Parabolas

There’s a shape to it, almost a taste: sharp on the side of my tongue, bright and blunted, outlining her in the sunlight. She’s in a patch of sun, lying on the carpet, sprawled, really, a blanket wrapped around most of her body, on the floor. Her face is turned towards mine, her eyes toward the front of the room; she’s listening. I’m watching her.

Her skin is remarkably clear, from here. From a chair six feet away. Skin is clear, clean features, hair shiny and long and soft-looking. The way she’s laying, her body, gives me a momentary flash of someone else, someone else I used to know a long time ago. An image appears of them, side-by-side, in my mind’s eye. Passionate people. People who feel, a lot. The someone else used to demand power, wrest it, create it from the world, demand action. The someone else fades away.

She’s not looking at me, laying on the floor, facing me, face tilted away. I normally wouldn’t look at her, but I’m leaning into this feeling, leaning into the taste, letting it have its way. It’s sharp and blunt and strong. It wants… something, it wants.

It wants desperately. It wants diffusely. It wants something from her, it wants her acknowledgment, it wants her expressions, her interest, her engagement. It wants the group she represents, it wants acceptance, it wants her attention, her caring, her mine.

Her hair is nice in the sunlight. I want to turn away from this emotion; it’s usually blacker in my mind than it is right now. Usually corruptive and corrosive and spreading uncontrollably: wanting something that you can’t just grab, that takes time. Luck. Effort. Self?

What do you want? I ask it. Just acknowledgement. Just care about me. Just let me know what to say, to make you hold me too. To be your friend. To be an equal, to be easy, to be someone who is in your mind, who occurs to you when there’s something I’d like, to invite me, who you’ll invite into circles, who will want me, easy, and the same, too, for the group you represent.

It’s been a while, I think at it, since you’ve been so blatant. Such pure, diffuse, undiluted yearning, sunlit and centered on her. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking.

The feeling shifts, turns itself over, like a pebble, exposing a smooth other side. The flipside holds admiration for people, the calm open-minded beauty in observing others, in seeing what they care about, in writing them and about them and watching. Oh, I think, you’re that feeling, too? Yearning—yearning hurts, sometimes, corrupts—yearning is that feeling, too, of brightness, of admiration, of calm, of openness? I didn’t know.

Sometimes her eyes meet mine, and she’ll often just look back, a second or two of gaze, before I slide my focus away. We know each other, have various connections between us, are almost where I want to be. That almost has a taste, a texture, a shape.

I’m standing, talking with someone else, later. I’m telling an old story; I say: “They said I wasn’t…” I’m searching for the word, on the tip of my tongue. It starts with an ‘a’, several syllables, has a very specific feel to it, negative but old.

“Ambitious enough,” she fills in, unprompted, from a new position on the floor. I didn’t know she was listening. It’s an old story, she was there, but it’s an old story.

“Yeah, she knows,” I say, looking at her, body turned towards me, eyes closed, turned away. She remembered, she filled in the word for me, she engaged. The yearning in me perks up, waiting. Gives a burst of warmth, of remembrance, earnest delight.

See? It says, this taste on the edge of my tongue. Time and patience and wanting. It may come; I am here regardless; it may come.

It’s nighttime on the subway, late. I could have Uber-ed home, instead I’m waiting in the station, leaning on the outside of an escalator, looking up, several floors above, listening to the un-silence of the tunnels. No one’s talking near me, no human voices, but there’s the ever-rushing noises of incoming trains and the rhythmic clanking of the de-escalating steps. It’s a long escalator; my gaze can follow its line up to the ceiling, clanking and hissing and unsilence. Someone steps on at the top, starts the way down, might make eye contact, and I stop my staring upward, sweep my gaze downward. Twist into the appearance of normal, heft my backpack and wander off.

I find a tiled wall to lean on. The man next to me moves aside deferentially. I rotate, slightly; he’s old, Asian, hair strands alternating white and black, shifting forward and backward where he stands. There’s something weird about his arms—I face forward again. The kind of weirdness that means he’s probably used to people staring; sneaking glances. The kind of weirdness where it’s not all right just to look.

Plastic, I see on my next glance. Plastic arms, at least one of them, prosthetic. Back to facing forward. He smells good, I note. Cologne. I might write about this, I note.

We get on. His other arm, too, is prosthetic. I stare into the dark window opposite me, trying to examine the reflection. Hooks for hands, grasping hooks? There’s a mechanism that allows them to close and open, one degree of freedom… I can’t tell from here. Grocery bags swing from the hooks. He doesn’t look like he’s having problems carrying them. He sways back and forth with the railcar movements.

Someone gets on; he moves deferentially away. A large movement, a full and a half back. I wonder how he got his prosthetic arms. Where he’s been. He seems polite. He steps out of the train, and we rush on past, station gone in the screeching of movement.

I look around. The only people talking are two boys some seats back; I’m standing, like I almost always do. I don’t like the fact that there’s conversation; I don’t like the fact that it looks like I could know them, that they look like my people, undergraduates at some school somewhere. Several stops later I recognize one of them. Recognize him as an undergraduate in a lab I collaborate with. Recognize the class number they’re talking about, recognize the cadence of school-talk, of talking about professors, about assignments.

We’re on a subway, I want to tell them. We’re on a subway at night.

Nighttime in the subway isn’t for friends, isn’t for your daytime normal. Nighttime on subways is for thoughts. Nighttime on subways is for people.

Conversational tone can branch, sometimes. If I say: I often feel guilty for not doing something, do you say:

Huh, interesting, I didn’t know that about you, or

Have you thought about the advantages of doing it?, or

What are your motivations for not?

I have relatives visiting, who I’ve never met as an adult. They’re incredibly easy, fun, engaging. They bring me into a science museum because I rave about the gift shop. Why the gift shop, they ask? Too expensive to go inside, I reply, but the gift shop is amazing.

Inside’s even more amazing than the gift shop, and we’re all having a far better time than I could have imagined. The displays are astonishing, each one obviously carefully crafted, a marvel of demonstrations of science for the public. My relatives don’t do science, and earlier when we were catching up they asked me to explain my research in understandable terms. People don’t often ask that; it’s a request that’s often left implicit.

We’re trying to figure out what one display is doing, playing and questioning and peering at it. He figures it out, gets the rope to run on the motor, and we both laugh, excited, start fiddling with the knobs.

“Ah, we’re changing the parabola!” I exclaim, getting it.

He nudges me, teasing. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? Parabola.

I shake my head, flustered. It is a parabola. We are changing it. I—

I need this language almost all the time, you know? Excellent spelling, grammar, use of terms describing “base” concepts; most recently I need a speed of analogies between related scientific domains that demands a mathematical grounding. People around me like it, I like it, it’s like a game we all play: can you take a topic or term from one domain, slap it down on another? What are the implications? How clever can you sound, how interesting is the new idea in concept space? Make links, do it quickly, understand it quickly, get the joke—

There’s no time to check for communal understanding, no time to explain baselines, that ruins the fun of it, the satisfaction of knowing the esoteric and making the connection fastest—you need to know, you need to know fast, you need to know well

That wasn’t my intention, you know? I’m not good at the analogy game, most of the time. But I play, and I definitely try to understand the jokes. This game is the fodder of many of my conversations. It defines the strongest displays of dominance and expertise, while simultaneously existing as one of the greatest sources of shared delight and interest. It exists as a commonality of the many people around me: a wide-open engagement of shining a new perspective on an idea, a reveling in tiny eureka moments of understanding.

Parabola. A default base term I don’t have time to think about, that I’m encouraged not to think about, not because it’s an efficient term (it may or may not be), but because it signals competence, it signals speed of understanding and the potential for flexibility between domains, and everyone else uses it so you’d better keep up.

Scientists will take the time to think about universally-understandable terms if you ask them. Sometimes they’ll fail, most often because the concept they’re trying to describe is very difficult. To understand the concept, you’ll need to have learned many previous concepts, each of which is summarized by a specific set of words. These words aren’t substitutable because they represent an entire set of concepts. People will give up because of time or magnitude, because they don’t know how to explain, or because they don’t understand enough themselves to explain it to someone else.

Sometimes scientists will model you incorrectly, and not explain enough because they don’t want to tell you something you already know, or more often because they forget everyone doesn’t already know the thing they’ve been studying for however many years. I forget what level of knowledge is baseline in many fields / year of education, and have gotten in trouble for this both ways, explaining too much and too little.

Sometimes scientists aren’t simplifying because this is part of their identity: they’ve constructed their representations around complex links, and they want these parts of themselves to be appreciated. Sometimes they aren’t simplifying for the pleasure of it, because it is satisfying to link advanced concepts, even if no one’s who will understand it is around. Sometimes scientists are a little asshole-ish, because they’re doing this for their pleasure. Sometimes scientists really are assholes, where they’re explaining on complex terms to signal they’re above you.

But the majority of the time, I think that people are legitimately trying, and we’re just conditioned like crazy by the interactions and what’s required to be “in” and accepted by the groups around us, or we don’t understand the concept well enough to explain it from the ground up so we’re hoping you just know, or we don’t think it’s going to fit in the time allocated, or we don’t understand what your current state of knowledge is, or we forget that you won’t understand and therefore appreciate the fun analogy…

Just… for the numerous slightly tension-filled moments I’ve had over the years and will continue to have: please bear with me when I’m stupid and get excited and jump into the modes where I really should say “parabola” instead of “shape of the arc”, forgetting that I’m in a different situation. You’re right to correct me. And please don’t take it personally :).

“What were you thinking?” he asks me, and I breathe out a huge sigh of relief.

We’ve just finished eating dinner and discussing a book club book, Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider”, a collection of her essays and speeches as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. This is the first time I’ve been invited to this book club, and I’ve gone for the experience of listening to people who know and care about social justice, and institutional discrimination.

And I don’t speak the language yet.

Description: 15 people gathered around two tables pushed together, chairs and stools and folding chairs crammed into Tess’s apartment in San Francisco. Mostly women, some strangers to each other, couples, a few sets of friends. Indian food and overflowing naan and excellent group norms, individuals even explaining terms that are mostly common knowledge, smooth and continuous conversation emphasizing equal speaking time.

I know two people, both peers who I greatly admire, who are sitting across the table. I am equipped with having read a few chapters of this book out of many, and a nurturing neighbor who has asked me about her research and explained some of hers.

It is an excellent discussion.

There are obviously underlying concepts here. People share frames of reference for the circumstances the author describes, and make connections between her writing in the ‘70s and what is present today. They discuss the themes that the author discusses and weave them into their own lives, and what they see in others. Modern politics, economic systems, and social movements are effortlessly integrated with personal anecdotes and analyses of the author’s personality and intentions. People read passages out of the book or paraphrase, ask questions to the table or pass the speaking turn with confidence and acute attentiveness.

It’s probably the best book discussion I’ve ever been in—no, it is by far the best book discussion I’ve ever been in. It’s also readily apparent that I wasn’t reading the book the same way these people were. They’ll read passages out loud that I read, and distill a point of the author, and how it’s still relevant today. And though I felt distant from the page when I was reading it before, a sense of yes, yes, this is poetry, I see what story you’re telling, with the speaker’s words the passage will feel relevant to me, through its relevance to them and their extraction of meaning, and I feel this author, I feel engaged with this book, with struggles of people today.

At some point, Tess is going around the table, checking in on anyone who hasn’t spoken yet.

“One of Audre’s intentions in writing this may have been to process the world she’s experiencing. Monica, you also write in order to process, right?”

I freeze, face heating, put on the spot. “…Yes,” I say, in a tone that I fear expresses how much I think this is dooming me. A few people laugh cooperatively.

“What do you think that’s what she was aiming at?”

It’s a beautiful question. Tess has brought up an interesting analysis question, retrieved something from her memory something that’s important to me, linked the two, lobbed me this link instead of something more open-ended, and done so in an incredibly deft manner. I wanly destroy this effort.

“…I knew you would call on me, and was trying to think of something to say. Uh, this is way too put-together to be her form of processing. But I really don’t have any comment right now… I haven’t done humanities in, like, seven years, I really don’t have any opinions right now, but I will in the future. Sorry.”

It’s a bit worse than that, with some more fumbling, but that’s about the essence of it. They try to engage me a bit more, and I do some more fumbling before they leave me be. At the end of the discussion, my neighbor is kind and asks if I want to say anything. I shake my head mutely.

I feel like I’ve run headlong into this problem of presenting especially badly in public in a few new groups I’ve joined. It’s not something I want to stop, necessarily. A lot of the time I’m joining these groups because they’re new, because I don’t know what the expectations are. I could prepare beforehand, and often in these cases I could have guessed what would be expected of me and done a decent job, but I usually don’t put the effort in because there’s hopeful ambiguity I can just skim along listening. I seem to decide that the stress of preparing, when I don’t fully know the scope of expectations and would have to prepare more broadly, isn’t worth just showing up and possibly being embarrassed. Maybe other people get around this by being better at on-the-spot presentations, but I’m only good at on-the-spot presentations when I have cached thoughts about the domain.

What especially pained me about what I said this time was “I haven’t done humanities in seven years”. The immediate counter-argument is that this isn’t humanities, this is life, which everyone should be engaging in. I know this. As soon as I said it I winced, because I know this. So what was I trying to get at when it came out of my mouth? I think it’s something like: I’ve been engaged with feminism, especially feminism in STEM fields, for years. I’ve read articles; I know the basic arguments; I know the stats; I know the current situation; I write about it; I’ve talked with older women scientists about it; I’ve talked with younger women scientists about it; I’ve talked with male scientists about it; I talk to a lot of people about it; I talk casually about it; it’s something often on my mind. I’m also comfortable with LGBTQ issues, and have had many personal discussions about this. Meanwhile, I have talked about institutional racism, in depth with individuals, um… one time? I’m not oblivious—I read the news and also know stats and basic arguments, but it’s not something I talk about with people, except with the broadest brushstrokes.

That’s part of it. Another really big part of this is that I haven’t done a book analysis since something like senior year of high school. That was about the last time I had a book discussion as well.

What was weird about my trying to contribute to this discussion is that I couldn’t generate anything—people were engaging in analysis of the literature, and I was like: I have read the words on the page, I did not read this to draw conclusions and I now seem to be unable to come up with any. Usually there’s something I can pull up, but at the time that I was asked, I wasn’t able to draw up anything that would be at the right level for what people were bringing to bear in this audience.

I was feeling meh upon the conclusion of the discussion—it’s embarrassing, I was embarrassed and feeling defensive and worried everyone thought I was stupid. I was also feeling much less of this than usual because I recognized the feeling and had partially discarded it as inevitable and not terribly useful, but I was still feeling a good part of it. And then one of the people I know—a friend who’s studying at Stanford—comes over to me and says:

“What were you thinking?”

And I was saved.

“Not thoughts,” I say.

“Really?” he replies. “What type are we talking then? Nouns? Verbs? Visions? Space?”

I smile at the teasing, think about it since he seems actually interested.

“No, like… I just felt completely blank. Like, I guess, when they were talking about who the audience was, and whether people have the right language for it, I’m like that, I feel like I don’t have the language for this, in concept space. And I’m feeling very “unwoke”, as she said, and also like I don’t have a generative model for how people were coming up with things, I think I talked to you about this earlier. And there was that part at the end about how to convince people of things, and I was thinking about how you do it, and how you were engaging with…”

And things started coming out of my mouth. It was ridiculous, I had no idea where they were coming from.

“But what was your input? Words? Faces?”

I think about it. “Words, yeah. And, like, people, too, yeah. Trying to figure out who knows things. Who’s authoritative. Like, I know whenever words come out of your mouth, they’re good, but sometimes people say silly things in one aspect but they’re really good in another aspect, and trying to figure that out, and also which ideas are common knowledge, and whether people agree with them, and what people mean by some silences, and…”

He’s brilliant, this guy. I didn’t realize how important of a question that was, until he asked it. Who asks that kind of thing? What kind of input were you using for thinking? That’s an astonishing question, shows a depth of interest and understanding of the human mind and my mind. And even that first question, What were you thinking?, that emphasis, the interest and astonishment, assuming I was thinking anything, was processing anything? I thanked him several times for checking in later, and he assured me he was genuinely curious. Who does that? I didn’t even think I had anything in my head—it certainly didn’t feel like it—but apparently I had paragraphs. It put a completely different spin and ending on that night.

That whole evening… there was a lot there, a lot of kindness, a lot of interest, a lot of caring and intelligence, room for growth. I feel like I’m only appreciating it now, when I write it up, but it left me feeling calm and warm, made me take the subway, rather than an Uber.

I’m in her office for the first time, finally found a new potential therapist.

“…And I’ve been collecting data on the dating thing, this whole past year,” I say.

I watch her carefully. I frame it in these terms in my mind sometimes, combining emotion and science. It’s a pleasure to do, a sort of distancing / connecting cold concepts / (analogy), but it’s only one of my representations, though a favorite of mine. People in science often like it, think it’s funny; people who are my friends often think it’s unique-ish and me. Most others don’t. I’m presenting it now: a subtle check for distaste.

There is none. She’s not phased at all, continues to nod slowly, ask occasional questions.

At the end she tells me that it seems like I like introspection a lot, will bring a lot of energy to this process, am motivated by curiosity and progress and seem to really enjoy various aspects of this in life. I nod along like to a horoscope, tell her yes, this all seems true.

It’s not until later, when I leave, thinking about the frame she just gave me and using it to push through a hurdle on part of a problem…

No distaste, huh. Even though she’s not someone super similar to me. Good questions, interested in motivational structure. Still extracted a huge part of who I consider myself to be.

…Found a therapist :).

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