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Greedy Kindness | 2017 | Comfortable in Their Skin


I'd rather be a failure at something I enjoy than a success at something I hate.  

-George Burns

False Starts for a Star

She deserves the world

This weekend, I drove and got Chinese food, managing to lose my MP3 player in the process. I watched a strange horror movie from the seventies where every character that did not want to chew the face off the thirteen-year-old protagonist wanted to molest her - and one succeeded in giving her a bath on screen. I took a walk into town and back, catching Pokémon along the way. I took my car in to get inspected and ended up waiting four hours for all the necessary repairs until Amber could rescue me for lunch, finishing one superb book (Trigger Warnings) and putting a sizable dent in a bad one (Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis). I went grocery shopping. I enjoyed my more-than-monthly talk with Daniel. I used my stepper to appease my Fitbit. I had a revelation about a book I will likely get to writing in a few years enough that I can foreshadow it in the alpha copy of my current book and scribbled down the necessary notes. I listened to the entirety of the S-Town podcast, intermittently crying from the pathos. I took my bike out of storage and gave it a tune-up. I fixed the cover of Amber's neglected bike (during the season where one could ride a bike, she does hard labor in the sun and has no energy for cycling after). I cleaned both our bathrooms. I did four full loads of laundry, then folded them and put them away. I rode my bike four miles to make sure all the gears worked, then tweaked the bike a little more. We took Amber's car in to get an oil change and tires and ended up finding out it needed hundreds of more dollars in repairs. I went to the grocery store again and picked up fresh fish for dinner, then made dinner. I watched a Monty Python movie for what was sure to be the twelfth time. I had a lengthy conversation with my father about a future Guys' Night Out.

Amber studied.

She came along with me on some of the above chores, but, if you randomly peeked in on her, she was either asleep or studying in some way. She stopped to watch the movies while we ate, but she resumed squinted at her Kindle and scribbling the moment the last morsel was off her plate. She did, at one point, have to suddenly break away from studying because she had forgotten that she promised to set up someone's computer, but it was only a few hours away from her dissected cat videos.

At 8:30 on Sunday evening, just as I was going downstairs to write for an hour before bed - my habit - she perkily asked me if I now wanted to do something. All weekend she had me alone and had to instead focus on studying. When I declined because I wanted to get some ideas out, she bounced back to the sofa and resumed her studying.

She surrounds herself with a corona of discarded books, note cards, and papers. I assumed once this was chaos, cleaning the floor and putting all her materials in a pile. This was wrong, she told me. She knew where everything was (on the floor) and now she didn't know where anything was (in a pile on the sofa).

She wants to be in the living room because then she is still close to me when her mind is far away. However, I want to talk to her, to tell her of what I have just read or an idea I had. I want to engage with her. She tends to look at me impatiently when I do this out of turn, as she is working and I am being a bit of a pest in the living room.

She has a studio. We insisted upon this when we moved into this apartment. She covered the floor with cardboard to prevent paint from reaching the carpet, put a desk in, then filled it full of junk. She does art in there infrequently. It is too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, too messy to rehabilitate, so it is mostly an ignored room. When first we moved in here, she said we could set up a space for me to write, but that idea evaporated shortly after the cardboard was set down. Instead, I work in a corner of our bedroom at an end table, sitting on a beanbag chair, facing a print someone gave me when he received my novel and a cloth tapestry of Ganesh.

She warns me that, once she attends rat camp (a weekend in Delhi where she will learn the proper care of laboratory animals), she may return home with several rodent to save them from being euthanized. The orientation pamphlet says the unclaimed ones will be, since you cannot toss a mouse into an autoclave for the next student. I have told that she shouldn't bring any home, but if she must, that these animals will live in the studio. I do not trust that she will agree when the time comes. We have no space elsewhere, so let them reside in the forgotten room.

I am not entirely complaining, but instead taking a snapshot of where we are right now, enjoying my luxury problems.

When Amber wants something, she throws herself entirely into it. She thought she might like gardening and so quickly claimed a plot at the community garden and read dozens of books on horticulture and farming. Soon after, she made a Facebook fan page for the garden (it remains as a memorial, even if the garden itself is defunct), a plot at a farm share, a CSA, and a job tending the gardens of obscenely wealthy weekenders from the City. During all this, topsoil and seedlings covered our apartment.

She ceased to have members for her CSA or time to tend her farm share. She stepped in a hole at her job and twisted her ankle so badly that she was put on desk duty on Sundays and has never fully recovered from the injury despite much physical therapy.

Then she decided to become a vet tech and read all the textbooks before she attended her first class of this phase of her schooling. When she finished these, she took out more books from the library to give herself a firmer grounding in veterinary science. I have not prepared this much for classes I was teaching.

Amber is the type who reads manuals in their entirety. I will play with a gadget until it flummoxes me. Then and only then will I dig the manual out of a drawer in the kitchen and figure out what I am doing wrong.

A pretty woman, since I cannot post bones.

Her studying is not merely reading and answering simple questions. She draws detailed diagrams of muscles and bones, some which she finds on the internet and some she brings home from school for this purpose. (She has stated in no uncertain terms that I am not to take pictures of her specimens to share on the internet.) She types up her notes and creates review sheets, then emails these to her classmates without being asked. She has corrected her teachers' tests for typos, formatting, and facts. (I am not positive her professors appreciate her rigor, but they are stuck with it nevertheless.) I doubt her classmates can do less that be amazed (or annoyed) by her competition.

She took twenty-one credits last semester and earned a 4.0. That was hectic work and nearly drove her to madness, so of course she chose to do the same this semester. This means that she will finish early, but I am not naďve enough to think she won't be taking classes this time next year. Schooling is something at which she naturally excels far beyond anyone around her, somewhere she can feel her purpose and appreciation. Why wouldn't she become its devotee? It is giving her a direction that might finally have a light for her at the end of the tunnel. If her community college has a valedictorian for the commencement, it will be Amber. I look forward to helping her speech to sparkle.

I would not be this dedicated to any course of study, not even if it was all I needed to do in my day. I have never functioned this way as a student, which has informed how I teach to the reluctant.

I joke about her being a dilettante, but she manages amazing depth, even if it is not stupendous breadth. What she knows, she understands better than 95% of people on the planet. If it doesn't catch her attention long enough, she knows it well enough that she could answer a Jeopardy question, but she couldn't explain what it means in full context.

She is never half-hearted about anything that interests her. She fades only because something else - something tangentially related, something totally new - catches her, because this attempt at mastery did not love her back. It crushes her, bit by bit, when one of these endeavors does not pay off. She wanted to be a full-time artist, selling paintings and sculptures on etsy and doing craft shows every weekend. Usually, she sold too little to pay for her table or materials and time. She never made back the fees at the local gallery and they didn't appreciate when she brought them a lot of positive attention with a Christmas pop-up store she ran. When the liquor store next door wanted more storage space, they immediately kicked Amber out of her expensive hallway. She started her CSA, had only a few members and too many setbacks, and moved on in a year. Without a community to sponsor her, it was excessively loved vegetables rotting in the ground or being stolen by Bard kids.

Given the time and money she is devoting to becoming a vet tech, this has to pay off with a job in her field. She cannot accept another false start, another skill she can only use around the house while she explores a different desire.

Her paintings hang on our walls and art fills her studio. She has started seedlings in pots near our window, almost out of habit. Her passions never leave her, only getting turned down low. I've spent five years certain she was about to strike gold. Fate has never really let this happen. I have wiped away her tears of disappointment too often. She always gets back up, always tries something new. She is never going to give up, I know. I would love the world to give her a reason to be this tenacious.

Since she has decided to become a vet tech, she has blossomed from hermit crabs (we acquired four in total and lost all their names) to two beta fish she is continually nursing away from fin rot to a hamster whose fecal culture and a $76 vet bill shows he has some worms. She borrowed my mother's leopard geckos for her restraint and handling class and now refuses to release them until she is confident she has addressed the female's vitamin deficiency making her legs bowed.

I see her as an investment, not a gamble. Her lunches, her new shoes, her car repairs, her gas, eventually some of her tuition are purchased in part because I believe she is due and because she has worked harder for this Associate's degree than I did for my Master's. I do not much mind sacrificing a few paychecks. What good is my money if it is not taking care of her? I won't deny that I miss her when she is sitting beside me on the sofa, into the second hour of reading tiny print on her Kindle and writing in notebooks. It is lonely and restrictive to not be able to touch her and joke with her because her mind is measuring weightier subjects than the intricacies of the story I want to tell her. Her time is not her own right now and it is certainly not mine. It is owed to her future, these sacrifices, this loneliness. I tell myself that this is a tiny thing to ask in our forever together. I say that, for her to have a purpose that gets her out of the house and contributing to the world, to have her appreciated and receiving a paycheck, I can do this without begrudging how much I miss her and miss how things used to be between us when she was unoccupied.

Prior to this, even when she was driven by other spirits, she was always my playmate when we were home together. Unless she was making a thousand denim bracelets or a hundred seedlings, she was available for whatever misadventures we could contrive. She had her studio, where she could mostly be left alone to work and I could tend to the rest of the apartment, but she was not frequently indisposed there. Now, our apartment is just another aspect of her schooling.

I cannot fault this drive because it is what brought us together. Once she showed an interest in me, she dove in headfirst. In other circumstances, in other relationships, this would have been exceedingly unwise, but I greeted her with arms as open as I could make them. She was never hesitant or halfway with me. She began to love me and she didn't harbor a single doubt, even as I sometimes bristled against being in a relationship with someone who loved me when I did not feel worthy of it. I am perhaps her longest project and she has never wavered in her interest.

I won't lose her. She loves me too much and dreams of the future afforded to us if we both bring in a paycheck. She fantasizes about the house we will have, the luscious garden out back. She is positively giddy with the notion that she will help animals.

I want that for her. And I want it for myself, because then she will be practicing and not learning (I know she will keep learning, will keep taking classes. Let me have my moment). Then our home will return to being a respite for the two of us and not only an extension of that day's lesson.

She will find her fate.

I don't know that I have ever admired someone as much as I do Amber. She works endlessly hard and rarely receives anything of worth for it. I have surrounded myself with a diverse collection of intelligent people - this is not bragging, it is acknowledgement of an evident fact - but none who has been so humble and unassuming about their gifts and talents. Most people I know who have any natural gifts are content to rest on their laurels. I indubitably include myself in this. Outside of writing, I am downright indolent when it comes to my capabilities. Even with writing, I am far lazier than I have any right to be given that I have declared it to be the nucleus of my existence. Amber, though, is relentless in discovering the discipline that will accept her fully. I know people underestimate her, because she is tiny and cute, because she has worn fluffy and floral dresses - reasons that sound like misogyny, more so that it has been women who reach this false conclusion. She doesn't strike most as serious about anything. People have said as much to me, that they thought I was canoodling with a flighty ragamuffin until they actually spoke with her at length.

This is not wholly the testimony of a doting husband, though I admit my bias here. I've known others who worked tirelessly, but the world saw fit to repay them before too long and certainly along the way they got positive feedback, not merely resounding silence.

She deserves a job she loves and one that loves her in return. She talks of making enough that I can stay home and write all day but I would prefer that she simply have a career where she can come home fulfilled every day.

Soon in Xenology: Navel-gazing? Ethnicity.

last watched: Archer
reading: Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis
listening: The Hush Sounds

Greedy Kindness | 2017 | Comfortable in Their Skin

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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