The Apple of My Eye

It’s always strange to be a fan of something before it’s cool; to have to suffer the teasing and the laughter for liking something that everyone else ridicules only to see those same people won over to your side when that thing you like becomes trendy and cool.

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There are many examples but my personal favorite is Apple Computer. Apple is by far the coolest computer company around, but it wasn’t always that way and those of us who’ve stuck by it through thick and thin still remember the dark days when Apple struggled and Windows was the hottest ticket in town.

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I had no way of escaping my devotion to Apple. It was thrust upon my subconscious from an early age. I know because I found this clip from my family’s audio archives of Mom and Dad asking me to identify objects on some flashcards they were holding in front of me. One was apparently an apple so Dad decides to “trick” me by holding up the picture of the apple and asking me, “What’s your favorite kind of computer?”

My dad’s cleverer than most dads. For the first 8 years of my life, he taught computer science at the university. He had a gift for learning and implementing computer programing languages. He was one of the pioneers in the field, working with those strange computers of the late sixties that filled entire rooms yet could only do a fraction of what our smallest computers are capable of today. I still remember Dad bringing home stacks of used computer punch cards for my sister and me to play with.

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In 1987 and 1988 we were living in Fort Worth, Texas and Dad was transitioning into the corporate world. He went from being a computer science professor to being a software engineer. Along the way, he bought our family’s first home computer: an Apple Macintosh SE with two floppy disk drives, a mouse, and a standard keyboard with a Rodime 20MB hard disk and an Apple Imagewriter II printer to go with it.

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In the meantime, my friends’ parents were buying them that new Nintendo system with Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. I asked my dad if I could have one too, but he said no. We didn’t need video games. We had a computer.

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My next question, then, was what games were on this new computer? My sister and I investigated. The screen was grey and white so it certainly didn’t have the fun colors Nintendo had. But there was one game on there called Dungeon of Doom in which our main character wandered through a checker-board like realm with magic wands and scrolls with magic spells to help kill monsters and progress to more challenging levels.

Later, Dad bought us educational games like Word Blaster and Math Blaster. Buick sent us a golfing game. There was also one called Glider and a fake psychologist called Eliza. Later on we added Oregon Trail and Where in the U.S. is Carmen Sandiego?

My first real computer class was back in 1988 when I was in second grade at Fort Worth Academy. The school computer lab was full of IBMs and Apple IIs. The teacher taught us how to type and the very basics of a programing language called BASIC. The typing bit was set up like a game. The faster and more accurately we typed, the higher we scored.

The computer teacher was very fond of her Macintosh, even though that wasn’t what her students used. She liked how portable it was. The idea of having the hard-drive and the monitor in one unit was truly innovative. She frequently brought her Mac to and from work with her for her own personal use.

My dad’s work ultimately brought us to Arizona at the very end of 1991. Our first Macintosh traveled with us and hung on for a couple more years. My new elementary school, Salk, also had a computer lab and this time it was filled with Apple computers and they were all networked together. This meant that when given the opportunity, we could play Oregon Trail with a wagon train and send pop-up messages from one computer to another – a primitive form of instant messaging.

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The computers at school were newer than what I had at home. I mean, these beauties had full color screens! If only we could have something like this at home! Imagine the games I could play!

By that time, personal computers were becoming much more affordable and many of my friends’ parents were purchasing them for the first time. But they weren’t buying Apple and their reasons seemed pretty sound: PCs were cheaper and most of the new software was made for the PC including the hottest computer games.

When Windows ’95 came out, Apple people, like my dad and me, became the underdogs of the computing world.

Dad upgraded our own computer, but refused to buy anything other than an Apple. His famous argument was: “At work, where I don’t have a choice, I use a PC. At home, where I have a choice, I use an Apple computer.

I quoted my dad to my friends. My dad has a Ph.D. in Computer Science, after all. He also said that everything Windows ’95 boasted of Mac had come up with long before. Like that easy icon-based user interface – All Mac.

Perhaps it’s just that nobody likes to be told they’re wrong and Apple is more expensive.

“You’re paying for quality, my dear,” says my dad.

By 1999, Dad had added a second computer to his collection and decided to let me take one with me to college. At that time he subscribed to a magazine called Mac Addict, which came with a CD-ROM as part of each issue. The early editions included a short video of a PC being punished in various ways: “PC walks the plank” and “drag a PC.” The first video just showed a bunch of guys beating up a PC (“hey look! It’s a PC!” they said as they ran toward it with baseball bats).

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Apple had begun rolling out a new computer back then. It was brightly colored, all-in-one monitor and hard drive (like the original), and advertised as a simple plug in and start. I really wanted one of those, but Dad told me I’d have to take the old computer. But at least Mac Addict had an article about how to spray paint your computer and I was able to bring a colorful, blue computer to my freshman year of college.

I lived on campus my first three years of college and that meant I was able to hook my computer up to the Ethernet, this magical, high-speed internet that my roommate mostly used to download stuff from Napster. My parents didn’t even have a second phone line for their dial-up Internet. Far too often I called home only to land on the busy signal – again.

My sophomore year, I saved my parents some money by switching to an instate university thereby justifying the purchase of a lime-colored iMac.

It was beautiful! It even came with a free copy of A Bug’s Life to play in its state-of-the-art DVD player.The-Lime-iMac

I took it to Northern Arizona University with me. Right away my new roommate made fun of it. It was cute but justifiably inferior to her Windows-based IBM. Her IBM, after all, was also an all-in-one computer and monitor only it was smaller and much more sophisticated.

I defended the iMac as best as I could, but she would not be swayed. I had to admit, she was smarter than me. I mean, I was a political science major and she was studying physics – on purpose! She was even bold enough to say, “Physics is fun!”

My best friend and her roommate lived in the same building and frequently popped in to say hi or just hang out. I had a Jar Jar Binks inflatable chair that was surprisingly comfortable. I admit it wasn’t pretty, but it was otherwise worth the $3 I’d paid for it.

My roommate hated the chair almost as much as she hated my iMac. So my best friend “kidnapped” the Jar Jar Binks chair and left a ransom note. In it she told me to “Yell ‘I love IBM’s’ three times in the union at lunch time.” I managed to steal the chair back without having to do anything irrational, but still, to make me profess a love for any computer other than Apple would be torture!Jar-Jar-Binks

I went away to France for 9 months and didn’t bring a computer with me. The year was 2002. The universities and Internet cafés were mostly comprised of Windows-based computers. I adapted. After all, I really just needed them for email. All academic papers in France back then had to be handwritten anyway.

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Bordeaux, France – 2002

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My iPod Mini from 2008.

I started feeling the tides change when I switched universities again in 2004. By then Apple Stores with their Genius Bars had begun to sprout up across the nation and this music device known as the iPod became extremely popular.


Clara-Alone-iPodEngraved-iPodSuddenly I began to hear the word Apple spoken of in a positive light. Graphic designers, musicians, filmmakers, and animators came out of the woodwork claiming they’d been using Apple on purpose for many years. It was the premier choice of the creative class.

Steve Jobs became a cultural icon and a hero. Each new announcement he made, from the iPhone to the iPad, was greeted with joy and anticipation. In the end, Jobs was revered almost like a god. Perhaps that’s why I, too, cried when he died.

The tribute to Steve Jobs at the Apple Store at San Tan in Gilbert, AZ - 2011.

The tribute to Steve Jobs at the Apple Store at San Tan in Gilbert, AZ – 2011.

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All three of the women in the family with our iPads.

Today I use my iPod, iPad, iMac, and MacBook Air for almost all my creative endeavors. But my life has not been blessed with financial success. For this and other reasons, all my recent Apple devices have been gifts from my dad who still believes I am, whether I see it or not, part of the creative class and what better tool for creativity than an Apple computer?

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The MacBook Air I do most of my writing on.

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I’m no professional, but I often use my 2010 iMac for Photoshop, sound editing, and film editing.

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Dad still plays hearts on the old clamshell computer.

An Artist

Art-BooksOh, how I would love to be able to call myself an artist! It’s so romantic to envision the painter effortlessly transforming a blank canvas into a myriad of shapes and colors that are pleasing to the eye! Or to watch the sculptor chiseling away at a slab of marble and finding a glorious human figure hidden inside!

I’m not the only one with such romantic notions. Artists seem to be freer than the average human being. They capture details the rest of us would ordinarily overlook. They create fantasy worlds for us to escape into. They not only make the world we live in more beautiful but they help us to see a better future.

Before I go any further, I suppose I must explain what I mean when I say “artist.” I believe all of us have the ability to create but true artists can be very particular about who they deem worthy of the title. A mother might say, “My child is a great artist” and subsequently frame her child’s drawing and hang it on the wall. But what’s the real masterpiece in a mother’s eyes, the drawing or the child who made it?

The word “art” is an umbrella term. Usually when we refer to art, we’re referring to something visual like a sculpture or a painting. But art goes beyond what our eyes can see. We have performing arts, culinary arts, and literary arts as well. If the subject is creativity, whether it’s designing a glamorous evening gown or pretending you’re someone else while on stage in front of an audience, you’re an artist.

I’ve dabbled in the arts. I’ve tried my hand at photography, music, and (obviously) writing. Last year I used my outdated video editing software and created video with a soundtrack of my original songs interlaced with the spoken words of a Rich Mullins.  Mullins was known for his own songs but had some pretty profound spoken words as well. I worked hard on what, to me, was my masterpiece. Then I posted it online and shared it with the world. A few people watched it but hardly anyone said anything about it to me. I sent a link to it to some real artists. They replied with generic compliments – nothing about how great the music was or how intriguing the photos were. Just things like, “I could tell you worked hard on this” or “I can see how this reflects your spiritual journey.” They were too nice to criticize it but, at the same time, too honest to praise it.


You do need both constructive criticism and encouragement to be an artist, but if you’re an artist who’s encouraging another artist, you also don’t want to give false encouragement. An artist who shows no real potential for her art should not be coached to pursue it, at least not in the professional realm. The best art judges are painfully honest and they have to be. It’s their job. Besides, wouldn’t you rather suffer the truth than to humiliate yourself even more by pursuing something you’re just not gifted at?

So who gets to be called “an artist?” If you’re a comic book artist than of course you can say you’re an artist because it’s your profession. My great-uncle, Jack Boyd, was an artist. He didn’t have his stuff shown in galleries or museums. He was an animator for Disney and his drawings were nothing more than cartoons. But he worked in Disney’s art department and he was a professional artist.IMG_9878

Professional artists seem to be both envied and hated by struggling artists. On the one hand, professionals are being paid because their talent has been recognized. On the other hand, they’re often considered sell-outs because they’re creating to please the masses instead of creating art for art’s sake.

Vintage-GalleryPhoenix First Friday is the gathering place for local artists where I live. Art galleries on Roosevelt Row in Downtown Phoenix will open up the first Friday of each month and throw a block party. Some artisans will sell their wares on the sidewalks while others will have their work hanging in galleries. I look around and admire everything. Phoenix isn’t really considered an art Mecca, but there is no shortage of artistic talent around here. Nonetheless, the handmade crafts and imaginative paintings don’t come home with me. I can’t afford them nor do I have the wall-space for them and I imagine that’s the case for many of us bystanders. We love the work but we can’t support it.

street-art-saleThese artists are clearly amazing. Not everyone shares the same taste in artwork but it’s easy to recognize talent. You stand away from the painting for full view but step closer to inspect the details. If you’re like me and don’t paint, it looks like magic.

I do sing though and singing can be an art. Of course, becoming a professional singer is not easy. In the pop music world, your looks better match your pipes.   I know Susan Boyle made it and I love her story but how many other Susan Boyles are there in the recording industry? None. She’s the exception.

Clara-AloneYou also have a better chance of making it in the music industry if you happen to be gifted at playing an instrument and writing your own songs. I dabbled with some of that as well but I seem to lack a significant amount of talent. It’s a pity because I used to love to sing and play piano. I wasn’t very good at playing piano, but I enjoyed it just the same.

Jazz singers and opera singers have to be really amazing to make it professionally. Jazz is improvisational and requires a very well trained ear as well as a great voice. Opera requires years of classical training in order to learn just the right amount of breath control and pitch precision.

So you don’t have to be a professional artist in order to be called an artist and yet it’s more than just the innate desire to create. Perhaps, then, it’s the intention behind what we create. When we die, do we want to be remembered for what we created?

I’ve heard of artists whose work is intentionally ephemeral and who want their work to be seen but would rather not be credited for it. Then there are the artists, the anonymous sculptors of the Middle Ages who left us the ornate, Gothic cathedrals of Europe without a single signature. The world will remember the art but never the artist.

Those of us who believe in God see him as the ultimate Artist – the Artist who made all artists; the Author of all authors; the Creator himself. Because we are created in his image, many of us feel compelled to create.

Perhaps, then, the desire to be an artist is the natural response to a higher calling. The desire to be called an artist by other artists is the desire to be part of a community. I will not presume to give myself that label but I will continue to aspire toward it.

Frenchify Me

plus-sizeI don’t like me as I am. I’m trying to but it’s just not working.

My friends like me for some reason. Is it my personality? Is it my ability to walk around and act like I don’t care even though deep inside I’m desperately trying not to let my self-esteem sink any lower? It can’t be my looks. I may have had some measure of attractiveness in my youth but now the only clothes I can squeeze into are labeled plus size. At least my hair has not faded to grey. I always liked the color of my hair. It is my one vanity.

I’ve been watching The Paradise TV show with my mom lately. As usual, all the leading ladies in this period piece (set in the 1890s) are beautiful with perfect figures, perfect hair, and clear complexions. The series is based on a French novel by Emile Zola called Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies of Paradise). The BBC adaptation places the story in England with several references to France because France was and continues to be a leading exporter of couture and luxury goods.

The episode we watched today was the second episode of season two and introduces a businesswoman from France called Clemence Romanis who manages to seduce and dazzle almost everyone she meets in part because she’s French but also because she carries herself with a verifiable confidence never before seen by most of the other characters.

To me, Clemence is very believable. France may be a diverse and individualistic country, but many of the French I’ve met have a lot in common with this fictional French woman.

The word “French,” when used as an adjective, can add value to any object. Try some French bread, French toast, French fries, or French vanilla. Maybe you’d like a French twist, French braid, or French manicure. Adorn your chateau with French blinds, French drapes, and a French press. Don’t forget to seal the deal with a French kiss.

The French language itself still holds a significant amount of prestige. Sure, English is now the preferred international language, but you can’t demote French that easily.

It reminds me of an episode of M.A.S.H. when a French nurse with le Croix Rouge (the Red Cross) visits the unit and attracts the attention of several officers, most notably the resident snob, Major Winchester. Winchester doesn’t understand all her French words and phrases but that doesn’t matter. She’s French and therefore worthy of someone of his caliber. Of course, the relationship falls apart when he learns she is not quite as refined as he’d assumed.

When we imagine the French, we imagine a truly liberated people. We imagine people driven by passion who fearlessly express their opinions with conviction.

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While this may not be true for all French people, I met enough who fit that description for the stereotype to persist. For example, Francine (not her real name) arrived in the United States uninhibited. She was like lightening, bolting from one new adventure to another, and she basked in the attention thrust upon her, especially when such attention came from the American and non-French international guys.

When the American guys met someone like Francine, a beautiful, confident, French woman, they didn’t hesitate to ask to sample her French kisses. She seemed to take their unbridled curiosity as flattery. How invigorating it must’ve felt to be so desired!

Back in France the following year, Francine missed being thought of as foreign and exotic. She once pretended she was foreign to strangers from her native land. She told some guys at a bar she was American and didn’t speak French. It turned out to be a disappointing experiment. The French guys had no interest in this phony American girl and, thinking she didn’t understand them, disrespected her within earshot. She didn’t want to break the ruse, so she quietly excused herself.

Juliette (not her real name) was my French roommate for six months in the United States. She was incredibly fun and I enjoyed the fact that her English and my French were advanced enough for each of us to speak in our own languages and still be able to understand one another.

Juliette and Francine had much in common. Both of them had morals that most Americans would find scandalous. However you need only describe them as “French” and such “scandals” are automatically forgiven. To the French, “American” is sometimes synonymous with “Puritan.” We’re too close-minded here. It’s a pity really. Juliette sometimes felt sorry for me because I wasn’t having sex with anyone. I, on the other hand, was totally fine with celibacy.

My personality often clashed with both Francine and Juliette. It frustrated them as much as it did me. I went to Europe the year after Francine came to the United States and we traveled together for five weeks. Travel can really test a relationship. At the end of it all, Francine confessed to me that she had hoped Europe would change me. She’d hoped I’d become more like her.

I don’t know if I told Francine, but I’d wanted to become more like her too. In any city she could strike up a conversation with anyone whereas I was timid. Granted my French was not too good back then. Conversation is much more inviting when both parties can understand one another. It wasn’t just that, though. There was spontaneity about Francine; a joie de vivre I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

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Juliette had it too. Juliette was beautiful but being French turned her into a goddess of some sort. Mothers wanted her to babysit their children so she could speak French to them and impart a bit of her French charm. Her looks could turn a man’s head but her French accent kept him intrigued by her for hours. She was refined and fashionable, well educated in the arts and wild about opera and ballet. But what attracted me to her most was her confidence. She seemed immune to criticism. She didn’t care what other people thought of her. She was happy with who she was and that’s all that mattered.

When I was in France, I tried to be French. I tried to avoid speaking English. I bought French clothes. I mimicked my French friends’ habits. I ate my food slower and walked slower. I taught myself to like coffee made with a French press. I drank my water from the tap with no ice. I learned the art of wearing a scarf. I taught myself to swear more proficiently in French than in my own language.Place-de-la-Comedie

Needless to say, I didn’t become French. When I returned home I sank back into my American ways. I tried to stay as French as possible in the US, but I had to let it go. When I no longer heard French spoken in the streets or could no longer walk on streets as old as the streets in France, I knew I had to accept where I was.

But I do wish I could’ve grasped something like what Francine and Juliette had! What will it take to have the kind of confidence, courage, and joie de vivre that comes with being called “French”? When will I stop caring what other people think and start freely being me? Liberté!

Weird

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Back when I was in junior high and high school, no one wanted to be called “weird”.  That was when many of my friends were exploring the world of romance for the first time. Granted they weren’t old enough to drive and if the relationship lasted longer than a month, it was considered “long-term.” I’d have to wait until the boys caught up to me in height before my first boyfriend and first kiss. By eighth and ninth grade I caught the attention of a couple of boys, but they were weird. The cool boys wanted to date my friends leaving me stuck with the leftovers or rejects. Just because he liked me, one weirdo gave me a “gold” necklace that promptly turned green . At summer camps and retreats, particularly the ones I went to with churches other than my own, there’d inevitably be a weird boy or two pathetically following me around like a lost puppy dog. The guys I liked couldn’t care less about me.

Perhaps I encouraged the weirdoes because I, too, was weird. After all, I did show symptoms of weirdness. When asked to partake in the popular slumber party game of “Truth or Dare,” I could pick “truth” every time and never once have anything interesting to confess. “Dares” were equally boring when applied to me. I’d developed a reputation of being too nice to be subjected to the “real” dares like running outside naked.  I was once dared to eat a spoonful of peanut butter with a little bit of ketchup on top of it. Even that was thrust upon me with trepidation.

In junior high, the cool girls who lived in my neighborhood kind of protected me, though I never understood why. We watched MTV at my friend’s house before school and I joined in their obsessions with teen celebrities found in the pages of Tiger Beat. But I still had my secret self as well. I was inept at using swear words to express my feelings and I liked listening to musicals and Christian music.

By high school, “weird” began to take on a dual meaning, depending on how it was applied. “Weird Al” Yankovic took ownership of the word when he incorporated it into his stage name. “Weird Al” parodied famous pop songs and became extremely successful in doing so. “Amish Paradise” was all over MTV when I was in junior high.

There was this girl I knew and admired in high school who was, academically speaking, probably the smartest kid in school. It seemed like everything she set her mind to she excelled at. But she wasn’t like the other smart kids who’d kind of formed their own elitist clique and looked down upon the rest of us under achievers as if we were nothing because we didn’t have Ivy League potential. She’d talk with anyone regardless of GPA.

She also came to school dressed in long, floral skirts with a wide-brimmed straw hat atop her head. When the Star Trek film Insurrection opened in theatres, she came to school dressed in the blue, medical officer Starfleet uniform from Star Trek the Next Generation. No one else in the entire school showed such dedication to a movie or TV show. When I was in elementary school, I collected Star Trek trading cards for a while and read a few of the novels, but those are hobbies you can hide. I was never bold enough to show public devotion.

Another girl I know was also very smart but in junior high and high school, she was “weird” because she was poor and couldn’t afford the latest fashions. She was also “weird” for obsessing about things that simply weren’t part of the pop culture. For instance, she loved Shakespeare and classical music. She effortlessly captured the hearts of people both older and younger than her. It was only her peers who seemed blind to her beauty, intellect, and sensitivity.

High school graduation dissolved most of our negative concepts of “weird.” When I met my intelligent, classical music, Shakespeare-loving friend again at the university, she seemed to have friends from one end of the campus to the other. Apparently the intellectual crowd she’d met in this institution of higher learning recognized her beautiful mind right away and embraced her for who she was. They loved that she was weird! In fact, they each seemed to carry their own individualized brands of weirdness as well. “Weird” had become a compliment; especially if you were creative, like if you were an artist, musician, or poet.

Comicon-CrowdOver the years, I’ve wandered through different subcultures labeled as “weird.” I’ve hung out with homosexual friends whose “weirdness” had often left them ostracized, homeless, bullied, and abused. I’ve hung out with Goths who sometimes fish for the label “weird” by building walls to intimidate people who would otherwise want to befriend them.   When they let their guard down, though, they are as down-to-earth as anyone. I’ve hung out at fetish clubs and comicons where people obsess about things like whips and superheroes. Yes, I’m aware that the things I consider “normal” might feel weird to someone else. I certainly felt like the weirdo in each subculture I’ve explored.  Not one place felt like home.  Though I confess, even the place I call “home” doesn’t always feel like home to me.  I’m a weirdo among weirdos; the perpetual alien.Will-you

The other day I was telling a friend about this hobby of mine. I collect hand-written letters. It’s not a hobby I take lightly, either. I’ve taken letters and notes and put them inside page-protectors and three-ring binders with labels. The earliest letters are from my childhood. My collection includes notes passed in the halls in junior high. There are notes from employers and coworkers, letters from relatives who are no longer with us, and notes from people I’ve met in passing and may never meet again.

“Why do you save them?” she asked.

“I don’t know, source material I guess.” I should’ve told her it’s because of Mozart. Biographers rely on letters written to and by Mozart when telling his story. The same is true for many other historical figures. What if there’s a “Mozart” amongst my friends and we just don’t know it?

“That’s weird,” she replied.Letters-in-Binders

I could tell she didn’t mean the good kind of “weird” either. But it didn’t cause me too much alarm. My parents saved letters as well. If my dad hadn’t have saved all my emails from France, I’d have lost some significant source material for my memoir. My grandmother, who passed away in 1981, saved every letter my dad ever wrote to her and now those letters belong to us. There are volumes of them!

I tell my dad he’s weird on a regular basis. He’s a retired engineer and has some rather eccentric ways of doing things. He earned his undergraduate degree from MIT, a place known for attracting eccentric people. But the MIT students get away with being called “weird” or “eccentric” because they’re intellectually gifted.

“Eccentric” is the label you receive if you’re weird but extremely smart and successful as well. I could be rude and irritating and have an obsessive-compulsive disorder like the guy in As Good As It Gets and still be tolerated and even liked if I’m a successful writer like he was. But until I find success, I’m just weird.

Do I want to be weird? This question has to do with self-confidence I think, which admittedly I could use more of. There are plenty of amazingly creative people out there who are weird and proud of it. But was it the weird stuff we knew about them first or their creative contributions to society that drove us to learn about their weirdness?

Weird by urban bamboo

Weird by urban bamboo

There’s a sign in Portland, Oregon that says “Keep Portland Weird.” I see it in the opening credits of Portlandia. I interpret that as “Keep Portland Unique.” To be weird is to be abnormal, to go against the grain, to embrace uniqueness. If that is enough for you, then more power to you. I, on the other hand, must justify my weirdness by making my mark on this world.

Knowing Who You Are

This is an email I wrote about 12 years ago when I was beginning to experience my first ever manic episode. I wrote about having trouble sleeping and a rush of ideas filling my head. I wrote about how I thought I knew who I was at last but, in hindsight, it was the illness talking.  I know this because I’ve spent years trying to figure out who I am and, more importantly, learning to be happy with who I am. I didn’t have it together at all at almost 23, but it’s interesting to look back and see how I was experiencing the world back then. If you’d been the recipient of this email, do you think you would have guessed anything was wrong with me at the time?

Date: Friday, January 31, 2003 

Subj: knowing who you are

Hey everyone! This will probably be the last of my daily emails as it’s Friday and classes start Monday, so if you can endure this one, you’re doing great! Many thanks to those of you who have responded. I know I’ve thanked you all personally, but it doesn’t hurt to thank you once again. After all, even if we’re no longer school, we’re all still students and we learn from each other.

Something strange happened to me in the wee hours of the morning this morning…I had gone to sleep last night and, after saying my prayers, drifted into a hazy dream, one that impacted me and, for some strange reason, caused me to wake up before the sunrise. The dream was of a Strasbourg friend who came by my place to say hi. I was so delighted that I forgot about cultural boundaries and hugged him saying “It’s such a nice surprise that you came to visit me!” But I was even more surprised when he said “but don’t you remember, Clara? I told you I was going to come around this time.” I didn’t believe him because I’d become so busy in my thoughts that I didn’t pay close attention to my friends around me. I picked up my agenda and sure enough, his name was penciled in on that day at around that time. He invited me to join him and the other Strasbourg friends at a movie. I didn’t have anything to wear and when they came around to pick me up a few hours later, I wasn’t ready and I missed the movie.

When I woke up, my head was so cluttered with thoughts that I couldn’t go back to sleep. What’s worse is that the sun hadn’t risen yet and, when I checked my clock, it was 2 AM. I tried to force myself back to sleep, thinking, if I don’t get my rest I won’t be able to function normally tomorrow. But I just couldn’t and thus grabbed pen and paper and wrote. So what was it that really kept me awake? It was something else that I was yearning to share with all of you.

This is who I am. I’m first and foremost a Christian. It’s more than a religion for me. In fact, I consider it a relationship more than a religion. I’ll explain more about this later.

If you were to describe me politically, I would say that I’m a conservative with liberal ideas. Sitting on my table just before I left were three different books that I was in the process of reading. One of them was Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, another was the latest copy of the Limbaugh Letter, and, the most important of them all, my Bible. I like Moore and Limbaugh because I see that they are trying to use their political ideas to get people to think, and it’s working because, even if no one else is reading them, I am.

Limbaugh is a right wing, Bush-supporting conservative and Moore is the exact opposite, yet there are some things that the two fail to notice about each other and that is that they are very similar.

Here’s what they have in common: They both are rich, white males. They both grew up around the same generation. Neither of them received a college education yet they are both well informed about the world and various political agendas. They agree with many of the problems facing the country, such as our poor educational system. They have different views about how to solve the world’s problems but they both use (and this is the one that got me) the US Constitution to back them up. However, the two of them are constantly bashing each other, Limbaugh always saying something about “those liberals” and Moore making satirical remarks about Bush and the Republicans controlling congress. Both complain about how the American media represses their ideas.

So here I am, sitting in my room, spending my vacation time learning their ideas and trying to sift through and find what is fact and what is simply propaganda. It’s a daunting task, but I find that it’s very easy to get a people to take your side if you keep knowledge from them.

Now I come to my idea, which again is not new. One of my ways of profiting from my last semester here has been to learn better the history of the country I’m studying in. The comment I hear relentlessly from Europeans is “Americans don’t have a history.” But they are wrong!

I’ve always been interested in my roots, where I came from. I’m not a “native” American because there aren’t very many generations separating me from my European ancestors. One of the things I learned was that my family fled to the Americas before this land was a nation because of religious persecution.

Here was the problem: There was a rupture in the church not too long before they left their nation. Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door and soon other intellectuals such as Calvin were jumping on the bandwagon. One of the big things that came out of this revolt was the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people. This infuriated the Pope because all of a sudden the people could read the Bible for themselves and they didn’t need a pope or a priest to tell them what to do. So what happened? The two sides fought.

I took a tour with the office of tourism in Montpellier that followed the traces of Protestantism in the town. The first place we visited was the Esplanade, which is now a nice city park with a playground and a little pond. The guide, however, explained to us that when the Reformation spread, there were a lot of Protestants burned at the stake in this area, yet no one bothered to erect a monument to them. Most people just take their children to the park to play, unaware of the previous events hundreds of years before.

Digging deeper, I learned that not only was Montpellier a stronghold for the Protestants and that many were martyred for daring to go against the prevailing power (which, at the time, was the Catholic church) but some of the first martyrs were students. STUDENTS! Wait a minute! These were people my age that saw faults in the system and were killed as heretics because they found hypocrisy.

Well, eventually, the Catholic Church won and the Protestants fled to places like Switzerland, Germany, England, and, you guessed it, the Americas.

Here’s the clincher. When the newcomers came to the Americas, they didn’t teach the next generation their history. In fact, each new immigrant group that came in felt that it was better to have their children be like everyone else (assimilation) than to teach them about where they came from. As a result, they never taught their children the language of their homeland or the reasons they left, whether it was famine, religious persecution, or oppressive governmental regimes. Maybe the past had hurt them so much that they wanted to forget. After all, if I had a family member burned at the stake or tortured in front of me, if their death had been used as an example for others to see what happens when you contradict authority, I might want to turn my back on it too. Also, I know as I write this that I will go home when I’m done with my trip, but our ancestors left knowing they would never go back, that they would never set foot on the soil on which they were born for the rest of their lives. I’ve never known that kind of sacrifice, but I do know that they did it for me, so that I could enjoy the freedom they never had.

The sad part is that because we forgot how we were mistreated in Europe, we started doing the same things to others that they did to us. We took over land that belonged to the Natives, killing off as much of them as we could and then sticking the rest on the crummiest pieces of land possible. We moved our factories to the poorest countries and paid them less than a living wage so that those of us who live in the US can reap the benefits of cheaper consumer products, and we silenced the Limbaughs and the Moores because anyone who has some sort of radical idea, any freethinkers, might pose a threat to our way of life.

The US constitution is a great document, but even that is being twisted in such a way that I imagine if our ancestors could see us now, they’d be horrified.

This has been my vacation. This is Clara Tenny, challenging all of you to think! I read my Bible now knowing that with it, I don’t need the church to tell me what to do. It is all there, translated into my language, a feat that even young students like myself sacrificed their lives for, giving me the hope that there is something better than what we have here on Earth.

 

A Crazy Anniversary

Why am I so messed up? How much time have you got? Because it’s gonna take a while.

I’m trying to jump through hoops these days and it’s not an easy thing to do, especially without the aide of a professional psychotherapist. I plan on seeing one of those again in the near future, but finding one is a difficult process, especially when I’m diagnosed as SMI (seriously mentally ill) and dependent on the state mental health care system. I suppose I can have my parents pay for private care again, but I rely on my parents for too much already. I mean I live with them, for goodness sakes. Maybe I shouldn’t feel ashamed but I look around and see my peers living happily and independently and I automatically think there must be something terribly wrong with me and there is, technically. I have a mental illness.

I mean, I don’t look mentally ill. My speech isn’t slow or slurred. I have a college education. I enjoy reading books and listening to lectures. In fact, I’ve been told by psychiatrists that I’m of above-average intelligence. Of course, that only makes it harder to “fit in” with my self-sufficient, happily employed peers. They all have struggles too, they say, but they can cope with them and make it in this world while I’m almost 35 and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

This time of year only serves to remind me of how quickly and unexpectedly my whole world came crashing down. Twelve years ago I suffered from a severe manic episode while studying abroad in France. I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with me, but now I can easily trace the progress of the mania through my writings both in my diary and in emails.

It probably began around January 27, 2003 when I wrote this in an email:

This one thing is for sure, I’m in the right major (international affairs, baby!). There’s nothing more exciting I can think of than being in the midst of a changing world and knowing that this education will somehow help me to help it. And to think, what I’m doing now my great-grandmother never dreamed of. In her generation, being a career woman meant either teaching, or being a nurse or secretary. However me, I could be president. Although, I don’t know, an honest politician might confuse the masses who have never had one before. Ah well. Oh, and don’t forget, those of you who think I’m crazy: they thought the Wright brothers were crazy too. So go ahead and laugh, I say, I thrive on it! Just try and tell me it can’t be done and I’ll prove you wrong.

However this week I’m on vacation. Ah, but no, I am not going to travel to any far off lands. I have a lot to learn and do here. It’s all part of an unwritten plan (the unwritten part keeps it flexible because I’m still young, my ideas change frequently). Once more, it’s a beautiful day today! So beautiful in fact that I can wear my summer clothes again and you know what I feel like doin’? I feel like dancing!

The hypergraphia continues in my diary until February 5, 2003 and then the next time I see a date on any of my writings, it’s on paper from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France on February 10, 2003 (although I believe some of the writings without dates were written between February 6 and February 8).

Anyway, I’ve written about all this before. The point I want to make this time is, how do I find that girl within who believes she can do anything again? And what about changing the world? I’ve seen idealism fade in the hearts of middle-aged workers and I vowed long ago I would never let it happen to me. But what is it I’m best suited for in this world? What am I uniquely gifted at? What is my calling?

The Portals of Time

I wrote this in my diary on January 16, 2003 while I was studying for my final exams in France. For the first time in my academic career I’d become completely obsessed with my studies, partly because my entire grade was based on a single, final exam. But there was something else going on in my mind too. Unbeknownst to me, I was on the verge of suffering my first, serious mental breakdown, but it didn’t feel like a breakdown. It felt great! And, once more, I was enjoying the learning process and the new experiences. I loved going to the library and cracking open the giant book of French history, cross-referencing the advents of new ideas with the social-political climates of each era. Then I would listen to the music of different time-periods and contemplate how the people back then might have experienced it. Now it’s all coming back to me, the passion for history (hopefully) without the mental fragility and I realize it’s been 12 years and I’m supposed to grow out of this. At times I feared I had grown out of it. But not today. Today I’m holding on to passion even though I’m still uncertain as to where it will lead me. Here’s what I wrote a little more than a month before my 23rd birthday in 2003:

 Livre-Blanc

I had been studying diligently for my history course and figured it was time for a day off. So I chose Sunday. My original intention had been to go to the reformed church, but that just wasn’t possible because I had made a mistake on where the church met and was running late.

So I walked around a bit. The sun shone brightly yet the winter chill still nipped. However my new-found love for history caused me to walk around more attentively. Suddenly, before my eyes, the past began to open up before me! The names of the streets – Comte, Gambetta, Zola – were crying out from across time as if to say don’t forget me! The monuments saying in memory of the great battle. What great battle? Why was it important? What do the figures stand for? I start to feel their grip on me slip away as the scattered puzzle pieces become overwhelming and none of the edges seem to fit.

Solemnly, respectful of the ancient ones, I enter the cathedral. I shiver from the cold realizing that radiators are a luxury of modern times. I look up at the stained glass rose window, but my thoughts are interrupted as the boys choir sings.

The melody resembles a Gregorian chant, not a lot of arpeggios, no real chord structure – in fact, not much structure at all. It’s sung without emotion, without words that tell of a personal God, but instead, the actions of a distant God, only accessible through their religious leaders.

What Would I Have Done?

In Mrs. Jennings’ 3rd-grade class in 1989 we learned how to read the newspaper. We’d take turns bringing in articles and summarizing them for our classmates. A lot was happening in the world back then that we kids were only just becoming aware of such as the “Cold War.” At home on TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down and the German people cheering and celebrating its demise. Long-lost relatives embraced one another. Passports were issued and people were able to see parts of the world they weren’t allowed to see before.

Mrs. Jennings tried to convey the significance of all this to us. Her husband had been in the military and she’d traveled the world with him. At the Berlin Wall, she’d bought a book chronicling the history of the wall with pictures, including pictures of those who’d tried (and sometimes succeeded) to escape to freedom in the West.

But it was impossible to talk about the Berlin Wall without teaching us about the Holocaust as well. Slowly, through pictures and written testimonies, the most horrifying act in human history began to take shape in our minds.

As I grew, I read The Diary of Ann Frank and Number the Stars. These were stories about young people, like me, and I couldn’t help imagining what it would’ve been like had I been there.

In high school I read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and for the first time I realized that there were people sent to concentration camps who weren’t Jewish and those who helped Jews risked being arrested and tortured too.

For ten Boom’s family, it was an honor to help the Jews. Her father read the Bible every day and all of them were very familiar with the Old Testament (the Hebrew portion of the Bible). So there was no question as to whether or not they would create a hiding place for a Jewish family in their home.

I was sure Corrie ten Boom’s story wasn’t unique but for many years hers was the only one I knew.

In 1997, I went with a group from my high school to Washington, DC for a week and there we visited the Holocaust Museum. As I walked through each stage of torture and death camps, seeing the actual shoes of children who had died, photographs of emaciated bodies, statistics, walls of pictures of the deceased, I felt a heavy weight build up within me. How could humans do this to other humans?

Over the years, I’ve developed a profound interest in anything having to do with France. But I’m fascinated by theology, particularly Protestant theology. So, when Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for RELEVANT magazine detailing his return to faith (after writing his book David and Goliath) and mentioned a Protestant village in France where hundreds of Jewish people were hidden during WWII, I had to learn more.

I speak French and wondered if there were any French books I could download from iBooks on the subject. So I typed in the name of the village and stumbled upon a newer book by Caroline Moorehead called Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France. It wasn’t in French, of course, but it looked well written and detailed. So I bought it and, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

village-of-secrets

In general, history has not shown the French to be particularly heroic during the Second World War. They were quick to comply with the Germans and brutally rounded up Jews themselves. But in some of the more secluded parts of France, resistance seemed to come naturally.

Whereas (most of) the Catholics (who made up the majority of France) took orders from the Vatican and tended to see Jewish people as “Christ-killers,” the Protestants tended to see them as “God’s chosen people.” The French Protestants (Huguenots) had a long history of being oppressed by the Catholics, too, and they only took orders from God. That meant that if there was a human law that was unjust, they were willing to break it. Therefore the Protestants had no problems hiding Jews in their homes.

Villagers were hiding Jewish people (mostly children) throughout the war. Sometimes soldiers would come and the children would have to hide in the woods. Food and clothing were often scarce. Not every family was loving (although most were). Huguenots back then tended to be more moralistic than the branch of Protestantism I grew up in. Many of them, for instance, didn’t believe in dancing.

But I don’t want to pin Protestants against Catholics or anything like that. Moorehead was very careful to include all those who helped out, including some brave Catholics and Germans.

What I want to ask myself is, if I were called upon to take in someone whose life was in danger due to an unjust law, would I be able to do it? I hope the answer would be yes. And, for all the pain people who claim to be Christians have caused in this world, I believe this story is evidence that those truly following Christ will love, even risk their lives, for their neighbor.

The Stories That Might Have Been

When I was about 6 or 7, I wanted to be a veterinarian or a zookeeper or a naturalist – anything that had to do with animals. After all, I loved finding turtles in the backyard or taking care of my cat. I’d have loved to have been like Dr. Dolittle or Kiara from “The Dark Crystal” who could talk with the animals.

But, as I grew, I showed less of an aptitude for science and more of a talent for music. So I took piano and voice lessons. I loved to sing! I was a pretty good singer too. I mean, I was given many solos in the school choir performances, I never scored less than 100% on my dictation tests, and I was a regular church soloist. Naturally that should put me on the career path to music, right?

I did quite well in English early on too. In 7th grade I tested into the accelerated English class but opted out of it because the class conflicted with choir. When I finally did join the ranks of honors English in high school, my grades slipped (although my AA junior English teacher, Mr. Dant, is still remembered as one of my favorites).

When I miraculously made it into a 4-year college after high school (despite having only a slightly above-average GPA), I followed the music route only to discover that many of the other singers in the program were far more talented than me. So I switched majors to a newly developing passion: international affairs.

It seemed natural. After all, I’d befriended a few of the international students during my first year of college and even set out on my first overseas voyage – to Romania.

I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be. International affairs was good preparation for working in non-profits, at embassies, or for multi-national corporations. I thought I’d either go into missions or some other form of humanitarian work.

I studied in France hoping to find some clarity. But instead, I found chaos and when my sanity finally broke, it was writing that held me together. I wasn’t writing fictional anecdotes to whisk me away into other worlds. I wrote my thoughts, feelings, and reflections about the life I was experiencing. Soon after my return from France, I attempted to write the first draft of my memoir.

I thought by the sheer piles of writings I had produced, I must be destined to be a writer. But there’s something professional writers have that I can’t seem to grasp. How are they able to stay inspired and motivated?

I find solace in taking photographs, but my hand is not always steady enough and I’m not gifted with the artistic eyes to make anything of monetary value.

All the other odd and in-between paths I’ve passionately pursued have also lost their appeal, leaving me with the lingering desire to be “normal” by which I mean – to have a job I love and to be able to support myself. Is this even possible for me? It’s time to find out.

A Christmas Letter 2014

It’s Christmas again and there are four of us at home again – my parents, my sister, and me. The pattern hasn’t changed in a while. I think the last time I wasn’t home for at least part of Christmas was the year I had to work on Christmas day. But that was no big deal. Lots of people work on Christmas day. I only had to do it once.

When I was in college I spent one Christmas in Belfast with distant relatives. It was the year I’d been studying abroad in France and arguably the most memorable year of my life so far. But other than that, Christmas with my family hasn’t changed much aside from the fact that as we get older the tree gets smaller and the presents around it are fewer each year.

It is tradition for many people who we don’t hear from the whole year through to at last remember our existance come December and send us a card with a note inside wishing us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The pile of cards we used to receive has significantly lessened over the years no doubt due to the progression of social media. Even I, who once wrote (somewhat ironically) a mass email lamenting the loss of the hand-written letter, have fallen into the fold of living my life online.

Part of the Christmas card tradition is the generic Christmas letter. My dad writes ours for the family, although he sometimes changes the first paragraph for each one to make it more personal. The letter is a summary the past year, focusing on highlights and ignoring forettable family squabbles.

So I’ve been thinking about my personal Christmas letter and what it should include, but I must say, it’s been a rather “off” year for me. What have I to boast of? You see, last January or so I decided, under the supervision of my psychiatrist, to ween myself off of the medicine I’d been taking and then to experiment with others in an effort to find something with less troubling side-effects. Psychiatry, I might add, is not an exact science. You can’t simply determine what your body needs through a blood test. The only way to know if a psyche medicine will work on a patient is to try it.
The rest of the year was all a consequence of my decision to change medications: Depression, two hospitilizations, and just over two months of out-patient group therapy. Achievements? Well, I survived and I did do some pretty significant work on the memoir I never can seem to finish.

But wait! This doesn’t sound like a Christmas letter! Christmas letters are full of hope, not disappointment. All right, then.

To cope with the depression, I took a lot of pictures and, for the end of the year, put them in a slide show for you. I’m very optimistic about the upcoming year. I’m finally on medicine that works again and I’m back in my reading mode (it’s often times difficult to concentrate when you’re suffering from depression). Believe me, I aim to learn a lot and to pass some of that knowledge on to you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!