22 October 2015

Lighting the Way Forward

I've been thinking about the Deborah Koons Garcia film Symphony of the Soil, which I saw Monday night at the opening night of the 2015 Flatirons Film Food Fest. I have seen her first film, The Future of Food, a couple of times. It centered on the horrifying dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms in big agriculture. In Garcia's 2012 film, I appreciated the visuals on the topic, but I walked out of the film at the end feeling like I'd just attended a couple of back-to-back college lectures. I appreciated Symphony of the Soil's lesson on the fundamentals of how soil is formed (and dissipated), the difference between soil and dirt, and how plants and soil and bacteria all work together.

The fermentation folks attending and signing books did connect the bacteria in the soil, the bacteria on and in our foods and plants, and the bacteria in our guts and bodies. But I truly feel for those fermentation gurus like Sandor Katz and who are preaching the gospel people used to know but have more recently forsaken. I see the fomenters of fermentation reaching to encompass crowds of recent converts trying to take back their personal microbiomes, and crowds of people still pumping Purex and antibacterial soaps out of plastic bottles, wrinkling their noses, and saying "ew, bacteria." When we first recognized the world of bacteria, we presumed them hostile, just like in one of the original Star Trek episodes. Bacteria, however, turn out to be more like animals. Their risks and benefits to us are significantly more nuanced than early researchers dreamed and the scientific methods available to them at the time could help them understand. 

In my spec Star Trek episode based on this, the Enterprise lands on a planet where civilization is in apparent collapse, most of its people left impoverished on the twin shoals of devastated health and astronomical medical bills. A few people are thriving, however, and they help to reveal the solution to the folks on the Enterprise. That solution is literally right under everyone's noses: The soil and the products of the soil -- and the twist at the end is when they stop replenishing the soil, they start dying and the geniuses on the Enterprise have to remind them of the powers of their own most precious resource: the earth under their feet.

So when I think of what is being pumped into the ground and what leaches into the soil and groundwater when energy companies frack the earth, I am horrified at my own car use. I am horrified at all I do to contribute to that unwavering demand that propels fracking. Films like Symphony of the Soil awaken me to my deepest beliefs and innermost feelings: that each of those tiny little bacteria on those tiny little fibers on all those root systems of our food and foliage underground is just as precious if not more so than the life of each of us humans. Some of us humans are particularly destructive. I worry about the folks who are trying to extract as much value they can from the earth before they die or the earth runs out of resources. It is planetary torture to pump harsh chemicals into the ground the way we do every day. To clearcut rainforests for cattle grazing. And hardly anyone is talking about the dwarfing effects of the billions of cows we grow for food on the planet and its people and our animal population (yes, I saw Cowspiracy on Netflix recently). 

About 10 years ago I interviewed Jim Butterworth about his documentary Seoul Train, which he filmed and produced with a friend, Lisa Sneeth, a nurse working overseas. They had become aware of the plight of the Northern Korean people and wanted to do something that made a difference. They thought about what medium they wanted to work in. A book sounded reasonable, but they realized they wanted to reach a lot of people, quickly, and move them to action if possible. So they chose film to tell the story, and hired an accomplished director and editor, Aaron Lubarsky. The filmmakers took their cameras to North Korea and documented an underground railroad out of North Korea and into South Korea that helped people reunite with families who had sometimes been apart for decades. 

It's true: Film is often the medium that moves me the most. And I am continually grateful to the directors and producers who illuminate my world, even under the ground beneath me. My friend Patti Bonnet (who works with Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove and the new film Chasing Extinction), Jim Butterworth, Deborah Koons Garcia, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn (of Cowspiracy) help me see where I need to shed the light I want to see in the world. These  films are guiding lights, my films lumières, rather than films noirs.

The People in My Neighborhood

I was proud of the many things I did that made me feel independent and self-sufficient. I would visit our friends Jay and Vivian in South Boulder with my family, and anytime we were near their house, I would say, sometimes out loud: “If you blindfolded me, drove me around, and dropped me off anywhere in Boulder, I would be able to find my way home.”
This wasn't true of everyone around me, but my father and I always shared an internal compass that gave us a good sense of direction just about anywhere we found ourselves.
It helped to grow up in a place where the Rocky Mountains are directly to the west. Towering slabs of rock looming over the city? Yep, that's west. The mountain range, which we call the Front Range, in homage I suppose to the pioneers who first met the eastern slope of the Rockies on their westward trek. The Rockies run roughly north to south, with the plains flattening all the way out into the midwestern states. Keep the mountains to your left and you're heading north. With the mountains to your back, you are headed east. Mornings, the sun spills into our living room from the east, and in its evening sink into the west casts its mountain-shaped shadow over us earlier than it does out on the prairie.
By the time I was in my teens, I could walk all over town and feel I knew someone just about everywhere. I didn't spend a lot of time in South Boulder, but in Central and North Boulder, I was always passing houses where my classmates lived, where a teacher lived, where my mother had delivered a baby, where we had friends, where a client at my father's shop lived, or where I'd delivered newspapers.
Some of the friends I remember visiting:
My mother's friend Diane, when she lived in an apartment on Grandview Avenue, at the crest of University Hill, between the University of Colorado campus and the Boulder High School campus. I remember persuading her to buy Count Chocula cereal for the event.
My neighbor friend David, who lived about two blocks away and seemed a little befuddled at being dropped in on by an eight-year-old kid. He was a CU grad student maybe, a little older than the people he roomed with. A black widow bite caused David to go deaf in one ear. That was a shock and changed everything for him. We lost touch after that and later he moved away.
And when I'd come to that Boulder neighborhood and say “You could drop me anywhere and I would know how to get home” was I really wanted to be lost near Jay and Viv's house and have a reason to drop in on them.

It strikes me that I did a lifetime of persuading in my first 13 years. 
What did I look for when I met people and right away tried to gain purchase with them? Only many years later I recognized that's how my father worked. Pour on the charm, and then try to extract proof of their commitment to your shared relationship. It was a very presumptuous model for a friendship and it took me a long time to excise phrases like “You have to tell me how it was!” (no, you don't -– that's up to you) from my repertoire.
Did I pin my huge hopes on these friends wanting rescue? Or distraction from my disasterland full of minefields? I wonder how many calls or visits my parents fielded from people whom I started dropping in on to get me to lighten up. Did that happen? Or am I remembering a couple of mortifying occasions that I've blown up into a character flaw in my narrative?

15 October 2015

I Come By It Honestly

This phrase, I come by it honestly, keeps insinuating itself into my mind. (After watching a PBS show about the brain last night, I’m wondering, “What the heck do I mean by that?” Really, I blithely say the phrase comes into my head -- but how does a phrase or a song or a notion heard or read or seen corkscrew itself into a brain? Doesn’t it take someone operating the proverbial corkscrew, a being, me, to think “I come by it honestly” over and over? Or is there no volition but rather a physical phenomenon, a pattern of neurons refiring in sequence to echo something that resonated with my thinking? What in the physical world is an earworm?

As for its meaning, it’s largely a letting of myself off a certain hook: I have inherited from my parents but have been towing (not toeing) a family line until now, a presumption that we’re all these almost Calvinistically virtuous, respectable, and upright people, which turns out to be a façade covering a whole other spectrum of behaviors -- bizarre, addictive, aggressive, abusive -- in our collective history. My broken-off relationship with my father is freeing me to speak out too.

The blog post I wrote about my dog Pig a few years ago is about this. He disappeared some of our animals; some of them may have disappeared to save themselves from him. As low critters on the totem pole, they were most likely to get crushed by my father's brutality.

Today’s Huffpost Politics story about violence against animals as an indicator crime — one that points to other kinds of aggression and violence against human animals, too — gives me great hope and furthers my feeling of freedom. Every time we share this information, we are freer to stand up to bullies. Even bullies with weapons.

More power to us. Clearly, we’re going to need it.

25 September 2015

An Aesthetic

What would my design philosophy look like?

I wish we had tools and resources that invited us to play with them, to joyfully discover new possibilities with them. So I very much favor form and function over strict utilitarianism, strict minimalism, or strict anything for that matter.

In my aesthetic universe, beauty is a reward for everyone who encounters it and harmonizes with its expression. Of course we don't all agree about what is beautiful. If we did agree, what would we deem "art," and what would we not categorize as art? Surely not only works that are aesthetically pleasing, and surely not exclusively works that are disturbing or perturbing, shocking or simply unexpected.

I like things that tell you how to use them, or that fulfill a need I hadn't thought of but wished I had. When Apple makes iTunes unfathomable to someone who hasn't been steeped in Apple's design and user experience world for decades, I feel a sort of double betrayal. I feel the "You said this was going to be easy" whine pushing me downslope as if I was trying to climb up scree so loose I wound up churning my legs and landing below where I'd started. Apple products all looks so clean and so good but sometimes you can't find what you need on those smooth, blank surfaces.

Color makes my world go around (or 'round, more musically speaking). I can think of no reason I would not wear or use fabrics and paints in bold, vibrant colors. Color adds something unique to the atmosphere. Perhaps you could get some of the same benefits from a constant parade of fresh flowers arranged everywhere. I remember feeling shock at the beauty of the tall, dramatic, gladiola-centric bouquets artfully arranged throughout my grandfather's formal dining room and living room because I knew they seldom used those spaces and most people hardly saw them. Did they receive the same kind of arrangements through the winter? I'm sure their florist provided them with seasonally appropriate bouquets, but how many people enjoyed their bright colors? So I share the wealth and try to dress colorfully, to cheer up me and everyone else around me.

04 September 2015

The Body Remembers, But Does the Self Know What to Do Next?

 “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

For a couple of months, it has felt to me like there is something wedged somewhere in the vicinity of my collarbone and jaw. I just now checked in with that feeling and said “Aha! That’s your throat!”

Hm. I feel I have something stuck in my throat.

“Duh,” says the university-trained literary critic. (Smarty-pants. She can’t help herself.)

Today’s writing prompts were a Facebook post with the above quote from Bessel A. van der Kolk about how awareness of what’s going on in the body is a tool for healing trauma in our pasts, and a Dear Sugar radio episode featuring a query from a wounded mother of a young child.

So I check in with my body.

Three things call to me right now. OK, four. I’ll start at the top with a headache. I woke up with an achy head that is just now beginning to feel a little less like a sack of concrete I am carrying on top of my forehead. Oh, who am I kidding? Not me, apparently, as I notice that the pain has settled into my left sinus.

Then there’s this hinky jaw-to-clavicle thing. It’s making me feel halting and restricted.

My right palm (on my space-bar hand) complains, deep in the pad at the junction of my thumb and its hand.

And I have a knee injury (official diagnosis: IT band syndrome) I am just starting to rehabilitate.

So not only do I feel a bit unsteady on my pins, but I’m also experiencing pain in the areas associated with talking and writing and thinking.

That assessment makes me check, and feel again: Where am I not feeling pain?

My heart feels good, warm, safe, and surrounded by loving beings, including me (a slightly fearful being of late but deeply loving, and lovable). My bum feels fine, thank you very much. My feet feel solid on the floor. My strong thighs feel like camshafts, ready and able to execute my brain engine's directives. My ankles are happy and my back feels neutral and relaxed. My waist curves in at one of my body’s crucial boundaries, a spot I feel protective of and pleased with all at once.

At the same time the literary critic goes to town on deconstructing my physical self, I also remind my emotional, Id-ish self not to draw too many big conclusions from small details. Not to make grandiose pronouncements given my limited temporal and psychic understanding. (I come by that honestly, my compassionate self says. There, there.)

Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond's discussion of the unmothered mother's letter and conversation with her Portland writer friend Renee was another great reminder that so many of us have experienced terrible interruptions in our care and betrayals of our innocence. When I talk to my teenager these days, I sometimes say, "Don't do something you'll regret, especially if it's something you can't undo." I feel some things were done to me that can't be undone, but somehow being able to say this is again freeing and releasing. Because I said it, again, and will you look at that! The Universe didn't throw any lightning bolts at me, nor turn me into a pillar of salt.

But now what do I do with it all? “What’s next?” as van der Kolk asks in his book.

Do I go back to bed and try to sleep off the headache?

Do I push through the headache into the list of chores for the day (make another coffee, eat, cook, gather gear for the weekend, and clean)?

Do I go to my dance class in an hour and try not jumping and traveling — just exercising my upper body?

My first instinct is to write, so here I am.

But (true confession) between when I started this piece and now, I had a cleaning impulse, so I hung and reorganized a few things in my closet. I’m starting to think I don’t need as many things as I used to think I needed, which is a relief and a burden, the latter because the process of getting rid of things is an effort. It is many efforts over time.

In the midst of the closet and the writing creeps in the fear of “not doing enough about the future.”

Then I pulled a hanger out of the handful I was relocating in my closet and saw that I had assembled a beautiful and complete outfit that I hardly ever wear.

Lots of people tell me that Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has you ask yourself about each of your things, “Does this thing bring me joy when I see it?”

For me the answer is seldom simple.

Yes I feel joy because of the colors of the fabrics and the other materials, and because of the completeness and elegance of the outfit. I remember finding the dress while shopping on Berkeley's 4th Street at a clothing outlet in a happy moment of freedom and independence. When I feel something other than joy it is because of the way the items fit me (the slip isn’t all that comfortable, and the jacket is just a little too short for my torso).

But I learned something from this outfit. The fact that it was 20 years between when I bought the dress and found a slip for under it and a jacket for over it told me I should avoid buying anything I can't wear as is. Clothing that requires more clothing is seldom smart and results in garments that occupy space in my closet for years, unworn, while I say, "Hmm, I wish I didn't have to wear tights and a camisole under that."

Then I thought: What if I put together outfits and sold those? I guess that is what those glossy fashion magazine stylists do. I can understand why that is a coveted and rare job, but so many of us are good at combining what we have and assembling something more beautiful than the apparent sum of its individual elements. More than just Vogue employees are doing this every day.

I suppose this is what we do when we write, too. We make meaning out of a bunch of individual symbols (“signifiers,” we called them in lit-crit school). And it is what we do when we live. We take the animal shell we are given and fill it with ourselves, and then we use the whole animal-and-self being to love, play, learn, work, give, show -- all those things that make our lives and maybe even others' lives more meaningful or more loving or more delicious or more beautiful.

So it is now time to feed this body some food, drink more water, and make a coffee with coconut oil in it. I don’t want to do too much but I don’t want to do too little, either. I am going to hang a few things up, pack a few things, and cook a couple of delicious things for later. I will do my exercises and contemplate what healing looks like, and feels like.

“More to be revealed,” as my mother loves to say.

“More soon,” I always concur.

17 August 2015

Here She Comes

Any moment now I am hoping to hear news of a new niece, the new daughter of my brother and sister-in-law.

And I can't help feeling sad about saying that in this moment I am thinking of a missing limb in her family architecture. My and my brother's father is my about-to-be niece's grandfather. But of his four surviving children -- me, my sister, my half-brother, and half-sister -- not one of us wants him around us.

I tried for years as an adult to get to know my father when my husband and I moved back to our hometown. I wasn't willing to simply extend forgiveness to my father without first being asked for forgiveness. So I took steps toward rebuilding a relationship with him. I had dinner with him at his house and hosted him at mine. I went river rafting with him.

And after all of that benefit-of-the-doubt giving, and getting to know him again, I decided I still did not trust him with my well being. I found my line in the sand: I knew I never again wanted to be in a car with him at the wheel.

Once this became clear, I sat down with him on the banks of Boulder Creek one day and asked him to apologize for subjecting me and my mother and our whole family to extremes of exposure to danger and abuse and neglect.

If he apologized that day, it was purely perfunctory. My father never acknowledged half of what I asked about. He explained himself, and proffered disclaimers: "I don't remember that at all," he said about my claims that he had hit my mother and stepmother and slammed my mother's head against the kitchen door until she saw stars.

When my sister told me she was molested when she was little, I felt waves of terrible, complicated feelings. I felt sick and angry for her, for what had been taken from her. I had the terrible thought: "I should have been able to protect her" -- all the more terrible because I had already lost another sister to an accident that happened when I wasn't with her. (I was miles away at the time of the accident, but for many years felt things would have turned out differently if I had been there.) I felt worry: "Will my sister ever think of the time I rubbed up against her in the car that day when I was 11 and she was 4 as being molested?" For a long time, I felt a kind of survivor's guilt: "Thank goodness I wasn't molested when I was a kid."

But then I remember.

I remember how extremely limited my power was as a child, limited by the sounds of my mother's and stepmother's shrieks, my father's shrill verbal lashings, and his smashing of fists and slamming of heads against walls.

I remember my fear as I listened, frozen in agony about whether to try to do something or stay still and quiet in my room. Only later did it occur to me that everyone screaming must have known we children weren't asleep. By then my sister would have silently come into my room and we would have huddled under my blankets together in our fear cave and waited for the storm to end. I had visions of someone ending up dead but usually our father either melted into a puddle of self-pity at the end and passed out drunk in his recliner or he bolted in anger, slamming the door behind him and roaring off in his car to disappear for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days.

I remember wondering why my mother and then my stepmother wanted him back.

I remember not wanting to live with him anymore because I never knew what was going to be happening at home.

I remember not wanting my friends to come over in case they crossed his path on a bad day. If they met him on a good day, it was worse because then they would never comprehend how scary he could be. Because my father could be so charming after he'd washed the day's dank auto grease off his hands and had a cold beer and a hard day's work behind him and my mother or stepmother was in the kitchen cooking dinner. He could be so smart and curious, so expansive and erudite. (I see now that a neighbor of mine who recently moved away unnerved me sometimes. My neighbor shared so many of my father's positive traits that part of me was on guard, waiting for that proverbial other shoe to be drop at any moment and he would turn brutish or explode in familiar counterpoint to a joyfully intellectual conversation.)

I remember a day when I was in bed trying to nap one afternoon about ten years ago. I couldn't let myself go into sleep. My mind raced, my heart pounded, and as I lay curled up on my side although I was fully clothed I felt my bottom was exposed and vulnerable. This felt more like a flashback than any other experience I have ever had. When I understood I was feeling I had been molested, I cried and wailed with grief and fury. To this day I don't know if what I experienced that afternoon was a memory of what happened to me or a reaction to feelings constructed from my experience and my sister's history.

Tonight -- just tonight, at the age of 52 -- I thought, even if my father didn't molest me personally, I am still angry. I am angry at him for crowding me and my sisters and our mothers into small spaces where we were supposed to stay weak and scared and violable. I am still angry at him for subjecting me to a culture that excuses the sick and twisted things powerful men do and minimizes opportunities for women and girls to do great and beautiful and meaningful things. I am angry because he hid his wealth from his family at his family's expense. I am angry because my mother is poor and suffers while he's off enjoying his millions.

So: I admit, I still haven't forgiven him.

I'm just now learning to forgive myself for not having fully let go of all of this attachment I feel to that flaming, righteous anger that flares up or surfaces as PTSD, causing flashbacks or crippling crises of confidence. It took me from age six to about ten years ago to forgive myself for not being there when my sister died. I have to forgive myself for not being able to protect my little sister from the man or men who stole sex from her when she was far too young to give consent.

I have found help and compassionate understanding in Brené Brown's work on vulnerability and shame and Byron Katie's process of taking apart the stories in our heads. These give me some perspective on who holds me back when I feel fear (big hint: it's not usually fathers or parents or ungrateful kids or partners or passive-aggressive friends or mean bosses). But even with these great tools readily at hand and heart, it is still not easy to forgive and let go of these feelings.

Yet every day I know I have to be kind and compassionate with myself and all my sisters. And I have to keep surrounding myself with people like my brother and sisters and husband and friends and family -- big-hearted people who believe in giving our children and women and men opportunities to grow and flourish. I know I have to work every day to make this world a safer and sturdier place for my nieces and sisters and mother and me. After all, my new niece might have big dreams. I want to make sure our world is ready for her.

07 August 2015

What I Like About Planned Parenthood

I have shared many times since my parents' good advice. When I was about fifteen they sat down with me when I asked them to, and they said: "Don't sleep with anyone you're not 100 percent sure you really like and trust. If you feel reservations, listen to those instincts and don't do it, because there's no going back."

So I didn't sleep with the person I was seeing then, or another person I dated after that. And I was glad, during and after. Those guys both broke up with me after that, which was fine with me. A while later I fell in love with someone I had known for several years. Suddenly he just looked so interesting and he had stuff going on in his mind that was funny and sharp and smart and he liked music maybe even as much as I did. We were in the same friend group and had started pairing off with other people when we looked up, looked at each other, and said, "Wait, you're the one that I want."

Throughout my childhood, truly as early as I can remember, I knew about bodies and sex because they were all around me. I spent a few of my formative years in the middle of seas of people who were exploring their bodies, minds, senses -- you name it and they were exploring it. I spent hours in Golden Gate Park, and in the flow and swirl of a hundred parties and concerts and love-ins when people ingested substances, dropped their inhibitions, and did things they never would have done back home, wherever that was.

But my personality is now as it was then both flamboyant and joyful as well as shy at the core. Back then I felt some dissonance. There was tension between what I wanted and what everyone around me wanted. One of my mother and father's friends, a tall, bearish fellow with frizzy honey-colored hair whom I loved and trusted like a dear uncle, once told me, "You don't have to be modest," when I covered my chest after realizing I had worn overalls with no shirt underneath. His well intentioned advice had the exact opposite effect on me, however; I felt exposed and embarrassed about wanting to be modest.

Because my mother had become pregnant with me back in 1962 without knowing much about how babies and anything else worked, she didn't want me to be a victim of that kind of ignorance. She gave birth to my sister at home, and she became a midwife when I was about 10 to help other families have their babies at home. The facts of life were all around us. My mother spent many hours telling me things at various times I was ready and not ready to hear. I am still grateful for her help diagnosing and solving a potentially dangerous problem I had once.

One of the best tools my mother ever gave me was Planned Parenthood. From being a midwife, and her own experience, she knew plenty about people who had babies before they were ready. She was always grateful for the existence of Planned Parenthood and she made sure I knew it was there if and when I needed it.

These days, clinics tend to mark out the names of the people who checked in before you at their reception desks, but back when I was fifteen and went to learn about my contraception options, seeing my classmates' names on the sheet made me feel good about checking in at the Planned Parenthood clinic. My mother asked whether I wanted her to come along and I had my first clinic visit with her present. I felt comfortable going on my own after that. When I was sixteen, I had a stressful moment that ended a week later when my Aunt Flo finally arrived . Not that we called my period that back then -- no euphemisms at our house! And everything worked flawlessly after that -- I was scrupulous in my use of contraception, and got to know the loving man who would nine years later become my husband (and to whom I am still married). Planned Parenthood was there for me -- for us.

I know some of our relatives might find my personal history shocking, but I am still so thankful for that time and space in my life. I had so many stresses at that time with trying to do well in school in preparation for college, and a custody battle in which I was finally standing up to my father and asking to live with my mother for a year before I graduated high school. I still feel that the intimacy my sweetheart and I shared during those difficult years made all the difference in how bearable my life was.

I saw more and more of my friends' names on my Planned Parenthood clinic's sign-in sheets over the next few years. I appreciated the support I felt for my teenage self's need to explore and be protected, and I appreciated having that support into my adulthood. Even though I now have insurance coverage and can see a network specialist for my gynecological needs, I continue to support Planned Parenthood because I appreciate their support fo my and other women's reproductive health and our autonomy and self-determination.

22 April 2015

Communal History: Gene Bernofsky's Gifts

We went to the KGNU Community Radio​ thank-you party at the History Colorado Center in Denver last night, and during the talk by historian Bill Cowern, I had another little a-ha moment that helped me fill in a little patch of the jigsaw puzzle that is my history. I was delighted to learn that one of my primary school teachers, Eugene V. Debs Bernofsky, and his wife JoAnn Bernofsky, were among the group of folks who settled near Trinidad, Colorado, in 1965 to found an experiment in living and doing art free of commerce. They and a couple of college friends and a growing community built a few geodesic domes they called Drop City. (Incidentally, they didn't call it Drop City because they were "dropping out" or because they took or "dropped" acid in the parlance of the day, but because their performance art origins involved literally dropping small objects on people as a way of getting them to pay attention, pelting people with things -- or ideas -- they called "droppings." Also, don't confuse this Drop City with T. C. Boyle's fictional version, set in California and Alaska, and containing more of the vibe of Olompali or Morning Star, the communes where we lived, than that of the original Drop City.)

I knew Gene Bernofsky because he was one of my teachers at Upland School, which I attended for grades 4 and 5. This teaching trio, comprising Gene and Suzanne Marsden, my new stepmother, and Lisa Johnson, made a valiant effort to keep up with my appetites for reading, writing, geography, and math. I remember Gene as enthusiastic, energetic, and a little unpredictable but in a good way -- you knew he was looking out for everyone. I remember his wife JoAnn as a centered, owl-eyed companion, a smooth and steady rudder to complement and direct Gene's churning energies. At Upland, I don't remember whether I knew Gene and JoAnn had also lived on a commune -- or maybe that made me feel a bond with them. I cringe to think it's pretty likely I asked him if he smoked pot. Gene told us stories about growing up in New York, about his Jewish heritage, and about being named after labor leader Eugene Victor Debs.

We then had a wonderful Gene-by-proxy experience when I went with my father, stepmother, sister, and brother to New York in about 1977 on an epic road trip from Colorado to the East Coast (22 states altogether! Plus Montreal!). Gene offered his Aunt Mary and her apartment in Brooklyn as a base for us during our stay in New York City. "Call her Aunt Mary," Gene assured us, which we debated about whether we should do but which actually did seem to delight her during the three days she so kindly hosted all of us. The worst part of that trip: I was on crutches by the time we got to NYC -- I had just broken my leg a couple of days earlier in Pennsylvania. The best part: We rented a wheelchair and people were incredibly nice to us, on subways and streets all over Manhattan and the boroughs. A man saw me in my wheelchair and foot and ankle in a big cast with my rain-soaked family huddling near the Gotham Hotel, dashed back into the hotel, and emerged moments later with a collapsible umbrella he insisted we keep as he jumped into a cab and sped away.

Like Gene, Aunt Mary was sweet and smart and interesting to talk with. And Aunt Mary worked for Bantam Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, so she had shelves and stacks of popular paperbacks all over her cheerful garden-level apartment. As we were leaving, she let me pick out a stack of books to take with me. I chose about 10 books. Some was fiction I enjoyed very much while my leg started healing over the next few weeks and umpteen states, including a suspense novel about a top tennis player who becomes the target for a sniper at Wimbledon. It's very modern for its moment: to throw off the sniper, the heroes do some trickery that depends on stretching out the gap between what is broadcast "Live" on TV and what is happening in real-time. And a dictionary plays a major part in the action -- what's not to love? But for some reason I remember equally vividly devouring the books Passages, by Gail Sheehy; Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer; and a book about what your favorite and least-favorite colors say about your personality.

Since last night I have learned that Gene and JoAnn Bernofsky (Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, the namesake of the labor leader Eugene V. Debs) now live in Montana. He worked for the post office for a while and has been making films since before his Drop City days, but in more recent times has pedaled hundreds of miles around the region on his bicycle to record environmental abuses on camera.

I love discovering these things about Gene, a teacher to whom I have always been most grateful for sharing with me and the other kids Pete Seeger songs and Woody Guthrie songs, and playing us Ella Jenkins and other Folkways records we sang and plunked and clanged along with. What rich veins of musical and social history he shared with us youngsters. I wonder what the other kids remember.

Photo of teachers Gene Bernofsky and Lisa Johnson with children at Upland School, courtesy of Lisa Johnson
Gene's story reminds me that absolutely anything is possible in a lifetime. We are always getting fresh opportunities to do what matters most to us. To paraphrase Alan Watts in talk on "Intellectual Yoga," "Karma is not the law of cause and effect: 'If you do this, that will happen.' Karma simply means action. That you do whatever it is you do -- whether playing tennis, climbing mountains, or nursing sick patients -- as your dharma." Or, as I saw in one of those little photo-and-quote memes that sail around the internet, "Pray with your feet."

16 April 2015

Instincts vs. Impulses

The other day the brilliant and brave writer Elizabeth Gilbert (forgive me if I call her Liz -- she does so in her communications with her fans on Facebook and other social media platforms) posted about not following your instincts everywhere they lead.

I commented that in my dictionary, instincts are the things that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck when you know you are being watched, or the sense that tells me to reply, "No, thanks, I couldn't possibly" when certain people offer me rides or favors, or the tickle of gooseflesh on my skin when I hear a story about a manifestation created by the requester and the benificent forces of our universe.

But I think it's worth thinking about the difference. If I can be honest with myself about what I am feeling, I can ask myself questions like, "Do you want to go to this event on Saturday? Do you feel you should go, or does it feel like the wrong thing to do?"

In learning self-defense, I was grateful not only for the advice that your instincts often give you a lot of information about a situation, but also for this piece of advice in particular: When you have options, choose to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. I was glad to get this advice early in my adult life; it has served me incredibly well. I don't know how many times I have instinctively sought out a safer situation when my instincts told me something was awry or I was particularly vulnerable.

But I can think of plenty of instances when I chose to interpret my desires to do things as signs: Giant, flashing, neon signs saying, Yes! Yes, I should do this thing!, which I've noticed over the years can create an unhealthy feedback cycle. Because once you've started doing something, it's easier to find confirmation bias that affirms your brilliant choice, and ignore other signs that say, "You really don't need to take this four hours away from your writing to go shopping at thrift stores."

I maintain that what makes me want to say yes and ignore all those pesky indicators to the contrary are my impulses, not my instincts. My impulses tend to obscure my instincts. Does this ring true for you?

01 April 2015

Baroque Pop and Me

This morning, Uncle Jeff, the DJ on KGNU's Morning Sound Alternative show, is playing Baroque Pop, a favorite genre from my childhood and into the present. His show is placing songs I didn't appreciate before in context with all these other favorite sounds (like the Rolling Stones on Flowers/Ruby Tuesday/Those Satanic Majesties; The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper) that I loved so very much then and still do. A backing track version of Ruby Tuesday by Studio Sound Group is revelatory -- I used to listen to that song so closely that this version feels like something I was listening for, despite my great love for Mick Jagger.

I have a deep love for disco and funk and even some R&B, but I think my love for these genres may have originated with these gender-bending Baroque Poppers and Psychedelians, all the Prog-Rockers and Glam-Rockers I grew up with and listened to. Uncle Jeff talked about wanting to be one of those guys, the glamorous fops in their Carnaby Street fashions (remember Mary Quant?) with the red velvet jackets and the big floppy hats -- I did too.

That's one of the multitudinous reasons I have to write fiction, and why I remind myself to weave this kind of richness into my work wherever I can. I also listen to music, and have been trying my hand at lyrics lately, too. I said to myself, "Self, if I were to write a song for OK Go, how would it go?" That's not too high a bar. It sure is fun to explore, and to make things come out the way I want in the end in songs and stories.

So go listen to some music or do something that turns your imagination loose and wild! And I hope you'll come back and share with me what makes you tick creatively.

24 February 2015

Eight Things I Learned from Painting My House

Ah, the listicle--the article comprising a list of elements that all purport to answer a question. What did you learn from painting your house? I need to know! Why? Because I might paint my own house someday. Because I might find a lesson I can use in some other Big Endeavor. So they always seem useful, full of potential, these so-called listicles (Listicles sounds a little obscene, doesn't it?)

But I did learn a few things from painting the interior of my house, and I am happy to share them with you.

1. The preparation and restoration takes about 80 percent of the total project time. This means moving stuff around, patching, sanding, removing hardware, and masking. Once you get to the 20 percent--the painting--it feels great! But be sure you save some energy for the unprep work: removing tape, putting away the drop cloths, vacuuming up all the bits of paint and dust, and reinstalling your drapery hardware, shelving brackets, lightswitch and outlet covers, and picture-hanging hardware. Oh, and moving all your stuff back into place. 
2. Coverage: If the can says the paint will cover 350-400 square feet, it probably will. Barely. Don't assume you can stretch it. Even if you add water to thin your paint, as when applying paint using a compressor-powered paint sprayer instead of brushes and rollers, you only add a small amount of water (1 part water to 32 parts paint). So estimate conservatively or suffer the consequences: your paint won't cover, and you'll certainly need two or three coats--more time.
3. "Do not overwork" is one of the instructions on the side of the bucket of spackling paste I went through in doing this project. It applies to painting, and lots of other activities, too. Before your drywall putty or paint is starting to dry, you want to get your final smoothing strokes in with your putty knife or damp finger, or with your brush. Or you'll end up with a bumpy surface that attracts dust and dirt over time.
4. Be patient. It may take a couple of passes to get it right. I patched several places on walls and doorframes that required more than one application of putty to fill the dents. And when I painted our accent walls, I ended up going over every edge that butted against a contrasting color with a 3/4"-wide art brush to get the edges to look sharp. I couldn't mask the edges because our walls have too much texture--the paint would have seeped under the masking tape. So it was worth going over each edge, but it took time, especially for the bits that required the 20' extension ladder.
5. Get the right tools for the job. After painting a couple of rooms with a roller that kept pushing the roller cover off as I worked my way around the room, I went to the hardware store and found one that cost $6 and had an easy-to-use extender. Not only did it keep the roller covers on throughout the project, it also saved me unnecessary trips up and down a stepstool to paint the higher parts of the wall. Another cool product I learned of is Ramboard, a sturdy cardboard that protected our newly refinished wood floors from the insults of the bathroom-remodeling process, and then we kept it around a little longer for the interior painting project. It really helped.
6. Take care of your equipment. I learned this when I painted houses during college. That means rinsing brushes for minutes, until the water runs mostly clear
7. A corrolary of #6 is: Your equipment won't necessarily last forever. Brushes last pretty well, Most roller covers I've found can't be used for more than a few rooms before you need a fresh one. 
8. Do the work in order. Clear stuff out of the path and away from all walls. Remove hardware (lightswitch and outlet covers) and tape over the outlets and switches if you tend to slop paint around like I do when I'm working at a fast pace. Scrape, patch, and sand, and then vacuum up the dust before you start taping. Tape off woodwork, light fixtures, and contrasting walls (if the walls don't have a lot of texturing). Paint from one side of the room to the other and from the top of the wall down, so you know what you have already done and where you still need to paint if you have to stop in the middle to answer the phone or the door. Wait for the paint to dry completely (see the instructions on the paint can) before applying more paint or replacing the hardware on newly painted surfaces.

Once you've done all that work, you are rewarded for years by beautiful, fresh walls, in any color you like. For me it's worth the trouble.