Labels and Stories

He wore his favorite jeans, soft with wear, in contrast with his white button down shirt, chafing at the collar. He almost raised his arm to ease the discomfort at his neck, but it was safer to stay still.

There was nothing to differentiate him from the men blocking his way, except for the shoes. They wore sneakers. He wore his old dress shoes. And his shirt was wet with perspiration.

And they had machine guns, all pointed at him.

He could see it in their eyes, hard, calculating—are you one of us, or one of them? Friend or foe? There was no way to tell. Until he opened his mouth and his speech pattern gave him away.

Here, the label, friend or foe, was a matter of life and death. The word “stranger” would mark him as a target.

James was black, beaten to death, Jamal was a Muslim, attacked in broad daylight, Kelly was raped, just because she was a woman, in the wrong place a the wrong time.

Labels, whatever they may be, dehumanize, sometimes evoking violence.

 Friends

Friends

If the man at the roadblock were given a chance to tell his story, of his background, his family, and his potential killers were to listen, he would no longer carry the label of stranger.

In most cases, the “wrong” label may merely lead to suspicion.

Fortunately, my label as a mathematician often evokes glazed looks, not violence. And at social occasions, if I add the label weaver, disinterest sometimes transforms into curiosity. And the curious more often than not, ask to hear the rest of my story.

I am not only a mathematician and a weaver. I am also a loving mother, a textile enthusiast, a thriving brain injury survivor, and an award winning author. But however many labels I carry, they only mark the beginning of my story. If you want to know me better, you need to listen to my stories, and I have many. About my love of teaching, my textile collection, my book about ethnic textiles and my memoir of recovery from brain injury, my family. Some I have already told, but most have yet to emerge.

And if you tell me your story, about your journey through childhood , your family, your growth, your life, I will listen.

We need to communicate, so we can connect and shed the label of stranger, so we can become friends.

Jersey Shore

I paused at the bottom or the steps to the beach—nostrils flaring, I inhaled deeply, relishing the salt air as it filled me entire being.

Dad contemplated the watermarks on the wall. “Look how high the water reaches at high tide.” I’d heard the waves pounding at the sea wall the previous evening.

gentle waves.jpg

On our way towards the water line, I paused every so often to admire the well defined tracks I was creating in my wake.

We hesitated when we reached the water—to the left or right, cliffs or fishing boats? I shaded my eyes, looking both ways. “The cliffs look more interesting. We can explore the boats tomorrow.”

Gentle waves lapped at the shore, curved under at the forefront, leaving arcs of foam on the wet sand when they retreated. I glanced behind me—the water softened our footprints as it washed over them, once, twice, three times, until they faded altogether.

Tiny holes—“made by crabs,” Dad said—emitted small bubbles as the ocean drew the water back in. Wondering what happened to those crabs at high tide, I turned towards the sea wall. Dark wet sand faded into white. A few clusters of pockmarked rocks, more sand, and then the wall. A wide expanse of dry scrub grew beyond the wall.

Dad pointed further inland to towers made of what? Stone? Concrete? “German fortifications. From when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands.”

Tiny silhouettes of a dog and his person ran along the top of the wall. Another dog ran in the scrub, weaving his way between the shrubs.

Dad suggested we explore the tide pools.

We scrambled over the rocks, searching for sea life in the pools. Dad smiled. “We used to do this with Granny. We usually found something, minnows, small crabs.”

The only evidence of life was seaweed swaying in the almost imperceptible current. Dad and I gave up after peering into half a dozen pools.

We trudged back towards the water, our feet sinking into the dry sand. Dad proposed that we head back to the hotel. Loath to end our time together, our easy companionship, I turned towards the cliffs. A black maw caught my eye, the entrance to a cave. “I bet we could climb up to it with no trouble.”

Dad hesitated. He had an odd look to his face. He seemed… reluctant? I was puzzled—the Dad I knew would have been eager to explore further, especially if it involved climbing rocks and investigating a cave. I looked at my watch—we had plenty of time before we had to get back for breakfast.

And then it clicked—he would have trouble with the climb.

I’d forgotten. He was in the advanced stages of macular degeneration—he’d reached the point when he could only see fuzzy shapes, colors and contrasts.

Calculus Revisited

There are days,

 Calculus Mustache Day

Calculus Mustache Day

 Math Grad Students Fake Mustache Day

Math Grad Students Fake Mustache Day

and there are days:

 Calculus Hoodie Day

Calculus Hoodie Day

And then we went for socks. Some were interesting. Others...

 Calculus Sock Day

Calculus Sock Day

 The teaching assistant couldn't make it to class. So...

The teaching assistant couldn't make it to class. So...

They asked, "Can we have a candy day?"

 Calculus Lollipop Day

Calculus Lollipop Day

 There were some left over, so math grad students celebrated the day as well. (And I got another.)

There were some left over, so math grad students celebrated the day as well. (And I got another.)

Now what?

 Calculus Balloon Day

Calculus Balloon Day

But best of all--Balloon and Gus Day and my birthday!

  And  the last day of the semester!  Woohoo!

And the last day of the semester! Woohoo!

Cookies

When Joan gave me a plate of yummy looking cookies, my immediate thought was “that’s the way the cookie bounces.” I wondered whether that expression meant the same thing as the idioms “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” or “that’s the way the ball bounces.”

According to My English Pages, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” means, “things don’t always turn out the way we hope.” The Cambridge Dictionary it is “said when something slightly unlucky has happened that could not have been prevented and so must be accepted.” The Urban Dictionary is much more succinct—“shit happens.”

I strongly suspect that the phrase “that’s the way the cookie bounces” does not hold the same meaning as the other two.

I thanked Joan profusely, the cookies looked so good. I was also hungry. Also she went through all that trouble.

I was particularly intrigued by the spherical brown ones. Mum and I used to make ones that looked exactly the same, made of cocoa, flour, and sugar. Sometimes we added walnuts to the mix—tum!. They never lasted long in our household. I couldn’t wait to try one of Joan’s.

As soon as she left, I attacked the saran wrap that covered the plate. It put up a decent fight, but determined, I won.

I raised the largest cookie to my mouth. As I bit into it, my eyes closed in anticipation. My teeth sank into it. The texture was wonderful, somewher between shortbread and—

My eyes flew open and my jaw froze—rubber? More rubber than crumble. And the taste… Yech! Bland with a hint of bitterness. Actually, more than a hint, quite a bit more.

Was she trying to poison me?

I spat it out. I briefly thought of trying another cookie to get rid of the taste. What about one that looked like a snicker-doodle? But realized that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea. Instead, I reached for my water bottle and rinsed my mouth out with water.

After I got over the initial shock, my mind started roaming. Spherical and rubbery—if I dropped one on a hard surface, would it bounce or splat? I was sitting at my desk. The floor was carpeted. Hmmm… It had better be the desk.

I cleared away some space, took a quick look into the hallway—would witnesses be a good thing, or a bad thing? It was a moot point—there was no one there.

I picked out the most regularly shaped spherical cookies and dropped it onto the desk.

It bounced. Not high, but it was definitely a bounce.

And then it splatted.

Flying High

From Morocco, to Hungary, then on to Japan. Next came China and India. From there I traveled to Estonia. My next trip was to Scotland, later to Panama and Thailand. Zimbabwe followed, and from there I went to the Philippines, then to Bhutan and Ghana.

Here I sit in the U.S. at my computer, yesterday my thoughts were on Ghana, today, I dream of Haiti.

I researched weaving in Morocco and the Philippines, and studied embroidery in Thailand and India. In Scotland, I learnt about kilt hose, and in Panama I found molas, the colorful reverse applique of the Kuna Indians.

When I mentioned a couple of my trips to a friend, he asked me when I got back. I laughed—I don’t travel in person. I wish I could.

I write articles about textile techniques from around the world. And now I’m working on a book, each chapter based on one of those articles. I have fabulous photos of the textiles. But I have none of the artisans at work. I want, I need such photos. For the book. For myself.

I wish I could travel as much as I do virtually. I would like to go to Morocco and hang out with some of the Berber rug weavers. If I could only watch the Jalq'a weavers of Bolivia in person, there's so much I want to ask them. To be able to get an up close look the double ikat weaving in Patan, India... I’d love to visit my friends in Bhutan, one of whom was a weaver to the king.

Marilyn shook her head. “But the altitude...”

But— But— I’ve wanted to go for so long. I was planning to go within the next few years. I hadn’t thought of the altitude. That ruled out Ayacucho and Cusco in Peru as well, both places I wish I could explore, where I have friends.

I was in the highlands of Guatemala when I suffered my acute brain bleeds. According to many members of the Angioma Alliance, high altitudes can trigger bleeds. Some members won’t travel by plane for fear of hemorrhaging.

I refuse to give up on traveling. It’s an important part of my life. I fly to visit friends and family in Israel at least once a year. Colorado is another of my regular destinations. A few months ago, I was in New Mexico. My brother lives in Massachusetts. I’m long past due a trip to England. And Iceland sounds good, as does Laos, and Ghana, and New Zealand, and, and...

Yes there’s a danger of a bleed, and travel is beyond exhausting fatigue exacerbated my deficits. But…

Maybe I won’t go to Peru, and hold off on Bhutan. But I will go back to Santa Fe in February, and Israel in March, and Iceland… sometime. I just have to watch myself, to pick and choose.

Most of the time I'm fine about giving up on my dreams of travel, but whenever I work on one of my textile articles, I feel a brief twinge. Then I remember the shemagh (or keffiya) that Ghofran brought me from Saudi Arabia, the piece of Assisi embroidery that Matteo found for me in Italy, and the gorgeous shawl Poonam sent me from India. And I realize, that really I'm very lucky. When I travel vicariously through friends and family, I feel fulfilled, especially when I know they've been thinking of me. I can feel the goofy smile on my face as I listen to them recount their adventures as they searched for the glorious textile they just presented to me.

There's something about a thoughtful gift from a good friend accompanied by a story that counteracts all the twinges in the world.

Superwoman

When I wore skirts or dresses, I walked differently, my hips swayed more, it was almost a floating sensation, as if… as if I was a girl.I felt awkward, ungainly, like I didn't quite fit in the role, like I wasn't myself.

I haven’t worn one in more than a decade. When I needed to dress up, I usually wore a nice top with slim fitting black pants, occasionally harem pants.

And now, I wanted to wear a skirt. I needed a skirt.

I was off to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where I was to interview several of the artists, two of whom were Muslim. I thought that by wearing more modest clothing, i.e. a skirt rather than a pair of pants, or, worse, a pair of shorts, I’d reduce potential causes of unease. I also regarded it as a way of showing respect.

It was time to go shopping--one of my least favorite activities.  I wanted something that didn’t restrict me too much, not too expensive either. This was a one-time deal. Made in India should do the trick. Not an Indian wraparound skirt—I never liked those. A broomstick skirt, perhaps. But not too long—I didn’t want to get tangled up in it and trip.

I was surprised at the one I chose, the one that felt right. It was made in India, it was the right length—mid-calf. It had an elastic waist and gave me a full range a motion. And it was soft. But it was sparkly. I didn’t wear sparkly. Ever. This one had sequins. And it jingled with my every step, with each sway of my hips.

I loved it. It felt good. It felt right. As if a side of me that had been hidden for too long had resurfaced. I bought it. I also bought a feminine top to go with it.

The morning of the interviews arrived. I pulled the sparkly skirt off the hanger and the top out of the suitcase. I chose the most stretchy bra I could find—I had to find comfort wherever I could find it. Next knickers. I had a choice of Thor, Spiderman, or Superman. The choice was clear—superman. The Thor and Spiderman underwear were covered in comics. The Superman underwear just had the emblem on the front. I could be Superwoman under my feminine finery. In my mind I could be flying around, one arm outstretched the other bent at the elbow, toes pointed, one leg straight the other bent at the knee, and my skirt streaming behind me.

Yup. That would work. With a goofy grin on my face all residual doubts about wearing the skirt disappeared. Not only could I do this, but I would actually enjoy it, wholeheartedly.

There was no residual awkwardness inside me, not even a hint. I was comfortable in my own skin, as I hadn't been in decades.

Sounds

We all agreed, first food then the piercing. After we ate our sushi picnic among the pigeons, Daniel, a recent Ph.D., Sara, an ex-student of ours, Royce, a husky-malamute mix, and I, set off for the piercing shop.

Daniel asked, “Who should go first?”

Sara was anxious. “I don't like needles.”

I asked her, “Would you prefer to go first, last, or second?”

“Not first. It's not the pain I'm worried about. Just the needle.”

Daniel didn't seem to care.

Like Sara, I wasn't worried about the pain, but unlike her, I wasn't afraid of needles.

I'm not a ditherer. I volunteered to go first.

As I'd expected, the pain was too short-lived to impress me.

The one thing that bothered me was the sound of the needle going through the cartilage. It seemed to go on for an eternity.

Before the brain surgeries, a nurse friend mentioned that I might be kept awake during the operation. I imagined a gloved finger pressing here to watch my leg jerk, and there to see my elbow bend.

She added, “It won't hurt.”

It hadn't occurred to me to worry about the pain. My concern was about the sound and smell of the surgeon cutting through my skull.

When I was growing up in Israel, dentists didn't use Novocaine on their patients. Visits to the dentist's office were not my favorite passtimes. The pain was certainly a concern when the she approached with her implements of torture. But I feared the shriek of the drill and the smell of burning much more.

I shook my head when my ex-student, Sara, asked whether the piercing had hurt. “Only for a short bit. It was the sound of that got to me.” and I shuddered.

Wibble Wobble

These days, though I still frequently wake up with a touch of vertigo and a relatively mild case of the wobbles, rarely are the problems with my balance truly debilitating. But if severe loss of balance does hit, it hits hard and fast.

If gravity challenges me while I’m standing or walking, chances are that I’ll recover my balance quickly enough to avert disaster. However, there are situations that are too risky for my taste. Sarah now owns my bike and I’ve donated my ice skates and roller blades to Goodwill.

I was forty-one years old when I learnt to ice skate, forty-three when I began roller blading—I never became adept at either, and my braking techniques often yielded some pretty interesting results: skating into walls, grabbing onto people, running into trees, stumbling onto grass banks, slamming into letterboxes. So, other than missing the sensation of flying, I didn’t really mind giving up ice skating and roller blading.

Not so with bike riding. I was never an avid, ride-every-day cyclist, but when I did ride, I enjoyed it immensely. After the bloody brain, balance issues made biking impossible, and I missed it.

I was on the phone to Cindy, bemoaning my loss and reminiscing about the fierce joy I used to feel as I pumped furiously to the top of a hill and the elation I felt as I swooped down the other side, the wind in my face.

Cindy responded, “Why don’t you buy a tricycle?”

Her suggestion reminded me of a photo on my mantelpiece. In it, Dad is astride a bike, looking over at Mum—who, thanks to her own balance issues never mastered a two-wheeler—riding a tricycle by his side. They’re in their early fifties, the year they spent in Oxford, the year she discovered an adult-sized tricycle she could use—and did, riding around the neighborhood and on shopping trips to the local stores.

I plucked the picture off the mantelpiece and examined it. Mum and Dad looked happy, smiling at each other, possibly laughing. I zoomed in on the tricycle—it was yellow, and it had a basket in the back and a horn attached to the handlebars.

I pictured myself on a tricycle like my mother’s, with a basket, except the trike in my mind was red. I saw myself riding by the river, sometimes pedaling, other times coasting, the water in the background.

Except for table tennis, Mum wasn’t one for power or speed—I suspected she rode her trike at a leisurely pace. For me, power and speed were the whole point of bike riding—the main source of its joy.

As a college student, I rode my bike to the university every morning. I surged down the first long stretch, a glorious downhill, delighting in the speed and the sensation of complete and utter freedom. The next leg of the journey was also long, and uphill. I stood, all my weight on the pedals, the bike swaying from side to side as I pumped furiously, pushing myself to keep going without a break, rejoicing in my prowess.

I purchased a tricycle, a red one, with a basket.

Stress and De-Stress

“I assume you've been having de-stress migraines?”

I was surprised for a split second—how would she know? Then I remembered—Sara, a friend, also suffers from frequent horrific migraines. She knew what it was like.

On Wednesday, I had to say no Irina's invitation to go out to dinner. Earlier that day, I wondered whether I should cancel my lunch with Sara and my TA, Daniel.

Then yesterday, Thursday, when I woke up with a bad headache, I held an inner debate. Would some crystallized ginger take care of it? Probably not. I should take a ginger capsule as well. Maybe some turmeric tea—you never know, it might help. I decided to take a couple of Aleve—though like any other over-the-counter pain killer, it hasn't even been taking the edge off the headaches for me over the past few years. But, who knows, maybe this time it'll work. And a shower might make a difference. And of course, some protein.

The headache was severe enough that I knew all those precautions might do nothing for me. I wondered whether I'd have to cancel my doctor's appointment. And what about the afternoon tea with Alex?

This has been going on for three weeks now, since the semester ended. And throughout this time, I've had an ongoing headache that won't quit; it merely changes in intensity. Three weeks—shouldn't I be doing much better by now? Apparently not.

I spent much of the spring semester with headaches; a couple of them kept me in bed in a darkened room for a day or two, or three, preventing me from doing my job. But most of the time, I was able to function through them.

Joyce told me that at the end of every semester, I take a month, sometimes more, to recover from the semester. She said that it's especially bad after the end of the academic year. A whole month? Sometimes more? Surely she was exaggerating. But no, I now recalled that she was right.

Wait! In the past, a week into summer break I would have taken a trip out of town. Wasn't that why it usually took me so long to recover? That was why I dediced to stay home between the end of the semester and the start of the summer research program. I thought I would recover faster.

Hopefully I'll be doing better by the end of next week, in time for our summer undergraduate research program.

Reminders

Bloody Brain: You seem to be doing pretty well these past few days, at least most of the time. I was a bit worried after the CMU suicides...

ME: Yeah. I guess I found my joy. Life does that you know. Things happen, you can't help but see the good stuff.

BB: There has been a lot of good stuff recently, hasn't there?

 On the way to the polls.

On the way to the polls.

ME: Let me think. Oh yeah, I see what you mean. There was Daniel's defense. That was fun. Even though I didn't understand a word. I enjoy Daniel, and Matteo. Nice group. Fun. Funny. And going to vote... there's something about it... I don't know, the walk to the polls--I love it. It's almost as if I feel proud of voting. There's a bit of a ritual to it. Having Gus around is always a blast. Today, he was a riot. I took him on a long walk. It was hotter than I expected. And there were a few puddles along the way. He just lay down in them to cool down. When we got back I gave him a bath. He wouldn't lie down. He really does not like baths. I don't get it. He loves lying in puddles and streams. Paddling pools too. Why not baths?

BB: He does seem to put a smile on your face. On the other hand, last week, you seemed to be having a rougher time than I would have expected.

ME: Really? In what way was it rough?

BB: Maybe it's just that I thought you'd be in better shape. It was the last week of the semester. Test 3 was done the previous week. Was it your conversation with Tom?

ME: Oh yeah. He wanted me to do more stuff, and I kind of panicked. I think I've hit capacity in what I do. I'll be talking to him some more about it. But, yeah, I was worked up over it. Actually, I had trouble sleeping. I had a few nightmares as well.

BB: But you're okay now?

ME: I think so. Maybe taking a few days slowly has really helped.

BB: You had no choice but to take it easy.

ME: Really? What do you mean?

BB: You were sick, remember?

ME: Oh right. I forgot. So have I been doing well, despite being sick?

BB: You certainly haven't been unhappy. You just felt like crap, physically.

ME: Okay. That's good.

BB: God, I hate it when you forget stuff like that. I mean, you're still a bit sick. You had that really bad bout of coughing earlier.

ME: But I feel fine now. You know how it goes—since you showed up on my horizon, my memory is kind of messed up. I kind of live in the moment in many ways. I'm fine now, therefore, I've always been fine…

BB: Yeah yeah. I know, and you'll always be fine. It's so irritating sometimes. Almost Pollyanna-ish.

ME: I can't help it. On the other hand, when I'm miserable…

BB: Okay, okay. Let's not go there. You really don't remember being sick?

ME: I mean, now that we're talking about it I do, sort of. I guess, I remember the facts, that I was sick, that I was stuffed up and had a bad cough. But I don't really remember that I felt awful. I mean I know I must have felt ill, but it's like it happened to someone else. A story.

BB: I've never really got that. When you say that it must have been awful, what's really going on in your head?

ME: I guess, I don't remember past things vividly enough to put emotions to the memories. And as you know, a lot of time, I don't remember even recent things unless someone reminds me. And when I do remember, it's more in the form of a vague memory, devoid of emotions.

BB: But you smiled when you were remembering Gus rolling around in the puddles.

ME: I guess it would make sense I only retain memories that have a stronger emotion attached to them. And those are vivid. And the rest just doesn't really touch me enough.

BB: But what about the Tom thing? You were really upset and panicky. Seems to me that those are strong emotions. But your memory of it seems vague and with much less emotion.

ME: True. I'm not sure I can explain it then.

BB: It just seems odd. The way your memory works. Messed up.

ME: Speaking of messed up, from these interviews or conversations or whatever we're having, it's almost as if we're friends. Not best friends but still…

BB: I'm not sure I agree with you. Maybe we're more comfortable with each other. But I wouldn't say friends.

ME: Good point.