There’s a heart upon the hill

I’ve been thinking for quite some time about the best way to write this without seeming self-satisfied or preachy, but haven’t come up with anything particularly brilliant, so I’m just going to write it and see how it turns out.

For most of my life, I’ve thought of my body as something immutable, a vehicle for my activities, as static as a car or a chair. Mostly, I didn’t think about it much at all. I still don’t notice things that other people seem to note as second nature: did taking Ibuprofen help my headache? Does exercising really release endorphins? I am so oblivious to changes in my body’s state that I cannot answer these questions, even if I try to focus on them. Part of it, perhaps, is my natural hesitancy to make judgments without a side-by-side comparison. I know that, as a human, my memory is flawed and I will not be able to accurately compare the way I felt an hour ago with the way I feel now, not without my current state affecting my evaluation of my previous one. (For these purposes I discount the option of noting states at various points in time, mostly because I am too lazy to actually write things down every few minutes. It would, however, a good way around the issue were I ever invested enough to put in the effort.)

It wasn’t until college that I really realized that the clothes I chose could make my body look more or less attractive. This is something I’m still working on and coming to terms with, something to which anyone who’s been subjected to my somewhat random and always-in-flux wardrobe can attest. (Other, just-as-big-if-not-bigger factors in my wardrobe are comfort of garment, softness of cloth, and presence of useful pockets.)

But I’m not really writing about clothes, not right now. The real revelation for me, recently, has been that my body is not as static as I had heretofore assumed. I didn’t really realize this until my Peace Corps close-of-service physical, when I was surprised (and slightly appalled) to learn that I’d gained more than a dozen pounds during my service. In retrospect, it made sense: clothes I’d brought with me weren’t fitting quite right; I ate at least one type of starch at every meal; I exercised infrequently. Still, it was a bit of a shock to me. I’d always thought of my weight as a constant trait, like blue eyes or long fingers. Despite everything I’d read, positive and negative, about other women’s attempts to reshape their bodies; despite the limitless media dollars devoted to that very topic, I’d somehow never realized that my body might be subject to the same rules that everyone else’s seemed play by. Really, I simply hadn’t thought about it in any sort of meaningful way.

Still, faced with the evidence that my body followed the same laws as others’, it seemed to make sense to use that to my advantage. From a basic survey of sensible weight-loss regimens it becomes obvious that there are only two real components: eat less, and exercise more. Why there is a lucrative publishing industry founded in people rehashing these easy rules is mysterious to me, but I suppose it speaks to the desire of Americans to buy something that will do their hard work for them. At any rate, after returning home I did not follow either of these strictures with particular rigor: certainly, being in an environment with fewer readily-available starches and (surprisingly) more necessity for exercise didn’t hurt. I was, however, curious to have more accurate measurements of my habits (and well aware of the advantageous effects of observation bias), so I started tracking what I ate, for informational purposes. After several frustrating pedometer experiences, I got a Fitbit, which perfectly and easily plays into my love of collecting data. Once I started working, I began walking to and from the Metro every day (three-quarters of a mile or so each way). My clothes started to not fit again, in the other direction. At this point, I’ve lost more than I gained in the Peace Corps, and am well below what I think of as my static body weight. External factors continuing to be advantageous, it seems like I’ll continue to get marginally smaller each week or so, although hopefully my wardrobe can breathe a sigh of relief and stop changing so much.

And that’s all. No poetry, no moral. This post is as much, if not more, for my future reference as anything else. Look, future me: this is where I figured out this part of being an adult woman, and these are the bits I picked and chose. I hope it worked out well for you.

It’s not the long walk home that will change

Since the concert, I can’t stop listening to Mumford & Sons. At work, at home, on my iPod as I’m walking. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this fixated on an artist, an album.

Part of it was definitely the concert, made memorable both by the music and by the violent, prolonged thunder-and-hail-storm we sat through as the opening band played. For three-quarters of an hour it poured. Lexie and I huddled together, shivering, under the blanket I’d brought, shielding ourselves from the watery missiles. We were still soaked at the end of the concert but by then it didn’t matter.
The other, bigger factor here, I think, is that this music both mollifies and sharpens the part of me that wants change. In the past few weeks I’ve found myself more and more restive, listless, travel-hungry. Last weekend I enlisted my father for a day-trip west into the rolling hills of Virginia’s horse country, where we went for a pleasantly uneventful hike and then drove around, exploring country roads. Driving on those windy byways brought back fond memories of the summer I spent doing research out at Penn State, where every weekend I would go driving alone, twining my way through the mountains towards destinations that were not the point of the trip.
As the weather gets hotter, I find myself wishing to be elsewhere. Today I’m remembering Dar es Salaam with a nostalgia I never thought I’d feel for that humid, sprawling, undistinguished city. But it has what I’m craving, that strange sense of familiarity that comes when you spend enough time in a place where you speak the language but don’t belong. I miss buying mysterious fried food from street vendors, being engaged in conversations I don’t really want to be in by random men on the street, astonishing everyone I meet with my ability to speak their language. As much as I thought I’d never say this, I miss looking different from the people around me.
This malaise is symptomatic of a lack of change in my life. Right now I’m living with my parents, which is a good and enjoyable arrangement but which also means I’m essentially in the same situation as when I was in, say, 4th grade, except that now I go to work instead of school and can drive myself around rather than requiring my mother to do it for me. After getting home from the Peace Corps this was perfect for me, but now that I’m established and looking at staying in the area and at this job for a few years, it doesn’t seem like something I want to become indefinite. But this inertia is so hard to overcome.

We had a promise made

I like the beach best, I realize, when it is cold and desolate, devoid of the mingled smells of sunscreen, sweat, and salt. Most people never see it in that empty state, but during this high holiday of the sun-worshipers I feel supremely out of place. For one thing, I’m pale enough that I practically glow in the dark.

I’m here to spend time with friends, the two Peace Corps volunteers I was closest to, who are on this coast for a wedding. Left to my own devices for a day and a half while they attend the festivities, I walk down the beach and through town like a pale ghost. Brown bodies are strewn across the beach. Children flirt, laughing, with the waves. Being neither juvenile nor geriatric, I don’t quite fit in.

The demographics are different up at Dewey Beach where Jess and Bret are staying. That town is full of young members of the sun-worshiping cult, brashly bronzed and wearing as little clothing as possible. Bret and I have lunch next to a table of young men having a conversation that reminds us that the people Cosmo and Sex and the City are aimed at aren’t a figment of some advertiser’s imagination. We eavesdrop shamelessly on their boastful conversation of conquests and aspirations. Both of us are grateful, we conclude, that we are usually able to forget that such people exist.

Walk on by me

It’s Thursday, and it was only this morning that I greeted my alarm with something other than a groan. This past weekend (Saturday-Monday) was great fun, but rather exhausting.
Saturday: thrifting (yay!); a wonderfully long concert, the highlight of which was Scythian, my new favorite live band; driving home from Baltimore. The latter was complicated by my sister conspiring with various pieces of technology to get us lost on our way to drop her back at college, and by my detour through DC to deposit Lexie at her apartment. I got to sleep at 3 AM.
Sunday: family Mother’s Day festivities. Home around 7, my father and I went for a swim before the pool closed.
Monday: after work, Ethiopian food followed by a surprising and extremely entertaining concert at the 9:30 Club. I went (and dragged Lexie) to see Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s, my favorite opening band. They were less orchestral and more rock this time, which was a disappointment, but the songs they played from their first album more than made up for it. Doubtless residual sleep-deprivation was a factor, but several times during their set I closed my eyes and the crowd around me was suddenly gone. I soaked up the music like a lizard soaks up the sun, storing its heat for a rainy day. The real surprise of the evening, though, was the Twilight Singers, who were the headliner and who apparently have rather a lot of fans in the area. Demographically they’re not typical 9:30 club fare, being composed largely of middle-aged men. The lead singer, though, was charismatic and funny enough that after a few songs I could definitely see why someone in the audience was yelling “We love you, Greg!” every few minutes. Their set was remarkable mostly for his unexpected cursing (“You’re already late for work, motherf——ers, because we’re going to play all night!”) and the ease with which he handled the crowd. I don’t think I’ll make a point of listening to their music, but I’d see them again if another band I liked were on the bill. Lexie and I left before the encore, our legs aching from two concerts in three days. I walked home from the Metro station in the still silence of midnight and fell into bed, my sleep-debt not to be repaid for days.

You’re sending smoke signals

I swam three more miles this week than I did last week, and walked home from the pool through a light drizzle, singing to myself in a husky, breathless voice. Now, hair sleek with water, my mind is still full of swimming. Usually the time I spend in the pool is quiet and contemplative, my mind full only of vague ideas of numbers as I count my laps. It’s the way I feel when I’m playing a familiar piano piece with my eyes closed, or when I’m walking around this neighborhood where I grew up. Today something was different, though, my mind restless, gasping for breath even as my body did the same. I lost track of my count a few times, random things going through my head. I hear phantom Metro noises (it seems like I spend half my life on the Metro, these days). I mull over a tricky problem from work. But I spend the most time thinking about a Radiolab spot I listened to recently, about a woman who had to have part of her temporal lobe removed. Having lost her sense of the passing of time, she became an ultramarathoner. Because she didn’t know when she should be tired, she said, she just kept going. I feel something similar going on when I swim: after the first few laps, they all sort of feel the same. I don’t get tired; if I pause for a few seconds, I get a rush of strength. I’ll tell myself I’ll swim half a mile; after half a mile, I’ll up it to three-quarters. At a mile, I stop, because that’s how far I swim. It makes me wonder how far I would go if I just kept swimming until I stopped.

I held my breath and I kicked my legs and I moved my arms around

We drive home through a downpour, rain beating fiercely on the windshield. Each time we go under a bridge it’s like coming up for air, a gasp of silence before the assault resumes. Lightning cracks the nearby sky.

…and then, ever so slowly, it subsides. I think of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, which I have been playing again recently. Crashing octaves give way to gentler, still-persistent notes until the rain is gone and we’re driving through that silvery light that an afternoon thunderstorm precedes. Not much later, the sky is blue again, and we roll the windows down.

The next day, I wake up and swim a mile. It happens almost exactly like that—my mom asks if I’m coming, and even as I’m muttering “yes” in a sleep-drenched voice I’m pulling on the clothes I’d put out, grabbing my bag for work. Mist floats above the heated water of the pool when we arrive.

My hair carries the faint scent of chlorine like a secret.

(Unrelated: this poem made me forget how to breathe.)

Under a cherry blossom tree

The grass is bright green, the sky’s bright grey, and the weekend is finally here. Earlier in the week, on our first or second day, someone told us that if we weren’t incredibly relieved to see Friday arrive, they hadn’t done their job right.

They definitely did their job right.

I’m lucky, actually—I started on the same day as another fellow who will be doing the same job, so we’re going through all the training together. In our spare time, we configure our computers and try to work through information we find on the wiki. He has much more technical experience, whereas I think I’m a little better at looking at the big picture and figuring out workflows, so we complement each other nicely. Plus, it’s just a relief to have someone else who’s going through the same things. Another perspective is always helpful.

On Thursday I left work early enough to dash downtown and see the cherry blossoms before they were totally gone. My camera battery died halfway through, which was disappointing (because, really, if I go somewhere pretty it’s all about the pictures) but I still got a few good shots. It was a lovely day, and not too crowded. I should have gone last week while I was still unemployed, but so it goes.

Unrelated: Plane tickets to Iceland in October are cheap(ish) from DC and NY (check the KLM web site). I am seriously going to go to the Iceland Airwaves music festival, probably from Friday to Friday so I have a couple extra days to explore. I’ll be buying tickets as soon as I request (and am granted) vacation time. Let me know if you want to come too. It will be amazing.

Employed!

So after a fairly arduous application process (including the programming assignment mentioned earlier) I’ve accepted a job offer from OPOWER, a company that works with utilities to reduce people’s energy consumption. (Click through, though–the web site is very informative and well-designed.) I’ll be doing this job, working with data and databases.  I’m very excited: I had a lot of fun when I went in for the interview, and really liked everyone with whom I spoke. Plus the company has a great mission. Not to mention the fact that I’ll be able to wear my favorite orange sneakers to work. I’ll have a lot to learn when I get there, but that will be part of the fun.

I start work April 4th, which means I still have a week and a half to fritter away. Accordingly, my mom and I are heading to the beach until Friday night.

Radio turns to gold

The rhythmic thudding of the bass is mesmerizing. It vibrates through my whole body, but I feel it most clearly in my breastbone, as though there were a second, more powerful heart beating in my chest.

I’m standing directly in front of the stage, pressed against the metal railing, shielded from the crowd behind me by kind friends. Occasionally the crowd surges and breaks over us, and the security people pull a crowd-surfer over our heads and send them on a long walk to the festival’s entrance. But right now I don’t care about that, I’m not even looking at the security guys to watch for a warning in their faces. I’m trusting to luck. My eyes are closed, and it’s just me and the bass. The music and the crowd blend together in my ears. I achieve the calm trance that sometimes comes to me when I’m swimming laps, or when I’m playing a piano piece I know too well to hear.

I never really believe I’m at a concert until I can feel the ground shaking beneath my feet, until my body is vibrating with the music and that second heart is beating time. It has something to do, I think, with the way that I experience music. Walking by a store blaring a CD, my stride unconsciously settles into the rhythm of the song that’s playing. Listening to my iPod and waiting for a Metro  train, I can’t keep myself from giving the rhythm some outlet, tapping my fingers or wiggling a foot. I never think about moving to the music, but concerts take things a step farther—I couldn’t prevent my bones from vibrating if I wanted to. The music will move me whether I want it to or not.

(I’d recommend the band, Carbon Leaf, particularly their album ‘Indian Summer’ and not really so much anything they’ve done since then. The set they did at Shamrock Fest was perfect, being composed almost entirely of songs off of their first two albums.)

Reach your hand out for an iron ring

A drizzly day. Without alarm, sunlight, or plans to wake me, I sleep until eleven, the gentle drips of the raindrops and the dull silver light lulling me back to sleep whenever I think of getting out of bed. As soon as I vacate my spot the cats take over, both of them sprawling across my bed in that particular boneless way cats have, telegraphing previously-undreamt-of levels of laziness. They look as though they may never move a muscle again.

Once I’m up, though, I’m up: breakfast (lunch?) aside and a cup of tea near at hand, I park myself and my laptop at the dining room table and pick up where I’d left off the previous night, re-working a programming assessment for a job application. With little to no experience with the preferred languages, I spend several hours Googling frantically, tweaking and occasionally completely redoing the code as new ideas occur. The cat climbs onto my lap—a rare enough occurrence—but I barely notice him. In the throes of a project like this I can never really relax or concentrate on other things. Even if I’m doing something else, I can feel the bottom of my brain looking at whatever problem I’m having from different angles, teasing it apart. Periodically it will spit out an answer and I’ll have to stop what I’m doing to go test it. It’s like a constant tension, a low-level hum that I can tune out but that nevertheless prevents me being fully engaged in anything else.

A few hours later I fix a bug in the program (although I still don’t quite understand why it was a bug), put it all together, and send it off, and I can finally  relax. It’s like I’d been holding my breath and could finally let it out, expelling the stale air from my lungs. I celebrate with another cup of tea.

(And no, this picture has nothing to do with the post. Isn’t it pretty, though?)