Skip to content ↓
amber avatar

a conversation with my mom at 1 am by Amber V. '24

about cacti, writing, meche, and chess

On New Year’s Day, I got a tattoo of a saguaro. Saguaros are massive: ten, twenty feet of towering spiny cactus. They dot the desert mountainsides like trees. I got the tattoo to remember the desert. I’ve been thinking recently about how I love Tucson but I may never live here again, not for more than a few weeks, a traveller passing through her old stomping ground.

There is a beauty to the desert that you cannot see unless you grew up here, a hardness and a hardiness to everything that lives here: the gila monster, its mottled orange and black skin warning of poison, and the rattlesnakes, and the cacti, with precious water stored behind thick skin and sharp thorns. Tucson is full of small businesses, tiny art shops and boutiques and locally owned cafes, which cling to survival as living things in the desert only can. Let the tattoo remind me of that.

Also, my little sister just got permission to get her first tattoo in the coming month, so I felt suddenly inspired to get one now.

It being New Year’s, most tattoo parlors were closed. I joke with my friends about pulling up to the shiftiest tattoo parlor there is, the kind with dirty linoleum flooring and no name, just a neon sign that reads ‘TATTOO.’ But I wasn’t that brave. I was lucky to find that one of the reputable parlors in Tucson was open, probably to cash in on the stream of people getting New Year’s tattoos. It’s called Sacred Art, on 4th Avenue, which is a hippie street full of local art and small businesses. I went spontaneously there instead.

An hour and a half later, I limped out with a giant grin and a two-inch rendition of a saguaro on my left ankle.

I showed my dad, who asked the price, and my mom, who said, “the arms are too low for a saguaro.”

I looked and saw that she was right. I told her so, and joked, “I don’t want constructive criticism right now, Mum.”

“It’s a good organ pipe cactus,” she said.


That night I sat at my mom’s usual desk, reading over journals from my van-life and backpacking days, while my parents worked. Eventually my dad nodded off at his computer, and my mom over her book. Later on, my mom got up and said, “I had a thought.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, leaning forward to hear it.

“Yeah,” she said, and picked up her laptop to write it down.01 my mom says that in fairness, the thought was about DHTs, so I wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

“I also have a thought,” I said, when she was done. This was false advertising. I actually had several, like at least three.

Without much preamble I started telling my mom about MechE, how I’d grown with it and how much I liked it — if I liked it as much as I kept telling myself I did.

My mom is a computer engineer, and while I don’t understand all the jargon she throws about, we sync when we talk about math, engineering, and how to apply those things to life.

We moved to my room, which is covered in shelves of books and art collected over years of ComicCons and street fairs. My mom sat in my chair, and I on the floor, which is cement tile. In summer it’s blissfully cool, and when the swamp cooler broke I’d lay facedown on the floor in the middle of the day, letting the tile leach heat from my thighs. 

I talked about academics.02 I'm looking at my mom, sitting across from me in a coffee shop that caters to motorcyclists, and people who talk about tarot and spellcasting, and university students who come with used copies of classic novels and sip sugary drinks as they read. 'What did you say about my classes?' I ask. She thinks, and then says, 'I don't remember anything about classes, honestly. I’m pretty sure.' Last spring I was taking classes as though I were a chemistry major. This fall, I came to 2A with organic chemistry and a spectroscopy lab under my belt, but no shop classes. Lucky for me, I wasn’t alone; 2.00103 'two double-oh one,' materials and mechanics, a core MechE class. was mostly sophomores, and 18.0304 'eighteen oh three,' differential equations is a requirement for so many majors that there are students of every class year taking it. 

I took 63 units this semester, spread across six classes — three HASS05 Humanities classes; mine were East Campus Histroy, Latinx Culture in the Age of Empire, and Advanced Fiction Workshop. classes and two and a half technicals. I cared about every class except 18.03.

It was a lot, but it actually worked. I got good grades. It was mildly hellish — I was endlessly doing projects for my HASS classes, and twice a week I’d sit down to grind out a pset with the grim sense that I could easily be there until 3 am. Midnight if I was lucky and the pset went by fast. I couldn’t have made it through without the help of my classmates, either.

My next semesters may not be any easier, but they will be doable. 

During the semester, I tried not to stop and ask myself, “is this what i really want?” If the answer was “no,” well, tough, that pset’s still due in thirteen hours.

I have not, of course, spoken to a single Course 2 whose eyes light up when they talk about statics, or expound upon the insights they gained from 2.001. Most people seem to see it as a class that is useful, interesting at times, but also tedious and difficult. So I’m not missing out on inspiration here. Most of us Course 2s are drawn to the major because of other classes or projects.

“Do I even like my classes?”

My mom responded that she had taken maybe two computer science classes during her college years. She was a math major. Engineering wasn’t about taking classes, she said. You just have to show that you’re competent.

I laughed. “I can’t even put screws into wood, Mum,” I said. This is patently not true, but I had been struggling with a few particular screws that day.

My little sister has been putting together a spinning prize wheel for a class project. It’s four feet in diameter, mounted on a stand at roughly 70 degrees. I’d drawn up the designs earlier that week, then drove us to Home Depot to pick out wood. Both my sister and I dropped our voices nearly an octave when we asked the employees where to find different parts.

The project went pretty well, all told, but there were definite hitches. I cut all the wood, and my angles weren’t precise; we had to compensate later. The screws were a pain to install.

“I mean we did screw them in, eventually,” I said. “It was just gross. I made Ruby do most of it.”

It’s okay to struggle with something, my mom said. “It’s terrible to go to a school where you have to think you know what you’re doing, because it’s okay not to know and to ask for help.”

“No,” I said, “I’m pretty good at asking for help. And people at MIT are chill, there’s a really good culture of helping each other. I was just annoyed because it’s worked before. Like when I was building Fort—”


“EC Fort — we built a fort before the semester started — all I did was screw in screws, and it always worked.” I paused. “Though that was with a hex bit.” My sister and I had been working with Philips head screws.

“Hex bits are way better,” my mom said.

“True.” I glanced to the window. The stars are bright in Tucson, where light pollution is low, but it was dark outside and light within my room, so I just saw my reflection. My bangs were over-long, flopping into my eyes. “I don’t especially like building things with wood,” I said, sounding very much like a college kid whining to her mom at 1 am.

I did not mention, then, how I did like talking through the design with my little sister, Ruby, and hearing her ideas. I was happy that she came up with a way to make the wheel spin which we used in the final design. My mom and dad came out to help us work, and all of us had a hand in the project coming together. I liked that feeling, even though I wished my contribution were stronger.

Instead I said, “I guess woodworking isn’t the lump sum of MechE. And I do like other MechE things.”

My mom has a lot of patience, so she listened to me tell her how I have intrinsically liked MechE for a long time, and how I chose that I didn’t want to graduate MIT without having tried to learn MechE. I chose that back in spring. And I’ve worked to teach myself since then, by getting my UROP,06 undergrad research opportunity; mine is in an earth science lab but was mostly focused on building equipment. , helping with Fort, going to MITERS (a makerspace), joining ProjX, taking MechE classes, and getting trained in shops and doing personal projects (all these things I did not list).

“I have learned,” I said. “I can’t work all the machines in MITERS, but I’ve used all the machines at least once.”

I have started looking around Tucson and seeing things I’d like to make, things which I didn’t notice before because before I couldn’t have made them. My camera roll is full of cool metal sculptures.

“See, that’s good,” my mom said. She said she had not felt like she had the agency at my age to see things and then build them. 

“I don’t really either,” I said, “but I’m trying to grow into it.”

However, I added, building things is still draining for me, whereas writing is filling.

Yes, my mom said. She has heard me soliloquize on writing before. 

“You should split your time between writing and building things.”

She meant right now, in school, but she also meant big-picture. “If you do contract work, you can take months or years off to write. Just live somewhere cheap.”

“Yes!” I agreed. “But I also like socializing.”

I was thinking big-picture, too. When I was backpacking through Europe, I envisioned renting a cheap place in small-town southern Italy, living on pizza and pasta that cost less than Starbucks drinks, befriending the handful of locals in my clumsy but eager Italian.07 my Italian consists of less than fifty words, but I’d hoped it would improve. Later on, I actually settled down in a tiny town in the English countryside. I was in a big, drafty house, with days on end when there was only me and the owner’s dog around. I’d been there about two weeks before covid sent me home.

I picked up that idea, of vanishing to somewhere rural and very far away for a handful of months, just to write. I turned it around a bit. I wasn’t sure how well it fit me anymore. I think that now I would be lonely on those misty rolling hills.

“Social things are important,” my mom agreed, bringing me back to my room. I pulled my knees against my chest, ran my finger over the welt of my saguaro tattoo. “Do you have friends that write, at MIT?”

“Yes!” I grinned. “You know my friend Sophia?”

My mom didn’t, because Sophia lives in Boston. 

“She writes,” I said. “One time at a party I spent forever telling her about, like, the sense of reaching for a thing you can never truly capture, when you’re writing. She got it. She’s already got it, like she told me that concept herself before. And not everybody gets it. Not even everyone who writes fiction gets it.”

I paused, looked at my bookshelf. “Gaiman gets it. He gets it for fantasy and for contemporary, which is rare. I think that’s why I like him.”

“Like American Gods?”

“Yeah, but especially Sandman. And Hope Mirlees gets it, that’s what Lud-in-the-Mist is about. That’s why Gaiman likes her.”

This was all very pretentious. We went on talking about ‘getting it’ and what ‘it’ was, exactly, which I kept trying and failing to describe via metaphors. I talked about how there’s a wonder to the desert which I think of whenever I remember Tucson, even though much of the time that I’m actually in Tucson, all I notice is the heat, the bland offices and auto shops, the congested streets. 

photo of a running river and clear blue sky

the Rillito River ran for all of two days this break!

“It’s good to have both,” my mom said. “Because fiction is fiction and engineering is real.”

“It can be like useful to society,” I said. My family is big on activism. “I mean fiction can also be useful. I can help some middle schooler through a rough time. But engineering can be actually useful. Maybe.” I paused again. “How do you find jobs that are useful?”

This is a question I’ve watched my mom answer for herself all the years I grew up. Every time she takes a new job, she talks about how it will be help someone — or how it won’t, but she’ll learn new skills from it, and she’ll work on activism on the side. 

My mom said something along the lines of, “When I was coming out of college, I went into coding because it made money.”

“But you tutored kids for years,” I said. My mom taught reading and math in group homes during her college years. As a kid, she sold chocolate bars to raise money to rescue dogs from the pound. “You were aware of issues in a way that lots of people aren’t.”

“Yes,” she said, “but I didn’t see that as a career possibility until recently. I needed a job. At the time, volunteer work was just like a hobby.”

“I last volunteered in like 2018,” I pointed out. Working for room and board at farms doesn’t really count. I have tried to get jobs that are useful — collecting signatures for a petition, working in a lab that tracks methane emissions — but although I gained good experiences, I haven’t found a perfect fit. 

I want to work in green energy, but I’m still figuring out the lay of the land: which companies are doing work I want to be part of; which technologies are being pushed out, and from which labs. Maybe I’ll write a blog about how to find fulfilling work, if I ever get a handle on it myself.

I said this to my mom, in a much more meandering way, and she mentioned several start-up job boards and advised me to look around. I took out my phone to note them down, and noticed the time.

“It’s late.” I looked to my suitcase, where I’d stashed a small metal chess set which I’d taken without permission. The pieces were squat, ugly, and magnetic. It seemed like a perfect travel set. “Can I take this to Boston with me?”

My mom hesitated.

“Wait, it has sentimental value, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Yes, but you should take it.”

“No, wait—”

“Your dad and I used to play on that set.”

“Was it your first date set? I don’t want to take that.”

My mom considered, then decided, “No, that’s a different one. The pieces are too small, they’d be hard to see in a restaurant.”

My parents played chess on their first date to determine who would pay. My dad opened with A4, meaning he moved the pawn on the far left up two squares. It looks like a terrible move, and is only good if you know what you’re doing. My dad uses it to attack up the sides of the board instead of trying to control the center. This caught my mom off guard; most players go for the middle. 

My dad won that game. He and my mom played chess during every date for years, keeping tallies on the walls of every house they lived in.

“I want you to take it,” my mom said. “I took it a lot of places already, now it’s just sitting upstairs. Make it have more experiences.”

“I will! Thanks, Mum.” I grinned. “I’m gonna lose to Masha on it.08 hi Masha!! It’ll be embarrassing because I play more chess than she does.”

My mom said, “It’s okay, she’s Russian.”

“She’s just smart.” 

I started telling her about how different our gameplay is. I’m like my mom; both of us are inexpert but aggressive players. Masha is more cautious, but also more deliberate. I’ve only played half a game with her, passing her phone back and forth on a bus ride to New York, but I could sense that I would be the first one to make a mistake. Fortunately the bus arrived before I had the chance to. 

I tucked the chess set away and sat back on the floor, drawing up my knees to keep my tattoo off the floor. I traced the welted shape of it. “The arms really are too low for a saguaro.”

My mom nodded. “That’s okay.”

“The first thing you said…” I laughed. “But you couldn’t have said anything else.” 

My mom laughed, too, and said, “I feel seen.”

I’m glad. I like seeing people. I felt seen, too, on the floor with these myriad thoughts.

chess board

  1. my mom says that in fairness, the thought was about DHTs, so I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. back to text
  2. I'm looking at my mom,  sitting across from me in a coffee shop that caters to motorcyclists, and people who talk about tarot and spellcasting, and university students who come with used copies of classic novels and sip sugary drinks as they read. 'What did you say about my classes?' I ask. She thinks, and then says, 'I don't remember anything about classes, honestly. I’m pretty sure. back to text
  3. 'two double-oh one,' materials and mechanics, a core MechE class. back to text
  4. 'eighteen oh three,' differential equations back to text
  5. Humanities classes; mine were East Campus Histroy, Latinx Culture in the Age of Empire, and Advanced Fiction Workshop. back to text
  6. undergrad research opportunity; mine is in an earth science lab but was mostly focused on building equipment. back to text
  7. my Italian consists of less than fifty words, but I’d hoped it would improve. back to text
  8. hi Masha!! back to text