about it, but that doesn’t make him wrong.

“Nice is different than good.”

                                                                        -Stephen Sondheim’s Little Red Riding Hood

Also a pretty big brat, Red is the poster child for blissful ignorance before she heads Into the Woods and has wisdom (pelvic) thrust upon her. She starts out so inexperienced and self-absorbed that she can’t tell the difference between her granny and a wolf in a bonnet, survives a major trauma, then comes out the other side knowing things, many valuable things, that she hadn’t known before.

Her biggest lesson? Just because someone is friendly, cool, (super well endowed), and a source of exciting new adventures, he isn’t necessarily good for her. If a girl’s not careful, she can end up swallowed whole.

“You know me – I like things to be easy.”

                                                                        -My Ex-Boyfriend

I should know better than to open up old wounds, but Cancer 2 has always been impossible to resist. It would not surprise me at all to learn that my genetic code is programmed to bond with his chemical signature. And there he was: seven years older than when he broke my heart, not an inch less charming or attractive. The bastard.

Time does not heal all, but it soothes things enough to allow conversation. We joked like old times, discussed life choices – mine to keep after the improbable dream, his to return to science and help the world – and apologized for past behavior. Inevitably, we compared relationship statuses – mine a freshly broken heart, his a recent engagement. The frakking bastard.

It is no fun to learn that someone so great, who was simply too young when we met, is older and wiser and bestowing his gifts on someone else. I cursed fate, and circumstance, and myself, and of course him. Then I did something totally crazy – I actually listened.

There was a theme running through our conversation: a big easy.

We hadn’t spoken in seven years because he didn’t like to deal with having hurt me. He left the industry for science because he didn’t see himself pushing through the decade of humiliation and struggle it takes to break in. His current relationship was so good in part because it was so easy.

“As much as I liked you,” he said at one point,” I don’t think our relationship was right for me.” Finally, I understood the song. He prefers the path of least resistance; he likes pleasantville; he wants things to be easy.

I want things to be great.

Neither choice is better than the other, but they are definitely two different things. Greatness is rarely easy, and ease is rarely exceptional. No matter how awesome we consider each other, or how strong our chemical attraction may be, he has no need for ‘extraordinary’ in his life, and I have never been interested in ‘easy’.

No quantity of king’s horses or men could make us fit together, now or back then.

As Red would say, isn’t it nice to know a lot? (And a little bit not.)

Contra-Band (Once More Unto My Niche)

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As I lay hog-tied on the mystery-stained carpet of the Harvard University Band headquarters in the winter of my freshman year, suffering tickle torture at the hands of my too-good-to-be-true senior boyfriend (who, it would soon turn out, was also too-gay-to-be-true), one thought dominated the forefront of my mind: “I really hope I don’t pee my pants.” A close second, though, was the thought of how unexpectedly happy I was in that moment.

A few months earlier I had come to college specifically determined NOT to join the school band. I had been a band geek since the fifth grade, had held the rank of First Lieutenant in my high school marching band, and had no desire to carry the geek stigma into adulthood. I’d join the Wind Ensemble so I could keep playing my French horn, but college was my chance to become something more. College was my chance to be an alluring actress, or a badass jock, or a popular politico; college was my chance to be COOL; it was my chance to be anything but the person I actually was. My marching days were behind me.

Within a week I had joined the Harvard Band. As I went around those first few days, signing up for drama club and the crew team and Model Congress, the Band was everywhere. And they were not like any marching band I had ever seen. There were no Naugahyde hats or crazy chicken-feather plumes, just tasteful crimson blazers and ties. Sure, they marched, but in a style more akin to an amoeba than an army; their shape morphed and stretched and contracted freely, yet some invisible force bound them together as a single organism.

They were loud, boisterous, actually quite musical (!), and completely shameless. What I noticed most was that no matter anyone’s feelings about the relative corniness of bands, geeks, fight songs, or school spirit, when the band was around, people simply could not help but smile. I had to go to the Band Room to audition for the Wind Ensemble, and from the moment I set foot in that Wonka-style clubhouse, I was done. As with the Borg, my resistance was futile.

Yet while the Harvard Band does assimilate anyone who is lucky enough to wander into its orbit, unlike the Borg, it takes those people and makes them stronger. I learned so much in my four years sporting my Crimson blazer. For one, I learned what hog-tying really is, and several other things about bondage that my parents would probably rather not know about. I learned to chicken fight, to Time Warp, and to always “whisper” in a library.

I learned the joy of finding sexual innuendo in almost everything, and the confidence to resist sexual out-uendo until I was ready. I learned that shorter is funnier, that anything can (and should) become a drinking game, and that it really is all fun and games until someone loses an “I”.

I learned that tradition is important, both to make new members feel instantly welcome (that’s what she said!) and to give Crusties the joy of complaining when things inevitably evolve. I learned that fights don’t mean the end of friendships, and sometimes mean the beginning. I learned the joy of welcoming everyone to the party, no matter who they chose to be – gay, straight, man, woman, or even asshole.

Most importantly, my time with the Band taught me to accept and like myself for who I am. I still did Model Congress, and lots of theatre (crew went out the window with 5am practices), and many other things that conflicted with band activities. There was often friction, and some resentment from my peers that I wasn’t as dedicated a Bandie as they were, but the Band itself always made it work. No one ever asked me to deny my other interests the way I had tried to deny my own geekery at first. Instead, I was valued for what I could contribute, and encouraged to stay as involved as possible.

By the end of my four years, I was leading the band as Manager, another position I had openly resisted (wanting a flashier role where I could be funny and cool), but then turned out to be the exact right job for me. That was the last gift the Band gave me – the faith that I don’t have to get what I want to have everything work out for the best.

This weekend, the Harvard Band reunited one more time, as we do every five years. In my worn woolen blazer, marching through Harvard Square, surrounded by new and old faces (both old-familiar and old-decrepit), gazing into the iPhones of countless tourists, I played the notes I could remember and raised my voice to the skies. Once more, a single thought dominated my mind: “This is the way to live.”

Guide right, but walk in your own style. Play your part, but don’t worry about perfection. You may not always know where you are going, but trust those around you to get you where you need to be. And do good work, but never, ever miss an opportunity to have fun along the way. Oh yeah, and whatever you do, do NOT let the bastards grind you down.

Illegitimum non carborundum my few, my happy few, my band of “others”. Happy 95th Anniversary.