Of Disagreement / Talking to Children / Mourning

When I was five, Tía Quela and I had drawing dates. That’s what they were: dates. It only occurred to me now—twenty-six years later, sitting in a room full of art books she would have loved—that a less enchanting woman might have called those afternoons with a five-year old “babysitting”. She did not. They were dates. She treated the occasion as a solemn encounter between fellow artists, one of whom happened to be seventy, whereas the other was five. That was her gift: Tía Quela always played with you, never at you.

Adults say all kinds of things to children, and most of them are empty calories. They’re words the adult barely hears herself, even as she murmurs them; sweet but incoherent sounds made in the direction of small persons but without much reference to them specifically. Children bear the bulk of our generic love.

Tía Quela was not one of those adults. When we sat down to draw, or to tea, she paid me the compliment of treating me as an equal. An idiosyncratic equal, but an equal nonetheless.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t coddled far beyond my deserts; I was, for the simple reason that I wasn’t her equal. She was a gifted artist, but she framed my five-year old efforts in color-coordinated frames, then hung them in the hallway. When we sat down to tea, I ate far more than my share of lemon drops, biscotti, toast, and jam. And when she taught me how to make queque, she equipped me with a small footstool of my very own so that we could be exactly the same size.

It’s hard to explain how much it matters, when you’re young and so terribly inadequate, to feel that an older person enjoys your ideas and your company. And she did. The loveliest thing about her interest was the fact that it was unfeigned. Only now that my friends have children and it seems to be my turn to confront them as fellow humans have I begun to realize what a special trick this was.

It helped, of course, that Tía Quela was deeply, essentially interested in people. And not just people in general: she was interested in you. Copuchas—gossip—is the currency of love in our family. Like all currencies, its circulation demands that most of it come secondhand. But the jackpot is getting the stuff straight from the source, and at this, she was a master. At first glance incredibly conventional, she was in fact a jovial contrarian. This, in a culture where conventionality can be tyrannical, is liberating, and inspires the desperate within it to make confidences.

She liked a discussion, and she did the best thing you can do with a know-it-all teenager like me or with anyone: she argued. She listened carefully to what I said. We battled over first principles. Often, she came to our meetings armed with a train of thought she’d been developing, to see what I would say. On how women should always marry someone more intelligent than themselves. On how financial stability trumps love.

There is no one I enjoyed disagreeing with more.

I say this, incidentally, as a woman who has lived her life pathologically avoiding disagreement. It’s devastating to me when I’m unable to see eye to eye with someone I love. A punch to the gut. A blocked artery. How, I panic, will we bridge this distance that suddenly appeared between us? How, despite our different conclusions based on the same set of facts, can we be friends? Which shared values can we use to rebuild? What route will bypass the blockage and restore a harmonious circulation?

Tía Quela, like her sister (my grandmother), had a rare talent: in her hands, arguments brought you closer. You did not agree, nor would you ever. That was certain. But no philosophy, no matter how deeply felt, could undo what a thousand teas had done. The relationship existed in a universe apart from logic, politics, and world governments, and so remained safe. That tacit understanding left us at liberty to parley—and cover not just politics, world governments, and logic, but the gulps and tangles of family history too.

There are some things Tía Quela wasn’t. She was not inoffensive. One of the better things to come out of Downton Abbey is the character of the Dowager, to whom I have pointed, with relief, when trying to describe my aunt. Though a lady, she was an understated comedian who was never, ever so boring as to be merely polite.

Hospice came to her house when she began to seriously decline, and she was outraged. I went in to see her shortly after they’d left. “Has homicide left yet?” she asked, deadpan, before informing me that she had a pistol on one side of the bed and a rifle on the other in case they came back. Some days later, when a male nurse knelt down next to her bed to write something in her chart, she said quietly, in English: “I am the Queen.”

She is 94 and unimpressed, overall, with the young priest who comes to see her. “A little too good-looking for the clergy,” she says.

She gets worse. She dreams one night of a black hole and the terror wakes her. She sits bolt upright in bed, aggravating her broken rib. Her daughter and niece find her sitting off the edge of the bed, bent over, her head down by her knees. The pain is excruciating, and this is the only position she can bear. The cousins hold her there, on the edge of the bed, for forty-five minutes. The pain subsides.

The next day she says she is in a big white circular building that is very clean. Later, she sees before her an enormous wall full of holes. Maybe it’s the morphine; maybe the boundary between this existence and another is becoming more porous. She complains, annoyed, of a small brown chicken in her bed. Her hands, which for days have been anxiously gripping the corners of the pillowcase so hard that her fingertips have turned white, begin to release.

Her hand twitches when you hold it. It’s warm, relaxed, thrumming with life more than an ordinary hand would be. You can feel things you wouldn’t feel in an ordinary hand, a healthy hand, because this one is so very thin. Holding this hand with its mottled green veins, blood trickling through the vessels, quickly, choppy, like a brook. It feels lively. It twitches.

I loved watching these hands make strawberry jam. I loved how they carefully dissected toast so it would have no crust. I loved how she whistled to herself when she was concentrating. I loved her famous teas, her empanadas, and her house. But what I loved most—what meant the most to me growing up, and always will—was her company. What a gift that was. All those years standing between us might have thickened to a haze, but she waved them aside like cobwebs; and then, just like that, we could see each other clearly, sit down at the kitchen table as old friends, and talk.

If it Craps Like A Duck: The Thrills of 1742 Automata

This 1742 handbill for an exhibit of automata describes three mechanical devices imitating life. The first represents a man playing a German flute, the second, a man playing the pipe and tabor. As for the third:

Another news cutting, issued on the day in question, clarifies—by the sheer number of lines devoted to each subject—what sensation-seekers were demanding most:

The German Flute gets a passing mention, as do the tabor and pipe, but the star of the show will be a robotic duck, doing its best to convincingly eat, groom, and shit onstage.


Limit Points

I’m sitting here trying to put together a course description for a class I may or may not get to teach (I’m 18th and 20th on the waiting lists). There’s something about being outside your environment that makes you feel your limits differently. I could, for example, take making woefully little money. That was fine.

I could take having no idea whether I’m going to be allowed to teach (and therefore have enough to live) from one semester to the next. I could take watching the university slowly undermine humanities departments and redefine itself as a private STEM university that costs more than Harvard. I could even take–with pain–watching the police beat my professors, students and colleagues.

But now those same people who were clearly peaceful and clearly victimized are being charged with crimes. The professor who held up her hands and said “arrest me, arrest me,” and was yanked to the ground by her hair by police, is charged—as if we were in fact in a Kafka novel and not at a public university—with “resisting arrest.”

Others have been arraigned and charged for “failing to leave the scene of a riot.” (There was of course no riot; everything was peaceful until the police attacked people with batons. The Chancellor later accused the protesters of being “not nonviolent” because they linked arms–as Martin Luther King did before them.) Still others stand accused of “malicious blocking of a sidewalk or public thoroughfare.”

What’s worse is that UCPD is behind the charges (they presented their “evidence” to the District Attorney, who has decided to proceed). And the chain of command leads straight to UCPD’s boss–the Chancellor.

They have, in their way, succeeded: in the absence of any evidence, in the face of a patently absurd charge, a judge has issued a “stay away order” to twelve of the detainees. That’s right: the students, who attend a public university, are forbidden from being on their own campus unless they have “class” there.

As anyone who understands a university knows, only a fraction of the important work that gets done there takes place in “class.” There are classes, of course. As graduate students, we teach them. We ourselves do not, however, attend class–at least not in our later years. We are there for other reasons that include, for example, research: the work the university is getting paid tuition dollars for us to do.

It would be a mistake to say that the “official business” of a student ends there. There are talks, lectures, meetings, days spent at the library. There are chance encounters between scholars and students in different fields. There are lunches, study dates, conferences, office hours, unofficial office hours, extra office hours. Working groups. Seminars. Panels. People quite literally LIVE at the university. That’s why there are dorms!

And yet the energetic District Attorney, in collaboration with UCPD and those in the administration who would like to quickly privatize the UC system and convert it into an online STEM university without anything so inconvenient as disagreement, has decided that my colleagues can’t even go onto the campus (which receives tuition dollars for their enrollment) to use the library.

The judge laughed when the question of library visitation came up. “Between you and me,” he seemed to say, “you don’t NEED to use the library. Come on now.” The person charged stared back blankly, confused. Neither side could quite believe that the other was real.

Apropos of nothing, I went to the British Library today. I’m going back tomorrow. The next day I’m accompanying fellow graduate student Irene Yoon to the University of Sussex Library. After that we’re going to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. We aren’t funded for this work–we are actually using our own meager funds to GO TO LIBRARIES. The judge who issued the stay away orders would probably denounce us as manticores.

Anyone who loves a public university enough to protest its insidious dissolution knows that you can’t “stay away”. For one thing, that’s just not how graduate studenthood works. One reason you love it is that its spaces have become part of your life. Take me, for example: I came to UC Berkeley six years ago because I believe in public education. There were other and better offers; I turned them down. I don’t believe in “students as customers” or “students as patients” (both are analogies frequently used by administrators at other universities, and increasingly at this one). Being old-fashioned, I believe students are students. It is actually its own very particular relation that proceeds as a fine collaborative balance of effort and instruction and generosity and will.

I love the students here. They’re dedicated and hard-working and committed. They know that this is their only shot to make it in a broken economy. In a world where student debt can never be forgiven and where federal grants are dwindling away, where people scorn the idea of an education for its own sake, there’s still one place where you can get an astounding education without going into indentured servitude.

There was, anyway.

So I’m sitting here, a continent away, trying to come up with a course description for this hypothetical class I might someday be allowed to teach. Maybe. If 19 of my fellow graduate students on the waitlist find other ways to live. Meanwhile, thirteen of my colleagues have been charged–four months after they were beaten, let’s not forget that small detail–and they’re getting slowly strangled by legal fees.

Graduate students can take a lot. But there was this straw, and now there’s a broken camel. If this is what happens when people try to defend public education; if no one looks up from their computer and writes a letter or makes a call, then we’re done. A California without public universities in general, and without UC Berkeley in particular, will be worse without them. But them’s the breaks. While the sun sets on the UCs, the for-profit Universities of Phoenix will rise and burn and rise again. Maybe UC and UP will merge! Glory be.

Migraine-land, Part 2

There’s a useful semi-consciousness that comes into play when you’re in migraine-land. Your body becomes sort of like a car; it gets you places but you’re not “in tune” with it. You don’t think too hard about how it works, because it’s broken down on you a few times and you’ve been wrong every single time you’ve tried to identify the trigger. You’re a poor mechanic, and doctors aren’t much better.

People around you suggest meditation and yoga. And they’re right, and it’s good, but you can’t concentrate on stuff like breath. (All the meditators and yogis want you to focus on breath. “Feel it go in and out,” they say, breathing loudly, luxuriantly. You can tell they’ve never been afraid of pollen or dust or carpet chemicals, all of which have, at some point or another, given you asthma attacks. You breathe thinly, thinking of yourself as the opposite of the great hoovering aspirators the people around you become.)

If you did things differently—noticed your body, paid attention to how it moved—you would realize that it’s almost always hurting somewhere, and none of it is interesting pain. Your sinuses are just there, gummed up like overused playground furniture, pulsing behind your eyes. The muscles of your neck and shoulders burn as if they’d been weight-lifting. It’s not the kind of pain that really sends you screaming to your mom. It’s the kind of pain you imagine a cow feels when it’s been injured. It’s dumb pain.

You once said this to your mom, when you were little. “Everyone’s always a little bit in pain,” you said, and you wondered aloud what it would be like if things were different. Your mother was horrified. “What?” she said, scandalized. “What do you mean?” And you remembered how she always spoke about your aunt with kidney failure, and how she never complained, but instead made hilarious jokes, and you stiffened up and never-minded, realizing that what you’d said was wrong wrong wrong. Your mother may have meant that you were factually wrong; but you interpreted your mistake as ethical.

Later, you got into the habit of thinking of your body as a sort of ultra-green machine: you gave it minimal air by breathing shallowly, tried to make one restaurant meal last until the next day’s lunch and dinner, tried to minimize your garbage. You slept four hours a night. You didn’t drink water on hikes (trying to imitate your grandfather, a hardcore outdoorsman who almost rejected treatment for his prostate cancer because of how much his surgery would cost taxpayers.) All of this was obliquely reactive—a way to perform a type of ruggedness, and to keep the world from forcing itself into your head and lungs. Superstition: if your demands are small enough, maybe the world with its irritants will forget about you.

Migraine-land, though, turned out to pretty unimpressed by the power of your will. In fact, it double-taxes you: on top of the baseline discomfort, any effort at thinking doubles the (uninteresting, plodding, spike-in-the-brain) pain. But you get used to that—so much so that you’re surprised, one day, when you wake up with nothing hurting. Something seems amiss. There’s no thick membrane of discomfort to fight through to get to your morning, no sluggishness as you try to think of what your day will look like. You feel … glad. Happy. Normal.

It’s only on days like that that you realize what the other days are like. They’re a mixed blessing, the good days. Rewatching old episodes of Looney Tunes, you realize that the good days just might be roadrunners, and you—if you actually decided to concentrate on your body and your breathing and all that—might be in real danger of living a life as Wile E. Coyote.



The thing about migraines, when you have them almost every day, is that they tame you. You stop fighting, sometimes because you’re lazy, sometimes because migraine is its own reality. Like dreams, where whole timelines are born, complete with histories and memories, migraine is a feverish bright blue that believes that you will never be normal:

You will be hurt by the sun.

You will never regard an invitation from a friend as “fun,” but rather, something to be survived. Like drinking anything alcoholic. Like watching a good movie. Like catching up with someone on the phone.

Taking the bus is carsick torture. You sit with the back of your head pressed against the iron bar behind your seat, forcing your neck into the disgusting and sticky metal, hard, so that it gives you pressure, sensation, anything but the tangled muscles and nerves that are strangling your brain. Maybe you can loosen them. You think of an anecdote someone told once about their mother accidentally breaking her own foot with her hands while trying to stop a cramp. You know how it happens. You’ve never forgotten the time you went to the grocery store, with a migraine, and tried to replace your cart. You missed, and accidentally scraped your elbow against the grocery store’s brick exterior. You watched the blood start trickling down your arm and realized, amazed, that your headache was gone. You did a little dance by the carts. You’ve thought many times since about scraping your arm against something to stop a headache, but you doubt you could do it hard enough on the first try, and you don’t want to become a self-harmer. It seems a dangerous road. Anyway, you know you look a little crazy on the bus, with your head at a 90-degree angle to your neck, but migraine clubs your absolute self-consciousness into submission. You don’t care.

You will never be entertained, the migraine says. Ha! It knows you can’t watch or read anything too absorbing, too interesting, when a headache strikes. The excitement makes the headache worse. Instead, you’re condemned to reruns. They’re shows you like–The Golden Girls, Arrested Development, Peep Show, and Frasier is especially soothing–but you know the episodes by heart because you’ve listened to every single one, in the dark, more times than you want to count. You are deeply, deeply bored. Your brain is hungry. If it were a tiny animal it would be starving, with horrible food allergies to all its favorite things. It would eat oatmeal every day and rage quietly at its lot.

So, like a child sneaking candy at night, you read Twitter. Small Tic Tacs of information you can digest. That’s not true, of course, and the migraine knows it; it knows you’ll take everything far too seriously, it knows that you can be tempted into participation and dialogue, and it knows that all of that will only make it stronger.

So you stand on a high-wire, with never-ending doldrums on the one side, nauseating and redundant, and a forest of spikes on the other.

And your balance sucks.

Then the migraine leaves, and all your failures of imagination evaporate. Friends are opportunities, books are salvific, and television does things you never thought it could. You work! You produce! A future seems possible. You imagine a posterity of good conversations, of entertainments, of discussions and walks.

It’s easy to say that the second world is the real one, but when you get one day of it every two weeks, it gets harder and harder to believe that, if one is, say, Kansas and the other is Oz, it’s the good days, the migraine-free days, when the Wicked Witch is dead.