Two Halves.

Five people died building the Mackinaw Bridge.

Spanning over four miles, the bridge attempts to connect the two halves of Michigan: the Upper and Lower Peninsula. The assembly of cables and steel helped create one of Michigan’s most iconic landmarks. It marks the transition between the rural, desolate Upper Peninsula to the urban Lower.

The bridge is as dangerous as it is exciting. There are four lanes of traffic, two going each way. The middle two lanes are grating, meaning you can see the water 500 feet below. This also means that while driving over the Grating Lane From Hell you can hear it. And I mean hear it. It sounds like what you’d expect driving over metal grating to sound like if it was just about to break. So not only can you hear the bridge breaking, but you can see the water you’re about to plunge into.

These fears are overdramatic, I get that. But there are actual concerns: snow and wind. If it’s too snowy or too windy (even during summer months), the bridge shuts down. This is the only way to traverse between Peninsulas. If the bridge closes, even for fifteen minutes, that can mean a traffic jam that goes back miles. (Remember, once you get to the UP you can say goodbye to freeways and roads with more than two lanes, so traffic jams grow exponentially.)

Whenever I went on road trips from my hometown of Negaunee, the bridge marked the halfway point. It served as a signal that we were that much closer to cities with cuisine options fancier than Applebee’s and clothing stores more luxurious than Maurice’s. (Note: Negaunee (KNEE-GONE-EE) is a city near Marquette. Don’t make the mistake in thinking it’s some exotic zoo animal.)

The most memorable trip across the bridge was none other than when I drove down to begin my freshman year at Michigan. It was painfully symbolic. As I was driving across the bridge, it started raining. Naturally, I turned on the windshield wipers. Naturally, the windshield wipes broke. Naturally, it started raining harder. Naturally, I was in the middle of the bridge and still had two (long) miles to go with zero visibility.

You’d think two miles is nothing, especially if you’re used to the speeds on a freeway. But, please don’t be mistaken. Two miles in the U.P. translates to at least 10 miles downstate. Going, maybe, 10 mph, a distance of two miles takes 12 minutes. (Ty physics 140.) So there I was: driving in heavy rain, on a busy, windy bridge, with no functional windshield wipers, no visibility, for 12 minutes. Love my crazy, beautiful life.

After we (somehow) crossed the bridge, my nerves were shot. We pulled off at the first exit and tried to find a car shop to fix the one functionality we actually needed. Fortunately, it was Sunday and all the car shops were closed! So not only was I forced to drive 12 minutes over a dangerous bridge in the rain, but I was forced to drive five hours to Ann Arbor through mixed showers. Thankfully, it only rained maybe five times, but each time, it poured. A trip that normally would have taken 7.5 hours took 11.

The trip changed me: I’m always thankful when the windshield wipers work in the car I’m driving and I freak out whenever they break.

Anecdote: The windshield wiper on the passenger side of my boyfriend’s old 2001 Mustang broke and stayed broken for an entire month. It wasn’t worth it to replace because we were going to be getting a new car the following month. So I suffered through weeks of no-visibility, but at least now I have some symmetry with this story in regard to its symbolism (i.e. broken windshield wipers both starting and ending college, just really great writing material, IMO).

Anyway.

These major life events have (for some reason) always featured broken windshield wipers. The severity of these literal rites of passage mirror the severity of the changes I’ve gone through the past five years. I know it’s a cliché to say “college changed me completely and I don’t recognize who I was in high school!” but college changed me completely and I don’t recognize who I was in high school. 2019 is in one week, I turn 23 in five days, and I was last in high school four years ago. It’s equally far away as it is close. I vividly remember high school, I have memories. But I can’t remember the person the memories belong to. (Yes, that sentence ends with a preposition. It sounds organic, Professor Koutmou, how dare you mark my grade down for that! It’s called voice! Look it up, sis!)

In all seriousness, every aspect of my life has changed:

  1. I’ve gained a two-year relationship and 35 pounds (both are related, probably).
  2. I’ve gained a degree in Biochemistry (although I still don’t know glycolysis…  ugh,  whatever)
  3. I’ve learned more scientific concepts and protocols that I ever have in my life.  (I haven’t done a Western blot in easily two months but I could outline the entire protocol for you in excruciating detail.)
  4. Even though I haven’t brushed up on my Spanish in two years, it’s still lightyears better than it was in high school. (The only Spanish I retained from high school was how to say “My pants are cheese” and “The dolphins are on fire”, clearly two essential phrases for when I travel abroad.)
  5. I have a fucking cat. I hated cats (Maple, don’t read this.)
  6. I eagerly watch the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I never would have watched such (seemingly) vapid reality television in high school. (And another thing: On season six, when Lisa Rinna was genuinely concerned about Kim Richards, Kim was 100% in the wrong. If you’re familiar with iconic moments such as “Have a piece of bread, and maybe you’ll calm down”, and “I’ve had enough of you, you beast”, you know how intense it got. Wine was thrown, glasses were broken, people relapsed, fighting was almost constant. I get it, Lisa totally overreacted when Kim insinuated she had dirt on her husband (which was a complete, immature bluff), but can you blame her? She spent the entire season trying to help Kim, coming from a genuinely good place (which is rare on RHOBH), and Kim retaliates by mocking her weight (many people joke about Rinna’s weight and if she has an eating disorder or not) right after Lisa opens up about her sister dying from drug overdose and then explains the THREE addiction-related deaths in her family were what motivated her to so strongly make sure Kim was already (it goes down in history as in the best apology the RH franchise has ever seen). It also goes without saying that Kim did relapse. She took a sleeping pill that made her actually seem, well, fucking drunk at a party. And then she smoked a cigar in front of everyone (?). Yes, definitions of sobriety can change over time and it isn’t my place to define that for someone. But things get messy once you realize how Kim defined her sobriety the previous season. Lisa Vanderpump asked if Kim had taken a sleeping pill (because she was acting non-sober after a plane ride), and Kim was offended because that would have meant she relapsed. So, by her own definition, Kim had actually relapsed. Op!) Yeah, Real Housewives is so much fun.
  7. I can actually cook? I have seven different cooking oils? (Olive, Canola, Peanut, Vegetable, Stir-fry, Sesame, Sunflower, bitch!) I hated olive oil in high school and religiously used canola oil in everything.
  8. I don’t let people say gay slurs in front of me anymore. (This one is embarrassing. In an attempt to seem cool with my straight friends after coming out in high school, I said ‘yeah, it’s totally okay for you guys to still call things gay in front of me, haha, I love that’)
  9. I used to be the token gay friend. All my friends would try and set me up on blind dates with guys just because they were gay and so was I. Now whenever I go back to the UP, I cringe at the things I hear when I go to the occasional party. One girl proudly called herself a “fag hag”, which is just a girl with a lot of gay friends. Now, it’s one thing for a queer to reclaim the slur “fag” and use it ironically. (Even though it’s almost always coming from a negative place, I’m not really interested in spending my energy right now trying to stop them.) But when it’s a straight person? She literally wanted to be my friend just because I was gay. It’s incredibly offensive and ignorant.
  10. I can solve a 2×2 Rubik’s cube in less than one minute from memory. (A few things: I also know how to spell Rubik’s cube. Isn’t it kind of weird how it’s a “k” at the end? I always thought it should be an “x”. Anyway. I was so adamant about procrastinating my last finals week of college, I memorized the algorithm to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Also, if you’re scoffing at the fact it’s a 2×2 cube and not a 3×3, honey, let me tell you something: you’ll never solve it on your own.)
  11. I have logged 170 hours on Minecraft for the Switch. In one month. Now it isn’t new that I played a video game for a ridiculous amount of time (e.g. Skyrim, Simpson’s Tapped Out), but the fact it’s Minecraft, of all games, is crazy to me. I can actually remember multiple times during high school when my friends would play or mention Minecraft and I was embarrassed for them. Now I can’t look my boyfriend in the eye. (Also, if you’re wondering, you know I killed that Ender Dragon! You know I have that Diamond Pick Axe with Silk Touch 1, honey!)

I look back at pre-Minecraft Zach and I see a guy who was not only complicit but culpable for his tokenization. I see a guy who had no authentic, legitimate plan for the future. I see a guy who surrounded himself with friends who not only didn’t understand the queer experience but didn’t even want to. I see a guy who couldn’t survive on his own. I see a guy who wasn’t fully formed. I see a guy who was still too scarred from previous experiences to openly love someone. I see a guy who was still too scarred to show affection. I see a guy who was too terrified to hug his friends and family. I see a guy who I am not.


I sometimes wonder what a Venn Diagram of myself, these two halves, would look like. On one side would be the Metro-Detroit Zach, and the other would be Marquette. This entire essay clearly illustrates all of our differences, but what about our similarities? Are there even any? What bonds connect us, what scissors threaten to cut the cord?

I’m reminded of nature and running. While I haven’t actually gone on a run in months (no, actually, years), I still yearn for the point where I’ve reclaimed my body from late night binging and lethargy and I can run through the woods again. Someday I hope to have a dog again. I still read, write, and obsess over the Oscar’s.

Though my body has transformed, bulged, and softened, there are small aspects I recognize. A piece of hair, a fingernail. Though hidden, the old me still remains, whispering to me. Reminding me of a fragmented past, a past that no longer belongs to me.


Both versions of me influence each other. The old me pushes me to go towards nature, while the new me pushes me the other way. Regardless of how these versions compare, they have to be connected for a relationship to exist in the first place. Aside from memory, few relationships connect me to the UP on an emotional level. There are (maybe) two people I still talk to from the UP. While some friendships are still healthy, others have turned toxic, favoring gaslighting and abuse. The gaslighting was so rampant, I have a hard time even admitting it happened, and that yes, I am sane, I was disrespected, and I was right.

Even family relationships have suffered. While most of my family remains outside of Michigan, a select few still reside in Marquette County. Never resolving troubling interactions in the past, one relationship, in particular, has dissolved to be completely one-sided. Which side do I belong to? Well, let’s just say I have a string of unread, unacknowledged text messages that I plan to continue ignoring.

These thinning relationships are distracting and push me towards dark places, places where I will never be good enough, never respected, and never taken seriously. Places I cannot afford to go. The journey to these places is something that happens without me realizing it. Much like traversing across a bridge without a windshield wiper, I find myself struggling for reasons outside of my control. I find myself blind, arriving at a destination I had no places on going to.

But sometimes enough is enough. Sometimes you have to admit you owe no single person, no landmass anything. You have to admit you owe yourself the freedom to owe them nothing. Sadly, the only resolution in sight is no resolution at all. And under the carpet, things must go.

I miss Lake Superior. I miss running through the woods. I miss letting my dogs out into our property, where they have an infinite amount of land to chase squirrels, deer, and birds. I miss how colorful fall is. I miss it all.

I miss who I was and who I thought I was going to be. I really do. But I am content, I am content with these two halves. Meeting but never touching. Watching but never being seen. The old me was ignorant, naive, and overconfident. He was not healthy, he did not let friends in. There is some speck of him within me, reminding me of what I had to do to get here. Reminding me of what will never be. Reminding me of what I must remember.

The Relative Abundance of Me.

Do you ever look in the mirror and for just a second – even a half second – you don’t recognize yourself?  I don’t mean in some superficial appearance way, like, you look tired. No.  I mean more broadly.  I mean you look in the mirror and for that pivotal second, you have no idea who you’re looking at.  You see a shell of a human being, a stranger, someone you’ve never seen before.  And then it clicks. Ah, yes, it’s me. It’s just me. 

I never ponder these moments.  I never think to. Yes, for a second I had to remember I was me, that’s alarming to some degree, but I never dig deeper.  Is this rooted in something? Is there something I’m missing?  Maybe I don’t know who I am. (I mean do any of us really know ourselves?)  Maybe the uncertainty and ignorance about my true-self reaches a critical point.  On some subconscious level, my brain says “enough!” and has to reset.  Maybe.

I like to think it’s a matter of identity.  My entire life I’ve followed a track. Not because it’s what I wanted to do, but because it’s what I’m told I want to do.  Maybe I have these moments because I don’t know myself.  I don’t know the parts that built me.

In hopes to avoid further dissociative episodes, I present this list.  This attempt at self-identification. Totaling 100% (I checked), here is everything that makes me, me.


FLUID SEXUALITY – 6%

I’ve struggled with my sexuality my entire life.  Even now, after over 7 years of being openly gay, there’s some hesitation before I speak.  This hesitation doesn’t stem from internalized homophobia, I most certainly am attracted to men.  The hesitation stems from women.  This is where my confusion lies.

The Kinsey Scale is a (flawed) spectrum describing sexuality.  It ranges from 0 to 6. If you score a 0, you are exclusively heterosexual. (I can’t imagine a more horrific diagnosis; my condolences to those immediately affected.)  If you score a 3, you are perfectly bisexual. If you score a 6, you are exclusively homosexual.  In sum, this scale ranges from strictly heterosexual to strictly homosexual, with bisexuality somewhere in the middle.  

I’m not sure how I feel about the validity of the Kinsey Scale itself, that isn’t really the point of this essay, but my response ranges from a 4 to a 6.  A five on the scale means you are predominantly gay, but also incidentally attracted to the opposite sex.  A four means you are more than incidentally attracted.   

I find this absolutely hilarious.  Incidentally?  I get that they’re trying to say “in passing” but I like to think they mean “accidentally”.  Just imagine. Ahh shucks!  I accidentally slept with a girl!  Oops!  Gotta lower my Kinsey score by 0.2 now…

If only.


MICROBIOME/BIOINFORMATICS – 8%

If you see me on my computer, it’s probably safe to assume I’m working on something microbiome-related.  I mean, my Capstone and Thesis are on the microbiome.  I minored in writing to literally get away from science, yet at the last second, I let it back in.  

For those who are unfamiliar, bioinformatics is the use of coding to look at complex biological systems.  For example, bioinformatics encompasses sequencing of RNA or DNA. It also includes studying the microbiome.  Being able to work in a wet lab setting while also being able to code is a dream come true.  I thought I would never to get the opportunity to work remotely (I hate people), but here we are.  

If I had my relationship status with my own microbiome advertised on Facebook, it would be marked as ‘it’s complicated’.  (We’re going through a lot and trying to figure out what’s best for each of us.)  I won’t go into the details (you’re welcome), but let’s just say to combat whatever the hell is going on with my gut I have:  wet wipes, prescribed Immodium, and a bidet.   

Mind you, this isn’t enough

Again.  Won’t go into details, but Michigan gets cold and our pipes aren’t insulated, so I have my eyes set on a lovely heated bidet.  Only then will I know true happiness.  

Maybe I have Celiacs (it runs in my family), maybe I have IBS, maybe I have Crohn’s, or maybe it’s just Maybelline.   The only thing I know is I am desperate that it’s none of these. 

Here’s the thing:  I can never have Celiacs because I refuse to give up Domino’s “Pick 2 for $5.99”.  I can never have Celiacs because I refuse to buy Gluten-free flour when I literally just bought a 10 lbs. bag of flour.  (I’m on a budget, what am I supposed to do with 10 lbs. of flour?  Bake delicious cookies and not eat them?)  I can never have Celiacs because it took my mother like two years to re-perfect her cookie recipe.  (I make bomb mint chocolate chip cookies and I just do not have that kind of time.)

Aside from my gastrointestinal woes, my interest in the microbiome isn’t just personal from a diagnosis standpoint.  (Note:  if I’m ever in a band, it will most definitely be called Gastrointestinal Woes.)  Junior year, as some of you may remember, I was in a special section of an introductory biology lab that focused on the microbiome.   We learned some basic microbiome analysis.  The best part of the lab?  We did the microbiome analysis on our own poop Actually, no.  The best part was we got paid.

Yes.  The best public university in the world paid me to scoop samples of my own poop from the toilet.  (Go blue!  Or Go Brown?)

Anyway, on a more serious note, the class was what got me interested in the microbiome in the first place.  It actually came at the perfect time.  Just as I was realizing something wasn’t quite right with my own gut, I was given the opportunity to explore it.  While it is overambitious to think that some surface level microbiome analysis would cure me,  it was, at least, a starting point.   

Throughout that semester, I actually pursued my mysterious condition and saw a gastroenterologist (i.e. Poop Doctor).  Beforehand I had a colonoscopy (which, by the way, deserved a whole essay), which was surprisingly incredible.  I was pumped full of anesthesia, wheeled into a warmly-lit room, and lulled to sleep as a doctor inserted an endoscope into me while old Maroon 5 songs played softly in the background.  It was truly lovely. 

Don’t get me wrong,  the prep was legitimately depressing.  (I don’t use that word lightly.)  I couldn’t eat anything.  My mom (WRONGLY) told me it was okay to eat chicken broth beforehand (MOM, YOU WERE DEFINITELY MISTAKEN).  It was disgusting, and also made my bowel movements horrendous and smelly.  I soon switched to Gatorade.  (Which, let me tell you, deserved an official endorsement as the Colonoscopy Prep Fluid of Choice.) 

To make matters worse, you have to drink a literal gallon of this hellish, lime-flavored, salty solution within (I think) a few hours before the operation.  It really was rock bottom for me.  But.  Like I said, Adam Levine lulling me to sleep while I was in the most comprising position of my life was by far the highlight of my college career.

I actually woke up mid-procedure.  Yeah, I lazily woke up, really high off the anesthesia, and looked at a TV monitor to what I thought was at first a man with a mustache, and then a beautiful cave with a lovely creek running through it.  To my surprise, it was my own body!  (With the context, I’m sure you know what part!)  I actually said “Cool!  Is that me?  Got any news, doc?”  as the doctor was literally mid-procedure.  At the time, I thought it was completely normal to casually wake up in the middle of a colonoscopy and make small talk with the doctor, but I guess not?  The doctor told me, as politely as they could, to shut up and back to sleep I went, dreaming of caves and men with mustaches.  

The worst part was the fact the colonoscopy, even after all the Chicken broth and Gatorade in the world, came back with inconclusive results.  (Didn’t change the fact the visit to the gastroenterologist was still $1000!)  They noted some scarring tissue, but none of the tests were matches.  So, I’m still mysterious, at least.  Maybe someday I’ll be reunited with Adam Levine and the mustached man who still haunts me.

Aside from the colonoscopy and the biology lab, I had one other major encounter with the microbiome.  You see, I work in a research lab that focuses on diabetes.  I won’t go into the details, but the primary investigator of the lab I work in was interested in the microbiomes of the different groups of animals within her experiment.  She asked me if I was interested in learning to process microbiome data, considering how frequently I mentioned the biology lab I was in at the time.  I eagerly agreed and after a little over a year, I mastered microbiome data processing. 

To my surprise, I had way more fun than I thought I would.  Getting over the learning curve for microbiome data processing was so satisfying to me, that I pushed further, and decided to make microbiome data processing the topic of my Capstone and apply to a Ph.D. program in bioinformatics. The result was my website, Guthub, which I hope to continue updating even after I graduate with my B.S. 

All I’m hoping for is another opportunity to collect more of my poop samples upon starting a Ph.D., otherwise, what’s the point?


CATS – 10%

Hey, I’m surprised about this one, too.  My entire life I’ve been a dog person. Not the “I like dogs” dog person, but the much more intense “I Must Always Own Four Dogs Simultaneously” dog person.  

Our first dog was Molly.  A friendly golden retriever.  Shortly after, came Raney, a black lab mix.  Next was Dexter. You know the saying, “Once you have three dogs, you must always have three dogs”?  How about the saying, “The only way to get over a dead dog is to buy another one?” Well, maybe those aren’t actual sayings, but they should be because it’s almost as if those were our mantras growing up.  Our first two dogs were the only dogs we ever got from the desire of purely wanting a dog.  I have had five dogs, three of which were literally coping mechanisms.

Raney ran away one summer for weeks.  After weeks of searching, we gave up.  Rather than focusing on healing, we poured our feelings into researching purebred Pomeranians.  Forget the cost and shadiness (we were seconds from being scammed hundreds), because regardless of the money, Pomeranians are fluffy.  Pomeranians are so fluffy, they were the motivation behind the creation of the adjective fluffy.  

So, let’s count.  We had Molly, Raney (MIA), and now Dexter.  Well, days after getting Dexter, Raney came back.  (I suspect foul play. Could my mother have hidden Raney in order to have an excuse to buy Dexter?)  

Sadly, during my Junior year, Molly passed away.  We then got Remi, a yellow lab. Then Raney passed away last spring.  We then got Charlie, an actual black lab.  You cannot get more obvious than that.  Our black lab died so we got another one.  

Regardless of the cycle of dogs in my life, I found myself drawn to cats during my Junior year.  After I started dating my current partner, Ben, I took a liking to his cat, Simon. Simon is the cat that Grumpy Cat was based on.  Not actually, but he should have been. He is the moodiest, pettiest, most annoying cat in the world. And I absolutely love it.

Naturally, I adopted a cat the spring of my Junior year.  On my way to get her, I was panicking to think of a name. Turning onto N Maple Rd, seconds away from the cat rescue,  I picked “Maple”.  It really was that simple.  I suddenly spoke her name into existence to Ben and never gave it a second thought.  We never even talked about names after that. It wasn’t until months later that I realized how weird it was I randomly said “Maple!” and then made no attempts to further the conversation.  

Now that I think about it, how vulnerable was I in that moment?  How desperate was I to find a suitable cat name before arriving to pick her up?  How impressionable was I? Would I have picked whatever name was on the last street sign I saw before arriving at the rescue?  Oh god, would I have named my cat 4th St?  


LOVE OF NATURE – 11%

Even though I haven’t been to the UP in over three years, I’m still influenced by it.  Growing up in the woods will always be a part of my identity, regardless of how many 7/11’s open near me.  There will always come a point where I say “bag” weird or need to walk through some forested area, even a mini-park, just for a few seconds.   

Since moving to Ann Arbor, I’ve noticed how much I took the forest for granted.  I ran through it every day, I lived in it.  Marquette did not have an arboretum, like Ann Arbor, because the entire city was one.  At the time, I hated the lack of cell phone service, the isolation, the inability to play XBox Live.  I was jumping off the walls when we finally switched from dial-up internet to satellite. When I was in sixth grade.  Sixth grade.  Imagine all the AIM conversations I missed out on!  And that satellite internet? It was at first HughesNet (which sucked) and then it was Exede (which was a little better, but to be honest, sucked).

Even with all the resentment, I still find myself wanting to go back.  I find myself yearning for a green spot when I travel to big cities. I find myself constantly staring at the sky and looking at trees when I walk around campus.  I find myself waiting to, at last, be back with nature.


DWINDLING FRIENDSHIPS – 12%

When I started dating Ben, I made him agree on two conditions:

  1. I have an unusually low sex drive and that won’t change.   
  2. If there comes a time where I have to decide between doing something with my friends or his, I will pick mine.

In retrospect, my heart aches.  My entire life, I’ve seen friends disappear into their relationships.  I’ve seen them completely transform.  I didn’t want that.  I wanted Ben to a part of my life, not my entire life.  I didn’t want to lose touch with the friendships I had built up over the previous years in Ann Arbor.  I had found a great group of friends here.  They were the kind of people who didn’t gossip about anyone.  They gave off only good energy. In contrast to my friends from the UP, these people were saints. I needed them.  

But I guess I didn’t.  Rather than be blunt, let me explain with Facebook.  My Facebook friend count in high school peaked at 1,000.  When I went to college, I deleted half of the people on my friend list, leaving me with 500.  Today I almost have 1,000 again. Since moving here four years ago, I’ve added 500 people to Facebook.  Has it really been that many?   If I contrast that with how many people in Ann Arbor I actually keep in touch with still, there’s a difference of 498.  

I am terrified.  Outside of my boyfriend’s immediate friend group, I regularly see one friend.  It isn’t that my other friendships were shallow, and thus, disintegrated.  I actively destroyed them. One second I was single, surrounded by friends, and the next, I’ve been dating Ben for six months and I’ve barely seen anyone.  A combination of substance abuse and lack of energy left me suddenly terrified to see my friends. Would they be angry I haven’t been focusing on them? Would they be disappointed in my recreational habits?  I was no longer that involved with TEDxUofM.  I had a sudden lack of interest in big ideas.

While I still saw my friends regularly during my Junior year, that was mainly because we either had a class together or were on the Lead Team of TEDxUofM together.  I ignored this fact. The following semester, during my Senior year, I promised myself things would be different.

They weren’t.

While I still occasionally saw my friends, it was nothing compared to Junior year.  On top of this, I was gaining a lot of weight. Lack of physical exercise and the ever-increasing recreational activities with Ben’s friends gave me the munchies.  (It should be clear what I’m talking about at this point.) It’s stupid, I know. But somehow I couldn’t face my friends, with my enlarged body, poisoned by smoke.

So I didn’t.

And now those friends are all across the country.  (They’ve graduated.) And I’m still here. With Ben.  And our cats. And my few friends.

We’re about to sign our lease to live in Ann Arbor until 2020.  2020.  That year still looks so far away, so futuristic.  Who will still be there with me when the clock strikes midnight?  


HOBBIES:  COOKING, READING – 20%

Without my hobbies I am nothing.  In the literal sense, of course, I am someone.  But, in regard to personality? A person without hobbies should not be trusted.  They have a suspiciously large amount of time to do whatever they want (i.e. murdering you).    

Anyway.

I am in no way surprised the penultimate item of my existential list is “my hobbies”.  On one hand, I’ve loved reading since I picked up my first chapter book in grade school. It took me (at minimum) an hour to get through the first chapter of Harry Potter.  

(I was a really slow reader.)  

But once I finished that first chapter, I felt a change.  I can still picture it. I was sitting cross-legged on one of our dining room chairs that I brought into our living room.  Having gotten to page 17 in one sitting of reading, though it took ages, helped me transition from picture books to reading literature (i.e. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief).  While my reading comprehension was terrible, I was still improving.  Albeit very slowly.  It wasn’t until 6th grade that I realized I was just reading words.  I couldn’t remember the plot to any book I read from 3rd grade onwards.  Hell, I couldn’t even remember what was on the last page.  

Reading has always shaped me.  It’s provided me with tools to make my own writing better, it’s allowed me to see what’s possible.  How far I can push the boundaries. I read The Book Thief and realized prose can be poetic.  I read Breakfast of Champions and realized that the semicolon is a fantastic writing device.  With each book I picked up, I gained something.

What reading can’t give me, cooking can.  I actually hated cooking until I met Ben. When I had to cook for myself I either made 6 scrambled eggs or chicken and potatoes.  But even chicken and potatoes were hard.  (I could only focus on cooking one food item at a time.)  I didn’t even experiment with seasonings and spices.  It was always the boring garlic, salt, red pepper flakes. Maybe cumin if I was feeling exciting. (By the way, I know how white I sound right now, I say these things ironically.)   

Thank god this all changed with Ben.  I learned that, shockingly, salt is needed to even begin to taste other spices.  Even more shocking, was when I learned that “salt to taste” doesn’t mean “add as much salt as you want, sweetie” it means add salt until you taste the other spices.  I’m a biochemistry major. I’ve literally studied the taste receptors in our mouths. How I didn’t connect the dots, I do not know.

After relearning the basics to, I guess, food,  I learned which tastes went together and which didn’t.  I learned about spices I hadn’t heard of before. I learned about bok choy, pancit, and fish sauce.  

(Quick note on fish sauce:  while I recognize my hatred of the smell of fish sauce is partly due to the fact I never saw it growing up and it not being a part of American culture, it still smells like shit.  But, fish sauce adds such a unique umami flavoring to any dish, I don’t even consider skipping the step.  Each time I use it, the experience is a little less painful and I take one step closer to being everyone’s non-problematic fave homosexual chef.)   

While learning all these things were great, I wasn’t truly invested in cooking until I started collecting recipes.  I tried making everything from scratch I could think of: sugar cookies, chicken pot pie, Panda Express’ orange chicken, the late Indonesian Peanut Saute from Noodles and Company (may she rest in peace).  

I started memorizing different stages of baking cookies:  mix flour with baking soda and salt, cream butter with sugar, add eggs and vanilla to sugar-butter, mix in flour, bake.  And then I moved up to memorizing recipes, starting with a basic white sauce: 2 tbsps of butter mixed with 2 tbsps of flour, after flour melts into butter, add 1 cup of milk, stirring slowly until sauce thickens.  Season with salt, pepper, garlic. (And cheese if you love yourself.)

At some critical point last summer, my job, and cooking became one.  After leaving the lab for the day, I would go home and use the same practices cooking.  Cooking in the kitchen was almost an extension of working in a wet lab. I was precise in my measurements, I had everything prepped before I started, I made sure to have a clean workspace.  It got to the moment that I was cooking so much for Ben, that he had to beg me to let him cook again. He’s more than welcome in the kitchen again, but he’s going to have to buy his own lab coat.


BEN – 33%

It scares me that Ben is 33%.  I’m not surprised, but I’m scared.  While ⅔ of my identity is independent of him, what am I to say about the future of that ⅓?  

33% is a lot of space.  

I know.

But even when I think about, I can’t think of what this ⅓ is displacing.  What activities am I missing out on with a substantial fraction of my energy focused on him?  Yes, I stopped being involved in TEDxUofM, but it’s pretty much the norm for people to drop off the face of the Earth in the years that following being on the Lead Team.  It’s exhausting.

Other than that, what else is there?  

Well, maybe it isn’t a matter of what isn’t there, but a matter of what is.  While I didn’t sacrifice any aspect of what I like to do, I did sacrifice the amounts of time I can spend on any given thing.  Now, this isn’t revolutionary. This is, well, obvious. When you start dating someone, you will inevitably lose some time that you would have otherwise spent doing something else.  But is the extent of the importance I place on Ben okay?  

Yes, I’m making time for some friends, I’m doing the research I want to do, and I’m reading and cooking enough for a family of eight.  But how much more cooking, more reading, more friends would I have had I never swiped right on Ben.  (Yes, it is true. Ben and I are a Tinder success story.  Any day now we’ll get our own couples commercial.)

Of course, the time I get with Ben is more valuable than reading one extra book.  It’s more valuable than an extra recipe, or one friend. But say that 33% dropped to 25%.  I know he’d be encouraging, he wants me to do what I want, but what would I fill that precious 8% with?  What am I missing out on?  

The fact of the matter is, while I’m saddened by my dwindling social life and the natural flux of college friendships, I get to come home to one the best boyfr —

Actually, I’m going to stop right there.  

I think you get the picture.

If I do say so myself, these past 4000 words have been a delight,  so why risk tarnishing that with some cheesy cliche sentences about my relationship?  

It’s more exciting when I leave that to the imagination.  


Note:  this essay was written for my Capstone for my Minor in Writing through the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan.  The capstone course is listed under Writing 420.  You can see how this essay fits into my (much) larger Capstone project at my website, guthub.org.

A Long Overdue Hello. / Gold.

It’s really been 1.5 years.

1.5 years. 

This post won’t serve as a 18 month catch up, or some think-piece about how my final days in college have changed me.  As you can tell by my lack of posting, it’s hard for me to come across a good blog idea with my current work load.  If I ever do make a post like that, you’ll probably see it in 2020.

Just kidding.

But am I?

What this post does do, is say hello.

A quick catch up: 

  1. I’m in my final semester of college.  I graduate on December 16th. (What the fuck?)
  2. I have a pending manuscript within the lab I work at, where I am a primary author.  Yes, primary author.  (I truly don’t know how I got to this point.)
  3. I moved in with my boyfriend.  (Our apartment is super gay and we have two cats.  Future blog post?)

All these points could make blog posts in the coming months.  And hey, maybe I’ll actually get to it.  But, in reality, what you should really expect, is what comes from my writing Capstone course, Writing 420.

Yes, it’s Writing 420.  I don’t know how they decided on the number 420.  There are only two “Writing” courses at the university:  Writing 220 (the Intro course) and Writing 420 (The Capstone course).  They literally could have picked any number.   Are they trying to say something?  I mean they have Cottage Inn Pizza (and a lot of it) at all the Minor in Writing events… is everyone in the department constantly blazed?  God, I hope so.

Anyway.

As some of you may know, I’m getting a lovely minor in writing through the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan.  (Just rolls off the tongue, right?)  Because of this, I have to produce not just a website, but a product website.  What this means, is my website cannot be like my Gateway Website, which is very me-focused.  While I can be a part of the website, it’s supposed to serve some greater purpose.  It is supposed to exist on its own as a functioning part of the real world.  (Whatever the fuck that means.)

Also if you haven’t read my Gateway website, you should!  I wrote a 28 page fictional story about two gay guys in high school.   (That’ll keep you out of my Tumblr messages and Twitter DMs for at least a few days.)

Anyway.

My product is going to be a tool for microbiome researchers to process data.  It’s a little hard to explain (ANOTHER BLOG POST?!), but when my website goes live, I’ll post about it on here.  (Explain some news around November/December).

While the microbiome website won’t be as interesting as my usual content, I’ve found some excuses to be sassy.  My website will be able to create nine different types of classic microbiome figures.  Think:  bar graphs, pie charts, exponential plots.  Alongside these “figure makers”, I’m going to write some creative essays to accompany each type of figure.  They’ll teach you about that type of data but relate it back to my own life.  What do I mean by this?  While here are some examples/sneak peeks:

  1. Relative Abundance Plots.  AKA what different bacteria make up a given microbiome?  I’ll explain this figure in simple terms and then switch to talking about what things make up me?  What different things (e.g. traumas, interests, memories) are major components in my own identity?  
  2. PCoA Plots.  AKA how do two different microbiomes relate to each other, are they similar or different?  It’s basically plots two microbiomes on an XY plane.  If they cluster together, they’re the same.  If they cluster apart, they’re different.  (Don’t focus on understanding it yet.)  I’ll switch to talking about How have I changed since moving from Negaunee, MI to Ann Arbor, MI for college?  Do I still relate to the high school version of me?  What ways am I the same?  What ways am I different?  Would I even recognize myself?

In addition to these essays, I’m going to post an essay right now, right here that I wrote Junior year in my English 325 class, Art of the Essay.  (Fantastic class, by the way.)  I reflect on struggling with the lost of my first dog, Molly, which happened while I was taking the class.

So.

Expect some things soon.

Here goes nothing.

I’m going to post it without reading it, without editing it, without changing it.

Let me know what you think.


 


Zachary Carlson

English 325

Louis Cicciarelli

18 April 2017

 

Gold

She was gold.

Was.

I think that’s what hurts the most, was.  Permanently trapped in the past, she is unobtainable in the worst possible way.  

 

She died at 14, like most dogs, which wasn’t surprising. What was was her vitality, her desire to live, run, play, eat, bark.  She was a cancer survivor, had a baseball-sized mass on her chest, and was 20 pounds too big. But that was all meaningless to her. To her, all that mattered was when she was getting her next bowl of food and when she could go outside to smell the fresh, unforgiving, Northern Michigan air.

But that’s all speculation; she was a dog after all. The disconnect between species both brought us together and shattered the connection we had.

 

A bark.

Food?  Outside?  Water? Play?

There was no way to decipher the sound and its meaning, so an endless game of guess-and-test dominated my life since I was seven.

 

She was a golden retriever.

Her name was Molly.

And she was most definitely gold.

 

&

 

I don’t know the specifics, I don’t know how, all I know is I’m on my way to a house to pick out a dog.  A dog.  I’m in second grade, with my best friend Luke, and I’m about to own a dog.  In between my incessant questions of “Are we there yet?” I imagine all the things we’ll do:  play fetch, run around in the creek behind my new house in the woods, and play tug-of-war with toys.  Lots and lots of toys.  My small, first grade mind – immune to the understanding of time – suddenly finds itself surrounded by puppies.  Overwhelmed, I can’t decide which one to pick up. My mom comes over, sees my hesitation, and points to a small golden retriever lounging under a chair.  

“Why not get that one, sweetie?” She guides me to the puppy.  “Isn’t she soft!”

Without realizing it, a smile creeps onto my face and I start giggling.  All at once, the barrier, the hesitation, the fear shatters and I reach to touch her.  She is unbelievably soft and will not stop licking my face.  Oddly enough, I love it.  I scream with delight and I become absorbed in this small puppy’s presence.  I cannot remember a time before this dog and all I know is that I want it. This tiny ball of energy is the missing puzzle piece I didn’t even know I had lost.

&

Five seconds pass before she pushes me again to leave. Her voice is tense, a little annoyed.  “Zachary, go get your sister.”  

My mom is relentless.  Since I got my license on my 16th birthday a few months ago, she’s made me drive everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.

I overcome the static friction gluing me to the couch, get up, and reluctantly get in the car.

It’s 9:00pm and I just want to play Mass Effect 3.

The second I step outside, I knew I made a mistake:  snow dominates my entire field of vision. All I can see is cold, harsh, white, balls of fury, plummeting towards me, daring me to even attempt to drive through it.  I guess this is how I die.

With my thin jacket and pissy attitude, I get into my 2007 Envoy.  (A terrible excuse for a car that is even worse on gas.) Ironically enough, the only reason this monstrosity is in our garage is because of the fact it has all-wheel drive and we live on a dirt road in the middle of the woods; yet, somehow I broke the all-wheel drive the previous fall.  Nevertheless, I buckle my seatbelt and hope to get to the ice rink five miles away before I die from hypothermia.

Slowly but surely, I get to the CR-510.  From there, I am feet from Midway Drive, which will bring me directly to US-41, also known as a snow-free road.  Drowning in anticipation, I fail to register the brown blob of fur on the left side of the road and I go over a bump.  

Suddenly, it clicks:  I just hit a deer.

“Oh!” The surprise in my surprised reaction is embarrassingly unconvincing.

Immediately, I laugh and start orchestrating a tweet, knowing this quirky, yet fun moment in my crazy life will be sure to get at least 12 favorites.  I play with “I just hit a deer and I’ve had my license for one year, wtf Mother Nature, I thought you were on my side” but it doesn’t feel right.  

This is where things get serious.  I had assumed the deer had just graced the car and the damage was trivial, but something was nagging at me.  One mile from my sister, I pull over and check on the car. My heart drops; the right tail light is completely smashed and a piece of metal is dangling dangerously close to the tire.  There’s no way I could drive the car safely.

My quirky moment turns into an annoyance and later an inconvenience.  

I call my mom and she picks me up, equally annoyed.  

She asks where the deer came out, I tell her, and we stop to get a piece of the car with some animal fur in it, so our insurance will cover the repairs.  Also our curiosity got the best of us and we went to see if the deer was anywhere nearby.

It was still there.  Dead.

I feel nothing.  Not necessarily numbness, but nothing.  Neutral. Unfazed. I don’t feel upset, or satisfied, I just see a dead deer.  I get back into the car, we go home, and I am greeted enthusiastically by my three dogs.

Right then and there I realized something, when I first hit the deer, I didn’t even check on them, I just kept driving.  What if I had hit a dog? Would I have acted the same way? I look at my dogs. Do they know I just hit a deer and kept driving?  I note the similarities between dogs and deer.  What really separates them into different categories, the fact we gave the dogs individual names?

&

When we brought Molly home for the first time, she immediately declared that she owned the place.  Prior to her arrival, we placed small wooden boards in the doorways to contain her to one hallway. She jumped over the small boards without even thinking and exited the hallway immediately.  (Clearly, we had never owned a dog before.)

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #1:

Never stop moving.  If you do, you will die.

 

Moving almost too fast to see, she didn’t wait for us to catch up.  Only after investigating every single square inch of her “confined” space did she relax and let us see her, let us see what we let loose in our newly built home.  

She was perfectly sized, soft, and gold.  The color was comforting, it felt safe and familiar.  Her aura completely changed the house: while it was dark and vast before, after her arrival, the house was bursting with life.  Juxtaposed up against the bare, white walls, her gold fur was borderline offensive. She made the house feel like it was breathing.  My three-year-old sister was crying, she had no idea what Molly was, but with my superior First Grade mind, I couldn’t stop smiling.  

A dog.

A dog.

I squeezed her until I couldn’t any longer.

&

Let me guess:  when you see a dog on campus, you look but you also don’t.  You don’t immediately scream, “Dog!” but instead, with your well trained eye, you give it as many side glances as you physically can without obviously obsessing over its existence.

 

The Mantra Of The Modern College Student:  

A Dog’s Owner Cannot Know I Want To Steal Its Dog

 

So instead, you scream internally, perk up regardless of the weather, and send the dog your love telepathically, desperately hoping it receives your message.

But that’s just a guess.

&

Regardless of what I say, she wasn’t perfect.  No matter how soft or beautiful Molly was, she was still a dog.

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #2:

We Are Not Herbivores.

 

During the first few years, she’d get too excited and run away, she’d get sick and poop disks on liquid feces on the floor, she’d bring back dead birds, squirrels, and deer bones and sometimes leave them in the house.  No matter how much we trained her, she was still a dog. But we loved that about her. She had a side of her that was untouchable by us, something she held tightly and only let go of due to old age. Her rare gifts of dead animals caused fights over who would put a towel over the dead squirrel and throw it away.  (I did and my mom gave me $1.00 for it.) Her poop disks, oddly enough, trained us and conditioned us to be patient with dogs. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have gotten three more. When she ran away, we’d fear she’d never come back. Her absence reminded us of how much we needed her presence.

She was our first, and we’ll never forget that.

&

“She has cancer.”  I’m in sixth grade.

It hit me like a bullet.

I look at her on the couch: she’s smiling, oblivious.  Does she even know?

I muster out a response through the panic and my mom repeats:  “She has cancer, I’m so sorry.”

She’s bigger now, filled in.  Almost four. Almost a little too big.  I can’t say I’m surprised. She had a mass on her chest for months, but we just hoped it was a fat mass, something common in larger dogs.  I never figured out how she got so big. She was outside just as much as the other dogs, ate just as much as the other dogs, but something made things stick to her more.  Food, people, friends, me.  Something about her made you give her a second glance, hug her a little longer, make her see you.  She wasn’t elitist, she didn’t discriminate, but there was an additional level of purity she had alongside being a carefree dog.  It’s hard to describe, you could just feel it.

She always looked powerful, almost like a queen.  I really don’t mean to be cheesy, that’s just how she really looked.  Her full coat condensed more so on her chest, it made her look proud, majestic, and all-knowing.  Have you ever noticed how sometimes dogs blink weirdly and it looks like they’re winking at you? She did the same thing, but for her it actually felt like she was.  

They were able to successfully remove the tumor, but it didn’t fix everything.  I don’t mean from a medical perspective, she was fine for the next few years and the cancer never resurfaced.  But our view of her changed irreversibly. She still ran the same, smiled the same, ate the same, but it felt, I don’t know, different.  It wasn’t necessarily, ‘Maybe the cancer will come back,’ it just felt like there was something fragile there that wasn’t there before.  Something deep within her that we couldn’t get out no matter how hard we tried to destroy it.  I don’t mean to be blunt, but it ruined the next eight years. Rather than enjoy the time we had with her, embrace her energy, and assume that was the norm, we half-joked that she was going to die within the year.  There was no way she’d make it. The doctors were as shocked as we were.   But she was a dog, she didn’t care what humans thought.  She didn’t live by the same guidelines.

She was the Queen of the Forest.  

&

Why do we love animals as much as we do?  

I’m not asking scientifically or philosophically.  (This isn’t a research paper.)

This is a question you ask when you don’t want the answer.

The intense feeling of joy you feel when you see a dog on campus, the sorrow most pet owners feel when their pet dies.  Do we really want that dehumanized to a formula?

I think we love pets as much as we do because of their purity, their innocence.  Their unburdened lifestyle. We see them each morning before we go to class and think, ‘You are so lucky.  Do you realize how lucky you are?  I’d give anything to switch places with you.’  They don’t need to worry about science, or politics, or death.  They just need to be.  

It becomes a privilege to witness that feeling, that type of existence.  To be the perceived cause of joy and life for a pet. They think you are their king or queen, when in reality your life is probably a mess or at least bleak in comparison to their own beliefs.  

But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  Because all of our thoughts about what pets are thinking or the fact they only live a fraction of our life melts away when we become absorbed by their ability to love endlessly, when we see how their face lights up when we return home, when we see them do ridiculously stupid things.  When they make us feel loved, which is something we desperately, desperately want.

So we jump in.

&

Every summer I went back home from college she was the one thing in the house that was constant.  The other dogs aged and caught up to her, but Molly was consistently large. Consistently old. Consistently smiling.  At the end of every summer, I was secretly relieved. It meant I survived another four month period at home without her dying.  Meaning, she was more likely to die when I wasn’t there. I was terrified of having to be faced not only with my first dog dying, but having to figure out what to do logistically.  Who do I call? 9-1-1? The vet? My mom? I have no idea how I’d feel, what I’d do. I was even scared I wouldn’t cry.

But each spring when I came back again, there she was.

See?  I told you I was fine, stop being so dramatic.  

&

It seemed as though dogs started appearing out of thin air.  First it was Molly, the original. Then when I was in middle school, a few years later, came Raney, a black lab – named after the creek near our house.  Dexter came after that once I entered high school, an incredibly fluffy gold pomeranian who still poops inside.  And this past summer my sister added Remi, a yellow lab who will not stop moving.  (Even when she sleeps she somehow finds herself all the way across the house when she wakes up.)

It was fascinating watching each dog interact with Molly, but also depressing.  The first blow was with Raney. Raney was beautiful, with a rough but soft coat comparable to wolves.  She was a poster child, fit, and above all, a puppy.  I’m sure you can conclude who we (unfairly) focused all of our attention to.  It devastated Molly. Due to unintentional abandonment and her growing size, she was noticeably more lethargic and depressed.  But how could you blame us? Molly’s thick fluffy hair didn’t feel nearly as good as Raney’s wolf-like coat. Her fur was so much more cleaner.  Molly’s hair naturally became matted if we didn’t wash her that often.  (We didn’t wash her that often.) It’s not like we wanted her to suffer.  

It took years before the house dynamic returned to equilibrium and Raney’s presence began to match Molly.  Only then did our Queen return, cool and as nonchalant as ever. Only then did we see her smile, see her jump, see her soar.

&

She died again when she was 10.  I was a senior in high school and it was late – a school night – and I was just about to go to bed when I heard a creaking noise coming from the hallway.   The house was quiet with everyone else asleep and the creaking noise was amplified accordingly, jolting me from my focus. Thoughts starting going through my head:  What the fuck was that?  Was I going to die?  Was I about to be murdered?  How will I turn in my Calc homework?  Somehow, I forced myself to open the door.  

In the brightly lit hallway was Molly.  Molly was standing on all fours and focusing, painfully, on the ground with her lips pulled back revealing her sharp, stained teeth.  She wasn’t choking, growling, or about to puke; it was something else entirely. She was uncontrollably making this sound.  It sounded like someone was taking a metal rod and hit each of her teeth within milliseconds of each other creating this sound so disturbing I thought I was watching my dog die.  

I panicked.  I had no idea what was happening – Google told me nothing – and with her cancer in remission for only four years adding onto her massive size, I feared the worst.  I saw this image I had of her in my mind fade away even more, her courage and strength deteriorating into nothing. I didn’t think she’d live through the hour. How quickly this strong image of her comes crashing down after it took years to rebuild.

She, of course, was fine.  Twenty minutes later she stopped and continuing living as if nothing had happened.  We, on the other hand, did not. If we thought she was fragile after her cancer scare, imagine how we felt then.  I looked at her – seemingly a more fragile version of what she was the first day she blew through our hallway like a tornado, jumping over wooden board barriers, saliva flying everywhere – and then I look at our other, younger dogs – both larger than life, constantly overshadowing Molly’s former glory.  How could Molly possibly survive before the morning let alone before I graduated high school?

&

 

Towards the end, I’d start taking “just-in-case” pictures.  Once I started college, I felt like I entered the danger zone, where she could drop at any moment.  I’d ignore the other dogs and try and capture the spirit, softness, and vibrant shades of gold every summer before time ran out.  There was a particular vulnerability when I photographed her sitting, facing me. Her true self was masked by how well trained she was.  She was too focused on getting a treat rather than being herself.

 

The Beliefs Of The Modern Golden Retriever #3:

Never let your owner take your picture in exchange for a treat.

We are better than that.

 

It was better to photograph her when she was sitting outside, oblivious to paparazzi, or her looking out a window, focused on some small prey. The best picture I got was her standing on my bed, looking into the forest.  Focused more than ever, I noticed how complicated her coat was. It wasn’t just gold, she owned every possible shade of it. She was covered in playful swirls of light and dark gold that lead to bursts of fur on her stomach and chest.  These explosions balanced her smooth, slick backside, both of which attracted light in different but equally powerful ways.

She was a beacon, reminding the forest that she was still Queen and not going anywhere.

&

Like I said, I was relieved when I left each summer.  But not entirely. Just as I was about to drive down to Ann Arbor in fall, I’d tell my mom, “Sorry!  I forgot something,” and I’d go back inside and sit with Molly. She isn’t special in this respect, I do this to all the dogs, if I’m being honest.  But with her, it’s a little different. For her, I’d spend a little more time and I’d whisper:

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

And then I’d go to back to college, come back the next spring, survive the summer, and repeat.

 

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enough.

It’s okay to let go, you’ve had a good run.  You’ve done enoug-

 

&