Terlingua Word-Off piece, performed 1.26.13

Store Rant Series: No. 2, Bags

Are you jackin’ with my packin’? Are you snaggin’ up my baggin’? Cuz you know? I hate that. I’ve spent nearly three years perfecting my bagging technique, and I’m not gonna let you jack it up.

See? My approach always seems to lack—-tact!

But truthfully, it’s frustrating. Because I have all the groceries mentally bagged before I even begin. I categorize them by:

Quantity: how many items, exactly, will fit in each bag, and how many bags will I need?

Quality: are these foodstuffs or sundries? something requiring paper or double-bagging?

Shape: are these items square? round? flat? wide? and–here’s the key–how do they fit together?

Weight: I try to balance the bags, especially for older people with arthritis.

Temperature: cold with cold, dry with dry.

and Bulk or Fragility: you know? eggs really don’t bag well with half-gallon milk, yet people always seem to buy them together!

With this criteria in mind, I guarantee your groceries make it home safe.

But some of you like to, quote, “help me out,” with my job. And it is very sweet, but then you mess up my bagging Mo-Jo. It’s all thrown off, the weight, the bulk, the balance.

One time, a fellow “helped me out” and, taking over my duties, really overloaded one plastic sack when I had intended for two. “I just don’t want so many bags.”

“Well, you’re trusting that thing more than I do, my friend. Good luck.”

A minute later, as I was ringing up the next customer, he popped through the front door. “You’re right, Carmen. The bag broke.”

“Well, I hope your food is okay,” I grimaced.

“Oh yeah, it’s fine!”

But I did warn him.

I recall the city baggers in those large grocery stores. They absent-mindedly glided one or two items into each bag. I would end up with 20 bags when two would have been sufficient. I swore when I started bagging groceries myself, that I would never be like them. I would care. I would be the Best Bagger in Far-Out West Texas!

Recently, while in the Outside World, when shopping with my mother’s husband at a colossal store, with foodstuffs, services, and every bauble the human mind can imagine for sale, I watched the cashier handily pack the bags, two or three at a time, around a carousel. Though he was fortunate to receive the items as he did, as thoughtfully as I had placed them on the conveyor belt.

“Wow, Jim! He bags with such elegance, see how he does it? Like with like?” I gushed as I saw talent on quiet display, by someone who knows, who really gets it.

I told the cashier, my fellow clerk, that I was writing a piece about bagging. “Are you really?” his response told me he was quite impressed with me as well.

“Yup! For a performance!”

“This she does with her master’s degree,” Jim rolled his eyes at my obvious folly.

But all those years of playing Tetris have paid off!

See, bagging groceries is more than just part of my job. To me, it’s an art. Like when I can fit the random group of shapes on the counter perfectly together like a 3-D puzzle. Or when I fill a bag full of fluffy stuff on which to delicately place fragile tomatoes. Sometimes I feel I’m handing over a brilliant masterpiece when I gling the bag up from the rack and ever-so-gently place it on the counter, ready for the bumpy ride home.

Your precious purchases precisely packed for your pleasure!

Lately, I have attempted to be more tactful when taking ownership of my bagging expertise. Like the other day, when a customer started loading the first bag with remaining items I intended for the second, I simply said, “Oh, please don’t, I’m a professional,” proceeding to explain to him the theory behind my practice.

But I have learned to tailor my bagging technique to the specific desires of our customers. I know who prefer heavily-loaded bags, who need lighter bags, and who would rather go without bags altogether. And the occasional over-loader is sometimes not even worth the trouble.

And that kind of attention to detail and thoughtful service, you just don’t get anywhere else.

But, after all this, you still want to tell me how to do my job? Well then, bring your own bags, and do it yourself!


Charlie: a tale of Synchronicity

At the Store a few weeks ago I noticed a prickly feeling, at different times and simultaneously, on my arms and my belly, on my skin. There really is only one conclusion to draw; the ubiquitous glochids, the tiny orange spiky hairs that surround the long spines on the pads of the prickly pear cactus. Some nearly microscopic in size, they can pack an irritating punch! I find them in incredibly random places sometimes, places that were nowhere near a cactus. They float on the air and stick into everything. A glochid visibly sticking up from one’s skin can be grasped by tweezers, tape, or even extracted by another long cactus spine. But the teensiest ones, just inside, will cause a sore spot until the skin can work it out. A piece of fabric stuck with glochids is no longer welcome as a garment or blanket. It’s pretty much worthless except for a flag, or a momento.

This shirt came with me from Los Angeles. When I left LA, I had given away, or sold cheaply, the entire contents of my world. I left behind all my furniture, everything in my kitchen, all my clothes and other personal items, all my teaching materials, my large book collection. I left LA with two bags of clothes intended for India and a box of random camping gear. (It’s AMAZING how much I have accumulated over the last couple years. Almost as much as I had in LA, but with a different flava!) I’m not sure how this one made the cut, probably because of its lightness; a threadbare, navy blue V-neck tee with some Asian-y image, a wave, some birds. But it was among the 50-ish assorted items from my past life at the time of this tale I am about to tell.

There are people who come into your life who are there at just the right moment, for all the right reasons. We need them and they need us. It can, upon reflection, feel like synchronicity. There is no apparent causal relationship between your meeting each other and creating a beautiful bond, but it happens. Sometimes over and over.

I wore that shirt one hot spring night while bar-tending at the bar with the bus, where I lived my first month in town. There were only the few regulars in the bar that slow spring afternoon when Charlie came in.

Let me give you a little background on Charlie. Charlie and I both arrived in town about the same week, so we mistakenly thought the other was a local. I guess we blended right in. His penchant for sitting on the long porch bench drinking and smoking rollies with the locals was my biggest clue, and my willingness to talk to everyone with ease while drinking the cheap state beer was probably his. But Greenhorns, we were, trying out our new roles, and we liked each other immediately.

Our initial exchanges consisted mostly of pleasantries, but I was willing to share my story with Charlie, as he shared a little of his with me. He was about 65 at the time, a retired veteran. He was fit for his age, having ridden many miles on his bicycle from Albuquerque. I was formally introduced to him at a neighboring camper’s spread; a sweet cotton-farming family that fed the whole tent town, two-leggeds and four-leggeds alike, that first Spring Break when I was just getting my bearings. He had a wild, grizzly beard (still does) and a biting sense of humor.

One afternoon, I found him at the bar’s campground sink when I stepped out of the showerhouse. He was searching for a pin-sized hole in his sleeping mattress, using the bubbly water technique. I offered my assistance and we had our first good chat. He told me that people on the porch probably thought he was an asshole because he was a bit hard of hearing and couldn’t catch most of the conversations. So he usually sat quietly. But he had one of those booming voices, that got louder–and more offensive–the more he drank.

That slow afternoon, Charlie came in and sat at the long, L-shaped bar, on the short side, by himself. We started talking. He ordered a Lonestar, which cost my patrons $1.25 a piece, and put the change from his $20 bill into my tip can. “Hey Charlie, what are you doing?” He just waved his hands innocently in the air, a smile on his mirthful, mischievous face.

“That’s an awfully big tip for such a cheap beer.”

“Can’t a guy spend his money how he wants?”

I told him I appreciated his generosity, he didn’t have to.

We spent a good few hours chatting, the other happy hour patrons drifting off. He spoke a lot of his daughter that evening. From what he told me, he separated from his wife by intention, and his daughter by accident, twenty years ago. He had brief contact with her, knew what she was up to, but didn’t have the connection with her that he was hoping he would have with his daughter, aged 27, an adult out in the world and questioning her next move. I reminded him, he told me, a little of her. About the same age, at a transitional point in our lives. But the thing was, his daughter was in Korea, teaching school, mostly estranged from him, and I was standing right there, his captive audience (or vice versa) until the bar closed at midnight.

The next beer Charlie ordered, he put the $18.75 in change in my tip jar. “Charlie! What are you doing?”

“What????” was his reply, emphasized with a phony attempt at innocence.

For seven beers Charlie put the remainder of his $20s in my tip jar, each successive tip met by my growing protests. I knew he was living off his social security, traveling by bicycle, sleeping on BLM land whenever possible. I knew he was going to do with his money what he wanted, despite my protests. And to be honest, even though I didn’t want him spending his money on me, for I wanted to feel independent, that wad was a big help. I was starting over, broke as hell, working one day a week in a bar patronized by locals, attempting to get by. And he knew that as well.

We talked until the evening drinkers came in. He told me about some of the jobs he’d had throughout his forty-some years as a drifting working stiff. I asked him how many he’d had altogether. “Seventy-five, give or take.” To someone like me, having just left an occupation I thought I would be in for 35 years, and feeling unsure of my potential future prospects, that took a lot of guts. He was a Rambler while I was a Rooter, and had just pulled up my roots. Vulnerable.

The group of revelers that evening was a small, odd assortment. A park worker, a semi-retired band conductor, a visiting teacher who couldn’t stay away from the area, and a man who’d lost his wife and child and feeling his way through recovery with big smiles. Now that Charlie had competition for my attention, and his ability to hear compromised, he sat back and watched. We chatted, the parkie and the teacher reminisced about feeding the band leader’s chickens. The widower brought out bath salts for us to try. We were cutting lose, having fun.

Out of nowhere, Charlie boomed out, “Hey, Ocotillo Girl (though he used my given name), you wanna trade shirts?”

I have to back up once again. A day or two before, Charlie and I were sitting next to each other on the porch, and a drunken character who visits frequently was really into swapping shirts that day. He asked me to swap and I said no. He asked Charlie to swap and he said yes. Charlie’s score that day was a Cook-off shirt.

So when Charlie asked me that night to trade shirts, I understood what he was referring to. And I wanted to dismiss it as easily as I had the other day. But I looked at the shirt he was wearing. It was a fancy white button-down with a double screenprint of ocotillos done by a local artist. It was a really cool shirt. Really Cool. I looked down at my navy threadbare shirt, a remnant from my broken past life, and figured I could let go of it. “Okay, Charlie. I’ll do it.” He took his shirt off first, handed it to me, sitting bare-chested on his stool. I quickly flung my shirt off and donned the trade. I tied it off in a knot at my waist. Pretty awesome shirt. He put mine on, it fit like a glove, looked swell. His curly gray chest hair stuck out the top.

I’m sure I made an impression on the intimate gathering that evening. The widower guffawed over my tah-tahs. The teacher was suspicious of the take in my tip jar. Everyone had their own perception of what happened that evening, including the late-night crew who came in the last half-hour to play pool.

But I don’t care about any of that. They have their impressions. For me, the night was beautiful. A group of people were gathered, sharing in sweet and funny experiences. As for Charlie, I think I fell slightly in love with him that night. In a certain way.

I moved forward with my work life, getting a job at the raggle-taggle mis-managed resort down the road, still working at the bar once a week. I would spot Charlie once in a while, usually at a breakfast spot “downtown”. The view was amazing, the coffee decent. Though, weeks went by, it seemed, with hardly any Charlie sightings.

One morning I ran into him at breakfast and he told me his moment of departure was approaching in another week or so. His original destination was the national park, but once here, he got a little sucked in by the free and easy lifestyle, and couldn’t find the motivation to ride the hundreds of miles through the park.

Realizing our time was limited, he had only been there a few months and was already leaving, I tried to see him as much as possible that last week and promised him a drive.

Working at the resort was “sucking my soul,” as I wrote in the note I left for my boss at the end of the last front desk shift I was able to muster through. A couple days prior, a lady, who measured more around than high, worked herself up into Pissed-off Mode because she didn’t have a microwave in her room. The week before that, a little old British lady wanted replaced the overstuffed love-seat in her suite with an overstuffed armchair. Then told me I should listen to old people because they are the ones with money. Not being able to placate rich people, never having developed that simpering shuffle the poor and disenfranchised must do sometimes for the rich, I decided to quit. Charlie’s example of not taking no guff from no one was just the inspiration I needed to walk away and go have some fun.

The next day, instead of showing up for work, I drove Charlie to Santa Elena Canyon. The water was a bit low, the rocks a bit muddy, but it was still majestic. Incidentally, we spotted the round lady and her rounder companion waddling to the mouth of the canyon as we descended the switchbacks on the trail. Charlie suggested I should tell them off. I could not do it. I didn’t have that brand of guts. We sat at a picnic table when they walked by and Charlie barked some fat joke at them, but overall, there was no incident. I didn’t want them to ruin my perfect day with Charlie. It did seem interesting, synchronistic perhaps? that the lady who got me to realize I hated my job enough to quit was there, reminding me of my terribly good decision.

Charlie and I ended up on the porch that evening. He bought me a pair of earrings from the nearby gallery, simple orange glass dangly things, an inadequate token of his affection. We drank margaritas and watched the purples and salmons and oranges pop out of the mountains in our vista. I began to meander and chat with a few other people. Charlie and I ate dollar tacos. After another margarita or two, he got mad because I wasn’t paying all my attention to him, and stalked off to his bicycle to leave. I followed him and told him he was being silly. He grabbed my arms I had held emphatically at my sides, pulled me to his face, and gave me a hard kiss on my mouth. “Charlie!” I exclaimed, “don’t be ridiculous!” He realized he was probably a little more tipsy, and a little less under control, than he ought to be. Though his passion was endearing.

We wandered down to the next bar where I made my weekly appearances, where I lived a couple months prior, where I first met Charlie, and finished the night with a few beers. At closing time and beyond, we were outside on the big sofa–before it got shredded by dogs–his head in my lap. He was asking to come home with me. At this time, I was house-sitting in a rock ruin, in a bit finer state than my current one. I knew he was too old for me, really, but I guess he had good taste. If only I were twenty years older, I would have fallen for him in a heartbeat. “Charlie, I can guarantee you a blanket, but I can’t guarantee you a place in my bed.” That night I brought him home. I shared my blanket, and my pillow, but nothing else.

He woke in the morning with an apology. “It’s okay, Charlie. We’re good,” I replied with a smile. He rode out of town the next day, stopping by the Store to drop off my navy tee-shirt, which he didn’t need to return, and to say Goodbye. He apologized for the bloodstains on it. It turns out the night we traded shirts, he wiped out riding his bicycle back to his tent, running into some cactus. I had wondered what the scabs on his nose were from when I saw him a few days later. Maybe the glochids attached themselves during his spill.

Even though I had worn the shirt at least a dozen times since, the same week I felt the glochids Charlie sent me an email. The week before that, I was wondering if he was still alive, for I hadn’t heard from him in two years. Alive and well, still rolling on his bike, camping on BLM land, meeting pretty girls, exploring another beautiful desert.

I wrapped the shirt inside a plastic bag from the Store, and stashed it in my foot locker, another remnant from my past that reminds me of the sweetest moments in life.

Charlie and I only had a few months together, in brief spells, but our souls touched, and we’ll be in love forever. Thanks, Charlie, if you’re reading, for being so cool.

I don’t know why Charlie and I met, or why we clicked as we did. Maybe we knew each other in a past life. We recognized something in the other person that we were drawn to, gave joy to each other, helped each other grow a little along the way. That’s what friends do for each other, I am learning. But usually the helping is a give and take. It’s rare when it is simultaneous, mutual. And I look forward to the next time Charlie pops back up in my life, however briefly, to exchange a little more love at the perfect time.

That, my friends, I believe, is Synchronicity.

Maverick: an accidental test

I sent this email to my mother this morning:

Hi Mom,

So two nights ago I was packing for an overnight river trip. But because I don’t get cell service at home, I didn’t get the message that my friend Andy and I were not doing the river trip until I saw his text yesterday morning on my way to the shop to load up.
We decided to go for a hike in the park instead. We went to our friend Jeff’s house to invite him, and he asked us to wait a couple hours because he had his daughter with him.
Andy was like, “Darn, I was all ready to go now.” So I suggested we go out to Indianhead for a short, flat hike before we were scheduled to meet back up with Jeff. He suggested the spring in the basin of Maverick Mountain, using the horse trails behind the mines to get to it. He said it would only take about an hour and a half. I forgot what a fast hiker he is. And he forgot how to get there.
We ended up taking an un-expected 4-hour hike, the hardest I have ever done. We lost the trail. For a while we were climbing up the side of the mountain, avoiding cactus and grasping for rocks that would not roll away under our grip and weight. I almost caught a 40-pound rock in the chest, with another one to follow, but I caught it with my right hand, gripping a hand-hold with my left, and stepping aside on a toe-hold two inches wide, watched them both crash down the slope. We made it to the top of the ridge, climbed along that, until we got to the spot where there is a large, flat repeater screen. We rested about fifteen minutes, enjoying the view, drinking warm water, and sharing a jay. On our way down we battled loose rock rolling away under our feet and cactus everywhere. We finally found the horse trail and made it safe back to my truck by the creek bridge.
I think it would have been much better had I planned to climb a mountain yesterday. But I wanted to go boating. I had boating clothes and shoes on. I hadn’t eaten a bite of food. I only had my nalgene bottle with me, which made climbing really hard. (Andy finally put it in his bag so I could have free hands to climb and catch myself.) I wasn’t wearing a hat.
And during the climb, I was reaching the end of my rope, I was losing my shit. I was close to panic and hyperventilation. We were getting higher and higher and my fear of heights and death was overwhelming. But with Andy’s help (you’re okay, we must go on), I was able to keep myself pulled together. A few times after we crested the top I thought my body was about to shut down, my feet were not going where my brain was telling them to go and at times I felt like vomiting. Though I wish I was a bad-ass, to be like, “Yeah! let’s kick this mountain’s ass!” Instead, I was crying and blubbering and saying “I can’t do this.” But I did. In the face of almost crippling fear, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and potential serious injury, I went up and came back down, an almost 3,500-foot summit, almost all without a trail.
I kissed my truck when I got back. I was so happy to be off that mountain.
We ran into Jeff at the pizza place after showers and some rest. He was sore because we stood him up. He would have loved to climb that mountain, he said.
I slept for 12 hours last night. I’m well-rested, with only sore muscles, a few bruises and cactus stabs to show for my feat. No pictures. (Though Andy said he wished he had gotten some of my face when I was agonized.) But I climbed Maverick Mountain.
I called my step-mom when I got home to tell her. It turns out she’s been to the top twice, the second time with an 80-year-old man. Though her treks were always better-equipped, good breakfasts were eaten. She was like, “Congratulations!” and I was like, “I thought I was going to die!” I definitely have greater respect for hikers in these parts.
But I’d rather go boating.
Her reply:
What an adventure!  That’s why I pray for all you children – keep you safe.  Next time you go hiking, please be better equipped – then you can enjoy it more.


the most fun she’s ever had…

I finally went jogging this morning, it’s been about a week. The mornings have been rainy and chilly sometimes. It’s wonderful. The desert is finally greening up a little. Last year we didn’t get any rain, and everything stayed brown and shriveled. This summer, the winds have changed, and we are getting wet! It’s not a tropical paradise by any means, but the rain is much appreciated by every living thing out here.

Even though it’s been a week, the jog felt great! (Usually after taking just two or so days off I feel all slow and fat and out of breath again.) And my course was extra tricky today with muddy patches and shifting deposits of spiny plant matter scattered throughout. Jump, Tip-Toe, Leap! Fun fun fun!

But it doesn’t matter too much that I’m skipping my jogs this week, because the other day I finally had a river trip! Although we had been expecting the water to go up because of an up-stream dam release, the water had not yet reached our stretch, so I did my commercial trip with canoes. When the water is up, (it’s up NOW and I’m stuck at the store the next couple days!) we are on rafts, oar rigs. Canoes are awesome, and so maneuverable, and can be really graceful sometimes, and when there’s no rush, paddling can be so chill. But in rafts, it’s like, for me anyway, I really test myself. It’s just me on the sticks on the waves and sometimes I win and sometimes the water wins. And it’s always fun. (Though headwinds are never fun.) I get really sore muscles through my hands, arms, elbows, shoulders, back, and blisters all over my hands, and bruises on my shins from banging into the metal frame, but it’s worth it. (The ickier aspect to rowing is why I’m not up for the 21-miler we do. I’d rather do the shorter trips for guide purposes. I don’t want to fall off my game before the end.)

Boating is like heroin to me. I’ve never done the drug, but I know people who have, and boating lights up the pleasure circuit in my brain in a big way. I rarely do it, and I yearn for it sometimes. Before I was introduced to the Rio, I was afraid of water! (Note to self: do not tell your customers that small tidbit.)

During the long months of low water, I would have dreams that we were rafting at 11 feet. But I would wake up and remember that we were still dragging canoes. “Canoe-assisted water hikes,” was one of the jokes we would make when unloading gear and customers at the put-in on one of my rare and random gigs.

Although I’ve wanted to be a full-time boater since the first time I floated the Rio, I know it isn’t feasible for my current life circumstances. I have too many responsibilities and bills and guide work here is sporadic at best. I took myself off the regular rotation over a year ago. Usually I would be squeezed in now and then on my days off from the store. But now I get a job every few months. They call me when they need me. Business hasn’t fully picked up after it dropped off due to the drought, and recession, and growing immigration hysteria by people who have no idea what life is really like down here. But now that the water is up and there are so few guides around in the summer, I may get more work. Either way, I’m good. Private trips are wayyyyyyy more fun anyway.

The river is mostly flat, we sell the scenery, not the waves. We are very far from a medical center that resembles anything by name, so we don’t want our customers to get hurt. We want them to have fun, have a good time, have a sense of humor about our impediments–mostly dragging canoes through gravel and mud. Lots of mud. “The mud is the best part of the trip!” I tell the kids who are afraid to get their shoes dirty. But it’s so beautiful on the river, and nothing to remind you of modern life, except a glimpse of a sparsely-traveled highway. Everything else is wild desert, skinny Mexican cattle, birds, turtles, mountains, canyons, cane and rock–a total novelty for the state and national parks motor-tourists from the city.

I was told by three sources that I had a trip on Tuesday. Awesome. I got home not late from the bar (say what?) Monday night and got my gear together. I set my alarm to give me an hour and fifteen minutes to snooze three times, get dressed, make an iced cappuccino, scarf down an Amy’s burrito, and feed the dogs. More ready than usual. So rather than the typically groggy me, I was a chipper, on-the-ball me. I packed the whole trip myself, my best friend Ron was my driver. I had four customers, doing a 3-mile easy float on the Rio Grande, two good girl-friends, and an older couple. Three of the four were on the rounder side. I drove the van pulling the trailer, chatting with them, and posing questions that would encourage them to chat with each other. We drove many miles through the most gorgeous part of the state. I pointed out what I could remember about the scenic drive, talking about the desert and myself, a city transplant trying something totally new. My customers are intrigued when I tell them about my ruin, which I always point out on our way.

This particular trip went great. Ron got the trailer backed down to a good point, we unloaded the three conoes, and I rigged my boat (with a cooler, 5-gallon water jug, table, groover and first aid ammo cans, extra paddle and jacket, my strap bag, “river purse”, throw bag, nalgene, and dry bag with extra clothes), while he helped the customers with their jackets and dry bags. I brought them down to the canoes, gave them the safety talk and paddle talk, and Ron and I launched them. Then I was in my boat! I was on the water! I was immediately exhilarated! The weather was great, not too hot, and my customers were jazzed.

The trip itself is a piece of cake at low water except for one spot–Ledge Rock. It occurs about a quarter mile into the trip. When we arrived at the bend before the rapid, I asked my customers to hang back while I set myself up in a safety position. I did the run, not as gracefully as I’ve done before, but certainly not the most clumsy run I’ve made, by far, either. (One time on a big trip in front of a bunch of guides, I got stuck on a rock in the middle and had to actually get out to get through. I caught a bunch of shit for that one from my guide homies.) This time, I made the necessary turns, first a 90-degrees to the left, then a 90-degrees to the right, then a hard left. I didn’t make the last left hard enough and caught up on a rock on the right. Easy enough to edge myself off and finish the run.

I parked my canoe in the rocky eddy on river right, and scanned the rapid. Usually, the solo guide finds a dry rock near the middle of the run to perch on so they can help the customers–inexperienced and out of shape–make those hard turns. I could find no such dry rocks. Every rock was under some amount of water and wet and slippery with a quarter inch of algae. The rushing water was swift, but not deep. I found the best spot I could, and crouched down on my knees, waving the first boat through containing Melanie and Steve, an older couple. She, really out of shape, and round. He, largened and softened by an office job. They came through the opening fairly straight. But they didn’t quite make the turn.

Before I realized how I could grab the boat and point it, Melanie and Steve’s canoe was perpendicular to the waterflow, and each end of the craft was stuck on a small rock. Immediately, downstream of their boat, they tipped over. Steve stood up and climbed a rock. I slid across the rocks to Melanie, who was on her back in the rushing water, holding desperately onto the bowline, her head pointed downstream toward rocks. Totally not the whitewater safety position. I grabbed her jacket, and in a firm, calm tone, said, “Let go of the boat, Melanie. I gotchya.” She listened to me and let go. Um, I didn’t quite have her that time. She slipped about a foot before I really had her. But then I got a good hold and knew she was safe. I had to hold her head out of water until she could get her bearings. She turned around, sat up, and we determined she was not hurt, thank goodness. Just very very very uncoordinated. I guided her to crawl to the flattest, nearest, driest rock. She caught her breath while I crawled back across the slippery, rocky rapid and signaled to the next boat. They came through, made the first turn, I grabbed and guided for the second turn, and they finished just fine. Steve helped his wet, sputtering wife back into their canoe while I slipped back into mine. I really wanted a cigarette after that. But I did not partake.

We caught site of a great blue heron. Beautiful. We breathed deep and appreciated the quiet, the natural beauty, the vastness. Steve complained to his wife that she wasn’t paddling well, and I told Melanie she could relax and take the Princess Float if she wanted to, she earned it. I asked her if time slowed down for her when she went swimming, I had heard that happens. She confirmed and gave me the blow-by-blow experience from her perspective. Then the wind kicked up, about 12-15 mph, coming from the northeast. Not quite a headwind. “This is the part where we have to muscle-it a bit.” My customers did great. And the wind eventually lightened.

After the islands, we enjoyed a relaxing snack on a rocky, grassy beach. I told them the story of the time we met a Mexican bull ten feet from our set-up. I found out one of my customers is a fifth-grade English teacher. One of the girls asked me how old I was. “Thirty-five,” I replied with a smile. We followed that heron and his partner downstream for the rest of the trip.

I don’t do many things very quickly. I move at the pace I am comfortable with and it is slower than many, I realize. I accept it and am glad when others do, too. So we were actually a little behind schedule when we arrived at the take-out. But that didn’t stop my customers from exclaiming, “Already?” when we came to the end. I pulled my boat up and the girls’ boat. Then Melanie and Steve pulled up. I thought I was helping Melanie out of the canoe, but she ended up slipping, covering most of her legs, hands, wrists, and elbows with thick, gravelly mud. “Oh, Melanie, are you okay?”

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life,” she replied with a big, gleeful smile.

Damn, that’s pretty awesome. In fact, all my customers told me they had the most fun on our river trip they’ve had on their whole vacation so far. (“Please tell Trip Advisor!”) And Melanie definitely won the “Trooper of the Trip” award. I think my enthusiasm that day wore off on my customers. I was so grateful for being out on the water, that my love for it spilled over onto my fellow river rats for the day.

They helped me load the boats and gear and we enjoyed the scenery back to the shop. When we got back, Steve caught my arm and handed me forty bucks. The girls came out of the office, apologized for not having any cash, but promised to ply me with booze if I met up with them later. I had every intention to, but … that evening I had a date! I cleaned up my trip with a smile on my face in anticipation.

That was a really great trip for me. It showed me that, even with little practice, I can create a fun trip for my customers, and I can remain calm and in control through a dicey situation. I gained a good deal of self-confidence from that experience. I may fear that 21-miler, but I can perform as a guide professionally and make my river trips safe and fun. Pretty awesome, for a store clerk.

mid-summer update and other such things

A local writer, and fan of this here blog, put a little story on me and the blog in a local internet newspaper. It’s a sort-of Interesting People feature. How cool is that? I really appreciate the compliment, and thanks for reading!

So, the day after Mother’s Day, we had a Freak Hail Storm in these parts. You know all those plants I’m supposed to nurture this summer? Eighty percent were completely defoliated from the hail. These babies looked terrible. Pock-marked stalks and stems, bare, pitiful. I told the owners that the garden was practically decimated, for I thought it was. Then I went away for a couple weeks, a friend looking in on everything (a Green Thumb!), most of the plants on automatic drip. (I couldn’t blog at that time because my laptop was also victimized by the freak hail storm, and I was without internet–and music!–for the week before I went up North.)

When I returned, most of these greenies had perked back up, with leaves sprouting up all over the place! Now many of them look better than ever! Some of them still look sad, and a few have not revived. A marigold died in its pot, but a new one sprouted in the ground next to it. And in the pot where the marigold had been, is now sprouting something from the other side of the yard. How strange! Some tomato hornworms ate up all the tomato plants. That butterfly I bonded with the other week, I believe, came from one of these voracious caterpillars. None of the seeds I have planted, including the ground cherries, has taken off, sadly. I am sure many of these plants will grow in spite of me, but I do believe I’m giving them a helping hand.

My new-found joy of cooking, and the close proximity of a flushing toilet, has resulted in a net gain of what looks like at least five pounds on my body, but feels like ten. (At my mom’s house I was manically weighing myself four times a day. The digital scale was so novel! I was 117.5!) On a skinny girl, five pounds makes a big difference. Five pounds means those jeans are tight again. I’ve gone from bony to curvy in like, a week and a half. One of these days soon I must fast and do a bunch of exercise. I’ve been justifying it by saying, hey, I’m cooking, finally, using fresh ingredients. (Though I have yet to roll my own pasta.) I need to cut back on the ice cream, my goodness! And I need to go boating. I haven’t had a river gig since May. Boating will give me muscles. (and bruises!)

I haven’t started on the next phase of renovations on my ruin yet. Before I return at the beginning of October, I want to have in place the door and window that a friend helped me frame in, and the rock walls built up enough to let much less draft through than last winter. But I haven’t started, and I can’t do it alone, and no one with muscles and/or know-how seems to want to help. And it’s so darn hot outside. I would like to try to do it myself, except the bags of concrete I need weigh almost a hundred pounds. I can hoist, I’d say, no more than 70.

Except for this morning’s mellow Sunday morning fair and this evening’s jazz repertoire, I’ve been listening to nothing but rap and hip hop on pandora.com for the last five or six days. There is some really good stuff out there. I avoid anything nasty sexy or too violent. And the other stuff is about doing good things or showin’ off what you got or having a good time. It’s got a good beat, and some of it is really catchy. Now I wish I had payed more attention to what my students were listening to, instead of just insisting they not listen to their headphones in class. (“We need to be plugged in to each other, folks!” I’d proclaim loudly.) I played a lot of my music for my students, though. Sometimes loudly, sometimes while dancing, sometimes teaching. So fun!

(One time, I randomly played that song, “Fernando,” by ABBA, for an eighth-grader who happened to, that day, have the misfortunate name of Fernando. I was not on any medication, legal or illicit, that morning; but boy, I sure acted like it, singing along, and waving my arms and twirling. He was so embarrassed, but I loved that song, and I wanted to share my joy of that song with him, his namesake. lol)

With the exception of listening to rap music, I find myself becoming a Grown-up. I was a Grown-up for a little bit while living in LA; I sort of drifted in and out of Grown-up World. Like, when I could stay on top of my bills, and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and when I didn’t want to stand during the whole concert. But I always skirted the edges, peering into the deep waters, sometimes sticking a toe in, only to find the waters too cold, too stagnant, too turbid. So I’d go do something impulsive, rash. But now I’m sticking my foot in, and it feels clean and warm.

I don’t know yet what the implications for this are. I’m not even sure what being a Grown-up is supposed to look like. And I thought I was purposely running from it by living here and generally being a fuck-up. But I found myself craving responsibility yesterday. I remember when my head was full of details all the time; about how I was going to present my lessons, about what requirements I was going to have on an assessment, about anything innovative I could bring to my classes that would be both interesting and instructional, about the kids trying to text their friends. (What do you think that rectangular desk arrangement was for, positive interaction? Sure, but I could see just about everything from my spot.) My head was full of so much stuff that related to my professional career.

Anyway, I digress. The only time I was ever really a Grown-up was in the classroom, and sometimes, not even then. The rest of my life seems like to me, in retrospect, an Experimental Disaster, but I’ve usually been my worst critic.

Even though I’ve consumed more beer since arriving here to this desert oasis than I have my whole previous life, I haven’t called in sick to work because of a hangover since I lived in LA. I worked through those fuckers. (Actually, I think I have only called in sick once from a hangover. I think I’ve worked through at least forty or so in the last fifteen years.)

Which is another reason why this whole Grown-up thing has come into my head.

When I first arrived, I was so ready to relax and rejuvenate, and forget everything that had just taken its toll on me, and I wanted to meet everybody, and my very first job here was as a beer schlepper, where I lived my first month in town, and I had so much fun! But I was drinking during all my free time. So, yeah, everything is so much fun when you’re buzzed! Yay!!!

I got a bunch of jobs because I was still attempting to pay some bills when I first arrived here. But after a while, I decided instead of assigning every waking moment to a business-owner in town (at one point I had four jobs), I would have some time off to myself. These days, I don’t work my ass off, I work just enough to survive. I don’t have much of a drinking budget now. That was the first thing to get cut. It’s pretty expensive stuff.

And, remember I said I worked through all those hangovers? Well, the last several of them have been while living here. I am a Weekend Working Warrior. So Sunday after Sunday I was nearly useless, and my boss noticed. Alcohol was affecting my financial life, which, unfortunately, is related to most everything else. And when I was not drinking, and still spending time around drunk people, it started to become dreary to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a beer or two just about every night. Though I doubt that counts as alcohol abuse. But hanging out with people who pound shots, and drink a gallon of beer, is like, not fun. More like, kind of dumb.

A good way to alienate yourself from the exceedingly small social scene is by not drinking, and therefore not hanging out at the bars, which are the only evening public hangout spaces in town, besides the churches. The less I drink, the less I seem to have in common with the people I interact with here. They are a great bunch of people, but I feel boring around them. I’m sure there are non-drinkers in town, but they are probably twenty years my senior and I’m not sure where to find them except by cruising the AA meeting. But they aren’t quite my crowd, either. Though they are a great bunch of people.

On the rare occasion that I do go out for a couple beers this summer, because of my self-imposed hermitude, I don’t have much to talk about. I try to catch up on juicy town news, but I’m not much of a gossiper myself. Then I talk about the articles I’ve read recently. “Bacon causes pancreatic cancer!” “Planned Parenthood is under attack!” “Moderate exercise several times a week is the key to good health and longevity!” My bar-mates tell me to stop reading the news articles. Once the winter season hits and I am back in my ruin, I’m sure I will be stopping at my bar for dinner and a couple beers most evenings of the week. I am predictable that way.

But I only have internet five months a year, and I have to catch up. And right now, those news articles are more interesting to me than sitting around sharing half-truths with half-drunks. And to be honest, the drunker people get, and the hotter it gets, the crazier and more stupid they become. One summer, a gal I thought was my friend hit me in the face! She was drunk as a skunk and I should have known better than to get involved in a boy-girl fight, but I was trying to be a friend.

And I act crazy when I’m drunk. There’s a certain annual party in town, and a previous year, I drank more than I ever have in one string of hours. I acted completely uninhibited, in public. The next morning I had to pull a canoe up-stream with a massive hangover. I had barfed in the lot when I pulled up to the shop for work and I think I was still drunk. Hell, I had woken up in a puddle of barf at 6 that morning. In the front of my canoe, I had a rather large rolly-polly kid, uselessly paddling, and yet rocking the boat back and forth, back and forth, unmercifully. I had to really own my craziness because my friends wouldn’t stop talking about it for weeks.

I can’t do that again.

My mother thinks I have a drinking problem, because she only sees me on holidays when I’m getting together with family and friends. Occasionally, we have a Night. (Come on, it’s Christmas.) Because I actually don’t have a drinking problem, because my limit is like five weak drinks over the course of hours, and my relatives ply me with booze all day long and into the night, I end up sicker ‘an a dog. So, my mother’s natural inclination is to believe I have a drinking problem, because I can’t hold my liquor. One of these days I might be able to convince her otherwise. But if she ever believes I actually am not an alcoholic, she will still think I’m a big stoner. Until I have children, there may be no winning with this woman. But I love her dearly.

But I see others in town that do have a drinking problem. With some, their hands shake until they get to their second or so beer, usually before noon. Last week, one guy came into the store smelling like urine three days in a row before he finally changed his clothes. He bought beer every time. There’s a gal, a former friend, in town, a beautiful, smart, witty, shining star, who is just about dead right now from alcohol and other abuses. Alcohol turns her into a raging idiot. I pray every day for her.

By working at a bar and a store I am enabling the over-consumption of alcohol by the townsfolk. I’m complicit. I’m torn by that. I had to step over dried vomit in the threshold of the bar on my way to work this morning. I can’t say I haven’t been there myself.

And anyone can do with their bodies, minds, and souls what they wish and choose. But collectively, I think we can do better as a nation, if we re-evaluated our relationship with alcohol and how it causes so much destructive and abusive behavior.

I may look pretty good for my age, but I don’t bounce back like the young ones, nor do I drink through it the next morning like some of the old pros in town. I look good because I take care of myself, for the most part. Finally–I’m finally, taking better care of myself. For a while I took advantage of my body, and mind, and soul, and let others do the same, because I didn’t realize how valuable I was, and I am. Maybe realizing that I need to treat myself with the utmost respect, which includes nurturing my whole self to the best of my ability, is a small part of being a Grown-up. So dipping into Grown-up World now and then, and lingering, can be pretty awesome.

the Armenian Problem: a fable of prejudice

This is a story of my past life as a teacher. I know I do not owe anyone any explanations, but it felt pretty good to finish this piece, and someone might get something out of it besides me.

.   .   .

So, I used to be a high school teacher; actually, I taught 8th grade through 12th grade. It was a pretty awesome experience. I felt like I was making a real difference in many kids’ lives. I often had students return to me after they graduated and thank me for preparing them for college. Or, they told me I was their favorite teacher. Even the kids who sat in my room day after day doing nothing, even some of those kids said I was their favorite teacher. And I didn’t even give “free time”.

Instead, I was rigorous, thoughtful, thought-provoking, challenging, and fun. I had the Juniors for both their English and U.S. History courses, and taught them in tandem, so we could make connections across curriculums. It was a lot of work for all of us, but those kids got ready for college. The ones who decided to invest in their education anyway; the ones who showed up to my class already equipped to succeed. The kids who had fallen behind years ago didn’t have much of a chance in my classes. But to their advantage, I was available for tutoring all the time, and I gave tons of extra credit. They just had to do the work.

But really, I designed my courses with the state learning standards in mind; so I, for the most part, expected from them what the state of California expected. Though I was told by my first principal that my classes were harder than the community college classes our students were taking. I was fresh out of grad school and academic rigor was my M.O. (I have lots of opinions about how we should re-vamp the education system in this country, if anyone cares to hear.) There are many things I would have done in addition to, and different from, what I was doing, if we had smaller class sizes and less workload, among a plethora of other necessities. I can not tell you how many hours I spent at the copy machine so my kids could learn. I also took on several extra curricular projects in order to ensure student success and enrichment. I spent most nights and weekends working for my students. But as far as teaching positions in LA, it was among the better ones. Perhaps that’s saying something about the quality of education in LAUSD, and I’m not blaming the teachers. We were expected to perform miracles with minimal resources. And I performed a few, for sure.

My school is a really great school. It’s a little magnet school, K-12, smack dab in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, an oasis in the morass of urban, large-scale schools. In its hey-day, it went above and beyond the status quo to provide as much hands-on learning as possible for its students–with Los Angeles a vast field-trip resource–until No Child Left Behind’s mandates dampened the curriculum and loaded us down with testing. We went from several field-trips a month to one a year per grade level. The district is, regardless of how they attempt to sub-sect it, a giant, multi-level bureaucratic organization. The downtown office is self-contained in its own high-rise, over 30 floors of pencil-pushers. It employs tens of thousands of disgruntled, frustrated teachers.

My school is a gem. We are safe from most of the harrowing city dangers. We call each other by our first names, a school policy, eliminating false respect that titles provide. We consider ourselves a “family” and usually get to know each other fairly well. Most students are encouraged to pursue avenues of interest, and are fostered by the staff to follow their dreams. We have murals painted by the students all over school (except the one I helped with that got painted over, the one that said, “Stop Wars”). The mural (painted before my tenure) on the outside of my classroom wall says, “Never Give Up on a Dream” and depicts a rainbow and smiling things. (On closer inspection, one can also see lots of pencil-drawn cock ‘n balls depictions. lol) We have a small animal farm with peacocks and goats and roosters.

I did not want to leave my school when I did, I enjoyed working with my colleagues, I had a lot of respect for most of the students, and I believed in providing a quality education for my students to the best of my ability.

I was essentially driven out.

Our student-body at the time that I was there (and I suspect it is still about the same three years later) was 40% Armenian. Before moving to California from the Midwest, I had never even heard of Armenia. If you haven’t either, it is a small country squished between the eastern border of Turkey, the southern border of Georgia, and the western border of Azerbaijan. It is the only Christian nation in the Middle East. So, although we were a magnet school, mandated 60% minority and 40% white, the Armenians counted as our “white” students. When the other magnet schools have their very bright white students keeping test scores high, our “white” students are a language and cultural minority, and addressing all the issues they brought to the table was a tremendous challenge.

I learned more about Armenia and Armenians over my six years teaching at my school than I ever thought I would. If you have never met any Armenians, let me describe them a little. And although I will be making generalizations and referring to stereotypes, if there ever was a group that reflected stereotypes, it is the Armenians. Stereotypes are bred and beaten into Armenian children. They have no choice but to adhere to stereotypes. If they attempt to behave or think differently from the rest of the group, they are outcast, shunned, treated as an Other. The Armenian kids I taught were often first- or second-generation immigrants, and their parents were educated under the Soviet system, which controlled Armenia until the fall. Then followed the economic depression. Armenians who have been settled in the U.S. or Canada over the last century may not know how to speak Armenian. But the ones at my school and in enclaves throughout Los Angeles are F.O.B.s, emigrating throughout the decade after the Soviet collapse.

The women are lovely, demure, intelligent, strong. They are always beautifully made-up and dressed to the Nine’s. Get them together, and they are fun, charming, endearing. Many of them could easily be scientists and engineers. They do the hard work for the boys. The girls are raised to wait on their brothers, even if they are younger, hand and foot. They are encouraged to let the boys cheat off them in school, and berated if they do not wish to adhere. To illustrate further this disparity of the sexes, we had a mother come to school at lunch time every day to hand-feed her six-year-old son. The boys are expected to inform the parents if an Armenian girl becomes interested in a non-Armenian boy. Even though many of them are acutely aware of their oppression, they often are voiceless.

The boys, on the other hand, are raised to be boss, and bark orders at their women, and dismiss anyone who is not Armenian. They have absolutely no respect for women, and do not even recognize that there are other cultures worth a damn in the world besides their own. These men are superbly homo-social, yet vehemently homophobic. Adult Armenian men can negotiate the outside world to an extent, but adolescent boys boast of their cultural heritage from the rooftops. In LA, there are independently-minded male Armenians, but they are not the cultural norm. Heaven forbid if any Armenian child, growing up in Los Angeles, wants to break out of the mould, have friendships with non-Armenians, enjoy the cultural feasts of LA. The few who did just this, got a lot of support from me.

Every once in a while, when tensions would get high, my students and I would end up in a long, open discussion about the culture clash at our school and within greater LA. One of these conversations was sparked by a statement from a more open-minded Armenian boy that “the Kardashians are not Armenian because they don’t speak the language.” We were supposed to be learning about Emily Dickinson that day. Instead, it was an intense two-hour talk on being Armenian. The Armenian boys would often conclude these discussions with a, yeah, maybe they could try to be friendlier (maybe even friends?) with non-Armenians. Many of the girls would end up weeping, frustrated at their second-class status within their family and community. The rest of the students had a chance to pipe in once in a while, and their input was valuable, though probably fell on deaf ears. There were so many other cool cultures at school that we could have been learning about, but the Armenians demanded loudly that we pay such close attention to them, that other kids’ cultures were neglected.

I made attempts to bridge the cultural gaps the best I could. I attempted to learn some Armenian phrases, I enjoyed Armenian food, I learned a little of the history and culture, I always appreciated attending an Armenian social gathering (though I’ve never been to a wedding and I really wanted to), I was sensitive to the issues surrounding my students. And I’m sure they appreciated my attempts to learn about their culture. But in school, there were seldom attempts made by Armenians to learn about other cultures. While I included Armenian girls on the Peace Day committee, most Armenian boys boycotted the annual event that celebrates our cultural differences.

Many of the Armenians would insist on speaking Armenian inside the classroom, and when asked to speak English because it’s nice to include everyone in such a loud and open conversation, they would give some bullshit translation. “Oh, yes, I was just telling my friend, Hovik, here, that he should open his book to page 452. That’s it, I swear.” Yeah. Right. On campus they would only spend time with each other, roving in a large gang of boys, and a few girls, all speaking Armenian, the boys wearing velour tracksuits with huge gold chains glistening around their necks. Some of them idolized the Armenian Mafia. The girls usually wore designer brands. Other kids expressed a desire to try to be friends with them, but felt this gang-like behavior to be very intimidating.

Historically, the Armenians are a people who have seen genocide, so their cultural identities, and the preservation of those identities, is paramount. There are now more Armenians living outside of their mother country than inside it’s political boundaries. These boundaries changed after the genocide of 1915, so their beloved Mt. Ararat is in Turkey. They hate the Turks. Every April 24 the Armenians have a march (or car parade?) through Hollywood, appealing to world governments to recognize the Armenian Genocide that was inflicted by the Ottoman Empire, ancestors to today’s Turks. The older generations are sad, quiet, venerable, on this day. The young Armenians use this day as an opportunity to show off their expensive cars, their flashy bling, and perhaps find a hook-up or two. I have heard this critique of the Armenian Youth Parade by some of my more courageously open-minded Armenian students willing to express their discontent.

How do you bridge gaps with a culture that continuously shuts you out? I made friends with the girls. The Armenian girls are lovely, so lovely, and bright. They used to take me out to lunch on my birthday. I needed to somehow save these girls from the fate that awaited them. Usually, it is as a teenage bride marrying a man in his mid-30s. Some of the smarter girls, get to go to college and pursue a short career before getting married and having many babies. A few get to marry men closer to their own age because they have fallen in love. Most of them end up fat, but very hospitable.

As a more independent thinker, and fortunate enough to be a college-educated white American, I encouraged the girls to be assertive about their needs and wants. I feared for their fate, and wanted to help them learn about the world, and encouraged them to explore it. Let them know what other ways of thinking were out there, what other options they had. In hindsight, I probably created a lot of tension between daughters and their parents, as they made attempts to speak up for what they knew in their hearts to be what they wanted. I never intended to cause familial riffs, and I probably didn’t beyond the normal teenage drama stuff. I wanted to, instead, teach these girls about all the amazing things this world has to offer and help them discover what they can do to add to it in their own amazing ways.

In addition to teaching my students the subject-specific courses they needed in order to graduate, I thought it was my obligation as their mentor to teach them about life. I have a hard time lying to people who ask in earnest, and I would usually answer earnestly, if time permitted, when my students asked ‘off-topic’ questions. What a good opportunity to address some of the issues facing these kids! We talked about sex, sexual identity, racism, corporate impacts on our lives, current politics, drugs, tattoos, manga, music, and much more. Why not discuss what kids want to talk about, and get them to think about their choices? (Even if it did get me in trouble once in a while.) I didn’t ever glorify stupid behavior (not really). If a kid needed a condom, he could get a couple from me and know they weren’t out of date like the ones in the health office. Really, I wanted my students to be prepared to negotiate a world that is more diverse and filled with more choices than they could imagine. For the liberal-minded students, I wanted to develop their sense of civic-mindedness, and responsibility to their community to make this world a better place with the time they have on it. If I ran into a student at a march or rally downtown, I offered extra credit if they wrote a paper about their experience.

And my students taught me, in return. Such wonderful people, my students. And many of them are now going on to grad school or working in fields that will make a difference, or making babies. I am proud of my contribution to their lives, and grateful for their contribution to my life. There are dozens and dozens I would love to thank today.

For most of the Armenians, I was just trying to get them to hate less. It seemed to me the boys hated everyone not Armenian. If I could just get them to hate less, then I would have a more peaceful classroom, providing a sweeter space for learning. If I could just get them to hate less, they wouldn’t be seen as huge assholes to most of their SoCal brothers from different cultures. Is that too much to ask for?

I started to lose heart for teaching during my sixth year at my beloved school. The Juniors, a tremendously bright group, were acting lazy. I knew they had so much potential, and month after month they were giving me half-assed bullshit. My efforts to motivate them were not working. I was distracted with an important election and a crumbling relationship. Additionally, with my Senior writing class, a series of events played out, which I won’t line up on display here, now, for it would double the length of this essay. (But I’ll tell you over coffee sometime if you don’t want to wait for the post.) The combined result was that I lost my heart for teaching, or at least, teaching at my school. The Nay-sayers of my pedagogy and practice were Homophobes and Bigots, many were Armenian parents. Why didn’t I just call the ACLU? (Now, with the passage in California of the Gay History curriculum mandate, I would have been completely protected.) I ended that school year feeling totally disheartened.

Throughout my tenure at my school, I tried so hard to be a fine model of another possibility, another way to live, besides the closed-minded, closed-hearted way that many of my students were raised to think, feel, and act. I was able to use the contents of my courses to help teach those lessons. Everything we learned was about people from the past, making mistakes and reaching goals. But over the course of six years, after feeling very little success in some of these difficult battles, and sometimes not always being the best model myself, I was exhausted.

The following summer, I transfered to a continuation school in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. I lasted for one semester before I quit altogether. The school was comprised of kids trying to recover enough credits to graduate; mostly gang kids, teen mothers, unmotivated stoners. There was some question as to an available position because of personnel shuffling throughout the district. The math and English coach positions had all been eliminated in the budget cuts and now there were several dozens of displaced teachers looking for classrooms. When I got the call that I might not have the transfer after all, the first thought that coursed through my mind was, “I can not teach the Armenian boys another year.”

Because I also taught 8th grade, I had already experienced the next group coming into my Junior classes, and I did not want to deal with them again. They were especially awful.

All year every year a similar group of Armenian boys glared at me. (My memory of them today is a blur of angry faces with heavy dark eyebrows.) They never respected me, especially as a woman in a position of authority over them. They terrorized me. One year, an Armenian boy in my English Lit class wrote a five-page paper semi-glorifying a back-alley rape, his piece for the fiction unit. Hopefully not fantasy. I had Armenian boys put my photo that they got from the school website on a craigslist ad offering sexual favors, giving the school’s phone number. For a week my principal fielded calls from perverted men seeking blow-jobs. In a reflection for his health class, an Armenian boy wrote that all gay people in this country should be killed. Some of them committed vandalism, putting a 4-foot key scratch all around the back of my (now ex-) husband’s new Mini Cooper. They glared at me, these boys, like they wanted to do terrible violence to me before they killed me. The nicer looks were just ones of disgust. That isn’t to say that much of the time, there weren’t some Armenian boys who acted nice. There were usually a small handful who knew how to act respectfully and personably, even if they didn’t always feel it. But the other large handful would glare.

I make a practice of examining the prejudices I harbor. Being so liberal my whole life naturally caused me to be the fighter for the underdog, the sub-group, the powerless. My prejudices were few. I don’t think I had even heard of Armenia before moving to Los Angeles. But after six years of dealing with adolescent Armenian males, I hate to say that I have prejudice now. Some day I will examine these more carefully and try to remove them from my heart. But for now, I’m relieved that I don’t have to face the glare-down every day. I still adore the Armenian girls, and wish them the very best. And I have tremendous respect for any Armenian child, boy or girl, who dares to break free of the mental and social confines that relatives force upon them.

Who’s to say which is better, assimilation or preservation of culture? What the Armenians were doing was using fear and threats of terror, and actual terror, to achieve their goals. One of their goals was removing me from the school that they were attempting to take over, literally. They weren’t just stating their needs as a minority group in peaceful demonstration. They were hostile. I couldn’t continue to work in such an unhealthy environment.

Essentially, this is about how we behave in each other’s company. How can we create positive interactions with every other living thing on this planet? How do we create positive climates for learning, in order to advance our society?

What the Armenians need is balance. They need to drop the trait of terror and embrace the essence of cooperating with people from a variety of backgrounds, while teaching others about their culture. Otherwise, they should go back to Armenia. Seriously. If their hearts are bound to Mt. Ararat, then why not go back to the place they love? Economics seems to tie them to their new home. And fortunately, they have neighborhoods and families with whom they can remain culturally intact.

But as an educator, it is my job to prepare them for the world. Their immediate world is Los Angeles, a city with I bet at least one person from about every culture on the planet. The Armenian bubble isn’t that big that they won’t encounter many different types of people in their normal city lives. It would be to their advantage to learn how to get along with everyone, instead of projecting their bully status with foghorns throughout the city. I tried, but I gave up. They made it clear to me that they would prefer to hold onto their homophobia, their bigotry, their sexism, their hatred of difference, and use violence to maintain their control over their own fears. It’s so sad.

I know I am so far from perfect, and I’m just working on myself right now. I’m tired of judging. I spent years of my life judging: evaluating exactly what was the best information to teach in the limited time I had, evaluating which work was the best my students produced, giving them grades in judgment of their work, these grades a communication between everyone about how well some kid did according to whichever weirdo was grading their papers. (Some schools just use computer programs now to grade papers, the subjective professional evaluator may be going the way of the Dodo.) I’m kind of tired of judging. I reacted to a judgmental group of people with more judgment. I am working every day to judge less and less. Discern? Yes. Make informed, intelligent decisions? As often as possible. But feel negatively about someone because of their perceived negativity, well, I’m working really hard on that one.

And maybe you harbor judgment in your heart as well. That’s why we can understand each other. Sometimes it’s necessary, because we’ve been shit on so many times that we have to have our guard up. Like the Armenians. At my school, the graduates all request a personal speaker at their ceremony. I had the opportunity to be a speaker a couple times. It’s a thrill, I can assure you. I remember one time, a slightly older girl spoke for her graduating cousin. This gal told the audience, her family advice, to “trust no one.”

I’m not perfect, faaaaaarrrrr faaaaaaaaarrrrr, from perfect. However, even though it has gotten me into trouble, I still believe that possessing a certain naïveté about the world, in some aspect, keeps it fresh, interesting, alive, and beautiful.

I always felt like it was much easier to talk to one Armenian boy at a time. If they ganged up, they started thumping their chests, showing off, sometimes surrounding me. Kind of frightening, but I was able to manage them okay, for the most part. When it was just one kid, he was usually respectful, more easy-going, generally easier to be with. Unfortunately, “Group Think” sets in quickly.

Maybe that’s the way to get their attention, one at a time. If each Armenian boy paired off with a kid from a different culture, a different (or the closeted same) sexual identity or gender preference, a different ability spectrum, then maybe they would see that the world is not quite as scary as they think. And they would stop using fear to intimidate in return. And it would be one more wall breaking down between us all.

So go find an Armenian boy, and become his friend, though it might be hard, it might hurt.

I hope, generations hence, (gladly sooner!) humans can discover the real pathways to each other, and stop with the violence, the nonsense, the interferences of prejudice. The Armenian males are but a small representation of the same flawed sentiment among humans around the world, to varying degrees, myself included. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. We can change ignorance. We can resolve to do better each and every next time.


Why did I think I could get away with wearing a white shirt at work yesterday? I dripped peach juice on it and got the button placket grimy before I replaced the shirt with the scarf. Can someone please demonstrate how I can tie a long-ish fashion scarf around my neck, keeping the dangling ends out of my way when I bag groceries or price merchandise, without provoking my customers to ask “what’s wrong?” as if I’m covering up a neck brace? At least half a dozen customers thought my neck was broken. One thought I was covering up hickies (my life is not that interesting, I assured her), and a couple thought I was insane for even wearing a scarf in this heat! Yes, I realized it was over a hundred degrees outside (which is why I’m only wearing shorts and a tank top), but I was inside with a 76 degree A/C vent blowing on me, and have rather thin blood now because I live in a place where summer temperatures average above a hundred. And I was only wearing the scarf in the first place because I wore a white shirt to work. Lovely and breezy for the 104 degrees outside, and the A/C within; at The Store, I couldn’t do one darn task without wondering if I was going to get the thing dirty. I never wear white. A happy girl’s gotta complain about something, right?

.   .   .

Because of the wind’s tendency to displace the desert plants, my jogging course is now scattered with patches of treacherous cactus needles, mostly cholla. I have to pull several of these suckers out of my shoes after each run. (I am off the hook for training for the half-marathon, a mutual agreement, thank goodness.)

After returning from my jog this morning, I carried a dead dove away from the house to a better feeding spot for the buzzards. I considered eating it myself, but then realized I had no interest in cleaning the thing. It was pretty, though.

When watering the plants this morning, I rescued a stunning butterfly from the sad fate of a spider’s web. In the process, I broke its wing. I felt terrible about it, but relocated it to a good plant where I hope it can recuperate before going along its way.

.   .   .

I wrote two other blog posts this week, both unpublished as of yet, and this is what I give you. The other ones might be considered a bit incendiary, so I’m gathering my gumption first. I hope you understand.

new birthday reflection

Happy Birthday, to the new baby boy! As of this writing, the bundle of joy’s name is yet unknown to me, and perhaps even to his parents, though I know they are looking deep into their hearts for one. He is adorable, sweet, pudgy (as shown in the really close-up photo they posted on facebook, which I have been avidly checking for updates, as is every person connected with them, both near and far). He is gratitude and hope and love.

He has a whole town looking after him, a whole town plus everyone else related to the beamingly happy parents, sending them love. Yesterday, as news of his birth spread (sometimes by us, we’re the main store in town after all, we spread the “news”) we shared hugs, blessings, sighs of relief, lots of tears of joy, and sometimes jumping up and down in the aisles.

Congratulations to the new member of the family, and to his proud, joyful parents. We cannot WAIT to meet him.

my ride on Amtrak

For the third time since my arrival, I left my desert heaven for the Outside World. For two weeks and one day, I was Up North visiting family. I decided to travel by train. Amtrak’s nearest station is 80 miles away, which is actually much closer than the nearest airports; four 1/2 hours and 5 hours respectively, by car. Flying in and out of the nearest bustling metropolises would have cost me twice as much as the train, and the stress of a car trip to a city. And on the train I can see the land! I can meet interesting people! Over forty hours of travel time? No problem, it’s better than driving myself. Gas would have cost me a fortune I do not have. The Amtrak provided me with a round trip, practically door to door, for a mere $242, a basement bargain!

I had a 1500-mile rail and bus trip ahead of me. I boarded the train and the conductor found me a decent window seat, near the outlet, and next to a thin, older woman. We talked for hours. We slept side-by-side overnight. She told me she was visiting her three grandchildren. The oldest was graduating from high school, the youngest, a ten-year-old, she had never touched with her physical self, it had been that long since her last visit. She was a sweetheart, and only after our night together as seat mates did we exchange names. Her’s is Eleanor. I gave her a hug in Dallas, where she was going to board a bus. At 71, her Blondie tee-shirt and hippie skirt seemed, not incongruous, but actually cool. (She thought her outfit would help her blend in better during her long layover in Los Angeles.) I hope she had a great visit.

Then I had the two seats to myself. For many hours. At first I hesitated to spread out, making seating someone next to me difficult. Then, when darkness set in, I said, fuck it, I wanted to sleep without so much discomfort in my hips and knees. I had been popping Dramamine as often as I needed to return to my preferred state of “drowsy.” I wanted, really, to sleep through the whole thing. I had anticipated having access to dozens of podcasts on my macbook, but she was a victim of a sudden, freak hail storm, rendered useless, and I had to leave her at home. I was awakened around 2 or 3 in the middle of the night to make room for someone boarding in Little Rock. My new seat mate was a heavy-set woman who breathed like a pug dog while awake. Not the most ideal situation, but I didn’t let it get me too disgruntled. More Dramamine put me back to sleep.

The following morning I had to de-board the train and take a bus for another five hours to my final destination. Normally the train goes to my mom’s town, but they are working on a high-speed rail line, and service was interrupted. I arrived at my final destination a full 48 hours after I left my house. But I didn’t have to drive myself, and besides the physical discomfort, I was not put out much at all. (Amtrak, by the way, has twice the legroom and wider seats than coach seats on airplanes.)

My visit to the Outside World was wonderful. I got to see family and old friends, go shopping, eat at a fancy Italian restaurant, take a couple weeks off work. I can’t say it was very relaxing. I believe I live in the most relaxing place in the country, and so going to the Outside World, with traffic, and mean people, was a bit overwhelming. It always is. But for the most part, I spent my time with loved ones, and I rarely had to drive myself. Some folks, here and there, think someday, on one of my visits, I will be seduced by the pleasures and varieties of the Outside World, and never return. But, in fact, I found the incredible number of choices and options generated anxiety.

On the return trip, I began with my five-hour bus ride, the driver chain-smoking at every stop, scheduled or not. Then I boarded the train in St. Louis. I had the two seats to myself. It was wonderful. I spread out. I gave people the stink-eye when they considered sitting next to me. I enjoyed that first night in coach-class luxury.

The following afternoon, something very strange occurred. We were stopped on the tracks for about twenty minutes before the kitchen made an announcement. They were like, “hey, power’s out, we can’t make lunch,” (with a slightly sarcastic tone). Then the fire and police vehicles showed up. Passengers started speculating about any possible event that could have occurred. At first I didn’t know if it was engine problems because it had already had to be “rebooted” once. Were they going to change engines or move passengers? but if it was requiring this many police, I figured it was bigger than that. Then one of the conductors made an announcement. “There has been a fatality on the tracks.” Yes, it was much bigger. And now came more speculation. About a half hour later, the engineer announced that we would be moving as soon as we were cleared. A passenger, who came back from the dinner car, said he overheard a staff meeting; it was a suicide. People started to get grumpy about making their next connection. I just sat there, sort of quietly freaking out.

We started back up again about an hour and a half (?, I fell asleep) later and people still made their connections, fretting about that while this man’s guts were being photographed–a news helicopter flew by–and scraped off the tracks. I tried to feel if his spirit was lingering around the train. Er, I tried for about ten seconds. The engineer (or a conductor?) apologized several hours later for the “incident”, which apparently “happens sometimes”. By late that evening, news of the “incident” had spread throughout the new passengers, too. “You were on the train when that happened?” I was asked often. Another woman who seemed to have semi-reliable information told me that the neighbor eyewitnesses (someone had gotten the internet news right away, while we were waiting for word), said the victim was, she told us, an old man with a cane who often walked beside the tracks. Here is the only story I could find about it online: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/06/04/4007003/officials-investigating-death.html. But Amtrak’s record for deaths is not great. A Google search for “Amtrak death” renders almost six and a half million hits.

.   .   .

My next seat mate, I found out almost right away from the book she was reading, is a Reading teacher near Ft. Worth. She’s been at it for 38 years. Finding out I am a former teacher, she dragged us immediately to the snack car. She bought us a few rounds of wine while I regaled her with stories of my desert paradise (replete with photos), interspersed with my thoughts on teaching and the story of my life falling apart because of an abusive, sociopathic boyfriend. She, being conservative, was flabbergasted. She wanted to rescue me. Valerie. She wanted to exchange information, but her tow-headed grand-babies meeting her at the station took precedence.

In San Antonio I realized they had boarded me on the wrong car. I had to re-board onto the coach car at the back. The conductor snarled gruffly, “We’re full, I doubt we have any seats left.” I boarded the car, went to the upper floor, and walked past row after row of double-occupied singles. They were passed out sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb them. I found a seat that was occupied but empty, no one there to give me the stink-eye. I didn’t meet my new seat mate for a couple hours. Meanwhile, the conductor had flipped all the seats the other way, so he was now on the right side instead of the left, and there was a strange girl curled up sleeping next to his seat. He wanted to start talking right away, but I made him wait until sunrise so we could all get some sleep. Bruce had lots of stories, crazy things he or his friends had done, on motorcycles and trains. He likes to fish. He’s terrified of dogs. He gave me his email before I got off at my destination. I doubt I will ever contact him.

.   .   .

All in all, it was a crazy experience on the Amtrak. There are many many fat people who ride the Amtrak who really shouldn’t. It’s not fair for normal-sized people, which I realize, are now the minority in this country. I’m still freaked out by the death. It seems so random, and the callous reactions of my train mates are disturbing. I will take the Amtrak again, in fact, any chance I can, because it is cheap and convenient. I will visit my friends in Los Angeles sometime this winter. I like how the journey is slower, and people get on and off along the way, constantly changing the subtle dynamics of the ride. There are so many weird characters to meet, and I know I am one of them. I’m sure Valerie couldn’t wait to tell her son what a bizarre bird she had met.

To all who ride the rails, I hope your trips are less eventful than mine.

ganja-dog and the mo-squito


So something kind of funny happened in the ‘hood last week. Before I begin, here’s a status update: the handsome traveler, with whom I was supposed to travel to Mexico, wanted a little more than what I was willing to give, so after a few lovely months we had to part ways. We never made it to Mexico. Great guy, very sweet.

So anyway… I ended up reuniting with my ex-boyfriend a couple times before his departure to his homeland for the summer. Before my ex-boyfriend left town, I gave him a special treat to send him on his way. No, not what you’re thinking, and nothing of that sort would I write about here. This was a treat containing ganja-butter. Two treats, actually. In order to return to the Outside World, we must travel through checkpoints operated by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. So traveling with any sort of cannabis plant matter is risky. I was going to send him on his way with a couple treats that he could eat right before the checkpoint and enjoy his ride back home where he hadn’t been in over a year. He forgot the treats (typical!) in my truck when I left him off at his place to pack up.

He was supposed to retrieve his broken-down motorized Schwinn (the ‘Mo-squito’) from my place where it had been camping out for a few days, and take it with him back to the motherland where materials and assistance to fix such things are far more plentiful. On the day before his departure, knowing I wouldn’t have a chance to see him again before he left, I tied a baggy containing these two ganja treats on the seat of the Mo-squito, expecting it to get picked up before sundown. Then I went to work at the Store. At work I saw my ex’s best friend, who was providing the ride back to their boyhood home to attend a friend’s sister’s wedding. I told him about the bike, about the package tied to the bike but not its contents, and was reassured the bike would be removed from my place before they left town.

That night I got home and thought not much of it before quickly sidling into bed and relishing in my sweetest dreams.

The next morning I awoke, avoiding an ungodly early hour. I walked over to the Mo-squito to investigate. The bag of treats was gone, but the bicycle was not. My first thought was: why on earth would that dope take the treats and not the bicycle? I have to babysit this thing until how long? Then, the logical part of my brain kicked in. (I am so not a morning person.) It eventually dawned on me: somewhere in the ‘hood a dog was really stoned.

Which one? It wasn’t my girls, whose whereabouts I was sure of. Was it the dog next door? His appetite is normally voracious. He will eat an entire loaf of bread at one time, including some of the plastic bag–like a great white shark would accidentally eat parts of the diver’s wetsuit–barf it up, and eat the fresh barf. Was it Brown Dog, the town dog, a seasoned pro at consuming, digesting, and enjoying pot brownies of semi-regular discoveries from someone’s stash not tucked high enough out of his muzzly reach? He may have gotten at some of this stash as well, but the canine who collected the most benefits was Farley, the precocious pup of my neighbors, we’ll call them Lauren and Greg.

I spent the day at work wondering about the fate of the neighbor dogs. Later that night, at one of our few local establishments, I posited the probable fate of the missing ganja treats. My neighbors, Sara and Ernie we’ll call them, gasped as the gaps were connected. Sara had been informed by the neighbors that Farley had been acting bizarre earlier that day. Sort of paranoid, then really blissed out. His human caretakers guessed the probable cause of his condition within an hour. As Sara told me of Farley’s fun-filled day, I uttered a guilty “oh, shit!”

The next day as I arrived at work I ran into Lauren. Was Farley okay? I asked her. She rehashed some of the funnier details, his dodgy gazes from the corner, his dilated pupil, his belly-rub-induced pleasure coma, and reassured me he had come down. Did she owe me for the missing treats? Heck no. Glad he’s okay, glad he may have enjoyed it. Later that day, Greg came into the Store. As he came up to the counter, I peaked from around the backroom door, and we both just started giggling, not needing to exchange any words. “What?” my boss asked Greg as he rang him up. “Just an inside joke,” he replied.

In the two or three conversations I have had about Farley’s experience with the ganja, they have each concluded with an expression of his apropos initiation to this corner of the world. It was bound to happen sometime.

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