Sunday, April 13, 2014

Three Lizard Warning


Spring has sprung and I was thinking about music on my trail run today. I wish I could say I am one of those purist trail runners that is in such a groove while running that I don’t even need to listen to music. Birds chirping, brooks babbling, and wind in the trees being all I need! But the truth is I get bored running alone. Yes, I love nature, but I love music too. If I’m on a really treacherous trail or single track frequented by mountain bikes, I leave the ipod in the car, but not on my regular trails. If I’m going solo, I’m going to need some accompaniment by mountain men with banjoes.

That is unless I get the “Three Lizard Warning.” Anyone who knows me already knows I’m a snake magnet. I love seeing snakes in the wild and am lucky to see a few every year. Rattlesnakes are so considerate to give warning, as long as they are not drowned out by banjoes. And so I adhere to the “Three Lizard Warning” system. The times I have encountered snakes are warm days, especially after a cool spell, and every time I see a snake, I have first noticed an increased amount of lizards darting around. I consider lizard a warning species and if I see three I take my ear buds out and pay attention.

But it is a lucky day when I see a snake and I wish it happened more often. I’ve been running at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands consistently for over twenty years, yet I have only seen snakes three or four times. The biggest specimen (a four foot rattler) crossed right in front of me on the trail on my birthday. I’ll never forget that snake. One reason is I happened to have my phone and got a decent photo. The other reason is I considered that snake to be a birthday present from God. I have a girlfriend who doesn’t share my love of reptiles and she thinks it was Satan that sent the snake, but she doesn’t get it. Rattle snakes don’t want to bite me because they can’t eat me. They only want to be left alone. It is not seeing a snake that I worry about.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons From the Farm Lady

Sex fascinates, therefore flowers fascinate me, for after all, a flower is simply a plant’s sex organs. All plants reproduce by method of flowering, except ferns and coniferous trees which use spores or cones. Ferns and pine trees are interesting but primitive. They lack the complex reproductive organs known as flowers. There are many plants not typically referred to as “flowers” yet they all have some type of flower for reproduction. Even grass left uncut is a flowering plant.

Of course it is the big colorful flowers most of us think of, the ones that are screaming for attention with their beauty, although it is really pollinators they are trying to attract. We benefit from the pretty colors and sweet smells intended to draw a bee in for a sweet taste of nectar, while he inconspicuously gets a dusting of pollen on his back which he unwittingly carries to another flower, spreading the genes. Crafty little flowers offering sweet treat to their vectors in exchange for a free ride to a sex partner. Wouldn’t it be horrible if humans reproduced this way? Some guy rubs up against you in a crowd and leaves his sperm cells on you, hoping you will rub into someone else? Actually, that did happen to me at an underage Cuban dance club once, but that is another story.

Pollinators are as diverse as the flowers themselves, from the obvious birds and bees, to a host of other insects and even mammals. Bats are underrated pollinators. Pine trees do not have relationships with any pollinator and therefore rely on the wind to scatter their pollen. I loved to gross out my students by telling them that orange dust all over our cars was equivalent to a tree’s sperm cells. The lucky cells didn’t fall on my car, they were blown and stuck to a sappy pine cone which dried up and drew the pollen in far enough to meet the egg cell. Sex goes on around us constantly. It really is a beautiful thing.

I can’t talk to my mom about sex, but I thought we could talk about plants. I am always on a quest to find a topic, a common ground with her. I wish she appreciated art or liked to cook, but she thinks frozen food and microwaves are two of man’s best inventions. She grew up dirt-poor on a farm and knows how to slaughter a hog, so she thinks microwavable bacon is absolute genius.

My mom talks about plants often, but not in the same way that I do. I remember visiting her when she was working in the yard and she would tell me “I moved this bush over here, cut back that plant, planted such and such over there, then move another plant from a pot to the ground.” It was just work to her. Moving plants. I can’t say she even liked them, but perhaps it was something I could talk about with the farm lady?

“Hey Mom,” I started. I was teaching my students about photosynthesis at the time and thought she might be interested in something I found fascinating. “Don’t you think it is amazing that plants are really formed by molecules floating in the air?”

Blank stare.

“It’s true. I used to think plants were made from the soil, but consider a potted plant. The scientist who figured this out long ago planted a seed in a pot, but he weighed the soil first. The seed eventually grew into a good sized plant which the scientist removed including the roots, then weighed the soil again. Of course there was still the same amount of soil in the pot and that is how he figured out the raw materials were coming from somewhere else.”

Blank stare, but still maintaining eye contact.

“The air, Mom. See those leaves right there? They did not come from dirt, but from the air. The plant can take the carbon dioxide floating around in the air, along with a water molecule, then break those molecules apart and rearrange the atoms into a new molecule called glucose. Or more complicated molecule, such as starches, but the basic building block is glucose. That is what all plants are made of, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Just a different rearrangement of those three elements.”

Blank stare fading, eyes starting to glass over.

“You know how you can make a variety of food using four or five basic ingredients? It’s like that, Mom. That is what plants do, with elements. ‘Photosynthesis’ is what the process is called.”

I took a big risk with the five syllable word. Contact broken. Subject changed.

I tried and I kept trying, but it is hard to connect with someone who thinks so differently than I do. I once showed my mom photos of my trip to London and Paris, but she flipped through my photos and did not have a question or a comment. “That is ‘The Louvre, Mom. I saw the Mona Lisa!” She thought it was an absurd waste of money to take a trip like that and couldn’t see the point in it. My mom hated traveling and my siblings and I always teased her that she couldn’t leave a five mile radius from her home. She seldom did.

I tried to get her to go out to lunch with me, but she kept insisting that she had food at home we could eat. I finally said “Mom, I’m not poor. I went to college for six years, I can afford to go out to lunch. I enjoy eating out sometimes.” But the problem was, she didn’t enjoy it. She might go, but her discomfort of spending the money, even me spending my money took the fun out of it. Better to let her put something in the microwave than watch her scan the menu for the cheapest thing she could find.

The best time I remember having with my mom was the time she asked me to go to the Orange County Fair with her. We never did mother-daughter things like that, so it was very odd. We walked around looking at all the items people made or collected and we both really enjoyed it. I was interested in the amateur art and she was interested in the homemade quilts. We also visited the farm animals and watched a pig race. Then she surprised me by agreeing to go on the Ferris Wheel, a huge Ferris Wheel! It even gave me butterflies when it dropped. I believe it was the bravest thing I witnessed her to do. I felt like a normal woman enjoying the company of her mom. Sure, it wasn’t the mani-pedi-shopping date most women spoke of, but I’m flexible enough to enjoy farm animals.

Months later I was visiting again and she started telling me the story I told her about the scientist measuring the soil. I was amazed that she had listened and absorbed what I said, but the funny thing it she could not remember who had told her the story. I let her proceed and listened with great amusement when she started by “Someone told me that a plant doesn’t really come from the soil….” She honestly didn’t remember it was me who told her! She went on to explain the experiment. Then she got to the end of the story and waved her hand dismissively in the air, “But I don’t believe that.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Not My Story

I want to tell you a story, and I hesitate, because it is not my story. This story was told to me in confidence and I have never questioned it’s validity since it is not flattering to the teller. It is a story that has stayed with me, it haunts me actually. When I meet someone I often wonder, “What would you do in this situation?” Of course no one knows for certain how they would react in this scenario unless they lived it, but it makes for an insightful discussion. And so I will tell it to you now, without naming names, as it was told to me by a man I was intimate with many years ago.

He wanted to explain to me why he awoke at every creek in the house, at every loud car driving by. His light sleeping pattern was the result of an abduction and rape. The victim was his previous girlfriend and she was abducted from in his own bed. The perpetrator was a “Peeping Tom” who watched the two having sex and decided he wanted the girl for himself. He waited until they fell asleep, then he broke in by breaking the glass in the door and unlocking it from the inside.

He entered the bedroom quickly and the two woke but were confused. They hid. The girl shouted “Just leave, we don’t see you.” I find this odd, but this is what she did. She gave the intruder a chance to change his mind without being seen, but he was not leaving without fulfilling his intentions. He held up a shiny object and ordered the girl out of bed and ordered the man not to look. Then he took her. My friend continued to hide until they were gone, then he called the police. Next he called the girls parents. He had to explain to the girl’s father that she had been abducted. Everyone arrived at the apartment and the boyfriend was questioned, but he did not have a good description, it was dark. He thought the man had a gun, but could not describe it. The girl’s parents were obviously distraught, not knowing if they would ever see their daughter alive again.

She returned several hours later. She just walked in the door. The man did not have a gun, but a knife. He took her to a nearby garage and raped her for hours. When he was done with her, he ordered her to walk back home down the middle of the street and not look back. The girl recovered well, but the boyfriend did not.

Many people were sympathetic to my friend and told him they didn’t know what they would do in that situation. Some, including the girlfriend, even told him he did the right thing. He and the girl bonded over both being victims with no outsider able to understand the situation. But the girl’s family never forgave him. They let him know that they believed he was a coward for allowing this to happen and I sincerely think he believed them.

When I was told this story, I could see how damaged he was by this crime and I felt bad for him. I didn’t ask myself what I would do in that situation. I’m not a man, after all. But it left me unsettled.

I told the story to my husband when we first started dating and he reacted very strongly. I knew these two men were polar opposites, but Jack’s response was more extreme than I expected. I tried to stick up for the other man a bit, saying he didn’t know if it was a gun, that perhaps it could have turned very violent, but Jack would not relent. He asked me “Would you let someone take your child?” I had never thought about it like that, but the answer is “Hell no.” If someone wanted to steal my child I believe I would fight until the death. I’m not a tough chick, this is natural instinct. I doubt any mother would say anything different.

I repeated this to one close girlfriend who disagreed. She said stealing a child is not the same as stealing a girlfriend. “What if we were roommates and someone tried to abduct one of us?” We were only theorizing and there were too many variables. What if he was going to rape her but not kill her? Was it worth trying to fight a man with a weapon? I know some women put up a fight over their purse being snatched and I can’t see myself doing that, but a person? I like to believe that if anyone ever tries to mess with one of my girlfriends I’d go “Thelma and Louise” on their ass, but I’ll never know for sure unless it happens.

Jack couldn’t drop the subject. The story disturbed him and he continued to bring it up for days. I’ve never seen Jack get in a fight since I’ve known him, but he told me, “Donna, there are certain times in a man’s life where if he walks away from a fight, he is not a man.” I could tell Jack believed this. He would rather die fighting than have to live with what that other guy lives with. “Why didn’t he just cut off his balls and hand them to the guy on his way out?”

To say Jack is different from this other man is an understatement. Jack is from Texas. I hope you understand the implications. One night as we slept there was a fantastic wind storm that woke me up. I could hear things blowing around like crazy outside and it was almost exciting, but Jack was sleeping soundly through it all. We had a big umbrella on our patio next to the sliding glass door and the wind kept picking it up and slamming it down. Then in one loud crash, the umbrella fell against the door. Within three seconds Jack was up on his knees with a gun cocked and aimed at the door.

“Don’t shoot honey! It’s the umbrella!” I yelled. And then we laughed. We still laugh about it today “Don’t shoot the umbrella!” Is one of our inside jokes. I would be lying if I told you his reaction to a perceived intruder didn’t turn me on. I feel a deep conviction that my husband would be competent protecting his family. The other guy knew how to pick a good restaurant, he knew how to say the right thing, and he was interesting enough, but I had a deep desire to find a partner I could count on in a post apocalyptic situation. I don’t know if this desire was already in me or if his story changed me. Even though it is not my story, it has become integrated into my mind and I would say it has influenced me deeply.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Feeding on Feedback

I love criticism. Okay, I hate it. Actually, I love / hate it. It definitely depends on who it is coming from and what their motive is. If they are trying to make themselves look clever, it doesn’t come off well at all. If they are sincerely trying to be helpful, then they are taking a risk and I appreciate it more than praise. I am lucky to have a few friends who kiss my ass and few willing to kick it. I like a bit of both.

I took a creative writing class at LBCC about ten years ago where I expected to get assignments and learn from a teacher, but the class was run as a group. Most students were older writers looking for feedback rather than kids working on a college degree. They knew the value of conversing with other writers, something I was just learning. I naively submitted my first piece and got raked over the coals and I loved it. Not because I am a masochist, but because every thing they said was true. I learned from it and applied it. I wanted to get better and their input was golden.

But not always. I once submitted a piece and this hostile fat guy tried to correct me by pointing out that a person who runs marathons would not get winded hiking up Mt. Whitney. I have actually done both so I knew what I was talking about, but I did not need to say anything. Other people in the class set him straight about altitude while I sat back and bat my eyes at fatty. What I’m saying is you have to consider the source. Criticism is not always valid, but this is why the group thing works really well. It also brings up a good point. I have always heard to write what you know, but I will add “Question what you don’t know.” This guy could have saved face by asking, “Would a runner really get winded on Mt. Whitney?” Yes, I benefited greatly by listening to my work getting critiqued, but equally enlightening was reading the work of others and really hearing what everyone else had to say.

I have a few of what I call “red pen friends.” Surprisingly, they are not my friends that teach English, but two women from my book club who go through my writing and notice everything spell check neglects, as well as pointing out things like “word choice?” Everyone needs a red pen friend, although it is humbling. I am not a good red pen friend. I read for content and don’t even look for mistakes unless I am asked. I naturally notice flow, but I really enjoy funky writing styles, like Annie Proulx.

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my English teaching pals, Rebecca. She has three kids under five years old, so it feels really selfish to say “Hey, you spend all week reading student writing, now read some of my stuff!” But she does. I think she likes the process too and enjoys the adult content. But Rebecca won’t answer an email about writing. Her editing process occurs on my couch, usually while she is nursing a baby and being interrupted by “Mommy, I need to go poo poo.” She doesn't write her feedback, she verbalizes as she reads and she is very good. She is a priceless friend. I’ll gladly take the toddler poo poo and even wipe booty while she keeps reading. She graciously talked me through some writer’s constipation yesterday. Uh-oh, sorry. Once poop comes into the conversation it tends to linger.

Writing can be damn lonely. What is the point if no one reads it? And what is the point if someone is touched but doesn’t tell you? Isn’t that why we do it? Expose a bit of your soul, lay it out on the table and have people say, “Yes, I relate.” This type of response is precious, but mostly I write for myself. It is great if someone reads my work and gets something out of it, but even if they didn’t I would continue writing. It is oozing out of me and I can’t stop it. Writers will get this.

Yes, I really am fortunate to have friends who read and offer feedback, but the sweetest thing to hear of all is the simple request “More please.” Nothing is more satisfying than leaving them wanting.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fan Mail

Sometimes when I am driving around in the car with my son, I like to tune into a classic rock station and give him lessons on the history of Rock-n-Roll. I tell him it is important that he is able to recognize certain bands and that he understand their unique contribution to the evolution of rock. I have taught him to identify the sound of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepelin, and The Ramones to name a few, but his favorite is Queen. It is pretty obvious why a little kid would like Queen. I like Queen. But I think I might have influenced his taste by letting him watch a YouTube video of “Fat Bottom Girls.” It was just a photo of a bunch of nude women on bikes viewed from the backside, but someone made it so their butt muscles alternately clenched to the beat of the music. It really is entertaining if you wish to check it out, but I digress.

We were listening to Queen in the car one day when my son was about five years old. He started asking me about the singer and asked if he wrote the music. Then he asked with complete sincerity, “Mom, when we get home, will you help me write a letter to Freddie Mercury? I want to thank him for writing these songs. I want to tell him how much I like his music.”

It broke my heart to have to tell him that Freddie Mercury was dead, but I was really touched by the sincerity of his request. This was an organic fan letter from someone who has never heard the term “fan.” It came from love and appreciation and it got me thinking about that type of gratitude.

I thought about a song by The Descendants called “Thank You” where they sing, “I won’t say your name, but you know who you are, I’ll never be the same again, thank you for playing the way you play.” I thought about certain authors like Keroac and Bukowski who wrote about friends reading their writing and saying “Man, that makes me want to write.” I thought about several artists, musicians, writers, architects, and even teachers that have inspired me. And I felt inspired to thank them.

I have been the recipient of such letters, but they need to ring true to have any impact. During “Teacher Appreciation Week” I received stacks of letters from students who were told by their Language Arts teachers to pick a favorite and write one. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being picked and recognize that letter writing is not everyone’s forte, but they mostly sounded like they followed a format “I really like the way you blah, blah blah,” or “You are my favorite teacher because blah, blah, blah.” If I ran across one that was unique I never forgot it. Case in point from a girl named Danielle Wong. She wasn’t one of my favorite students, I didn’t even know I had a strong rapport with her, but she wrote “You made me appreciate the desert. I always thought the desert was just an ugly, dry place, void of life. But you helped me see the life that is adapted to live there and now I see the desert as a beautiful place.” Yep. Nailed it. And I love the desert too, in case that isn’t obvious.

I feel inspired to write some fan mail. I’m going to send Konrad Wert a letter telling him how much I love his fiddle playing. I’m going to be specific enough to stand out in case he gets a lot of fan mail, but I suspect he is too obscure. I’m going to private message my friend David that he is the wittiest guy on Facebook even though the competition is fierce. I’m going to reiterate to my mom that she did some things right before her dementia gets worse. I’m going to tell my son he inspires me and he has one of the kindest hearts I have ever known, just because it is true.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Loose Tie that Binds

My Dad died recently. My Dad didn't like me very much, but it wasn't personal. He was not a big fan of the human race.

The whole family was subject to his wrath. His anger, violence, and insults were commonplace, but it was his consistent lack of interest in any of his children that perplexed me the most. When I was nineteen years old, I called home to tell my mom I was going to the movies after work with some friends. He said in a calm angry voice, "Nobody gives a fuck what you do." and hung up. I stood there stunned and just stared for a few minutes. I already felt this was true, but the verbal slap in the face left me breathless.

It would have been smart to realize he was just an angry man and I called at a bad time, but there was too much truth in that statement. It served as a lubricant on the downward slide of my self-destructive spiral. It became my mantra and I would actually repeat it to myself "No body gives a fuck what you do" as I was sticking needles in my arms to get high. It's a lot easier to justify sticking needles in your arm if no one gives a fuck.

When I started living a different kind of life, I made a gallant effort to get to know the man who never wanted to know me. I would go visit my parents and sit on the patio with him and try to engage him in conversation. I figured that it was my fault, that I was guilty of doing the same thing I accused him of, which was not showing an interest. I also believed that my dad might have some good stories if I dug deeply. He grew up in the deep south, he went to prison when he was 17, he drove a truck all over the country. Surely he must have a tale to tell?

But I never got one. It became frustrating to learn that my dad only had a few simple stories that he repeated over and over. It really frustrated me that he lacked curiosity about not just me, but life in general. I eventually gave up and realized he just lacks passion. I was baffled that I came from the same gene pool. And he never stopped being capable of saying really mean and hurtful things at random, or revealing his lack of interest by not knowing what my major was when I was in my fourth year of putting myself through college.

I gave up on ever having a close relationship with my dad, but given my drug history, I figured I at least owed him the decency of showing my face so he could see that I was healthy, happy, and didn't need any money. When I became a mom, I gifted him with a beautiful grandson. For some reason, my Dad liked little kids until they are about 7 or 8. He got a lot of joy out of watching my son play with toy trucks and I was happy to provide entertainment for him. But in some ways, this baffled me even more. As I became a mom, the idea that someone could not be completely enamored with their own child made him even less understandable.

About ten years ago, I was visiting my parents and my dad picked up a book I left on the coffee table. "Do you see that?" I asked my sister, "Dad is reading my book." He kept reading and I kept watching. My dad was not a reader, I never saw him read a book while I was growing up. He was a guy who liked watching westerns "Let's see if we can get someone getting killed" was his favorite saying while turning channels. He had no hobbies, he had not interests, except maybe drinking and surviving.

I thought about the book he had picked up. It was called "The Tie That Binds" by Kent Haruf. I would never have the audacity to buy my dad a book, but if forced to, this was a good choice. The language was straightforward, but it was a beautifully told story set in a small town with great character development. My dad read it quickly and when I asked him about it he said, "I enjoyed it."

Of course I answered, "Well if you like that book, I know another one you would like." And thus began the pattern of me sending my dad books. My mom was still our main means of communication and she would always tell me how much he loved the books I sent, how he went straight from the mail box to the recliner, and read them very quickly. Yet he never had any words about the books and this didn't surprise me. Eventually he began to ask me for books and I would either say "Yes, I have a good one for you" or "No, haven't come across one lately."

My mom tried to get in on this new reading passion and started buying western novels at garage sales, but my dad never got into them and my mom couldn't understand why. I explained "Mom, I'm not just buying Dad books, I read them first. I usually read about 3 or 4 books a month, so that is at least 36 books a year, and of those 36 books, there are usually 4 or 5 that I know Dad would like."

One time my mom told me I failed, that I sent my dad a book he thought was really weird and I said "Mom! That book wasn't meant for Dad! I sent that book to Paulette!" (My niece who was living with them at the time.) I said "Tell Dad to put that book down, I would never send him a book like that."

We all knew Dad was dying and one of my sisters really put him on the spot for some type of "closure," but I knew that was too much to ask. What he did do the last time I saw him was say this, in a room full of people across the room with tears in his eyes; "Well Donna, you seem happy. I've always loved you and if I got mad at you, it didn't last."

And that was it.

When he died I asked my mom if I could have all the books back and she agreed. That is my inheritance, our legacy, the physical evidence of our relationship. I don't have a single hand written card, letter, photo, special memento, nothing except about twenty really good books that I knew my dad would like.



Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bluegrass and Trail Running

My very favorite song to hear when I am trail running is a Bluegrass number called "Carry Me Across the Mountain." I won't bore you with all the lyrics, but the premise is that the baby is sick and the doctor lives on the other side of the mountain. The guy singing needs to run for help and is asking God to give him the strength and stamina he needs. I guess it is pretty obvious why I love it; only a sociopath would be able to keep from speeding up during that song.

I probably seem like an unlikely candidate to be a Bluegrass fan. I grew up on The Beatles, folk music and classic rock with a sprinkling of Motown. When I was old enough to buy my own albums I was torn between loving to dance and wanting to be cool (which in those days meant hard rock.) Later I morphed into a punk, and from there it just got more and more confusing. Today I have a collection of music on my ipod that bogles any mind that tries to sum up my taste. But if I was forced to name one artist that best reflects my musical sensibility, I would say "Beck." I pick him because he is all over the map with some similar roots, and he loves to use a variety of instruments.

Somewhere along the line I started listening to more and more Bluegrass and found it is my favorite music for trail running. It just feels right to be on a trail listening to banjo picking and fiddles. It sounds like trail running to me. Many songs are really fast which always makes me think "If this guy can pick a banjo this fast, I can pick up my feet a little faster."

But overall, I recommend not listening to music while trail running. Being on the street or bike trail is another story, but on a trail we need keen situational awareness. It is important to keep our ears open for rattle snakes and mountain bikes. Also, part of the beauty of trail running is getting back to nature and taking in the beauty with all our senses. Hearing birds or water flowing should be the music we listen to.