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Survivor Day 2016 [19 Nov 2016|12:56pm]
Survivor Day 2016

November 19 is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.  It's a day when people affected by suicide loss get together and share stories, share hope, share memories and coping strategies, and generally look to each other for understanding and support. You can find out more about it at https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/survivor-day/ .

I choose to spend this day each year raising awareness about suicide, and  I do this by sharing my mother's story (http://sweetmusic-27.livejournal.com/105130.html) and by sharing facts about suicide itself.  In the past, I've written about my mother's suicide, I've written tipsheets for talking to friends who are suicidal, I've written about uncomfortable truths and busting myths and dispelling taboos.  But I've never written about my experience as someone with suicidal ideation.  I've been afraid to do so, partly because I'm not looking for sympathy or advice, and partly because it's scary to share your mental health status with the world.

I first experienced severe suicidal ideation at eighteen, when I went away to college to get a nursing degree.  Before then, I'd fought stress by sinking into my studies and music.  When I was in college, it was my studies that were making me miserable, and I had no time for music.  I was beginning to realize that maybe a nursing degree wasn't for me, and I sank into depression.  I slept a lot, and I cried a lot.  I was looking down the wide, central staircase of my dorm building when it occurred to me that most people wouldn't look at that staircase and long for relief, and think of jumping.  It was one of the realizations that got me to look into counseling.

Eventually, my college therapist suggested medication.  I fought the idea.  I thought I should just be able to shake it off on my own.  "And should diabetics just 'get over it' and make their own insulin?" she asked.  I went home and did some internet searches.  One search led me to a list of things to avoid saying to people with depression.  Things like 'shake it off,' and 'just get over it,' and 'go outside, you'll feel better.'  I saw how many of those messages I had internalized, and when I came back for my next appointment, I agreed to a prescription of an anti-depressant, and I tried that for about a month and a half.  It didn't work for me, but my sister took me aside and suggested I try a different one, which worked for her, and perhaps our genetics would mean that I saw a similar effect.  I tried it.  It helped.

Over the last ten years, my suicidal ideation has fallen into three categories: barely-noticeable, sudden but mild, and moderate.

Barely-noticeable suicidal thoughts are like a news ticker streaming by at the bottom of a screen.  I know it's there, but it's easy to ignore.  These are thoughts that come up when I see a sharp object, look out a window of a tall building, or drive a car.  I unwillingly visualize cutting myself with that object, jumping out the window, or crashing the car.  These thoughts happen to me every day.

Sudden but mild suicidal thoughts happen at odd times, but the example I usually use is when I'm at the grocery store late at night.  Nobody else is around, I'm almost done with my shopping, and I remember I need ham.  I walk by the refrigerator case and there are twenty different options for ham, and I'm tired, and I thought I was almost done, and there's no reason for there to be this many different kinds of ham in the world.  "There's no reason for anything.  Why am I here?  I shouldn't be here.  I should just go."  Then I close my eyes, stick out my hand, and pick up the first kind of ham I touch, and get out of there.  The thought passes.

Moderate suicidal thoughts happen rarely.  It's only when I'm having a low period, where I'm depressed for a couple of days to a week.  I don't want to do anything, or I do, but I can't muster up the energy.  I don't feel loved, I don't feel important, suicide pops up as an obvious choice, I push the thought aside, and keep fighting.  Fighting is boring and difficult and I hate it.  The judging specter in the back of my mind thinks it's ridiculous that I'm even trying.  After a few days, the fog clears and I don't feel that way anymore.

Since I don't have severe suicidal ideation anymore, I thought that this was the best I could do.  I've been in a really good place otherwise - I have a good sense of humor, a career that drives me, a great support network, health insurance, and an understanding psychiatrist.  I'm very, very lucky.  But some months ago, I sat down with my psychiatrist and we talked about my low periods.  She said, "I know you feel like you're in a good place.  But I think we can do better.  I'd like you to think about adding a medication to the one you're already taking."

It took three months of side effects and zeroing in on the correct dose, but now my suicidal ideation is just... gone.  I don't have moderate thoughts, I don't have mild thoughts, I don't have barely-noticeable thoughts.  It's a little weird that they're gone, to be honest.  It's possible that they'll come back, or that I'll still have low periods where they reoccur, but when they do, I'll be ready.  I've been fighting them most of my life.

Every person's story is different; every person's suicidal ideation is different.  But that's how it is for me, and I'm willing to step up and talk about it.  Every time you share this post or other information on suicide, you help to fight the stigma, break the taboo, and dispel the myths. Feel free to link back to this. Feel free to comment here with other links and resources and stories. Feel free to talk to me about suicide. Feel free to comment anonymously on this post (trolling and hate speech will be deleted).
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Christmas In The Sahara - or, Amy Travels To Morocco, chapters 3 and 4 [31 Dec 2015|03:15pm]
These are chapters 3 and 4.  For chapters 1 and 2, see this post.

Chapter Three:  Christmas In The Sahara
See, we planned the trip and Benet said, "Do you want to go to the desert?" And I hadn't thought about it, so I said, "Um, why?  What's there other than sand?"  Benet goes, "Ah, it was just a thought.  Besides, it turns out the Sahara's pretty far away from Marrakech anyway, so we won't have time." Well, it turns out that our hotel offered a two-days-one-night trip as an add-on for $70 extra apiece, and at first I was all, "Ha!" And then I realized that I was somehow already regretting not going.  So we decided to set off on the excursion in the morning on Christmas Eve.

So we woke up at six, were ready by six thirty, and ate a nice breakfast, out the door and in the van by seven.  Now, I didn't think the Sahara was close, and I knew this was a group excursion, but what I didn't realize is that we'd spend a full hour and ten minutes waiting for every single other tourist in the Old City and in the New City who wanted to go to the fucking desert.  This was a particularly long stretch of listening to the one hipster who looks like three smooth Madison hipsters you've passed on the street on a visit here (but without facial hair) slowly telling the Italian lady next to him his life story and about each time they'd been in each other's countries.  I was just sad I hadn't packed gloves.

Finally, there was a loud conversation between one of the organizers and our driver in extremely rapid Arabic, with cellphones ringing, and we were off.  Okay, no, not quite, we picked up one last tourist on a very bumpy road.
It was then that I realized I was going to barf.  Not immediately, but soon.  And I hadn't brought Dramamine.  I hung on, white-knuckled, for an hour as our tiny bumpy bus-van went through a checkpoint and a few towns, but then we started to go upwards.  Finally, we pulled over.  Turned out some dude had to take a leak.  I got out after him, and said clumsily to the driver, "Je suis desole, mais..." I put my hand on my stomach.  I had just finally pulled the French verb "vomir" from my mind when I realized I didn't have to say anything, he was already nodding.

"Vous voulez changer?"
"C'est OK?  Oui, oui, yes, please."  And up to the shotgun seat I went.  Later, though, when it was time for a pit stop, I totally barfed.  Then things improved, and there were a few more pit stops.  One was for a photo op, and there was a little stand next to the view.  They were selling trilobites, like everybody does on the valley road.  Orange juice stands, tagine shops, almost all of them seem to have a little table full of geodes, many dyed to please the eye of a tourist.  A couple trilobites caught our eyes, but I didn't have enough time to haggle properly; I wound up paying 450 dirham for a sweet little bug nestled in with the heads of a couple buddies.  And there was another pit stop to wait for two more people who maybe got stranded somewhere?  I'm not sure.  We drove over mountains and mountains and just when I thought there couldn't be any more mountains, there were.  At least it was nice and cool, though.  And sitting up front, I could see the decisions our driver was making, and why, and I grew to like and respect him, turn by turn, passing lane by passing lane, honk by honk.

At first, the mountains had, well, dirt, and greenery.  They were not precisely the foothills, but they were definitely lower.  They were rounded, folded in on themselves.  Some were blunter, two knees tucked into a skirt; some were longer, a foot to a calf all the way to a powerful thigh.  But we went on, further and further, high and low and high again, and the mountains turned rocky, square.  Here, an elbow, there, a bicep, and here, finally, after we'd stopped for lunch (and I investigated another trilobite, one the size of a dinner plate)...we reached a pinnacle of sorts, the hair so neatly combed that you could see the rakish lines left behind, layers of sediment from years and years.  I can't describe it.  I looked down and there were the Atlas Mountains, and it seemed we had crossed and climbed each one, and now we had found the top of the world, and even though we had reached this height and would have to come down from here, that the world was so grand and so voluminous that there is no down, there is only more and more and more, as much as you can see, for the rest of your life.  I nearly wept, it was so beautiful.
But down we came, and as we had been going along, first there had been the cacti, more than I'd ever seen in one place in my life.  Here in Morocco, they are hedgerows.  They're hardy, they're good fences, you can eat them, what's not to like?  But eventually there were fewer and fewer cacti, occurring more naturally, it seemed, more bushy.  There had certainly been palm trees all along, and there had been many little oases here and there, stands of the palm trees and scrubbier cousins.  But for something that you know is going to become the desert, there are a lot of little streams, a lot of greenery, a little waterfall down a cliff we drove past, the occasional palm forest, until finally on my left there sprang a huge river of palm trees, stretching on and on and on.   I thought perhaps it was another oasis that was going to end after the next turn, but no, it doesn't end for an hour and a half.  It is the Zamora valley, the Draa oasis, and the trees play tag with the Draa river, which sometimes just looks like a long rock-filled puddle, sometimes seems to disappear completely, only to pop up again.  Either way, you can always see the bed of it, the rounded rocks, the finer sand, the way the land curves for it.
That is where you can see the mountains soften on one side, green again, and on the other, well... It's less that they are mountains and more like mountainous rock formations, like Road Runner cartoons.  We saw little villages and bigger towns with shiny modern gas stations, we stopped for water, the last stop, and I knew we had to be approaching the desert soon, so the palm trees would have to end.  We started seeing signs for desert tours, for Voyages Au Sud, for camel rides.  Soon, surely, the desert would come? And then we turned a corner, and there was the moon, possibly the largest I've ever seen it, all the particulate matter and all the horizon magnifying it hugely as it rose, almost-full, ready to burst in five minutes.  My jaw dropped.  This time, I *did* weep.  And then we pulled over, and I realized the palm trees  were gone, the paved road had just ended, and on my right were camels.  "But it's not even the desert yet!" I thought, strangely aggrieved.  We'd been in the car for hours, but I didn't want it to end.
Slowly, we got out of the tiny bus.  I wiped the tears from my eyes and stood there looking awkwardly at the camels (are you gonna bite me?  Does anybody really expect me to ride one of these?  What if I'm too chubby or short to ride a camel or I can't even get my ass up on one of them?) and noticing the men in their turbans and the little boys, hearing Mustafa, our driver, shout to the Berber guides, hearing everything, understanding nothing.
"Sweet?" I thought I heard, and maybe that's what it was, but the next one was the French,  "Biscuit?"  Bis-squee?  The little boy looked at me imploringly.  I thought for a moment, then shrugged and opened my backpack, rummaged inside the ziploc of snacks, and handed him one of my strawberry fruit leather strips.  I should have known better, because suddenly I was surrounded by a circle of outstretched hands and tiny voices crying "Merci beaucoup!" "Sweet?"  "Biscuit?"  I laughed and handed out strips of fruit leather from Target until I was about to run out, and then I saw a blur and heard a child shout and saw the blur pick up a rock threateningly - one of the Berber guides.  Whoops.  Once I realized I hadn't caused harm to the kid, however indirectly... "Desole," I muttered in the least-sorry fashion possible, grinning under the brim of my hat.
Everybody but two people had gotten on camels, and I was one of the two.  "Madame!" One of the guides called to me, and gestured toward a brown camel.  "Bonjour, Monsieur Chameau," I said to the placid beast, which I think was actually Madame Chameau, and got on.  It was easy, until my camel stood up, and then I was afraid I might fall off.  But then it stood up its other legs, too, and all was well.  The guides were getting organized and getting people seated, and my camel was swinging its head around to me, rummaging its nose by the saddle blanket.
It was then that I realized my camel had been looking for its rope lead, which had been tucked there, and once found, took its own lead in its mouth and calmly walked the two of us over so it could chew on a bush, some plant that looked like rosemary with copious thorns.  I just laughed.  They'd somehow managed to find me an Amy-camel.

(I'm the one in the white hat.)

The guide took my camel's lead, hardly even noticing its offhanded gluttony, and another guide took the lead of the other head camel, and we rode as the sun set behind us and the moon rose full and glorious in front of us.  I waved at Benet on his camel and looked up.  The moon looked so large, and the sky was so colorful, so mystical, that  for the first five minutes it seemed that we would ride our camels right up to the moon with little trouble.
It turns out that five minutes is a very long time for a weak-assed American tourist to be on a camel.
We rode for twenty-five more.  It began to hurt.  But during that half-hour, the moon rose, and the dome of the sky turned the color of nothing, sunset-tinged.  I say nothing because I couldn't tell if there were clouds or not; sure, it was bluish, but such a strange blank blue, and then, as the rocky sand turned to the first few dunes, finally darker.
As we approached the tents, I looked down and wondered why the sand got darker, too.  No, it wasn't darker, it looked like... There were a bunch of acorns on the ground?  Ohhh, no, camel poop.  LOTS of camel poop.  This was our parking lot.  I will never look at those Christmas cards that have the outline of camels and wise men quite the same again.

We got off the camels, were shown the tent for six that the two of us would help occupy, and then we all sat in a circle to drink tea before dinner.  Dinner began with a soup that was almost entirely cumin, so naturally Benet loved it and I thought it tasted like soap.  Then a lovely lamb tagine, and oranges for dessert, and then singing around a fire which was not large enough to beat back the cold, and clapped along to songs and drumming.  My favorite part was the sky afterwards.  The moon was full, so the stars were hard to see, but the dome of the sky was beautiful and unblemished.

By this time, it was stupidly cold.  The blankets that I had first chuckled at for being the same as the saddle blankets for the camels, I wrapped around me tightly, layered carefully over the two of us, and dropped off.
I woke up at five-thirty in the morning, because when you go to the desert like that, it's fuckin' loud.  Deep in the Sahara, I assume it's quieter, but in the not-very-Sahara, the no-tourists-or-camels-will-ever-be-lost Sahara, there are dogs, camels, drums, children, farmers, everything.  After mucking around on my iPad for a while, I got up the courage to go outside.  After five minutes, I came back in.
"Benet."

"Mrrgh."

"Benet."

"Mrrgh?"
"You have to see the moon."

"Mrrrgh..."

"I know it's cold and you're sleepy, love.  You have to see the moon, and then you can come back under the blankets."
A tousled head appeared, then the rest of Benet, putting on his shoes with surprising rapidity.

"The moon," I gestured grandly to his left.

"Ohhhhhhh...!"  His eyes widened.  It was a gold coin ready to be plucked out of the sky.

"The sunrise." I gestured grandly to his right, all the colors warming the eastern edge of the horizon.

"Ahhhhh..." He smiled.

"Merry Christmas!  I love you.  Go back to sleep."  I pulled a blanket off the bed and went to watch the moon set.  It fell so fast you could almost see it move.  What was once a gold coin inflated into a child's ball and was slowly pulled away to become something else.

I turned my attention to the sunrise, and after it flooded the sky with color and light, the guides had set out tea and bread and butter and jam and honey.
Everything was lovely until I got back on my camel and realized how sore I was.  A half an hour of this in my future, plus however long it took everyone else to mount up?  Augh, no.  We persevered, though, the two of us, and tucking one foot over towards my lap lent me a more comfortable (if slightly more awkward) ride.  Benet seemed to do fine, naturally.
Then it was back to the van!  I took some videos from the window which I'll post whenever they finally upload, but I'll sum up the rest of Christmas Day with a few travel tips you probably don't need.

If you ever go to Morocco or another country where one haggles for prices, beware of expressing interest, or, say, being a smiley nonthreatening American who thinks weaving is cool.  You might think that you are in, say, a museum of local historical artifacts, and allow the proprietor to tell you about the rich history of something like hand-knotted Berber carpets at great length, only to find that he finishes his next sentence with, "you like it?  How much, for you?  How much would you like to pay for it?  I will make you a good deal."  Then you will be in a difficult spot no matter how gracefully you demur, for the proprietor will only think you are being cautious in your bargaining and polite about his wares.  The best way to escape this situation that I have yet found is to express honest surprise that they are for sale and then, as soon as you can divert the steamroller of salesmanship, ask about something you can actually afford, like a soda or trinket.
If you ever go to Morocco, the first thing you should do is get the local equivalent of a roll of quarters.  The second thing you should do is buy a package of wet wipes.  There are many, many, many pay toilets in the Atlas Mountains, including ones at restaurants where you have already purchased a meal, and not all of them have:
-toilet paper
-gender-divided restrooms, let alone single ones or accessible ones
-Western toilets, let alone ones with secure or clean seats or seats at all
-working plumbing or present fixtures
-soap (often colorful liquid hand soap that has been watered down so much it is barely yellow or pink)
-paper towels (sometimes there is a stack of the strange blank newsprint torn into squares which they use for coasters, placemats, napkins, and, apparently, paper towels)
So, if you do find one with the amenities you like, you'll probably want to not just pay a dirham, but give a bit extra as a tip for the attendant.  The attendant, for what it's worth, never speaks, and often hands out the toilet paper.  If there is any.  It's good to tip first (not just see what there is, then take your wipes with you and drop a dime on the way out if it's worth it and you're not caught 'stealing' bathroom time) because the attendant might also choose to alert you with a difficult-to-interpret hand wave if a stall with a broken lock is taken, or warn you if you don't want a particular stall for some other reason.  Might.

If you ever drive the valley road through the Atlas Mountains, you will have to do a lot of passing and avoiding other drivers and obstacles.  There is ostensibly one lane going each way and sometimes there is a recommendation in the road lines or signs as to whether or not it's safe to pass.  However:
-Driving on mountainous roads with miles of switchbacks and hairpin turns means that it will be better for your car to go with the forces of nature, not against them, and not off the cliff, so staying in your lane, and thereby, your side of the road all the time is not an option.
-The road lines sometimes represent wishful thinking, are sometimes gone because of construction, or are sometimes worn away.
-Even if you drive a car at sloth speeds, you will be faster than someone, like one of the many, many scooters, or the frequent elderly or differently-abled pedestrians.
-There are many things to avoid in the road besides things going more slowly than you, like cars pulled over, police checkpoints (okay, don't avoid those, but you'll have to stop for the sign even if they wave you through), potholes, goats, cows, sheep, cats, dogs, children, people who think running into the road to make faces at you is a good idea, debris...
-Honking is a slightly different means of communication.  A single short honk is polite and common, meaning something along the lines of "I am here and intend to keep going in this direction in this lane at this speed."  Sometimes people honk if they are about to make a hairpin turn, to warn approaching traffic that a car will be coming, maybe not all the way in its intended lane due to the forces of physics and such.  If you give a single short honk while right behind a car in front of you, that means the above with a heavily implied "and I would like to pass you to do that."  The car in front of you can wait/ignore this message, weave slightly so you can see the slower-moving object in front of them, slow down so you can pass easily and see better, or, best of all, give a right turn signal, which, rather than implying they will pull over to the nonexistent shoulder, implies that the car has (hopefully) scanned the road for you and is ready for you to pass.  If that car responds promptly, it's friendly to give a wave or a short "bee-beep" of a "thank you," communicated by that quick double-honk.   If that car doesn't respond promptly and you have to wait an unacceptable length of time before passing, scanning the road and turns ahead nervously before making your move, you might express your frustration as you pass with a triple "beep beep beeeeeeeeep" honk.
-At nighttime, this language is conducted less in honks, and more in flashing one's high-beams.  Traffic gets heavier in Morocco at night.  Though most cars have two functioning headlamps and most scooter-riders have helmets, those headlamps might not be bright and those scooter-riders don't worry about having much that's reflective at all.  Also, there are almost no streetlights on the valley road.  I strenuously recommend not driving over the mountains at night.
I wrote this safely in bed after a delightful meal in the courtyard of our riad, and a nice hot shower.  With soap!  And clean towels!  And no attendant or worries about having pocket change. 

Chapter Four: Boxing Day is for Shopping and Eating
Today was our last full day in Marrakech, so we stopped to buy spices from Abdul and Rashid when they would be the freshest when we got home.  The ras al hanout they ground for us from the big chunks of soft cinnamon, the cumin seeds, the pointed stars of anise, the paprika, the peppercorns, the ginger root, first showing it to us in the rough and then bringing us the bag, still warm and so, so fragrant.  When I get home, my clothes are going to smell incredible!  We also wanted to check in and get Abdul's advice on shopping for more trilobites in Marrakech.  He used to work at a fossil shop, but he said there are no more dedicated fossil shops in the Medina that he knows about, there aren't enough customers.  Germans love fossils and minerals, some Americans, but not enough to stay open.  He talked to his boss and they agreed that the best thing to do was for us to look around the big souk, the big market square, for places that had antiquities, and then look for fossils, or the dyed geodes that everyone has.  They might have a few out front some places, then we could ask if they had any more, it's like that with some shops, they'll have some things out front as an indicator.

And that's what we did.  It took some time; there are a LOT of clothing shops in the big market.  Four different dudes wanted to shine my shoes, one stopping me so I could see that he had the good shoe polish.  On our way, we saw snake charmers!  Real live black cobras!  We paid to get our photo with them.  They draped us with calm tourist snakes and got good pictures, with the cobras in the frame.



Benet actually liked that.  I got the best cinnamon ice cream I've ever had in my liiiiife(which I am holding in the photo), and finally we walked down a row of shops where I saw some of the dyed geodes and some of the round rocks with rubber bands around them, which is to say, trilobites 'avec les couverts' - the trilobite is in the bottom half of the rock and someone has broken it open, and you can pull off the top half of the rock to see the trilobite on the bottom and the indentation of all its vertebrae on the top.  It's one of the best ways to find real trilobites.  There really are fakes out there, and I've gotten better at recognizing them, but the easiest way is to get one that's got its cover, and look at the porous, reddish rock, then you'll know.  I found a nice little one, fairly intact, solid, and one rock that had two trilobites inside, with two covers on different parts of the rock.  That was a very good piece.  I knelt down and took off my glasses, looking for cuts and imperfections on the five or six specimens the shopkeeper had brought me, telling him we'd just been in the Atlas Mountains and seen the trilobites there, so he'd know I wasn't a rube.  He tried to get my interest in other things, Desert Rose, ammonites, dyed geodes, and then, when he saw my disdain, undyed geodes.  But finally I stood up with the two-in-one and the little one.
"Les deux ici, et le petit."  I gestured to both of them in my hands.  "Combien, les deux?"  How much for these two?  "Cinq cent?"  Five hundred?

"Ah, no, ils sont vrais.  Mille cent.  Neuf cent cinquante."  No, they're real. A thousand.  950.

I offered six hundred.  His eyebrows went up, like, 'you're fuckin' serious about that, aren't you, you know they're real.'  He went on to tell me, inasmuch as I could gather, that that would be a fine price for ones that maybe they had set out in the Atlas that were imperfect, 'comme ca, c'est coupe.' Like this one, the cut one.  A trilobite which I had picked up and looked at its cut-off vertebrae and said, "Awww, c'est coupe, le pauvre."  Oh, it's cut, the poor thing.  And set it down and patted it sympathetically, and moved on to its healthier brethren.  But these were real, were complete, finding them took work, and look, this one, it's two-in-one, it's rarer, it's more difficult to find.

"C'est bien, c'est bien.  Sept cent."  Seven hundred.

"Non, huit cent cinquante." 850.  He gestured with his hand, like that's the lowest, lady.

I nodded and smiled and said, "Bien.  Huit cent seul.  Pas de cinquante.  Oui?"  Alright, eight hundred only, not the fifty, yes?  And we shook on it and he went to wrap them up.  Overall, one of the most perfect haggling examples of the trip.  I started at five, he started at ten, we wound up at eight, they'd probably cost a little more in the states, it's all good.  Benet thought it was fair, and then remembered that he'd wanted to get a photo of me haggling for trilobites, possibly the most Moroccan activity there is, and asked the shop owner if it was okay.  We took a photo together, and he smiled.  See?


Then he said there was a bigger shop that his brother owned that we should check out down the way, and we went and looked to be polite, but it was all the usual tourist stuff, Berber daggers, jellabas, tagines.  Meh.  But his brother was very nice and wished us a good visit.
We walked on, and I felt accomplished.  "Hello, just a look, just to look, and then move on, it's okay?" Now this is rare.  In the big marketplace, a lot of people don't know from browsing.  This was something that Rashid and Abdul had lamented when I told them the henna story.  Everybody has a price in mind and wants to make a deal, now now now, buy buy buy.  There were some pretty ceramics, a nice blue mug with a silver bottom.  I wouldn't buy it, naturally, because microwaves and dishwashers are nice, and I break things, but I wanted to reward someone who understood browsing, and we stepped inside the little shop.  The keeper's name was Omar, and after finding we were American, high-fived us both.  He put his hand on my shoulder and showed me the ceramics.  Oh, okay, friendly.  Then his other hand on my waist to angle me towards the tagines.  That felt a little too friendly.  He stepped away to show Benet the leather goods.  Benet said no, not for me, thanks, whatever she likes is good.  Omar took hold of me again and told Benet he was lucky, jokingly offered four thousand camels for me, and assured that I would be in a large house.  We all laughed at the joke, though I bristled slightly and pointed at my rings.  Omar nodded and took my hand, put it in his, perilously close to his crotch, and said, "we smile, we smile, we always smile, if we make deal, is good, if not, we both still smile, yes?  All good, all happy."

"C'est bien, c'est bien," I took my hand back and reached for a nice little lidded canister, indigo with black decorations.  It'd be nice for sugar or spices or tea or something.  He told me about it at length, kept putting his hands on me.  I said I liked the indigo, I gestured to my black-and-blue sweater, shirt, hair, and he called me a Touareg (lots of Touareg things are blue, they're very into indigo).  By the time he got his hand on my hip, I stepped away and smiled and told him it was a very nice shop, but for me, I was done.  No more room in my luggage because of the trilobites.  He put his hands back on me and said he thought I liked that piece, what was wrong with it?  I showed him the glazing imperfections, the roughness, the way the lid didn't quite fit.  He protested that it was handmade, that those were signs of its unique nature and quality, and he'd give me a good price, eighty-five dirham only, very good.  I kept trying to leave and get him off me and Benet kept agreeing that we should leave and taking me by the arm and looking concerned at me, and Omar, not sure whether I was serious or haggling (he even said so at one point and I assured him I was done, it was a lovely shop, but we should go), just kept going down in price until finally he said thirty dirham, and three bucks really WAS a fair price.  I stopped and said, "Actually... Yes.  Oui, c'est bon.  That's a good price."

Omar's eyes widened and he said to Benet, "Now that... She is much more valuable than camels.  You are a lucky man."  And I gave him the money and we got out of there, thank goodness.  I said to Benet after we left that I was happy to be out from under his grasping hands gracefully, but if I had to withstand that, at least I got a good bargain.  I felt like I deserved *something.*  A trophy or a restraining order would have been nice, but what can you do.

More than twenty minutes of getting a hard sell for stuff is incredibly exhausting.  It's in my best interest to haggle, but I was tired like I'd just gone for a five-mile hike, and so was Benet.  We found our way out of the labyrinth of shops (it's hard to be somewhere where, if you take out a map, five local guides will come out of the woodwork and ask for money) and started back to the riad, stopping briefly to show Abdul and his boss the trilobites so they'd know we did okay on their advice.  The next day before leaving Marrakech I stopped by to give them a copy of my album.
We got back to the riad and the maids had scattered rose petals on the bed.  So beautiful!  Such a nice reminder that we were in Morocco.  Here, there is what was once a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and it is always full of rose petals and, during the evening, little candles.  An hour or two of tranquility was enough for us to come back to ourselves, and I remembered that after we'd had breakfast earlier, a well-dressed young man had tried to sell us on lunch right next door, and we'd told him we might come back.  It's common here for there to be hawkers for restaurants, and unlike shopkeepers, it's hard to argue with someone who has just eaten, so you can actually make eye contact and say, 'une autre fois, peut-etre, inshallah,' which is polite and gets you out of there.  Because what are they going to do, say "Oh, but you haven't eaten lunch yet as a gift for someone else!"  (A common tactic with shopkeepers.)  At any rate, we decided to go back there, and the same guy came out and recognized us!

He said he was lucky to have met us earlier and he was glad we came back!  We'd be the first people there for dinner tonight.  He showed us a bit of the riad and talked up the spa (two aspects of the business which I'd completely missed earlier) and then we went up a couple of flights of stairs to the terrace, which was jaw-droppingly beautiful.  When you're in the Main Street on your way to the big square, it's craziness, and if you look around with wide eyes, well, you'll make eye contact with someone who wants to sell you something, or you might look as though you need directions.  It's dangerous and noisy and smelly and vibrant and crowded.  People are going by on scooters, people are walking by with two or three foam mattresses piled on their heads (I'm not kidding, all the mattress shops are right there, it's nuts), cars are honking, pedestrians are risking their lives constantly... But up on the terrace, just two floors above, it was another world.
The two nearby mosques shone with light, the city glowed, the street noise was dimmed to a low roar.  There were little tables, a small swimming pool, a bar, and a large luxurious tent, rich with embroidery, under which was a glass house of sorts, and that is where we ate dinner.  They brought us olives shining with oil and fresh bread, orange juice just squeezed a minute ago and sparkling water.  Just before the meal, the call to evening prayer rang out, and while you can always hear it in Marrakech, up on the terrace by the two large mosques and perhaps a couple others nearby, it was the most beautiful cacophony of three or four calls to prayer all at once, echoing and mixing into each other.
I ordered the chicken cooked with honey, and it fell off the bone, the outside caramelized and rich and a little sticky, the inside all tender juicy shreds.  They gave me carrots and cucumbers, green beans and root vegetables, steamed and herbed, tender and a lovely counterpoint to the chicken.  Benet got chicken tagine, and it sizzled at the table.  One of the best things about getting tagines is the way that the juices pool at the bottom and the thick ceramic keeps them warm.  He finished the chicken and dipped his bread into what was left until the tagine held only bones.
For dessert, black coffee and fresh oranges sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon for him, or as the waiter called it, "vitamine C avec la canelle." And for me, a plate of the local pastries and mint tea, or as the waiter called it, "Berber whiskey." There were shortbreads which tasted as though they were 95% butter, and two little cookies with stars on one side and a round coin of chocolate on the other, but my favorite were the two warm ones, a spiral and a filled triangle, roasty-toasty on the outside and drizzled with rosewater-honey, and on the inside a lightly sweetened paste of peanuts and walnuts and almonds.  I tried to enjoy them slowly.  Afterwards, we tried to get some photos of the mosques shining through the night, but who knows if they came out.  I stood and turned in a slow half-circle, trying to get a panorama, and realized I was in the way of our waiter.  I apologized and he waved it off.  "This is your home!"

They always say that here.  I got back to the riad and thought about going back to that place for a massage the following day before catching a train to Casablanca.  After all, this is my home.
"Good friends from whom we now must part, where are we bound?  Your hands and voices lift my heart; here is my home.  Come darkness, come light, where are we bound?  Come morning, come night, here is my home."  (Si Kahn)


Epilogue: Things Do Not Always Go Well When We Travel
And finally, lest you imagine that my traveling is all adventures and stories and songs and bright pictures, there was the ordeal of getting home, with the accompanying hatred of everything that this sort of travel brings.

We arrived at the train station in Marrakech and went to the machine to get tickets for Casablanca. It says there's only one in first class, and then it won't even take Benet's money.  He gets antsy - it's frustrating, it's confusing, and there are a lot of people in the station - and I go up to the counter.  Okay, there aren't first class tickets until around 7pm, and it's around 2pm right now.  Fine, deuxieme classe, whatever.  In the guide I read it said that first class is 6-seats-to-a-cabin and assigned seats (which we verified on the way over) and second class is 8-seats-to-a-cabin, unassigned.  Whatever.

I get back to Benet with the tickets and he is worried because we have no transfer tickets to the airport (you can't get directly to Casablanca's airport from Marrakech, you must transfer at L'oasis or somewhere similar).  I relayed what the ticket guy said, which was to get them in Casablanca.  Benet wanted tickets, so we went up to the machine again.  It wouldn't take his money.  He got antsy.  I went to the other machine.  It had a long line, but I waited.  Part of the reason the line was taking so long is because there was a train station receptionist there to "help."  I tried to describe what I needed and she kept pushing buttons to get me a ticket from Marrakech to the airport.  Finally, I pushed the buttons for her, and then when the time came to select a train, I looked to her for the one piece of advice she could offer - when our train would arrive in Casablanca.  She indicated a button for 4:20.  I shook my head and chose the next one, knowing the train took longer than that.

Of course, I bought tickets for a train that was still too early.  We decided we didn't care at this point, and went to catch our train.  What I didn't know is that the guide was wrong about first and second classes on the train.  True, first class is six seats and assigned, but second is not eight and unassigned.  Eight is steerage.  They don't just fail to assign seats, they also don't cap them.  And it was a weekend.  There were no seats left on the entire train, just people filling up the tiny hallways outside the cabins.  We took a deep breath and did the same.  It was so warm and so crowded, I felt motion sick almost immediately.  The train ride was nightmarish, and trying to escape the train was nearly worse, and I will leave it at that.
We finally arrived at L'oasis and get a ticket for the airport and stop to have a soda and decompress before our second train.  We see one arriving - pretty early for our train according to what our tickets say, but we say what the hey, we'll amble on over to the platform anyway.  The ticket-taker says, "A l'aeroport?  Allez, allez!"
We hurry down the stairs and a conductor sees us.  "A l'aeroport?" We nod.  "Vite, vite!"  We still don't know why we're being hurried for a train that's not supposed to leave for eight minutes, but we hurry.  Benet makes it on the train and I am on his heels.  There is a conductor at the door and he gets between me and Benet.  The train begins to pull away and I hop on, and the conductor pushes me bodily off the train away from my husband.  I begin to freak out.  The conductor also hops off the train and waves at someone to stop the train and then ushers me on, looking askance at the both of us.

We get to the airport station and go through the seemingly spurious metal detector to get out to where the hotel shuttles are.  Four different people approach us asking if we want taxis and we say no.  The fifth says, in French, "You're waiting for the shuttle?  That will take at least half an hour, forty-five minutes.  I can get you there in fifteen."
We say no and sit down.  Right on cue, a whole minute later, the shuttle pulls up.  Finally, some luck!  We approach it and this dude takes our bags to put them in the back.  ...and he's not the chauffeur, it turns out.  Benet has given him 50 dirham, but he comes back and says some stuff, but he does it badly and confusingly to the point that we're not sure what's going on.  Then we see the actual shuttle driver and it becomes clear that this was a bit of a shakedown and that other dude was unrelated and asking for more money for helping with our bags.  We shrug it off (after I checked with the actual driver that our bags were indeed in the back).

We arrive at the hotel, fill out the forms, get our room key, have a room, it's great.  I propose room service as a way to obtain food without pants, and Benet says awesome, he'd like a club sandwich.  Me too!  I call to order two of those and a Kronenburg and some fruit juice.

The menu comes in English and the receptionist downstairs spoke English.  The room service lady doesn't speak English.  Fine, I order in French.  They don't have club sandwiches.  Fine.  I order a chicken sandwich and a panini.  They don't have panini.  Fine.  A chicken sandwich and a hamburger, you have hamburgers?  Good.  And a Kronenburg, okay?  And fruit juice, it says you have many kinds here but doesn't list them, do you have peach, it's on the breakfast menu.  No?  Orange?  No, no fruit juice.  Fine, I'll order an iced tea.  No, they don't have iced tea.  Okay.... Coca-cola?  Okay, a chicken sandwich, a hamburger, a Kronenburg, and a coca-cola, room 271.  I make sure Benet has change for a tip and go to take a shower.

An hour later, there's still no food.  I call down.  Someone different answers this time.  I ask in my clumsy French if our order will arrive soon.  He is confused.  We are confused.  Benet goes down to the front desk.  Turns out the previous shift took our order and then just basically fucked off home without doing anything about it.  Benet reorders, comes back upstairs.  Turns out they didn't have Kronenbourg either.  He subbed another beer.  Okay, this has been a pain in the ass but at least I don't have to put on pants.

Eventually there's a knock at the door.  Benet goes to intercept and pay.  The room service guy is full of apologies and barges on in past him.  I squawk and try to hide behind the closet door and a pillow.  Benet hands me a robe, pays, signs.  Finally, there is food!  And it's here!  And it's still hot!  I take the cover off my plate and pick up  a packet of ketchup, opening it for my fries.  It splorts over the bedspread and floor.

We only got four and a half hours of sleep, but got to the airport okay, got through security okay, got breakfast, got on the plane, four hours.  Arrived in Paris, went through different security, purchased some nice duty-free Armagnac, got on the plane, nine hours.  Got to Atlanta and waited in an interminable line to have ourselves photographed and fingerprinted like criminals so it could spit out a piece of paper so we could stand in a line so we could talk to a lady who would photograph and fingerprint us like criminals.  (Okay, Benet's the only one who gets fingerprinted because he's a resident alien, but I bristle at it every time on his behalf, I can't help it.  He just shrugs.). Then we waited for our luggage, put the duty-free in the luggage, waited for a dude by a conveyor belt, gave him our luggage, and got in another interminable line, so we could go through security again.  Oh, goody!  What I was missing in the last ten hours, what I missed dearly, was another scan and pat-down.  I was beginning to think there wasn't enough radiation in my brain, or enough skepticism over my appearance, or enough suspicion of wrongdoing.

But you know, ridiculous as it is, all that irritation and ire faded away as soon as Benet brought me Chik-fil-A.  I don't even really like the company (though their chicken is terrific), but there is nothing quite so North American as a huuuge soft drink filled with ice.  I love traveling, but it seems that no-one across the pond likes their soda ice-cold.  Sitting on the runway through the delays wasn't so bad (first weather, then mechanical, then bags, then paperwork delays) because we knew this was the last leg.  Crunching through the snow on the jetbridge was actually nice because we knew we were home.  Driving through the snow to our wonderful apartment was wonderful.

Having to dig the car out of a thick line of snow left by the plow just so I could take a right turn was irritating.  Having to dig out a parking space because there weren't any, because everyone just stopped going out when the blizzard hit last night and so they already had parking spaces... That was awful.  Benet offered to come help, but I knew I'd be done in ten minutes and asked him to put the kettle on.  On the other hand, I strangely had energy to do it.  I shoveled and shoveled, and a few people stopped and asked if I was stuck (no, thank you), and then my wallet got knocked off my belt by the movement and upended itself, and then I had a place to pull in my car.

Of course, I found later that I'd lost my driver's license in the snowdrift.  Happily, I found it the next day after pulling my car out of its carefully-shoveled space.

It was a pretty epic journey back, and I mean that in the original sense of the word.  There were great rains, a voyage to the underworld, soul-testing battles, everything.  But a week before we left it had been unseasonably warm, and everyone felt weird about it.  And now we are back and the weather is right and I have a suitcase full of spices and trilobites to remind me that it wasn't a dream.
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Christmas In The Sahara - or, Amy Travels To Morocco [31 Dec 2015|03:08pm]
I  condensed all my emails to various people and put in a few photos so that quadrivium and tanuki_green and anyone else who wanted to could see the whole story of Our Big Trip.  All the chapters were written separately and aren't edited for style or continuity.

Chapter One: Jetlag Makes Me Hate Everything
Well, we've reached the I-hate-everything stage of jetlag, where I'm adjusting to the time, but everything else seems incredibly difficult and awful.  We arrived in Marrakech, and I hate it.
I was doing fine this morning.  And then we got train tickets, fine, we waited for the train, fine, we got on the train... not fine.  I hated the lady next to me, who played songs out loud on her phone, played games with the sound on, argued with the conductor twice, bumped into me repeatedly until I put the armrest down, got up to walk around like six times, and finally got off after two hours.  She had to come back for her many bags, and it took her three trips.
I... Didn't actually hate the train station.  No, scratch that, I hated it, the bathroom had no toilet paper.  I hated the cab driver, who asked for 66 dirham when it should have been thirty (it's always higher at the train station, but it shouldn't be that much higher); I hated the guy who he seemed to pass us off to, who showed us down the street to our hotel and then demanded money, scoffing when I offered a two-euro coin (worth 20 dirham); he said it was worth 2 dirham.  You've got it backwards, asshole.  (I didn't say that out loud, though.)  Benet was able to fob him off with a five-dollar bill.  US money, people always like.  It was way more than he deserved.  I'm sad we were out of change.  I hated the hotelier, who instead of presenting us with tea first, which is the polite thing to do in Morocco, presented us both with lengthy forms demanding our passport numbers and birthdays and social security numbers, and the last was where my demand-resistance finally came up, and I wrote down only as much information as I was willing to.  THEN there was tea, which was great, but then there was also him showing us all the day trips they have on offer, which was less great.  I also hate our room.  I mean, the room itself is pretty great.  However, it's right next to reception and it will be right next to where they have breakfast.  So I'm fairly certain we can expect to be awoken by plates clattering and children screaming at eight o'clock in the morning every day.  ((As you know, I wound up greatly enjoying our side trip to the Sahara, and it turns out that it's not that noisy on the ground floor, so all is well.))
I liked Casablanca.  It was filthy, sorta downtrodden, and honest.  A working city, with dust and metal poles on the sidewalks because otherwise you bet your ass the battered red taxicabs would drive on it.  Marrakech is a suspiciously well-groomed con artist.  The palace is here, the tourists are here, the palm trees are planted just so, and the beige taxicabs look fat and sleek, inasmuch as a Fiat can.  I said it was like going from Detroit to Disney World; Benet said that to be fair, Detroit to Lexington was a pretty big change all on its own.
-----
I didn't know if I'd want to go out again.  But later on, after quietly playing iPad games in the dark for an hour, I awoke Benet from his nap and asked if he wanted to go find dinner.  He mentioned that we could just eat here at the riad, but I reminded him that I wanted pastries.  So we set off towards the square and made it past two restaurants before seeing a Big Fancy restaurant.  Some hawker for another restaurant saw me eyeing it and said, "is very expensive..." And began gesturing to the restaurant he worked for.  And I was just like, "Looks like it is!  But I have to check it out." And grinned and walked by.  I'm getting better at a cheerful brush-off.  This trip may turn out to be a crash course in Saying No For Dummies.  At any rate, the restaurant was expensive.  And gorgeous.  It was basically the L'Etoile of Marrakech, though I don't know that for certain.  But I looked at the menu and at Benet and said, "can we order the tasting menu?"  Which was $75 for two and was gonna wind up, with drinks, being $100, which is about as expensive as restaurants in Morocco ever get.  And he said sure, and then they began bringing us EVERYTHING.
First, little saucers with about 1/3-1/2 cup of their "salad" courses, which were all cold, and had everything from pico de gallo to carrots to lentils to a nice eggplant thingy; also they brought these little skinny egg rolls, and those were hot, and delicious.


Then they brought us six little tagines, and in them were braised lamb with prunes and almonds (This was my favorite!  Possibly the best lamb I've ever had, and I've done a lot of research on this subject.  Prunes don't sound terribly romantic but these had been sitting in lamb fat and this faintly-honeyed fragrant marinade, and they'd absorbed lots of juice and oil and were warm and soft and really made you remember that they had been plums only yesterday, but now they were wise to that plum bullshit, and had realized that being covered with sesame seeds and full of lamb fat was the good life.  The almonds also deserve a very honorable mention, because they were peeled and roasted and seemingly unrelated to the rest of the dish until you happened to spoon one up and then they were the perfect counterpoint, so crunchy.  This dish also managed to perfectly complement the only-slightly-dubious Moroccan half-bottle-of-red we got.), roast chicken with preserved lemon, meatballs and an egg in tomato sauce, braised beef shank with caramelized onions and tomato, fish and vegetables, aaaand couscous and vegetables.  And then finally two desserts; orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon and cloves, and a plate of little pastries.  And I ate EVERYTHING, or at least some of everything, and unsurprisingly, I hated the world a lot less.
Then, I slept for twelve hours.  That helped a lot, too.
Chapter Two:  Shopping in Marrakech, the Good, the Not-so-good, and the Ugly
So today, we had a three-hour shopping and tourism outing.
The good: We went to the little square we'd gone to last night for dinner, and this time everyone had come and set up their wares.  There was a spice seller as soon as we came in, and I was excited to finally see the big piles of colorful powders in person.  The spice-seller saw this, and asked if I wanted to know what was what, and I grinned at Benet and said, "Sure!"  I was happy to get the full shop demo and play the rube at a spice shop.  And so Abdul the spice merchant showed us his wares.  The full talk took at least twenty minutes.  He started with the big piles of spices, showing us the chunks of cedar, taking out his lighter and burning some so we could smell the fragrant smoke.  He moved on to the cakes of fragrant extracts, rubbing each on a different part of our hands or arms.  Jasmine, amber, lavender, musk (Berber musk, very special, very famous all over, we put on for special celebration, for ritual, for go home, relatives, party, you know, very important to us), and rose.  And then, the tea.  There are a good six or seven ingredients in Berber tea.  Ginseng, star anise, soft Berber cinnamon, lemongrass, big lemon peppercorns, cardamom, mace, and big chunks of raw sugar from gum arabic. He showed us the tea that had been freshly steeping, he poured us glasses of it, we toasted, he showed us how to add a fragment of eucalyptus resin crystal, just a tiny fragment, to make the most sinus-opening tea you've ever had.  We went to the inside of the shop and he showed us more spices, the fresh Argan oils, the herbal medicines.  Finally Abdul seemed to be winding down and repeating himself a little and I looked at Benet with wide eyes, and he nodded.  Rashid came in to take the order and measure everything out into bags.  We bought tea and eucalyptus resin and black cumin and a cake of amber, basically a hundred dollars worth of stuff. So much tea, though, and they threw in enough ginseng to make a Madison hippie cream his jeans.  They were so nice.  "Welcome, welcome, come back anytime, just to have tea, this is your home."
I felt good, I felt happy.
The not-so-good: We began to walk out of the square and a lady came up showing me bracelets.  She shoved one on my hand that looked like it came out of a gumball machine, "this free, this present, from me, for you, this free, for you, un cadeau, c'est free.  But see here, this one, so pretty, real silver," et cetera, et cetera.  She took bangles and unbent them, then closed them around my wrist like manacles.  I unfortunately kind of liked one of them and it showed.  Four hundred dirham later (I overpaid by about two hundred, I think), we escaped.  Then another, more positive experience - on the way to the main square, a jewelry shop.  Empty, but the owner says after I walk by, "come in and look."  I made the mistake of glancing to see if he had any lapis.  "Just a look, no more, is okay," he says.  He, too, is Berber.  I look around, lots of colorful stuff, lots of silver.  "Est-ce que vous avez le bleu, lapis lazuli?"
"Yes, I have.  I have here, and here," and he sets a few necklaces on the table.  Some look dull, one is made of overlapping squares, but there's a bit of white on some of the corners.  I push up my glasses, frown, look closely.  "Is not painted, is not painted, is solid, just some lapis is more light, is solid stone, I show."  He bent over to a faucet over a bucket and rinsed the stone so it would shine true.  It looked good, but I scraped it a little with my fingernail just to be sure.  He pulled off a really beautiful necklace with big round chunks between silver discs, lovely but not my style.  "And oh, aussi, the pennadont, we have the peennadonts," and pulled out the most beautiful piece of all, a good round lump of lapis in a silver setting with sweet filigree at the bottom.  My eyes lit up and he knew, he just knew.  "You tell me, what is to your taste, what you like."  He took out a slip of paper and a calculator.  I pulled the squares-overlapping not-painted one and the pendant.  "I like these, but mostly this, the pendant."  He looks at them, writes down 470 on the top line and 1040 on the second line.  "Ah, no, no, I can't, just the pendant, three hundred?"  We go back and forth.  He says he knows I want the necklace, that it looks good with every color, how bout both of them, twelve hundred, what can you spend, good stones.  I bit my lip and said that I could maybe spend eight hundred dirham.  A thousand?  Eight hundred.  I must eat.  "You can come eat with my family, we take you in."  Eight hundred is all I can spend, I had to give the rest to my husband because I'm an easy mark,  I'm too soft.  Just the pendant, then, three hundred, I say. He laughs and acquiesces, telling me a few times that he likes me.   Eight hundred, yes, shookrhan, thank you, it's good. Sometimes he'll make a deal with someone that isn't quite fair if she is just very nice, sympa,  tres sympa.  He wraps them in paper and tapes them up, cautions me to put them in my drawstring backpack, not in my plastic bag of spices, protect your jewelry, be careful with your wallet, okay?
Finally we made to to the square, and there's an orange juice booth!  I love the orange juice here more than anything, four dirham a glass, perfect.
The ugly:  We get the glasses of juice, it's so good.  Liquid sunshine, squeezed all of ten seconds ago, just for us.  A lady approaches me and grabs my hand, flashes me a book of henna designs.  "Non, non, merci."  I try to take my hand away.  She locks on and starts putting henna on.  "Free, free, for you, free."
"Ah...." I try to finish my orange juice quickly so I can give back the glass.
"Non, non," says Benet.
"Your husband, what his name?"

"On doit partir maintenant."  (One must leave now; my French has never been that great, but it's worse when I'm stressed out.)
"No, your husband, what his name?"
"Benet."
"Beenie.  I write here.  And your name?"
"Amy, but no, no, I cannot."
"I write it here, I finish design, is good luck for good sex.  Here, this is my daughter." Another woman comes up and starts drawing on my hand.  By now, we have only been in the square for two minutes and I'm getting a hardcore hustle.  I finally get my hand back and take the glasses back to the orange juice guy, and say to Benet, 'give her a coin, let's go.'
He tried to give her a coin, she shows him the book, "These designs, good designs, four hundred fifty dirham, seven hundred dirham, three hundred fifty dirham."  She follows him to me, she won't stop, she won't go away, "Pay me now, please."
"But you did this," Benet says.  "You can't, it's not fair."
"I didn't want that, you wouldn't give me back my hand," I say.
"Pay me now, please."
I roll my eyes and look at Benet.  "Give her a hundred and let's go."
He doesn't want to.  But.  He gives her a hundred and we start to walk away, she follows us with the book, "No, pay me now."  I finally give her a death glare and say, "Laissez-moi rester." As firmly as I can manage.  (I meant to say leave me alone but that was all that came to my lips, I was so frightened and angry.)
Then she either said, "vous et fou" or "foutes-toi", but there was definitely an emphasis on the "fou" part.  Either "you're crazy," or "fuck you."  Whatever it was, she was angry and shrill, but she'd made out with a hundred dirham, which will buy you two good lunches, for the work of two minutes.
The bad:  What I really wanted was a hat.  If we're going to the Sahara, it'd be foolish not to have a hat.  But in a country of scarves and hijabs, there are not a lot of hats.  So we have to walk around the big marketplace to look for one, this gooshy henna drying on my hand.  I don't have anything to wipe it off with, and it'll flake off easily in a couple of minutes.
But shopkeepers and hawkers, they see my name on my hand.  Lots of them on my right say or shout, "Excuse me, excuse me, shoes, leather goods," et cetera, but a couple of them on my right say, "Excuse me, excuse me," then see my hand and say, "Amy, Amy!"  It makes me feel violated, my name being bandied about.  I finally make it through enough of the marketplace to see where I might buy a hat, and I wait, and I scrape the mostly-dry henna off with a napkin from my bag.  I buy a hat, twenty dirham, great.  We figure out where we are and start to walk back to the hotel.  I realize I can go back to the spice shop with Abdul and Rashid, because there's henna there, and maybe I can buy a little, mix it with water at the hotel.  The design is on my left hand, I can use my right hand and pipe some clumsy flowers or vines over the lines of my name and Benet's transliterated into Arabic.  Two more sellers see it and say my name on the way there.  My ears are bright red, I can feel them under my hat. At least I can hide my ears now.
We arrive back at the spice shop, and at first they look at me blankly on approach, but I take off my hat and they recognize me.  "Il me faut un peu, I need to buy a little henna, is that okay?"
"Of course, of course, welcome, this is your home, have some tea, sit down, what's the matter, we get you henna, come inside."  As soon as we sit down I burst into tears, I'm too jetlagged, too worn down from all the colors and shouting, too angry at the henna woman, too embarrassed from having my name shouted at me all the time.  Abdul sees, says "Oh, no!  I get you tea, don't cry, what happened?  This is terrible, you're on holiday." and fetches Rashid.  I choke out the story and explain that I need to cover up my name.  He gets a dish, mixes henna with rose water and bright paprika, takes my hand himself, smears henna over my name and Benet's.  All the while, we are talking about the big market square.  "In fifteen years, I've been here fifteen years, one-five, yes?  I never go there, never.  All the go here, buy, buy, look at this, see here, do this, buy, buy, some people not even there to sell things, they just want money, just there to shout for money, is always like this.  Morocco is my country, it should be better, it is better than that."
Rashid explains that he has to go to an organization meeting, he is sorry, but he must be gone two hours, advises us to go look at the palaces instead.  Abdul comes back in, says, "Oh, good, no more crying, okay?  You're on holiday.  You were sympa, yes, sympatico, you look, you smile, they think you are stupid.  You're not stupid, but you must not be sympa, cannot be sympatico, must say 'la! La.  La.  La. Lla!  Lla, shookrhan.'  Do not look, do not smile, just nod, la, shookrhan, and they will stop and if they do not stop then you can say 'Police!' And they will come, yes?"
"La.  La! Shookrhan."  I practiced.
"Is good, is good!  I get you more tea.  There are good people and there are bad people, in Morocco. Here, our little square, it is quiet.  You were in big square, yes?  Yes, there are more bad people there.  We're not all like that, you know that?  Sometimes, you know, here, there are the ladies with the bracelets."  He looks down at the bangles on my wrists and smiles.  "I know them, seven or eight of them, they must sell for their family, they are always like that, but if you say no, it is fine, they are good.  But you, you are okay?  You come whenever you want, you are family here, welcome, welcome, always welcome, come by for tea, free always, just sit, just talk, just have tea.  Stay as long as you want, always welcome, this is your home."  They wouldn't take any money for the henna, though they offered to package up some for me to go.
We got home to the hotel.  I was embarrassed that I cried, and Benet was all worried that I hated the trip or I blamed him for not being strong or loud enough.  I laughed and said now I've gone to the square and had my Tourist Experience, and tomorrow we will go to the desert and nobody will hound me there.  And then I put on my new necklace, lapis squares clinking together.  I wouldn't even care if it's painted, at this point.  It's mine, and I'm happy with it.

Stay tuned for chapters three and four!
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Uncategorized Rants: Comments Screened [08 Dec 2015|05:24pm]
*When driving into a parking lot with slanted parking, even if it's snowing or the arrows have worn off, you can tell which lanes are meant for you by looking and seeing if all the car's butts are pointed at you. Don't back in, and don't pull through; slanted parking is DESIGNED to be pulled out of easily, that's why it puts your car at an angle already.


*When defending the ownership of guns:

  •     Please stop saying that a gun is "just a tool." Sure, yes, guns are objects that cannot think or feel or act on their own. That's an important thing to point out, and the way we think about guns and how we treat mental health is an important component of a problem we're discussing nationally in the United States. But relying on implications that a gun is like a hammer or a screwdriver is refusing to acknowledge that the type of guns we're talking about are tools DESIGNED SOLELY FOR THE KILLING OF LIVING THINGS, and it is not very helpful.

  •     Yes, it is important to point out that the idea that we might do better if we legislate/license/skill-test guns "like we do cars" is a comparison that breaks down after a certain point. Cars are much larger and more widely owned; you can buy and sell them on craigslist; you're allowed to do basically anything you like with a car when they're on private property; the laws about transporting them are very different, because they ARE transport. These are all good points that would be interesting to make and to talk about at length. However, to say that the comparison breaks down and therefore is entirely without merit is to present an all-or-nothing fallacy, and it is not very helpful.

  •     If you are the owner of a penis, and someone says you are compensating for something with your guns, that is a shitty personal attack, and not a good argument. The correct way to respond and elevate the argument back to reasonable terms is NOT TO PROVIDE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF, particularly publicly on social media. That doesn't help anything at all and is also disgusting.


*In fact, regardless of gender, even if engaging in hot and heavy digital courtship with a partner, do not take photographs of your genitalia and send them to your partner unless your partner requests them.


*Resisting conversational urges, a primer in speaking with fellow humans. When conversing with someone you like, RESIST THE URGE.
RESIST THE URGE TO:

  •     interrupt. If you notice you've been doing it, apologize.

  •     seize upon some topic/keyword in their speech and use it to make yourself feel relevant or smart, or as a jumping-off point for a topic of conversation you prefer. "You said that ruined your vacation? I went on vacation last year to Aruba, and it was terrific." NOPE. Actually *listen* and reflect. "I'm so sorry your vacation was ruined! You must have felt cheated out of your time off when you had to go to the hospital." A little while later, if there is a lull in the conversation, THEN you can say, "Oh, earlier you reminded me that I wanted to tell you about Aruba, did you know that Holy Thursday is a big holiday there?"

  •     equate or lie. Do not equate someone else's problems with yours, do not assume that similar experiences grant you knowledge of their thoughts and reactions, do not ever say that you know just how another person thinks, feels, intends, or experiences. Resist the urge to empathize to the nth degree; just use your empathy to reflect and sympathize. Do not lie. If you actually like the person you're talking to, do not heavily imply that you have seen the Barber of Seville when you actually have no idea if that is a dude or an opera or a hipster bar, just say, "I have no idea what that is, please tell me about it." This is an excellent conversational tactic, because people love talking about things they enjoy.

  •     leave conversational traps. It's very satisfying to realize that your conversational partner has never heard of Madame Butterfly and to say something like, "And you know how THAT goes," hoping that the other person will go, "No, I have no idea, please talk to me about tragic operas for twenty minutes." And you might think it's cute to ask out of the blue "Did it hurt?" hoping they'll say "Did what hurt?" so you can explain, "When you fell from heaven," but it turns out that leaving conversational traps does not make you look smart or cute, it makes you look like a jerk. Your object should always be to get your conversational partner talking more than you do.

  •     fidget or yawn during silences. Smile. Give a quiet contented sigh. Nod. Enjoy the silence. Have a sip of water.  Check your phone if you must.  Keep your body language open. Show your conversational partner that you are comfortable and do not feel pressured.

  •     fix their problems. If your conversational partner begins to vent or complain about something, follow these three steps:


  1. Wait until your partner has finished speaking. While they are speaking, it is appropriate to nod, make small nonverbal contributions like "uh-huh" or "oh," and react with facial expressions.

  2. Reflect and sympathize and ask relevant questions: "That sounds like it would be really frustrating, I'm so sorry. Wait, did you say your boss did that TWICE last week?"

  3. After they are finished accepting your reflection and sympathy and answering your questions, THEN you may ask permission to get your fix-it on. "Hey, so, do you mind if I ask, are you thinking of leaving your job? Do you want support for that, like I would help you draft a current resume and put the word out to folks I know in your field, if you wanted, or are you just venting?" ONLY offer help that you are actually willing and able to give. If you can't help, you will probably feel frustrated. It's okay to express that frustration. "Augh, I wish I could tell you everything will be fine and give you a million dollars and a new job. I think you deserve good things."

  4. As a side note, NEVER offer advice that requires a TARDIS to implement. "Oh, you should have unplugged that toaster if you thought you smelled a short in the cord burning the plastic, then your house wouldn't have caught fire" is not helpful or kind. Your conversational partner has already been thinking that since the fire.

6 comments|post comment

ISoSLD 2015 [19 Nov 2015|09:13pm]
Five Uncomfortable Truths About Suicidality

Every year, I post on this topic.  Every year, I want to make mental issues and suicide a little more visible, a little more normal, if only around my little corner of the internet.

Suicide is the act of taking one's own life, and suicidality - the tendency toward or risk of suicide - is an illness like any other. Some people have this sickness temporarily, others fight it their whole lives. In my family, it's hereditary. All too often, it's fatal. It takes over your mind and body and you die from it. When that happens, as a society, we tend not to talk about it too much. It’s a very quiet killer, rendered quieter by stigma, taboo, awkwardness, and misconceptions.

1. It has happened to someone you know.  Around 20-24 percent of adolescents age 12-17 report suicidal ideation.  If you know five people, that means someone you know seriously considered suicide.  It's the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States, and tenth in 2013.  You likely know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.  People just don't mention it.  We've been taught that it's inappropriate to air dirty laundry, and mental health is dirty laundry.  But 18.5% of adults have a mental illness currently or within the past year, and around 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental illness.

2.  It's not like they show it on TV.  We are often shown someone whose life falls apart, who gets deeply sad, and then winds up clinging to some outcropping on the twentieth floor, crying and being talked down by someone right next to them.

It's not  always a big dramatic realization, or someone whose life has fallen apart.  It's different for everyone, certainly, but many of those affected by depression to the point of suicidality talk about how numb they feel, about how difficult, how not-worth-it things seem.  Yes, some experience a traumatic event - my grandfather, for instance, lost his business and shot himself - and that pain or loss overshadows everything.  But for some, suicidal ideation is more of a constant, a background hum that may get louder or softer, but doesn't go away for months or years.

It doesn't usually happen on the ledge of a building, either.  In 2013, 51.5% of suicide deaths were by firearm, 24.5% by suffocation/hanging, and 16.1% by poison.  Jumping gets lumped into the remaining eight percent.

On TV, the person in crisis gets talked down, and then everything is fine for them forever.  Meanwhile, in the real world, about 20% of people who commit suicide have made a previous attempt.  Mental issues don't just go away in the length of a forty-two minute episode of a drama show.  Therapy, coping strategies, and medication take time and work.

3.  Kids get suicidal.  Not just teens - even three-year-olds experience suicidal thoughts and make attempts.  This is a difficult and painful truth, but ignoring and dismissing it because it causes us discomfort means that suicidal youth are less likely to be taken seriously.  There is research on the subject going back years and years.  It is real.  Suicidal children know what they are doing and generally even the young ones, like the preschoolers in the 1984 Rosenthal and Rosenthal study linked above, understand the permanence of death.

4. There are big differences between self-medicating, self-harm, and suicidality.  They can be related, but when we can't talk about any of them openly, we can't untangle the differences.

Lots of people self-medicate in one form or another.  People will use what substances are available to them, and they will use what gives them results, from the socially innocuous caffeine, sugar, tobacco, and alcohol all the way up to heroin and oxycodone, or any other drug.  People who are hurting will seek out things that help them feel better.  People using drugs in dangerous ways may be suicidal, or they may just be willing to accept the risks to start to feel better in a desperate situation.

Self-harm often gets confused with suicidality, because cutting can look like attempted wrist-slashing, or because jokes about emo kids have become pervasive, or simply because we have a taboo against self-harm.  But it can be a way of self-soothing that is found all across our primate family.  Monkeys under stress, in pain, or with a history of trauma self-bite in ways very similar to humans who self-harm, and show reduced heart-rate and better coping.  The urge to self-harm is a very basic part of us that is more complicated than just being a warning sign.

These behaviors may be related to suicidality, and may be methods of self-treating depression or other mental issues, but they're not the same thing; our unwillingness to talk about any of those three topics because they fall under the shameful umbrella of "hurting yourself" isn't helping.

5. You can do something about it.  This is possibly the most uncomfortable truth of all.  There's knowing facts and figures, and then there's internalizing that information and acting upon it in a way that challenges us to face stigma and taboo.  That's huge, and it's scary.  But there are ways to help.  Talking about suicide does not cause someone to be suicidal. If you're worried about someone, it is safe to bring up the topic of suicide.  If someone brings up the topic of suicide with you, you have already done the right thing. All you need to do next is take a deep breath and let that person talk.  "Suicide" is a scary word, but talking about it doesn't kill you, and being ready to listen might help someone live.

Every time you share this post or other information on suicide, you help to fight the stigma, break the taboo, and dispel the myths. Feel free to link back to this. Feel free to comment here with other links and resources and stories. Feel free to talk to me about suicide. Feel free to comment anonymously on this post (trolling and hate speech will be deleted).

10 comments|post comment

Blah blah blah cars blah blah [03 Nov 2015|11:42am]
Well, I have purchased a 2000 Toyota Camry in dark grey and begun the process of making sure it's up to code for all the driving I do now. Which still isn't much compared to many folks, but whoa do I ever drive a lot compared to when I first started three years ago.

I brought a mechanic with me to go over the cars I looked at and make sure they were solid buys, and we agreed pretty wholeheartedly on this one. Timing belt had been replaced, it had just over 109k miles on it, but the ride wasn't as smooth as I'd like, so I ordered some new shocks and struts and today, my mechanic friend was going to put them on. Got an appointment to get a shop real close to me to do a front-end alignment on Wednesday afterwards and everything! However, I woke up to a text from him reading, "Good morning! Sorry I have to get ahold of you this early, but we have problems. Call me, please?"

It turns out that they sent me the rear shocks to a Ford Focus by accident. They're sending the right ones free of charge and a call tag for the wrong ones. Meanwhile, my mechanic has noticed a power steering leak. And I'm driving to Chicago this weekend for Tooles gigs, so I'm not sure if I'll have to rent a car or what. And there are a couple other minor things - I need new wipers, and a new blower resistor (on order), and a cd player that doesn't skip so badly, or always give me an error message the first time I feed it a CD-R. Any suggestions for that last one? My current plan is, next time I get some cash, go to Best Buy and hope there's a free installation deal on, which I think they do from time to time if you buy a car stereo that costs more than a hundred bucks or something.

Thinking about all this, and considering the deer we hit in a friend's car coming back from OVFF, I called up my insurance company and made sure I had rental car coverage if I ever get in an accident. It cost me all of five dollars, which is perfect.

On the up side, I can deal with this, and I have a car that's generally in better shape than my Unspeakable Chariot, and it's on the insurance and I transferred my plates and all the requisite boring stuff. I've already added the Cthulhu emblem and Esoteric Order of Dagon sticker to the back (thank you, HPLHS Store), and I'm getting used to the different seat and the way it drives. But what shall I call it? There are so many Lovecraftian adjectives I could choose. Any suggestions?

Car update: Front struts are on, power steering leak is minor and is 95% a cracked gasket in the line which is very slightly cracked, because the fluid in the chamber is quite old and not perilously low. Shocks should come in the mail in four days, and my mechanic even saved the boxes so I can send them back all taped up nicely. Safe to drive this weekend, no need for a rental car!
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I present, for your edification... [15 Oct 2015|04:46pm]
I present for your edification, Brooke's flu vaccine Q&A from 2012.

Q: Do you recommend the flu shot for me personally?

A: Are you allergic to eggs or to neomycin? No? THEN YES I DO!

Yes, you! The flu kills thousands of people every year (hundreds just in BC,) and the shot is easy and safe to get. You can avoid being horribly ill yourself, and you can avoid passing it on to other people - especially to babies, seniors, and people with medical conditions that leave them vulnerable to dying if they get the flu.

Q: I never get sick. Why would I want to get a shot? Shots aren't fun, you know.

A: The average healthy person gets the flu about once every ten years. If you "never" get sick, it's probably chance, not a super-power.

Q: Seriously. Shots. Not fun. I'm good; I stay home when I'm sick and wash my hands.

A: You're contagious before you get a single flu symptom. By the time you conscientiously remove yourself from the workforce, you've probably spread it to your friends and family. Gee, thanks!

Q: But SHOTS!

A: It's not that bad. It pinches, it's over in one second, and then your muscle feels like you played tennis the day before. Some shots hurt more than others, and the flu shot is one of the least irritating.

If the thought of a shot really freaks you out, there are options: you can pay up for a squirt-up-your-nose vaccine, or for a new kind with a micro-needle. These don't work as well as the traditional kind, and can irritate your nose and/or skin respectively, but they are MUCH BETTER than not getting vaccinated! Really, the regular shot is over in one second and then you just have an excuse not to do the dishes for a day or two! A crappy excuse! I got my shot this morning and I have to think hard to remember which arm it was.

Q: I got the flu shot last year. Do I really need another one?

A: Yes! Two reasons. One, the flu is madly in love with mutating, so there are different strains that are dominant each year. The strains covered in this year's shot are different from last year. Pokemon, collect them all! Two, if you get your shots every year, after about five years you have a better immunity /even to flu strains you haven't been vaccinated for/. It's kind of like a frequent flyer rewards program.

Q: I got the flu shot and I still got sick!

A: The flu shot protects you against the flu, influenza, which is a really nasty sickness where you have a fever, full body muscle aches, cough, congestion, the works. It doesn't work against a regular cold, unfortunately, and it doesn't work against bacterial infections like strep throat. There are still lots of ways to get sick this winter - but the flu can be deadly and it's something we CAN do something about.

It's not perfect against the flu - it protects you against the most common strains, and can help you get a milder version of the flu if you do get sick. It varies from 60-95% effective based on how good a job the experts do at predicting which flu strains will be the biggest threats this year.

So is it still worthwhile? I sure think so! The flu shot saves lives every year, the lives of vulnerable people, and it prevents suffering both in those at-risk populations and in regular healthy people who wouldn't die but who don't necessarily like being full-on horrible sick for two weeks.

The flu shot lets you be a superhero just by sitting there. You can protect frail seniors, tiny wee babies, cancer and HIV patients, and more, just by protecting yourself from being a flu carrier. Don't be the chump who gives an old lady the flu that kills her.
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The Unspeakable Chariot [07 Oct 2015|07:22pm]
...that's the name of my car. My 2001 Ford Taurus.

Monday I found that the coolant leak (the engine's been running hot in the last month, realized I had a coolant leak, called my house-call-giving mechanic) was leaking into the engine. Headgaskets and possibly cracked heads.

"As of right now?" said my mechanic, "You're bummin' it. Don't drive this car. If you had to, you could change the oil right now, but even if you do, soon it will start smoking and clanking and there's a good chance you won't make it home."

I spent the day talking to people about cars and being sad and sifting through craigslist and cars.com. Yesterday, I did other things. Today, I went with a friend to do a couple of test-drives and see what similar cars felt like. Toyotas Camry and Avalon, a Hyundai Sonata, that sort of thing. And I came home...

...to find a parking ticket on my Taurus's windshield. Hello, injury, this is insult.

Also annoying? The registration is up for renewal on Friday. Guess I'll renew it and keep the plates and change the listed car later, when I have one that I can drive to the DMV.
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Wunderkat: the EP [15 Sep 2015|09:50pm]
A little over a year ago I began playing with this jazz fusion band called Wunderkat. I wasn't sure if I really belonged, because I'm so folky. Although I have some experience from Play It With Moxie, and I've always been cool with jamming, that didn't necessarily add up to enough for me to feel confident with Wunderkat's distinctive style and all-originals setlists.

I remember being so heartened at our first performance at the feedback from people who had heard the band before. "Wow, I didn't expect the timbre of the saxophone to go so well with a fiddle, that was amazing!" "Turn up louder!" "I didn't know Wunderkat needed a fiddle, but now I see it!" And slowly, I got around to the idea that perhaps I belonged in the band after all. I lost my fear of weirder keys, I found places in the songs to shine, I found solos, I found fiddle parts being added to new songs, and I found four guys who have my back.

When we got into the studio, I got to do something new! We played live, with all the intentional bleed and energy and interesting mistakes you can never fix that entails (with our saxophonist in a separate booth where we could see him and all of us could be part of the same circle) and IT WAS GREAT! I'm excited for the upcoming printing, but we're doing a digital release first.

It's all instrumental and original stuff, and I really hope you'll check it out at: http://wunderkat.bandcamp.com/
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Siiiiick [02 Sep 2015|10:19am]
Well, the rapid test for strep throat came back negative (we'll see tomorrow about the slower culture), and I think I'm doing better today than yesterday, but...

I am tired of hot fluids. Coffee, tea, broth. Mostly tea.

I love tea! I have many kinds of it! I have a nice six-cup teapot which handily fills my Rather Large Mug twice. I have everything from trashy-and-sweet caramel vanilla tea to Fortnum and Mason's Earl Grey. Usually I take it with sugar, but sometimes I mix things up! I'll make black lemon tea and sweeten it with apple juice and brandy. I'll make PG Tips and have it with milk and reminisce about good times across the pond. I'll make chai and add honey and heavy cream. But I've had enough. I kind of wish somebody would bring me a margarita or something. Whatever the opposite of tea is.

I am tired of resting.

I love sleep! I love the way my eyelids get heavy. I love having a firm, flat foam pillow under a puffy squishy down one, so I can punch the top one or fold the bottom one depending on how I want to sleep. I love making a nest of blankets when I'm fevered or chilled or achy, so I'm surrounded by warmth and softness and support. I love waking up when I've had a hardcore nap and that disoriented feeling when you look at the clock and for a second you're not sure if it's AM or PM or maybe even what day it is. I love those little thoughts that drift into your consciousness just as you start falling asleep that aren't quite dreams, just your mind wandering more freely than you let it when you're fully awake. I love that delicious feeling when you stretch under the covers and feel the cool edges of the sheet under your toes and fingertips, the parts that haven't warmed to your body heat. And in the same fashion, I love flipping my pillow over to the cooler side. I even kind of love how, if you sleep hard enough, you sort of wake up feeling filthy? Y'know, sand in your eyes, cooled sweat sticking to your back and neck, your mouth all gummy and awful, your arm pins and needles. And how great it feels to get into the shower and brush your teeth and then maybe drink a pot of coffee and go back to bed afterwards.

It's just boring as hell when your job is to drink tea and rest. And I love the way cough syrup helps me sleep, but I hate that shaky-weird feeling I get when I wake up at two in the morning and have to go to the bathroom ('cause of all the tea).

I'm better at self-care and envisioning and adhering to a more useful "sick role" than I used to be, especially now that I play music for a living and I really truly want my body to be healthy so I can pursue my calling, but I'm still impatient and demand-resistant.
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State of the Fiddler: Jink and Diddle and The Neighbors and The Light Tunnel [04 Aug 2015|09:26am]
State of the Fiddler, August 2015:

Well, I have come back from the mountains. I went to Jink and Diddle, the amazing and immersive Scottish Fiddle Camp, and I also got to play with The Neighbors. On the one hand, I didn't practice the entire week. On the other hand, I played fiddle a minimum of eight hours a day, part of which was playing four different local gigs, and I managed to not hurt myself. In fact, I got some great tips on maintaining gentle posture and technique when I'm going through long gigs (I must learn to tense up less when I use vibrato, for instance) and I have Jane Blair MacMorran and John Turner to thank for their advice and private lessons last week.

It's difficult to overstate how useful it is to be immersed in an environment of focus and learning about something you love. Yes, it often takes some time and money, but it's so important. I don't prioritize that as much as I need to, and if you care about fiddling, or quilting, or drumming, or writing, or Esperanto, or what-have-you, I hope that you will seek out a similar opportunity.

For Scottish Fiddling, look for Jink and Diddle, the Strathgheny School of Scottish Fiddling, the Silver Apple Scottish Fiddle School, Valley of the Moon, Glasgow, Swannanoa... and if you can make the time but not the money, consider contacting one of these places and asking about scholarships. Feel free to comment below with recommendations on other immersive experiences/camps/festivals/etc.

It was also really, really wonderful to be able to take some time and step out of that world and spend time with The Neighbors. Of course, it was instructive to take my work and lessons from camp and try to apply them immediately in a performance setting, but also, that band is made up of wonderfully talented gentlemen who give music their all, and take great care of me to boot.

When I was finished with camp, though, and had said my farewells and driven down the mountain and made it on my first plane and managed not to murder the man sitting in front of me (who insisted upon reclining so that the large book I was reading got shoved into my spleen, and then bounced back angrily in retribution every time I shifted to turn a page, even after I said hi and gently explained the problem), I was an exhausted and cranky wreck, and had two and a half hours to kill before I could get on my next plane, the one that would take me home.

...and then I realized I was in Detroit airport. Which meant I could go to The Light Tunnel. Anytime I'm at DTW and have an hour or two extra, I walk to the middle of the Light Tunnel and sit on the floor next to one of the people-movers. I take out my fiddle, and I look at the lights behind the glass, and I listen to the composition written by Victor Alexeeff, I pick up my instrument, and I begin to improvise along. It's twenty-seven minutes and it has different themes that take you through the course of a day. There's sunrise, sunset, a rainstorm. . . there's a lovely contemplative moment with sweeping E major arpeggios, there's a striking and exciting moment where cellos come in playing four low notes (A, C#, B, D, I think) and higher strings echo in response, and it's meditative and glorious and there is absolutely nothing like playing along with an entire hallway full of lights and color and glass and music, putting yourself into a meticulously-designed calming atmosphere and doing everything you can to become part of it. It's a tricky composition to accompany - there are bits that are mostly drums, or space-y shooting-star sort of noises, but I'll let the tunnel take lead, or tap on my fingerboard in rhythm, or play glissandos or harmonics. And even when the music gets muted for announcements, or someone who cannot manage the light show presses the three-minute-stop-button at either end, it's worth it.

Sometimes, when I'm playing along, I'll have left my case open, the better to have my rosin/tuner/bows available, and I close my eyes and sink into the music of the Light Tunnel, and I'll open my eyes, or finish up and go to put my violin away, and find someone has dropped money in my case. Busking is never my intention, and is not allowed at the airport, but it's always too late to refuse and it's a lovely compliment.
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Who Knew? [13 Jul 2015|12:25am]
While I had a pretty great time outside of school around junior and senior years, having found some folks who understood me, by and large I did not have a good time in high school. I'm sure nobody finds this terribly surprising.

However, driving home from a weekend where I went to San Diego Comicon and played an Irish Festival gig, and another Irish Festival gig, and a wedding, I was reminded that my peers got something right...

...they voted me "Most Likely To Be A Professional Musician."
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Jurassic World - I finally saw it. [24 Jun 2015|11:01pm]
Raptorsquee Spoilers!Collapse )
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My Mother's Kitchen [21 Jun 2015|04:45pm]
My mother was a complicated person, with many facets and issues, but one wonderful thing about her was her cooking. She could cook, oh, could she cook! The first thing she taught me how to make was boiling water, because it is the start of so many things, and it was a way to teach me the difference between a simmer and a boil and a rolling boil. This was also a way to teach me how to make coffee for her in the morning, which we cooked on the stove in this ugly orange-enameled pot that would periodically get a coffee patina on the outside until someone finally decided to scrub it thoroughly again.

The next thing she taught me how to cook was scrambled eggs, a favorite dish of my sister's, although mom's teaching method nearly changed that. "So after you pour the egg, you get your spatula, and you see this scum here on the bottom, you scrape up the scum."

"Moooom, ew!" Emily was trying to read or do homework, if I recall.

"Well, you do. Here, you try."

Then came a few more things. Pasta. Brownies. I loved making brownies, because after she made the batter, we got to lick the bowl and spoon. I always tried to get the bowl, even though Mom invariably made sure that there were equal amounts on both, and invariably less than a tablespoon's worth.

She was an improvisational chef, and though I'm glad to have picked up her talent for making dinner out of whatever was at hand, it made getting a recipe out of her nearly impossible. I'd say, "Mom, how do you make that chicken and dumplings?"

And she'd say, "Well, you get your chicken and you put it in a pan with some olive oil or butter or fat or whatever, and..."

"--Wait, how much chicken?"

"Oh, you know, a package."

"What kind?"

"Uh... use boneless thighs, if you want boneless chicken. Or breasts. Drumsticks can be a little harder, but--"

"--okay, sorry, so you put the chicken in a pan with some fat, and then what?"

"Onions. Green onions if you have them, or chives, or just yellow onions, you have to have onions. You can't really do it with onion powder, although it's not terrible if that's all you've got. Anyway, you just cook them almost all the way, put on some flour or some cornstarch, add some water, put the biscuits on top, and put the lid on and walk away for ten minutes, that's all."

"Got it. Wait, how much water?"

"Oh, a cup or two, depends on the size of the pan, you know. And pepper, it needs pepper."

Later, I got my hands on her cookbook, which was not hugely of value for its printed matter, but for the things she'd hastily written down on the endpapers. Of course, even though these were less vague in terms of measurements, they were still sometimes laughably brief. Several just had ingredients. One recipe had four whole words of instruction:
Giant Store Oatmeal Cake
Mix:
1 1/2 C oats
1 C hot water. Let set.

Add 2 squares chocolate,
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
teaspoon salt
teaspoon baking soda
vanilla
1/2 cup butter
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour


I actually just found an old Notepad file of the same recipe, which she gave me over the phone, so it had more instructions and more swearing:
Oatmeal cake:

1.5 cups oatmeal
1 cup boiling water

Mix together; let sit.

2 squares chocolate
1 cup brwn sugar
1 cup white sugar
tsp salt
1/2 cup butter

Melt all that shit together.
Add 2 eggs after that shit cools.
Add oatmeal crap.

add:
Cup and a half of flour
tsp baking soda

Then add some vanilla.
350 for 20 minutes to half an hour
or poke the center until it kinda bounces back.


But others were fairly complete, and results of her experimentation over the years, like The Barlow Cheesecake, which I'm going to make one of these days. Anyway, whatever I was trying to cook, the dish would usually turn out, partly because I'd have seen her make it, and partly because she liked durable, flexible recipes.

I recently got the chance to try writing down some of them, and some of my own recipes, for one of my nephews, who has expressed an interest in cooking. I tried to write down everything, not just the right amounts of things, but also the way in which I would do things at the same time to try to have a complete dinner all ready. Here is one of the final 'fancy' recipes I wrote down for him:

Marinated Flank Steak With Roasted Garlic Potatoes

1 flank steak
1/2 bottle cheap Italian Dressing
Fresh rosemary, if you have it.

8 russet potatoes
Olive oil
3 tbsp garlic (powdered, paste-inna-jar, fresh and minced, whatever)
Italian seasoning
Salt
Pepper
Chopped fresh rosemary, if you have it (if you don't, get some dried rosemary and crush it into your palm with your thumb to crack it into smaller pieces. This will hurt a little, but is very effective.)

1 candy bar or granola bar

At least two hours before, take the flank steak out of its package and put it in a gallon ziploc bag. Pour a bunch of Italian dressing in the bag. Seal it and put it back in the fridge.

Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel them. Preheat your oven to 375, and get a long casserole dish or a cookie pan with sides. Cut the potatoes into something like one-inch cubes. Put the potatoes into the dish and drizzle generously with olive oil. Add the garlic and dust with salt, pepper, rosemary, and Italian seasoning. Then stir it all around in the pan until the potatoes are fairly evenly coated with all that stuff. Put it in the oven.

Walk away for an hour. The house will begin to smell tremendously good. Open the oven and stir the potatoes around with a spatula. Glare at them for smelling so great. Eat the candy bar. Let the potatoes cook for at least another half hour before coming back. Stir the potatoes around with a spatula again. Are they looking goldenly crispy and perfect? Excellent, turn off the oven and leave them there while you make the steak. If not, leave the oven on while you make the steak.

Chop the fresh rosemary, if you have it. Get a big skillet. Turn on the stove's vent fan. Pour a teaspoon or two of olive oil in it and turn the heat up to high. Sprinkle a tablespoon of fresh rosemary into the pan. Turn the heat down a little. Cook the flank steak for five minutes on each side. Turn down the heat more if it starts to smoke.

Then, turn off the stove and remove pan from heat. Turn off the oven. Walk away for five minutes. Do not touch the steak. Do not turn it. Do not cut it. Just go away.

Come back. Don't make eye contact with the steak. Lay out your plates. Set the table. Get a cutting board and a very large, very sharp knife. Ten minutes should now have passed since you turned off the heat. Take the flank steak out of the pan and put it on the cutting board. Slice it thinly and against the grain. Serve with the potatoes and something green - fresh spinach leaves, steamed broccoli, or green beans sauteed in a little teriyaki sauce.

If you are very lucky, you will have leftover sliced steak, because this makes a terrific sandwich for lunch the next day. To make that sandwich, turn your oven on to "Broil," then get a cookie sheet. Put down two slices of buttered bread, butter-side-up. Lay strips of steak on top of the buttered bread. Then put cheese on top of both, preferably something a little bit soft like provolone or butterkase. Slide in the oven and watch it melt, take out when cheese gets bubbly, devour.


It might take him a while to get interested in cooking to the point that he really looks at the recipes, but maybe in time he'll get to liking these notes the way I think fondly of my mother's handwaving and swearing. Next week will be my birthday, and while I won't manage it this year, someday I will make her version of the Chocolate Icebox Pudding recipe that used to be on the back of a box of Baker's chocolate. We always called it Chocolate Ook Cake. I haven't found that modified recipe, though I wrote it down once. She always reminded me that Baker's chocolate has been around for a very long time, and it used to come in boxes that were double the size, and that eggs also used to be bigger, so you had to make allowances and changes, and besides it was probably made with ladyfingers but I can't remember, damnit, where's the beaters for the mixer. (Or something like that.) She only bothered to make the sponge cake for it once or twice; the rest of the time she'd buy one at the store, and get out her bread knife and carefully cut the cake into eight or ten thin layers, and she'd usually cut one at a funky angle or break it by accident. Finally, when the chocolate ook was mixed, she'd daub it and pour it carefully, layer by layer, until it was time to coat the cake. I'd clear a space in the fridge, and sometimes the layers would start to lean and slip and she'd get bamboo skewers and stab them into the cake as supports.

She was never entirely confident about her cooking, which was ridiculous. Sure, sometimes she burned things, that happens to us all, but Christmas Eve dinner she'd always proclaim that she'd ruined something - overcooked the potatoes, the salad was wilted, the beef was too tough - but maybe we could eat it anyway, oh well. And of course it would always be delicious. It was always the same with this cake. While it was setting up and chilling in the fridge, she'd always wonder if she'd gotten it right and how maybe it wouldn't quite turn out this year. The next day we'd cut it and the layers would zigzag beautifully, and the chocolate ook would stick to the knife and she'd have to scrape it off to get a clean cut on the next piece. She just made a habit of scraping the knife right on your plate, first, so after you'd finished your piece of cake you could eat this extra spoonful of cold chocolate sludge.

I know I don't necessarily make it sound appealing, but nothing will ever taste more like summer, more like my birthday, than that cake.
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The relief... [20 May 2015|10:35pm]
[ mood | adrenaline! ]

...when you've written down the numbers of the local hospitals and police, you're about to get in your car with supportive food and drink, you're ready for hand-holding and calling friends and relatives and searching the neighborhood...

...and the person you're looking for is found. Just a work event that ran ridiculously, awfully late. Phew!

Hold your loved ones close, eh?

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Ahhhh... and also Aaaaaaahhhh! [16 Feb 2015|09:33pm]
Well, there was a stressful week of strep throat. It took me a while to recover from that.

My career is teaching me that I cannot 'just muddle through' when ill. I am happily engaged in a profession that requires all I can give it. I cannot do what I used to do working retail and drag myself around half-conscious for a month with a pocketful of sudafed and kleenex. I have to actually REST and take care of myself.

Also, I am learning what it means to care about my job. I've been playing full-time professionally for more than two years, and I'm getting used to caring so much about my work and finding it so rewarding. I grew up poor; I'm not used to caring about money. "Money, she comes, she goes, but love, she stays." Now, the money I earn gigging is dear to me. The way I use it matters more. Looking at my taxes, my incomings and outgoings for the year, is more personal. Did I use this money well? Can I maintain this occupation? How much did I give away? How much did I need to spend on upkeep of my equipment? These numbers resonate with me in a new and frightening way.

I get worried about upcoming gigs, making contact with venue owners, finishing demos, recording albums, communicating with bandmates, putting my stamp on arrangements, making sure we have promo, composing tunes... there are many aspects and processes to my job and these things carry more weight with me than they did before, and they carry more weight with me than aspects of other jobs. I care more. This is my calling.

Too, I am reaping the rewards. I am focused and sharp. I am learning to step up and ask for what I need. I am learning to say no: to gigs for exposure, to bands I can't maintain, to opportunities that are out to exploit me, to all sorts of things. I am learning to say yes: to jamming when I have the opportunity, to gigs I would have felt unprepared to take a year or two ago, to interviews, to uncomfortable social situations (introducing myself to people in positions of power, selling myself and my career).

I've had a lovely week in New York, being pandered to (helloooo, half-naked Alan Cumming in Cabaret). I will return in time for a rehearsal, then the following day I have a performance, then a day off, then a pub gig, two days to recover and prepare, a freebie gig with friends, a few days with my girlfriend, a ski lodge gig in Michigan, a couple days for appointments and packing, Consonance with Wild Mercy, a coffeehouse gig, and then SAINT PATRICK'S DAY.

...I can do it. I'm pretty sure.
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State of the Fiddler [21 Dec 2014|03:15pm]
I'm working on three albums with three different bands! Yesterday I had an 18-hour workday where we drove back and forth to Chicago and listened to new album tracks for the Tooles, then had a three-hour pub gig in Janesville. It was WONDERFUL.

I'm slowly learning to do better with the holidays. It's not easy, but I'm very, very, very lucky in that I seem to have found some smart and kind and supportive and funny and tolerant people who really and truly would like nothing more for Christmas than to spend more time with me.

I'm not sure how I managed that, but I'm going to keep trying really, really, really hard not to fuck it up, while simultaneously remembering that my friends and chosen family actually want me to use and support them when I'm having hard times.

Very soon, I will have Moxiemas. Might be singing lead on a new song! I'm excited.
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International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day 2014 [22 Nov 2014|08:15am]
November 22 is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.


Four years ago, my mother committed suicide. I still struggle coming to terms not only with her death, but with my family's wider history of suicide. My maternal grandfather and great-uncle died by suicide, my sister made an attempt, and I have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since puberty.

When I talk about these things, people shy away. It's a frightening subject, but if we want to help people who are suicidal, we need to understand what suicide really means, how it works, and how to respond to people contemplating it. Remember, talking about suicide does not cause someone to be suicidal. If you're worried about someone, it is safe to bring up the topic of suicide.

Suicide is the act of taking one's own life, and suicidality - the tendency toward or risk of suicide - is an illness like any other. Some people have this sickness temporarily, others fight it their whole lives. In my family, it's hereditary. All too often, it's fatal. It takes over your mind and body and you die from it. When that happens, as a society, we tend not to talk about it too much. It’s a very quiet killer, rendered quieter by stigma, taboo, awkwardness, and misconceptions.

Suicide is not selfish. Imagine that your thoughts and emotions make up a house. My mother's mental house faded around the edges. Room by room, the space available to her shrank until she was left a hallway, trapped in a narrow place. It's not that she was thinking of herself; it's that she couldn't think of anyone, anything.

It’s nobody’s fault when this medical condition takes hold. As many as one in six people become seriously suicidal at some point in their lives. While it is not directly caused by depression, anxiety, drug use, or other risk factors, about 90% of suicidal people have mental issues that involve or worsen seriously suicidal thoughts. These issues can be treated.

If someone brings up the topic of suicide with you, don't panic. Don’t lecture, and don’t make demands. Start by listening. Someone reaching out to you is a very good sign. First of all, it means they trust you. Second, if an individual is sharing these thoughts with you, there is something stopping or delaying them from completing suicide. It is safe to ask, "What's stopping you, and how can we focus on that?"

Here are some other “do’s” and “don’ts” for such a conversation. We all need to be ready to support our friends and family.

Do try to have the conversation in private. Don't promise to keep the contents of the conversation private, though. It's important that you be willing to get help if someone you know is in crisis.

Do try to say something, even if it's "wow, I'm sorry," or "well, crap." You don’t have to instantly become a perfect therapist. A friend of mine reached out to some of her friends, and they reacted with silence. "You could have heard a pin drop," she told me. "Nobody said a thing." It made her feel distanced, alone.

If the person you're talking to mentions a certain means of committing suicide, it's safe to bring up ways to remove or limit that means. "Do you want me to keep your gun for a while? Do you keep ammo in the house?" "When you say you're thinking about swallowing pills, are they pills you have? Can you get someone to dose out a week at a time instead of having the whole bottle around?" "You mentioned slitting your wrists. Is looking at knives or razors hard for you? I can come over and help you get those things out of the house for a while. Want to go shopping for an electric shaver together?" Bringing this up is not harmful and will not give anyone ideas. Don't press for action, just let them know there are options.

Later, check back in. Be ready for things not to suddenly be better. The mental issues surrounding suicidality don't go away quickly. If you can, try to communicate that it's okay to still be struggling.

There are many resources for those who are suicidal or talking to people who are considering suicide. America's Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and anyone in crisis can use their online chat to talk to a counselor. Similarly, IMAlive is an online chat-based Hopeline staffed by trained volunteers, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center's Hopeline phone number is 1-800-442-HOPE (4673).

If you're suicidal, there are people who can help. If you are not, the odds are that somebody in your life will be or has been before, and you can still help by being willing to educate yourself and others, and being willing to say the word "suicide."

When someone brings up thoughts of suicide to you, you have already done something right. You’re the one they trust, you’re the one who feels safe. "Suicide" is a scary word, but talking about it doesn't kill you, and being ready to listen might help someone live.

Every time you share this post or other information on suicide, you help to fight the stigma, break the taboo, and dispel the myths. Feel free to link back to this. Feel free to comment here with other links and resources and stories. Feel free to talk to me about suicide. Feel free to comment anonymously on this post (trolling and hate speech will be deleted).
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I am a lucky duck with talented friends. [02 Oct 2014|09:57pm]
Things I should tell y'all:

Cheshire Moon released a summer EP and I'm on one of the songs (Disenchanted), and all proceeds benefit Interfilk: http://www.cheshiremoonband.com/merch.html

Phil Mills released "Mix Until Absurd," and I'm on that, too: http://philmills.bandcamp.com/album/mix-until-absurd (Talk to Strangers, Tweedledee, Watching One Another)

I got to play with Talis Kimberley at LonCon this August and there's a "highlights" video of the performance that includes three complete songs - Corn Jenny, Síar Ón Ndaingean, and This Side of The Knife, and I'm on the last two of those. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEFRGyQOjFg
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Musicianship and Domestic Accomplishments! [02 Oct 2014|09:05pm]
Sunday night I rehearsed with a vocalist/guitarist I play with in The New Lepers, a sort of may-or-may-not-exist Poguesish band.

Tuesday night I rehearsed with a jazz fusion band I've recently joined, Wunderkat - we're going to start recording the 2nd week of November!

Wednesday night I rehearsed with my jug band, breaking in the band's new guitarist.

Tonight is Thursday, and I played with Kurt (guitar/vocals/drum, 1/3 of The Tooles) as Borderlands for the Piper's Ball at the Janesville Performing Arts Center to open the Janesville Irish Festival.

Tomorrow I'm taking a goddamn nap. I may go to the comic book store.

Saturday morning is an Amy and the Patriarchs show, which is a funny name for "me and a dude or two play whatever we want" - it's me and Kurt again, and we'll be playing the Janesville Farmer's Market.

Saturday afternoon is The Tooles - all three of us, including David (guitar/vocals/bass) - playing our Big Stage Set on the Rileyville Stage of the Janesville Irish Festival. The Tooles are going to start recording the first week of November!

Sunday afternoon is Borderlands again, but it'll be me, Kurt, and Craig (a talented harmonica player, among other things) playing the Lake Mills Fall Festival.

Monday I'll do laundry and that night I might see my husband. Tuesday night I'll have Wunderkat rehearsal...

In the last few days, I've:
-cleaned the kitchen floor
-done dishes
-done laundry
-taken out recycling
-renewed my car's registration
-taken out trash
-picked up prescriptions at the drugstore and gotten my flu shot
-brought my sick girlfriend some soup and so far, it appears, somehow not gotten her cold
-renewed my auto insurance
-renewed my Musician's insurance (yay for protected instruments!)
-renewed my AAA membership (yay for getting home safely from pub gigs that end at one in the morning!)
-noticed our internet was wonky, called Charter, scheduled a service call, let in the specialist, got things fixed, called Charter on his advice, and got our plan switched to something that will give us twice the download speed for $30/mo less
-started cooking a tasty pot roast

I'm bragging about it NOW because I probably won't be this domestically productive again until... let's say early December. Hope all y'all are doing well.
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