Wednesday, November 30, 2011

stumbling blocks; or, what to do when everything is hard

Computers hate me. No, really, they do. In my life I have six computers. Seven if you count the dead laptop I left in a closet in Chico, but I don't know if it is still there, so we won't count that one. I have two laptops and four desktops. Only one of them is technically mine, but I use the others. None of them works the way I need it it too. Most have one capability but not another; and some just refuse to play along.

One computer does not get internet or have a printer, one gets internet and has a virus so very little can be done (this one is my roomates, not mine), one cannot print, and another doesn't have Word on it. Sigh. The worst one is my work computer. Sometimes it allows me to log on and sometimes it doesn't. 

Okay, Kat, so why all the whining? What is your point. The computers are just an example of how the little things wear a person down. How do you ever get going when it feels like the smallest things are a huge hassle?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I see London, I see France; or, priming the pump

I have always wanted to be a rich aunt who is a benefactoress. As a child, I read stories about young girls who are pulled out of their families and sent off to live with the rich dowager aunt. I identified with the aunt, even as a child. One of the biggest frustrations for me as I struggle with money is that I can't do things for other people, but I still believe that someday I will be in position to do so. I have dreamed of paying for my neice(s) to go to Europe since I was 16-years old.

Ever since my niece, Kaya, was born a little over nine years ago I have been plying her with stories of travel. I sent her postcards of exotic places long before she was cognizant, much less literate. She has gifts and postcards from the UK, Europe, Boston, New York, Austin and others with fantastic tales of all the fun I am having that date back to times when we were still counting her age in months. She fetishizes the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben in a way that makes me proud, and I know it is only a matter of time before she begins to want to see them for herself.

When Kaya and I go on the internet I take the time to show her distant lands and all the joys of travel. She is an anxious shy little thing and is timid about everyday activities. She will not talk to strangers, and most social situations can send her into small panic attacks. I like the idea of showing her that her world is so much bigger than she can imagine because I know that seeing herself as a part of something so grand, and so vast, may just make talking to the grocery clerk seem a bit easier. At least that is the theory. As a result of my efforts, she has a pretty good handle on geography, world landmarks, and folklore; at least a good handle for a nine-year old American girl.

She and I were in World Market (of course) the other day and among the items she picked out as possible Christmas presents were an Eiffel Tower snowglobe, a Big Ben paper weight, and a wall-map of the world. I said to her as we talked about her choices, "Wow, you seem to really like those landmarks. Maybe I will take you with me the next time I go to Europe." You would have to know her to understand exactly how that statement both thrilled and terrified her at the same time. She looked at me with her eyes huge with excitement, "I don't think my parents would let me do that." And I thought, well, that isn't a no now is it?

Friday, November 11, 2011

lucky; or, the literary critic in me needs this to mean something

In my last post, I wrote about the film Buck. I did so for more than one reason. The first is because I like opportunities to talk about our personal responsibility to be kind to one another. It is a lost art, kindness. The second is because of what happened after the movie.

As I was saying, we watched a film about horses and kindness. I enjoyed the film and walked out of class satisfied that the documentary was a good one and that it would lend itself to some good conversations for the rest of the term. I got into my car backed out and drove about three feet and then I saw something in the road that made me stop. In the road before me was a rusted horseshoe.

Weird right? This was about 5 minutes after the movie. I was moved by the experience. I mean, it has to mean something. Doesn't it? I brought the shoe to class on Wednesday and told them about it. I used it to teach a lesson on argument. I asked them to listen to a story, to briefly summarize it and to create a thesis statement of the story.  I shared the story, and the students immediately asked me if it was true. I swore that it was. We talked about their summaries and thesis statements, but they wanted to talk about what it meant, or could mean, so we created this list.

It is a sign that I am doing something right.

It is a sign I am lucky and should go to Las Vegas and gamble all
my savings.

It is a message that I should take something from the movie learn from it.

It is nothing, and the shoe has been laying there for weeks, but I only noticed it because I had just watched a film about horses.

It is fate. Destiny.

It is a coincidence.

It is a conspiracy, someone put that there because they knew I was going to watch that film.

It is something very important.

It is nothing.

We discussed the possible meanings. A student added, "It is God." Which I wrote on the board, but would not allow the students to use in the argument exercise (yes, sometimes my ideology does seep into the classroom in interesting ways). The most intriguing side effect of this conversation was that as my classroom became a battle over the theory of fate and nothingness, the students began to invest themselves in the documentary. Students began to believe that the movie and the shoe and this conversation was important. They tuned in, there was that "click" that teachers wait for, and they connected.

For me, I need it to mean something. If not just because I want to feel lucky, or a part of some larger universe, but because if this were a novel it would mean everything. What do you think?


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Buck: or, a lesson in love and kindness

On Monday, we watched the documentary film Buck in my class. The film is about a man, named Buck of course, who is a horse whisperer. He was the inspiration for the 1998 movie The Horse Whisperer starring Robert Redford. Buck was a decent film, not the best documentary I have ever seen, but it seemed to hold my student's attention which is saying something. The core message of the film is what makes it worth seeing.

The movie is about Buck Brannaman's life as a horse trainer. But really it is about how being a loving person is better than being a jerk. That is an oversimplification, but essentially it is the message at the core of the film. Brannaman's father was a horribly abusive man who beat Buck and his brother unmercifully. Finally, they were removed from the home and put into foster care. Now, many years later, Buck trains horses. He is using the lessons he learned from his own terrible past to teach the horse community that using brutal training methods is ruining their horses, and maybe themselves, and teaching the horses to be afraid. He, and the film, makes explicit connections between his own childhood, the horse training, and parenting.

The film moves back and forth between stories about Buck's childhood, clips of his training clinics, and itneractions between Buck and his teenaged daughter. His history of abuse was so bad that a childhood friend, a man in his 50's, breaks down and weeps while talking about it.  It is a touching and salient moment in the narrative when Buck points out that his daughter is just like him; and he is a little sad about the fact if he had been raised in love he would be as amazing as his daughter. Yes, I cried. It is clear that Buck grieves for his lost childhood, but also that he understands that he has to choose how to repudiate that history each day. He has to remind himself that he is kind, that the world is kind.

The big dramatic moment comes when a woman brings in a "demon colt" for training. Throughout the movie we see Buck gentle horse after horse. He begins with a frightened bucking animal and ends up with a pet following after him like the most loyal of dogs. It is amazing each time. But, back to the demon colt. The colt was orphaned and may have even suffered brain damage from a lock of oxygen, so the colt has had a tough beginning. But, the real damage, we are reminded again and again, was done by the trainer. She raised him with a pack of stud horses and let him remain a stud as well. Through her coddling of this horse she has allowed him to be spoiled and wild: She unintentionally trained him to be "a predator."  The horse is so viscious that he attacks one of Buck's colleagues with pure malice. It is clear that this horse is not protecting himself, but is instead intending mayhem. The trainer is so badly injured he requires several stitches to his forehead. They decide to put the horse down.

It is an emotial moment when they decide to give up on this horse and sentence him to death. As the demon colt is being taken back onto the truck the owner tries to force him and is yelling at him and yanking the horse around. Buck, who clearly dislikes this treatment, and has already told this woman that she needs to get help for her own problems, firmly tells the woman to step away from the horse. When he takes over he gently and calmly works with the horse until he dociley walks into the truck on his own. In that moment, you can see the difference the film is talking about. You can see that if that horse had been raised by another, gentler hand his life would be different.

The next day, at the training, a couple of people ask Buck to talk about the demon colt. They want explanations, and he gives them. He simply says, "The horse was failed by his owner, yes he was disabled, but that is not what made him what he is." A woman--who had been crying the day before as they loaded the colt--asked him about his kindness in loading this doomed animal onto the truck. He said, "Just because we have decided to put the colt down doesn't mean he deserves to be treated unkindly."

It is such a simple message really, but one that needs to be repeated. And repreated. Kindness matters. Kindness is a choice. So, please choose to be kind.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Plans; or, you were gonna do what?

I just returned from an unexpected vacation to wine country. My parents called me on Thursday night as asked me if I wanted to join them on a trip to Windsor, CA. They have a timeshare there and were being treated to a "party weekend" by the timeshare sales team. My Dad had a doctor appointment on Friday in San Francisco and they are not comfortable driving Bay Area traffic, so I was enlisted as a driver/navigator. They were supposed to be occupied by the wining and dining (literallyl) of the time share staff as they tried to talk my parents into buying more time in the timeshare, and I was supposed to be enjoying a quiet relaxing weekend alone. My dad doesn't like wine, so I got to be wined and dined and he got to relax.

Why does this matter? Well, I had plans. Twice. I was going to relax at home, watch tv, and blog this weekend. Then once I had been invited to Sonoma I was going to nap, read, and swim in the resort pool. In the end I ended up wine tasting and schmoozing with folks who were, on average, 30 years older than me. And it was awesome. However, I am not going blog every day. And that's okay.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

dilemma; or, leap of faith

In the movie classic Indiana Jones and The Search for the Holy Grail there is a scene where Indiana Jones must take a  literal leap of faith. He has to step off a cliff and trust that he won't fall. Of course, it is Hollywood and Harrison Ford so everything turns out okay. There is a rock path that is the same color as the cliff face. It is in fact, not an empty chasm before him, but a narrow rock path that is just difficult to see. As Indiana Jones walks he throws sand on the path because he want to be sure that the path really is there. He does not want to have to trust that it will be there when he gets back, he just wants to know. Is that such a terrible thing? To know?

What comes first? The leap? or the faith? If you don't have faith you won't jump, if you don't jump there is no faith. Jones jumps because if he doesn't his dad will die. Perhaps faith works best when we are thinking of something else. When I was in high school, my church youth group took a trip to a local swimming hole called Hell's Gate (I know it's ironic, somebody call Alanis Morrissette). At one end of the pool of cold, green water there was a smallish cliff the older kids would climb up and jump off. Because I was a girl, and because I was young, I had never been expected to jump, but that day I had decided to.

I didn't really want to climb up the cliff, and I definitely knew I didn't want everyone looking at me while I stood at the edge. I was 14, and my body was curvier and bustier than I was comfortable with. The boys had suddenly developed a habit of staring at me. They would look at me, my body, and then look away. I finally understood what my books' had meant when they described a man as "leering."  But a boy had looked at me and his green eyes sparkled as he asked if I was coming, I forgot my awkwardness for a moment and suddenly I didn't want to stay down at the bottom alone.

There were about seven or eight of us, and I was the only girl. I was the last one up the cliff and the boys had been standing at the top looking down into the water for several minutes. They were teasing each other and taking their time, pretending to push each other, laughing. I did not wait; instinctively I knew if I thought about it I would not jump. I reached the top of the cliff, made eye contact with those green eyes one more time, walked to the edge, and I dove into the water in one single motion. Once I bobbed to the surface the boys lost little time falling in after me.

Does it count as a leap of faith if you only jump because you are afraid not too? Or, maybe it just doesn't matter as long as you are in the water?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

blogging for blogging's sake; or, words, words, words

I have signed up for nablopomo (again). I remember being told once that it takes 15 days to make a  new activity into a habit. At the time, that seemed like a big challenge, sticking to something for 15 days. I must have been very young, like 19, or so, and 15 days seemed like such a long, long time. I know I was young, because I believed it. Now, I know that 15 days is nothing. A blink. How can you undo a lifetime of habits in 15 days? It is silly really.

I am 39 now. I am standing on the brink of one of those ages. One of those birthdays that marks your life and changes the way people view you and you view yourself. It is a benchmark of how you have spent your time and what you have sown and what you will reap. But, I am still sowing. Yes, of course. We all are. And so with the idea that the teacher never really stops being a student, and that the harvest is never really at an end, and marking birthdays like they matter is silly, I commit to blog this month with the hope that it will stick. That this time it really will become a habit.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

persistence; or, I get knocked down, but I get up again (and now that stupid song is stuck in your head)

About 15 years ago (back in the health insurance days), I was seeing a new therapist. As is protocol she asked me to share my history, why I was there, and what I wanted from our sessions. She asked me to write out my story and then read it to her. I began listing the litany of failures that had led me to her couch. At the time I was not in school, unemployed, and completely supported by my parents. I had traveled a little and had tried many paths to independence only to land broke and broken at my parent's door. After I finished reading my list I started to sob. The therapist looked at me and said, "Why do you see yourself as a failure?" I looked at her and didn't really say anything, I just gestured at the list of failed attempts to build my life. She said, "Well, I see a very determined young lady who has amazing persistence. A lot of people in your situation would have given up long ago." I sat up a little straighter and stopped crying.

While in grad school, I was asked to participate in an experiment for the psychology department. I was asked to take a test in which I would take a silly test and then answer some questions afterwords. The test was simple there was a paper with rows and rows of dots. I would need to connect the dots and form boxes. The task was to guess how many boxes I could make in a given time. The test started. The administrator asked me how many boxes I could fill in 30 seconds. I said, "30." The administrator raised her eyebrows, wrote down 30 and started the timer. I did 20. The adminstrator told me that was "very good" for the first try, that most people get 15 or less on their first try. I barely heard her. I was frustrated that I did not get 20. Round 2. "How many do you think you can get in 45 seconds?" I said, "50."  She didn't say anything and started the timer. I got 45. The administrator could see that I was frustrated. She told me that one per second is really great, and that is among the fastest anyone has ever done the task. I could barely hear her as I was too upset and frustrated. I just asked if I could do it again. She said okay, and asked how many I could get in 45 seconds. I said "55." She stopped and looked at me. Finally, she said, "Why? Why would you think that you could do that many?" I explained that now that I had done it a few times I felt like I was experienced and I had an idea for a strategy that would really work. She wrote something in her notes and started the test. I got 50. And once again, I was upset because I did not meet my goal. When the test was over the test adminstrator took me aside and said to me, "Listen, this isn't any of my business, but you are putting way too much pressure on yourself." 

There is a scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny, whose goal is to become a singer, is working in a strip club. She takes Forrest to see her act which consists of her sitting naked on a stool and playing guitar. The audience jeers her as she sings. She is humiliated and embarrassed by this mockery of her dream. Forrest says, "Jenny had accomplished her dream, she was a singer." I wanted to become an American Literature professor. Instead, I am an adjunct composition instructor.  I believe that somewhere in between the lines of these stories is enlightment. That between the person who is persistant and the one who sets her expectations far too high is the answer to how to improve my current life. It has to do with remembering to persist and remembering that failure is objective. It has to do with forgiving myself for my mistakes, complimenting myself on my successes, and picking myslef up and carrying on.