Sunday, March 22, 2015

One of those awesome days

It's for a dumb reason though, which makes me a little mad. I've been walking miles and miles for weeks now, a month I think, and carefully not getting weighed throughout, partly because I spent the first two weeks eating all of the Easter candy and cookies in the world. Seriously, that was a calorie fest.

I think that's actually kind of a good approach, eating extra when you first start a new and strenuous (to you) exercise regime. Rewards! Encouragement! Deliciousness! Anyway I did it so my ex post facto logic is highly questionable. 

But today I suddenly saw a big drop on the scale and so now I feel like a mighty leggy superhero type person. It's awesome!

Also I have on my giant orange cabled hoodie thing. It's awesome. It's so awesome, I realized it's a metaphor unto itself. Truly! Because when you wear a giant orange cabled hoodie thing, you are clearly saying to all: I am not trying to look good for you, so get out of here with your judgy eyeballs.

This is something I'm actually saying to everyone ALL THE TIME, but it comes across a lot more vividly in a giant orange cabled hoodie thing. I'm a big fan of the oversized bulky clothing anyway, for exactly that reason. 1, quit looking at me; 2, even if you are looking at me, you can't see me; 3, even if you can see me, I clearly am not remotely interested in your opinion or judgments, positive or negative. 

Basically it's a giant fuck you to the unwanted eyeballs of the world, which is all of them. 

Getting skinnier is terrifying because of course being fat is the exact same thing. It's the giant orange cabled hoodie that is built in! It says, get out of here with your eyes because I don't want them or care about them. 

I don't want that to go away. I do NOT want anyone looking at me and going: ooh. No. But I do want to be speedy and light. Thank goodness for the giant orange cabled hoodie thing, my oh my!

Unfortunately it's going to get hotter out. Woe!

I keep going back to the weird college interregnum time when I drove back and forth across the country a lot and was very skinny but still (and always) did not want people looking at me and going: ooh. I used to wear these men's khaki shorts and giant heavy mattress ticking type men's shirts. Effective obscurity! Oh and an awesome hat. I so wish I still had that hat, but it shrunk after I got rained on for hours at the Grateful Dead at RFK stadium in DC. It was leather and flat brimmed. If I could remember where I got it, I'd go back there, even though I realize that makes no sense twenty-five years later. 

I still have the shorts. The shirts wore into threads. I still have a few scraps around as dusters. You can see through them. 

One of the features of that era was working on my VW bus in rest areas and at the side of the road. I drove west to east with a new engine that needed to be tuned up every 500 miles. Now I keep thinking about Noel Baker's theory about road trips that go west to east always being doomed and horrible. You should definitely see that movie he wrote, whatever it was called. Oh boy, I forgot. But it stars Leoben from Battlestar Galactica. It's about a band and adapted from a book. Jeez. Words!

Right, anyway, so it was an amazing trip because of several crucial reasons. One, I took back roads, no interstates except when unavoidable, like Indiana. Two, I was stone broke and paying for gas and occasional food with a credit card that I expected to be rejected every time I used it. Three, I looked like a boy, so nobody bothered me, and when guys would stop to see if I needed help with the bus--because I was working on it at the side of the road or in rest areas--they would always go, "Oh! I thought you were a guy." I had long hair, but I always had that hat on, plus the heavy loose shirts and those shorts and no discernible feminine traits visible to the outsider. 

They got clued in mostly because of my voice. I have a soft, high voice, unless I'm yelling, when suddenly it is super loud and strong. Former drum major. You know.

Anyway, I liked the no-eyeballs part of that. I would be so happy to return to the state where nobody looks at me or thinks anything about any aspect of my outsides. 

I kind of feel like that's what I'm fighting for with all the miles and miles. I want to be invisible or at least not noticeable in any particular way. No attention. Attention is bad. 

I'm perfectly aware of what that says, psychologically and whatnot (stupid psychiatrist, I'm still so mad at her) but to me invisibility equals freedom. And no unpleasantness. You're not as invisible this way as that way, is the thing. And I so want to be invisible and free again. 

Unless I want to be seen, but the good people of the past saw me perfectly well when I wanted them to, even if I looked like a skinny hippie boy in a leather hat. 

Oh, I need a picture for you, don't I? Like the one from the bottom of the Grand Canyon when we hiked down and camped and Lars's hair looked green to everyone from looking at all the red soil the whole time. (I still don't quite get why just his. But so it was.)

Oh my LORD this picture slays me. I'm second from the right, bandanna on head. That's the shorts! That's the boy of my dreams on the far right, and my best friends Lars and Anne on the left. This is one of the moments I'd go to if I had all of eternity to choose. It was spring break of my senior year of college. They were all sophomores. I think I was 26 and they were all 20. Because I'd had that weird interregnum and went back to finish the last two years later, all my friends were six years younger than me. 


Anyway. Oh my heavens. That picture kills me dead. 

This will sound so silly but Chris Evans looks a lot like the beautiful boy to the right so watching the second Captain America movie has had me thinking a lot about him lately. He's the one who got away. Lord.

I mean, the past has gotten away, like it does. Glorious Rob lives like 200 miles north of here with his family. You know. The wedding I went to fifteen years ago, the one that made me never go to another wedding the rest of my life? Ha ha. It's true, though. I spent the whole time hanging out with his parents, who I really liked and got along great with. I have pictures of his mom somewhere. 

Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow.

It hurts!!!

Anyway point being that beautiful dream boys could and did still see me when I was good and invisible like that. Yay!

I have to go hit myself on the head with a sledgehammer right now. 'Scuse me.

I guess if my psychiatrist didn't suck so bad, she'd have asked questions like: why haven't you had a relationship in sixteen years? And why was that one so terrible? Did it have anything to do with settling for the first dude to come along who was interested and seemed smart enough to tie his shoes? Why have you never recovered from that one beautiful boy from one amazing year a long time ago? I don't know, you tell me, miss smartypants. You're the one with the fancy degrees and the lack of insight.

No, really, I was thinking this morning about how I haven't had an excellent hiding garment like this one since the Mexican cotton thing I had back in college that I gave to...that same boy. We traded our heavy cotton shirt things. 

I've successfully painted myself into an emotional corner, so yippee! All that's left is to flee the scene in my giant orange cabled hoodie thing. So I'm going to do that right exactly now.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The focus of my obsession

Mountain lions, of course! How could you doubt it?

Today I met a lady at the dog park who knew a whole lot more about the mountain lion situation than I did. She was telling this poor worried guy about them and I listened in and joined in the conversation.

So here are some things about mountain lions in this park where I go with my dog every day.

1. There are regular sightings. It's not like an anomaly or anything.

2. They have actually come into the tall blond grass near the dog park and taken small dogs. Remember how I was freaking out over the tall blond grass because it looked perfect for them? YES.

3. My feeling that they stay to the south end of the park was confirmed. In other words, where I went on Monday. Though others say you won't see them unless you go down by the water. 

4. It occurs to me just now that the only animals I've seen were either waterfowl on water or way up at the north end of the park. And that there are hardly any of the usual squirrels and things. I've seen two squirrels and one chipmunk in acres of woods and fields. 

Basically our conversation not only validated my extreme terror but made me a lot more worried than I was before. Because before I was able to say, Ha ha, I am so afraid of these totally unlikely things! But now I learn that they are regular things and not unlikely at all.

However: they prefer to go for deer and apparently children under the age of about 13. It's very alarming that the data are so specific about that. But they will less frequently stalk and attack full grown people. 

There are about 5700 mountain lions in Oregon. They have attacked people within an hour of here.

We also saw bald eagles from the park, so that was cool. I love seeing them! We had lots of good bald eagle stories to tell this poor scared guy too. Like the one from Maine where the eagle dropped a fawn on the power lines and knocked the power out. Remember that?

Because he was saying that at least the eagles wouldn't grab and eat the dogs, so I had to say, um, actually. 

Anyway then I finally made myself take Gawain for a walk on the paths by the tall blond grass, but only because we went with a mastiff named Henri and his person. Henri comes up to my waist. He kept going over to men and barking at them menacingly, but he loved me and got lots of pets and scritches and leaned against me.

Animals, they always love me. It's awesome.

I've had deer walk right up to me. Did you know that? It's true. More than once, when sitting in fields or woods. It felt like being judged worthy by a unicorn or something, I tell you what.

And I forget sometimes, but I HAVE seen a mountain lion in the wild, in Pennsylvania, when one walked down the path in the woods across the road where our neighbor always walked his German shepherd, and I thought at first it was that shepherd, out on its own, but then realized it was NOT.

That mountain lion turned and looked at me, as I was walking up the road home from school, and kept right on going. I was in high school at the time. Probably a scrawny 17. 

So now of course I'm glad I've been obsessively carrying pepper spray/tear gas, but I'm also wondering what the hell else I could possibly do to scare off a great big cat who might be considering eating me (unlikely) or my delicious dog (very likely). 

It's a wildlife reserve where I go walking, did you know that? That's why when mountain lions show up there, the city doesn't relocate them or anything. Scaring off a critter is the way to go. 

I'm actually laughing right now because I tend to forget what a flipping arsenal I have. Seriously, it's pretty absurd. And most of it came from my brother giving me things out of my uncles' ridiculous arsenal. Like all the guns and knives and the blowguns (yes) and the sword, which is ceremonial anyway, like a dress sword, and not sharp or even sharpenable. 

But I myself acquired the slingshot and the crossbow. My brother gave me the bow and the short sword (very extremely sharp). Oh yeah and there are machetes. 

I'm literally a middle-aged school teacher. If it were smart to run from a mountain lion, I would, but they say never to do that. Stand your ground, wave your arms, scream and shout, look as big and menacing as possible. That's what they say to do.

I feel like maybe a sporting goods or hunting store would have options better than my self-defense tear gas/pepper spray. But as the story lady and I agreed, the two-legged dangers in the park are MUCH more prevalant, much more numerous, and much more likely to be a danger.

I totally want to put a knife in my boot, though. Except I wear shorts and sneakers. 

My 12 lb kitty bit me (gently) three times this morning before I got out of bed. And he bit the dog twice. I do not think I'm a formidable foe for an apex predator. 

Maybe since animals love me so much, the mountain lion will purr like a thunderstorm and knead biscuits on the soft dirt. Maybe animals love me because I'm not a threat to them. I'm all hearts in the eyes and jelly in the knees. 

Then I think: maybe I should bring something that the mountain lion would like to eat more than me! Like a twenty pound fish. Yes, I should definitely go walking in the woods with a twenty pound fish. That is a terrific idea. Then I can just go, Here, I brought you a fish! And toss it over. Surely that is an excellent plan that cannot possibly go wrong.

Am genius. Truly.

So in other words, carry on as before, walking many miles full of terror and jumping out of my skin every time someone comes up behind me. Today a girl ran up behind me on a path in a field, which means: totally silently until she was like three feet away. And I went STRAIGHT UP in the air and yelped. And she said, "Sorry!" And I said, "No, it's okay, you're not a mountain lion!" For real. I said that. To a stranger.

Well, it was true, wasn't it? Unless she's a werecougar of some sort who can transform into a runner when she realizes her intended prey is a Friend Of Animals and therefore not to be eaten.

It is also possible that the lady who told me about the tall blond grass is full of crap, because when I asked a followup question about when this happened, she totally diverted the discussion and avoided answering. Which speaks to me of MYTH. It kind of doesn't matter because I was terrified of the long grass from day one. If not mountain lions, velociraptors! Hello!

I keep trying to imagine the same person who levitated at the approach of a jogger having the wherewithal to pull a slingshot and ziplock baggie of acorns out of a satchel. I would happily thwack an apex predator with an acorn, which would annoy but do no harm. 

At this point it would be REALLY GREAT if I hadn't just read all these accounts of people who were stalked by mountain lions and chased them off, only to find that the lion then went on ahead of them on the path and WAITED FOR THEM. They are smart and wily and oh my goodness I hope they really dislike the taste of Xanax. Maybe they hate patchouli! 

Maybe I'll do a smell test with my kitty and see which of my hippie scents he dislikes the most. Ooh, I know he hates several of my hand lotions. But so do the dog park dogs. Nobody wants to be petted after Cetaphil. That stuff is vile. 

What else do cats hate? Mine hates my coconut hand lotion the most. I will use it every walk, I swear, if that will help! Or that bergamot lotion--he hates that even more. Oranges. Don't cats all hate oranges?

I just want to smell gross to mountain lions. Is that so wrong?

Mountain lion repellant. I could get into this! Proactive scentological apex predator defensive warfare. 

Whatever I'm doing so far seems to be working, right? Monday I apparently went and wandered through their home habitat area all oblivious-like, unscathed. And terrified, of course. Even though there were people and dogs and little kids on bikes and teenage girls doing hula hoops at intervals throughout the otherwise empty woods. Oh, and the rattlesnake. Don't forget that.

Rattlesnakes don't want to eat you, unless you're a frog or mouse or something. They want you to go away. They rattle to scare you so you'll go away. I am on their side with that! All I want to do is go away from them also. 

You know, the last several rattlesnakes I've seen haven't even rattled at me. Not for years, since one was under my parents' deck and rattling away and I basically grabbed every dog in sight and hauled it into the house, while my parents were out there looking down between the cracks in the boards to see the thing.

There, that just proves it. QED. The animals of the world range from friendly to indifferent to wanting to get out of Dodge. Have I *ever* had a hostile encounter with a wild animal? Or a domestic one, for that matter? Not even porcupines and skunks, who just look at me and toddle on their way. 

No, this is good. In a situation where the statistical probability of anything bad happening is vanishingly small, but my terror level is exceedingly high, it's good to talk myself out of that terror any way I can. It doesn't actually matter what I think, see. The animals of the world will go about doing their thing no matter what. So I can think I'm St. Francis of the Giant Felids if I want. Wafting through the fields on a cloud of patchouli and begamot and coconut, heralded by the distant sneezes of predators disappearing into the distance. Achoo! Bless you, kitty!


Monday, March 2, 2015

Cello lessons

No, in fact I am not taking cello lessons! Despite the fact that Bruce lives two doors down. He was the orchestra conductor at the university where I used to teach and he also was the master cellist, cello teacher, string guru, and generally awesome person. Also we both went to Oberlin. Yay!

He came over one day to check out my old cello, to see if it was right for someone he knew who wanted to start playing after retiring. I think the answer must have been no, because I never heard back about it, come to think of it. I should ask next time I see him.

Anyway even in the fifteen minutes he was here, we were talking about students and types of students and who is going to learn and who isn't. Because of course with a million years of experience, you know this type of thing. Really. You do. He taught at the university for my entire life. He graduated from college (my college) the year I was born.

Students have to want to learn or you can't really teach them anything. Does that sound obvious? It should be. But most of our lives, we're in school more or less against our wills. We don't have a choice. I have the most awesome students in the whole world who are fired up and raging to learn, who want to get better and work hard and ask fantastic questions and make every day a genuinely interesting and energizing experience. I'm all fired up myself after working with them. I LOVE my students. I LOVE my job. 

But in the past there have sometimes been students who aren't there to learn. This happens a lot with creative endeavors, for whatever reason. I suppose it probably also happens with physics or whatever, but I doubt it's on the same level.

There are students who go into creative endeavors like writing and playing the cello not because they want to get better, but because they want to be awesome. They are already sure they're awesome and want to have that validated. Anything a teacher says to the contrary, like, oh, you're out of tune, or your character is hateful, or your character is passive, or that should be slurred, not staccato, will therefore be discounted. It can't be true, because they're awesome.

I'm a big fan of believing in your own fundamental awesomeness, especially in a world that constantly tries to tell us we are NOT awesome. But you can remain awesome and still have things to learn. Those are not incompatible states! In fact, I would argue that knowing what you have to learn is essential to continuing awesomeness!

It is very very very important to be able to be bad at things. I constantly talk about this when teaching. Shoot a basket. Did you make it, or did you miss? If you made it, does that mean you are now permanently awesome and have no room for improvement? If you missed, does that mean you are the worst and awful and should never pick up a basketball again?

No and no. It means you shoot again. And again, and again, and again. You look at what happened when you missed, so you can correct it. You look at what happened when you made the shot, so you can repeat it. You pay close attention to BOTH.

I would audition people for a creative writing program by having them shoot free throws. It's not about how many shots you make. It's about how you integrate feedback into your performance. It's about whether you can listen to someone coaching you and learn from that.

This essay here is giving people conniptions. http://www.thestranger.com/books/features/2015/02/27/21792750/things-i-can-say-about-mfa-writing-programs-now-that-i-no-longer-teach-in-one

It's mean, yes, and it says some truly vile things, but pass over that for a minute. It says a lot of things that are true. It comes from experience, someone who for years has been dealing with people who not only won't take the free throws, they refuse to pick up the ball. They won't listen. They're only there to be told they're awesome. Anything the teacher says that contradicts that is discounted and they are sure the teacher is wrong.

Your cello teacher knows when you're out of tune. Your cello teacher also has a vast store of knowledge about the first Bach cello suite, including all sorts of performances, what works, what might work if you're Mstislav Rostropovich, and what might not if you're you. Experience is hard to grasp in someone else. We lack the empathy to wrap our heads around it. Someone else who has had a lot of experience in something owns a whole world of nuance and detail and data that not only isn't available to us, we can't understand it even if it were, because we haven't gone through it.

Truly. Consider experiences you've had that you have trouble explaining to people. A cross country drive. Crossing the gulf of Bothnia and being paged in Swedish and then having a conversation with the purser in five languages all mixed up together. How it feels to live in Florida, Alaska, Maine, Manitoba. That dream you had. Preschool. Being a nanny and having to give up the child you've been so close to for a solid year. Watching someone die. The stillness of an open field. Seeing a bear walk down the path toward you. The physical jolt a big yellow Penske truck makes you feel every single time you see one.

And the wealth of all of that piled up and integrated and merged to become a person. Empathy has trouble with pain and with experience. We're best at grasping in others what is familiar to us. So for creative writing, think about sports, or music lessons. Those are my favorites because the work is so similar. Shoot the baskets, get better at shooting the baskets. Practice. Get coached, because the coach can see you and what you're doing better than you can, since he or she is OUTSIDE YOU.

The coach also knows how to make you better. Can anyone really dispute that? Coaches are experts at this. So are cello teachers. They have experience. They've tried different things and they know what works. 

That doesn't mean someone might not be a total asshole about it. Or arrogant, or awful, or mean. But their experiences are valid and shared with a lot of other people. There's a reason people get tired of teaching creative things, but the reason they keep on doing it is because someone really wants to learn and get better. 

When you want to get better at something, you're not always good at asking the right questions or identifying the problems. I played the cello from age 8 until, I don't know, 28? I was generally terrible at it up until around 10th grade. The summer before 10th grade I suddenly got serious about it and practiced really hard all the time and got much, much better. I had the same teacher for six years of that time. I'm the one who changed. Once I got energized, she was able to show me all sorts of ways to improve that I hadn't been ready for before. 

I know how to work hard at cello, or free throws, for that matter. Physical practice is a huge pleasure for me because I can train muscles and memory well. I'm good at that. I suspect that deep down we don't think that writing is the same sort of thing, but that's only because we can't see the ball go through the hoop. When you read something that makes you want to stand on the couch and scream with joy, that is the ball going through the hoop, you guys. That's the goal. That's the thing you want to do. People who have studied this for years can help you do it. 

I've met some inevitable assholes over the years who don't believe in teaching. It's true! They actually say things like: nobody really needs teachers. Really? I would like my doctor to have gone to medical school. I would like someone to teach my dentist how to be a dentist. I would like my bridges not to fall down. Of course things can be taught, and of course we learn better when we have someone to teach us. 

You can learn Portuguese on your own, but will you? Will you learn it better if you take a class, or if you sit at home with tapes? Why do the tapes nearly always fail people? It's the same information, but it doesn't go in, or it doesn't stick. We know this is true. Of course teachers have value. What those people probably mean is: "I've met some awful, destructive teachers." Who hasn't? I've met bad doctors, too. It doesn't mean the whole medical profession is worthless. This is obvious.

Some people aren't going to learn from cello teachers or coaches or anyone else. They should not go to writing school, either, I would say, because they're not going to learn from those teachers either, because they're not there to learn. They are free to be awesome out in the world all day every day! Hurray! I love that! Some people don't need or want to study with someone else. More power to them! Go forth and be free! But don't condemn the whole system just because that happens to be your style.

It's hard to know what you need to learn. Sometimes others can tell you that. Sometimes you have to figure it out for yourself. But unless you're actually perfect already, there's going to be something you need to learn. Guess who can help you figure out not just what that is, but how to fix it?

I wish I had a coach practically every day. I am extremely inside my head and could use intelligent, objective, useful feedback on my work from experienced people who know how to talk about how to change things, who have had years of experience showing people how to make things work better. I wish we had writing teachers like cello teachers, where we could just show up once a week and whip out that sonata and play it and get immediate constructive feedback. Someone who was on the same page and knew what I was trying to accomplish and had ideas about how to get me there. Jeez, I'd pay money for that! Who wouldn't?