Archive | January, 2012

Pssst, your ego is showing

22 Jan

I often read with a writer’s eye. I am drawn to honest writers, those not afraid to expose their weaknesses in favor of improvement. Precisely because I know how difficult that is to do. Fiction or nonfiction, honest characters are necessary. Anything that feels contrived repels me. I haven’t always been outwardly honest. Not necessarily a liar, just afraid to be myself on paper. Okay, I lied a little. You know, the story of everyone’s youth ever. What startles me is how many adult writers refuse to be honest. They write from a place of ego but don’t think anyone will notice.

Dude, we totally notice.

You think you’re making yourself look good but we can tell you’re faking it. I know this because I’ve faked it so hard! I have stories and poems and files of bullshit I’d love to share with you, but that would make me look bad. Plus it was necessary practice. It’s how everyone has to do it–imitate first, then create your own voice.

How do you write without ego? I’m not sure that’s completely possible, but you’ve got to be motivated by something other than your ego. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to write the book you want to read. I always want to read books that give me a new perspective, pieces that put words to something I’ve always felt but hadn’t formulated into syllables yet. I want to feel connected and inspired.

When you write to prove something, always wearing your self-righteous hat, I’m unconnected and irritated. Why did you invite me here to your ego party? I’d rather be watching TV. I’ve read blogs where the writer is so so impressed with himself  that he forgot to teach the reader anything. The whole post is explaining what he is capable of doing, and never what he’s actually done. Or writers quote something  they think makes them sound smart, but anyone who actually is smart knows it says nothing. It’s the opposite of Orwell’s simplified Newspeak; it’s Obtusespeak. Readers know you’re hiding behind your big words. We can tell you’re afraid.

I should add here that the self-righteous hat was once a staple of my wardrobe. Professional high-horse rider, right here. I thought I was being bold, brave, standing up for injustice! I was actually just annoying. And overly critical of things because it was easier than figuring myself out. Plus I got to feel superior and feed my ego. So the opposite of growth.

It’s also easy to be critical and snarky. I should know, I used to dole out snark like business cards. The challenge is to be raw and honest–the only thing that’s interesting.

Louis CK, a brilliant comedian who writes, directs, and edits his own material, awes me with his honesty. Blows me away with his creativity. But it’s his ability to write material that speaks to the most humiliating aspects of human nature that makes people love his work. He’s not afraid to put a microscope on the darkest parts of himself. Jonah Weiner wrote this great profile of CK, which explores his humility, work ethic, and his boundary-pushing comedy. His honesty often takes a turn towards the inappropriate and grotesque, though, so sensitive souls should probably look away.

Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, is a humor blogger turned book author who is also wildly inappropriate (a theme, perhaps?). While she is one of the funniest writers on the internet, she’s also incredibly honest, which makes her followers connect with her. Because her website gets millions of hits a month, she recently shared her struggles with depression and specifically self-harm, hoping to reach out to others to let them know they’re not alone. This led to a Twitter-fueled Traveling Red Dress campaign where strangers donated red ball gowns to women in need of a fancy night out. There was also a flood of “silver ribbons” hash tags which denoted tweets from fellow sufferers she had reached. She’s also written eloquently about her ongoing battle with rheumatoid arthritis. She’s able to remove her hilarious and irreverent tone in favor honest connections with real people. While it may be “too much information” for some readers, it’s a risk she believed was worth taking. She doesn’t let her ego rule her writing.

Please don’t confuse honesty with spilling all your secrets. I’ll never be raw in the same way as CK and Lawson, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be honest. We all have to do what feels natural for us, but still live just a little outside our comfort zone. Safe is always boring.

I want this post to be more than a YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG lecture. Because we all do it wrong until we learn better. If you don’t want to read boring, then don’t write boring. As a teacher, that’s the easiest thing to notice because we’re always grading the papers. The challenge is to take our own advice. That’s often the gulf–we’ll criticize the heck out of boring and not good enough, but then we sit in front of that computer screen and get just as paralyzed as our students.

I used to write all the time, then I let teaching writing get in my way. I let my job as a publication adviser and English teacher make me so “busy” that I didn’t have time to write. It was more that I didn’t make time to write.

The more I read, the more I write; and the more I write, the more I have to say. And the more I say, the less afraid I am to say it. I’m done making excuses now. If I’m boring you, it’s my fault. And I will keep writing until you’re interested.

My ego can’t take the alternative.

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Why I wanted to kill a cat

9 Jan

I love animals. I especially love other people’s animals. I’m a one cat/one dog kind of person. Or maybe two cats and one dog. But that soon leads to two cats and two dogs and then boundaries get blurred.

House/animal sitting is something I used to do occasionally, and it was the perfect way to experience multiple-animal ownership without the permanent responsibility. It’s like babysitting, but easier.

On this 10-day sitting adventure, I cared for two dogs and two cats. Dog #1 (let’s call her Squirrel!) was a hyper, 2-year-old golden lab  mix who jumped up to your neck every time you approached her. Dog #2 (let’s call her Ruby) was an elderly, arthritic black lab mix who only jumped up to your waist.

Cat #1 (Let’s call him Morpheus) was an orange tabby who I was afraid of. He didn’t like strangers, yet wanted to be in the room with me when he was inside. Just so he could stare at me. Or meow in a mournful Siamese yelp.

Morpheus was never relaxed, and neither was I. He would sit at my feet staring at me, but I was terrified to pet him. Does he want me to or is this a trap? Cats can smell fear. If I stood up, Morpheus wanted to go outside, and I happily obliged, allowing him to stay out all night. I feared there could be a Stephen King Cat’s Eye situation if I forced Morpheus to stay inside against his will.

This brings me to Cat #2. Let’s call her Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Or Walking Dead.  DQMW/WD was a bazillion years old and just trying to die. But her owners were not ready to let go, so I had to assist the neighbor in giving her kitty dialysis. Cut to me in a shower stall holding down DQMW/WD while the neighbor (who was also my friend) injects an IV bag of saline into her kitty veins.

If that treatment had rejuvenated DQMW/WD and caused her to chase a feather around the house, I’d be in full support of these life-continuation efforts. However, it did little more than enable locomotion. So I spent the rest of my days in that house praying this fur skeleton did not die on my watch.

The dogs were sweet and affectionate, but stressful. They were jumpers. They stayed outside in their doggie garden during the day, and when I got home they pummeled the gate in excitement. Squirrel! jumped straight up, leading with his nose. Ruby’s arthritic knees wouldn’t let her leap that high so she compensated by barking louder than Squirrel!, which I didn’t think was possible until I heard it. Once I entered the doggie garden, they were relentless, throwing themselves at me like defensive players scrambling for a fumbled football. I was the loose ball.

Squirrel!: You’re here! You’re here! Did you miss me? I missed you. Do you love me? I love you. Please don’t leave again. Food! Do you have food? I need to lick you. I NEED TO LICK YOU! It rained here! I have muddy paws! Smell my mildew!

Ruby: It’s been 8 hours. Here. With this. Go ahead, I’ll look the other way when you crush up that powder into my food. I’ll pretend not to taste its bitterness. Just love me now!

Then I go inside for the elaborate feeding ritual. Squirrel! had to be fed outside separately from Ruby, but I can’t completely remember why. It was a combination of Ruby eating Squirrel!’s food and the potential for Squirrel! to eat Ruby’s arthritic medicine food as a result. Older dog takes what she wants.

While the dogs are eating voraciously in separate chambers, I check on the cats. Morpheus is happy to use me for food, only after giving me a howl to terrify me as I set down his food dish. But I can’t find DQMW/WD. *Heart starts pounding.* I pace the house searching for the potential cat corpse, flashing back to when I found my childhood cat dead in our backyard when I was 10. Please don’t let this cat die on my watch!

I finally leave her food out and take a break from the search. Later that evening I’m seated in the living room with the dogs, who were finally exhausted enough from our nightly walk to sit still on the floor and chew on tupperware. Morpheus was safely outside and I was starting to relax a bit.

That’s when I hear it. The sound of un-retracted claws hammering the hardwood floor down the stairs. My whole body tensed up like a blood clot. DQMW/WD looked like a crippled ghost being hurled down the staircase in slow motion. She let out a death cry that made me ache inside. It was as if she were screaming “Kill me! Please just kill me!” I pitied her as she lurched forward to get to her food and water bowls. But she was technically alive. Not on my watch indeed.

We survived another few days like this, and I even trained the dogs to sit and wait for me to come inside the gate before they got some affection. All that stress of the jumping coupled with the dead cat anxiety was too much: the dogs’ behavior seemed fixable since they were so eager to please. So that evening, I was much more at ease, having stopped the dogs from trying to knock me down upon arrival.

Before bed, I went down to the basement to get more dog food (which was housed in a giant metal trashcan with a shovel scoop). I look to my right and I see DQMW/WD asleep in her litterbox. Curled up next to her own clumped urine and feces. Now I’m no veterinarian, but even I know death is imminent in this situation. *Dead cat anxiety increases tenfold.* Very likely on my watch! I start brainstorming explanations for the owners when I have to call them to say DQMW/WD is sleeping-in-the-litterbox dead. Not walking, just dead.

To my great surprise, that cat lived to see another day, which was fortunately my last day inside that house. She did not die under my care, although I kind of wanted to mercy-kill her.

I love my own cat like a family member. I understand DQMW/WD’s owners loved their cat so much they would do anything to keep it alive. It’s emotional. It’s hard to let go of something you love so much. But in the end that cat was not happy, just suffering, begging her humans to let her go. They just weren’t ready to read the signs.

I understand the owners’ perspective and the cat’s perspective. I’m so emotional when I think about leaving teaching because it’s something I considered doing for the rest of my life. And something I did truly love. Then the last couple of years when a part of me was open to new things, instead of truly investigating those possibilities, I kept trying to resuscitate my teaching career. Because it’s what I know. It’s almost a safety net. It’s the kind of job I know how to get. So when I moved to Florida, I went back to my roots–I wasn’t ready to jump yet. I was giving myself saline.

This year I feel more like the cat: I just want to move on to the next life. At least for a while. It doesn’t have to be permanent: Cats have 9 lives, remember.

There is a third possibility, though: I’m just a mean lady who wants to kill a cat.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Big picture unclear? Focus on interactions.

1 Jan

When your career goals have become amorphous, clear pathways seem elusive. While my attempts to “pray the gray away” have been unsuccessful, I hope that ignoring it completely will make everything better. Instead of fixing what’s muddy, I will focus on my day-to-day interactions that mean something.

1. Your presence means more than you think.

I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, this past weekend for my grandfather-in-law’s funeral. I thought I was going for my husband, but when my mother-in-law hugged me with the same force my own mother would hug me in those circumstances, I knew I was really there for the whole family. While there I also learned that my sister-in-law (while living in Hawaii) made six trips in one year to the mainland–all the way east to Virginia. And for a couple of years with a small child. That shows her family is important to her. She showed up all the time, even when it meant three flights across the continental US. Even when everyone would have understood why she didn’t.

Does this mean we should make that 14-hour drive to Virginia more than we already do? Crap, it probably does.

Be there for the people who are important to you: it may be inconvenient, but you’ll never regret it. 

2. Traditions hold us together, even when we don’t understand them. 

Several years ago my friends had their wedding reception at a Masonic Temple behind their house. During the event, we all made jokes about this “secret society” and its mysterious traditions, but while in Pueblo I got new insight into the individuals that form this “cult.” My husband’s grandfather was not only a World War II veteran, but ascended to the 32nd level of the Masons as a Shriner. Until he got too sick to do so, he had coffee every Friday morning at the local lodge. Those same coffee buddies were pall bearers at the internment, and performed funeral rites over his coffin.

Earlier I had asked my husband casually and ignorantly, “why are they wearing aprons?”  My husband responded, “I don’t think we’re allowed to know.” We chuckled a bit.

Twenty minutes later I was watching the “worshipful master” drape that same apron over the coffin with such reverence that it moved me. He then handed a single rose to my mother-in-law and her twin sister, expressing his grief over their fallen brother. He looked them both in the eyes and I could see this was more than a ritual. A man easily in his 90’s grasped those roses the entire service, shaking every so slightly. He kept looking for his time to hand over the roses. He didn’t want to miss a beat. His patient and humble service reminded me of my own grandfather.

The brotherhood of the Masons, however mysterious, was a second family to my husband’s Papa. Sure, “worshipful master” as a title still creeps me out, but “worshipful master” the man meant it when he said, “please let us know if there’s ever anything we can do for you.”

Don’t be surprised to find inspiration in unsuspecting places. 

Note: After reading about the Masons, I am more confused than ever (I think that’s intentional), but I did learn that the apron symbolizes “honorable labor.” Take from that what you will.

3. You own your attitude. 

My biggest fear in staying in public education is that I will let the avalanche of bureaucracy and bad decisions affect my teaching. This is new territory for me: I’m usually hope’s annoying cheerleader. It just goes to show you that enough “trickle down” can bruise anyone’s face. But that’s no excuse for me to play the victim: I have to keep fighting my way out of it.

My school has over 3, 000 students; my county is the sixth largest in the country; my state is the fourth largest in the United States. No wonder I’ve struggled to adjust: it’s much more difficult to have human-to-human conversations in a system that large. It’s all policy spoken at us by robots masquerading as humans. And the “humans” are usually talking to us through video clips or emails written in red Comic Sans.

I can’t let that insanity change me in the end. “The only thing they can’t change is my attitude.” My husband’s friend (also in education) reminded me of that over the holidays, and it has stayed with me.

It’s small moments that remind me I’m not a total failure this year. One of my students has started withdrawing from class more than usual, and meeting me with attitude when I ask her to do the smallest thing like open her book. It would be easy to group her in with the faction of my class who is on academic strike, but something made me hold her after class to find out what was going on. Even though she didn’t reveal much, she almost smiled at the idea that I’d noticed. She even asked me what she could do to undo her falling grades. The next period, her friend (who saw me keep her after class) told me this girl had been having family problems. So maybe it helped both of them to see that I noticed and cared to ask. It was a good reminder for me that each child is different, and while I can’t save them all, if I focus on personal interactions, at the very least my students might emerge feeling less jaded with the system than before. And maybe I will too.

Your attitude can save your life.