Meet the Bon Vivants: Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Meet the Bon Vivants:  Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Here in English class, we took apart (I'd use the word ‘dissected’ to get their attention) passages of prose or poetry and study the different parts under the microscope of literary analysis, then put them back together to see why and how they worked so well together to create the expression on the face of the page. It was a stretch, but I’d add:  “Just like Mrs. Sylve does with her robots."


Read More

Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit: Beauty Sleep

Beauty Sleep

On a sun-dappled Friday, in response to some long-winded, rambling, oft-repeated complaints, a friend chastised me for selling myself short in romance (You know who you are and I thank you.). As the day went on, her argument consumed me, and that evening I, in turn, berated another friend for selling herself too short, forwarding along an inspiring screenshot from friend #1. I was harsh and cutting, yes, because I saw my behaviors in hers (You also know who you are, and I’m very sorry.). When we finished texting, I flung my phone in frustration.

I took the long weekend to stop and think. I ignored all calls (a real feat, as my dear friend Flor has diagnosed me with e-OCD). I sat up in bed tapping my chin and sometimes slid down into long naps. One of the most productive weekends of my life.

Between sleep and dreams, I realized it is important for a woman to respect her womanhood. Expect to be loved. Demand love. Don’t slip along timidly accepting anything less. You are not Casper the friendly asexual ghost. Assume you are pursued because you are loved and drop anyone who is demanding of your time while offering something less than love. “Wow,” said Flor when she read these words, “You’ve come a long way, MST!” Well, I hope so, Flor. It’s about time. And it’s about time. We must stop friend-zoning ourselves. Friend-zoning is at fault. Texting is at fault. Ghosting is at fault. Emojis are very much at fault. We don’t have time. We are each looking for someone beautiful and respectable and intriguing enough to love, but we have to learn to put that quest in the background instead of making it the prevailing topic of all our lunch hours and girls’ nights and smudged and deflated after-parties.

So let’s fill our lonely hours with activities we enjoy, the arts and travel and eating and exercise, leisure pursuits that build up, with people we love and who love us too (!). Our lives abound with healthy relationships, with people who are loyal for the simple reason of shared blood or a history that includes a thousand inside jokes; they ride out bratty behavior, buoy us through loss, hear a tremble behind the words “I’m fine." Our parents, our nieces and nephews, our old college roommates await. Let’s seek them out, revel in an unconditional affection which heals and feeds. This way, we remain whole, vital beings, growing richer and finer over time — rather than allowing ourselves to be chipped at and hurt by the careless who don't really mean to inflict such harm but nevertheless cause a lot of lasting damage. Love yourself, said my friend, and demand love from others, I say (always shooting for the extreme), and settle for nothing less. You have better ways to pass the time.

And when the pickings are slim, nay, nada-null-zero, Sir Charming hasn’t stepped up and there’s no one with potential that you’d like to pull from the pool, spend a luscious weekend in bed. We can all benefit from beauty sleep.

Meet the Bon Vivants: Tom Quinn

Meet the Bon Vivants is a new series that showcases the work of my favorite thinkers and good-lifers, all personal friends with important ideas and interesting musings. 

In Life of Pi, a novel singularly notable for its premise, Yann Martel makes the case that belief is an intellectual choice that takes great courage. It should come after an examination of available options and then tested for its ability to sustain one mentally and emotionally, even physically though life's trials. The spiritually-inclined Pi chooses as his mentors those who, like him, make the human search for meaning a priority and take a considered stand either for or against the concept of a divine plan. Pi spends time evaluating the statements of many adults in his life, from Mr. Kumar the atheist scientist to Father Martin the Catholic priest, patiently questioning each one in an effort to understand different means of organizing the universe and which rings true for him. 

I'm glad to know just such a seeker in real life -- Meet Tom Quinn. The Scottish-born writer, psychologist, and educator shares his personal quest in the following interview featured on Tom and his wife Karen have been incredibly kind, perceptive, intelligent mentors during my own journey, and I am forever grateful for their friendship. 

empath, heal thyself

From Writing to Heal by James Pennebaker --

"Since the mid-1980s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people's sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others."

creative non-fiction: Mr. M

The following essay, from the collection Le Midwest: an ode to the noble suburbanite, illustrates the impact of one dedicated teacher on my early professional choices.

Mr. M

One fine day:

1 We all want the same thing, don’t we? A little kid’s picture of paradise looks so similar to a big person’s picture of paradise with a swaying palm tree and a smiley-faced sun. I’ll paint my dreams and forget about making all those statements about war and injustice. Statements are tiresome. I’ll go walking to the market for bananas with my man and go fishing with my babies and I’ll do mehandi for visitors and I won't have to sell my paintings in paradise or do graphic design because we’ll just live off the land. A little garden, some chickens, a boxer dog or two. 

“You’ll go far, Michelle, Rani G,” Mr. M— said before he disappeared too far away for me to hear clearly. “Everything you touch becomes gold, you see that, Michelle?” And then he left me all alone. But he gave me a foundation. Confidence in the art that I make, a confidence that cannot be found in any other part of my personality. I’ll go far. What’s far, Mr. M—? Far away? To my pretty bungalow by the ocean with fancy friends and beautiful children, a handsome husband, two boxer dogs, and walls full of paintings?

2 She shrugs her shoulders and bats a little shine into her eyes, sighing deeply, “Ah, you darlings. I appreciate your concern, but we’ve done a thorough investigation into the matter.”

“Did you speak to any students?”

“No. It was a confidential matter.”

“Then what investigation, ma’am?”

Politics labels passion as lunacy. Labels a goodbye kiss as sexual harassment. Discipline as discrimination.

Don’t expect us to get motivated.

A lovely homogeneous family is created with two namesake black teachers who kinda want to bust out but have got to grin and hold on to those good suburban-school-district jobs. The noisemakers are only noisemakers because they know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who can get something done. Any other noisemakers are sexual harassers, bigots, or lunatics.

3 As I pulled the oxidized skin off the ink in the tin, that orange, crusty rust off to reveal still moist Vine Black #2, still alive after a year without moisture, I thought of you. Your ink. The ink you left behind for nobody to use. I turned around and all the Mona Lisas gone and the Giacometti sketch, Walking, the “essence of energy and movement and activity,” and the ballerinas and Romare Bearden poster, all disappeared. Ran off with you.

Seniors don’t rush around with mats and erasers and slide carousels anymore, getting ready for the spring contests and exhibitions. Rachie looking a little winded with no one to argue with and all subtlety lost on Mr. K—, the potter. And I’ve graduated to a place muddled in pretension and shaky hot air philosophical abstraction. Shhh. I was anticipating that, but I was counting on visiting you like a jet up for air before another plunge into the deep end again.

My folder was still there with every drawing intact, and the print you promised to mat on the last day I didn’t know was the last day was matted and framed. Complete as promised--“Not neat, not nothing.”

You didn’t touch her.

“Not neat, not nothing,” inside out, outside in. Now nothing left.

The classroom was so still early in the morning with no Drawing I freshmen tumbling in to cram a value scale before 8:00 (no excuses). Just K— in his office and Mrs. S— next door. And I’m standing there not just missing you, but missing my table, waiting for the bell with Jon and Anuj who snuck in from K—’s study hall and the day I first walked in when you proclaimed, “Girl, you’re good, but here you are going to learn how to take on the world.” And the senior with the red button-down eyeing me from across the room, in that seat. And how you never let the silly boys visit me during school study hall except for Sidaker because he was Indian and intelligent and could help me with physics. 

Remember Gesture Day Fridays? Drafting tape made from blue-jean lint covered masking tape and, “Draw, draw, draw, 30 seconds left, 15 seconds, two seconds,” a long pause, then, “Aw, guys, I gave you too much time. . .”

You made Mike a true bohemian. At Webster, now he only goes by his Russian name and and he likes to stand on the tables and talk about art the way you did on the day he transferred to North from the Jewish school.

We talked to her. She said you were crazy. “I can’t give you any details, but. . .” Grave smile.


Anyway, I broke all school rules and didn’t get a Visitor’s Pass because I’m not a visitor and I went to our drawing room and I felt you died. I couldn’t feel a clean plaid shirt and braided leather belt and Levi’s and loafers and an oddly matching tie. I couldn’t smell pink erasers. I’m looking around the corners and behind the flat file trying to show you my new piece, wanting to hear, “Rani G, Rani G, (which means the Queen of G[raphite]), you have a Midas touch, girl, you make this job worth it.” And so I went there and missed that buzz so badly and saw the crusty skin on that always wet ink and was tottering around the room, looking in the hallway for Camran or Mr. R—, someone who could share this loss. The wet, moist, fecund ink crusted over like a scab, but when I pulled the dry skin off I found you, and I went about inking the plate with a righteous fervency, knowing I learned from the best. You put me on that hot-air balloon and got the fire red and roaring and then vanished so that when I turned around to find you I choked for a moment but found out I could fly now on my own. What’s it like now? Do you miss us? Teaching at a place where half the students have a universe on their shoulders and no energy to explore?

“Why even bother teaching, Mr. M—?”

“There’s a burning building, Rani G, and you’ve got a choice:  Do you save the Rembrandt or do you save the cat? One one now, Rani.”

“The Rembrandt!”

“No! The cat, the cat! The cat is still alive, it’s still breathing, it’s still got a whole life to experience! Save the cat.”

And so now I’m having fantasies of standing in front of a class and loving every one of those kids and giving them nicknames like Commie and DJ Ho and Cami and Sphynx. I’m having these dreams of standing in front of a class with a gray pleated skirt and an oddly matching sweater, saying, “I’m Miss Thomas,” before I start banging the projection screen with a yardstick, praising the rhythm and balance in a lonely Hopper.


I found you, I found you, I found you when I found that still breathing ink, like a commission to stand on tables and to make them come to class on time and to coax them into a habit of classical music. I’ll drop graphic design in a flash if you say the word. I can just imagine, “I taught you everything you know so now you can help scam America, staring at a blue screen blinking away your regret.”

Today I missed you so much. I missed you so much.