Monday, December 28, 2009

Rant and Sleep-Deprived Musings

I’m a practical person. It’s that old cliché—a blessing and a curse.

I’m safe. I act safely. I carefully survey each course of action, each possible outcome, before embarking. Spontaneity is not in my vocabulary (obviously, since I just had to use spell check in order to get it down right). In my perfectly ordered and planned world, there’s no room for detours, for concessions to whims, for transient enjoyment, for trips or late-night runs or improvisation.

A professor took me to lunch—she insisted on driving me across town and spending an embarrassing amount of money on fine food for my rather nondiscriminatory college palate. Then she spent the next hour lecturing me on how I need to sign up for study abroad before it’s too late. I need to get out, apparently, see the world, experience other cultures, do something different. She’s right, but how? I have responsibilities, I explained, I’ve already overburdened my parents and I can’t ask them to take on any more, plus, how will I stay on track with core classes for my major? I can’t just step out of the country for a semester and expect that everything’s going to be hunky-dory. She dismissed my concerns as though they were mere trifles, easily solved, not worth worrying about. Surely I had a friend, she said to emphasize a point, surely I had a city-bred friend who was itching for the opportunity to spend time in the country, care for horses, enjoy the simple life for awhile. Really? Because I don’t think I know anyone willing to muck shit for six months time for no pay or reward. I think I made the professor sorry she asked me to go out to eat in the first place.

But people are wired differently (obviously!), and I’m a one track mind, homebody type, I guess. I could have gone to any college across the nation, like my pals at Cornell and UChicago, but I chose instead to stay right here in the place where I’d grown up to pursue with relentless, steadfast determination a goal I’d set for myself long before. Is this a character flaw on my part? Sometimes I think so. I look at friends of mine who embrace the moment, who are out their living their lives with gusto and nary a care. They flit from place to place, opportunity to opportunity, shape-shifting to suit the occasion and laughing all the while. I feel a twinge of jealousy and regret before I shake myself and return to present matters.

But there’s the other side of the coin. Like it or not, life is a series of hoops that need to be jumped through if one is to make it in Society. Planning for the future, making careful preparations, not allowing subtle but dangerous distractions to turn the course….these things are all important.

I know many people—kids of 18, 19, and 20 years—friends and classmates and peers of mine—who are married, having children of their own. Frankly, it scares me a little bit. Are they making a terrible mistake by committing to something so permanent at such a young age, or, a more frightening prospect, am I hopelessly behind? Should I, too, be “settling down?” Egads, no. I’m not ready; I don’t want it. I’ve got other plans.

I also known many people—adults of 18, 19, and 20 years—friends and classmates and peers of mine—who have no idea what it is they want to do with their lives. If you asked them, jokingly, as you would a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they’d either stare at you blankly, comprehension failing, or instead rattle off a list of possibilities, none of which they have any real plans or means to pursue. Now is not the time for saying, “I want to be a princess or an astronaut or a trombonist or a surgeon.” That time has passed. You don’t have to know your life’s course, for crying out loud, but you need to have a definite plan. You need to be heading somewhere, even if you decide to change your destination along the way. You’ve got to grow up and snap out of it and work at something.

A happy medium between all extremes is what’s needed. Live now, but plan ahead. Be smart and careful. And so, a New Year’s resolution for me and a reminder for us all: Live a little more for today, learn to spell ‘spontaneity’ and then act on its principles. Don’t sacrifice the present for the tantalizing but all-too-distant future.

/end rant and sleep-deprived musings

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pay It Forward

This winter break has already been a much-needed relief from external pressures. I’ve been putting in quite a few hours at work, but I’ve also turned to some old abandoned projects to keep myself entertained. I decided to try my hand at watercolor painting to make my mom a Christmas present—a combined portrait of all of our horses. I haven’t dabbled in art since my junior year of high school, so I was a bit rusty, although pleased with the end result. I still haven’t figured out how to mount all the heads together on the matboard I bought, but I’m working on it. You can see other pictures here, and here, and here.

Today was my employer’s 26th annual ‘White and Bizarre Elephant Christmas Party,’ but my first year attending. I was unsure of what to expect; I knew some of the people, but not very well, and others were complete strangers—and of an utterly different social stratum than that with which I am accustomed. The food (all home-cooked) was quite good, though I craftily hid the lack of turkey on my plate, as my boss isn’t particularly fond of vegetarians. The gift exchange was interesting, to put it nicely. The gift I had brought was the hit of the afternoon and was “stolen” multiple times. A hand-crocheted mini-afghan my father won in a charity raffle, it was most popular and I was glad to see it go somewhere where it would be appreciated. A few raucous individuals, however, had found it most amusing to bring gag gifts to the party. One respectable older woman innocently plucked one of these nicely-wrapped beauties from the table only to uncover a plastic donkey which, when its ears were pulled, crapped out cigarettes. My loot was better, but only marginally—a set of nineties Wacky Fav-O-Rites tapes. Funny, I guess, but even if I had a cassette player, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be rockin’ out to Hot Rod Lincoln.

As I was helping with clean-up following the festivities, the farm foreman, a kind-hearted man who’s lived a bit of a hard life, came up to me and offered me his gift, a box of nice chocolates. Surely he wanted them, I said, or at least his kids or grandkids would eat them. But he was insistent—said he had too much candy as it was and didn’t need any more. I thanked him profusely and we wished each other a merry Christmas.

It was a small thing, but it got me thinking. I’m not by any means a bad person (I think!), but I am self-centered, self-absorbed, and, at times, greedy. I think we all are. If we could all be instead perhaps a bit more generous, a bit more concerned about others….

But it’s an old argument, one we all know and believe in yet at the same time, in our mocking cynicism, dismiss as hopelessly naïve and ridiculous. Human nature is too cruel, we say, this is the way things are. Yeah, it’s great if you’re a good person, but dammit, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

I’m not one to preach The Reason for the Season. Given my glaring lack of religious convictions, that would be rather hypocritical. But still, Christmas is a time of family, coming together, charity, love, joy, peace on Earth and goodwill to men. So, a challenge for us all—one we should already do daily, yet all too often forget: this holiday season, pay it forward. Drop the cynicism (so what if no good deed goes unpunished?) and instead act not for reward, not for karma, but out of genuine, pure, unadulterated love.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Now What?

Yes, that is the question: Now what? My idle hands are anxious. This semester was, undoubtedly, the hardest I’ve ever worked for a class. Organic I was brutal, and now I sit on tenterhooks waiting for the final grade postings. If I pulled an A on the final, I’ll have an A in the class; if not, I’ll have to settle for the first B of my life. Which is a bit ridiculous, when you think about it, and the sooner this perfectionist streak is broken, the better for my health, but still—it’s the principle of the thing.

What did I learn? Hard work. Hours. Patience. Practice. Teamwork. All things that should have been obvious from the get-go, but apparently not so much for me. A D on the first test sobered me up quick. It’s not about Organic, though, it’s about the sort of mindset I should have. Don’t sweat the trivial, but don’t give up in the face of adversity—all lessons far bigger than some stupid class I’ll have completely forgotten in a few years’ time.

I’m exhausted. My sentences are short, choppy, barely coherent. I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’ve beaten myself down unnecessarily over the past few months, a foolish decision that’s led to nothing but severe back pain. Gah. John Keats: “Oh soothest Sleep, if so it please thee, close, in the midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes.” Why do we make ourselves so miserable?

But now is a time of rest, relaxation, and recharging. A month of pause, with no scholastic obligations (save prepping for Organic II). I’ll work some, make a little money to pay off the horse, get caught back up with Jack Kerouac and Kahlil Gibran (how I’ve missed them!), enjoy the holidays, contemplate the New Year, eat until I bust my casing….

Thinking back to Thanksgiving, now, a week that I spent in cien horas de soledad. My parents were out of state visiting family; I was alone with the horses. On Thanksgiving Day I didn’t see a single other human being. I went a little crazy, just that fast in isolation—had some nice conversations with a few Red Tailed Hawks before I shook myself awake. Got up at five each morning to tend to the horses, then did a few hours of chores, turned my attention to paper-writing and studying for a few more hours, went to work, then back to chores, back to studying, sleep a few hours, repeat.

Five-thirty in the morning, pitch black. Cold, too, breath freezing in panted wisps. Cracking the slivered pointed shards of ice, plunging hand into water until it burns so cold that intense pain and dull numbness ensue. And, from all around, a chorus of coyotes in surround sound. Two packs, east and west, yipping and howling, all too near, an eerie, primal sound that stops me with instinctive fear, adrenaline. Some nearby dogs start up, too, and the neighbor’s rooster, predicting dawn, a symphony with a half-mile radius. How’s that for an experience?

Gave my zebra finches, whom I’ve had since third grade, to a favorite professor today for her daughter. I’ll miss their constant singing and cute little perch-hopping, but I guess they’ll make some little animal-crazy but mammal-allergic five-year-old happy. Got a new dog this weekend, too. Went on Petfinder and searched for an Adorable Beloved Dachshund for my parents. Found a shelter with 100 dogs and 22 cats all in need of homes, so happy to see us, barking and purring and jumping in their cages. Poor castaways. Picked out Suki fka Frances, and the rest is history. Cute little bugger, but pretty much devoid of personality. All she wants to do is curl up in a lap and sleep all day long.

Last night I set a few books and assorted paraphernalia out to study one last time, then shuffled off to find something to eat. I returned in time to snatch the above picture. That ain’t gonna fly, pooch.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Life and Death

I’m farm-sitting again. This morning, after finishing chores and feeding the menagerie, I pulled out of my employer’s drive and headed for home. Almost immediately I was confronted with a foreign unidentifiable object in the road; I braked and swerved. Perplexed, I slowed to look as I drove by. Was it a dead bloated calico cat? A bundled package of tattered papers? The world’s oddest-shaped piece of petrified driftwood?

The reality proved more sinister and more depressing. A great horned owl, full grown and large, lay spread-eagled on the ground, facedown over a young disemboweled possum. Both were stiff and cold. Rarely do I have the opportunity to see an owl, living or dead, and the sight of this majestic creature stirred me enough to bend down, pick it up, and move it off the ground. And what a beautiful thing it was, even in the stillness of death. One eye was closed, a papery opaque lid shut forever, but the other was cracked open, striking yellow, still staring solemnly. The beak was short, hooked, and powerful. The feathers were unbelievably soft and in varying shades of browns and earthtones. The puffy “horns” blew in the faint breeze, almost comical. Leathery gripping pads covered the bottoms of the feet, harsh talons still covered in sacrificial blood of the owl’s last supper. I could have sworn that at any moment the bird would wake, shake itself, give me a wicked look, rise, and fly away. I laid it reverently in the grass beside the road, gathered my composure, shivered in the cold, and resumed my drive.

Oddly enough, I had little sympathy for the possum and left it lying frozen to the pavement. Perhaps this was because it was common vermin, an everyday sort of roadkill. But more likely it was because it was the victim only of nature and so-called natural order—the food chain, The Way It Has Always Been. Its predator, however, had been snuffed out by something unnatural, a careless driver, a man-made folly, a tragedy, whether accidental or intentional, cold unfeeling machinery, hard pavement, eminent domain.

The day passed. I made the return trip in the black night. I passed the place where I had left the owl and peered into the darkness, but couldn’t make out the exact spot. And then—something in the road. Again, I braked and swerved. And lo and behold, there, on top of the very same possum, was another owl, this one very much alive. A barred owl this time, also large, white and black and gray. I stopped right beside it, as it showed no signs of moving out of my way. We exchanged a Look. “Fucking owls!” I said, a little more loudly than I had intended, despite my lack of an audience. “Stay out of the fucking road!” And, as though understanding, the raptor grabbed its meal in one clawed foot and hopped awkwardly to the grass, leaving the possum behind (presumably for later) before flying off irritably into the night. Silent wings. Another beautiful bird.

I can’t help but feel that there was some sort of lesson I was supposed to pick up on today. The impermanence of life, or the beauty of it? The give-and-take of it all?
And yesterday my family’s dog, Keaton the redbone coonhound, had to be euthanized. Sigh.