Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Neighborhood Watch

Last week it happened twice.

I was stopped on a sidewalk near home in the evening hours (between 10pm and midnight) by tall white men, confident and handsome, each a little angrier than the situation would warrant.

"Where do you live?" they say to me. They aren't asking in a neighborly way. They are the self-deputized neighborhood watch. Because I won't fess up my exact address, they usually end the conversation by telling me to get the hell out of their neighborhood and stay out.

They picture themselves as cinematic steely-eyed vigilantes.

Let me describe myself. I'm smallslightly under 5 feet tall on a good daywith long messy brown hair; I'm wearing jeans, a plain long-sleeved t-shirt (sans logos, pictures, obscenities, band names, affiliations), and Asics running shoes, the kind with reflective stripes. 

I'm no taller than the average 10 year-old and I'm dressed like one too, an unfashionable 10 year-old. I'm no Tavi Gevinson.

Did I mention that I haven't been 10 for decades and decades?

I'm also an insomniac, apt to be awake late at night. When I was very young I would lock myself in the bathroom and read Mad Magazine when I couldn't sleep. Or I'd lie in bed and balance a pillow on my feet. But as I got older, I started walking. I've been rambling around the neighborhoodwhichever neighborhood I happen to be sleeping infor many years now. 

The funny thing is that it's different when I walk several hours later, at 1 or 2 AM, when it's truly late at night. At 1 AM these guys are usually snug abed, the hum of their air conditioners concealing my quiet footfalls. They don't lose any sleep over me, these opportunistic guardians of the neighborhood.

But this time, it wasn't so late. It was 11:30 at night on a recent Wednesday. I was walking in my parents' neighborhood, a peacock-infested suburb south of LAX. Gordita Beach-adjacent, if you will. The neighborhood has always been on the xenophobic end of the spectrum, a hotbed of surfer localism and long-time card-carrying John Birch Society membership.

I'd gotten as far as Plainfield Drive. Plainfield is a long, gentle descent: under the bright streetlights, you can see all the way from the top of the hill to the bottom. Blocks in this neighborhood can be almost a mile long.

Although there are a few mature treesthe houses are about 50 years oldthe view from where I'm standing is mostly unobstructed. Big shade trees just don't grow in the rocky alkaline soil around here. On one side of the street is a steep iceplant-and-ivy covered hill, on the other, midcentury houses. The side of the street with houses has a sidewalk; the iceplant-and-ivy side doesn't.

I'd actually noticed a house midblock on Plainfield the night before. A small grave marker near the sidewalk had caught my eye. I'd hoped it was a memorial for a hamster or a goldfish; the thought of the family German Shepherd buried so close to the sidewalk made me shudder. I'd also clocked new artificial turf, matching ram's head ornaments on either side of the driveway, and an American flag affixed to the front of the house. 

I love spotting this kind of stuff when I walk, but I know better than to pause or take a photo (although I might allow myself this luxury around Xmas time, when the decorations are lavish and strange: crèches with a giant baby Jesus and itty-bitty wise men, inflatable Santas and spooky 12 foot tall snowmen, moving merry-go-rounds and animated reindeer).

Anyway, I was walking downhillpurposefullylistening to a several-year-old episode of Catching Up on my mp3 player. A white Mercedes passed me and swung over to park behind another white luxury car on the iceplant-and-ivy side of the street (the side without houses). A third car was already parked directly across the street, in front of the house with the tiny grave marker. It's rare to see so many cars parked on the street here. By this time, I saw that the trunk of the third car, the one nearest me on the sidewalk, was popped open.

A tall figure got out of the Mercedes and started moving stuff in fancy shopping bags from the backseat of his Mercedes into the open trunk of the other car.  

Even so early it's unusual to see other people out when you're in this part of LA. We're all of 270 or 280 blocks from downtown. 

In San Francisco at this hour, I might see someone having a smoke, walking a dog, staggering home from a party, or getting out of an Uber, rolling suitcase in hand. 

Here I rarely see a soul, even at 11:30. 

I kept walking. The figure had resolved itself into a man, well-dressed. Perhaps he lived in the house with the pet grave and statuary out front. Normally I would've tried to avoid him, but really unless I wanted to turn around and go back the way I came, I couldn't. 

In my ears, Joe was telling a story about his cousin Richard's Instagram feed.

I drew even with the man. He'd stopped transferring shopping bags and was saying something to me. I reached up and took one of my earbuds out. I could still hear Joe talking in one ear. The other earbud leaked podcast into the night air.

"Having a nice evening?" the man asked. His voice was aggressive.

"Yes. I am." I said. "And you?" I turned to face him as a 'see? I mean no harm' gesture.

But the man wasn't satisfied with exchanging greetings; he evidently decided to get to the heart of the matter before he let me get back to the podcast.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I'm on a walk," I said. "I grew up around here." I smiled at him. 

There. I'd given him enough information to reassure him. No funny business. I'm not writing on the sidewalk or peeing on the artificial turf. Maybe he'd even be delighted by this fit of nostalgia (for who doesn't walk around their childhood neighborhood, marvelling at how memory exaggerates things?). Or perhaps he'd even say he grew up around here too.

"But where do you live NOW?" he said. His face was angry. I realized he'd decided I didn't belong in his middle-class professional neighborhood. 

Do these pants make me look poor?

"Around here," I said. "I live around here." I didn't want to explain that I was visiting my parents.

"Then what's your address?" He was a nice-looking blond dude, but now his face was contorted with rage.

"What's wrong with you?" I said. "You're asking a small woman, walking alone, where she lives? Get a grip, mister!" I noticed that my voice had developed an edge too. I always feel like I'm back in high school when stuff like this happens. I had to tell myself that I wasn't doing anything wrong, because somehow I felt like I was.

He started saying something else, something angry, but I didn't want to keep listening. I put my other earbud back in. Joe was still talking about Richard's Instagram feed, but I couldn't focus on the story. I walked away fast, willing myself not to run. I wondered if this man was going to call the cops on me, or whether he had a gun stashed in the glove compartment of one of the cars. 

The trouble with these mile-long blocks is that you can't turn off on a side street and take a different route. You just have to keep going. So I kept walking. My heart was pounding. I thought he might be watching me, but I didn't want to turn around and check.

I hate confrontations. As I said, I usually walk much later, when the skunks and raccoons are rifling through the black trash toters and the humans aren't out. By the time I go out, the recycling scavengers have already sifted through the blue toters, careful not to leave a mess. The skunks and raccoons aren't so careful; they just flip over the bins to see what's inside. But the skunks and raccoons never ask me where I live.

What's wrong with these crazy white men? Is it so outré to take a walk at night?

I turn left on Monero to check out the view. The moonlight cuts a wide white swath across the dark ocean. You can see the outline of a palm tree. 

It looks like a fucking postcard. 

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Waiting for the rainy season

The other night I was taking my walk earlier than usual, not long after midnight, and a CEO type, a tall man with forgettable WASPy features and recently coiffed brown hair, approached me.  He was perhaps 40 and dressed too formally for a late-night stroll around the block.

He said, "I know you've got chalk in your hand. I want you to stop writing on the sidewalk." He was so angry his voice quavered.

He was right. I had chalk in my hand. I wasn't about to write though. I was inspecting a hunk of wire on the street, a remnant from a sloppy construction jobsite. This is a place on my route where I frequently pick up nails. I do it in memory of Uwe Dobers ("Fine European Construction"). When Mr. Dobers's crew was working on the place next door to us, our Hondas suffered an abnormal number of flat tires. There'd always be stray nails on our driveway, fallout from lax oversight. Twice nails punctured the sidewalls, and we had to buy new tires. Since then I've been compulsive about picking up nails and sharp things from the street.

I had taken the piece of chalk out of my pocket, lest it would fall out while I was picking up the wire. But I dropped the wire when I saw him, startled by a big guy walking toward me fast so late at night. I should add, I'm small and feral-looking. I don't pose much of a physical threat.

But he was right. I have written on the sidewalk, here and there, always something small—a LOTSL (a podcast I think many of you would enjoy) or a FAP! (a homage to Major Hoople, a long-running comic about the gouty Major Hoople, a fat man with a bulbous nose who can often be found wearing a Shriner's cap). More occasionally, I'll draw a small muted post horn, in the hope of thrilling a Pynchon fan.

I don't know why I do it. It's a compulsion. I don't do it often, and the marks aren't particularly noticeable. They come off with the scuff of a tasseled loafer.

It would've been disingenuous of me to deny his rage-fueled accusations. Instead I said, "Okay. I'll stop now. But I think you'll find I'm not the only one who writes on the sidewalks around here."

He seemed too angry, given the nature and scope of the crime. I also thought he was way too optimistic that he'd singlehandedly brought down a major graffiti ring by hunting me down.

Lots of other chalk marks besmirch his lovely white sidewalks, including huge dense scribbles made by the young spawn of our neighbors. Their drawings are far cuter than mine (some are even lovely and show artistic promise). But often these children—despite the hovering ministrations of their parents—don't color inside the lines. They won't get into Harvard if they can't learn to color neatly.

And not to nitpick, but my usual marks despoil an area about 3" by 8" or 24 square inches. The kids cover vast swaths of sidewalk with their hopscotch games, desultory drawings of happy families and marching elephants, and messages to daddy. An average drawing fills an area of about 3' by 8', or 3456 square inches, 144 times my chalk footprint.

Nor am I the only grown person with the temerity to write in chalk. There are occasional messages. I don't know who writes them, but I love it when I find one. I spent hours following a trail of arrows a couple of years ago. At the end, whether by design or coincidence, I found a half-eaten container of mixed nuts.

Mr. Angry CEO said the whole thing again as we parted, word for word. This time I said, "Okay. Fine. I hear you." I was polite and conciliatory.

To be honest, I was more than a little embarrassed. I thought, "Aw, I should just knock it off. This guy is genuinely upset." In retrospect, it seems clueless on my part to think people who park their new Jaguars and high-end German luxury cars—cars with finish as hard and shiny as a rhinoceros beetle—on the street, wheels carefully turned in to the curb, would have a sense of humor about sidewalk chalk. I was treating the sidewalks of my neighborhood as if they were public.

"I'll stop," I added.

Then, much to my relief, we parted. He said something else as he was walking away from me, but I'd returned to my MP3 player, my constant companion when I go on walks. I listen to podcasts. As I said, the LOTSL I had written was an advertisement for a podcast. You can search for LOTSL on the web, and you'll easily find the podcast so you can download it and give it a listen too.

It's much more dangerous to chalk up a "Big Fatty" on the sidewalk, and to expect the search to go well.

I should mention, this was a gay neighborhood, and these are gay podcasts. I really did think some of my neighbors would enjoy listening to LOTSL. But I probably should have attended to the steady rise in property values and noticed the changes afoot in the neighborhood; it's just not the neighborhood I moved into at the tail end of the 1990s.

You don't see "Keep the Castro Queer" bumperstickers anymore. I miss them.

The confrontation unnerved me. But I walked on. My walk is often the best part of my day. It's reduced my tendency to insomnia; it calms me down; and it makes me feel good, exuberant, alive. I'd even love to go back to running, but I'm old, and I'm certain my knees (which click and lock with every step) wouldn't allow it.

But something was making my Spidey-sense tingle. I turned around quickly. Although we’d originally been walking in opposite directions, now Mr. Angry CEO was following me, about a half a block behind me.

It was creepy.

I haven't had a stalker in many years. But I do remember that feeling, that creepy, creepy feeling that someone might be right behind you.

When he saw me look back, he turned the corner and disappeared down another street. Weird. I continued on my way, stopping only to check for a Duncan yoyo, the kind that lights up. It had been left atop a retaining wall. I was planning to stop and give it a few yos as I walked by, then return it to its nest when I was done.

For the first time in a couple of weeks, it wasn't there. It occurred to me that I was sufficiently rattled that I wasn't listening very carefully to the podcasts. I usually have out-loud conversations with them.

Sure enough, at the next corner, Mr. Angry CEO stepped out of the shadows, primed for another confrontation. Apparently I was supposed to leave his neighborhood immediately after our first conversation, so he had walked around the block in the opposite direction to intercept me. Did he think I was going to just ignore his fury and blithely keep walking and chalking?

I was about a block from home.

He delivered his speech AGAIN, verbatim. He'd been rehearsing it. This time he followed it up by saying, "Where do you live?" He said this in a way that I found wholly provocative.

I said, "None of your business, mister." It was late at night. Was he planning to follow me home?

He said, "Well, I'm a homeowner around here. You write ALL OVER this hill."

What had he seen when our paths diverged? I don't usually walk the route he'd just taken. Last time I'd gone that way, there was nothing, save some spray paint symbols that the utility company used to mark something they'd installed underground. Had he mistaken me for PG&E?

I said, simply, "I don't know what you're talking about." This couldn't be truer. His rage seemed to be turning psychotic.

He said, "Your writing is all over the walls, all over the sidewalks. Everywhere!"

This is a surprise to me. I've never written on a wall, nor haven't I seen writing on walls around our neighborhood. The last wall chalk I'd seen had been painted over with dark gray anti-graffiti paint in 2012 in a dramatic flourish that left the wall blotchy. Water would have done the trick.

I said, "Please tell me which wall you mean. I've NEVER written on a wall." Now I was invigorated by anger too. Any sympathy I'd felt for him vanished.

He drew himself up to his full 6'3" CEO-ness and said (and this thoroughly shocked me): "I want you to stop walking in this neighborhood. Go walk your dog somewhere else."

Now I was confused and offended. I don't have a dog. Was he telling me that I'm ugly? There was a tinge of racist hate and entitlement to his voice. The last time someone told me to get out of my own neighborhood, I was a child. That time, the speaker was worried about an influx of Jews, and he thought a couple of 12 year old girls were a threat. Mr. Angry CEO was just worried about rubbing elbows with the poor: if I wasn't a homeowner, I should get lost. And I clearly didn't own a home in HIS neighborhood.

I walked away quickly, shaken, taking an alternate route home lest he follow me further. I stuck to the shadows and turned left, then right, then right, then right again.

There hasn't been much graffiti in this part of town, not in the last 25 years or so. And... we live in a city. It's one of the reasons I moved here. You used to see cool sidewalk stencils. You'd see chalk drawings and cartoons. You'd see all kinds of stuff on the sidewalk (besides gum, phlegm, and urine). But not anymore. There are lots more angry men like this angry man. Entitled guys used to imposing their own will on everything they see.

At this point, I wish I had a punchline for you. I wish I'd gone back the next night and... and... and... what? Written on the sidewalk? Spray-painted on the wall? Defecated on his doorstep? Or just gone for my walk and confronted him, if just to say, “I live here too, Buster.”

In my mind's eye, I walk my normal route, see him again and say to him (as I walk through swirls of fog and darkness like Humphrey Bogart), "You know sweetheart, you're beautiful when you're angry."

Don't succumb to the temptation to reverse it in your mind's eye. I'm saying this to him. He needs a quick burst of role-reversal. He needs to spend some time as a small woman, when his rage would be empty, impotent, perceived as ridiculous, the stuff of YouTube videos. 

Then I start to wonder: Was he the same man who had yelled at me several years ago for refusing to cross the street in front of his car at night. That man—maybe the same guy—had stopped at a stop sign near his hill. I was standing on the corner; I couldn't tell whether he saw me or not. So I stayed on the sidewalk, waiting. And he rolled down the window—no, that's wrong—he pressed a button and the window silently slid down. And he yelled at me with conviction (and not even a hint of humor) "Cross. Cross! Don't you trust me? Cross already!" I stood on my corner and didn't budge. After a few more seconds, he drove by, furious.

If he said any more, I didn't hear it. When his car had gone through the intersection, I crossed the street.

Of course, I do live in this neighborhood; I own a house too. I've lived here a long time. I've paid my fair share of property taxes. It's true that I could no longer afford to live in this neighborhood if I hadn't bought my house many years ago. But it's too late, Mister: I already live here. On your hill, in your neighborhood.

And what about that sidewalk graffiti, missy? I step outside of myself, turn 180 degrees, face myself with a stern expression, and ask myself that. What's the deal with sidewalk? Can't you leave it alone?

It's a tic. I'm always doing something while I'm on my walk, some kind of strange project. It might involve counting things, planting things, weaving things, or—as now—periodically making a small mark on the sidewalk. During the rainy season, the marks on the sidewalk disappear almost as quickly as they are made. I don't expect them to stick around. My marks, the marks of the hashers, the kids' hopscotch games, a drawing of a macaw: they all swirl down the storm drain to the sea. But they've stuck around recently. It's been a drought year.

A stick of pink sidewalk chalk taunts me from my desk. But I've parked it there for now, waiting for the rainy season.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

To the cat cave, Catman!

The two cats run our lives.

Lumpy’s been in charge for more than a decade. Last spring, he hired an intern to take up the slack, to do some of the scut work for him. That’s young Sophie, a tiny brindled cat with under-fur the colors of a melted creamsicle.

Sophie is as energetic as a kitten even though she turned two a few weeks ago. When she’s indoors, she surfs the rugs into a heap and terrorizes my Tillandsias. One minute, she’s nestled in the bathroom sink; the next minute, she’s rocketed to the top of a potted ficus tree, testing the tensile strength of its spindly branches.

Lumpy moves slowly, deliberately. With dignity. With clarity of purpose. When he eats, his tail moves back and forth like a metronome. He demands food on principle, but must be coaxed to eat it.

When fast-moving Sophie pokes her head into his food bowl, he backhands her and glares.

“He’s an affection eater,” Mark says, as he kneels next to Lumpy at his food bowl. Mark’s theory is that Lumpy won’t eat without human company.

Mark works at the animal shelter, and has lots of technical terminology to describe the cats’ habits. He prepares intricately-structured meals to tempt Lumpy, parfaits of expensive cat food that comes in tiny cans. The pate-style turkey and giblets goes on the bottom; the shredded chicken (with one small cube of carrot and a single pea) goes in the middle; the chicken appetizer (white meat chicken in aspic) on top.

You do have to sit with Lumpy and convince him to take the first few bites. You have to rub his white-and-grey muzzle, massage his grey flanks, and whisper sweet nothings about tasty gravy into his torn-up ears.

At the same time, like any good intern, Sophie eats as much as she can as fast as she can from as many different bowls as she can.

Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch. She dips her entire head into a bowl of crunchies. The brittle sound of crunchies being pulverized fills the kitchen. Kee-runch. Kee-runch.

Then, once Lumpy has walked away from his still half-full bowl, that’s fair game for her too.

She inhales his leftover food, then noses her way around the kitchen, hoovering up crumbs from the floor.

Because she’s an indoor-outdoor cat, Sophie also dines on a snack-pack of urban rodents. Mousies, rats, voles, gophers, moles, trolls—anything she finds rustling through the vast tracts of ivy is on the menu.

Should he catch a mouse, Lumpy brings it into the house to eat. He delicately cracks its skull and sucks out the brains, leaving the eviscerated body at the foot of the bed.

“Here’s a project for you. You can use those pelts to make a vest,” he advises me. “A tailored mouse fur vest can be very stylish.”

“It’s not healthy to eat the fur,” he tells Sophie a few minutes later. “You’ll get a tapeworm.” She looks at him blankly.

“Oh, you might eat a mole liver once in a while,” Lumpy continues, “But—take it from me—it’s a bad idea to eat the whole animal, even if it’s organic AND local.”

Sophie listens to Lumpy’s lecture, but her expression is set, stubborn. Later, when she’s outside she eats a vole, whole. Then she swallows a baby field mouse and, along with it, an ivy leaf, some rosemary needles, and a cigarette butt.

Undeterred by the digestive battle in her gut, she vigorously downs the dinner Mark has prepared for her.

Fifteen minutes later, she has vomited in the hallway with the skill and accuracy of a practiced bulimic. The pile of vomit is enormous, almost impossibly large for an eight pound cat. The body of the mouse is unmistakable amid leaves, kibble, Lumpy’s leftover dinner, and an unfamiliar brand of cat food, one we do not feed her.

I try to pretend I don’t know that the mountain of undigested food and prey is there.

“I think I might’ve heard Sophie barfing,” I say to no-one in particular, hoping Mark is within earshot. “She might’ve eaten something that disagreed with her.”

It’s just too gross; I can’t look. I skirt the pile and lock myself in the bathroom.

By this time, the vomit has removed a layer of finish from the hardwood floor, and Sophie has trotted back over to the food bowls, double-quick, for a refill. Because now she’s empty, ready for more.

Maybe she’s just nervous; maybe that’s what makes young Sophie vomit. When he was a kid, my brother used to barf into the bushes on his way to elementary school, just from nerves. A case of nerves can make you sick.

It’s easy to pinpoint the source of Sophie’s anxiety: two cats her age, but much larger—her ex-housemates, wild-girl Juliette and big grey Copernicus—pick on her every time they see her. They used to follow her into the house, primed for a snack and a scuffle. In fact, it was not unusual to encounter an indoor cat fight, one in which Juliette would have loosed great tufts of Sophie’s creamsicle-colored fur.

“Juliette! Sweetheart! You don’t belong in our house. Hit the road!” I said, helpless to intervene in any useful way. But Juliette respected my superior size in a way that not many people do. Startled, she looked up from the dry cat food, spraying soggy kibble out of her mouth onto the floor around the dish. Then she composed herself and eyed me disdainfully with those saucer-round eyes. She slithered down the stairs, around the corner into the garage, and out the cat door, which at the time was just a mailbox-shaped hole in the garage wall.

To be fair, Sophie always stood her ground when her larger rivals attacked. But it surely couldn’t have been much fun for her.

Mark fretted. “They’re beating up on poor Sophia! She has no place that’s safe.”

What he meant was that even the cats at the animal shelter have a safe place to hang out: each cat has its cat-tree, one of those hideous pieces of cat-specific carpet-covered furniture with a dark hidey-hole the kitty can retreat to in times of stress.

We’d already duplicated that. Sophie had a deluxe four-level cat-tree, a sturdy one, covered with the kind of carpeting you’d find in an apartment circa 1985. It was exactly the type of thing I’d vowed NEVER to have in the house.

Sophie’s cat tree is in front of the dining room window and has an amazing view of the San Francisco skyline, 180 degrees of view, from downtown to Candlestick Park.

And from the dining room table, we have an amazing view of a cat tree.

But Mark was undeterred in his compassion for Sophie. And thus began the multi-thousand dollar cat door project, an effort designed to keep both cats safe from interlopers. Safe from mean girl Juliette, safe from the larger vermin—the raccoons, possums, and skunks—that roam our neighborhood in gangs at night.

Most of all, Lumpy and Sophie would be safe without sacrificing style: no Dwell-subscribing cat wants to emerge into the world from a door that looks like a truck’s mud-flap or one that looks like it’s been appropriated from a hamster’s habittrail.

“Multi-thousand dollars?” I hear you ask. “Are you kidding? Are you those Californians we read about? The ones who schlep their cats to psychiatrists, nutritionists, and aromatherapy? People don’t do that here in ________”

I’d like to say that we’re not; I’d like to deny the allegation in full.

But then I’d be lying.

Mark has spent much of the last two months designing, debugging, and tweaking the performance of the fanciest cat door I’ve ever seen.

Oh, I know people have implemented cat doors that can distinguish cats with birds and mice in their mouths from unburdened cats, but that’s just a matter of image processing. All you need to do is write some code that compares your cat’s normal silhouette with the silhouette of a cat with something in its mouth. So if a cat approaches the door with nothing in its mouth, the door unlatches. And if a cat with a half-dead pigeon in his mouth approaches the door, the door stays locked.

Simple, right?

The project I’m thinking of was originally called ‘Flo Control’, named after the cat in question (i.e. Flo). From the look of the door (and the expression on Flo-the-cat’s face), I believe Mark started with an off-the-shelf setup similar to the one those guys used. But I'm afraid we had to factor in cats who are considerably less compliant than Flo.

In fact, if you didn’t know our cats, you might think that the off-the-shelf setup would’ve solved our problem: it’s an RFID-controlled door that unlocks as the cat wearing an RFID tag approaches. The cat then just needs to push open the flap—perhaps bump it with his or her nose—like it would a normal cat door. Then the door locks again after it swings shuts behind the cat. Pretty straightforward. You can buy one on Amazon.

Cats use doors like this all the time.

Mark spent months trying to desensitize both cats to the electro-mechanical sounds of the door as the motor unlatched it. Several times each day, he walked up to Lumpy with the door in his hand.

“Lumpy,” he’d say. “Lumpy. Lumpy. Look. Lumpy. Look. This is your door. See?”

And with that, Mark activated the door’s small stepper motor. It made its electro-mechanical noise.

Lumpy raised his head. A look of annoyance crossed his face. He sighed. Then he put his head back down on his paws and continued his nap.

You’ve got to admit, when a door is brought to you apart from the wall, it doesn’t seem very relevant.

After he’d demoed the door’s mechanism to Lumpy a couple of times, Mark would walk up to Sophie.

“Sophie,” he’d say. “Sophie. Sophie. Look. This is your door. Sophie. See?”

Intern Sophie looked up, first startled, then confused. She whipped around and noticed that her extra-long tail was once again following RIGHT BEHIND her. This, she reasoned, was probably the source of the strange electro-mechanical noise. She pounced on it, sinking her sharp white teeth into her own striped tail.

You noisy thing! That’ll teach you! Ouch! Ouch!

It’s rough being an intern.

The longer Mark spent training the cats to use the door, the bolder Juliette and Copernicus became. I’d be sitting in the living room and I’d hear the Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch of a cat eating at the crunchy buffet.

“Soph. Sopher. Is that you?” I’d call out.

Nothing. Just Kee-runch. Kee-runch. Kee-runch.

Of course it wasn’t Sophie. She didn’t come around during the day unless she was spoiling for a fight.

If it was Juliette, she acted like she’d been busted smoking in the girls’ room. She’d leave upon confrontation, sullen and quiet.

But if it was Copernicus, he’d growl at me when I entered the kitchen, a low throaty growl. And although his growls were merely youthful bravado, it did seem like the last straw.

“We have to keep them out of here.” Mark was beside himself. “Poor Sophia! She has no safe place. Her enemies can come in after her.”

Mark seemed more upset than Sophie did. I don’t know whether Sophie actually thought of the other two cats as her sworn enemies, but certainly Lumpy thought of them as invited guests. He would go outside and keen so they would come around to visit, calling them with a strange ululating sound.

“Rrrrrrowwwwwooooooo-ooooooo-rrrooow,” he’d say, sitting on the driveway in back of our house. Then he’d give a happy chirp when they finally showed up. “Welcome, you guys. Here, eat my food so I can get something fresh.”

The RFID door should’ve taken care of this issue. That’s what it was designed to do—use the tags to sort between your cats, and the cats who aren't yours.

Eventually Mark decided the cats were acclimated to the door’s electro-mechanical noise, and he installed the RFID-activated door in place of the old hole-in-the-wall door. Then he gave the two cats classes on how to use their new cat door in context.

Lumpy and Sophie exhibited the same kind of disaffected enthusiasm that scofflaw jaywalkers do when they go to Comedy Traffic School on a summer weekend. Lumpy contorted himself and nibbled abstractly at his butthole with one leg straight up in the air. Sophie watched a cranefly land on the workbench, then scratched her ear double-quick, then watched the cranefly take off again.

“They’ll get it,” I told him. “Lumpy’s smart. He’ll get it right away. He’ll get it and he’ll teach it to Sophie.”

I wasn’t wrong. Lumpy got it. He got it, but he didn’t like it.

“I’m not pushing any damn door with my nose,” he said. “You can forget it.”

Instead he stood ululating at the front door. He wasn’t making the noise he uses to call Juliette and Copernicus. No. He was making the noises of injustice, the keening he uses when it’s raining, and he wants to test his theory that it’s only raining in the back of the house, not in the front. So he ululates until someone—me, or more likely Mark—tires of the awful noise and walks down the two flights of stairs to let him out.

Sophie got it too, kind of.

Instead of teaching her to push the door with her head, Mark had taught Little Miss Sophie to push on the door delicately with her paw to activate it. Just use a ladylike push, and the door will swing open. So when she wanted to go outside, she gave the new cat door a tentative push. It swung open obligingly, out into the mild summer air.

The thing about being a cat is, you don’t just open the door and go outside. That doesn’t work. You go to the door, and you look out. You test for weather. You sniff the air for the scent of Juliette, for the scent of a mouse, for the smell of your people, for other cats’ food, for barbequing meat, for big dogs, for small dogs, for medium-sized dogs, for unfamiliar car exhaust: the list goes on and on.

And you don’t just take one gulp of air; you really do some sampling. It can take a while.

Then, perhaps, you change your mind.

You retreat, tail first, back into the garage. The new door flap begins to close.

Soon you find the door descending far more quickly than you can back into the garage. And you get stuck.

Mark found Sophie hanging from one paw.

He freed the unhappy intern and disconnected the automatic door immediately.

“Poor Sophie,” he told me. “That door isn’t going to work. She could’ve hurt herself.”

Sophie, who was apparently unharmed, headed off double-quick to re-check the never-empty crunchy buffet. She vomited expansively on her way up the stairs to make room in her tiny tummy for some fresh food.

For the next two months, Mark worked on the new door. He worked obsessively, day and night. He worked when he’d normally be napping with Lumpy; he worked and worked.

By the time he was finished, he’d changed the design from a swinging flap door to a counterweighted sliding door. He soldered a new controller to a board, and spent days debugging the new circuitry. He used hot glue on it to keep things neat. He took it apart and started again. He consulted data sheets. He dragged an old oscilloscope home, and then bought a second old oscilloscope when the first one overheated. He bought chips. He bought stepper motors.

He bought transistors, resistors, capacitors, wire.

The garage began to look like a repossessed Radio Shack, minus the unhelpful developmentally challenged employees.

Here’s the sign that things are going from bad to worse: The cabinet of tiny drawers. As long as there’s no cabinet of tiny drawers, the components can be managed with a few reused extra-small Ziploc bags, the kind the pot club uses to sell you a couple of grams of Train Wreck or Pineapple Express.

Once the cabinet of tiny drawers arrives and the Dymo Labelmaker comes out of storage, you know a threshold has been crossed.

But two months later, when the new cat door was finished, I had to admit it was spiffy.

“Let me show you how it works,” Mark said.

We stood inside the garage. He had constructed two pressure plates that were like steps. The idea was, the weight of a climbing cat would activate the door.

He pushed on the upper plate with his fingers. A counter-weighted clear Lucite door slid upward silently, much like the entrance to a James Bond villain’s lair.

He took his hand away from the pressure plate. The door lowered just as silently as it went up.

“See. They don’t have to have the RFID tag on the way out. That way if Juliette comes in, she can get back out.”

Then he flipped a switch on the wall. “And this disables it. That way once they’re in at night, they can’t go back out if it’s after curfew.”

He flipped it again. “See. There’s a light on when it’s disabled.”

“Isn’t that backward?” I said.

“No. No. I’m going to teach Lumpy that it means he can’t go out.” Mark said. “Do you want to see how it works from outside?”

He tapped on button and activated the big automatic garage door. It banged open, seeming clumsy after the smoothly sliding Lucite cat door.

“Why don’t you just teach the cats to use the garage door?” I said. “You could give them both tiny garage-door openers.”

Mark ignored me. He had already built and painted a cleated staircase that matched the colors of the outside of our house.

He pressed on a third weight-sensitive pressure plate, this one at the top of the outdoor ramp.

“See. If it’s somebody with an RFID tag, it opens. And if it’s somebody else, nothing happens.”

He took his hand off the pressure plate and the door slid shut.

I had to admit it was slick.

For the first week or so, Mark propped the door open with a stick so the cats wouldn’t get freaked out, so they’d get used to it. At night, he closed it, according to normal policy.

Unfortunately the door’s plastic was all but invisible. Lumpy thudded into the closed door head first in an ill-fated attempt to use it after-hours.

“Maybe you should make him wear a helmet,” I said.

Mark ignored me. “Do you think he’ll see this?” he said. He’d put a piece of masking tape on the door. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten clear plastic.”

He continued to control the door’s up-down position on a per-cat per-use basis. I harbored some doubt whether they’d ever use the new door once it was fully cat-controlled, although I knew I should keep my skepticism to myself.

Eventually Mark decided that it was time. He flicked the switch to activate the door, and took away the stick that was propping it open.

The next time I went into the garage, I found Lumpy deep in the throes of experimentation. He’d stick a paw on the pressure plate. The door would go up. He’d remove his paw. The door would go down. He’d put a paw back on the plate. The door would go up. He’d take the paw off. The door would go down.

I pulled my Blackberry from my pocket.

“I’m going to take a video of him using it. I’ll post it on YouTube,” I told Mark.

But Lumpy was stubborn. Once he saw me get my phone out, he wouldn’t activate the door. Even after I’d stowed it back in my pocket, he became self-conscious. He went out the people door with me, and was waiting there to thread himself between my feet when I came back in.

For several days, the pattern was the same. He went out when I went out, and came in when I came in.

“Is he actually using the door?” I finally said. “I don’t think he is. He’s always waiting for me. Don’t you open the door for him in the morning?”

Mark was at the workbench, screwing around with the door’s programmed behavior profile. He’d change something in the program, compile it, and download the compiled program onto the controller.

“Yes, he’s using the door,” Mark said.

“I haven’t seen him do it. Have you? Have you seen him actually open the door himself and go through it?” I said. I walked out the garage door with Lumpy at my feet. “See? See what I mean?”

The next day, I was sitting in the garden. It was a Monday and Michael our housecleaner was inside cleaning the house. On Mondays, I stay out of the house, out of the way. Usually I just go to work, but this time I had the day off. So I was outside, in the front of the house, pretending to garden.

I was sitting on the ground between a woody rosemary bush and a stand of plumed grasses, hacking the dead leaves and flowers from an old and overgrown bird of paradise.

Lumpy was in the house with Michael. Lumpy mostly stays inside when Michael is cleaning.

“It’s my territory. You can do what you want to, but it’s still my territory,” Lumpy says.

I’ve watched them together. Lumpy glares at Michael balefully as Michael vacuums the fine web of grey fur and creamsicle-colored fur from the cushions. As soon as the vacuum cleaner is silent, Lumpy returns to the couch to re-apply fur to the exact same place on the cushions. But I don't think either of them is frustrated by the ritual; it's the way they interact and they've been doing it this way for years.

I continued to hack aimlessly at the bird of paradise; I could hear the hum of the vacuum cleaner through an open window. I’d been working on the plant for more than a half hour when I felt something warm on my arm.

A moment of confusion elapsed. More warm liquid showered on my shirt and on the leg of my jeans. Bugs? Maybe it’s those spit bugs. Don’t they emit a warm liquid? But it’s never this much. Bees. Karen keeps bees. Perhaps it’s bees. It must be bees. I looked up from the bird of paradise. There were no bees nearby. Then perhaps it’s sap. But sap is sticky.

A long disoriented moment passed before I realized that Lumpy was absent-mindedly urinating on me, the way an older gentleman might who had mistaken a seated occasional gardener for a urinal.

He wasn’t marking me. He wasn’t engaging in some kind of cross-species fetishistic golden showers.

He was simply peeing in a spot he probably peed every day at about this time. Making his rounds after a hard morning of supervising the vacuuming.

“Lumpy. Lumpy! For christsakes! Stop it!”

It was too late.

Lumpy looked over his shoulder at me, nonplussed.

“I don’t think you should sit there,” he said. “Not now. And probably not ever.”

He wasn’t dismayed. Nor was he embarrassed. Nor sorry. He simply moved on to the next stop on his rounds as if nothing had happened.

He’d apparently used the new cat door without any difficulty and now he was outside.

“Oh. I guess you CAN use the cat door,” I said to him. And he did not follow me to the people door when I went in the house to take a rare midday shower. With water. And soap.

It’s now been almost a month since both cats started using the door. They seem to be completely unfazed by it. Sophie comes in late at night, even while the door is locked for Lumpy. Lumpy is able to open and close the door several times while he makes up his mind whether to go outside, as is his habit. Neither cat has lost the RFID tag that hangs around its neck.

Sophie has gotten her tail trapped by the door once, and she was able to extricate it all by herself with only minimal embarrassment. And I haven’t looked up to see either Juliette or Copernicus chowing down on the crunchies in the kitchen. Nor have I seen fur flying from a cat fight in the house.

The fancy James Bond door to the Cat Cave seems to be working.

That is, until yesterday morning.

Yesterday morning I heard Lumpy calling to Juliette. As I said before, it’s an unmistakable ululating sound, quite distinctive. I looked out the bedroom window, which is right over the cat door. Lumpy emerged as Juliette approached from over the fence. He descended the cleated ramp and chirped hello to her.

“Haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays,” he said.

Juliette looked at him with her round, saucer-like eyes and batted her eyelashes.

Then I saw it: he went back up the ramp and in the door. Then he sat on the pressure plate inside the door to hold it open for Juliette. She followed him up the cleated ramp and disappeared into the garage.

The door is still the most stylish cat door I’ve ever seen.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

the freshman: confessions of a caltech beaver

At the end of my 16th summer, I went off to college at Caltech. The California Institute of Technology. A bastion of science and engineering.

It was only a handful of years after the school went coed.

“The Truth Shall Make You Free” said the school’s motto.

“Caltechnicality” said Leslie, who would never go to a place like Caltech.

But just like that, in the late September heat, as the smog erased the San Gabriel Mountains from Pasadena’s skyline, I became a Caltech Beaver.

That’s right: Caltech’s mascot is a beaver.

That year the Caltech bookstore, in an unironic effort to be inclusive, carried a line of women’s t-shirts that declared right across the wearer’s breasts, I’m a Caltech Beaver. The joke eluded me at the time. I was a naïve 16-year-old.

When I let on that I was going to Caltech, my high school English teacher was shocked. My high school guidance counselor was shocked. Even my high school physics teacher was shocked. To all of them, it seemed to be a peculiar decision.

But my high school chemistry teacher, a man who’d accidentally set fire to his desk during class, wasn’t at all shocked. It’s not just that nothing surprised him after 20 soul-numbing years of teaching adolescents about valence electrons; he also thought I was Matt Marshall’s younger sister. Matt was a fine chemistry student who’d gone to Caltech not long before. My chemistry teacher had no recollection of me, but when Caltech contacted him, he recommended me as a young scientist of great potential.

Must run in the family, he thought.

But I was not Matt’s younger sister. The reason my chemistry teacher had forgotten me was that I’d taken chemistry in summer school so I could concentrate on macramé and focused absenteeism during the regular school year. Even though I’d gotten an A in his class, the desktop fire Mr. B had started—he was showing us how to make our own fireworks—was far more memorable than anything I did.

My lab partner Cynthia and I had spent the summer flirting with the surfer who sat next to us in the last row. Through our heroic coaching efforts (and by letting him copy our tests), we’d raised his grade to a C. That was our real chemistry project; it was as challenging any synthesis. The surfer had absolutely no aptitude for chemistry, and—what’s worse—he was an inaccurate and haphazard copyist.

He was cute though. Blond. And he was the scion of a prominent family (what passes for old money in LA) and, s orbitals aside, he had nothing to worry about. His last name should’ve tipped me off, but I was too oblivious to figure it out. The ____ Pavilion. The Times masthead. I saw his last name everywhere.

He didn't have to worry about where he was going to go to college.

My friend Carol had started studying college catalogs our freshman year (and probably had begun imagining what it’d be like to walk through a leafy quad, textbooks in hand, with several attractive, laughing companions at her side, although she never said so). What could be sillier, I thought at the time. College catalogs. No way.

It was like looking at the Rochester’s Big and Tall Men’s Catalog. Completely irrelevant.

To be sure, when I applied to colleges, I only knew the names of especially prominent Ivy League schools, and especially proximate Southern California schools. Harvard, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Yale, Cal State Long Beach, MIT, Harbor Junior College, UCLA, and El Camino Junior College. Oh, and Stanford, if just because they were reputed to like only tennis players with big shiny white teeth.

At 15, I was unathletic and demonstrated no leadership potential. I wasn’t a Candy-Striper, nor was I a 4H-er, milking goats in my backyard. I wasn’t musically gifted. I had no fashion sense nor social grace.

You know those kids who aren’t conventionally smart, but who are rather ‘blessed with an acute emotional intelligence’? The kids who are graffiti artists, who can shoot hoops and write poetry. Or who, as at-risk tech-savvy youth, can address the California Assembly about pressing educational issues?

That wasn’t me either.

When (with no small amount of dread) I applied to Caltech, I was a 15-year-old junior in high school. Getting a driver’s license was more interesting to me than applying to college.

When Carol finally opted for the University of Chicago, I asked her why she wanted to move to the East Coast. Chicago was adjacent to New Jersey, was it not? Besides, by my reasoning at the time, wouldn’t you want to go to a school that was named after a state, and not a city?

By my rules, the University of Illinois beat out the University of Chicago just as surely as the University of California beat out the University of San Diego.

That’s just the way it worked.

Caltech I regarded fatalistically, like an act of god or a sneeze—unstoppable, inevitable, and phlegmy. If I got in, I’d have to go there. Best to just let it happen and deal with it afterward.

I took one trip to Pasadena over Christmas break my junior year in the company of a boy, Tim, who drove an old Mercedes and insisted you close the car’s doors just so, softly, but decisively, without slamming them; he was the ex-boyfriend of Carol’s older sister, and he’d been a student at Caltech for three years already. I was mildly intimidated, so I focused on closing the car door properly and not asking too many questions.

Classes weren’t in session, and the campus was quiet. Tim took me to one of the student houses (Dabney, the student house I would later live in).

I examined the living situation as if it were a life-size diorama. Two palm trees and a brick courtyard were visible from the Room 8 window. Outside there was a vague whiff of pot smoke and squashed oranges. A textbook lay open on the floor.

So this was college.

The metal-framed beds and thin blue-striped cotton mattresses fit my conception of summer camp, or perhaps a low-to-medium security prison. The room’s floor was polished cement; the dressers and desks were oak, with scars inflicted by generations of students.

We didn’t stay long. We drove the 40 miles back across LA just a few hours later. Tim recited a faithful rendition of the B-side of Don’t Crush that Dwarf (Hand Me the Pliers) as he drove down the Pasadena Freeway. I got out of the Mercedes in front of Carol’s house and closed the car door carefully.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for driving me out there.”

He didn’t ask me whether I was still planning to apply to Caltech, and it didn’t occur to me not to. I was mildly relieved by what I'd seen. Nobody'd said anything about science.

The summer before college—the summer after my junior year in high school—my diffidence turned into a monotonically-increasing sense of panic. What was I supposed to do to get ready? I'd never studied for anything. Not the SAT. Not finals. Not even a high school math test.

During the early part of the summer, I just let all the pre-college stuff wash over me, like you would waves at the beach. You turn sideways for most of them, and you duck under the big ones. You deal with them one at a time. You just show up and stand there.

That was my plan: I would just show up and stand there.

About a week before I was supposed to go, I started to pack an old footlocker. It was army-green and had big brass fittings. I don’t think it was authentic—it was flimsier than you’d expect from its color and general demeanor—but I did have the sense I was in the army now.

My boyfriend Brian and I sat on the living room floor, and wrote my name and my parents’ address in my books, a Funk-and-Wagnall’s dictionary (“Look that up in your Funk-and-Wagnall’s!”), an ancient CRC Handbook filled with log tables, chemical properties, and solutions to common differential equations, and a Roget’s Thesaurus. These we stacked in my footlocker along with my clothes and some vinyl records (records that I already had the sense were relics of my childhood rather than music a college student would play).

I had a baby-blue ROYAL portable manual typewriter, one where you’d raise the entire carriage when you pressed the shift key. You had to have STRONG fingers to type capital letters. We used a Dymo label-maker, and put my name on that too.

We stopped just short of sewing name tags in my underwear.

I ate compulsively all summer and got my first UTI.

Most kids who left high school after their junior year will say, “Oh yeah. I just had to GET OUT. I couldn’t wait to go to college.”

Me, not so much. I was a pussy. I knew I had it good in high school, and I had no particular desire to leave. Most of my friends weren’t leaving. They were looking forward to their senior year even if they hated high school. If I stuck around, I could work on the literary magazine with my friends, ditch classes here and there, and fill my schedule with electives, since I had all my science classes out of the way. That’s why I took chemistry during the summer forgodssake.

I had a bad feeling that once I went to Caltech, there’d be more science classes. I didn’t need the catalog to know that.

Mid-July a form arrived in the mail, a form that asked a number of personal questions. My age. My weight. My height. My interests. My hobbies. The clubs I’d belonged to. The offices I’d held. A photo was requested, to be affixed on the top right of the form.

I filled it out with all due earnestness, without thinking about who would read it, and what it could possibly be for. Perhaps someone would discover that I wasn’t devoted to science, and they’d revoke my admission.

For some reason, some inexplicable, paradoxical reason, I feared some kind of post hoc rejection, even though I had no particular desire to go to Caltech. Each question deserved a snarky answer. Some could’ve been left blank. I could’ve rounded up or down on others, and not been embarrassed.

But that’s not what I did. Instead I answered as if the questionnaire were a trick, a form designed to reveal that I was not an inchoate Nobel Prize winner, and that I was a sham.

Did I really have to say that I was vice-president of the ping pong club? Did I have to maintain that lie I told on my application that I’d worked on building a laser? (The former office was a joke. I’d feigned interest in the latter, but I’d never done a thing about it, beyond checking a book out of the library on the topic and keeping it until it was way overdue.)

Worse yet, did I have to hide what I was actually interested in that summer (Bunuel. The Rocky Horror Show. JD Salinger. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. King Lear)?

I filled out the form as if I were applying all over again.

Later I’d learn that the forms were for the student houses (which were a cross between frats and dorms), not for the admissions office. Upperclassmen scrutinized these forms—especially the ones the scarce frosh girls turned in—looking for whatever it is that forms like this reveal (say, girls who look like Megan Fox, but who have a strange fixation on guys who really know the X-Men canon). When I matriculated (and the word sounds appropriately dirty here), the male to female ratio was still something like 10:1; the twenty-odd freshman girls were conspicuous, and could be fully analyzed in advance of their arrival on the scene.

Probably I should’ve left the form blank and sent in a much better picture, possibly a picture of someone else.

No wonder the boy (he must’ve been a junior or senior at the time) who introduced himself to me that first week as “Scott ____, the Unit Toad” gave me such a disgusted look when I made up a pseudonym for myself. He already knew my real name. He’d seen The Form. And here’s the humiliating part: he’d figured I was the kind of girl that was within his social reach.

I was within the social reach of Scott _____, the Unit Toad. I’d done something very, very wrong.

Caltech was a small school. With 700 or so undergrads, Caltech was about a quarter the size of my high school, which was large, socially forgiving, and more or less anonymous. The form was only a small measure of my cluelessness.

The odds are good, but the goods are odd, the saying went.

The Caltech Health Center worked very hard to convince all the freshman girls to go on birth control pills. You went to the Health Center with allergies, and left with birth control pills. A sprained ankle? Birth control pills couldn't hurt. Tonsillitis? You left the Health Center with a small brown paper bag of birth control pills.

I still have my freshman facebook. I looked horrible. Horrible! It was hot in Pasadena when I arrived to register for classes, when those mug photos were taken. My face was shiny and broken-out, and my nose looked broader than ever. In short, I looked like I fit in perfectly.

But I didn’t.

I registered for the normal slate of classes. Math 1. Physics 1. Chem 1. Chem lab. An English class. And an odd elective, Basic Graphics, an engineering drawing lab that was phased out of the curriculum before my sophomore year.

I liked Basic Graphics; I dutifully learned lettering, architectural drafting, and how to draw (freehand) a variety of knobs and dials to control instrumentation. It was a swell class.

I liked my English class too. The assignments and novels were recognizable. Essays I could write without breaking a sweat. Mostly books I’d read already. The first class meeting, one of my classmates, Alan Silverstein said, “Why do we have to read fiction? It’s a waste of time reading about something that didn’t even happen!”

I was stunned and reported the incident to my high school friends. They were, needless to say, not planning to go to Caltech anyway. This just sealed the deal.

The other classes at Caltech—the math and science classes, the bulk of my schedule—were hard and inhospitable. Midway through my first term of math, I realized I was struggling. Drowning. I’d never asked for help in high school. I never needed it. But now I was in Math 1, the first year of two years of required math, and everybody else had already taken a year of calculus in high school. I hadn't.

We were learning about winding numbers. That’s what the two professors who taught the class thought we should know. Winding numbers. Winding numbers were crucial to their own research. Winding numbers.

I've heard people complain about high school math. “I’ll never use any of that stuff,” they whine (and re-assert as adults). “Who needs to know trigonometry? Or algebra? There are no Xs and Ys or adjacent angles in the real world.” I never complained about high school math. I liked high school math and have even used much of what I learned before I took Math 1.

But winding numbers? No. I could not foresee a use for them when I was a freshman and I was right.

And I wasn’t even alone on that one. Someone—Terry Sheehan, perhaps, a freshman from Chicago who wore a cowboy hat and had the great good sense to drop out by the end of his sophomore year—stuck up his hand in lecture and asked, “What’s the winding number of a buttfuck?” He said it with the perfect aplomb of someone who was passing the class.

“Ha-ha!” responded the class.

“Ha-ha!” I laughed too, although I did not have the luxury of perfect aplomb.

“Just think of winding numbers as an infinite screw!” my TA Henry said in section. He said it earnestly, by way of explanation, but then realized that without much effort, he’d made a little joke.

“Ha-ha!” went the rest of my section, albeit a little less heartily than they’d laughed at Terry’s outburst. Henry would burst out crying on occasion, so it seemed best to laugh at his jokes.

An infinite screw. Right. I knew that if I’d understood winding numbers, I’d know why Henry thought he’d come up with a perfect joke.

The professors—two of them taught the class—were remote figures, flesh obelisks, one squat, and one tall, scrawling integral signs and Greek letters on the board. An infinite screw. The winding number of a buttfuck.

I couldn’t do the problem sets. I’d look at them and draw a complete blank. I’d scrawl page after page of meaningless symbols in the hope of gathering enough partial credit to pass the class. At worst, I’d learn the Greek alphabet.

Finally, about six weeks into the term, I gave up. I’d ask for help; that's what I would do. That’s what office hours were for. For help. Knowing the Greek alphabet probably wasn’t going to be enough.

I trudged up the stairs of the Sloan Laboratory of Mathematics so I could talk to the squatter, more fatherly-looking of the two professorial obelisks during his office hours. I explained to him that I hadn’t understood much of the past few lectures.

Another lie. That implied I’d understood some portion of the last few lectures when in fact I’d simply taken notes as fast as I could—there was no real textbook for the class, just Xeroxed pages of an incomprehensible book the two profs were writing—and I’d understood NONE of the past few lectures.

Sometimes I even stopped taking notes and instead drew cartoons of the squat professorial obelisk and tall professorial obelisk. In my cartoons, they had visible nose hairs. The squat one I made squatter and more walrus-y; the tall one was more like a bowling pin. A bowling pin with a crewcut. But even this didn't make me feel better.

And now I was standing in front of the squat professor in his honest-to-god professorial office. He was not a cartoon; he was much bigger than he looked from the very back row of the lecture hall.

In an out-of-body moment, I could hear myself asking him a question.

It was as if I were in a foreign country and had just summoned the temerity to order TWO broiled tractors from a street food vendor. I’ll have TWO broiled tractors. TWO BROILED TRACTORS. Por favor. On toast.

“Are you sure you’re in the right place?” the squatter math professor asked me without even the slightest hint of compassion in his voice. We’d reached the end of our conversation. I understood even less than when I'd walked in. “Maybe you should be a housewife,” he added. “Maybe that would be better for you.”

He had given up on me before he’d even tried to help me.

I left his office without reply.

I wouldn’t be a very good housewife either, I thought, my flip-flops slapping time as I descended the stairs. I don’t even know how to iron.

There were probably other freshmen who were just as confused as I was, but none of us wanted to be the first victim of the intellectual eugenics program the faculty seemed so proud of. Some years later, a Hispanic classmate who’d gone to high school in East LA, and who was at Caltech on a minority scholarship told me, “They said they’d give me help, and get me caught up with everyone else. But they never did.”

By spring break I was more than desperate. I dropped acid immediately before my Physics final so I’d have an excuse for how badly I was about to do. My bluebook was full of drawings, figures, and irrelevant annotations.

My parents gave the okay, and I transferred to UCSD to finish my freshman year. Through some burst of good luck, the schools’ spring breaks aligned, and the transfer went through quickly and without much ado.

The dorms at UCSD were not funky. The students lived in suites, tidy, anonymous suites. Two girls in one room; two girls in another. The four of us shared a common room and a bathroom. The three other girls in my suite were pre-meds, and I was evidently taking the place of a fourth pre-med who couldn’t cut it.

I could tell they’d liked her, and that they didn’t much like me.

“Don’t smoke that in here,” my roommate said when I lit up a joint at my desk.

I moved to the stairwell. It was spring in La Jolla, balmy and eucalyptus-y. It was not unpleasant to be sitting in an open-air stairwell smoking a joint. A nearby stereo boomed out Truckin’.

“Hi,” I said to a guy who brushed past me on the stairwell.

He didn’t say anything. He headed toward the suite with the music.

“Fuck you too,” I said under my breath. I waited for the suite’s door to close, then I started to cry. Very quietly. I finished smoking my joint and went back to my suite to sit at my desk. I stared at my bulletin board. Nothing was posted on it yet.

I was evidently a space alien here too.

I stayed at UCSD for a week, maybe only most of a week, maybe less than 7 days. I don’t remember going to very many classes. I just remember feeling like I was interrupting something that was already well underway. Everyone already had friends, a sense of purpose, and had taken 114b together last term.

I smoked most of the pot I brought with me. It wasn’t very strong, and no-one ever joined me in the stairwell. I cried a few more times, but not in front of my roommates. I spoke to no-one. My roommates dressed neatly (too neatly, I thought) and went to their biology classes. They were serious, and it was all too clear to them that I was a goofball and a geek. And a loser. All those things, all at once, and those were my assets, my A-game. I was not a pre-med: that much was clear.

I didn’t dare say anything to them. I overheard one of them tell her boyfriend that I was only twelve years old.

At the end of the week, I called my parents, and they drove me back to Pasadena. I was a week late, but could add all of my classes and catch up. Catch up. As if I would’ve been caught up had I been there for that lost week.

At least I had an excuse for being a week behind. I sat on a saggy couch in the courtyard and started the LA Times crossword puzzle.

“Hi Cookie,” Gesine said. “You’re back!” She was wearing bright yellow bell-bottoms and a hot pink t-shirt.

“I’m glad you came back,” Gary said. Gary was a skinny boy who drank Dr. Pepper. He didn’t eat anything, just drank Dr. Pepper. Six or eight bottles a day, according to the rumor mill. Every time you’d see him, he’d be tipping back a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He was a junior, a chemistry major.

Before he told me he was glad I came back, I didn’t even think he’d noticed me.

“I’m glad I came back too,” I said. And just then, I was.