Protocols for being human: it’s not about you

Sometimes it’s not about you. But someone cuts you off in traffic, and you think it’s intentional and done to you. You curse them and their unborn children. Or that date never calls you back, or you boss doesn’t give you the normal morning hello, and stomps around with darkness brooding on his or her face. You think, “what did I do?”

daley-ranch-september_15116672930_oMaybe it’s only us sensitive artist types who react that way, but I have the feeling most of us would internalize those situations and think about what we did to deserve such a response, or why is that person being so (pick your favorite adjective mean, cruel, insensitive etc) TO ME.2012-may-14-milano_8014014990_o

There are more personal examples of situations soliciting this feeling. Ones that, if we examine every angle of the event, may appear to be really about us. This Psychology Today article gives a few good examples. And even in these cases, when we are steadfast to the concept that we have done something, or are solely responsible for the actions we have received, even in these cases it’s still probably not about us.

Why do we do this? Why do we assume things are about us? I’m not an expert at psychology or social constructs, but I have been a human for quite some time. Everything we are, everything we perceive is all inside of us. We don’t have any real contact with the world. Rather, every single experience we have is filtered through the lens of “me”. Our consciousness, the framework of us, is the thing that stays constant and in contact with the world.

As we move through the day and week, month and year it sometimes feels like we are gazing into the looking glass. Let me explain. We think the world is always reflecting us, and that the things happening all around are not random but echoes reflecting back to us because of a stone we dropped. The world is made and remade through our perception of our impact and influence on it. But this negates a few essential things. We, as individuals, are just one universe in a sea of them, and all these universes bump up against each other in a continuum of chaos. They do reshape and affect others, but the physics of it isn’t necessarily judgmental or accusational. It’s not personal. Most of the time really we just occupy the space together.

ct-october-2010_5073737059_oThis isn’t to say we should abdicate responsibility for our actions. We should always live according to our own morals and ethics. We should follow our internal compasses. However, when something uncomfortable happens, when something feels personal we should pause before we react, and question if it’s really about us. Much of the time, it’s not.


the night of imbolc

We are in war.  We sweat it.  We dream it.  It is in every step we take.  War.  Violence.  It sits heavy on the horizon, like the smoke of a forest fire.  It’s in my heart, my mind.  It’s everything.  All things.

Each morning we get up and climb the ramparts.  We look out over the kingdom, a quiltwork of fields stitched together by the pattern of their grains, and the delineations of their borders.  We look for them.  The evidence of them.  The marks they leave.

There they are, amassed down the hill.  Their skin is sallow, as ours.  Fatigue glazes their eyes, as ours.  The cold creeps into their metal, as ours.

We are bonded in this way.  This shared experience we drive each other into because it has been, and because it has been, it will have to always be.

I can’t recall how war even started.  The beginnings of it are so far buried they may as well be myth.  Some people say it doesn’t matter, their hate is so strong it overrides everything else. But there are vats of blood spilled out of bodies.  There are heads crushed.  There are limbs lobbed off and left on the battlefield like discarded garments.  There are hollowmen left.  They are specters lingering in the alleys, sitting slumped against walls and not-quite-staring at passersby.  They have forgotten themsleves while the rest of us see them in their before and after, and know the truth of them, which sets an ache in our hearts something like a rot spreading through our organs.  For all of these reasons, we should remember the why of it.


I am sent from the village, from my family.  I am to war.  I am my armor, my weapons.  We are us, and they are them.

Middle winter brought their retreat, but retreat is not enough for they are still a threat, because still they breathe.  Still they make weapons and plans.  Still they try to know our weaknesses. So we follow, and I learn how to strike, how to play dead, how to cut down horse and man.  I learn how to clean blood off my sword, and my armor.  My family is distant from my mind, but the hollowmen are constant companions.


I wade through the still waters of the house.  The greyness outside makes it dusk inside, and transforms the familiar into mystery.  I have looked for my wife, for my children and my mother, but they are hidden, and this place reminds me of pre-dawn on the field of battle.  It is like this.  Still and waiting. All the beds are made.

I finally find someone.  “Nan, I am home,” I say to Grandmother.

She says nothing, instead squats at the hearth with her knees up around her ears like a crude peasant. I stem the tide of words battering the shores of my tongue at this image.  It disgusts me, but she carries on as if it’s natural, as if her body doesn’t contain all these other meanings — whispering or screaming — in the shape it takes.

“Must you crouch like that?” The question leaks out.

Her answer is the thin clinking of wood as she arranges sticks atop each other on the charred stone.  It’s a servant’s job she does, even as I stand in her presence for the first time in weeks.  She can’t be bothered to look at me, though. Her grandson returned from the war.

Once the arrangement meets her satisfaction, she sets about tucking in the shavings of bark she’s saved off to the side.

“Are you building a fowl’s nest?” I ask, hand resting in the pummel of my sword.

“There is only one foul thing in here,” she says. Next, she takes a small pile of wool, and wedges it in near the edge of the construction.

“What mean you?”

She grunts, takes the flint and knife out of her pocket, and begins to shave off pieces of the metal into the wool.

My hand tightens on its own.  Sword and hand are well acquainted now.

With her back turned, somehow she sees it, and cackles like an old crow.  “Strike me, will you?  Strike me for truth-telling?”

“You insult me.”

Sparks dance over the wool, which smokes.  When its starts to catch, she breathes on it. After it’s lit, she unfolds herself to standing and turns to me. Lines streak her husk-like skin, more than I remember.  The flickering fire does magic with her face.

“Do you remember how to be any other way?” she asks me.

Her face transforms, takes shapes.  She is my mother, my wife and daughter.  Worse, she is the women of them.  The ones we killed and left on the battlefield, faces pale, and eyes open to the sky, and I see my women like that.  Deprived of warmth, of smiles and futures.

“Where is everyone else?”

She smiles.  “The beds are made, the fire is lit.  It’s time to join them at the well.”

“What are you saying?” I ask as she shuffles past me.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“It is Imbolc. We will all celebrate Imbolc together.” Grandmother claws her cloak from its peg, and drapes it about herself before stepping through the door.

“Stop this madness; I’ve come home.”

“Not yet.  But hopefully you will soon.”  She joins the trickle of old women doddering down the street.  As they find each other, they clasp hands and walk together out of the gate.

I run after her.  “What is happening?”

“We have remembered,” another woman says.


The thawing roads are thick with women. “Come,” they all say. “Come help us celebrate.”

I see the first man on the road. “What is this?” I ask him. “We keep to the town for Imbolc.”

He smiles. “This is leap of faith.”

“What does that mean?”

“The old ones have come out of slumber to remember something. And they hope, we all hope this will stop the war.”

Senseless. What do women know of war? Of making it, or stopping it?

“You doubt,” he says. “It’s good; there’s much to doubt.”

At the crossroads ahead, more women join the procession from the east and the west. “They are them,” I say. They are the enemy women, coming from villages, which are not our own.

They smile at us, and take the hands of our women as if they are sisters.

Ahead, the road winds to the top of the mountain where the Old Hall sits. Its builders and use have passed out of memory, and yet smoke curls out of its chimney and torches light the pathway.

A woman no higher than my elbow keeps pace with me. “You think I am different from you,” she says.

“You are them.” It is a simple thing. Us and them.

She laughs. “It seems like that, doesn’t it? Yet we have the same habits, we honor the same traditions. We even come from the same source.”

“We are enemies,” I say because it comes to my mouth involuntarily, like a reflex.

She doesn’t respond to the comment. Instead, she says, “We will celebrate this Imbolc with our Fathers and Brothers. Our husbands and sons.” And then she is gone


I can smell the colcannon, the bannock and barm brak. These are the smells of Imbolc.  Tables, which are full of women, fill the hall.  Women rush around with platters of food and pitchers of sowens.  Their chatter rattles the rafters, and it is so strange to see them all here.  Enemies and family, except now that they are commingled, it is more difficult to tell one from the other.

All of the women and children are here.  In the middle of the room I finally see my own, and seeing them makes my heart stomp like a charge horse. I make my way to them. “We must go,” I say.

“We must stay,” says my wife.  “Everyone is invited, so everyone is coming.”

“We are in danger.”

She nods, and tears make her eyes sparkle.  “That is the risk.  But this war has gone on too long.  And the truth of it is, we all come from the same place.  We are all of the same tribe.”  She begins to laugh.  “All this time, we’ve been killing our own.”

Archers march in. The music, the laughter, the clinking of cups and the serving of food continues as they line the walls, and draw their bows.

“This is supposed to be peaceful,” some men shout.

Arrows flood into the assembly. Blood erupts in clouds from the bodies of the women who are struck.

There is screaming.  There is crying and fear, but the women sit closer together instead of running from the Great Hall.  The archers waver as they see their own wives and mothers and sisters clumped together.

“Fire,” the commanders of the opposing sides each call out to their men.

The women hold hands, and each other.  They begin to sing.  It’s an old song, but each previous word elicits the next from memory.  The melody weaves together as another volley follows, this one more sparse then the first.

Some of the men have started to sing, too.

“Fire,” the cry comes again.  This time, instead of firing into the hall, the archers whose bows are still taut fire at the commanders.



This story was inspired by a dream I had after watching a PBS documentary about the first humans and Mitochondrial Eve.  The dream was just the last scene in the Hall, but the feeling of it was so strong I wanted to build a narrative around it.

hangry in Antigua

As my boyfriend and I walked down the cobblestone streets and alleys of the ancient capitol of Guatemala, a dusty, colorful and quaint remnant of Spanish colonialism, I grew quiet.  Everything around me faded as if the world beyond a five-foot diameter was an undefined white miasma.

Then I blurted out: “Just to let you know, I’m going to need to eat in the next five minutes.”

The ‘oh-shit’ look transformed his features as we embarked on a not so pleasant adventure to find the closest eatery that had: 1) food; 2) vegetarian options that wouldn’t cause vomiting or severe intestinal cramping; and 3) had a chance of being delicious and heathly.

Here’s the confession:  I am one of those people. You know the kind. The ones who go from 0 to scary in five minutes if they don’t receive immediate nourishment.

It’s embarassing, and causes its share of problems. As my boyfriend has pointed out, food is the source of 95% of our arguments.  Considering we don’t fight often, that’s  significant.

So what is it that drives me to become the explosive ice queen whenever I get hungry?  Or ‘hangry’ as some people call it.

As it turns out, there’s a science-backed answer in the giant morass of the great intergalactic library called the Internet.

That’s right … Science is on my side.  (And my physiology is to blame.)

Hungry is an emotion

Some things are happening in your body when you get hungry.  The concentration of glucose in your blood is depleting. Once it achieves a certain level (from 3.8 to 2.8 mmol/L), your brain, which survives on glucose, initiates a desparate cry for help.  A progressive SOS goes out to the pituitary gland, pancreas, and adrenal glands who in turn respond by releasing growth hormone, glucagon, and adrenaline and cortisol, respectively.  The body releases these hormones in stages.  Early stages are supposed to trigger glucogenesis, a process whereby the body converts amino acids into glucose so that your greedy, gluttonous brain doesn’t have to stop bingeing.  Adrenaline and cortisol come into play when the glucose levels further drop.

Being low on glucose is a bit like being drunk.  Muddled thoughts, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are some typical symptoms.  Being really low on glucose is dangerous, and can lead to seizures, coma and death.  Seriously.

The link between adrenal, cortisol and anger seems obvious, however it’s not the only thing driving this irrational behavioral response.  You know how genes provide the basis for our programming.  Well, the one controlling hunger also controls anger. Neuropeptide Y (benign name for such an implement of destruction) is found to be significantly elevated in the cerebral spinal fluid of some lucky individuals, together with a higher incidence of the Y1 receptor. [ASIDE: Neuropeptide Y, like many things in the body, has  different functions, and can induce various responses to diverse stimuli.  For example, it plays a role in obesity, aids in dealing with PTSD, enhances performance under stress, and may provide protection against alcoholism.]

Is anger ever a good thing? 

Evolutionarily speaking (because who doesn’t like gazing back on those knuckle dragging days with misty-eyed nostalgia) increased aggression while hungry probably served a very important biological function… like making sure you beat out the competition and didn’t die of starvation.

As it turns out, my irritating habit of losing my rationale mind when I get hungry may have been beneficial in some kind of yesteryear.  I imagine my ancient self racing across a muddy savannah, flecks of earth sailing through the air like miniature bombs against the smoke-filled sky.  Spear in hand.  Prey trying to escape me, but turning its sharp tusks at me once I finally corner it.


It’s no excuse, nor is it fair to my amazing friends and family to become she-hulk when my blood sugar drops.  How do I combat evolutionary biology?  I haven’t quite figured that out yet.  Some basic tricks are always having a healthy snack on hand, no matter where on the planet I am.  Maintaining blood sugar levels requires a bit of vigilence, as well as a deeper knowledge of our own internal bio-rhythms.

Perhaps the main thing is to remember a moment of hanger is temporary, and to stay grateful for my boyfriend, who is so patience with me, and keeps an internal map of all the closest eateries.

Samurai Noodle Bowl

The way of the Samurai is honor, duty, and loyalty.  The code of ethics a Samurai lives by is so pure, it is unattainable for most.  And in the end the only real response is to either leave a path of annihilation behind you, or to die by seppuku.

The way of the Noodle is to nourish and sustain.  And to dominate the world.  Noodles have been feeding people for millennia.  La mian, ramen, spaghetti, spaetzle, erişte, and dozens of other incarnations have touched our plates and our lips.

The way of Date Night is to mash them together in gory, delicious bliss.

A and I spend time together in a variety of different ways, but one that became an instant tradition was Samurai Noodle Bowl Night.  It’s hard to say what takes longer, cooking the food, or picking the movie. We delight in both tasks. On the movie side of things, we vacillate between the absurd and the haunting.

The recipe changes, too. We’re experimental kinds of folk, ya see, but here’s the basic gist:

I’m in charge of the broth.  I take scraps of all kinds (mushroom stems, onion, garlic and carrot bits, serrano chili nubs, cabbage cores, chunks of ginger) and simmer them in water with soy sauce (or liquid amino acids) for as long as we can stand it. We add other things along the way, adjusting the flavor until we’re both satisfied.

We both take on chopping, and a good noodle bowl is completely encumbered, practically overflowing, with veggies. So, that’s a lot of chopping. Every once in a while, I fixate on how the pea pods look like rice paddies, with the way they’re stacked together.

Pea Pods

snow pea stacks

The flesh of a bell pepper is equally intriguing.  The internal striations reveal the shape of water-packed cells.  I love how crispy it is, and how a fresh piece bursts when you bite into it.

red bell pepper

crispy tangy flesh

Usually I get regular carrots.  Every once in a while I’ll go crazy and splurge on the exotic rainbow carrots.  Of these, the purple carrot is the most intriguing.  The first time I cut into one, I was mystified and delighted. It resembles a jeweled kaleidoscope, an exploding star, a dragon’s eye.

Rainbow Carrots

kaleidoscopes of color

And the tofu seems a invading army, ready to storm the pan.

Tofu swarm

the horde

A is soundly in charge of all things fire.  He mans the fire pit, barbecue grill and stovetop.  Which is probably for the best, considering how accident prone I tend to be.  The sauté is a parade of ingredients.  Each vegetable has its own distinct aroma, which erupts as soon as it hits the surface of the pan.

First Casualties

A can also flip.  This would totally backfire on me.  As in food would be stuck to the countertops, cabinets, ceiling, and floors.


I love really intense flavoring in my noodle bowls.  One of my go-to mixes is liquid amino acids, sriracha, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.  A healthy dose of the pungent aromatics, ginger and garlic, don’t hurt either.

The joos

We put in the noodles first (this time udon), then the stir fry goodness and broth.  Toppings vary, but there’s something really satisfying about the spicy crunch of fresh green onions over the top.

Green Onion Bombs

And one must not miss an extra dose or two of Srirachi. For A, a dap of Reaper hot sauce does quite nicely as well.

Finished Noodle Bowlz

On the surface, date night is hanging out with the most important person in my life. (ASIDE: Date night is not just for romantic partners.  I believe in date nights with friends and family, too.)  But there’s more.  We get to craft this temporary world of flavor together.  We’re not only connecting, we’re also collaborating and creating. Which is to say nothing of how we interact with the movie, and discuss motifs, themes, direction, and more.

Rituals are repetitive acts imbued with meaning.  They are built around a time or place, and ingrain memories stitched together with feelings (think of any holiday spent with your family; it’s gonna conjure something).  Samurai Noodle Bowl night is an intentional ritual.  It is elaborate, and it’s creating a rich matrix of shared history.  May the Noodle Bowl be with you and your loved ones.

Random Trivia

  • The Japanese swashbuckler:  The Japanese refer to the samurai movie genre as Chanbara, which signifies “sword-fighting”.
  • Buddhism and Zen philosophy heavily influenced samurai culture and training.
  • The oldest bowl of noodles was found in China and dates back 4,000 years.
  • Akiro Kurosawa’s Ran is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. (Aside: this movie is an excellently staged tragedy.  The cinematography (lighting, camera angles, set design) is so beautiful and poignant.)
  • La Mian is the OG.  That’s right.  Archeological evidence supports this type of noodle as being the oldest known preparation.  Slurp it up.
  • The first Samurai movie, “Orochi”, was produced in 1925. The full-length film is available here.
  • Orochi is a mythical serpent said to have eight-heads and eight-tails, with a body long enough to sprawl over eight peaks and valleys.  Need to do battle with one?  Get its heads drunk.
  • Eight was considered to be a holy number in ancient Japan.  Scribes also used it to signify a grip load (many, multitudinous, millions).
  • Samurai follow Bushidō, “the Way of the Warrior”.

and then life happens

Nothing is quite as jarring as when your expectations for life and what actually transpires don’t match up.  It can be something simple, like thinking the clear wet stuff you’re about to take a big drink of is water, only to realize that it is in fact gin. Then there’s this little example:

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend (A.) and I were in the midst of a lovely day.  We only see each other twice a month right now, which is hell, but we make the most of it.  We had met my mom for breakfast, and were on our way back to the condo to get ready for our next adventure:

  • strolling through the Natural History Museum to see skulls and Mayan artifacts, followed by
  • a picnic by the botanical gardens watching ducks waddle and koi fish carve elegance in the reflecting pool, followed by
  • a production of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night under the stars.

Sheer bliss according to our nerdy standards.

Between breakfast and skulls, reality crashed into our expectations. Check it out. At 18 seconds is where it gets good.

I felt like I was in a movie; because seriously, how could this be real? Let me explain, we were driving (through an admittedly roughed neighborhood) when a green mini-van screamed out of an alleyway and almost pulled out into oncoming traffic, but the driver  stopped in time.

Crisis averted? I think not. Car two blew by the mini-van, INTO the intersection. I saw it at the edge of my vision, and all I could think to do was speed up and get out of the way, otherwise it was going to t-bone us right where A. was sitting. The car ended up hitting me, all of the impact of which my poor right rear tire and axel absorbed.

I pulled over, because that’s what you do when you’re in a car accident. And it looked like that was what the at-fault driver was going to do. But no. The bastard was just waiting for me to get out of my car so he/she could take off. In two seconds, the white car and green minivan executed a series of risky maneuvers and sped out of sight. Chasing them was too complicated, not to mention the acute feeling I had that some major shit was going down, and my little bump was probably tame in comparison to the bigger story.

We inspected the damage and photographed the scene while trying to get through to the non-emergency dispatch. After 15 minutes of ringing and no caring voices asking me how the police could help, I figured what was the point. The driver and his/her crazy sidekick (or victim or tormenter) were gone. As in scot-free. But at least we got that cool video as a souvenir (thanks tire place).

The bumper saga continues

This is the 3rd rear bumper I’ve had to purchase for this car. Alas, not meant to be.


I ended up with a bent rim and wheel bearing. It could have been way worse.

Fast-forward.  We worked through our adrenalin high and low, and decided to claim the day as ours.  No crazy woman in a turban, or some unknown phantom of destruction behind the wheel of a white car was going to take from us any more than they already did.  It happened.  It’s over.  Aside from my car, no one was hurt.

During the picnic portion of our sojourn, I realized I had a series of texts from my mom. Urgent care, emergency room, admitted for sepsis.  Surgery. The car accident was nothing compared to finding out my mom was admitted for an infection that went septic.  And of course in the absence of information, the very best thing to do is dwell on the very worst case scenarios one can conjure (this is an awful exercise for writers and creative types by the way; torture).  After making sure she was being well cared for, and was doing okay morale-wise, we decided to stay the course and watch the play.

The rest of the weekend was doggy duty for my mom’s dog, allergy attacks, sleeplessness and hospital visits.  A. breaking his arm the month before and other urgent family matters combined with all of this— well, it felt like too many things were going wrong at once.  We could have despaired.  In fact, it was awfully tempting to play the self pity card.  But no; we did not.   This whole series of events had a different  effect.  “The world breaks everyone,” said Hemingway, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

I don’t mean to imply we were broken by these recent events (because let’s face it, by some standards this was a proverbial walk through the park), but we were challenged.  And together, we met the challenges and moved through them.  After having these experiences, I do feel stronger and more capable. And you know what?  A man who carries a cay by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.  (Thanks Mark Twain)

PS-Mom is recovering quite nicely.

protocols for being human

Holga, Take 1, 2

Holga Play ©JL Colomb and AE Welch

We got a new toy.  It’s a plastic camera called the Holga.  The thing is primitive and cheap, and looks like it’s about to break at any point.  The Holga we have is best designed for 120mm  film, but I wanted the ability to also shoot 35mm, and low and behold they had an adapter.

For 35mm, there is no counter for winding film.  Maybe you’ve manually cranked it a full frame; maybe (most likely) you haven’t.  The end result was— well, upon initial viewing it was a mess.  In some cases, we had 4 overlapping frames.  Once my brain was able to read the images, I was in love with this imperfect little camera.  The Holga is a good device for reprogramming someone who is perpetually concerned with doing the right thing perfectly.

But what is the right thing to do?  A step further, what is the right thing to do when you’re the person who never wants to offend?  Which would be me, by the way.  Should I probe and ask someone what’s really going on when they seem upset?  Should I have said or done X instead of Y?  Should I be as dry as a rice cake at work, or reveal a little of my personality? When something is wrong, how do I handle it?

The problem is this, I find myself so overly concerned with “what is the right thing to do”, that when there isn’t an immediately evident protocol on how to behave I often either become paralyzed, or silent, or somewhat one-dimensional.  A couple of examples:

  • I received an email from someone I hadn’t talked to in years.  Accusations were made, questions were asked.  No I hadn’t done A, and I have no idea if B happened. The thing I wanted to say but didn’t was that on the other side of the threshold of a major life change, this person was better off, deserved so much more, and that the person’s previous life was more of a fabricated fairytale than a reality.  But how do you say something like that? (Hint: if you really need to say it, you just say it.  With love and kindness and without any selfishness.)
  • Outside of the written world, face-to-face with real live people, things run pretty much the same.  I was in DC a few years ago for a meeting, and I met a colleague for dinner. An innocent dinner, which was not code “come onto me, please, I have sex with anyone.”  An hour into the situation I knew I had to extricate myself, and fast.  I also knew I never wanted to be in public or in private with him again.  But did I confront him?  No.

There are a couple of things to unpack here. A major one is that rather than being absolute, notions of right and wrong are conditional.  What we put in each category depends on our cultural and societal norms.  How we assess and react to right and wrong depends on what we have observed in our individual lives, as well as how our reactions have been shaped by feedback from others (both negative and positive).

Self confidence also plays a role.  We have the capacity to be strong and absolutely have thoughts and feelings, which are just as valid as anyone else’s. But we have to recognize our strength, and when the situation calls for it, rely on that strength.  We have voice, both what we use to communicate with other people, as well as an intrinsic voice, i.e. instinct.  If we listen close enough, we might find our own internal guidance system.  We can ask of ourselves not only what is the course of action I can live with, but looking back, what can I be proud of.

So, instead of being fixated on right or wrong, instead of being fixated on doing things perfectly and without offending anyone, pick up that crappy camera and just do.  Do passionately and to the best of your ability, but for the love of water, do and be without too much of a filter.  Yes, it can be a risk.  Hell, it can be terrifying.  But shedding the veil can also bring unexpected beauty and fulfillment.

Holga, Take 3, 4, 5, 6

Holga Play ©JL Colomb and AE Welch