Tuesday, April 04, 2017

From Resisting to Love-Hating Emojis

When I was a kid, through my 20's, even through most of my 30's, psychologists used "emotions charts" to help people, especially kids, name their feelings.  The charts looked something like this:

Instead of 'mad,' might you feel ashamed or overwhelmed, jealous or guilty?  Instead of  'happy,' do you feel hopeful or confident?  There is power in naming an emotion specifically.  To admit that we are jealous instead of "mad," opens us.  It deepens us.  Suddenly, with the word "confident," we are known and seen, even if just to ourselves.

Throughout the 90's and early 2000's, I had a firm policy about not using smiley faces in my emais or instant messages (as the case was) -- and later in my texting.  None of this business: :)  :0   :/   8)  and especially not the winking  ;)

I was a writer.  I was not going to substitute cutesy faces for my words; I'd write what I meant.  And I did, for many years.

Then the iphones came with their dozens of tiny horses, flowers, and hearts.  For a good while they'd show up on my old phone as black squares.  I didn't know what people were so happy about.  Then I bought my first iphone and learned the word "emoji."  Even then I resisted.  No smiling, winking, blushing, frowning yellow faces for me.

But a yellow heart?  Ok.  A tiny camel?  Yes.  A wine glass or coffee cup?  Sure.  Those were not expressive, they were illustrative.  Nothing was lost.

But as we all know, those little foods and animals are the entry drug.  I got roped in by the face that was only eyes.  By the face that had smiling eyes and showed all of its teeth in a sheepish grin (this was my favorite).  Despite myself, I was charmed by my friends who used emojis hilariously, and, without quite meaning to, I started to use them back.  My 10 year old niece insisted that we each pick one as our "symbol" that would start all of our texts (cue the circus tent and sunset square emoji) so we'd know our messages were to each other on her mom's phone.

And then, before I'd meant to, I was fully speaking emoji -- a blushing face, an x'ed out eye face, a bowl of salad, a monkey, a blue heart, on and on.

The worst part is that once I began, it was almost impossible to stop.  I haven't stopped!  Especially as the amorphous-emoji-makers continue to unveil new ones: the avocado!  the cucumber slices!  the little green face!  champagne glasses! bacon!  These people are, of course, speaking my language (all of our languages?  A creepy cultural language where we're reduced to bacon, trendy owls, and clown phobias?  It's worth taking pause...).

What language am *I* speaking?

There have been all sorts of conversations around the emojis: should grown men use them?  are they becoming their own language?  have they reduced us all to infantile communication? will they evolve into logograms, like Chinese characters?  Are they simply the body language of our texts?

The most pressing question of all for me is what will happen -- is happening -- to our words as we continue to speak and respond with emojis?

I sat down yesterday to write a letter (yes, I still have a love affair with the postal service), and found myself wanting to draw the laughing-til-crying face.  Draw it?  Really?!  Why not, what words could say the same thing so quickly and succinctly?

It freaked me out a little.

Don't misunderstand, I love succinct language.  Poetry is about succinct language.  But it's also about precise language, language that is meticulously chosen, textural and multi-dimensional.

Emojis aren't that.

I wish I'd thought to give up emojis for Lent.  What would I have had to articulate without those little pictures commentating my moods and social interactions?

What fascinates me most is that in the 80's, 90's, early 2000's, the worry was that people didn't have the emotional vocabulary or awareness to identify how they were feeling.  The elementary SAD, HAPPY, MAD, blocked the true and deeper experiences.

Today we have no such problem; within a second and a half we can locate exactly how we feel on our phones, and even construct a sequence that says it all (nose-blow, sobbing face, x'ed out eyes, eye roll).  But without a phone in our hands, can, or do, we still say it all?
Last spring I took a parenting class and when the facilitator asked questions like "how did you feel when that happened?" I was amazed by how we parents struggled to name a *feeling*.  Instead we said things like "I wanted to leave" or "I felt like she shouldn't have done that."  The leader kept gently redirecting, "those aren't actually feelings.  Try again."  I bet if she'd handed us her phone, we could have chosen the emoji in an instant, and she would have known what we meant.

But where are our words?

Is it that our words have vanished and been replaced by those little yellow faces?  Or is it that we never really had the words -- or courage to say them -- in the first place, and emojis have actually given us permission to say what we wouldn't have: "I feel sheepish" "I'm so pleased"  "I'm beaming"  "I'm crushed" "I want to sob my eyes out."

I'm not ready to argue that emojis are ruining and degrading our language (though they might be-- seem to be, even).  But I am interested in the conversations linguists and sociologists are having over our rabid and sudden use of emoji's.  It has to be affecting us, our personal interactions, self-expression, and even how we think.  Let's use them as much as we want, but notice as we do.

Friday, March 31, 2017

All the Rising and What Needs to be Raised

We are in resurrection season, can we call it that?  The trees that have stood silently bare all winter have sprouted buds and are leafing out.  Even here in California, the apple tree has it's first blossom and the bony tree out front is covered with a rustling new green.  Daffodils come by the bunches.  Birds make wild arcs through the air in mating dances, and I can hear them chatter at the sun before it's fully risen.  Easter sits two weeks away.  Once again, the landscape of living shifts.

In the last couple of months, I have been privy to four cancer scares, from very mild to very serious.  From a large mass to possible skin cells that need to be lasered off, from a deadly hereditary brain tumor to an alarming mammogram.

This didn't used to be regular news among friends.  These scares didn't used to touch me.
Is this 40?
Is this being an adult?
Is this the rent we pay for using these bodies for 3-odd decades?

Miraculously -- and I do mean that word here -- ALL four of the scares passed -- masses disappeared, scans came back normal, biopsies were benign.  And each of those good news appointments or phone calls has felt like a resurrection -- you have held your breath for days or weeks now fighting not to imagine the worst, the deadly, and here, HERE is life, full and healthy back in your hands!

Spring usually begs for some reflection.  The very ground under our feet is greening, blooms rising everywhere around us.  Everything that seemed undeniably dead is now breathing, budding, and the air smells good.  What's been dry and brown in me for the last several months (or longer)?  What's waiting to be cracked open again to the sun?

I'm doing some work in my life right now about the daily stuff, about what is "resourcing" and what is simply living up to expectation.  What leaves me depleted at the end of the day and what's energizing me?

I realized, after a heavenly weekend away with Ben, that Vacation Bronwen, who incidentally gets along with Ben swimmingly, is fully "resourced" and energetic (she naps, too).  We both really liked being with her.  When we got home Sunday night, though, come Monday morning, she'd vanished and Business Bronwen was in full effect, all logistics and practicality, all about staying afloat.

What I'm wondering is how to knit Vacation Bronwen into regular life, especially regular marriage.  Where does she fit?  What sparks her interest during the day (cocktails by the pool, a stack of books, hours of talking with Ben?) when she's not on vacation?

Discovery: I'm pretty much burned out by 6PM every day (even 5).  I've been all energy, even fun, stayed on top of the activities, the people, the needs, tried (usually unsuccessfully) to carve out some creative time for myself, and as soon as Ben's shadow fills the door, the fatigue of the whole thing floods me (because it can -- back up's arrived), so I can hardly get through the next couple hours without snapping.

This is not a great set up.  And Vacation Bronwen certainly wouldn't like it.

I have no answers yet, but I'm pretty sure the depletion has to do with not filling the right ways during the day -- in big or tiny ways, not getting my inner world in order before I launch into the outer world.

So on this last day of March (10 days away from turning 40!!) I'm wondering what needs to be drawn into the sun, and what actually needs to be cut back or dug up all together.  I'm marking the resurrections and hoping for one of my own.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Almond Cake

(upside down rabbit on the plate if you can't make out what's happening there)

Perhaps because a cup of tea and some cake is grounding and pure comfort, and my mind's been a bit slurry, I've been wanting cake all week.  Good cake.

Good cake, in the gluten-free world, is hard to come by, especially because I think most of the people who post gf cake recipes have actually forgotten what *real* cake tastes like and actually believe this "amazing" "best ever cake" they write about IS the best ever.  And it's nothing like cake.  And it's sadly neither amazing nor even good.  (If you ask Maeve about her "best every gluten free birthday cake" she'll tell you she had a really pretty cake that was bad.  Sorry, 4 year old...)

This cake is not a moist, spongy birthday cake type-cake; it's denser and crumbly, perfect with tea or coffee, even dipped for a second.  It's the right amount of almond and manages to taste like a pastry and cake at once.  Like all good cake, it's great for breakfast, too.  It would enjoy berries on the side, and I'm sure the orange creme fraiche whose recipe follows it in the book.  (meyer lemon creme fraiche would so good, too).

So here's a cake that delivers (I know, everyone says that).  It's from America's Test Kitchen GF book, which I like for baking.  It can be a bit fussy, but just cut corners and do what makes sense to you.  I've been making their flour mixture for a while and keeping it in the fridge.  Once I sprang for the initial stock of ingredients, it's been easy (and every refill seems free -ha)

The recipe calls for 2 T of sugar on top. I used one and thought it was perfect (of course the more you use, the thicker the sugary-almond slice crust on top).  I used meyer lemons instead of regular lemons because I had them and the lemon flavor was subtle, just a brightness.

Almond Cake 

1 1/2 c plus 1/3 c blanched sliced almonds, toasted
1 c GF flour blend 
3/4 t salt
1/4 t baking powder
1/8 t baking soda (I know, 1/8 seems hardly worth it -- must do something)
4 eggs
1 c plus 2 T sugar 
1 T plus 1/2 t grated lemon zest (I used meyer lemon)
1 t almond extract
4 T unsalted butter, melted
4 T vegetable oil (I used grapeseed)

Preheat to 300
Grease a 9" round cake pan and line bottom with parchment

1.  Pulse 1 1/2 c almonds, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda in food processor until almonds are finely ground -- 10-15 pulses.  Transfer to bowl.

2. Place eggs, 1 c sugar, 1 T zest and almond extract in food processor and process for 2 minutes.  
With processor still running, add melted butter and oil in steady stream until incorporated.  Add almond-flour mixture and pulse until combined -- 4-5 pulses.

3. Scrape batter into pan and sprinkle with remaining 1/3 c almonds.
Using fingers combine remaining 2 T sugar (I only used 1) and 1/2 t lemon zest until fragrant.  Sprinkle over cake.

4.  Bake until center is set and toothpick comes out clean, 55-65 minutes (rotate pan after 40 min).
Let cook in pan for 15 minutes.
Then let cool completely on rack.  


The six to nine month window after people move to another culture (or place, let's say) tends to be a swampy period.  The new isn't new anymore, but it isn't familiar either.  There's a certain fatigue to the adjustments, the discomfort, the meeting people, the waiting for life to settle.  Grief can rise, restlessness, unease.

My brother said one word for this is "disorientation."

In the last month, I've had two dreams that we were suddenly moving back to DC, each layered with confusion, and each ending with the sinking fear that we were going to have to live with tics again (in case I wondered if I were utterly traumatized by my kid getting Lyme's disease...).

Recently, on a cloudy cool day, I made a grocery list like always, organizing it by the departments of the store.  When I walked into Trader Joe's I stood there for a second looking from list to produce department, realizing I'd been picturing the layout of our east coast store instead.


This morning it took waking kids, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, dropping off at school, and through yoga class for my brain finally to shake off the dream and reorder back in this reality.

So I think as I go to bed now, I am going to pray for God to orient me -- a big fat anchor for conscious and subconscious to ground me here and now.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Today Silas is 11, a "tween" as he called himself yesterday.

I have all kinds of angst thinking about a boy, my boy, moving into adolescent and teenage years, so much grief that I cannot protect him from SO. MANY. THINGS., and pangs that I have to let him go out there and grow up.

Recently I was talking to someone about praying for healing.  He said stuff like this:
you never know when God will break through and heal, so it's always worth asking.  No doubt God can heal, though a lot of times God doesn't.  We, especially in the West, tend to think the best thing for everyone all the time is to be healed, to have the problem or pain or grief removed.  
(of course we do)
But a lot of times that actually isn't what's best.  I never knew God so closely as after I lost my mom.  I would be heaving sobs and then in the middle of it, God's peace would come, and I'd be able, at least, to breathe.  God had never been so palpable.

I know this in my head.  I know we grow in the pain and come out changed.  Stronger.  With sturdier character.  A zillion illustrations in nature remind us of just that: the necessity of forest fires to keep the forest healthy, how gold has to be refined in extreme heat to be valuable, the deadness of winter, the new moon, bulbs that can sit in paper bags for months and then grow -- the list could be ages long.

But my heart protests all of it.  I don't want any pain.  I don't want any loss.  I don't want my kids to get hurt, to have to struggle through poor teachers, mean kids, bad choices, regret, hurting themselves, hurting other people, physical pain, even a cough!

Yesterday a friend told me that in a conversation with an older parent, she realized all of her parenting questions were about how to help her kid avoid bad situations in the future.  The older parent said, that's the wrong question; there are going to be bad choices and painful situations, the question is how are you going to be the parent who is safe enough to talk to during those times. 

And that's it.

That is the question.

So Silas boy, as you move into 11, the end of elementary school, know that we love you just as much in trampoline parties as in quiet pain, in strong choices as in choices that unravel order.

In one hour and 7 minutes, 11 years ago, I watched you born into a sunny room, ocean horizon out the window, a ring of beautiful people waiting to receive you.  Out you came -- Sunshine in my arms.  You changed me from that moment and teach me constantly.  I love you.  Couldn't me more glad to be your mom.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Second Semester

A weird week.

One of my kids' teacher's disappeared this week in a hurricane of rumors and an article in the paper yesterday speaking of a just-after-school-arrest for a DUI.  She is a champion long-term teacher, and the whole thing is sad, badly played, and full of whispers.  So that's happening, and a long term sub (who seems lovely).

Then there are the backpack capers: SOMEone is digging through all the backpacks (because remember this is Southern California and all the backpacks hang outside on hooks because pretty much the whole school is outside, including the cafeteria -i.e. picnic tables), and taking library books, wallets, phones, gum, poofy keychains etc.  And five of the packs of gum and one of the wallets somehow surfaced in the bottom of my kid's backpack.  The innocence seems clear, but still, that's happening, and sounds like the middle reader books I'm spending a lot of time with these days.

And the rain storms that now have flooded two of my camping (glamping) trips have blown over; the hills are greener than they'll ever be and bursting with California sunflowers; the air smells like sweet sage; and today the sun's heat felt like summer, which makes me restless and excited and want to buck routine.  So there's that, too.

I'm not a second semester senior (though this weather still stirs that), but I am in a second semester -- second semester of the move.  First semester was so many big feelings -- other people's -- that I held and hauled because I had to or just did, and it was exhausting.  There was so much *action* to help the kids, all of us, connect and settle.  And they did -- somehow post-Christmas, they came "home" and settled.  Now, it seems, the second semester is mine.

It's funny how when you're stripped of who you were and what you knew, even if you return to a familiar and beloved place, the ground shifts.

First it was all a balancing act on that shaky ground.  But now the movement's settled and it's looking at what's been unearthed -- a kind of treasure hunt.  There are all these tiny green sprouts, maybe an internal reflection of the spring breaking through back east.  You know when you buy a new house and spend your first spring there, you have no idea what's about to poke through the earth and surround you with blooms?  I feel like that -- walking the yard, bending down to see the green nosing up.  What will come? I keep watching.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Flying Without an ID

Last Thursday I lost my wallet in another city, in a generic taxi for which I paid untraceable cash. Sunday I came to the airport empty-handed to fly home. 

The TSA website sounds promising: In the event you arrive at the airport without valid identification, because it is lost or at home, you may still be allowed to fly. The TSA officer may ask you to complete a form to include your name and current address, and may ask additional questions to confirm your identity.  

So I walked up to the TSA officer breezily: I'd done nothing wrong, was who I claimed to be, and had a purchased plane ticket; it was his job to get me through.

Do you have anything with your name on it?


A credit card?

No, it was in the wallet.

A bill or doctor's form?


A medical bottle?


Nothing printed with your name on it?

Hold on. 

I had this conversation with three difference officers, each round becoming slightly more jocular. Then the hard ass head officer arrived. She came only up to my chin and explained with an aggressive air, how it would all work: she'd call IVCC, they'd ask questions that she'd relay to me, and I'd need to answer them precisely.  Answer with one word only.  Don't say anything extra.  If you fail this you won't fly.  I stopped joking around.

I'd arrived at the airport 2 1/2 hours early with no doubt that I'd board my plane; yes I'd lost my wallet, but flying home was a given, a right.  

Standing there I was keenly aware of how many people at airports were not sharing this "given."  
The questions began, relayed through the phone by the officer.  The faceless source on the phone knew where I live, what my email address was, who the members of my family were, all of the addresses I've ever had.  Despite my confidence that I'd momentarily walk through the gate, my palms started sweating and my chest got tight.  

Someone was tracking us.  Someone big.  And without any eye contact, any voice, any face, that Someone had the power to let me fly or not.  Let any of us fly or not.

What was the IVCC, that held all of this information?  (The officer didn't know).  What else did their database know and track -- emails, phone calls, whereabouts?  Who could access this information -- and why?  

In a few minutes, the questions ended, and I was approved.  I got a full pat down and sat in a chair for 15-20 minutes while a man unpacked and scanned every single item in my meticulously overloaded suitcase.  Then he apologized for the wait and helped me pack up. 

None of this would be particularly noteworthy except that it happened in February of 2017, in Washington DC, during the weeks when so many people have not been waved through and have certainly not been apologized to for any inconvenience.    

What would the process have been if my clothes had included a hijab, my accent had been stronger, or my skin darker -- or if I'd been a dark-skinned man with or without a beard?  Would I have been ushered through with the same relative ease?  Would my sweaty palms have reflected the eeriness of centrally amassed information, or the sheer fear that "They" might, indeed, bar me from going home? I'm not sure I would have made it to this Chipotle in terminal B, this basket of foil-wrapped tacos that will tide me over until I land.

Funny -- this same weekend, SNL said the same (as only Melissa could):

Friday, January 20, 2017

Post-inauguration Quiet

It is late, and instead of sleeping, I'm sitting at the table with buttery toast and tea too hot to sip.
My brain is full.

No doubt over the next days, weeks, years, there will be heroes who rise up, who speak and inspire, as there always have been.  There will be those who in the face of hatred usher us further into justice, bind us together in our humanity, remind of us grace.

But tonight is a darker night.

I am letting myself feel the darker before I stand again to fight for the light.

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
             -Wendell Berry

Thursday, January 12, 2017

To Miss a Plane (a Note to Women in Anticipation of The Women's March on Washington)

The other morning I rode to LAX with an Uber driver who talked incessantly and obnoxiously about politics, his weed farming and drug dealing in Santa Cruz, who swerved across lanes of highway twice because he was blowing by our exits, who forgot to start his Uber app to charge us, had his maps set wrong, and spent more time adjusting the air vents and radio volume than steering. It was 4:30 in the morning, and if I’d been alone, I know it would've been right to ask him to pull over so I could get a different driver.  I should have asked him anyway.  Why would I choose to stay in a dark car with a manic strange man whose hands weren’t on the wheel for 55 minutes and drove like he hadn’t passed drivers’ ed?  The decision seems beyond obvious.  But, I stayed in the car because if we’d pulled over, I’d have missed my plane.  (and, if I'm honest, the conversation would have been awkward and felt bitchy and embarrassing for both of us).

Sometimes our concessions, even when they put us at risk, feel like necessities.

For many people, electing Trump felt just like that: policies and supreme court judges trumped a toxic personality and disrespect for many of our citizens; voting for him felt like a necessary concession. 

As a woman, I am struggling to understand the implications.  “We the people” just elected a man who believes women are less worthy leaders, managers, and politicians than men, a man who’s gloated about his inability to control his body around beautiful women, who’s confessed that women are fine eye candy (and hand candy…) and that it’s a damn shame when they aren’t worth looking at. 

What does his winning the White House mean for me as a woman, for my daughters as pre-adolescent girls, for my nieces as teenagers?

The transcript of Trump’s Access Hollywood hot mic sparked all sorts of intelligent discussion and protest about assault (like Michelle Obama's response).  What surfaced -- again -- is that most women are familiar with sexual assault, that it can be verbal as well as physical, that it can be “playful” rather than classically violent, that it’s often kept quiet because women are too embarrassed to blow the whistle or be criticized for overreacting. 

We all know that cultural double standards still thrive: an outspoken decisive man is strong, and an outspoken decisive woman is pushy.  An angry man is angry, and an angry woman is a bitch.  A man who redirects inappropriate conversation has impressive character, and a woman who does the same is over reactive or touchy.  An aging man looks debonair and an aging woman, old.  A man without make up looks normal and a woman without make up looks tired and hasn’t “put her face on” yet.  An unattractive male presidential candidate is an SNL joke and an unattractive female presidential candidate is a deal breaker.

These standards breed shame and silence.  Of course, they, like Trump’s attitude, are not new or unprecedented, but our having freshly elected yet another man who brushes off/normalizes harassment as “locker room talk,” has pushed me to consider my own concessions. Sometimes what feels “necessary” is actually just easier. 

Growing up, many of us were indirectly taught to concede out of "necessity" – we can't pull over, or I’ll miss my plane; out of embarrassment – what will they think of me if I speak up?; out of sacrifice – he could lose his job; out of fear that we’ll be shamed and play the fool -- what if he says that didn't happen? what if I misinterpreted? 

And so we downplay:   It wasn’t a big deal.  Nothing really happened.  He was just joking around. 

But sometimes – a lot of the time -- it’s worth missing the plane. 
There are always other flights out.

We have a long way to go in our country and many habits to break.

Beauty and sex have always been currency and power, and we, women, are still learning how to wield them without letting them reduce us. (I'm on a plane right now and the slit in my flight attendant’s short, tight skirt is so high that I literally can see her butt cheeks as she delivers snacks and drinks.  à Not using it well).

As women today and over the next four years, let’s notice when we’re conceding.  Let’s challenge ourselves about what seems “necessary,” and let’s start missing planes because we’re taking care of our selves.