Thus begins the part of this blog which isn't The Thing Is. It will continue to grow as I reconstruct my typing past. The posts which follow are a pour-over of what I've written since I began creating online columns online across a variety of platforms. Although I've been columning since I was sixteen, those earlier pieces exist solely on papyrus and as pictograms in Southwestern rock outcroppings.

This is the writer and person I was; the writer and person I was becoming. You'll notice that the earliest posts are suspiciously short, almost tweet-like. These are from a time when I was compulsively logging in as a matter of survival on a day job in an engineering firm. They are abbreviated shrieks from the deep, as time at work allowed. What now would have made for a social media post was slathered on a blog, even if it was only a line about the upcoming television schedule, especially if it was a line or two about the upcoming television schedule. Where else was I going to go with this? Have an actual conversation with another human being?

Part of me shied away from preserving what is the literary equivalent of hanging a finger painting next to a college admission essay, but the history minor in me won out. They constitute a record just as much as a census. Why find embarrassment over a listing of my old addresses and phone numbers? I made friends, both personal and virtual, with these posts. I built a (tiny, tiny) fan base. Where I see fault, they found something worthwhile at the time, and who am I to tell them otherwise? When my husband found my writing and, he says, began to fall in love with me, this is what he read.

Most of these posts survive in all their awkward angles and aunt jokes, although some weren't carried over because 1) they were just too... embarrassingly nasty and hurtful (I had a lot to learn; still do) 2) they were political in nature, a thing I have quite abandoned.

Although I aimed for some time at a career in political commentary, I retired at the age of 27, after the 2004 election. The ugliness of that contest, combined with the polito-emotional agony of the 2000 recount, had seeped too far into my pores. And I found that I was becoming ugly, too. This turned out to be that great rarity--a wise career decision on my part. I thought we'd never see the like of that kind of inter-voter fighting again, but, as you might expect when humans are given a lifesaving device for instantaneous communication, it got worse.

We are now experiencing an all-out American civil cold war, and my role is to create space for those who must rest awhile. I still closely follow politics, but as a quiet, tormented observer sitting atop a Red Cross wagon. Maybe someday we can speak softly and thoughtfully to one another as human begins. I suspect this happens now, in coffee shop lines and across bartops. But not often enough.

I vote; I read; I pray. But the daily exhausting e-fray is for people who don't burst into tears when her sandal accidentally falls in the trash can (don't ask.)

Working with this text has granted me a fresh appreciation for those of you who have supported me from the very beginning of my career--as far back as high school, as far back as those fat pixels on a hard-curved computer monitor. You commented. You emailed. You bought books. You sent money. Most of all, you settled in across the chasm, waving back, and I knew that no matter what else happened in my switchback career or spiky life changes, I wasn't alone.

Thank you.

What you need to do on the second date, ladies, is put your life in the gentleman’s hands, because all the awkwardness is so much easier to bear when trees and cows and people are rushing up at several hundred miles an hour. Let’s have a big blonde welcome for the lovely and talented Josh The Pilot, also known as Person Who Put Me Into a Very Small Aircraft and Totally Did Not Let Me Die. Also, men, an excellent second-date strategy? Kick things off by asking your date how much she weighs. Josh did not do this outright, possibly because he wanted a third date, possibly because he did not want his face bashed in, but it is my understanding that he had to do some guesstimation to figure our center of gravity. This involved, apparently, performing all sorts of horrible scary calculations involving numbers, some of which were, I’m afraid, decimals. “You’ve heard of ‘the envelope'?” an airport employee asked, pointing at the computer. “That’s the envelope.” The envelope, as it happens, is highly disappointing. Turns out it's a graph, with lines, and quadrants, and further math, and is not very exciting at all. I was hoping for a large, Tic-Tac-Dough-style dragon, or a wall of flames, or, at the very least, an actual envelope. Given the size of the plane, though, it’s probably safe to say that I accounted for at least a third of the total weight. I fly on a regular basis, but on large commercial jets featuring multiple engines and massive cargo holds and enormous, odorous passengers crammed into the seat next door. This plane… this plane had clearly come out of a box from Children's Palace, accessories sold separately. I followed Josh around the Micro-Machine as he prepared it for flight. (It was a Cessna 172RG, I later discovered when I reported in to my Air Force father, and he said “Ooooohhh.” It was not a good “Ooooohhh.” “What?” I said. "That airplne," he said, "was older than you. Possibly older than me.") I watched as Josh drained some fuel out of the tank (“You’re going to put that back, right?”) “What color do you see in there?” he said, holding a vial of it up to the light. “Blue.” “Guess what that means.” “The plane is pregnant?” I trotted after him to the other side. “What’s that?” I said, pointing at an irregular silver section. “Duct tape.” “What?” “It’s not like it’s an important part of the plane,” he said. “The wing isn’t an important part of the plane?” I think the Home Depot section of the aircraft was probably closer to the fuselage, but in my world? Every part of the plane is important. Every part. The brakes are important. The airspeed indicator is important. The little bags of pretzels are important, and I want them all certifiably duct-tape free. This is the very first time I’ve been able to say this regarding a second date, but: He opened the door of the airplane for me. And, you know what? Planes have keys. The man needed a key to start the airplane. I sincerely hope this is also not the case on fighter jets. What if you forget them? What if you lose them? Because I would definitely lose the key to my F16. Our plane, however, perhaps because it was, I don’t know, older than God, did not start, which was temporarily excellent because it provided me the opportunity to bust out the Princess Leia impression (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”) but it ceased to be so once I saw Josh bang on the console to get the thing going. (I reported this incident to Nick the NASA Poobah, and there was a pause on the other end of the line, which I presumed was a small moment of silence in honor of Josh’s ego. “A pilot,” Nick said, “would rather stand in front of a group of strangers in his underwear rather than have something go wrong on an airplane in front of a woman.”) Josh told me to latch the window, and I did, and then applauded myself for having helped fly the plane. Later, I retracted the landing gear, which, according to NASA regulations, qualifies me to command the next space shuttle mission. I will say this: I can Velcro up a sandal, and occasionally start a dishwasher, and every now and then flush a toilet without creating too much destruction, but I will never, ever, successfully guide any object heavier than fuzz into the air and over the ocean and back down again in one piece. Josh did this, without effort, and with a medium-sized passenger constantly pressing her headset mike against her face yelling “Red Five, coming in.” We landed and took off a couple times at an isolated airstrip, and one of the landings was a little bumpy, about which I said absolutely nothing, because let’s face it, I am frequently unable to find the state of Florida, let alone a barely-lit strip of land in East Pieceofcrap. “Remember that second landing?” Josh said as we drove away from the airport. “Uh-huh,” I said, watching the ground go by at an altitude of two and a half feet. “Yeah, I did it blind.” “You what?” “The landing lights,” he said. “They short-circuited, and I had to land it blind.” “Well I,” I said, “can recite the entire preamble to The Canterbury Tales in the original medieval English.” Which is slightly less impressive, but the last time I checked, nobody really cared how much Chaucer weighed.

November 13, 2004

When I attended graduate school in Vermont, I trailed around campus in an almost constant state of irritation, because I was in Vermont. There is little else to do there (no baseball, no sweating, no cutting of taxes or trees) except to be irritated and perhaps graduate, which I did, stupidly.

I miss Vermont.

You know what was beyond Vermont? Life. Life was beyond Vermont. And it turns out (this never seemed to come up in college, not in Victorian Literature, not in Gender Studies of Ancient Cultures, not once) that life consists of words like calendar, save, backup, carburetor, cellulite, void, quota, lease. Since matriculating college, Fey Theatre Major Guy, Beret-Wearing Poetry Slam Girl, and I had been surrounding ourselves with bright, happy words: lexicon, paradigm, Eurocentric.

But now: dividend, premium, fax machine. Overdraft. Life is where matriculation goes to die.

I was supposed to be famous by now. By my 25th birthday I was to have slammed The New York Times bestseller list, started construction on the sprawling summer home in the Colorado foothills and exchanged morning bon mots with my very good friend Regis.

I am, instead, 26 and surrounded by Cheez-It crumbs, many printer errors and hydrogeologists who actually say things like "Time to make the doughnuts!" as the elevator doors slide open. When the change of address form arrived last week from my alma mater, I wrote "Freelance Writer" in the "Profession" blank because there was no box to check for "Health Insurance Whore."

The hydrogeologists were never part of the Rich Famous Writer Plan, which has been in effect since I was 14. I announced an early-decision engagement with my alma mater because I was told that little girls who want to become big girls, literarily speaking, attend tiny liberal arts colleges with lousy volleyball teams and huge English departments. When I completed my Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing at Bennington College, I fully expected my magna cum laude birthright of a healthy 401K, a box of 500 business cards and eight to 12 pending book deals.

I am not good for much else. Everyone around me knows better than to ask me to add in my head. I can't sew, sing, hit, throw, catch, cook or even drive very well. I never could dissect the frog without hurling. I do not know my right from my left. Extended contact with children makes me want to die; extended contact with people in general makes me want to die. From an employment vantage point, this leaves writing, and wobbly crop-circle creation.

And yet there isn't a tremendously large market for 17 pages detailing precisely how much I cannot stand Shania Twain. If there must be a day job, I decided, I would sell myself out to an industry that would nourish rather than drain my tortured writer's soul, withered these past two years by such part-time pursuits as selling museum admission tickets, a job I not only hated but which hated me as well. "OK, you've got a $700 discrepancy," was not an uncommon thing to hear at cash-out time.

The bothersome scientific aspects of it aside, I fawn over the American space program -- for those who can't, lust. I moved to Florida to take a job in education at the Kennedy Space Center, where it became immediately apparent that the ability to recite the seven Mercury astronauts in flight order means absolutely nothing when a pharmaceuticals salesman from Topeka demands to see the room in which the moon landing was staged.

Every single shuttle launch costs approximately half-a-billion dollars; I was paid 10 bucks an hour. I put groceries and gas on credit cards and sold roses at bars to bear the full cost of three different prescriptions. "My master's degree and I thank you," I would say to customers, stuffing singles and fives into my plunging uniform bodice. They always thought I was kidding.

Once, as I stood at the front of a moving tour bus with a microphone in one hand and a tiny pair of solid rocket boosters in the other, a fifth-grader in the very last seat dumped an entire box of jawbreakers on the floor. The red and orange and green and purple spheres cascaded down the aisle, skittering through gift shop bags, tubes of suntan lotion, bottles of $2 water. "This," I thought as the candy hailed against my feet, "this is exactly what my professors had in mind for me."

Then Columbia lifted off whole, circled the Earth, and came back home in horrible fiery chunks. The subcontractor I worked for kept the doors of the Space Center gift shop wide open as stunned tourists filed back to their rental cars parked in lots named after spacecraft. For weeks of milky aftermath, I slept 12 hours a day, otherwise sitting very still and staring a lot.

And then for the first time in a year, I sat down to write. I wrote a letter of resignation. On the day I walked out, my manager, flanked by a security guard, stopped me in the parking lot to search the bag I used to tote around my allotment of the company's meager education equipment.

"It's empty," he said, acutely disappointed.

"So are you," I said, and left.

(I didn't actually say that. I just left. But before I left, I wish I'd said that.)

I fled to an engineering firm, where I landed a very nice tech writing job with a very nice desk and very nice dental plan. At the end of the interview, I gazed down at the company brochure before me, a visual assault of evenly cropped, sharply colored engineers beaming at one another and the wastewater treatment plants they had wrought. This, then, was how it was going to be: lunch meetings, kicky screen savers, and long, spellbinding conversations concerning the backup on the offramp.

I moved into my own office with a life-size standup of Obi-Wan Kenobi and an armload of swing music. The walls, empty and thick, echoed when the phone rang. Somebody announced that it was Amy's birthday and brought by a card for me to sign. I had no idea who Amy was, could not recall meeting her, knew absolutely nothing about her save that she was apparently a Pisces, but sent warm salutations anyway, failing in the process to use the word "paradigm" in any way, shape or form. The engineers, wary of this verbal object, came to my door, took in the framed 12-by-12 picture of Jimmy Buffett, and backed slowly away. The feeling was mutual.

I do not walk around my workplace; I hurtle. Hurtling lends a touch of realism to whatever internal fantasy life is circulating blood to my heart that day. It is the only way I know of to safety-valve away the untapped creative energy screaming through me as I dutifully cut and paste corporate resumes. Every trip to the ladies' room, each coffee refill becomes a life-or-death dash through the hallways. Others see me striding purposefully about to ferry grant applications; I am actually, however, rushing to the side of Indiana Jones because I and I alone hold the anti-venom for the snakebite he's just received, and the machete-wielding savage behind me knows this all too well.

When I return to my office I make observations for magnificent essays that rarely grow past the Post-it Note stage and sit in mortal fear of blasts from the intercom, for this may announce yet another cost-benefits table to be formatted, another sewage district for which to force fascination. I fling my arms out on either side, struggling to maintain equilibrium as eight hours heave and lurch beneath my ergonomic rolling chair.

Florida is a state of storms. It happens every single day in the summer months: bright morning, climbing humidity, swirling winds at lunchtime, then blam, the cable goes out. In my windowless office on the 10th floor I jump at the thunderclaps, stealing when I can into the heavily draped boardroom to face down high angry clouds as rain blanks out parking garages and fleeing tourists. The rain slams against the window I'm peering through as my business-attired reflection is superimposed over wind-torn downtown. By the time I go home the storm has spent the both of us; most days, I check my e-mail, type a couple of exhausted paragraphs, then tear off my pantyhose and sink directly into bed, the blank screen pulsing in the creeping dusk.

I heard an interview with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens as I drove to work one day, one high-heeled shoe pressing the brake as I negotiated toll booths and monstrous, rumbling dump trucks. Stevens discussed the ideal form of the American jockey, the immobile, "sits chilly" posture he must strike as he balances on two inches of boot while his thousand-pound mount flies along. You should be able, he said, to "set a glass of champagne in the middle of my back at 40 miles an hour and not spill a drop." The very best jockeys, it seems, stay out of the way of the very thing pulling them into the money.

January 2, 2004

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Mary Beth is an introvert.

She is eager to communicate but prefers doing so via email, a giant stage, or intense conversation about Important Things.

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