Migration?

In just a few weeks — assuming school DOES start in various parts of the country — my street should quiet down again. Some. There will still be a lot of potato and cattle truck traffic, but… I heard the other day that more people are moving here, up in the area of Crestone and South Fork.

One of the permanent changes wrought by the virus is the ability to work at home. I can just imagine droves of people from points south, east and west coming up here to live permanently where they had always just spent the summer. I’m not crazy about this — none of us are except maybe real estate sales people. Our little corner of Heaven doesn’t have things those people are used to and I’m pretty sure we don’t want them.

As long as I’ve lived here there’s been litigation over development of our local ski area, Wolf Creek. People who live here don’t want that. I don’t want that. I live on a US highway which in normal times is only mildly annoying in summer, but if a ski area were developed up there? I can imagine traffic all year and possibly losing my house to eminent domain.

The mountains don’t need the inevitable additional foot and bike traffic, either. Mountain communities in Colorado with larger human populations — both seasonal and year round — are struggling to protect elk and other wild animal habitat without abridging the “freedom” that has always characterized the Colorado mountain experience.

There’s also the reality that from every direction a person can reach here only by going over a high mountain pass. We don’t have a real airport. There’s a one-runway airport in Alamosa. When I moved here, Frontier flew into Alamosa, but it’s pulled out. Now there is only Boutique Air, and it is there because the airport was designated an “essential airport.” There is no other way out of this valley except driving yourself, taking the weekly shuttle to Salida, on horseback, walking or on bike. It can happen that EVERY PASS IS CLOSED in winter. 😉

I don’t have any control over what will happen in the next few years to those mountains or even the parcels west of town that are slated for development (BIG HOUSES! NO WATER! RATTLESNAKES!) or the innumerable permanent social changes that will result from this strange year.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/rdp-friday-quiet/

There But for the Grace of God…

My brother was homeless off-and-on during his adult life. It was mostly because he couldn’t keep a job and he couldn’t keep a job because he was an incorrigible and belligerent drunk. He was also a masterful con artist, especially toward those who loved him. I’ve written about him a LOT here on my blog and while I probably DO have more to say, I don’t think I want to say a lot more. It did give me a slightly different perspective on homeless people, however. I came to see that there are people (like my brother) who’d rather be homeless than contend with their habits and who will use the concept of “rescue” as a way to manipulate others.

The summer I was on medical leave from teaching (having had a nervous breakdown, the summer of 1994) I was sitting in front of the sainted Quel Fromage on Washington Street in San Diego. Quel Fromage was a coffeehouse of the pre-Starbucks type. I spent a lot of mornings there that summer and had become part of the little community of regulars who ALSO spent their summer mornings enjoying that spot in the San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest. We got so we kind of “knew” each other. The tables were fenced off from the main sidewalk. I was sitting at a table next to the fence.

One morning as I sat at a table, drinking a latte and drawing, a homeless guy, who had a beautiful border collie, came by and put two dollars on my table. “I’ve wanted to give you that for a long time,” said the guy. “Buy yourself a coffee.”

It was a stunning moment.

I know, personally, how close that reality is at any given moment. That crazy (literally) summer I nearly lost my house. Until my disability was approved, I had no income. I had recently been divorced and my ex closed “our” banking account — an account that was money I’d earned. I was at the point of standing in line in strange little buildings to pay my bills with cash. I was selling things so I could buy groceries. One of my neighbors bought lots of my stuff and never used it. I got it back when I was on my feet. I knew ONE thing in those times; I did NOT want to lose my house. A lot of reasons, but probably the big one was what would happen to my six dogs????

One of my students in 1996 was a homeless woman with PTSD. She was scary, but determined to get off the streets and become a counselor. I taught her in a freshman composition class. She liked me, and well she should because only two years earlier I’d nearly been her crazed neighbor on the street. I GOT her situation. The counseling department of City College was awesome working with her and over time, she calmed down. She saw she could do college. She saw that people were going to accept her. In the middle of the semester she was awarded a therapy dog — a Belgian Malinois. This was important because she’d been raped twice. The dog would protect and calm her. She was living in the back of her pick up truck. Social services was working hard on her behalf to find her a real shelter. Soon she and her dog moved into a converted motel room. Little-by-little.

The Malinois came to class with her. They always sat beside the door in case she had to escape. 😦 One day while they were taking an exam, and the woman had forgotten to tie the dog to her desk, it walked up to me in front of the class and lay down at my feet. I felt honored, and the dog’s gesture solidified a long “friendship” between me and this woman. One of the things I found while I was organizing “The Examined Life” was a letter from this woman telling me she’d graduated from San Diego State with her MA in social work, was working with homeless women who’d suffered traumatic experiences (war, rape, etc.) and she still had the Malinois. ❤

Homelessness changed drastically during the “Great Recession,” which will be remembered as “The Minor Economic Blip” when held next to what’s happening now. Still, the result of that for many families in San Diego was homelessness. At the time, I had students who lived on the street with their mom and siblings and were using government financial aid to put food on their family’s “table.” It made for some pretty awful classes as students who are not there to learn are difficult to teach. Over time, some families were moved into special housing — one such situation was an abandoned dormitory at San Diego State that was slated to be torn down.

In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, “We have a bigger problem now.” Homelessness in the economic reality of COVID isn’t just a bunch of people like my brother who would rather live under a bridge than, well, anything else, the guys who’ve discovered they make plenty of money panhandling so why work? (Truth) Now it’s communities of working people living in cars.

People are always looking for “the answer to homelessness.” There is no answer. The reasons for homelessness are as varied as the individuals living on the streets. Money alone won’t fix it. Education alone won’t fix it. Substance abuse counseling won’t fix it. But everything together can help SOME people. And, among the most troubled souls, there are angels.

~~~

P.S. In my blog, I have chosen to write openly about the mental crisis I faced. It was terrifying at the time, but in the grand scheme of my little life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. As Henry Miller wrote in one of his novels, we might fear the abyss, but if we have the courage to fall, we will discover what we need to discover. When I recovered, I was greeted at my job by comments like, “It’s Lazarus!” and not given enough classes to support myself. People no longer trusted me, even after 13 years of exemplary work, and it became clear that I had to find a new job. People think things like clinical depression is contagious or something. I don’t know. In any case, there are so many people out there (out here?) who’ve fought that good fight and emerged stronger and more aware. I wouldn’t be me now if that terrible summer had not happened and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else than the person I am now. ❤

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/06/rdp-thursday-homeless/

Sighns of the Times…

Last week I figured out that garden signs could be — besides being a lot of fun to paint — a way to raise money to replenish my oil painting supplies. Yesterday, still contending with the aftermath of a migraine (seriously, don’t get one) I opened the patio umbrella and sawed cedar fence boards into usable sizes. I didn’t do that long, though. It was hot. The light hurt my head. OH WELL. Better today, but still slightly weird.

I learned — among other things — that the weirdness of the time does not mean the usual weirdness of life stops. There’s still plenty of that.

Any-HOO after I cut them, they get a good scrubbing in the kitchen sink because, you know, they’re cedar fence boards that have been outside for almost a decade. When they’re dry, they have a beautiful, silvery, soft surface. I have two custom orders and I hope to start one tomorrow.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/05/rdp-wednesday-umbrella/

“No, I’M Normal!!”

“Whoops!!!!” should be the word of the year.

Now we’re some six months into the virus stress stuff. I realized a couple days ago that I’ve just adapted to this and it’s no big deal for me any more. Some of the changes it’s brought to my little life are for the better. Some of them are probably NOT good like not going to the doc for tests. I don’t want to do that, anyway. So far so good – I’m knocking on wood or whatever this table is made from.

I have two masks — the car mask and the around-here-socializing mask. Since I seldom wear a mask more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time, they’re no big deal, either, and I have a dozen “buffs” or “neck gaiters.” The hard part has been saying “no” to the house guest thing. I’m just not comfortable with that right now. My house is small and old-fashioned. I miss my friend Lois, and I badly want my cousin Linda and her daughter, Andrea, to visit, but that will have to wait at least until the old people are vaccinated.

The ONLY thing that happens to me now that seems to reflect stress is that I’ve had more migraines since this started.

I also realize I’m very lucky in all this to live in a pretty remote place and to be retired. I’m also lucky to be an introvert. That has been interesting. Over the years I’ve had friends who thought there was something wrong with me when, on a Friday or Saturday night, or after work, I didn’t want to go out and ‘meet men’ or go to a party or whatever was appropriate to that moment in life.

Now I think there’s something wrong with THOSE people because they’re “suffering” being unable to socialize in random large groups of strangers. “Why would you want to do that, anyway?” I think. Weird. Our sacred self is really the “standard” by which we measure the rest of humanity.

Sorry for all the typos (which I keep finding). Still fighting the migraine… Sigh.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/04/rdp-tuesday-whoops/

Fringe

I should have taken more photos yesterday when I was out with Teddy at the Big Empty. There was virga that really did look like fringe hanging from the dark clouds. It was beautiful. The easternmost part of the mountains closest to me, the San Juans, is only a couple of miles away. Most of the time, when a storm comes over from the west, the higher elevations take the rain. Then, like yesterday, the clouds float over the valley – still raining at the elevation of the mountains making rain fringe in the sky.

I took the featured photo six years ago as I was leaving the San Luis Valley after my very first (adult) visit here during which I looked at my dream house (still here, still empty) and fell in love with my town and the valley. The mountains in the photo are the Sangre de Cristos. My friend Lois and I were headed to Valley View Hot Springs in Crestone and then up to Colorado Springs.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/03/rdp-monday-fringe/

Waves…

I’m the head honcho of Martha, Bear and Teddy, but what that actually means in the grand scheme is less than negligible. I was talking to a friend on the phone last night trying to explain that since I retired, I know a LOT less than I did when I was “holding up the sky” and teaching everyone in the world how to write and communicate in a businesslike fashion. Both Socrates and Lao Tzu said (in their later years?) that knowing that you don’t know is 1) wisdom 2) the Tao. Or something… I was trying to explain to my friend that when we’re working our world depends on our expertise, and we have to KNOW what we’re spending 8+ hours a day doing, thinking, talking about.

The competence imperative is removed from our lives when we’re not holding up the sky any more. It’s really difficult to change gears or even KNOW we need to change gears; a lot of people don’t. I did, but godnose how I managed that.

I remember in my 30s getting together with another teacher (in her 30s) and marching to the boss’ (in her late 40s) office with a solution to the problem of students being unhappy in the level in which they had been placed at our language school. The students believed they’d been put in a low (in their opinion) level so that the school could make more money by making the students take more time to be ready to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). My colleague said the students should be placed in groups that they wouldn’t recognize as levels, “Blue birds, robins, what not,” she said, “instead of numbers like 102, 103, 104.” Students especially hated 104 — intermediate. It WAS hard to progress past that.

The boss agreed that a lot of students came to her wanting to be placed in a higher level, but that our testing was accurate and placement was almost always correct. If it wasn’t, students were given a chance to change levels. My contention was that there were students who would learn if they were slightly misplaced and had to reach. It got to be a pretty loud argument and you are probably reading this thinking, “Who CARES????”

As I got older I became a lot less polemical. The last episode like this I remember was between me (50 something) and some young teachers (30 something) over my syllabus. My syllabus evolved into this horrible thing, four pages long and covering every possible nightmare I’d confronted in my years teaching. I’d learned that a syllabus is a legal document and also a teaching tool. The more I spelled out about how a student could succeed (or fail) in my class, the more useful it would be for me and them. Students got it and liked it. It usually went in the front of their notebooks and they used it to gain direction in the classes I taught. But my 30 something colleagues complained that it didn’t “reflect the temper of the times” and was “snarky” and not “supportive.”

I didn’t even know what “snarky” meant, but I knew where I was in this business of holding up the sky. I explained WHY my syllabus was like it was and asked them to send me a sample ideal syllabus. Their response was how, after I had taught so long, didn’t I KNOW what a syllabus “should” be?

They were picking a fight, and I wasn’t having it. Aside from certain information a syllabus MUST contain, I didn’t think my syllabus was their business, but they were at the “We KNOW things” stage of their career, and I was at the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” stage of my career.

When my mom died, an older friend described life as a “wave.” “Now you’re on the crest of the wave,” she said. I’ve thought about that often, even to the point of imagining waves and how strange it must be for the wave, who’s spent all its life out there in the ocean, to find itself suddenly on the alien world of the shore, all shallow and stuff, where water is no longer the WHOLE WORLD but, rather, sand, rocks, and — ewww — dryness. “Wow,” thinks the wave, “I don’t know ANYTHING about this.”

It has to be like this. In our middle years, the “productive years,” we’re doing the hard work of raising kids, earning a living and all that entails. A certain amount of aggressive certainty is absolutely necessary and part of human progress. BUT life’s REAL luxury, the earned reward of survival, might be not having to know everything any more. ❤

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/02/rdp-sunday-honcho/

Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

Painting…

Sometimes I think I’d be a better artist if I had gone to art school. Then I think, “OK, sweet cheeks. Go audit classes at the local university.” Then I Google the course catalog, see the course offering and realize (again) I’d rather die than enter a classroom again, even as a student and/or especially as a student. And I remember what it was like the semester I was an art major. It wasn’t fun or very productive except for two of the most important lessons I got in school — both from my drawing teacher, Jean Schiff. One, that I’m a painter. Two, that if you stand too close to the surface you’re working on your work will be shit (unless you’re carving a printing plate or doing silver point or something).

Otherwise, that semester was really disappointing. I badly wanted to learn how to DO things and that isn’t what I got (with the exception of Jean Schiff). It was strange because I had had to send a portfolio to the college to be accepted into the art program — and I was accepted. I thought that meant something. BUT…

I had two classes. Basic drawing and Introduction to Sculpture. The drawing class was fantastic, but the sculpture class was a bust (ha ha). We had four projects and no technical education. The teacher assumed we’d learned stuff in high school and, well, high school art was a disaster for me. My high school art teacher just plain didn’t like me, to the extent that he wouldn’t even critique my work. He dismissed it saying I had no talent and I was wasting his time. That is the antithesis of teaching. Maybe that teacher was right in his assessment, but even then the teacher’s job is to teach skills and ready the student to reach his/her highest level of potential, whatever it is. It might not be all that high, but the student has the right to discover that on his/her own.

Maybe the student will learn they have no innate abilities, and while practice makes perfect, there’s nothing more than that, and give up. Or, maybe the student will overcome his/her liabilities and do fantastic work. Maybe the student will go in a completely new direction. It’s the student’s job to discover this, not the teacher’s job to pass judgement on what the student could ever do. I think of Marc Rothko who started out attempting pretty conventional paintings (at which he didn’t succeed, IMO) and ended up putting some colors on immense canvases and making (for many) a very important statement. Do I like or understand Rothko’s work? Not at all. I’m a representational artist, but I don’t think Rothko was a “no talent, bad painter.” I just think he didn’t paint for me.

Education is a short cut to thousands of years of human culture and human skills. If each of us had to start from “Go” we wouldn’t learn all we need to learn in our lifetime. I understood somewhere in my teaching life that is what is meant by “foundation”. It’s “You’re going to need this stuff if you’re going to carry the baton forward into stuff we don’t know yet.”

I have these thoughts when I’m looking at a painting I’m working on. Would I do better work if I’d gone to art school? That leads to a whole tunnel of wondering. Usually I end up thinking that if I KNEW more I might discover less, and discovery is what I like most about painting. A lot of times with a painting — especially a big one — I’m truly afraid. But that’s part of the excitement, like a rollercoaster. I WANT my paintings to work. I KNOW there are better artists out there. I also know that, fundamentally, those paintings don’t matter to anyone but me.

It’s a paradox.

Ragtag Daily Prompt

Goethe’s 250th Birthday

August 28, 1999, the end of my first week teaching writing at San Diego State, my teaching dream come true, I was going meet my good friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan, at Pacific Beach. Our plan was to eat sausages at a German restaurant. We were celebrating — well, Denis was helping me celebrate — Goethe’s 250th birthday.

Before dinner, we took an end-of-the-day walk on the beach. There in the near distance was an immense beautiful sand castle with candles burning in the windows. Dusk had arrived and the light from the candles reflected on the water left behind when the shallow waves retreated. It was marvelous.

“Goethe’s birthday cake,” I said to Denis.

On our walk back, Denis said, “Would you mind pie instead?” in his Staten Island accent. In Denis language “pie” = pizza. I thought, “Why not? Goethe loved Italy.”

Caveat: I didn’t take the featured photo.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/rdp-thursday-sand-castle/

Celebrating Five Years with Bear

Five years ago yesterday Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog came to live with me, Dusty (RIP) and Mindy (RIP). I had a lot of doubts about this adoption but Marilyn of Serendipity had had experience with Great Pyrenees (at the time, I thought Bear was a pyrenees/husky mix). She encouraged me not to hesitate, that Pyrenees were gentle, loving low-energy dogs and it would be great (if I wanted to live with a big hairy beast who would ultimately weigh 100 pounds). 🙂

My big fear was that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with a puppy. I was then (and remain) mildly ashamed of growing older and having to contend with worn out body parts, knees, hips and the like. You know. I’d been an avid trail runner until I was 53 when my first hip had gone too far south for me to ignore it. Life then became a process of discovering what had happened to me and getting it fixed. After that, though I was supposed to be back to 100%, I never was again. And, as I said, I was and remain, vaguely ashamed of this.

I brought Bear home for a few hours as a “test drive”. She instantly made friends with Mindy, my sweet, elderly Aussie. Dusty was clearly disposed to tolerate her but not necessarily to LIKE her. He was still mourning his Siberian husky sister/mom, Lily, whom I’d had to put down four months earlier.

Bear — observing what they did — peed and pooped outside. Everything about this dog indicated she wanted to be here. I had to take her back to the shelter that day, but I took a deep breath and put down a $50 deposit claiming her as my dog. I brought her home soon after.

As I got to know Bear I saw I didn’t have a pet. I had something else. I love Siberian huskies because they are so independent, but their exercise needs were way beyond my abilities. Bear is at least as independent as a husky, but unlike huskies, she wants to get things right and please her human in a spirit of cooperation and tolerance. While Bear is an autonomous being, she’s one who instinctively cooperates, very different from a husky.

I also learned that she is an Akbash dog, a livestock guardian dog originally from Turkey, that can have blue eyes. They are similar to Pyrenees in their job, but as a dog breed they have longer legs and are generally more slender having, as part of their ancestry (3000 years ago) “wind hound” and “sight hound” — something like grey hound or Afghan dog. Bear “only” weighs 75 pounds.

As I researched livestock guardian dogs I was soon in awe of their role in the world. That Bear was going to be an old woman’s pet and not wandering the Big Empty protecting goats and sheep from bears and coyotes seemed a little unfair to Bear. Several months after she came to live with me, I got to see a couple of those dogs out in the middle of nowhere with a large herd of sheep. That image evolved into a Christmas card.

In my research I learned they needed to be carefully socialized, so from the time she was a puppy, I got her out there where people are. The only time I see her livestock guardian dog behavior is when there are other dogs. Since the time we were charged by a cattle dog, and Bear felt (she was probably right) she had to defend me and Dusty. When she’s leashed, other dogs are NOT to be born. Off leash, it’s another story, or if the other dog is introduced properly. She didn’t hurt the cattle dog, but he has never charged us again.

I also learned that while the Akbash dog (and the Pyrenees) can be fierce, fast and strong, they are very low energy.

So, to celebrate what I view as Bear’s “gotcha'” day we went to the Refuge in the early evening. We’ve had rain for five days and it was just a JOY to get out. The sky was magnificent, the air was fresh, the sky was washed clean.

Maybe best of all, soon after I arrived, I saw cranes. They are beginning to make their way back to their winter home, Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. You can imagine my heart lit up at the sight and sound of these wonderful birds. “It won’t be long now, Bear,” I said. She just smelled some poop.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/29/rdp-wednesday-breath/